Thursday, December 29, 2011

With Or Without The Kids?

Yesterday, Mr R and I celebrated our anniversary by spending most of the day with our children. While many of our other anniversaries have been spent without the children, I confess I didn't feel like dropping the kids off at grandma's this year. With our anniversary only three days after Christmas, it always arrives in the midst of the still tangible holiday excitement. My son and daughter enthusiastically helped Mr R to prepare a breakfast buffet complete with homemade hash browns, pancakes, eggs and orange juice. They delighted in doing something for our special day and regaled us with loud shouts and cheers.

Mr R and I took the kids with us to see "Hugo", the movie based on Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The kids were excited to see the movie, and enjoyed it, but being in the dark theater for so long gave my son the impression that the day had passed him by. After watching twenty minutes of previews and the entire movie, while eating lots of popcorn and candy and taking two trips to the drinking fountain for water, my son sighed and said to me, "Your anniversary is long."

I'm grateful for my sweet children and love how they make me laugh. I'm also grateful to my sister who agreed to cook them dinner at her house so Mr R and I could go out to a restaurant alone.

I'm most grateful for my kind and loving husband and for all the joy, tears, worries, comfort, wealth, poverty, adventures, and winding roads we have shared. I wouldn't have wanted to share it with anyone else.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Holiday Laughs From "The Nutcracker"

 One of our many family traditions for the holidays is rooted in my fourteen years of classical ballet training--we always see The Nutcracker ballet. Usually, we buy tickets to see a live performance and even my five year old son sat through the entire show last year. Of course, we had front row seats and he spent a good portion of the time mimicking the conductor in the orchestra pit and pretending to play the chimes. But he actually enjoyed the music, the dancing and the story enough to want to see it again. Yes! I love it when real life wins out over video games!

This year, because of an extra busy holiday schedule, we opted to watch the New York City Ballet's performance live from the Lincoln Center on PBS. Everything about the production was beautiful and flawless. The kids loved it and got up and danced when the music inspired them. My little one needed me to narrate some of the story and would ask questions like: "When does the Nutcracker turn real?", "When does the Christmas tree grow?", and "How do all those kids fit under Mother Ginger's skirt?"

But this one question, and the answer it prompted from my daughter, was by far my favorite.

Son (while watching the Arabian dancer known as "Coffee" in this version): "Which candy is she supposed to be?"

Daughter (while noticing the small amount of fabric comprising Coffee's costume and her bare mid-section): "The candy without a wrapper."

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Dissatisfied Kitty

Animals teach us about ourselves. Or, as animal behaviorist Temple Grandin says in the title of her book, "Animals make us human." As someone who wasn't allowed to have a dog or a cat as a child, I never realized how much this is true until I grew up, bought a house, and acquired cats and chickens. I never thought a chicken would help me feel the entire range of my emotions or that a cat would teach me to be happy with my life as it is.

Enter Lucy. Lucy the cat lived with a good friend of mine for a few months and did fine at their home, but my friend later told me that Lucy seemed unhappy cooped up in the house. When she arrived at our house, she was terrified by the mere presence of our non-aggressive other cat Patch, despite my careful study and observance of "cat introduction techniques". I tried to keep the two cats apart but our resident cat was too friendly and curious and Lucy was too...well...Lucy.

I'm certain she had no peripheral vision. Lucy would be playing with a shoe string or twist-tie, with all her attention focused on that, and Patch would get one inch from her face before she'd notice. She'd go into a hissing ball of flattened-eared Halloween kitty until she'd poop. No joke. Patch scared the poop out of her. I never knew that expression and its variations had roots in cat behavior.

Wherever Lucy was--she didn't like it. The house was too confining, the yard was too boring, the field and the barn were too scary (because heaven forbid she run into that Patch cat), the garage had too much cement, the flower beds had leaves that moved in the breeze and frightened her to death. The only thing Lucy wanted to do was eat and sit in the windowsill and complain. Until she discovered the field on the other side of the highway. Then, the only thing she wanted to do was run across the highway. Never mind that we have three perfectly good fields behind our home that are far away from the threat of man-made vehicles on four wheels.

Lucy loved to be cuddled and we did that as much as we could. My little boy loved her so much he gave her a long list of nick-names which he cooed to her every day, my favorite of which was "Princess of Hiss-A-Lot".

We'll miss Lucy. But I take lots of comfort in the idea of an animal heaven where Lucy has much more grandeur with which she can be dissatisfied. Perhaps our other cat, Milo, is giving her lessons on how to make friends and how to be happy.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An End...A Beginning

I won NaNoWriMo 2011 by completing 50,000 words on my novel at 7pm on November 30th. Cheering and celebratory dancing ensued and Mr. R surprised me with chocolate mints (my favorite) and a bottle of sparkling peach cider (we aren't champagne drinkers). We watched hilarious TV shows together for much of the evening and I floated on a cloud of simultaneous euphoria and shock that I'd finished a draft of a new novel.

I took two days off from writing to do some...

and to...

[images from Hyperbole and a Half ]

The next step is a read-through of THE SEAKEEPER, my middle grade fantasy novel which I haven't looked at since I began NaNoWriMo. I can already see the writing benefits of distancing myself from the manuscript by writing something else. So much perspective.

Now...on to the Christmas shopping and the task of locating something on my son's Christmas list which, I've just been informed, is no longer in the stores because the manufacturer went out of business. Anyone ever heard of Magformers? I know many people who will be sad to learn they are no longer being made. *sound of prices on leftover stock going up*

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Death of A Bad Dude and Who Gets the Girl?

Phew!! With only one day left of 2011 National Novel Writing Month, I managed to pound out around 5,000 words on PAINTING TOTORA today. On this home stretch, I've learned I can always count on truly fleshed-out characters to have plenty to say. I can also always count on a carefully-timed chocolate break to help keep me focused. Exercise is going to make a reappearance in my life in December.

Today, I tackled the climax of my Peruvian steampunk novel and had the satisfaction of bringing a truly bad dude to an un-"timely" end. My apologies for the bad pun, but it's late and I'm all worded out for today. For those of you who may not know the term "steampunk", it is a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy which usually involves an alternate history in which technological advances are as the Victorians might have envisioned them--with steam power or spring-propelled gadgets (ie. clockwork). The setting for steampunk is often Victorian era Britain, but for my YA novel, I chose South America.

Also during my write-a-thon today, I reached the point in my novel where the girl must choose between two very different guys. It's curious how much I enjoyed that. I think I enjoyed it because each guy has qualities I like in my husband and because it's interesting to require a fictional character to make such a hard choice. Characters who want things and characters who step up and make tough choices are the most compelling to read wouldn't you agree?

Tomorrow is zero hour. Check back to see if I make it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Hawaii Burn (or "Vacation Euphoria" Part 1)

Why is it so easy to believe we are invincible while we are on vacation? Perhaps this is a problem unique to me but it's one of the reasons Mr. R. goes into cold sweats when I plan a big trip. Another reason is his disdain for the "undressing drama" we must endure for airport security these days--but that's another story.

My first big foray into Vacation Euphoria was my first trip to Hawaii. I've wanted to go to Hawaii for as long as I can remember. I pictured myself riding the waves on a surfboard and swimming with dolphins--and nothing less would suffice. We hadn't been at our hotel for more than twelve hours before I had booked surfing lessons for Mr. R. and me and reserved my spot at Dolphin Quest on Oahu.

At the surf school, we watched the demonstration, chose our boards, and lathered up with sunscreen. Now, although I'm not what you would call "sporty", I've danced since I was four years old and I'm also a fair snowboarder. In my heightened sense of adventure, as the moment of riding those waves drew near, I decided I didn't need sunscreen on the backs of my legs. I thought, "I'm fairly coordinated. I can handle a snowboard and I have good balance, so I'll be standing on the board most of the time."

As a college graduate, you'd think I'd remember something about the reflection of UV rays on water, It also didn't occur to me for a minute that, if I rode the waves back to the shore, I'd have to paddle back out. On my stomach. With the backs of my pasty white legs to the sky.

I got out on those waves and I didn't do too bad. I got up, stayed up, and rode the waves back to shore over and over again. I loved every minute of it. Except for the minute I wiped out, rolled in the water as my instructor told me, and sliced the back of my knee on the vicious coral of Waikiki. Pain? Naaah. I'm on vacation. A little bleeding across the back of my leg? So what? I'm on VACATION!! Get back on that board and paddle out to sea for another wave!! WOOHOO!!

On the way back to the hotel, I remembered something I'd read about coral microbiology and I thought, "I should probably apply Neosporin and a Band-Aid to that wound on the back of my knee." And I did. And Mr. R. and I went to lunch. A big, long, expensive vacation lunch.

Around the time the entrees arrived at the table, I sensed a strange pulsing in my lower legs as though my veins wanted out of my body. "My legs feel hot," I told Mr. R. "I think I may have a sunburn." Then the snapping and popping started and I had to get out of my seat and walk around. "It feels like someone's snapping my skin with rubber bands!"
Oh, something was snapping alright. Little capillaries in my deep purple, sunburned legs. And that Band-Aid I'd applied? Melted. Melted by the heat of my sunburn and permanently adhered to my skin--that is, until I panicked that nothing I tried would get it off and I yanked it off, skin and all.

I'm on vacation. 

And don't think I didn't still go swim with those dolphins with a Band-Aid-sized chunk of skin missing off the back of my knee. I hardly even noticed the stinging. 

I had the best time in Hawaii. But I paid for it on the long flight home with my leg elevated and with an emergency visit to the dermatologist for an antibiotic shot. Now, whenever Mr. R. catches me about to plunge headfirst into an adventure without thinking it through, we look at each other and ask, "Is this another Band-Aid?"

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thankful Day and 19,000 Words To Go

Yesterday I did the grocery shopping for Thanksgiving dinner and the excitement of the upcoming holidays is tangible in my house. What a time to write a new novel in a month! Who decided that a short month with a major holiday should be National Novel Writing Month?  Yes, I know. Only I am to blame for the craziness that is my life. But, somehow, the craziness is what keeps me sane. I love waking up each morning with a challenge I enjoy and, believe me, writing a 50,000 word novel in a month is a challenge I enjoy.

With regards to thankfulness in writing, today I'm grateful for Mr. R. My wonderful husband took the kids on an outing to visit his work and to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey so I could have time to catch up on my word count. I'm thankful for my sweet daughter who enjoys talking over plot points with me when I get stuck. I'm thankful for the laughs my son gives me when he points at artificial pumpkins and calls them "fiction" because I told him that "fiction" means "not real". I am thankful for a writing blog that affords me a break when the emotional drama of my characters has exhausted me for the moment. I'm thankful for amazing critique partners who keep me motivated and whose insights always make me a better writer. I'm grateful for the many blogs of agents and authors who join together in a community of mentoring and support in the tough world of publishing.

Just to share an example of the amazing writers who help each other, the following is a link to a blog called "Miss Snark's First Victim". This post announces the completion of a writing contest on the blog called The Baker's Dozen, in which winners' entries will be reviewed by no less than 13 literary agents. When a contest participant whose entry wasn't accepted posted a comment that they were now going to give up on writing, a slew of writers came to the rescue in their comments. You have to read it for yourself. I promise it'll put you in the holiday spirit.

My thankful list here has to do with my writing life. I'm thankful for many other things as well. Things I will share over the dinner table tomorrow with my family.

What are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Day 9 (aka Dear Brain...)

I made it through my ninth day of writing a new novel with the goal of finishing 50,000 words by November 30th. I think the only thing left to do here is to write a letter to my brain.

Dear Brain,
I think it goes without saying that you know better than to arrive late for work. When I sit down at the computer, I expect you to be there with me...on time and prepared. Having corn chex for breakfast is no excuse. Eat your oatmeal if you must, but take naps when you are off the clock.

And may I remind you that this is November and you are not off the clock until December. When you give me that final 50,000th word, you can nap all you want and sing "All I Want For Christmas" on continuous loop.

First thing tomorrow I expect you to have solved that problem with the superfluous contagonist in Chapter 8. Does she have a reason to exist? Can we give her one or does she get the axe? I also want a motive for the antagonist and your little answer you gave me earlier of "He's just bad 'cause he wants to be" is not going to cut it.

That is all. I hope we don't have to revisit this again, Brain.

Until tomorrow,


Monday, November 14, 2011

A Novel in A Month...Day 7

Right about now, my fellow NaNoWriMo buddies who began on November 1st, should be nearing close to 23,000 words on their novels. Some of them have surpassed the mark and I applaud their momentum. I began seven days ago (the reason for that is long). I just finished word number 14,434 and had to take a break because my brain is mush and will not work on this story for me in the conscious realm anymore today. I'm going to mull some plot decisions around in my head while I eat a bowl of popcorn and watch a re-run of Frasier because that show never fails to make me laugh my head off.

I recently watched the episode called "The Seal Who Came To Dinner"--in which Niles finds a dead seal washed up on the beach behind Maris' beach house where he is hosting a high society dinner to compete for the "Golden Apron". In short, after all his attempts to prevent his guests from discovering the smelly carcass, Niles has wrapped the seal in his ex-wife's peignoir, doused it with her perfume, anchored it with a clapper lamp, and stabbed it repeatedly with a butcher knife to make it less bouyant so he can drag it back to sea. The neighbor calls the police because she believes she has witnessed Niles killing his wife. Niles, with butcher knife in hand, makes it worse when he tries to hide the whole thing so nothing will upstage his fancy dinner. The actors on that show have the best comedic timing I've ever seen.

Great diversion. Great way to let my subconscious work on the plot turns in my NaNoWriMo novel. Since it's November and we are nearing Thanksgiving, I will add something to my thankful list. I'm grateful for Netflix.

Here is what I learned as I wrote 3,264 words today...yes, another list. (I think they are easier to read.)

1. Villains show up in the most unusual places
2. Characters you thought were antagonists can turn out to be allies
3. Fantasy worlds have a way of changing on you, evolving, morphing--even when you don't want them to. For heaven's sakes! I created this world, why won't it behave itself and do what I say!
4. I hate the word "there". There is no place in which there is a reason for there to be useful in my novel over there. Okay, I made that sentence as awful as possible to prove my point.
5. I love researching other cultures but it means I take all day to write 3,264 words.

Off to my bowl of popcorn and some laughs. Maybe I'll treat you with another Frasier synopsis tomorrow.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Writing A Novel In Less Than A Month

I've officially signed up as a participant in NaNoWriMo--which is code for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words for your novel in the month of November. I was still rewriting my middle grade fantasy novel when NaNoWriMo began, but I pushed myself to finish that and I began a new novel on November 8th.

But I can do this.

And I'm enjoying the challenge. I've embedded a word count calendar on this blog so anyone who's interested can track my progress. I'm averaging a little more than 2,000 words per day and, at that rate, I'm on track to reach 50,000 words before the end of November.

What do I like about writing a novel within such a tight time frame?

I love how alive the characters and setting become. I love how quickly the plot snaps into place and how subplots carry through and make sense. I wrote chapter one only two days ago, so today, as I write chapter six, I remember the character motivations and to pick up those subplot threads.

What do I dislike about writing a novel within such a tight time frame?

Nothing (except maybe some neck fatigue from looking at my computer all day.)

What is different about my life because I'm writing a novel in a month?

It's hard to stop typing and get out of my pajamas and take a shower. I actually picked up my son from kindergarten in my pajamas this week (a definite change for me). To my dismay, and to his delight, I had to go inside to get him. He laughed himself to hysterics and notified all students and teachers within earshot, "My mom is wearing her pajamas!

I think about the plot of my novel while I do everything else and my head is swimming with details from my research. This novel has looms and weaving and Andean farming practices mixed with an organic magic system and an oppressive society. So, I'm sure I have a vacant expression on occasion.

I enjoy my quality time with my children and am much more relaxed with them. When your brain hurts--reading simple picture books and playing Legos with a six-year-old is like a spa day.

To all you NaNoWriMo participants out there:
Write on! I hope you are enjoying the rigorous journey. Check back in a few days when I will have hit the middle of my novel--you know, uncooperative characters, lagging scenes where nothing important happens, subplots that went trailing down a tunnel to nowhere... Are any of you there yet?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Making Time and Prickly Burrs

People ask me, "How do you have time to write a novel and rewrite that novel and write another one?"

I make time.

I carve it out of time I would've spent doing less productive things. I give up television and movies and the obsession of an immaculate home. I sometimes give up sleep.

And I do the most important stuff first.

Everyone has good and bad days--I sure do. But, today was a good one in which the most important stuff happened and so everything else worked too. After two hours of writing, I took my son to the park. We were the only ones there and had sole possession of the playset. We climbed, we spun on the tire swing, I provided plenty of "underdogs", we ran laps on the trail, and we broke open the prickly burrs from the chestnut tree.

When my daughter came home from school she had some concerns about her day. We talked in the kitchen, we cuddled on the couch and we laughed through the tears. I helped her with a costume and her musical audition piece.

I didn't clean a toilet today, nor did I make cookies. I didn't pay much attention to the animals (although the kids fed the cats and apparently Mr. R had a chicken wander into the garage to keep him company while he worked on his bike.) I didn't wash a dish (although, thanks to my sweet Mr R, the kitchen is actually clean right now.)

I drove to Irish dance, had to get a jump for my car when the battery died, drove a child to a playdate, and actually made dinner. And after my son and I discovered those prickly burrs and made a collection of leaves, I buckled myself to my laptop at home and wrote over 3000 words on my novel.

Time to write...check. Time to

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Way I Think

At yet another delightful meeting with my critique group, we embarked on an interesting discussion about understanding the way our characters think. I have to give credit to my brilliant and beautiful critique partner, Kate, for her insight on this. Knowing how a character thinks about life, their surroundings, and their experiences gives us a much greater understanding of that character than simply what they think. For example, a character may live their life by lists, they may see words and names in color (synesthesia), they may measure everything they do against the unrealistic expectations of a parent, etc.

The protagonist in my middle grade fantasy makes mental lists and she views her experiences through the filter of her water phobia. Her fear of water is so great that she attaches herself to solid ground and to land in all her observations. She notices plants, colors, and sounds on dry land much more completely than she does when she observes the ocean. Her observations of the ocean, and anything related to it, are always skewed by her fear. Understanding the way my protagonist thinks helps me to show her with much more truth in the story than if I simply told the reader what she thinks.

So, I've decided as an exercise for my own writing, and even for self-discovery, to evaluate how I think. Frightening, I know.

I make lists. Surprise, surprise. Perhaps that's why it was attractive to me to write a character who does the same.

I see the months of the year as having a precise location in space. This is actually a form of synesthesia called spacial-sequence or number form synesthesia. I think of the months of the year as having a place in a circle in front of me. But the circle doesn't connect. January through May is a long line on the bottom. (Perhaps I think nothing much interesting happens in those months. They seem to stretch on forever until my husband's birthday on May 26th. Then, we celebrate his birthday, have Memorial Day, and blessed summer vacation is upon us.) June, July and August form a tight curve at the top of the circle. (They are on top because summer is hot and too-short.) September through December curve from one o'clock to five o'clock position in front of me. (This is my favorite time of year and takes up more space in my circle of months than the summer months do, but not as much space as the stretch of January through May.) For more information on different forms of synesthesia, click here.

I think in terms of what I can't give up. Perhaps as a result of my perfectionist thinking, I can't stand quitting anything and so I'm careful what I start. Once I start something with an end goal in mind, quitting isn't an option. This goes for deciding to certify as an aerobics instructor, getting on the BYU Folk Dance Team, landing a lead role in a musical, being in a movie, learning to sew so I can make my daughter a Rennaissance dress and cape for Halloween, buying a house, publishing a novel, and being a good mom. I've achieved everything on the above list except for the last two and those are a constant work in progress. I envision the end goal, I work on it, and I don't let myself quit. The problem with this aspect of the way I think is I have a hard time letting go and I often run myself ragged. I cried on my daughter's last day of Preschool and on the day we told her piano teacher we were going to take a break from piano for awhile. This way of thinking is also something I have to keep in check so I don't impose unrealistic expectations on my children. I am teaching them to finish what they start, to go after their goals, and to follow through, while trying to encourage them to make their own decisions.

So, at the risk of revealing too much, and before I hit delete (since I can't take the time to write a blog post and then not post it because that would be quitting on my idea...ha ha), I'm going to hurry and hit publish.

I'm curious--not necessarily what you think about this, but how you think...comments?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Click here to see imagination at work. Watch the video of children reading this new picture book by Herve Tullet (Chronicle Books).

It'll make you smile.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Creative Distraction

Everyone has heard about writer's block.  I always imagined writer's block as the dilemma of staring at the blank page without a clue of what to write. According to that definition, I am a stranger to writer's block. My brain is always swimming with another idea. However, I do know something of creative block--that insane and maddening sense that however brilliant the idea, I lack the creativity to get the story told in a brilliant way. Does it need to be brilliant? Probably not. Do I want it to be? Truthfully, yes.

As a writer, I have the most demanding boss in the world. Myself. And I recently discovered the secret to busting creative block.

Creative distraction.

What do we write about anyway? Fiction writers may create their own plots, characters, and even settings, but they create them from life. So, I recently decided to give the laptop and a particular fantasy novel a rest while I pursued some creative distraction. Yes, I even ignored my goal to write to a word count for an entire week. It's amazing how a new goal, with an entirely different creative focus, has the power to free up those brain cells. I decided I hadn't spent enough time with the piano in...well...years.  And I found a song, a fairly challenging one for me, that I wanted to learn to play.  Play well.  Memorized.

I found a refreshing enthusiasm for accomplishing hard things by spending a few rigorous hours practicing the piano--a few rigorous hours for a few days. And I also took time to make S'mores over a bonfire, watch the sunset, and have a "Just Dance" competition with over twenty people in my basement. When I returned to my writing, I found two more ideas for picture book manuscripts waiting in the now relaxed creative corners of my brain.  I found the solutions to the problems I was having with a work in progress and I prepared three manuscripts for submission.

The ideas and the answers are in there. Sometimes, a creative distraction is needed to allow them to break free. And, in case you were wondering about that piano piece--"Dancing on the Berlin Wall" by David Lanz.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How Much Is Too Much?

Writers love words, that is why we write.  So, it follows that one of the writer's most difficult tasks is to learn how to apply the "less is more" theory.  It is so easy to get caught up in language. I create what I consider a clever phrase and fall madly in love with it.  It is difficult to cut it, even when it becomes painfully obvious the phrase does not match the story's tone, voice, or it simply isn't necessary.

I heard author Clint Johnson at LTUE talk about streamlining fiction. He said,
"Authors tend to be self-indulgent; we get wrapped up in our own supposed brilliance. If you want to be paid for being read, you must not make people wade through your own showing off to get to the story."

Kathleen Duey at WIFYR 2011 called it "every little blade of grass". Inexperienced writers will describe every detail until their readers are so encumbered with unimportant business that the story drags.  Editors do not have time to wade through such writing indulgence, and they won't.

This is good advice but difficult to apply when those precious words are your own.  I can easily spot such word indulgence--using two words to say sort of what I want instead of using one word to say exactly what I mean or the use of modifiers because I didn't use the right verb or noun to begin with.  This is micro-streamlining.  But macro-streamlining, the plot-related kind in which entire scenes need to be re-evaluated for their necessity, is more painful.  Does every scene move the story forward?  Can two scenes that serve the same purpose be combined?  Is this scene self-indulgent or is it crucial to move me inexorably toward my climax?

My secret to macro-streamlining is in the re-write.  I have revised many times and I have found it difficult to identify with total honesty those unnecessary sub-plots and indulgent scenes.  Since I have decided to re-write my fantasy novel in the first person, the necessary scenes have come into sharp focus and the unnecessary ones have fallen to the background. Trimming the excess has only made it stronger. 

I am off to re-write another chapter.    

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Characters Who Want Things

What do you do when your character is too resigned or weak?  She may want things, but she doesn't want them enough.  Readers don't want to read in the head of someone who does not want something.  Wanting chocolate enough to complain about it doesn't count, unless the character is traveling to the world of the damned to trade her soul for the alchemist's ring, granting her the skill to turn anything she wants into chocolate.  I know, that was terrible.

Sol Stein suggests an imagined scene--played out in the head of the author--in which the resigned character, the one who doesn't want things, sits calmly in the room as the door slams open.  Imagine another character storming into the room. She looks like the first character, they have the same name, but that is where the similarities end.  The new character tells the resigned one to take her sorry self out of the story and orders the author, "Listen up!  I have something to tell you!"  This new character is in charge.  She wants things with a passion of which the old character never dreamed.  She will find a way to get what she wants and she'll tell the author all about it, if the author will listen.  Good fiction is not passive.  To write good fiction, we must rid ourselves of characters who de-energize the work.

Another way to write a character who will drive the story is to discover what she wants through dialogue.  Interview her and ask her questions about herself, her family, her friends, her greatest fear, and her greatest desires.  What does she want more than anything else and what is she willing to do to get it?

Stein also suggests composing a letter--from the new character to the author.  A letter that is candid, bold, and a touch eccentric.  In the letter, the character should reveal to the author something the author doesn't already know.  As odd as it sounds to write yourself a letter, as your character, it is a surprising and powerful writing exercise.  One that may answer questions about your plot.

How do you flesh out the personalities and wants of your characters?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

WIFYR 2011

I just finished an intense week of critiquing, writing, participating in a fantasy class with author Holly Black, networking, and hilarity!  A week in which I got no sleep.  The Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers conference was everything I hoped it would be.  I will now write a text-heavy post detailing all the knowledge gems I acquired. Naaah! Kidding! To make it interesting, here it is in the style of my middle-grade protagonist.

Things I Learned At WIFYR 2011:
  1. Holly Black wears awesome shoes.
  2. I was using a lot more passive verbs than I was thinking and I was horrified when they were circled all over my manuscript.  Baaah!  I know better!!
  3. Editors and agents may tell hilarious stories from the publishing world if invited to sit on a faerie picnic blanket and have a cupcake.
  4. Revising means rewriting.
  5. Rewriting a 356 page novel into the first person narrative does not make me crazy! It does not make me crazy, it does not make me crazy...okay, shut up.
  6. The nine non-commandments of The Church of Satan can actually improve my understanding of how to write antagonists ('ll have to ask me about that one later).
  7. Other people love to write as much as I do.
  8. Writing a great plot doesn't make you qualified to explain it in person to an editor.  "And then this happens, and then this happens, oh yeah, but before that she meets..."  It's like trying to tell someone what a car is by saying,"Well, there are some wheels, and a fan, and it comes in lots of colors, and you can sit in it, oh yeah, and you pour gasoline into it..." (Rick Walton and I perfected that one in the hallway.)
  9. Critiquing other authors' manuscripts is the best way to learn how to critique my own.
  10. Seeing a sample cover of my own novel is enough to make me giddy with get-back-to-work glee.
  11. Magic systems and world building are much more complicated than I thought--but I get it now.
  12. Writing skill is no respecter of age--this is something I already knew, but it was fun to meet a successful author who is younger than my sisters.
  13. Such a conference is worth its weight in gold.
And I will end on that with lovely number thirteen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

David Holt, Master Storyteller and Musician

Four-time Grammy winner, musician, storyteller, David Holt
David Holt--Grammy award winner, professional storyteller, folk musician--has mastered the skill all children's writers seek.  He knows how to inspire children, captivate them, and leave them begging for more.  If I could harness the literary equivalent of David Holt--simultaneously playing the banjo and the harmonica, flat-foot tapping, and singing the catchy tune of a knee-slapping folk song--well, I'd have a best-seller. 

If you haven't had the pleasure of seeing David Holt live, or at least hearing his music, check out his website.  You can learn about his shows, appearances, storytelling, and the history of Southern mountain music.  He even has a video on how to play the spoons! And, if you are looking for some fun music that will put you in touch with your inner child, try "Blackeyed Susie", "I Got A Bullfrog", and "Ain't No Bugs On Me".

The storytelling, exaggeration, repetition, and rhythm of such folk songs are great reminders of what children love to hear when stories are read aloud to them.  I love when another medium inspires me to write.  Have you seen anything that inspired you lately?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Three Things

As promised in the previous post about first lines, here are the elements I think make a first line work.  First, do I get a sense of who the character is from the first line?  I am looking for hints and clues of personality, demeanor, stress or tension, anything that gives me the feeling that, although I am reading a work of fiction, this character is believable and real.  Second, do I get a sense of conflict?  The first line does not have to describe a life or death struggle at its most critical moment.  It could be internal struggle.  It could be a sense of inevitable conflict that I know must soon unfold because of the personality, demeanor, stress, or tension I detected about the character.  Third, am I filled with questions after that first line?  Not questions like, "What is this person talking about?  It makes no sense!"  But, rather, questions like, "Why is the character happy they are imprisoned?" or "What does the character fear will happen to her father if she tells her secret?" 

If the first line intrigues me with an interesting character, sparks my curiosity about a conflict that character faces, and leaves me with questions I must have answered, I will read the next line of the story.  And if each paragraph unfolds more of the same three elements, I will read the entire novel.

How about you?  What first lines have you read and loved?  No posting bad ones here unless they are your own and you want to laugh about it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Oh, That First Line!

This post is about first lines and hooking the reader, but it is also about editing.  I am in the middle of the fourth major rewrite of the beginning of my middle grade fantasy novel.  Each time I rewrite it, I get a little further with the level of response I receive from agents and editors who see it.  That alone should spark my enthusiasm for sitting in my chair and getting it done.  Right? 

During all these rewrites, among seven other revisions I have completed on the entire novel, I have made a study of beginnings and first lines.  Chersti Nieveen is conducting a first line contest on her blog and, for all you writers out there, you have two more days to participate.  The winners have opportunities for a valuable query critique with literary agent Mary Kole or a five page critique from author Martine Leavitt.  You can find the contest details here.

I heard a Random House editor and a literary agent speak about first lines at an SCBWI conference, and my favorite no-no example was, "She stood there." 

Wow.  I am amazed at how much this first line does not  work.

Who is she--this elusive main character that must be so important to the story that the author chose to begin the story about her?  Why do we care about this faceless she?  The author hasn't given us anything of the character to interest the reader. 

Next: the verb.  Stood.  Okay, this verb works when it needs to, but not here.  We have no conflict--nothing exciting, nothing intriguing, nothing of concern.  Stood is so plain and passive.  Now, if the character decided to simply stand and it showed defiance or meant she was risking something by standing, then we have something to work with.  Not all first lines have to be fraught with peril, but they must peak the reader's curiosity. 

Finally: there.  Again, we have no clear picture in our minds of what is happening, where it is happening, to whom, and why we should care.

As I have read first lines of published fiction as well as first lines of other writers' works-in-progress, I look for three things.  This post is getting long, so check back on Thursday for the three things.  What three things do you look for as a reader?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Character Names With a Twist

Character names carry such weight in a story's perception.  I mean, can you imagine if Wilbur's friend, the remarkable spider who weaves webs in the barnyard, was called Helen?  Or, what if the pig, whose life she saves, was named Dillon?  No offense meant to all you Helens and Dillons out there--but you don't have names that fit E.B. White's classic tale.  You probably don't mind, do you?  I grew up with a Charlotte who loved her name but didn't enjoy its connection with the literary arachnid. 
I have been working on a children's picture book and the starring characters are two cats.  Since character names, whether human, mermaid, pixie, or animal are so important, I researched cat names on some pet websites.  Wow!  As a pet owner still new to the world of cats, I was amazed at the different culture of cat-naming compared with dog-naming.  Here are a few of the side-splitting favorites:
Mista Meanor
Mighty Moe
Maizie Alice Skippypaws favorite...Wilfred Pudding.

You can check out more here. When we got our first kittens last spring, we named them on the side of conservative--Patch and Milo.  Had I considered the potential to be...well...amusing, we might have dug deeper.  So, I made up for it with delicious and fun names for the cats in my story.  I'll tell you what they are when I get ten comments on this post.