- I don't write fast. This book took a year from when I came up with its current plot (and we'll get to that shortly) to completion of a draft that I was pleased with and it may still need more work to get into sell-able shape. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA took about a year and a half, maybe more, though I was working full-time and juggling the sale of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, which took almost three years to write. With IWBYJR, I really took my time because I was in grad school working on it as my thesis and I bounced around non-linearly, exploring the characters and the story. This time, I tried to rush though. I focused on huge word count goals rather than taking my time on each scene the way I like to. And it really, really messed me up. That rush to get done faster actually set me back a couple months, maybe more because what happened is I plowed ahead with an extra subplot that if I had taken my more deliberate approach I probably would have figured out was too much sooner. Instead I had to tear the book apart and completely re-envision it. This would have happened anyway, but if I'd caught it sooner, it might not have slowed me down so much. So, for me at least, the whole write-as-fast-as-you-can, do-as-many-words-as-you-can thing DOES NOT work. Quality not quantity is key. Of course, getting stuck on one chapter and polishing it to death is no good either, but I need to find a happy medium where I'm getting words down, but not just writing words for the sake counting them.
- Set goals, but don't beat yourself up if you don't make them. This is hardest for me. I like deadlines. I work best under pressure even if self-inflicted, but when a book is still forming, it's hard to account for how long one section will take versus another. So I have to remind myself to be flexible about my long-term goals and focus on the day-by-day. At the beginning it was hard just to get into writing mode after spending so much time promoting my last two books. I've finally learned that the key is to get up each morning and other than showering, eating, and exercising, I can't do anything else before I write, otherwise I lose focus. As long as I stick to my daily schedule of focusing on my writing for X amount of time, I have accomplished the most important goal.
- A book needs stewing time. With the exception of IWBYJR (which took twice as long to write as the other books), there were a lot of false starts/thinking time before writing what I came to think of as the actual book. BALLADS was a completely different book, which I spent a year on, then put in a drawer for about 5 years. The characters for the Bartender Book have been floating around in my head since late 2007, and I originally wrote about 75 pages as a YA book which didn't sell to the publisher of my first two books and I realized that was the wrong direction for those characters to take. This may mean I should go to the book idea that has been stewing the longest, but we'll see.
- I always have a breakdown about 3/4ths of the way through a book. The Bartender Book was nothing but breakdowns so it seemed extra bad, but the worst breakdown came when the end of the book didn't go as planned. This always happens to me. I'm much more of a pantser than a plotter, but I generally have a loose outline or idea of how the book should end, but when I get to the point where I need to begin to tie threads together.... it never seems to work out how I originally thought it should. Then this leads to me overthinking things and finding something that I believe is crucially wrong with the book and OMG!!! Why did I even start writing this? It is so wrong!!!! I know this happened with BALLADS too, though it was a pivotal scene rather than a major part of the plot like this time. But in both scenarios, I blew things out of proportion, however when I calmed down, I came up with solutions that made the book a lot better. This breakdown always feels awful--like I'm-going-to-quit-writing-forever-because-I-suck-awful--but it ends and it generally leads to the most satisfying part of the writing.
- And this is the most important part. Ultimately the writing will be satisfying. The characters will become so real to me that I will expect them to walk in through the door at the bar where I work. I will dream about them. I will write and revise 14 hours a day and freakishly enjoy it. The story will take over. The story will come together. It will feel strange like I didn't even do it. The night I finished the Bartender Book, I kept giddily turning to my husband going, "The book has an end! It, like, resolved. And the plot, it doesn't have big gaping holes. Somehow it all happened!"
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
With each book I write, I want to grow as a writer, learn from myself and others. So I thought I would share some ways I have been doing this over the years.
1. I wrote four completed manuscripts before I sold Shrinking Violet. I did not find this a waste because I truly feel like I grew with each manuscript. Sometimes I see aspiring authors struggle for years with the same manuscript, slicing it to pieces. But I truly felt I learned from each one and one of those manuscripts was Pure Red which will be released in September! I also plan to revise one of the others and hopefully sell it.
2. For me belonging to a critique group is very important, especially in the beginning. There is something about reading aloud to your peers. You can catch so much that way. I used to attend the group weekly and now try to go once a month or every other month, but what I love about my group is that you can go whenever you want.
3. One of the most valuable things is to have is at least a couple of critique partners. These are people you can really trust to help make your manuscript the best it can be. A critique partner knows your strengthens and weaknesses and is someone you can bounce ideas off of at the drop of a hat.
4. Reading is also extremely important to me. I don’t have time to read stacks of books, even though I would love to, so I try to read books that would make the most sense to the book I’m working on. For instance, if I’m looking to add more depth to a character, I try to read a book where the author has done well with this. Or if I’m working on a historical element in a book, I may pick up a historical novel. So I’m not really reading something that is too similar to my book but something that has an element of what I would like to add to my book.
So what are some things you do to hone your craft?
Sunday, March 27, 2011
whereas my name has always been petite, almost as if the publisher were trying to hide it.
Peek-a-boo! I was thinking last year that perhaps my name would grow between the cover of GOING TOO FAR and the cover of FORGET YOU, but you see how that turned out.
Suddenly a genie bottle appeared. Out popped Christina Aguilera. "Wish granted!" she sang in several keys at once. And magically, Jennifer’s name began to grow.
Jennifer was delighted--until she went to a Romance Writers of America conference in New York City. Here she got the first hint that her name had grown TOO big. In the middle of the 500-author booksigning for literacy charities, her name got up on the table, danced the robot, ripped off its O, and flung it into the crowd.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Still, it can be quite frustrating. I mean, they do stupid things like angst over a 'look' another character gave them. Or they do things that make NO sense. Like torment a character they really like even though they're seventeen and not six. Sometimes they completely screw up the plot by, say, deciding to run off and join a fight club instead of a band. They can be incredibly selfish. And ignorant. And annoying. Sometimes I want to create a lake or pool out of nowhere so another character can push them into it. Sometimes I worry that I've created a character that is too unlikable to exist in fiction.
But then I think about my friends, my family....just about anyone I know. Do I like them? Sure. Do they annoy the hell out of me at times? YES. And isn't the point to create characters so real you feel like you know them? Who wants to read about a character who always does the right or expected thing? Wouldn't that be boring? Maybe I'm just a dark cloud of a person, but characters who are always 'nice' piss me off! I'm usually going..dude, you're so phony. Your internal thoughts can't possibly be this tame!
So I'm going to continue to let my characters run the show...to a point. Sometimes they get far too involved in their conversations and I have to step in and cut them short. I'm basically just there to make sure they keep the plot moving along and don't get too OCD over insignificant details. But for the most part, I let them choose how to navigate the story and figure things out. The surprise is almost always worth it.
Next time I'll post an actual argument I've had with one of my characters. What about you--do you argue with your characters?
Friday, March 25, 2011
So what happens when you nudge an idea, and nothing comes of it? Do you beat the idea into submission until a stroke of inspiration makes it all clear? Or do you put it aside, indefinitely?
I need to find more balance in life. Or more balance between life and work and writing. It's heartening to read the struggles of other authors on this blog. Not that I want you all to struggle, no, of course not. It's just nice to know that I'm not the only one who has moments of "What am I doing? Why isn't this book coming together? Should I really keep writing it?" It seems I'm in good company.
As of now, the future is unclear. But with writing books, is the future ever entirely clear? When you first set pen to paper, can you be completely certain that you are starting your next book, that it will be all that you dream it can be, that it will be sitting on a bookstore shelf? That hasn't been my experience. All I can do is to keep writing.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Did that make you smile? Because I can't watch that without feeling happy. And now that you think I'm completely insane, I want to talk about not writing.
I finished my edits at the beginning of this month and I've spent the time since...not writing. I've watched TV, read books, and smiled at sleep-barking shiba inu puppies, but I haven't really written at all. I know that I should be writing. After all, I'm going to need to have the next project lined up soon. But sometimes I need a break, you know? To think about anything but writing.
And because I'm still doing that right now--that not thinking about writing thing--I'm not writing about writing either. So I'm going to open the floor to you. What do you do when you need to unplug and not write?
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
And I also know that, as an adult, I don't read the same way. No matter how much I adore a book, it will never make my lived experience seem ashy and dessicated by comparison, a bare vehicle for the real life that I find in the pages.
What's changed? Well, for one thing, I have more sources of knowledge, so I'm not as dependent on books. I have a more defined self, so I don't have the same desperate need to inhabit fictional characters and then look back at my everyday self through their eyes, trying to determine who I might in fact be. And, most importantly, the life I actually live now feels real to me. When I was twelve or fourteen or sixteen, there was one thing I was absolutely sure of: life was elsewhere. Like a lot of teenagers, I was frenzied by the longing for transcendence. Truly vital existence might be possible in New York or in Paris or in Middle Earth, but all those existences were equally imaginary for an odd, withdrawn girl in the St. Louis suburbs. And, while books certainly offered me the scent and the hope of possibility, their impact on me was not always benign.
When I was twelve, Tolkien's Silmarillion threw me into a deep depression that lasted for at least a year, for one simple reason: the elves leave Middle Earth. They abandon the humans, because humans are fundamentally not good enough to bother with; they pack up their transcendence and go. Again, I wasn't stupid. If questioned, I could have confirmed that elves don't exist. It didn't matter. The message I took from the book was that, as a human, I could never be worthy enough to achieve the transcendence I craved more than anything in life, and that anyone who was worthy of it would abandon me.
Of course, if I hadn't already had abandonment issues after my parents' divorce, I wouldn't have been so terribly affected. And of course it wasn't Tolkien's fault that I took his book that way. Maybe I was exceptionally vulnerable, though I suspect that a great many teenagers are equally or more vulnerable. I'm sure that kids with secure families and strong friendships and a healthy sense of self are generally less susceptible to being wounded by fantasies--but we can hardly presume that our readers have those things.
So, do I feel the need to very, very careful about the larger psychological message of any fiction I write for young adults? Absolutely. Specifically, I feel that a fantasy directed at young teenagers should (implicitly) offer both the hope of transcendence and something resembling suggestions for getting there.
Like, if you're clever and imaginative and you work at it really hard, then when the elves sail for the East they might just take you on as a cabin-girl. And if they don't, well, maybe you can be a stowaway.
I think that's a lot closer to the truth than Tolkien's ending.
Monday, March 21, 2011
My editor tends to do this too - a few of my favorite questions from this revision:
Do they have Macy's in the UK?
Can this be better articulated?
Why would she take that advice?
Any way to make this more believable?
Are all of them in on it?
and my favorite - Any better way to say this?
A good question makes you trace the moment all the way back through the story. Why would she take that advice? Hmm. Well, the relationship needs to progress and in order to do that, she needs to trust him here. But the whole point of this part of the story is that she doesn't even trust herself yet. So even though her heart is telling her to believe him, her head needs to override that and remain skeptical. So basically, she wouldn't take that advice and that's why the scene isn't working and why this part of the story feels forced. Dangit.
Don't be afraid to ask the people around you. My fabulous critique partners do it all the time. Last Wednesday, I texted my buddy Daisy a question about the motivation for two character's backstory. In minutes she texted back 'cello competition'. It was brilliant and just the thing I needed to get the story moving again. And after hours of thinking about this one problem, had never occurred to me.
My kids are used to the questions that I direct to them and their friends. My house is usually filled with teens and pre-teens so they are a captive audience to my craziness. They might be downstairs playing Xbox when I shout down: 'Hey guys! If you wanted to kill someone in San Francisco and make it look like an accident, what would you do? ' Or like the question I asked over popcorn last weekend;: 'If you could fix any of the world's problems, what would it be?' The answer was universal and surprised me so much I put it in the book. More often than not, they come up with great stuff that sets me back on the right track.
Sometimes you come upon a question that makes your stomach flip a little bit. Somewhere deep inside you've always had this question, but changing it would mean changing so much of the story that you've chosen to ignore it until it becomes like the big forehead zit on prom night. It must be dealt with before it wrecks everything, no matter how ugly it gets. The questions that make you uncomfortable are usually the ones that need to be addressed the most.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Cutting the extraneous parts creates this:
My current project, Miss Fortune Cookie—a story about three girls about to graduate from a high-pressure academic high school, their friendship triangle, and an advice blog gone awry—needs some precise cutting right now. I started the novel in 2008, and have been through two revisions. All the pieces of the story connect together.
Recently, I had this conversation with my editor about my main character in my latest draft.
“Where’s Erin?” my editor asked me. “The story arcs for your secondary characters overshadow Erin’s story. What does Erin want?”
My editor’s question has haunted me for weeks now. Because at the beginning of the story, Erin has no confidence in herself. She doesn’t know what she wants. This state of affairs, of course, changes as the novel progresses, and Erin learns to trust her own instincts.
So I brainstormed over the phone with my editor. And then thought of more ideas on my own. Rewrote the first three chapters. Called my editor, again. Brainstormed some more. Rewrote the first three chapters. Called my editor …
After two weeks of this I couldn’t see the story at all. I was in agony.
Since I didn’t want to call my editor one more time, I asked my writing pals from the 2009 Debutantes to be fresh eyes for me. Our own Janet Gurtler, author of I’m Not Her, volunteered to go first. She not only restored my confidence in my writing by loving my first chapters (Thank you Janet!!!!!!!), she made a number brilliant suggestions that strengthened my opening.
And my writing mojo came back. I felt glorious. Alive.
After incorporating Janet’s suggestions, I sent my chapters to another 2009 Debutante, Megan Crewe, author of Give Up the Ghost. She also loved them, but said one thing that stabbed me like a knife. “Your beginning would be more grabby if it was clearer to the reader what Erin wanted.”
I knew that Megan had it right, though. But still not how to achieve it. After reading her email, I spent an hour cursing the universe, pacing around the house, and cleaning furiously. And then (miraculously), after weeks of having no clue, an idea came to me in a flash. Something Erin could want in the first chapter that works with Erin’s personality and the story itself. An idea that tightened the crystalline structure of the whole novel, in fact.
Here’s it is in plain math --
Critique = Intense pain + distress + cutting + adding + changing = a better story
Friday, March 18, 2011
Next Monday I'm talking about Wildwing at a raptor show. This is cool partly because of the awesomeness that is falcons, eagles, owls, and their brethren. And it's cool partly because it's free to anyone under 16 (family alert! Cheap thrills at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center!) But it's triply cool because I discovered the heart of Wildwing at a raptor show, so this is like coming full circle.
I'm not sure "full circle" is the right term. That means coming back to where you started, like that illustration of Winnie-the-Pooh walking around and around the same copse of trees (I still remember discovering the word "copse" in that book.) I'm thinking more of when you come back to the same place and realize you've grown.
You know how at the end of a great book you often hear echoes of the very first pages? You're where you started, and yet everything is different, because the people in the book have changed. Those first and last pages cradle the rest of the book. Along with the realization of what's different now, there's also a profoundly satisfying feeling of completeness.
Now, March 21, I'm talking about Wildwing and my discoveries at the raptor shows at 11 and 2, sharing how far that connection with falcons took me and Addy. Who knows where it will take the people that come to the shows that day.
Of course! The term I want is "ringing flight." That's what it's called in falconry when a bird circles upward in a spiral, higher and higher, gaining the height it needs. This is my ringing flight. I'll be in a similar place, but with a different perspective, a little more height under my wings.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
This past Wednesday, March 9th, I had the opportunity to participate in World Read Aloud Day at the Johnston Public Library. Sponsored by LitWorld, the day was organized to “show the world that the right to read and write belongs to all people.” Citing that nearly one billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their name, LitWorld asked the question: What would you miss most if you could not read or write?
From my author table, ready to read the opening chapter of STORK aloud, a contingency of sixth graders from Van Meter, Iowa visited me. They asked me what it would be like if we couldn’t read or write. My response had been that stories, as they had been throughout the pre-literacy ages, would be shared orally. It was an okay answer, but as good questions often do, it has since nagged at me. I had envisioned the question as if—in some dystopian version of the world—reading and writing had been guarded as a privilege of the elite and as a power over the masses. In order to imagine a world without literacy, I had had to refigure history.
The sad truth of the matter is that for many in this world a life without the ability to read or write is a reality, not an academic exercise. With this in mind, I’d like to share information about the local event that I participated in as well as the broader scope of LitWorld’s goals.
The Johnston Public Library, headed up by Director Willona Goers, hosted the event. Angela Maiers, reading advocate and educational consultant, served as Ambassador. On hand to add expertise were: Iowa Public Television, and The State Library of Iowa. Author participants were myself and Rebecca Janni, author of Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse (Joan Klostermann-Ketels was unable to attend). And IPTV personality, the caped Dan Wardell, entertained with a fun skit.
The event, a lighthearted evening, had a profound message (one I have borrowed from Angela Maiers' press release):
Across the globe nearly 171 million children could be lifted out of poverty if they left school with basic reading and writing skills. Quality literacy education is the difference between life and death, prosperity and despair. This is literacy for survival.
World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by the non-profit, Litworld.org, is about taking action to show the world that the right to read and write belongs to all people. World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) motivates children, teens, and adults worldwide to celebrate the power of words, especially those words that are shared from one person to another, and creates a community of readers advocating for every child’s right to a safe education and access to books and technology. By raising our voices together on this day we show the world’s children that we support their future: that they have the right to read, to write, and to share their words to change the world.
In summary, I was honored to take part in the WRAD event. I applaud and support their mission. And I thank them for the reality check.
Friday, March 11, 2011
I don’t remember being particularly obsessive as a teen. I experienced the customary angst about grades, unrequited crushes, my inadequately budding female parts, etc. My pillow was alternately kissed, hugged, punched, and wept into. But those are typical events in the carefree life of a high school girl.
When I reached my 20s, my obsessive nature sprouted, blossomed, and grew into a towering sequoia. My first obsession was running. Many people are content with building up to a 10K for their first race. Not me. As soon as I worked up to a mile, I was off and…running. A marathon, then another, then I had to qualify for Boston. Soon I was training 70-90 miles a week. Bronchitis, influenza, tendinitis, and stress fractures—I ran through them all. Obsessed? Yah think?
Naturally, I needed some strength training to complement my running. Not your average hit-the-gym-three-days-a-week weight training. Two-a-day workouts, five days a week. Competitive bodybuilding. Powerlifting. Who could be more suited to heavy lifting than a 112-pound woman with bird bones and wrists that reach all the way to her elbows?
After a few years of feeding those passions, the inevitable injuries forced me to cut back to a saner schedule. What to do with those free hours?
Why, jewelry making, of course. As with running and weightlifting, I didn’t let my lack of natural talent deter me. I spent my weekends haunting junk stores for hideous old necklaces and bracelets. During the week I painstakingly removed the baubles and bangles from the hideous old jewelry, rearranged them, and created hideous new jewelry. After several trips to consignment stores—where I actually unloaded two necklaces—I concluded that jewelry making was not for me.
You think I’m going to tell you about my obsession with writing now, but you’re wrong. Every published author is obsessed with writing or we wouldn’t be published. The compulsion to write isn’t news in this group.
These days I’m getting carried away with gimmicks to promote my books. But it’s more than that. It’s an irresistible urge to assemble, enhance, and possess items related to my books.
What I’m putting together for A&L Do Summer leaves those bookmarks in the dust. In fact, that was supposed to be the topic of this post until I got carried away telling you about all my other obsessions. Now I’ll have to wait until next month’s post to tell you.
Story of my life.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
I love reading this blog when other authors talk about the pain of writing. Not the carpal tunnel (which I've had), or the achy back from sitting down with a laptop on your thighs for hours on end, but the mental anguish that comes from trying to write a book. Because it makes me feel just a little bit better.
I write fast. Or, at least I used to think I wrote fast. My first book took three months from idea to completion. My second took five months (they were both adult novels). My teen books have never taken more than five months to write and my last one took a mere two and half (mostly because I feared missing my deadline, and I'm afraid of editors). Then I took some time off. I needed a rest after writing four books in a year. And I think that was a HUGE mistake.
I'm not a marathon runner. I'm a sprinter. I knew that (literally, I can't run more than a 5k without losing my mind from boredom). So what happens when a sprinter decides to take a little time off and then puts on her sneakers to run again? She wants to take off like a bullet. But she also feels terribly out of shape. She feels like she forgot how to walk, no less run. Her sneakers feel uncomfortable and give her blisters. And she wants to cry.
I started writing my current novel in earnest in September (I'm not a summer writer). I'd been noodling it around in my head for at least a year, jotting down notes and ideas. And now it's March. Shouldn't I have a book by now? Or at least feel like I'm nearing the finish line? Instead I'm all messed up. I've lost my mojo. Broken my stride. Getting back on the horse after you haven't even been near the stable in over a year is hard.
So I'm 61k words into it and still feeling a tad wobbly. When it's good it's a blast. When it's bad I start to wonder if I just plain forgot how to write. But I continue to type and tell a story and hope some day soon it all makes sense. And I can promise you this - I will never, ever take a writing break again.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
I think I might even be more excited the second time around than I was with my debut.
Playing Hurt is a steamy summer romance between two former athletes…and a book that took years to put in its current, publishable form.
Here’s the official jacket copy:
Star basketball player Chelsea “Nitro” Keyes had the promise of a full ride to college—and everyone’s admiration in her hometown. But everything changed senior year, when she took a horrible fall during a game. Now a metal plate holds her together and she feels like a stranger in her own family.
As a graduation present, Chelsea’s dad springs for a three-week summer “boot camp” program at a northern Minnesota lake resort. There, she’s immediately drawn to her trainer, Clint, a nineteen-year-old ex-hockey player who’s haunted by his own traumatic past. As they grow close, Chelsea is torn between her feelings for Clint and her loyalty to her devoted boyfriend back home. Will an unexpected romance just end up causing Chelsea and Clint more pain—or finally heal their heartbreak?
I initially drafted Playing Hurt around ’04 or ’05, and the original manuscript was strictly a summer romance—the sports subplot didn’t exist. After several rounds of revision (and after selling my debut, A Blue So Dark, to Flux), I re-read Playing Hurt, and realized my characters needed a good dose of backstory.
As I trolled the pages, I was struck by how athletic Chelsea seemed. (The outdoor adventures at a northern Minnesota lake resort were all present in the original draft.) So I started to think, “What if Chelsea’s an athlete?” But that slowly turned into, “What if she’s an ex-athlete?” And as I thought about Clint, I started to play with the idea that he also had to give up sports…
So I plunged into the manuscript, giving both Clint and Chelsea sports histories…and giving Clint his own voice! (The original manuscript was told entirely from Chelsea’s POV; the final published version alternates between Chelsea and Clint’s viewpoints.)
In all honesty, I’m pretty dictatorial when it comes to my characters—I basically tell them what to do. But Playing Hurt was one instance when I quit barking orders and listened to my characters…and by listening, I figured out what was missing…
...That just goes to show you that no book ever reaches a dead-end. No matter how stuck you think you are in a specific project, no matter how hopeless it seems, a solution will appear.
I had to share this, too: the moment my author copies arrived! A proud day for sure…
Monday, March 7, 2011
Last week, I found out that Going Too Far is in its 9th printing, with a 10th printing planned for April. Yesterday I got my party on by running 8 miles. And now I have registered for my very first half marathon, which happens to be run on the NASCAR track in Talladega. I have heard that people show their support for this run by parking their RVs in the middle of the track, waving checkered flags, drinking beer, and flashing their bosoms. Okay, I may be making that last part up.
I guess it may seem strange to some people that I celebrate something I have wanted and looked forward to for so long by running my butt off. But for me, running and writing have been intertwined for years, because I do a lot of my best thinking about my novels while I am running. This is most obvious in Going Too Far, in which the characters themselves are runners. And truthfully, I never wanted fame or fortune out of this job. Well, fortune would be nice.
But the money just means that the publisher values me and plans to promote the book. And it means I can spend that much more of my work day writing novels rather than articles about ball bearing factories. Not that I minded writing articles about ball bearing factories. Ball bearings are very important. I know more about them now than I wanted to. I would rather write novels.
In other words, all I ever really wanted out of this job was more of this job. Especially in these economic times, I feel very fortunate to have gotten a little more of this job, at least for now. And I intend to celebrate it, for 13.1 miles.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
2. You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing.
4. Start with action - explain it later. Give the reader a reason to keep reading on page one. But think twice about pulling out the most exciting section in the book, putting it up front, and then writing “three weeks earlier.” Don’t start with a lot of backstory.
5. Give the character an objective he must achieve to be happy – or to live. A person without a goal seems rudderless. Give the main character a personal stake in solving the mystery - more than just a puzzle.
6. Keep the tension high:
- Create a ticking clock. A real bomb or the bad guy giving a deadline.
- Look for passages that describe the weather, the landscape, the aftermath, or traveling from one place to another. Then cut them.
- Kill the prime suspect.
- Raise the stakes. Not only will a child die – but so will a whole kindergarten.
- Cut back and forth between a dangerous scene and one that isn’t dangerous.
- Force the character to make a choice between two things he wants—or lesser of two evils. What if he can only save one person? What if she has to choose between lying and letting a killer go free?
- Have her hiding in a closet with no weapons and a guy with a machete looking for her. Plus she’s claustrophobic.
- Have him stranded in the woods with a sprained ankle and a snowstorm coming in and two guys with machine guns hunting for him.
- If you hurt a main character or even kill one, especially a likable one, the reader knows no one is off limits.
9. You don’t have to outline - but you can. The one caveat is that if you write a mystery and you don’t know who the killer is, you are going to find yourself doing a lot of rewriting and it might take too long to write your next book. Series books often come out a year apart. It’s not as necessary to outline with thrillers. If you don’t plot in advance, just keep raising the stakes for your characters.
10. In this business, tenacity is as important as talent. Many fine writers have given up after getting a few rejections from agents. Don't let yourself be one of them.
Friday, March 4, 2011
I hate to be a whiner. I don't want to be that person whose words drip with sad and weepiness. I don't want to tell people about my pain because I want them to feel sorry for me. But the thing is...it's hard to focus on much else. I kind of am the pain right now. And as a writer I like to put things down on paper. Or a computer screen. So this is not to elicit sympathy but to help me heal.
We didn't train her very well. She was so little, only about 5 pounds, so we thought, what harm could she do? And that's where we went wrong. In one of those horrible accidents where it's all what if and if only and a matter of a few seconds of really bad timing Meeko ran out on the street right in front of our house and was instantly killed by a car.
I saw it happen, and worse, so did my son. It wasn't pretty. There was a lot of blood and there was a lot of screeching and crying. On my part. On the part of the poor woman who hit her, and my poor little boy. I'm so worried for him, for the trauma of seeing his little two year old dog like that. She wasn't supposed to die yet. Not for many, many years. He is handling it as best he can, but no parent wants their child to have to see something like that.
He's just old enough that he's aware that death is something that happens. And scared because he saw first hand how it can happen so quickly and so tragically. It's a hard life lesson and parents, well we like to protect our kids don't we?
Meeko was a great dog. She didn't bark. She loved to play catch. She loved to run free and wild. She loved to snuggle up and curl into a ball with her her humans. She was just a dog. But she was so much more to us than just a dog. She was a GREAT dog.
I think it's hard to admit how much grief I feel over the sudden loss of Meeko, because I'm afraid that I'll look like a wimp or weak to people who don't have pets. I'm afraid of people who think, well, it was just a dog. At least it wasn't a person. And no. It wasn't a person. And for that I am incredibly grateful. But I didn't want to lose her. I miss her so much. It seems wrong that a creature so good went in such a bad way.
One of my first thoughts after she was gone was that I would have to change my author profile because I mention her in it. And yes, I am aware of how weird that is. But all I could think of was that I talked about her in my book, and now she's gone and I don't want people to ask about this cute, untrained little doggy I mentioned as if she's still alive.
Janet Gurtler lives in Calgary, Canada, deliciously close to the Canadian Rockies with her husband, son and an untrained dog named Meeko. Janet does not live in an Igloo or play hockey, but she does love maple syrup and says “eh” a lot.
Has now become this.
Janet Gurtler lives in Calgary, Canada, deliciously close to the Canadian Rockies, with her husband, son, and the memories of a sweet little dog named Meeko. Janet does not live in an igloo or play hockey, but she does love maple syrup and says “eh” a lot.
Life goes on. Time will make things easier. I have to try to remember the joy she brought and not the horrible way she went. And I will.
We lost another beloved dog, Peppsy, a black Lab, only about 2 and a half years before Meeko. She was older and sick and the loss, while sad, did not feel as tragic.
However. I do have a fun little secret. I have a little tribute to both of them in my book, I'M NOT HER out in May. There are two teachers who appear in the book. One is named Mr. Pepson, the other Mr. Meekers. For Peppsy and for Meeko.
Thanks for the memories, Meeko. The unconditional love. You were deeply loved. I miss you.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
I have always been fascinated by trying something new. I think this fits in well with writing "outside the lines.” When I wrote my novel Teach Me, I had a great time playing around with the voice of the main character, Nine. I wanted her to be passionate about many wildly different things—primarily scientific things in the beginning—but she also turned out to be quirky, funny, and a little bit obsessed. Maybe more than a little bit. Really I don't think I had any idea about all this or where her character was going when I started. I only knew I wanted her to be super smart, then I could just sit back and listen to the things that came out of her mouth:
Welcome to my head.
Let’s hit the ground running. I will get you up to speed. We need a short learning curve here. Those are things my dad likes to say. He works for NASA. He spends his days figuring out problems like this:
If an object weighing 8.75 ounces traveling 10,000 miles per hour strikes the earth, how big a hole does it create?
Answer: One exactly the size of my heart.
Call me Nine.
Those are the opening lines from Teach Me. Looking back on earlier things I have written, I can see that I have been experimenting with voice in novels for a good while.
For example, back in 1998 I was re-reading George Orwell’s novel, 1984, and this time when I finished the book, my mind wouldn’t leave it alone.
By the end of the novel, you knew Orwell's main character, Winston, was done. Beat down, hollowed out, utterly defeated. Ground under the iron heel of Big Brother and Ingsoc. But then as a reader you had hints all along that Winston was good for only one go-round. He was already tired when the whole story began, after all. Even at 39, he was prematurely aging and not in the best of health, always scratching at a varicose vein above his left ankle. But that was part of the power of the book – that someone like Winston could still find the courage and energy to rebel. Could even fall in love. But even as he timidly warred against the system, Winston knew the end game all along: We are the dead, he said as he embraced his lover for the final time.
But what of Julia?
Julia was spunkier than Winston. More vital and upbeat. Willing to take bigger risks. In spite of everything, she wasn’t a downtrodden character, but almost gleefully resisted authority – a glee tinged with a biting undertone of ferocity as she laughed at Big Brother’s face in private.
Unlike Winston, Julia had spent her entire life growing up inside Oceania’s oppressive environment. She had never known anything else. Yet somehow she had managed to become something even more radical than the man she loved. She worked on the “novel writing machines” producing pornographic materials. She was young, blunt, something of a smart ass. Surely the story wasn’t over for her? And wouldn’t her inner voice, her truest voice, be wildly different from Winston’s?
This sparked an idea. Why not continue Julia’s story in her own voice? First person? Broken and clumsy and rushed? A voice salted with newspeak and Party lingo and peppered with anger over what had been done to her? Filled with excitement, I rushed to the keyboard and started clattering away. I was going to call the novel Julia.
Today after unlight I went to Victory Square and watched them hang Winston. The Brothers and Sisters doublecrossed their arms above their heads and yah yahed like something electrical. I yah yahed with them plusloud. His body dropped like a sack. He did not move like the others. The others jerked like rats suspended by their tails. Right in the middle of the jerking an attack came. It was Eastasia dropping steamers again. Everything shocked all over, throwing up hard pieces of blowout with a lot of sound. Then our guns started pumping colors into the sky. I am hungry. I am always hungry. Winston was the fourth one from the left. They pulled a leather hood over his face but I saw him. Something about the hanging changed his neck. All of their necks were changed. The skin was stretched doubleplus long and tight and it showed like wax on a candle. Winston did not see the Golden Country. No one does.
I was having a blast until I realized that no way would Orwell’s estate ever allow such a thing to be published. Heck, they even sued Apple over the original Macintosh "1984" ad. Utterly deflated, I filed away the snippet, about 1,500 words or so, and there they have sat in cyber dust for going on 13 years now.
The end product would have probably been a good bit different than what you see here. But that’s part of finding your way to an exciting voice: there’s a lot of throat clearing, false lunges, lurching stabs at capturing what you can “hear” with your inner ear but somehow can never quite get down on paper.
Who knows if I could have pulled it off? My older self reads my younger self’s unedited words and sees lots of ways to change it, strengthen it, tone down the “look at me” parts, etc, without losing the overall tenor. But that’s a challenge I would have relished. Maybe someday I’ll gather up the temerity to approach Orwell’s estate, metaphorical hat in hand, and say, hey, what about Julia?
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
I guess I have to admit, I’m not a brand and I probably never will be. Every book I write, it always comes out different from the one before. I think if you read Redemption, you’ll be surprised how different Deadly is, and vice versa. And my next book – who the heck wrote that?
So, what does that make me? An indecisive person? Someone who can’t stick to one thing?
For some reason, to call myself an Artist sounds, to my ears, pretentious. Like (wave of the hands) “Oh, well, I’m an ahhtist, I don’t do those ‘brand’ things,” but that’s not how I feel. It’s more like, “Ugh, I’m stuck being an artist. Why can’t I write an identifiable series and become a brand, for God’s sake?”
I think I will always have this inner battle. I don’t know – do the folks who become Brands set out to do so? Or is it something that just happens to them? I wonder. Maybe I’ll have to publish a few more books, and see what happens to me.
Listen, I’m having a contest on my website for just a few more days (http://juliechibbaro.com/). See contest #2 to win a signed copy of Deadly, or contest #3 if you have a bookclub and want a chance to win a set of five for your club. I’m just putting it out there; it’s your job to label it.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
That, my friends, is the number of words and corresponding number of pages I cut yesterday from a manuscript.
I know in YA writing, this can almost be the equivalent of an entire book. But because this is for one of my women's fiction manuscripts, it's closer to half of the manuscript. The entire second half, to be precise. Chapters 14-30, gone with one push of the Delete key. This wasn't just killing a darling or two, this was a flat-out massacre and yeah, I was a little lightheaded afterwards.
No, I didn't really delete all of it-- it's saved in its own document at the moment and parts of it may return to the finished product in some form, but for the moment, consider it gone (along with one of my favorite characters ever—gone, whole cloth, and I'm not sure how to bring him back. *sob*). Yes, I had a drink afterwards. And chocolate. Also kept the Tums handy. Have a feeling I'll be needing those a lot in the coming months.
So, why did I do this? Because the second half of the book was wrong. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad, it was just wrong. Or as my Lovely Agent put it: "You wrote two different books."
See, this book has had something of a twisting journey. (I know, don't they all? But still.) I came up with the idea over four years ago and started working on it three years ago. Because of other projects (namely STARS) and moving cross-country, I wasn't able to work on it in a steady fashion, the way I'm accustomed to, so there were a lot of breaks in writing this one. Plotwise, it also took a lot of left turns to Albuquerque, the characters and storyline really busting away from what I originally had envisioned, which had me twitching madly, since that was the first time that had ever happened to me. Perhaps because of all the twists and turns and the pauses in writing, my normal pattern of writing a few chapters, then sitting down to outline the rest of the story, chapter by chapter, didn't happen when I expected. It wasn't until Chapter 14, as a matter of fact, that I felt I had enough of a handle on the characters and rest of the story to sit down and write that outline. Yeah, that Chapter 14. See, a big writing break had occurred after I finished Chapter 13—I didn't work on the manuscript for nearly three months and when I went and picked it back up, I think I made myself write that chapter-by-chapter outline for the primary reason of trying to get back into the groove of the story and that's when the kerfluffling began.
See, not only did the story take a massive turn with the plot, but the tone of the writing and the character focus shifted completely— a real trick, considering that the entire story is told from a single POV character—hence leading to the whole "Two different books" comment from my very patient and voice-of-reason agent. (And lovely. Did I mention lovely?) My main character essentially went from active protagonist to observer/narrator of someone else's story, which obviously, was not at all what I intended.
I can see all of this now. Four months after finishing the manuscript. However, four months ago? Not so much. Nope. Four months ago, I was a combination of relieved, proud, and downright giddy that I had finally finished this four year journey. I was convinced it was the best thing I had ever written. (Parts of it are.) I was convinced that here was my entry into the world of adult fiction. Finally.
And let me be clear, this isn't simply my agent. No, because my agent is a smart cookie, she had two other outside readers take a look at it and they both said the same thing: "Two different books."
So, I'm now at the beginning of a long process and what feels like kind of an endless road at the moment. Starting with identifying where things went pear-shaped (There's Chapter 14 again) and brainstorming how to bring the story back to where it should be. Then there's the whole rewriting thing. This is where I should pause for a moment and mention my equally lovely and patient Critique Partner, who's been listening to me wailing and gnashing my teeth and bouncing ideas back and forth with me. She also felt bad because she didn't see where things went wrong because she'd been just as close to it as I had and of course, that whole taking three years to write the thing issue. Truth is, while it might have saved a lot of pain and work, the issues now so clearly evident within the manuscript weren't really going to reveal themselves until a) it was complete and b) an independent observer had taken a crack at it. C'est la vie, right? Not that I'm really all that blasé about it, but I'm trying to accept it for what it is. A teaching moment. The book, as I finished it, proud as I might have been for fighting through all of the obstacles it presented, was never going to sell. The first half was good, the second half was good, they just weren't halves of the same whole. Painful lesson learned, but better to have discovered it now, than to have racked up rejection after rejection with vague, "Not for us at this time," excuses, right?
So why am I babbling on about this, other than using it as an outlet for my whining? (And believe me, I'm whining. A lot. Doing the right thing? Sucks, sometimes.)
Two reasons, really. One, to underscore the importance of people who will be stone-cold honest with you, no matter how hard it is. Do not underestimate how important this is. We're in an industry where people either play the "Nice Kids Game" or say you suck, without any justification. One might make you feel great, the other like something that should be scraped off the bottom of a shoe, but neither is particularly helpful. What helps is honesty and open discourse. On both sides, because it doesn't help us, as creative people, to stick our heads in the sand and be all tortured artistes and "Oh, but my fragile ego!" Well, at least, not for me. I'm far too paranoid that people would be blowing smoke up my ass, so I'm constantly pulling my head out of the sand and God help me, asking people to be honest, even if it's hard to hear. In the end, my agent, she didn't know quite how to say, "You've written two different books," in a way that would take the sting out, so she just up and said it. She trusted that I'd be grown up enough to hear it and do what needed to be done, whether that was scrapping the project altogether (tempting, believe me, once I realized what was necessary) or rewriting.
So honesty is the first reason. The second is a little bit of a soap box, of-the-moment thing that I'll use as a reminder every time the waiting gets to me and I feel impatient with traditional publishing. If there's anything I've learned from this experience, it's that I should never, under any circumstance, ever self-publish. Maybe other people are just better than I am at judging their work or whatever, but can you imagine what would have happened if I'd self-pubbed this story? I mean, hey, I'd been working on it for three years and polishing along the way and it's deep, man, and the characters suffer, but are ultimately redeemed and it's so ready to be out there and people will love it and I deserve some validation and recompense for all the time I've spent working on it and... and.... yeah.
*pauses to let the horror sink in*
Look, I'll be honest. I would've been mortified. I couldn't have yanked it down fast enough if that's even an option. And even if it is, we all know how things are on the internet. Once it's out there, it's out there forever and it would have followed me around and really, with some distance, is that story one that I want standing as representative of my work?
So it's my own cautionary little tale. I'm not saying it should be for everyone, but for me? Yeah, would not work. The immediate gratification is cool, sure, and God knows, after more than three years of work, I really, really wanted it, but I need an editor. I need an outside eye. I need people to be honest with me. Most of all, I need time. So for now, it's time to say goodbye to the original version of this story and start over at Chapter 14 and try to make it right.
And because I have music for every occasion, Chris Botti, playing "Time to Say Goodbye."