Monday, May 30, 2011
Summer is also the time of year when I became a writer. I graduated from Auburn University in March and took a job as a copyeditor for the newspaper in Alabama's capital, The Montgomery Advertiser. I was still living in Auburn, so this was my schedule. Around 1:30 p.m. I would drive an hour to work, which started at 3 (because most of the work for morning papers gets done the night before, so the news will be as current as possible). I would work until midnight and drive an hour back home--unless, of course, Iraq decided to invade Kuwait, in which case I had to stay until 3 a.m. to copyedit endless new versions of the story.
I got paid in black-eyed peas, or might as well have. This was a seriously low-paying job for a college graduate, even at the entry level. But I was ecstatic to have a job using my English major and working with words. And the most wonderful thing of all about this job was the lunch hour.
"Lunch" hour, that is, because I took it from 4 to 5 p.m. I could not go home, obviously, and there weren't many restaurants around that were open at that time of day. I did not want to spend it in the break room because then I would actually have to talk to people and be sociable and *shudder* make friends, which is not something I am good at. So I brought a peanut butter sandwich, a banana, and a Diet Coke from home, and I sat outside in the oppressively hot summer afternoon--usually on the steps of the state capital building or one of the other government buildings near the newspaper office--and I finished writing the novel I had started in the creative writing class I took my last quarter in college.
The next morning, I would get up, go to my typewriter (I did not have a computer), and type what I had handwritten the day before. Maybe I would write a few pages more. But the bulk of my writing happened during that magical hour when I had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. An hour a day wasn't much, but it was consistent, and one sweltering afternoon in July while sitting outside the Alabama Forestry Commission building, I wrote "The End" at the bottom of a page. Then I turned the page and started writing my second novel.
At the time, I would not have called that a perfect writing day. I had no idea whether my writing was any good or whether I would ever be published. I did not feel very professional getting paid in black-eyed peas, I lived in a shack, and I had a bad boyfriend. I had some extremely bad decisions ahead of me, and fifteen years of rejections before I would finally sell novel number 10.
But as Rosemary said so much more entertainingly, being published brings with it a million distractions--ironically, a million more reasons not to write than I ever had before I was published--especially when I have a novel coming out in July. So this summer, with two new books due, I'm trying hard to reach inside and call up 20-year-old Jennifer, who had no good reason to write doggedly every single day, and did it anyway.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
The traveling brain is similar to the writing brain. When you're abroad, everything is worthy of being noticed, considered, even scribbled in a notebook. In my normal life I'm locked in a herd of commuters, too weary to pay much attention to my fellow sheep. But travel-brain has convinced me I should do so; especially in writing. Regardless of where your character lives - in a haunted castle or a small suburban town - there are some details there that deserve, and even require, description. Keep your eyes open. And enjoy all the clotted cream that life has to offer.
Friday, May 27, 2011
This may get better when I’m no longer teaching full time. Somehow I suspect that it won’t. Life has a way of filling empty space. I think it’s a metaphysical rule. Don’t really know what that means, but it’s been my experience that it’s true. Fits into the same category of how if one appliance breaks, the others hear its siren call of doom and cough their last breaths. Or how you can’t ever say, “My kid would never do that” because before the words are out of your mouth, he’s doing it.
So what does my fantasy writing day look like? Probably a lot like everyone else’s: hours of quiet time in which I am fabulously productive; time to walk and do yoga (in my fantasy I’ve already found a great class and teacher); some green tea, a light and tasty lunch; easy flowing ideas; time to return emails and blog. In my fantasy writing life, Fritos don’t exist and chocolate of any kind is a health food.
In reality, here’s what I aspire to: balance. Not every day. But more frequently than I achieve it now. More days where the obligations of promotion don’t outweigh the writing. Where by evening, I can occasionally do something other than hunker back down to write – unless I want to. (this does not count deadline crunch time. All bets are off the couple weeks before a book is due). The ability to turn it all off occasionally.
While some of that may be achieved when I give up full time teaching, some of it won’t. I need to be better at avoiding the distractions. The internet is a seductive little missy. It is still hard to explain to friends and family that staring into space is actually part of my job. Possibly as hard as it is for me to find a concise and pleasant answer to questions like, “So how are sales doing?” or “Are you still writing?.” I need to learn to say, respectively, “Ok. Thanks for asking” and “Yes. I love it” rather than launching into a long-winded explanation of the publishing marketplace and the vagaries of the Amazon calculus and how BookScan lets you see only about 70 percent of sales.
How do you achieve balance between writing and the rest of your life? Anyone?
Thursday, May 26, 2011
A spectacular writing day only comes along about once a month for me. Since I was laid off from my full-time job, one would think I'd have more time to write. I don't...
My mind is clear.
I'm brimming with ideas and love for my characters.
I didn't wake up to yet another bad review on Goodreads or on some blog
I'm not over-analyzing everything I write or questioning if selling my first two books was a fluke.
It's not my bf's day off.
The cats haven't thrown up once.
I got more than five hours of sleep, woke up before 9am, and actually got my workout done early.
I don't have a job interview or two or three or four
I don't have a client manuscript to edit or two or three or four
I don't have a website to design for a client or two or three or four
I don't have a song to collaborate on or finish up for someone
All of my bills have been paid, and I'm not stressing over finances
We actually have food in the house
I don't have a billion writing related or client emails to answer
I don't have a migraine
There isn't some drama going on in my family that requires hours on the phone
I didn't piss half the day away on Twitter, Facebook, or browsing just because I can't stare at a blank Word page any longer
Nothing in the house is broken or needs replacement or is leaking
My hampers aren't full
The house is clean because I had the energy to clean it all the night before!
And I could list a ton more distractions, but you get the idea. It doesn't matter what your situation is--writing is hard. Finding the time to write is even harder. But if you love it, you'll find that ONE day (or hopefully several days) a month where you do nothing but write. And you'll cherish it.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
Sunday, May 22, 2011
"No," I said, "I'm just their spokesperson."
"I didn't know mermaids were into bicycles," said a scraggly and relatively young guy, swaying slightly. I didn't get the joke until he repeated it a couple of times.
A grayish-white doll, looking something like a cross between a Buddha and a melting elephant, perched on a nearby railing. A man struggled to tow a rubber dinghy out of the water; apparently it was in danger of popping when the tide went out. There were warehouses perched out on the wharves and peculiar crenelated metal walls, used for docking ships, lined up in the water. It would have seemed like pretty decent mermaid turf if it weren't for all the glitzy condo buildings just across the street. Too humany, Tera and I agreed. The mermaids were clearly living deeper in the bay.
So deeper was where we went.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
My experience with my second book, Miss Fortune Cookie, has been incredibly different.
Revision #1 took 3 months
But I made a wrong turn
Revision # 2 took 6 months
I changed the protest in my story to one based on real events (see video)
plus a hundred other things.
Revision #3 took 3 months
I wrote more Miss Fortune Cookie letters into the story, for instance:
Dear Miss Fortune Cookie,
My best friend stole my boyfriend. Now she’s going to the prom with him. Is it wrong to give her Mono by drinking from her soda can at lunch?
Can you really give someone Mono by drinking from her can? I wish they taught us useful things like that in Bio.
Seriously, though, Confucius said: Before embarking on a path of revenge, first dig two graves. Are you still friends with her? If so, tell her how you feel. If you are no longer friends, revenge won’t make anything better.
Miss Fortune Cookie
plus fifty other things
Now I’m three days shy of completing Miss Fortune Cookie and positively giddy with anticipation; the champagne and firecrackers are waiting on ice (joke).
The final day of writing won’t be about brilliance, word count, or intense breakthroughs. It will be about perseverance. I hope my editor loves it. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
Friday, May 20, 2011
Are YA boys bad for real teen girls? This is a question that I've been thinking about lately. On some of the writer's boards there have been threads about how the boys in YA aren't anything like real boys. Some people call them chicks-with-(rhymes with chicks and I can't actually say it on this blog). You know the ones - the boys who are sensitive, handsome, strong, protective and intensely in love with our heroines. They don't burp or fart or fight constantly, answer complicated questions with 'huh?' or play video games excessively (as the only one in my house missing a Y chromosome, I know of what I speak). They pay attention to our girls, write them notes and texts and fulfill all of their romantic dreams. Even the 'dangerous' YA boys have a lot of these qualities that make the girls swoon. I should know - I'm guilty of writing boys like that myself.
I started thinking about this more during a recent Twitter chat. A teen girl was in on the chat and she mentioned that she didn't date real boys because they didn't stand up to the fictional boys she was always reading about. That made me intensely sad. I wanted to shake her and shout 'these boys don't exist - they're completely fictional!' Because once she is done reading about the fake boys that only exist in our heads, she's going to have to go out into the real world and deal with boys that don't necessarily measure up.
And that's where I feel guilty. In order to write the stories that make the girls swoon, we have to write boys who are not exactly like the boy next door. Our readers aren't going to go to school and find one of these guys hanging out at the lunch tables. Are we okay with this? Is it a form of false advertising? I don't know.
Maybe all YA books (especially paranormal romances) should come with a warning label: Caution.! The boys in this book are more fictional than they appear.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
I am a night owl. The perfect time for me to write is when it’s dark outside and all is quiet. If I could, I would probably write a few hours every night and a few hours midmorning. However, since I have to get up early in the morning in order to take the kids to school, I am often too tired to write a lot at night. I have since become a night person on a morning person’s schedule.
So what have I learned by having three kids? Well, that could fill a whole book, but one thing I do know is that I have to make the best of the writing time that I do have. So a few times a week, I get a sitter and write like crazy.
On those mornings I am happy with a thousand words. I say goodbye to my two year old and the mound of laundry staring at me and head off to my local Starbucks office. I grab a coffee, hope that the piped in music is having a good day and cross my fingers that no one is in my chair. Yes, my writing partner, Christina Gonzalez and I do have our own chairs and are known to use the evil eye on those that occupy our thrones. Let me tell you, the evil eye really works because people usually pack up pretty fast. And my chair gives out good mojo so really I need that chair to work!
The good thing about writing with a friend is that we can bounce ideas off of each other. And of course there is always time to break for gossip. On these days I might continue working on my manuscript at night after the kids go to bed, especially if I am nearing a deadline.
So on a great writing day I resist the internet and get my thousand words done in the morning and write another five hundred words or so at night. And of course in fantasyland, my laundry is done, house is clean and dinner is cooked too! Oh, and who is going to make the lunches for the next day? Any takers?
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Unreal! And yet jarringly, absolutely real.
You are in that dark, stalactite-dripping, mineral-encrusted cave, and the beams of your lantern illuminate walls teaming with wildlife. You feel you could reach out and touch the sensitively shaded horse heads. The galloping bison. The male and female cave lions, nose to nose, nuzzling. They're so alive and fresh and immediate--
And they're 30,000 years old! (May I age so well...)
Chauvet cave, closed for millenia by a landslide and recently rediscovered, is open to researchers only a limited number of days a year. But when you see this movie, that locked door opens and you walk through, balance along the narrow raised pathways, and feel your heart in your throat as you realize the curved indentation in the rock before you is actually the belly of a bison.
Someone in the film notes that perhaps we were misnamed. Instead of being called homo sapiens, man of of knowledge, we should be known as homo spiritualis. Of the spirit.
The artists who painted these walls: their spirits touched mine across a 30,000 year divide. And that's what writing is about, too. Touching spirits, connecting with something that is true for both of us. That dark cave, waiting to be opened and communicate spirit to spirit: that's us, and books are part of the light.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
For starters, a good day involves writing. Or tennis. But that’s another month’s post.
I’m a word counter, so my first reaction is to cite my personal record (without going back and researching, it’s something in the 3,000-word range). Yes, of course, that’s a great day, one in which I know I was fueled by the process. And happy.
It seems important here to distinguish that my very best days involve original words. Not editing. Never editing. Edit, as if it needs pointing out, is a four-letter word. I do know the odd writer (how I love odd’s double entendre here), who prefers the editing stage. I, personally, am a rough-draft junkie. I thrive on that first-pass, open-road sensation. Sure, it has its rough patches, but it’s explorative and exhilarating.
Another good writing day that comes to mind would involve finding a purpose for something in my packed suitcase.
I know what you’re thinking: She packs a suitcase? I do, but it’s a metaphor for my writing style, not my personal storage system.
What, then, is a packed suitcase?
In the early-draft process, I throw obscure items into the manuscript that could come in handy later. I have no idea what purpose they’ll eventually serve, but they’re there if I need them. Deep into the story, it becomes my challenge (or bane) to incorporate them.
An example, please, you’re asking.
In Frost, book two of the Stork trilogy (Candlewick, October 2011), Kat receives a snow globe as a gift from Jack. Given the book’s wintry themes and use of Norse mythology, it seemed a good fit, but in the early draft it had no specific function. Later, when I was able to employ it as a plot device, I had one of those woo-hoo moments.
Are there things that never come out of the suitcase? Yep. What then, you ask? Sadly, I have to remove them from their early mention.
I am often thankful for the renewed sense of self I have found in writing. Though I came to the craft late, it has become an element of my identity. A good day is a writing day. I love nothing more than following a story over the horizon. And if it’s a spectacular day, something I packed for the trip will come in handy.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Friday, May 13, 2011
Quoth Social Distortion: "Thirteen's my lucky number, to you it means stay inside."
Monday, May 9, 2011
When I was teaching middle school, I kept my students from snoring and drooling by making up silly stories featuring wacky characters. Think 27-year-old sixth graders riding tricycles! Coming up with those off-the-wall ideas was easy. I’d sit in my empty classroom at 6:00 a.m. and let craziness spill out of my brain.
But when I tried to turn my imagination toward writing a funny YA novel, my mind went numb. I knew I could write “funny,” but finding a story line stymied me.
Soon after Fairest of Them All was sold, my friend Laura told me about an article she'd read in a small town Iowa paper. Several high school students were suspended for smuggling a pig into their principal’s office. As we laughed about it we observed that those kinds of practical jokes only happen in rural communities like the ones where we grew up.
The prank caught my imagination and reminded me of the crazy, impulsive, and flat-out stupid things kids do in the name of fun. Memories of my high school misadventures flooded back and almost always made me wince. Something else I remembered was the cultural gap between the “big city” kids in Des Moines and my small town friends and I who thought driving the twenty miles to the state capital for pizza was an adventure.
Not long after I indulged in my high school flashbacks, I embarked on a series of adventures with sixteen-year-old best friends Aspen Parks and Laurel Piedmont. It’s been my experience that writing a novel is sweet torture—emphasis on torture--but writing A & L Do Summer was fun. I dumped the girls into humiliating predicaments, tossed in peculiar characters, plunked some farm animals into the mix, and laughed at my own lame jokes.
Today I send Aspen, Laurel, Manny, Clay, and Buttferk out into the world. If you happen to run into them, I hope they’ll give you a laugh or two.
If you’re an author, books are kind of like kids. You spend a lot of time trying to make them good so they’ll go out into the world and be enjoyed by others. When you’re in the middle of forming them, it can be fun and it can be frustrating and sometimes you just want to throw your hands into the air and give up. But the thing is, you (hopefully) love all your books equally for their own reasons. But I don’t.
I have a favorite book of mine. It’s a book that just, for some reason, I really love. Not because it was easy to write or it was my first, but because I love the characters and I love their story. It may not be the book that my readers love the best, but if I was ever asked to name my favorite book that I’ve written I’d say it’s RICH BOYS.
I would also say that it is the worst title of all my books, which is kind of like realizing you named your favorite child Horace after some great uncle in hopes he'd leave your kid that valuable watch collection. The title SO doesn’t do the book or the story justice. And the cover, while I don’t mind looking at it, makes no sense – sure, the story takes place near a beach during the summer but it’s really only about one guy, and he doesn’t surf or boogie board. I wish the book had a different title (unfortunately, I didn’t name it) so people wouldn’t assume that it’s a vapid novel about rich summer people and superficial guys. And it bums me out that readers might look at the cover and pass over the book just because of the title and cover. And I wish I'd come up with a title so I wouldn't have had to look at my publisher and say, "Um, yeah, sure, call it RICH BOYS"... even though I hate it because I have no brain cells left to come up with a decent title!!
So, when it comes to my books, I’m guess I’d be considered a bad mother because I actually have a favorite. And I feel badly that my favorite is dressed in such a terrible cover. Fortunately in real life I still like my kids’ names and still don’t have a favorite. And neither are named Horace.
What about you writers out there? Do you have a favorite book of yours? And why do you like it best?
Sunday, May 8, 2011
It’s usually about this time that taking the wallpaper down in the kitchen or hand-cutting every blade of grass in the yard can seem appealing. Anything to get up out of the office chair and away from the muddle-brained mess you’re in.
The solution? For me, it’s a Crazy-Write.
In my world, a Crazy-Write means I challenge myself to get a book completely finished as quickly as possible. (It depends on how much of the book is left to finish, but usually, I give myself a three-to-four-week period.) Which means that I draft in excess of twenty pages per day. If I’m rewriting, I’ll revise anywhere from fifty to a hundred pages a day.Right now, I’m on a Crazy-Write for an adult novel (the pacing of a hundred-thousand-word book is so much different than the pacing of a sixty-thousand-word YA!), and have just a little less than three weeks left in the process.
The Crazy-Writes are fantastic for building momentum; the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing an inordinate amount of work in one day always spurs me on to tackle the next day’s insane word count goal.To be fair, I consistently have long workdays—I usually spend eight solid hours a day writing. On a Crazy-Write, though, I can spend ten to twelve hours a day on my current novel-in-progress. So my Crazy-Writes do take a really good amount of stamina (and lots of time in the day to write).
But, really, though, the Crazy-Write can be molded to fit anyone’s schedule or routine. What you want to do is make what you think is a just-over-the-limit goal. A probably-impossible goal. If you usually write one page a day, aim for five (or ten). If you write for one hour a day, shoot for three. If you write five hundred words, aim for two thousand. You’d be amazed at how accomplishing what you once thought was impossible will absolutely energize you—and push you forward to get your novel finished!
Friday, May 6, 2011
HOWEVER, if you had asked me about this book a year ago, when I had first started writing it, I would not have been as confident. Before I wrote it, I had to send a summary to my editor. The summary sucked. It was stupid and trite and immature, and my editor's comment was, "Can you make this a little less Saved by the Bell?" I am very glad that I managed to do just that.
Now I'm writing my YA romantic drama for release in July 2012, Such a Rush, which until last week was titled Free Falling, because I can't even get the title right the first time through. This book also had a stupid, trite, immature summary, and I am working very hard not to write the book the way I said I would. Next I will write Double Date, my YA romantic comedy coming out in December, and WOW, that is a doozy of a stupid summary. I never had to write a summary for Going Too Far because my editor told me I could write whatever I wanted for my next book, but if I had written one, it would have been stupid. That book is about a 17-year-old girl who falls in love with the 19-year-old cop who arrests her. In its original incarnation it was about two teenagers who do a ride-along with an adult cop for a school report. WHAT? I know. THAT'S STUPID. I told you.
But my most stupid summary is for The Boys Next Door, one of my very favorites of my books (which is saying a lot because, as I have said, I love my own writing). The book is about a love triangle involving a girl and the two brothers next door. She wakeboards with them and works with them at their parents' marina on a beautiful, sunny lake like the one where I grew up in Alabama. Originally they had to work together on some kind of wakeboarding show as a fundraiser to SAVE THE MARINA, which had fallen on hard times financially. It was like some horrible saccharine after-school special. You could almost hear the lame rock song playing three-fourths of the way through as the characters are shown practicing their wakeboarding routines and high-five-ing each other in preparation for their big day. Barf!
If I were just starting out as a writer, I might be concerned about the stupidity of Such a Rush at this point. But I have written enough, and taught enough college-level writing classes, and taken enough classes on how to teach writing classes, to know that writing is a process, not a product. It's a process of discovery. We write in order to know what we want to say. At least, that's true for me. Some writers do seem to know exactly where they're going before they get there. I wish I were one of them, because the publishing industry is set up for them, those royal, lucky people who write great summaries and sell a series of three books for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the basis of a few pages. But I am not. I am doomed to a writing life of finishing entire books to send out to publishers, rather than short summaries of potential books. Not all of those books I write are going to sell, which means I am going to waste a lot of time writing books that will never be published. And I have wasted a lot of time writing a lot of unsold books already. I know it, and now that she has read the summary of Such a Rush, my new agent knows it. But I am 100% confident this book is not going to be stupid when I finish, and that will have to be enough.
Are you one of those lucky people who can write bright, shining summaries that turn into the same bright, shining books? Did you sell your soul to the devil for this privilege? I am curious. Also I hate you.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Over time, I've become a better writer. Here's what I've learned:
Keep reading craft books. In the past year, I've read at least a dozen. I put them on hold at the library two or three at a time. I'm far enough along now that I know if they don't speak to me. I recently read Techniques of the Selling Writer, an older book (you can tell it's older, because the author is Dwight V. Swain - when was the last time a kid was named Dwight?), and it was so useful! I found myself taking tons of notes on scenes and sequels.
Have a cheat book. This is especially true if you are writing for a living. You probably already have a book or two under contract. But you should have a book you are sneaking off to write every now and then. A book you are having an affair with. A book you are writing just for you! (Which may later end up being shared with the world).
Push yourself. Force yourself to work on a scene you don't want to for 15 minutes - after five or ten minutes you might strike gold. Or use any of the exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (you don't have to have read the companion book for it to be useful). One I like goes something like this: "What is one thing your character would never, ever say? What is one thing your character would never, ever think? What is one thing your character would never, ever do? Find places in your manuscript where your character says, thinks and does these things."
Reading is also part of your job. Don't feel guilty about reading. I tended to put it off, thinking it was a "treat" that I only deserved if I had crossed everything off my to-do list. But then I read something from Amy Kathleen Ryan where she said that she considered reading part of her job. That changed my attitude.
Get Freedom, a program that cuts you off the Internet for the amount of time you set. You might think you are an adult and that you are able to control your own behavior. You are wrong. It costs 10 bucks, but it is definitely worth it.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
When you read this I'll probably be sleeping with drool coming out of the side of my mouth. Okay. The second part isn't true. I'll probably be sitting in almost the exact spot where I'm sitting now, my laptop on a pillow on my lap...Bruce Almighty at my side, wearing yoga pants (me not Bruce who btw is a chubby Chihuhua), putting off exercising and wondering when it's appropriate to eat again. But I could be sleeping. Depends what your blog reading habits are like.
The rational was explained to me (branding) and it all made sense and soon I saw new title suggestions and we decided on I'M NOT HER. (Yay!) Next came new cover ideas...
Eventually I received ARC's (Advanced Reader's Copies) and then finally a big box of final books! Before I knew it, books were being shipped from bookstores and are available almost everywhere. Right now I'm waiting for the final, final step --seeing I'M NOT HER on bookstore shelves. (Yay, Yay, Yay!!!)
Welcome to the world my little pink spined book! I look forward to trying to spot you on shelves soon!! I hope you have a long life, and I hope you are loved. Okay. At least liked. I know I know. It just can't be by everyone. It doesn't work that way. But you will always be beautiful and special to me.
Monday, May 2, 2011
For me, writing a novel doesn’t work that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t have so many novels to my name. I’m slow. I delete a lot as I learn about my characters and story (oh, she’s got a sister, let me go back and write that in. Oh, if I write that in, all this other stuff has to change. Oh, maybe I should just rip out this whole section, because here I can show how she is with her sister, and that’s important, not this other stuff.) That’s what my writing day looks like. How the heck would I even begin to count that?
I’m not denigrating fast writers. I struggle with professional jealousy (which looks like this: Whine – “Why can’t I be like ____(fill in name)?”) I do think that some books would be better if they percolated a little longer. And I accept my slowness, though I tend to feel like a tortoise with some very hareish friends. But it is my PROCESS, and the brain is a MYSTERY, and for me to figure out why I am the way I am would be like figuring out why I was born (I could produce a few answers, but who knows which is right?)
This is why I don’t count. I don’t count words, or pages. I assess my productivity by time, how many hours I devote daily to sitting and thinking and writing and editing words in a novel of my own creation. I keep a log. I write down every day that I work, and if I don’t work a day, the reason. I do have a sort of accountability to myself – a self-employed person needs that. But for me, the numbers just aren’t so clear.
What about you? What is your process like? Even if you’re not a writer, do you keep track of your creativity in some way? I’d love to know.