Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Guest Blogging on The Word Ninjas!

I meant to post this yesterday, but it was my son's birthday and I didn't get much internet time.

So, C. Lee Mckenzie invited me as a guest onto her community blog, The Word Ninjas. I said yes, of course. :) The theme is about summer and diving head first into it, and my post is titled A Splash of Summer Magic.

Thanks, Lee, for inviting me! It was a fun post to write, and I really enjoyed revisiting those summer memories. :)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Write What You Don’t Know, Part 2

Last week, I talked about whether it was possible to write about what you don’t know. I.E. what you haven’t experienced personally. And my conclusion was, no, it’s not possible. At least not with the story’s content.

But there are ways to write the things you don’t know. Of course, I’m talking about the craft of writing.

There are a zillion different aspects to the craft of writing. Plot, pacing, dialogue, characterization, voice, etc. Writers know what they’re good at, and what they’re not so good at. Laurie Halse Anderson is amazing at making her character’s emotions tangible. JK Rowling is fabulous at plot. And I haven’t seen anyone better than Neil Gaiman when it comes to voice.

Unless you’ve just started to write, you probably know what you’re good at. As well as what you’re not so good at. You could even venture to say there are aspects of craft that you know well, and there are aspects that aren’t as clear in your mind. These are the things you don’t know.

I’m good at plot and I know my characters like they’re my best friend. But getting all aspects of my characters onto the page doesn’t always work out the way I intend. Therefore, you could say that I don’t know how to siphon my characters from my head to the page. That I’m not very comfortable doing this. And that would sum it up quite well, because I’m not.

To me, the phrase ‘Write What You Know’ or ‘Write What You Don’t Know’ has nothing to do with the content of your story. It’s about your comfort zone as a writer. I’m very comfortable with plot, but I can’t just write a story that’s all plot. Much more is needed. So, I need to leave my comfort zone and work on the areas that don’t come naturally.

In other words, I need to write what I don’t know.

Basically, it’s the old saying ‘practice makes perfect.’ Take something you don’t know, and then work on it until you know it.

What aspects of writing do you know so well that it just flows onto the page? Now, what aspects of writing make you bang your head against the wall? Leave you scratching your head? That your critique partners always pointing out? These are the things you don’t know, and these are the things you need to write. Talk to other writers about it. And write. Read, read, read. And write some more. And keep writing until you know that concept like the back of your hand.

For me, this blog has really helped me to grow as a writer. Basically, it’s helped me take all those things I didn’t know, and sort them out until I knew enough to explain it to another person. And it’s something I’ll continue to do forever, because I can’t see the day when I’ll know all there is to know about writing. It’s much too big for that. And far too interesting. : )

What don’t you know? :)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Winners of the June book giveaway!

I know I promised to announce the winner yesterday, but it's birthday mayhem weekend. Plus, our internet has been a bit flaky lately. So the announcement comes today instead.

As always, I wrote out each and every name in a list, adding extra entries where applicable, assigned each entry a number, then used Random.org to generate random numbers to find the winners.

I'll bet you're wondering who the winners are, so I should just tell you. :)

For TANTALIZE, quelleheure4!!!

For ETERNAL, Danyelle!!!!

For HOW TO BE BAD, elaing8!!!!


Congratulations to the winners!! And, winners, please drop me a note at tabitha at tabithaolson dot com with your address, and I'll ship those books out to you. :)

For the rest of you, please visit next saturday to see what else I'm giving away!
Hint: there will be four books again, and two great authors. Plus, interviews with those authors! So stay tuned!!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

100 Book Challenge?

At the beginning of the year, I charged myself to read fifty books this year. Well, yesterday I finished my fiftieth book! Yay!! In 25 weeks, I've read roughly two books each week. If I can keep up that pace, then I can surely read 100 books in a year. Right? Only one way to find out, I guess. :)

I must say that I've gotten so much out of all this reading. Aside from finding out what's already out there, I've been able to study different authors' ways of doing things. Things that work really well, and others that...well...didn't work for me. In each case, though, I've been able to figure out why something works or why it doesn't. It's envigorating, refreshing, and fun all at the same time. :) I'm enjoying this so much that I look forward to whatever book I'm about to open, no matter what I've heard (or haven't heard) about it.

The next book on my list is THE SUMMONING by Kelley Armstrong. And it's at the top of a very tall stack of books next to my bed:
LIAR by Justine Larbalestier
THE DUST OF 100 DOGS by A.S. King
A KISS IN TIME by Alex Flinn
BEASTLY by Alex Flinn
WINGS by Aprilynne Pike
THE ALCHEMIST by Michael Scott
BREAKING DAWN by Stephanie Meyer
BRISINGR by Christopher Paolini

And yes, I know that those last two books have been on my nightstand for over a year, but I'm determined to finish them before the end of this year.

There are so many more books I want to read, like CATCHING FIRE and THE NAVEL OF THE WORLD. But if I listed more then I'd never finish. :) So I'm going to start a new list of books I've read (beginning at 51, which picks up where my other list left off), and keep it updated as I read them.

How are the rest of you doing with your reading? Are you enjoying it? What's next on your list?

Here's my list of the books I read in the second half of 2009:
51. The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong
52. Demon Princess: Reign or Shine by Michelle Rowan
53. The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King
54. Wings by Aprilynne Pike
55. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
56. Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem
57. Liar by Justine Larbalestier
58. A Kiss In Time by Alex Flinn
59. Beastly by Alex Flinn
60. The Season by Sarah Maclean
61. Prada and Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard
62. Three Witches by Paula Jolin
63. Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell
64. The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson
65. North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley
66. Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
67. Evermore by Alyson Noel
68. City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
69. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
70. Gone by Michael Grant
71. Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
72. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
73. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
74. Scribbler of Dreams by Mary Pearson
75. Lament by Maggie Stiefvater
76. The Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink
77. How To Steal A Car by Pete Hautman
78. Ash by Malinda Lo
79. The Midnight Charter by David Whitley
80. The Secret Year by Jennifer Hubbard
81. 39 Clues: The Black Circle by Patrick Carman
82. Need by Carrie Jones
83. Oh. My. Gods. by Terra Lynn Childs
84. David v. God by Mary Pearson
85. Golden by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
86. Front and Center by Catherine Murdock
87. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
88. Fairy Tale by Cyn Balog
89. Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
90. Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin
91. Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
92. The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen by M.T. Anderson
93. The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis
94. The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
95. Fire by Kristin Cashore
96. Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware by M.T. Anderson
97. Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev
98. Goddess Boot Camp by Terra Lynn Childs
99. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
100. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
101. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
102. Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan
103. Fallen by Lauren Kate
104. Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
105. I So Don't Do Mysteries by Barrie Summy
106. Numbers by Rachel Ward
107. Ruined by Paula Morris

Monday, June 22, 2009

Write What You Don’t Know, Part 1

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on that age-old writing advice, Write What You Know. Basically, I stated that writing what you know comes from your experiences, not from the inability to do research.

Today, I want to talk about writing what you don’t know. And I’m going to use my latest YA novel, ROYAL ROSE, as an example. The story is about an overweight girl who comes from a famously beautiful family, and must deal with judgments and public opinion based on her appearance.

I’ll bet you’re wondering if I’ve ever been overweight. Well, the answer is no. Never. Not one day in my life. In fact, I’ve always been on the opposite end of that scale. Stick. Beanpole. Can’t fill out her pants. That was me as a kid, and, with the exception of pregnancies, I’ve pretty much stayed that way.

So, why would I write about a girl who has far more weight than I’ve ever had in my life? What the heck would I know about it? What makes me qualified to write such a story? To be honest, not much. You could say that writing this story is writing about what I don't know, since I don't have the first clue what it's like to be an overweight teenager. But Rose grabbed me by the throat over three years ago, and wouldn’t let go. I had to either write her story or go crazy.

I chose to write it...which meant I had much to learn.

I started out by researching and interviewing people with weight problems, trying to get an idea of what it was like for them growing up. What they went through, how they felt, what other people thought of them, etc. I googled medical conditions, talked to doctors and personal trainers, and learned all about the Body Mass Index.

I spent a year gathering all of this information and letting everything percolate in my head. Then, finally, I sat down to write the first draft. And guess what? It was terrible. Everything sounded like a regurgitation of all the research I’d done. There was no life, no spark, in my words.

Since I’d had zero experience with being overweight, what was I supposed to do? Give up? No. That’s not in my vocabulary. But I was stuck stuck stuck, so I had to figure out something. And this is what I did.

I looked back at my own childhood and teen years, then cross-checked it with the information I’d gotten from interviews. Guess what? There were some similarities.

I was underweight and teased horribly for it. Overweight kids were also teased in unspeakable ways. I was shy and quiet, and therefore picked on mercilessly. Overweight kids were also picked on mercilessly. I had very low self-esteem. Most overweight kids also had very low self-esteem. My parents were divorced during a time when that wasn’t common, and therefore I had trouble relating to other kids. Overweight kids have this extra weight that the other kids didn’t understand, and therefore they had trouble relating to other kids.

See a pattern here? :)

I laid all this out, using my experiences as a kid to imagine how someone in completely different shoes might be feeling. And it worked. A single spark appeared in my next draft, and I just knew I was on the right track. I kept working, sifting through my own experiences and coupling them with the information I’d gotten from interviews. When I finished my next draft, I cheered!

In writing this book, I essentially took the things I knew and applied them to the things I didn’t know. Which, technically, means I didn’t write what I didn’t know. The heart of this story is very much what I know, and what I’ve experienced first-hand. It’s just been applied to something different. Without my own experiences in it, the story was flat and lifeless. I had to write about what I knew.

This presents another question... If the author’s experiences must be in the story, then is it even possible to write what you don’t know? No, not really. Unless you’re talking about......

But that’s the topic for next week. : )

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

Plot Summary: Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much---if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her. But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle---who already has six wives---Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

In a lot of stories like this, the main character is often meek, quiet, and obedient. Not so of Kyra. She’s not a firecracker, but she certainly knows her mind and is not afraid to stand up for herself. I absolutely loved this about her. It’s rare to see this in adults, so seeing it in a teenager, even a fictional one, is refreshing.

On top of that, the story is riveting and interesting, and I found myself cheering for more Kyra’s family, even though their lifestyle is something I disagree with. That’s some serious authorial talent.

I also want to say that this story isn’t about polygamy. It’s about self-respect. There aren’t many stories out there that handle this as well as THE CHOSEN ONE. I highly recommend it.

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

What I liked most about this book is that it doesn’t make judgments and it doesn’t preach. It doesn’t say that polygamy is bad or good, just that it’s a different lifestyle. And Kyra’s family is a good one. It’s full of love, friendship, and camaraderie. Her parents are good parents, her siblings are typical, and they all happen to believe it’s okay to have more than one wife. It’s just how they were raised.

It’s when the Prophet enters the story that things get bad. But I think it’s clear that the Prophet doesn’t symbolize polygamy. He’s just an example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. He pronounces that Kyra must marry her uncle – her uncle by blood, as in her father’s brother. Her uncle is a violent man, physically abusing babies for crying too much and demanding complete and total obedience from his wives. Basically, everyone in his household is his slave.

Kyra has so much self-respect that, aside from him being her uncle, she knows she can never marry him. Even though she knows her family will suffer for it, she can’t go willingly into slavery. So she flees everything she’s ever known. At thirteen. Talk about incredible bravery.

My one complaint is that the ending was too abrupt. I realize that there will be many unanswered questions because Kyra is on a completely unknown path, and I didn’t expect Kyra to renounce polygamy, but there were some dangling plot threads that needed attention. Did her testimony make a difference? Will it help her family? Why doesn’t she worry about her family more, since she knows what’s going to happen to them? If just a little more had been included, the story would have been stellar. Still, it’s really, really good.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Interview with E. Lockhart!

Welcome! Today, we have the amazing author, E. Lockhart, sharing a few things about her books, her writing process, and her road to publication. She has several books on the shelves, including THE BOYFRIEND LIST, THE BOY BOOK, DRAMARAMA, FLY ON THE WALL, HOW TO BE BAD, and, most recently, THE TREASURE MAP OF BOYS, which will be in stores July 25th.

This year, THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS was nominated for the National Book award. Now, let's get started!

A girl at an elite boarding school brings down her boyfriend's all-male secret society.

What was the inspiration behind your idea?
I wanted to write about pranks and urban exploration -- and I also wanted to write about the old boys' network, which still exists and is incredibly powerful, even in this supposedly post-feminist age.

What was your favorite part of writing this book? Least favorite?
I had great fun with the research. I read up on the history of college pranks, all different kinds of urban exploration, stuff like that. My least favorite part was before I wrote the first chapter. It was a very hard book to get going, because it was to be written in third person, and tackled some storytelling challenges I had never faced before.

How do you get to know your characters?
They just arrive in my head. I guess the best answer is by writing their dialog.

How many drafts did you go through?
I revise heavily as I go, and heavily before I turn a "first draft" into an editor. So that "first draft" is probably the eighth draft.

How many drafts did your editor go through with you?
Generally I revise two or three times for the editor -- but I'm going through the MS multiple times for each of those revisions.

Did you find your agent first, or your editor?
I have several editors at different publishing houses. And I'm on my third agent. It is a long and ugly story. But the editor on Disreputable History, Donna Bray, actually edited my very first published book, which came out in 1996 under a different name.

How long did it take to find each?
Well -- the agent took years, because I had to go through two agents who were bad fits before that! And I had a nonfiction book project with my first agent (found in a few weeks with help in the search from a friend who had written a bestseller) -- that didn't ever sell and was on the market for a year or so before I realized it never would. It was several books into my career before I found an editor with whom I was really compatible.

How did it feel to have your first book on the shelves? How do you feel now, with several books on the shelves?
My first book (that one back in 1996) was published very quietly. I was so proud of it and no one seemed to buy it or review it. So it was joyous and sad, both. Generally, the moment of publication is a bit of a letdown. I try to focus on the work itself, and on making stories I am proud of.

How did you get in to writing for kids?
I've written two books for adults but children's books were my real focus from the age of eight, when I wished I had written The Wolves of Willoughby CHase by Joan Aiken. In terms of writing for teens: people told me over and over that I should, but I didn't listen to them. Until, one day -- I did. And it felt very natural.

What are you working on now?
Finishing the first draft of the fourth book about Ruby Oliver, heroine of The Boyfriend List.

Do you work on one project at a time, or multiple?
One, pretty much. But sometimes I start something new before copyedits are done on the old thing.

Are you a planner, or do you write by the seat of your pants?
I plan, and then I ignore my plans. The planning is just to trick myself into thinking this one will be easy.

Are you a paper person, or the computer-only-type?
Computer all the way. I type fast. I don't write fast. Handwriting anything is thus completely infuriating.

What are your favorite reference books? And why?
Great question! I use Beyond Jennifer and Jason for naming my characters. It's a baby naming book that organizes names by contexts, trends, heritage, etc. And I have a bunch of slang dictionaries I use pretty often -- plus Urban Dictionary online.

This was great! Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us!

To see what E. Lockhart is up to, stop by her blog, TheBoyfriendList.com, or her website, E-Lockhart.com. For a chance to win a copy of THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS, go here and leave a comment.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rhymes With Witches by Lauren Myracle

Plot Summary: Jane dreams of being chosen as the freshman member a dominant school clique made up of one girl from each class. When her wish is granted, and she is offered a place in their group, Jane discovers the terrible price of their particular kind of popularity. There is a sinister secret to their power, one that will change Jane forever.

Awhile ago, I read BLISS by Lauren Myracle. I didn’t care for it much because the ending confused me. Then I found out that it was the second book in the story, the first book being RHYMES WITH WITCHES. So I picked up a copy from the library, hoping it would clear some things up.

I think would have enjoyed these books better if I’d read them in the proper order. BLISS is better written and plotted than RHYMES, and I liked the characters a whole lot better. That made RHYMES a little hard to get in to. Then again, if I’d read RHYMES first, I might never have read BLISS.

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

RHYMES WITH WITCHES is your typical mean-high-school-girls story. Not my cup of tea, so keep that in mind as you read this review.

Jane has a driving desire to be popular. She wants it so badly that she’ll do almost anything to get it. And keep it. And the things she (and the rest of her clique, called The Bitches) does, both knowingly and unknowingly, are awful. Because of that, I couldn’t stand her. Only a truly selfish and cowardly person will do things like that, and I don’t believe in setting that kind of example for teenage girls. But that’s just my own opinion and belief system. If your belief system is different, more power to you. :)

Setting Jane’s likability aside, I want to examine the story’s arc. Jane starts off as a nobody, with an uncoordinated nobody for a best friend, and a geek who has a crush on her. Then she’s recruited by The Bitches, stops talking to her best friend and geek friend, and then finds out that in order to stay in The Bitches she must do terrible things to other people. She’s bothered by it, but she still does it.

Then, when trying to help one of the victims of The Bitches, the tables turn and she loses her place within the clique – replaced by the very person she was trying to help. In the end, Jane goes back to being a nobody with her geek friend, minus her best friend. The shape of the story is fine up to this point, but the ending is too abrupt. It ends right when you expect Jane to try harder. Instead, she gives up. It's also confusing since Lurl’s role is never really explained (it’s explained in BLISS, but there's no hint of a sequel in the making).

The ending is also very similar to BLISS in that both main characters don’t seem to grow or learn from anything. Both just accept their demoted and miserable statuses as though there are no other options. To me, this sends a disturbing message to teen girls: “If someone is hurting you or your friends, don't bother to do anything about it. Just take it lying down.” I don’t agree with any part of that.

I don’t need a happy ending where the main character conquers all. But I do need the main character to at least try to make things better for herself, even if she fails miserably. Even if she makes things worse. At least she’s tried, and didn’t let herself become a chronic victim whimpering in the corner. Jane let herself remain a victim, and that I just can’t respect.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Train Cake

Last week, my oldest son's school let out. So, over the weekend, everyone in his class got together for an end-of-year picnic. It ended up being too cold to be outside, and heavy rain clouds threatened overhead, so we had to move the party inside. It was still a lot of fun, with all the siblings and parents. The kids had a BLAST running around like crazy, and all us adults just gave them half the room to go nuts while we retreated to the other side. :)

Anyway, when I told my oldest son about this picnic, the first thing he asked was "Are you going to make a cake?"

Awwww! :)

I wasn't on dessert duty - I was just supposed to be bring the hot dogs. Much easier than spending hours hunched over a cake. But he was looking at me with those puppy dog eyes, so I asked:
"Do you want me to make a cake?"

He nodded vigorously, then said "A train cake!"
How could I resist that? So I said okay, and spent half the day squirting frosting in all the appropriate places. Here's the end result.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith!

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the acclaimed YA author of TANTALIZE (2007), and its companions, ETERNAL (2009) and BLESSED (2011), all Gothic fantasies from Candlewick Press. She also has written several YA short stories as well as books for younger readers. TANTALIZE was a Borders Original Voices selection, honored at the 2007 National Book Festival, and The Horn Book called it "an intoxicating romantic thriller." A graphic novel adaptation of TANTALIZE is in the works. ETERNAL is a 2009 YALSA Teens Top Ten nominee. She makes her home in Austin, Texas; with her husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

So, without further ado, here's Cynthia!

Tell us about ETERNAL.
ETERNAL (Candlewick, 2009) is a young adult Gothic fantasy novel, told in alternating point of view, about a vampire princess and the one-time guardian angel who blames himself for her fate. It’s a love story, a political thriller, and a thoughtful look at redemption. The story is set partly in Dallas, partly in Austin, and mostly in Chicago.

What was the inspiration behind your idea?
I’d written a previous novel, TANTALIZE (Candlewick, 2007), which is set in the same multi-creature-verse, one populated with vampires, angels, shape-shifters, and ghosts. TANTALIZE focuses on more “everyday” characters—high school students, their vice principal, a restaurant manager and chef, a wedding planner—people you might meet on street (some of whom just happen to be supernatural).

From there, I wanted to take a look at the upper hierarchy of the world, the undead royalty, the guardian-and-arch angels. I also was interested in doing a “Romeo & Juliet” story with the most extreme opposites imaginable.

The books were inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic, DRACULA (1897), and that influence becomes more apparent with each new title.

The casts of TANTALIZE and ETERNAL will crossover in a third book, BLESSED (Candlewick, 2011), which I’m working on now.

How long did it take to get from the initial idea to the completed novel?
I started the first draft in the summer of 2006 and signed off on the final pass pages in late 2008.

How did you come up with the title?
ETERNAL is the name that the vampires call themselves.

I was interested in contrasting that concept of eternity, the idea of being undead, with the eternal life we associate with heaven.

What was your favorite part of writing this book? Least favorite?

I’m a sense-of-place writer, and even though I’ve previously lived in Chicago (for three years in the late 1990s), it was important to me to see the city through my characters’ points of view.

So, I traveled there in February, stayed at the Conrad Hilton, and did everything my characters did in the book. I visited the Field Museum, shopped on North Michigan, rode the El, and visited Chinatown.

A great deal of the smaller, grounding details in the book came from that experience, and I’ve received very appreciative mail from Windy City readers.

In contrast, this “second chapter” is arguably the “darkest” of the three books. I had to spend some serious “head time” pondering demonic evil. That’s less fun.

How is your career different now from when your first book was published?
I know more people in the industry and enjoy being a member of the national and international youth literature community. I have a substantial Web presence and do my best to use it to encourage, inform, and inspire. I’ve improved my craft and stretched to publish in new forms and for a wide range of ages.

The biggest challenge now is time. The time pressures of my writing/publishing life are absolutely crushing at times. It’s a very big deal now, if I take a half day off over the course of a few months. I work most major holidays, including Christmas and Halloween, which are my favorites.

How did you get into writing for kids?
After a break during college, I returned to reading comics, graphic novels, and children’s-YA literature while I was in law school. In an academic field with some weighty (sometimes intentionally convoluted) language, such works came as a welcome relief. Not long after graduation, I made the decision to write full-time.

What are you working on now?
BLESSED is my current focus. I just finished a graphic novel adaptation of TANTALIZE, which will be told from a different point of view than the prose novel.

This year I also look forward to the release of two short stories, “The Wrath of Dawn,” co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, which will appear in GEEKTASTIC: STORIES FROM THE NERD HERD, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little, Brown) and “Cat Calls,” which will appear in SIDESHOW: TEN ORIGINAL TALES OF FREAKS, ILLUSIONISTS, AND OTHER MATTERS ODD AND MAGICAL, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick).

How often do you write per week? And how much do you write in one sitting?
Unless I’m doing a special event, I write every day.

When rough drafting, I can get down anywhere from two-to-ten pages. Revising is another beast. I can do that all day (and night).

What does your writing space look like?
I write in a bedroom so small, you’d be doing good to squeeze in a twin bed. The walls are painted in an arts-and-crafts green, decorated with both a painting and a photograph of wolves. My shelves are overflowing with books and office supplies.

The top of my 1950s-style stainless steel desk could be excavated in layers by era.

How much do you read, and what are you reading now?
Typically I read a novel a day and a tall stack of picture books every week or so.

At the moment, I’m re-reading The Postcard by Tony Abbott (Little Brown, 2008), studying it in a serious way for an upcoming presentation on writing mysteries.

Wow, so much great info here! Thanks so much for sharing all this with us! And, I don't know about anyone else, but I'm looking forward to BLESSED!
For a chance to win ETERNAL (or TANTALIZE), leave a comment here. To see more of what Cynthia is up to, visit her website at CynthiaLeitichSmith.com. She also writes the truly fabulous blog, Cynsations, so stop by there, too!

Eternal Trailer

Saturday, June 06, 2009

June Book Giveaway

Good morning, all!

This month, I'm giving away four books! National Book Award nominee THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by E. Lockhart, HOW TO BE BAD by E. Lockhart, Lauren Myracle, and Sarah Mlynowski, plus TANTALIZE and ETERNAL by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Also, look for interviews with both Cynthia Leitich Smith and E. Lockhart later in the month!

To enter, leave a comment on this post.
For one extra entry, post a link to this contest on your website or blog (or some other public forum), then let me know about it here.
For another extra entry, become a follower and then let me know about it here (or let me know you already are a follower).

I'll randomly draw four names on saturday, June 27th.

Good luck!!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Plot Summary: Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

Okay. I’m not sure what’s going to happen after I write this review. After I finished reading the story, I did a quick search to see the general reaction to this book, and found very few to be unfavorable. So, I might get flamed up a storm, or some people might pop out of the woodwork and agree with me. There’s only one way to find out...

So let me just say it right out – I didn’t love it. But not because of the content. I think it delves really well into the head and heart of a girl with an eating disorder, and we understand in a palpable way that her disorder isn’t about the food. It’s about the girl. Laurie Halse Anderson has always been genius when it comes to this kind of thing. And I think it’s great that she wrote this book, and I still recommend reading it.

But I didn’t love it. Why? Well, to put it bluntly, I thought the writing got in the way.

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

Let’s start with the obvious: present tense. There are some great books that have been written in present tense, and they were done so well that I didn’t even notice it. In this book, I noticed. From start to finish.

Then, there was the style in which the story was told. It’s obviously lyrical and literary, which is fine when done well. For me, it was too lyrical. The words chosen distracted me from the story rather than pulling me deeper inside, especially in the early chapters.

Earlier this week, I talked about purple prose, and how many powerful or lyrical words can work well in poetry. In the story LOOKS by Madeleine George, there is a poem about anorexia that captures it so well, with strong words and images, that it take your breath away. But pack so many words like those in a novel and you can exhaust your reader. After two pages of WINTERGIRLS, I was worn out. I almost didn’t get past page twenty, but I’m a big fan of Anderson so I trudged on. But I never hit that stride of being completely caught up in the story. And, for me, the words were too distracting...not purple, but too close to purple to be effective.

As a result, there were other things I noticed that seemed a bit too convenient. The biggest one was when Lia tells her therapist that she sees ghosts. I didn’t buy it. Before this scene, Lia mentioned how she’d made the mistake of giving her therapist keys to her brain, and she hated the result. I doubt she would make that mistake again.

Then there was the fallout between Lia and Cassie. One of the girls at school accuses Lia of being a terrible friend, yet we never find out what happened. One minute, Lia and Cassie were the best of friends. They next, they weren’t. Why? Because of pressure from Cassie’s family? We never find out.

Finally, Lia seemed too self-aware. Even before she threw her scale out the window, she made it clear that she knew that no matter how little she weighed, she’d always want to weigh less. Articulating this so well is incredibly profound for someone who’s a master at deluding herself that she’s a fat pig. She also says many times that she knows her eyes don’t work. If she knows this, why isn't there some level of distrust when she sees herself as a fat blob? I don’t buy it. People see what they want to see, and if we doubt it, even deep down, we don’t acknowledge it so well unless it fits with our delusions. The power of self-deception should never be underestimated. Because of this, Lia's story seem a bit message-y. The powerful and raw emotions can’t disguise that completely.

Still, this is a book I recommend. The subject is important and well-researched, the connection to the main character is amazingly close and strong, and the real problems behind Lia’s anorexia are obviously more than just food. This novel will give the reader great insight into this disease.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Purple Prose People Eaters

There are many different ways to write, and many different words to choose from. Those words can pack a punch, thrusting a clear visual in the reader’s face. And there are words that sort of whisper by, hardly saying or doing anything.

Then, there is purple prose. When I first heard this phrase twenty-some years ago, I had no idea what it meant. So, for those of you who don’t know, here’s a definition.

Purple prose is a term that describes profligate, overly complex, or flowery word choices that break the flow of the story. Purple prose generally evokes senses beyond what the story requires, which can sometimes make the reader feel manipulated or talked-down-to.

This is how I boil it down. Purple prose is a choice of words that aren’t there for the sake of the story, they’re there for the sake of themselves. The words go beyond packing a punch and leave bruises on the reader.

Let’s examine an example.
Tia stared pensively into the eyes of the heavy yolk of the setting sun, glistening tears flowing down her moist cheeks. The wind gusted in short bursts, howling eerily in her ears and tearing at the shawl draped morosely across her shoulders. She frantically clutched at it, fearful she would lose its memories of blissfully carefree days.

At first glance, what do you notice about this paragraph?

If you said too many adjectives and adverbs, heavy-handed similes, redundancy, and awkward images and emotion, you’d be correct.

In the above example, it sounds like the author is trying too hard to get her message across. This is probably because she doesn’t trust the reader to understand on his own, or she lacks confidence in her own skill to get the story across.

When I started out writing over twenty years ago, I wrote poetry – where you only have a few lines to tell an entire story. You can’t mince words in poetry, and you have to choose the most powerful words possible. When I wrote my first short story, it was filled with purple prose. I had taken my poetry-writing strategy and applied it to story-writing, and it didn’t work. At all. Then, I went to the other extreme and chose zero powerful words. That didn’t work either. It took me years to figure out that powerful words are absolutely necessary to any story, but they are applied in different ways depending on what you’re writing.

When I wrote my first novel, I was just getting used to the idea that I needed to use powerful words. The end result was erratic and awkward images and emotions. As I kept writing, practicing, and working, a balance slowly emerged. It was still a few more years before I could choose appropriate words on purpose, and even longer before I could recognize it in other people's work. But I kept at it, and my understanding of words grew stronger each day. I began to see a place for powerful, beautiful, and lyrical words outside of poetry.

The best example of powerful words I’ve ever seen is THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp. It contains of the perfect balance. That is, it doesn’t put them all together like in the example above. Instead, it spreads them out over paragraphs, strategically added to enhance the story in the best way possible. It takes an amazing amount of skill to do this, and I’m glad Tharp was recognized in the National Book Awards.

The best example of lyrical words I've ever seen is SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson takes the troubled emotions of a teenager and lays them out for the reader in haunting, beautiful prose, but it never goes too far. Not once did the words distract me from the story. Instead, each word pulled me in closer until I felt I was the main character. That's exactly what words are supposed to do in fiction.

So, when you're writing, don't shy away from powerful, lyrical, or beautiful words. Use them, and put a strong image in your reader's face. Just be careful not to give him a black eye.