Sunday, August 30, 2020

An Embarrassment of Glitches by Dean Gloster

 

        This month we’re supposed to tell you about our embarrassing early writing mistakes, and friends—that's a rough topic, because I’m still making them. (*Sigh*)

Yeah, I know—the plan was to give us a soft lob about the long ago that we can talk about wryly now, with the benefit of all this time and distance.

 


It’s a pandemic. At this point, the misty distances of time were, like, Wednesday.

But that’s not how I roll. Thomas Mann said of my kind, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.” Since I’ve never experienced easy writing, why start now? And since I’ve never directly followed the monthly writing prompts before, why change that now either?


 

Oh, I have plenty early embarrassments. My first literary work, at about 6, was Go Turtle, Go, an homage of P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog, Go. (Homage, as used in the preceding sentence, is a French word meaning “blatant, direct ripoff” except by a kid who can’t actually draw.)

 


On the theme of not being able to draw, in the mid-80s, when I was a law clerk for a Supreme Court Justice, I circulated cartoons to my fellow clerks (which I wrote about here) that I eventually had to tone down, when a third of the Justices—including my boss—insisted on also being on my distribution list. (The resulting pinnacle of my art career was that I did the drawing for Sandra Day O’Connor’s annual Christmas card. Yes, really. Which was hard, because I can’t draw. Seriously.)

        And while I was a law clerk at the Supreme Court, in the evening I’d stumble over to the Department of Agriculture for night classes in Arabic, because my plan at the time was to go the next year to Beirut, Lebanon, to write the Great American Expatriate Novel about the American press corps in Beirut, which I blogged about here. That idea—to type in a seashore hotel to the background noise of desultory rifle fire—was ended before it even started by the base note punctuation of the bombing of the U.S. Marines there and resulting flight of the American press corps entirely. Which did save the world from one Earnest Yet Terrible Novel Set in Wartime, but left me somewhat at loose ends.

So instead I went on to a three decade-long legal career. The result was enough savings to finance my current novel-writing gig nicely, but it’s put me a little behind on the whole writing-bunches-of-novels part.

So I’m still making embarrassing early writing mistakes.

The latest mistake is writing at a glacial pace, while the world is on fire.

It’s a difficult business, writing novels. It’s hard and uncertain, and mostly not very lucrative. And—unlike when I was a lawyer—the days that I don’t feel especially productive don’t still come with a paycheck to reassure me that, yup, I still count. It’s even worse now, because I’m in the U.S.—we’re in a pandemic, in a terribly run country, sliding into authoritarianism unless we change that in November.

Under the circumstances, writing a YA novel some days feels like licking the end of a pencil and scribbling a few words on a notebook in the middle of a house on fire.

The U.S., with just over 4% of the world’s population, has over 22% of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. South Korea started with many more cases per population than we did, but unlike us managed the epidemic—their total death rate per population is now barely over one one-hundredth of ours.

And organizations like RepublicansUnited are now raising funds for a 17-year-old serial murderer with white supremacist social media posts who traveled from Illinois to Wisconsin to shoot three people this week, killing two. Argh. 

We need to be better than this, America.

It’s enough to create a constant state of rage, but an endless cycle of rage is not a fertile ground for creativity.

So let me leave you with one good word. I’ll try to keep moving on my novel, which is going embarrassingly slow. In the meantime, let’s all try to do something in November to make sure we’re not embarrassed to be Americans for the next four years: Vote.

Good luck to us all. 


            Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 57 percent of his soul.

 


When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing--and, let's face it, there's less of that right now--he’s on Twitter: @deangloster




Saturday, August 29, 2020

My Writing is Perfect, It's the Readers Who are Flawed (Brian Katcher)

 My mother always enjoys telling the story of when I was in third grade, I came home angry. It seems my teacher had the gall to suggest that I rewrite a story I'd written, with some suggestions on how I could improve it.

"If I was a real writer," I shouted in self-righteous, eight-year-old rage, "No one would tell me to rewrite anything!"

That's what's known as ironic foreshadowing.

Aspiring teen writers ask me about how I got started as a writer, figuring I'd tell them some inspiring story of me as an awkward middle schooler with dreams of the literary life.

Actually, I never wrote anything willingly until I was 25. That means every single bit of creative writing I did as a teenager was something someone forced me to do. So I wrote a lot about farting and masturbating. I don't tell that to my readers, of course. I spin tales of how I practiced writing on the back of a shovel, while the rain poured through the roof of the cardboard box in the wretched Irish town where I grew up.

Maybe that really happened. Everything before age 14 is kind of a blur. 

The first book I wrote was published, so I guess it was okay. That makes all the subsequent rejections all the more difficult to swallow. 

In conclusion, this was our first week back at school, and it's chaos. We have no idea if we're going to have to shut down or not, and I'm exhausted. 

Maybe there's a book in this. Or maybe I should just dust off all my old essays on farting.


Monday, August 24, 2020

When a mistake is (maybe) not a mistake (Brenda Hiatt)

 One of the beauties of e-publishing is the opportunity to fix mistakes after a book is already published. That wasn’t a luxury afforded to authors back in the day of print-only, traditional-only publishing. Once a book was in print, it was done. Period. Written in stone.

For that reason, once a book of mine was published, I made it a policy never to read it again. Because I knew I’d find things I should have done better, maybe even typos and other mistakes that had made it past all the edits and proofreads. If I saw them now, they’d drive me nuts because I couldn’t fix them. I’d feel like I had to apologize for them to readers. So…I just didn’t look. Though cowardly, it was a solid, sanity-saving strategy. 

 

Then the ebook revolution occurred. First with small, e-only publishers putting out new (mostly erotic) books for obscure e-reading devices. But when Amazon’s Kindle arrived on the scene, the whole publishing landscape changed. For the first time, authors had a viable avenue to publish their own books and make a profit almost from day one. At that point, lots of traditionally-published authors (myself included) started working to get rights back to their earlier books. Over time, I managed to claw back virtually all of mine.

 

Some were fairly easy to e-publish once I had the rights, though I had to learn the ropes—get new covers made, figure out how to format and upload, etc. But those first books I received back were actually my more recent releases, due to slightly more generous reversion clauses (that I negotiated) in the original contracts. Even better, I still had digital files for those books, making the formatting and uploading a (relative) piece of cake. 

 

Then I started getting rights back to my very earliest books. Those were so old that my only digital files were on ancient floppy disks that turned out to be unreadable even when I took them to experts. I ended up having those books scanned, after which I had to painstakingly go through them to correct the inevitable scanning errors.

 

Unfortunately, I discovered scanning errors weren’t the worst of it. Not even close! No, the horror was discovering, after all these years, how many stupid beginner mistakes I’d made in the actual writing of those books. The head-hopping! The cliches! I writhed with embarrassment thinking about all the readers who’d suffered through my fumbling early attempts. I did my best to fix the most egregious errors, with the benefit of many more years’ writing experience. But some, like the rapid-fire viewpoint shifts, proved impossible to change without massive rewrites. Finally, figuring hardly anyone would read those old things anyway, I simply republished with a lot of those original flaws still intact.

 

And guess what? Those earliest books became some of my best ebook sellers. Why? Who knows? But it demonstrated that craft issues which might seem hugely important to writers may not matter at all to readers. I wrote those books when I was still learning, when my enthusiasm for storytelling was still at its exuberant peak. Maybe that’s what spoke—still speaks—to readers? Whatever, it was a good lesson in not overthinking when looking back at early “mistakes.” 

 

It’s just possible some of them weren’t mistakes after all. 

 


Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-four novels (so far), including sweet and spicy historical romance, time travel romance and, with her Starstruck series, young adult science fiction romance. 


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Never Submit Your First Draft. Trust me. (by Patty Blount)

 Embarrassing writing moments -- oh! There are so many! 


When I was a brand new unpublished writer, the first novel I ever wrote was called Penalty Killer. It was a young adult murder mystery written for my son. I published it by taking it to Kinko's and having it printed and spiral bound. He let a bunch of his seventh grade friends read it and all enjoyed it. They enjoyed it so much, they asked their English teacher if they could use it as the subject of their book reports. 

I received a note from the teacher asking me for a copy of Penalty Killer. It was back to Kinko's for a second draft that I happily sent to school with my son. 

It was returned to me a month later, COVERED IN RED PEN. The 7th grade English teacher GRADED my novel. 

It was a humiliating moment, for sure, but I was undaunted. I figured I wrote one book, I could certainly write another. 

My second attempt was called Postpartum Deception. Another murder mystery, but for adults, this time. This novel was 170,000 words and when I finished it, I burned a bunch of CDs and handed it out to friends.

Not ONE OF THEM ever read it. 

I tried querying agents and thought I got a few requests, no one every wanted the story so I shelved it and kept trying. I went on to write several more books and finally, SEND, my fifth attempt, was the one that got published. 

But I never gave up on Postpartum Deception. In the years that had past, I'd learned a thing or two and knew where I'd gone wrong. Clearly, 170,000 words is too many. I wrote it in omniscient third person and gave POV time to damn near every character I'd created. Main characters, secondary characters, tertiary characters. I even gave a POV scene to a newspaper placed at a table setting. In the rewrite, I decided to make it YA and write in first person. That draft was called The Sky Was Scarlet.

Still no interest. 

"A series! That's the ticket!" 

I revised it AGAIN, splitting the story into 3 books. 

I even put this book on Wattpad and Radish. I tell you, I can't give it away.

The lesson I've learned is no matter how much you love a story, how great you think it is, don't send it anywhere until you've revised, edited, and revised it some more. 

Finally, one of the most embarassing stories in my writing was my early attempts at fan fiction. Fan Fiction was how I got started in writing. The characters and their world are already fully developed, leaving you to write the situation in which they must escape. I wrote an X-File. 

*blushes* I had a mad crush on David Duchovny in the '90's. My X-File was nothing more than a day dream, a fantasy. Even worse? I sent it to the producer. 

These early stories are the equivalent of camera phones today. 

I'm not even going to tell you about the email I sent to my entire staff with an X-rated typo in it. There's embarassing and then there's complete humiliation. 



Friday, August 21, 2020

Avoid Embarrassing Submission Mistakes: Work On Your Plot! (Holly Schindler)

 I've been writing since I could hold a pen. So there are plenty of doozies out there--embarrassing early works, that is. Poems I wrote to ex-boyfriends. Poems I wrote to friends. Poems I wrote in the backs of yearbooks, even! (No "Have a nice summer" messages from me.) 

But really, the doozies didn't stop there.

It took a long time to sell a book. Seven and a half years of full-time effort. And that was after I'd gotten a master's in English. Every mistake you can make, I made it. And that's regarding the work itself, not just the five-page queries or the fancy envelopes for unsolicited manuscripts (because, yeah, when I first started, I was submitted via the snail mail). 

Looking back, most of my manuscript mistakes followed similar patterns:

Weak Plots

This was probably my biggest problem. I'd spent most of my life reading quiet books. Literary books. College reading lists brought me more of the same. I love getting in the head of a main character. In so many ways, I think we learn so much about empathy from reading. But here's the thing: Each main character needs to change. Needs a character arc. That change is facilitated by the events of the book. Without some interesting events (a tight plot), the character arc often winds up being weak as well.

Weak plot =  weak character arc = weak book.

Too Much Internalization

This springs off the previous point, but my earliest books were incredibly internal. Lots and lots and lots of thoughts. And feelings. And more thoughts. And long paragraphs. And not enough happening. 

Too Much Attention to Literary-Style Phrasings

Some of this goes back to my literary reading. I was always interested in description. In how a story was told, rather than that events that happened to a character. But I think too many literary bells and whistles can distance your reader from your main character. Keep them from connecting. 

Clearly, the best advice I can give any writer is to really work on plot. I've become a junkie for technical books about plot structure. So often, if you've got a tight plot, character development will naturally follow. And, of course, you can insert a few literary devices to help tell the story.

Yes, more and more, I do believe it's all about plot. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

That Time I Unintentionally Terrorized My English Teacher (Alissa Grosso)

 

I have been writing for a long time so I have a lot of cringe-worthy writing pieces in my past, but the one that mortifies me the most is something I wrote when I was in high school.

I need to add the caveat that this was a very long time ago. The term "school shooting" was not yet a term anyone was familiar with. The Columbine massacre wouldn't happen for another seven years. As you will soon see this likely explains why I was not expelled from school for writing a short story. In other words, kids, don't try this at home. Or at school, or anywhere really.

Okay, so my high school had a gifted and talented program, and nerdy teen girl that I was, I was in it. The way it worked was a sort of independent study, where we came up with a project we wanted to work on then asked a teacher to be our advisor for the project.

I had the idea that I wanted to write a series of short vignettes about my kooky family. My inspiration was My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. If you're in need of a book to make you laugh, I highly recommend it. In particular "The Night the Bed Fell" is one of the funniest things ever written in the English language. So, as a sophomore in high school, I decided I was going to pen my own series of Thurberesque anecdotes and asked my freshman English teacher (my current one was due to take maternity leave) to be my advisor. Mrs. Keller had no idea what shes was getting herself into when she agreed.

Thankfully for me, my family provided me with copious material. I don't remember all the vignettes I wrote but can recall I did a piece on my grandparents and a dirty dime. You might think that subject matter couldn't have warranted more than a paragraph or two, but that just proves you don't know my grandparents. I also remember writing about my family's difficulties in taking road trips to Maine including one unforgettable Christmas journey that if you wrote it as a scene in an over-the-top comedy screenplay someone would certainly scoff at it as being completely unbelievable.

Anyway, I don't know if it was because she grew tired of my comic anecdotes or if it was simply because she was trying to be a good advisor and push me out of my comfort zone, but Mrs. Keller challenged me with writing a work of fiction, a short story. I swear, I wasn't mad at her for requesting I try my hand at something new, but probably that was the impression she got when I turned in the assignment.

For someone who had previously submitted pieces that were comical in nature, I went a very different route with my short story. My short story "The Homework Assignment" was dark and disturbing in nature. In fact, very disturbing if you happened to be someone who was teaching creative writing like the protagonist of my story.

The general gist of it was that a creative writing teacher is at home grading the stories that his students have submitted for an assignment and comes to one titled "The Homework Assignment." As he starts reading he hears some bumps in the night noises, but what really unsettles him is that the story is about a teacher reading a short story submission at his home while the student who wrote the assignment lurks inside preparing to attack the teacher. More upsetting is that the short story describes a living place that is frighteningly like his own, something his student couldn't possibly know unless he was in the teacher's house.

Well, I'll save you all the gory details, but I assure you there were some. In the end, the creative writing teacher met with a grisly fate. "The End" typed at the end of the submitted story had a bit of a dual meeting for that poor character. 

I still think the story was a good one, though I'm sure the execution might have been a bit clumsy and cliche-riddled given that I was in my teens, but what I find mortifying about this story is that I thought it would be a good idea to write it and submit it to my own teacher as an assignment.

What was I thinking? Couldn't I see how something like that might freak out my teacher? I don't know if that extra creepy and disturbing story caused my teacher undue stress or caused her nightmares, but if it did I offer her a belated apology. It was never my intention to terrorize her. I never really thought things through.

For her part, Mrs. Keller never really seemed too bothered by the story or else she hid her fears well. More importantly, she did not report me to the principal or school psychologist, but as I said, those were different times. I can't say for sure, but I think she probably had a newfound appreciation for my harmless, humorous family anecdotes after receiving that doozy of a short story.


After "The Homework Assignment" Alissa Grosso has gone on to write some additional thrillers, but she's also written some tamer novels that hopefully won't inspire any nightmares. You can find out more about her and her books at alissagrosso.com.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Puppy Love Stories & Green Horse Tails (Jodi Moore)

I got married in Kindergarten.

 

I was five. He was five. He was handsome. Creative. Kind. A man of the world, able to recite his ABCs with more panache than I’d ever heard.

 

Instead of rings, we exchanged plastic animals. That tiny green horse was my favorite. But Joseph had captured my heart and I would have done anything to make my new husband happy.

 

 

 

While many dismiss and/or roll their eyes at ‘puppy love’, I believe it is the purest of ‘romantic’ love. It’s not based on popularity, or money, or physical intimacy, but simply on two hearts that connect in such a profound way, it defies explanation.

 

Of course, not all of my crushes were reciprocated. Most didn’t even know I existed, and I don’t mean this in a teenage heartbreak metaphorical manner. I crushed on celebrities all the time – who genuinely did not know of my presence in the world – and yes, even wrote one of them a letter.

 

Once. I read in a teen magazine that he liked football, so I said I liked football.

 

Yeah. I don’t like football.

 

As a teen, even I realized writing a letter to a popular rock star would most likely wind up on his assistant to the assistant to the assistant’s desk, and ultimately in the circular file.

 

Of course, it never stopped me from dreaming he’d notice me in the crowd of screaming fans. Our eyes would meet. He’d send that assistant to the assistant to the assistant into the audience to bring me backstage after the concert, and I’d give him my favorite plastic green horse...

 

Oh, wait. I gave it to Joseph. Huh. No wonder things never worked out with Jay.

 

But.

 

It didn’t stop me from writing about it. As a child, I was gifted real horses – in my stories (if I wished, I could even make them green!) As a teen, my celebrity crushes did notice me in the crowds – in my stories. And even now, I reach deep to find those pure, simple, honest feelings and try to funnel them into the stories I write.

 

I did get remarried. To my latest and current crush. I was 21. He was 23. He’s handsome. Creative. Kind. And he doesn’t care one bit about football. I owe you a green plastic horse, Larry.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Ace Teen Poet ... In My Own Mind (Mary Strand)

This month we’re blogging at YA Outside the Lines about something funny or embarrassing that we wrote in our teens.

Dear Lord, please shoot me now.

Although I PLAN to write about my high-school life as a poet laureate - ha ha - I’ll first share that nanosecond of insanity in eighth grade, in the patriarchal world in which I grew up, when I filled half a page with a scribbled “Mrs. John Doe” or “Mary Doe” or “Mary Strand Doe.” (The name of John Doe has been changed for obvious reasons, including that when I last saw him at a high-school reunion, his ego wildly outstripped his apparent merits, and I laughed at my shallow eighth-grade taste.)


What’s funny and embarrassing is that I would’ve ever thought even for a moment of changing my name to some GUY’S name when I got married. I was totally over that by high school, I know, because I had a MASSIVE (and mutual!) high-school crush that never involved my dreaming of a name change, which is lucky since he never even asked me out, in his case because he loooooved basketball ... and I was better at it than he was.

(Never fantasize about insecure guys, even if they’re cute, which he was. He was also smart, funny, and nice, but ... yeah. A girl’s basketball skillz will weed out the weak ones. If his pet nickname for you is “Superstar,” run. This is good to know in the long run, but in the short run, not so much.)

(Now you know why I write YA. Clearly, I never left my teen years.)

So. Um. Poetry.

I was really into it in high school: reading it, but especially writing it. I wrote our class poem for our yearbook. (Not as big a triumph as you might guess, since I was co-editor of the yearbook.) Someone else recited it at graduation (since I was actually shy at that point in my life, which is even more hilarious than anything else I’ll write about today), and my poems LITTERED the pages of my high school’s annual literary magazine.

Today I read all of those poems from junior and senior year. They were filled to the max with angst and despair, which is particularly funny since I was (then as now) mostly a clown. But I did have deep thoughts (then as now), and back then I apparently wrote Every Single One Of Them in a poem and then unfortunately submitted all of those poems to the literary magazine. Dark stuff, sometimes brightened (inexplicably) in the last line of the poem, as if I didn’t want to scare people.

Not that this worked. The day the literary magazine was published each year, I always had at least half a dozen people, including a teacher or two, ask if I was “okay.” I had no idea what they were talking about. I was a jokester who happened to write dark poetry that, once written, was in my distant past. I wasn’t REALLY a dark, gloomy, angsty person. I just played one in the literary magazine!

Worse (yes, it gets worse), I loved to write poems about how horrible it was to be under the thumb of my Cruel Mother — because TEENAGER — and then, when I finished the poem and thought it was a good one, I’d always show it to my mom! lololol. I can still remember her wide eyes as she read those poems, her indrawn breath, and finally the faint, “Er, that’s very nice.” 

I think those memories helped get me through my own daughter’s teenage years, when I was the Utterly Unreasonable Adult in the room.

I was going to post one of those psychotic poems here, but (1) this is already too long, (2) I used “different than” rather than the correct “different from” in the poem in question, putting my street cred as a grammar geek at risk, and (3) you will not benefit from reading it.

But I did. Because (hysterical) laughter is good for the soul, right? Right!

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at marystrand.com.