Thursday, July 26, 2012

To Blog or Not To Blog

So, I'm writing. Well, yeah, right now, clearly. But I mean writing like WRITING-writing. Book writing. Which means that, when I sit down at the computer, I look at the screen and:
1. Do a million other things that aren't writing my book.
2. Write my book.

But, I haven't been able to keep up with the blog that I have so diligently been working on because I feel like I don't have the words to do it. Or, if I do have the words, I should be putting them into the perpetually open, glaring-at-me Word Document at the bottom of my screen.

Posting this makes me kind of feel like I'm cheating on my book.Does that make sense?

The other struggle I'm having is that, honestly, I don't have a lot to say. I look at other people's posts and I'm like...Wow, that's so insightful and interesting and provocotive...Now, what am I going to talk about? I just downloaded an App that has about 28 different Meow's on it with pictures of the cooresponding cat. It works like a touch-screen Cat calculator.

Remember what I said earlier about a million other things that weren't writing...? Yeah. That.

Anyway, so I don't know what's better -- to post something silly? To not post at all? What do you think?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Radio Silence

This is what happens when I'm really, really writing, as opposed to the partial half-writing that I so often have to resort to -- radio silence. While I want to blog and I'd like to blog, I feel like I'm cheating on my MS when I do. So, there's that.

Regardless, in my procrastination, I came across Janet Reid's blog, as I so often do, and I saw something brilliant there, which I so often do. And I wanted to share it with you.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Road Trip Wednesday: When you need creative inspiration, where do you go?

The other day a friend asked me where I write.

"In bed..." I said sheepishly.
"WHAT?!" She was astounded. I tried to qualify my answer.
"Not, like, under the covers or anything -- just, on the bed itself."

"But...why?" she asked.

And I told her the truth - "Because that's where the magic happens."

(Get your minds out of the gutter -- not THAT magic.)

My bedroom has three windows, two facing northeast and one facing north. At most times of the day, I have significant natural light. That light, for whatever reason, energizes me. That light inspires me to write. I've tried writing at a desk, the dining room table, my living room -- but in my bedroom, on my bed, facing those windows, I'm like the author equivalent of a solar panel. I'm recharged.
However, there are rainy days. There are nights. There are times when even the perfect natural light can't spark a single sentence. On those days, I have a few things I turn to that work wonders for my writing.

1. Other YA books I admire. I am a re-reader. Some people are, some people aren't. I have always been this way, ever since I read and fell in love with Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. I adored the book. My copy, probably 20 years old now, is so worn and water warped (from being dropped in the bathtub) that it's sort of silly that I haven't bought another. As an adult and as a YA writer, I have other books I turn to -- Teach Me by RA Nelson, Please Ignore Vera Dietz by AS King, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher...the list could go on.

2. Poetry. I started out my writing life as a poet -- my MFA is in poetry and it is, in all ways, my first true form of expression. Sometimes, when I need to tap into emotions I can't access in my writing, I turn to some of my favorite poets to inspire my words -- Shara McCallum, Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dobyns, Li-Young Lee, and others. In fact, Li-Young Lee gave me my absolute favorite book autograph of all time:
City to City, Interior to Interior, My heart to yours. Li-Young Lee.
 How much does that rock???

3. Cooking. It's what I create when I can't create words. I'm actually more of a baker than anything else, which is funny since I am far from exacting and not exactly science-inclined. But baking soothes me. It can be something easy, like boxed brownies, or something more complex, like the four-layer German Chocolate Cake with Pecan-Coconut Filling I made last week. Baking allows me to refuel and still feel a sense of accomplishment.

How about you? How do you get inspired?

Copy Edits and the Women Who Love Them

I know it doesn't sound like something to love, but copy edits on your manuscript are, in fact, a huge blessing. As an English teacher, I like to think I know a lot about grammar and punctuation. As a YA writer, however, I can see that I don't know diddly. Well, maybe not diddly. Maybe I just don't know squat.

Regardless, getting copy edits back is not something to fear or dread. They are the greatest gift. First of all, they are corrections MADE FOR YOU. You don't have to go through your MS for the thousandth time and find the things you missed the first 999 times. For example, you know what I spelled wrong about a dozen times in my MS -- interview. I left out the second "i." I never caught it. My editor never caught it. Can you imagine the embarassment we'd have felt if a copy editor hadn't seen it?

I've taken some pictures below so that you can see what copy edits look like. My pictures aren't too specific because I don't want to violate any agreement I have with my publisher. I took some close-up shots of different things so you can get an idea of what they look like.

1. The Edited Manuscript

This is what you can expect to receive when you get your MS back -- the MS, obviously, and a letter of some sort explaining the expectations for you, the author. In my case, I needed to go through all changes and either check them off (approve them) or write STET. STET is editor's speak for "keep as is." Authors should never write on the copy edited MS in pen -- this version will go back to the editor for the typesetting and final changes.

2. Editorial Marks

In my case, there were two different copy editors going over the MS -- they used red and green pens so I could tell them apart. My editor also went back through with a couple of comments/requests -- she wrote in pencil.

3. Copy Editor's marks/Author's Response

This is a pretty basic example of how the copy editor will "code" questions to the author -- with an "AU." In this case, it was a suggested word change, which I agreed with.

To be honest, I pretty much agreed with all the changes the copy editors and my editor made. When they asked for options, I put on large, lined sticky notes and listed some different alternatives. I never wrote STET. I didn't need to.

For the most part, I am comfortable knowing that my work is now better for having been edited. I know that isn't everyone's experience. What about you? 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

SCBWI MD/DE/WV Conference: An Overview

I spent the day today at the SCBWI MD/DE/WV regional conference. It's actually a two-day event, but I was only able to go to one day. That being said, though, I think I picked the right day to attend. I heard some amazing presentations by some kick-ass authors/agents/editors.

The conference theme was "Kindling the Imagination" and began with a presentation by author, Bobbie Pyron entitled "My Life as a Dog: A Year of Magical Thinking." Bobbie discussed writing her book, A Dog's Way Home, and talked about living as dogs do -- in the moment and through the senses. I think this is excellent advice -- especially for writers like me who sometimes get bogged down with logistics. Your reader does care about accuracy, but they also want to see an immediacy. As Bobbie read excerpts from her book, I really felt the voice of the dog, even though the dog never actually talked. Very cool

I attended three break-out sessions. The first was with Molly Jaffa from Folio Literary Management -- her presentation was about opening pages. More specifically, Molly focused on establishing stakes. You need to be invested in your characters. So do your readers. High Stakes + Caring about Characters = Higher Stakes, according to Molly. She mentioned a few books that she felt exhibited these kind of high stakes - The Fault of Our Stars by John Green, Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt, and AS King's Ask the Passengers. She also warned against beginning with a prologue that "fakes out" the audience and begins them with a scene that doesn't appear until later in the book.

My second session was with Stacey Barney, Editor at Penguin/Putnam . Stacey's session was called "How to Get an Editor to Fall in Love with Your Manuscript." She focused on a variety of different devices writers can employ to make their writing lovable. The biggest/longest discussion seemed to be about voice. She emphasized that a first person narrator needed to be authentic, while a third person narrator required intimacy without intrusion.

The last session was the editor's panel discussion -- the editors included Stacy Barney (above), Mary Kate Castellani (my editor!!!) from Walker/Bloomsbury USA, Rotem Moscovich from Disney/Hyperion, and Christine Peterson from Capstone, a non-fiction publisher. I have to be honest -- the questions that were asked weren't particularly helpful. I mean, we had four successful editors in front of us and people were asking if they should personalize query letters. I just felt that the time could have been better spent -- that kind of question can easily be answered through a google search.

Regardless, though, I am glad I went -- not only was I able to reconnect with some friends from last year, but I learned a great deal from the presenters. It reminded me that, no matter where you are in the publishing process, you can always use some extra tips to polish up that manuscript.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Road Trip Wednesday: Lights! Camera! Action!

Today's Road Trip Wednesday over at YA Highway is about movies: more specifically - What movie have you seen that actually (gasp!) improved on the book?

I took all day to think about this. Yeah, really -- I know, I probably should have been writing. But, honestly, I feel like it matters when you say that something written is better when it's not written anymore and is, rather, acted out. I looked at my bookshelves a few times today. I thought about some of my favorite movies and books. Here's what I came up with:

1. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club (the book) is a character piece. In some cases, character-driven books are best as books. For me, Fight club came alive as a movie. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt embody their roles with total commitment and, which the book itself might be a bit more poetic, the movie is a visual masterpiece. I am not going to mention the obvious -- that Brad Pitt is freakin' fine. Okay, there, I mentioned it.

2. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw / My Fair Lady

I know, I know. This is technically a play. I can't help it, though. While the play is phenomenal, I, frankly, wouldn't give two shits about it if it weren't for My Fair Lady. I ADORE this movie. It was my favorite growing up. It's still in my top ten. Rex Harrison is both sexy and loathsome and Audrey Hepburn is, well, Audrey Hepburn. Love Love Love Love.

3. And my tie - my favorite book and my not-quite-but-almost favorite movie

I love this book -- when I'm looking for something to remind me how to craft interesting prose, I always turn to Bram Stoker. He was working the multi-genre angle when the Bronte sisters were still plotting paragraphs. Don't get me wrong, I have the utmost respect from Stoker's female counterparts -- but Stoker knew how to make a book move. Pacing was his forte. Similarly, Coppola's film version is beautifully paced and extremely evocative. Even with Keanu in it.

And, with that, I leave you with a question and a reality. The question - what is your favorite book-to-film adaptation? The reality - Francis Ford Coppola is a total gangsta and he was sexualizing vampires when Stephanie Meyer was still in diapers. ;)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Fifty Shades of Flour: A Baker's Manifesto/Book Review

Any chef/cook/mother worth their salt knows that "all purpose flour" isn't necessarily best for all purposes. There is flour with higher gluten for bread baking. There is cake flour, which adds leavening agents. There's flour from different grains - i.e. wheat, corn, rice, oat, quinoa, spelt, etc. etc.

But all-purpose flour, for the most part, will work in all recipes. Hence, all purposes. But, by work, I mean that the cake will be a cake and the bread will be bread -- they might not be the BEST cake or BEST bread, but they'll fill the role.

Which brings me to Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James.

I feel very well-equipped to comment on Fifty Shades (FSOG from here on in) because I've read it. I've read it twice, actually. And I read the second book, too.

I read them for one reason. Unless it's YA-related, I don't usually jump on book fads.  I read FSOG because a friend of mine who does not read for entertainment decided to read it. That friend is also a very successful National Director of a romance-related in-home party company. Yes, she sells sex toys, among various other things.

So I read it once - quickly - and read the second one. Then I waited a month or so and read the first one again. And then I baked a German Chocolate Cake with Pecan/Coconut Filling. From scratch.

Baking and reading and sex - they're all things people do for pleasure, hopefully. In the end, FSOG is intended to be pleasurable. James discusses a certain type of sexual relationship, that of dominant and submissive characters. But, in the end, it's also about love, just like everything else.

I've given FSOG a lot of thought and I think I/you/people need to wear a lot of different hats when thinking about it as a text. Here's what I've managed to come up with:

From a reader's perspective:

1. I like that James jumps right in to establish a relationship between the main characters. We immediately feel their chemistry, and that's what drives the book. It's what makes you want to read it - want to see what happens in the end.

2. I like that James didn't shy away from stereotypes and didn't make apologies. The girl is an ingenue, the man is controlling -- in a lot of ways it feels like an adult "Twilight." I realize a lot of people have said that.

From a writer's perspective:

1. The pacing is the best part about the book. Pacing isn't easy -- it's a skill. James has it.

2. The writing isn't bad, it's lazy. When I got the phrase, "pedal to the metal" in the first page or two, I knew what I was dealing with -- it's a genre book. It's VERY not different from what I like to call grocery store books -- it's nothing against them, that's just where they're sold.

3. Sometimes it's not about craft, it's just about story -- and not story telling, just the story itself. That's what FSOG is -- consider it Legally Blonde 2: forward momentum of a story that has a successful formula. It may or may not be good -- doesn't really matter when an audience loves a premise.

From a woman's perspective:

1. I consider myself a feminist. I took a lot of women's studies classes in college. I continue to subscribe to emails from both NOW and FMF. I am not offended by this book. There's a girl. She likes a guy. She was a virgin. Now she's not. They both consent to something that's a little different than what the mainstream is used to; it's also something that millions of people were doing before this book.

2. Between you and me, I think that people are making this book sound a lot worst than it is. Young girl getting seduced by an older man? Well, she's 21 and he's 27. SCANDAL!!!!!!!!! He's a dominant who beats her? Um, well, no -- and that's about as specific as I get on this family friendly blog.

From a baker's perspective:

1. If I want cake, I'll use cake flour.

2. If I want muffins, I'll used bran flour.

3. If I want to read a steamy romance, I'll read FSOG. If I want to read something with more academic merit, or something well-crafted, or something that doesn't mention spanking, then I won't.

Here's the thing -- FSOG serves a purpose. Is it all-purpose? No, of course not. There are niches to be filled. I was listening to Midday with Dan Rodricks on NPR the other day and his guests were discussing this book and the resulting hoopla. A woman called in and said the most interesting thing I've heard since first learning about FSOG -- she said that women she talked to were reading it and enjoying it because of the "giving up control" factor. These were women who worked, ran households, raised children, etc. They liked reading about a life where you didn't have to be in control, where life was taken care of for you.

So, see? FSOG is a fantasy -- just like Lord of the Rings. Well, except for a few key details.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Do as Tim Gunn would do...

and "make it work."

Lots of my friends ask me how I manage to find time to write, or how I'm able to balance it all. I'm married, I have a four year-old, I have a full time job teaching, I teach part time for MSDE, I have a cupcake company (Dolce Fiore Cupcakes) that does weddings, and I write. I also like breathing once in a while.

This is NOT intended to sound like I'm bragging. If anything, it's to expose one of my short-comings, which is balance. You'd think, as a Libra, that I'd be better at that. But my scales are always tipping to either bored or overwhelmed. And I'd rather be overwhelmed, personally.

My writer friends never ask me how I balance it all -- this is because, like me, my writer friends are already balancing. It's what we do. It's what we have to do.

A similar question I get a lot is, "You've got so much on your plate. Shouldn't you put off the writing thing until Max is in school/life slows down/the apocolypse?"

And, to that, I say no. Why? Because I have to write. In fact, I have very little choice in the matter.

When I had my son, I suffered from post-partum depression. I'd had issues with anxiety before, but this was a whole other animal. Part of it was due to a trauma during childbirth that prevents me from delivering more children. But a lot of it was because, by nature, I like to be busy and productive. In some ways, there is nothing less productive, less goal oriented, less satisfied than an infant. I've said a million times that I would adopt a dozen kids if they were sixteen -- there's a reason why I teach high school.

I love my son. I wouldn't change a thing about him or my life. But when he was six weeks old, I packed a bag to leave. My mom was staying with me and she talked me back from my ledge. The thought was there, though. I wanted to run away, run back in time, and try to find myself again. I felt completely changed and unable to grasp who I was.

So I started to write.

I hadn't written in years -- and when I had, it had been poetry, not fiction. Writing a novel gave me a chance to focus on something that wasn't me, wasn't a baby, wasn't my life. It gave me a place to run to.

Writing saved my life. Writing helped me be a mother. Writing gave me back an identity. So, should I put it off? Should I wait until I have more time? Not in a million years.

Sometimes I think writing takes me away from other things -- like right now, when my son is bouncing around and I could be bouncing, too. But, honestly, even if it takes me away to my own worlds now and then, it brought me back to life in ways I can't possibly verbalize. It made me wake up in the morning. It made me dream.

So, no. I'll always be writing because my family deserves to have me here. And I deserve to be happy. I make it work -- just like everyone else I know does. It's what you do to make your dream reality.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Most Likely To Succeed

Thanks to YA Highway's Road Trip Wednesday, I've been compelled to think about...high school. Which isn't so much of a stretch, since I teach high school. And write about high school students. So, really, it's just another day.

Yesterday's topic was, "What yearbook superlative catagory would your character win?"

When I first started teaching high school, I was shocked to find out that they didn't have superlatives. WHAT??? No "Most Likely to Succeed"? No "Biggest Flirt"? It's like a high school right of passage! (I was thisclose to getting "Most Dramatic" but, alas, I didn't win.)

In TASTE TEST, my main character, Nora, probably wouldn't have won have superlative -- at least, not if life had remained status quo. Because she leaves and heads to a reality tv cooking show for teens (called Taste Test - hence the title :) ) I think it's possibly that she could have/would have gotten most changed. Nora goes from working the counter at her dad's BBQ stand in North Carolina to cooking for famous culinary figures at a prestigious academy. If that isn't a change, I don't know what is!

One thing I find interesting, though, is that other characters in my WIPs also probably wouldn't have won superlatives. Apparently, I write very "fly under the radar" type of characters. I'm not really sure what that means. :)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Great Expectations

The lovely ladies (all ladies, right?) at YA Highway are talking about first book sales vs. expectations today. Everyone's experience is different, that goes without saying. Here's mine:

It was late March 2011 when I found out from my agent that we were getting an offer, but it wasn't until June that the offer came through. It was announced on PM, I crowed my good news to the world, established a Twitter (so I could talk about my deal), and lived in a bubble of happy giddiness. I spoke to my editor for the first time on the phone and she was as awesome as I could have hoped.

And then I waited.

September 2011 - I got my first editorial letter. My original pub date was Winter 2013 (January/February/March), but it got bumped for Spring, which was fine with me.

Over the next few months, I worked on the edits. I waited for a contract (and $) until March of 2012. Just this past month, my final MS was accepted and went to copy editing.

I think that my time frame was actually kind of long when looking at other experiences. There were a lot of factors that influenced that. I had some of my own life issues to deal with and Bloomsbury/Walker is a smaller house. There are less of them to do a tremendous amount of work. I know my editor was working as hard as she possibly could to get everything perfect.

So did I mind waiting? Well, I'd be lying if I said that I never questioned or complained about the wait. But, honestly, I know that the time it took to make TASTE TEST what it is was time well spent. It it is far better than its former versions now that it's been looked over and edited and revised and primped and glossed. I'm incredibly proud of what it's become and that is due to the time it took to get it that way.

Publishing takes a long time. But I asked myself this question more than once -- is it worth the wait? OF COURSE IT IS. My book is going to be, like, real. With a cover. And pages. On shelves. Honestly, I think I'd wait forever for that.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Extreme Makeover: MS Edition

Write now/Right now is an interesting time. My Taste Test MS has been accepted by my editor and it's off to copy editing. I've talked to my agent a few times in the last few weeks about what our next move should be. First, we need to provide an option for my publisher to buy b/c, well, we have to contractually. But, I would want to even if we didn't. My editor was phenomenal and I'd love to continue working with her.

Looking for my next book has allowed me to come back to my first book, the book that got me writing YA in the first place. This book is many things to me -- a labor of love, sure. But it's also the land of opportunity. It's the book that garnered agent interest. The book that got me an agent. The book that defined this new writing life. It just didn't sell.

So, I broke it out and started reading it. And it was pretty bad. Not bad like unreadable. At it's core, it's still a good premise. But there were a lot of errors. It didn't capture the vernacular of a teenager. It just wasn't right. When I opened the document, I thought it would be to do some clean-up. Instead of Merry Maids, I became Ty Pennington.

But after I started to re-read, I realized that it really was fixable. It just needed a little buffing. Sometimes when we learn how to do something well, we look back at previous work and think it's not good enough to be revisited. But I want to encourage you -- if you have a MS that you love, but never sold or never read to another person, if you have a MS that didn't see the light of day...well, don't make it sit in a dark drawer forever. Consider bringing it back out, dusting it off and giving it a good polish. Just because a book didn't sell doesn't mean hope is lost. If you've got the motivation, why not give it another shot? If nothing else, it'll be better the next time you get it out again.

So where to begin?

Well, everyone is different in how they revise old work. But here is how I go about things --

1. Read the whole thing.

I'd love to tell you that I do a full read through before I make changes, but I don't. I jump right in there and start fixing things I find. If I had to read it without making those changes, I'd go batty -- and I'd forget all the things I want to fix. But you need to read the whole thing, even if you get to a part that you feel is unfixable.

2. Read it like a book.

If it's been long enough that if feels like you're reading something that isn't your own writing, that's pretty good. It's been about 18 months since I've looked at this old MS and, while I remember writing it, there are lots of surprises I've forgotten about. It's actually really exciting to do this. I can sort of pretend that it's a book-book (esp. since I put it on the iPad, which lets me read it the same way I read my iBooks.)

3. Cut yourself some slack.

Chances are, since writing experience is cumulative, you are a better writer now than you were when you wrote your old MS. When you read it, don't panic that it's destined for the recycle bin. Give yourself a chance to read it. Really read it. Change it, work on it, do what you will. Make it what you want it to be. And if you still can't manage to make it "right," then put it back in the drawer for another time.

4. Stay in it for the long haul.

Seriously. If you've been in the writing game for longer than a minute, you've learned that this is a slow business. Your book won't combust when you put it away - if you feel overwhelmed trying to fix it now, maybe it isn't the right time. Maybe it needs more work. My agent told me a story the other day about the painter, Rembrandt. Apparently, he used to sneak into galleries and work on his paintings while they were hung on display. And isn't that they way it goes? Michael Waters, a professor of mine, once told me that poems aren't finished, they're abandoned. I feel that way about all writing. But the good news is you can always come back as long as the work is still in your hands.

Do you have something you've put away that you'd like to come back to? Or any advice for me as I complete my MS makeover?