Guest Blog on STET!

I am proud to be guest blogging on Backspace’s awesome blog STET!

I’m addressing how our manuscripts are like our children, and how we can channel those protective maternal/paternal feelings into productive actions.

Come visit! I’ll be there through Wednesday!

The Best Laid Plans

In an earlier post about juggling multiple projects, I said the switching back and forth every other day between two stories was working for me.

Not so much anymore.

I’ve put the middle grade on the back burner and have focused on the YA fantasy for the past week. I tried to figure out what it was that disrupted my lovely balancing act. Part of the reason is that I have always preferred focusing on a single project to completion before starting another—that allows me to immerse myself in the details of the project in a visceral way. I can live, breathe, and dream it.

The other part, the “craft” part, is that I am in two very different stages in the manuscripts. In the middle grade, I am writing what is essentially a heavily revised first draft. The YA is in its fourth major revision, and is getting close to being query-ready. So while I needed to plot, character, and write from scratch in one manuscript, in the other I needed to search for –ing words and other grammar issues, as well as incorporate the latest feedback from my wonderful beta readers.

Of course, I certainly could have chosen to continue bouncing between the two. I have often juggled more than one project in my video editing life and created products the clients loved. But, because I did not have deadlines to meet, I chose to focus on a single project to completion, especially since “changing gears” between those two very different skill sets seemed inefficient. Since I have less than 3 hours a day to write, the time it took to get “into the groove” of each mindset felt like lost time to me.

The final deciding factor, though, was the closeness of the finish line. As I reached the last 25% of the YA revision, I could smell the end of the book. I could see the words “The End” emblazoned on the horizon. I wanted to get there, gain that feeling of accomplishment, revel in the knowledge that the manuscript was one step closer to being query-ready.

People reward themselves in different ways when they reach their writing goals. Some put money in a jar, to be used for fun when the project is fully complete. That doesn’t work for me. Some people give themselves “me” time. Well, I have an 18-month-old—all my “me” time is taken up with writing.

So how do I reward myself? It might sound completely pretentious, but my reward really is the exhilaration I feel when I accomplish my goal. I actually get giddy. It is a moment when I have proven to myself that I can do what I set out to do. It lifts my spirits and gives me confidence that I can do it again—and again. As often as needed. That soaring moment when I can’t wipe the smile off my face and my eyes feel like they are literally sparkling is all the reward I need.

Dog Days

Dogs can teach us a lot, if we pay attention.

Abused and abandoned, our black Lab mix Cody could have hated people forever. Some dogs carry a grudge and never get past the pain. But he didn’t, and that is but one of the lessons my dog taught me.

Forgiveness and Trust. When you’ve been hurt, it takes courage to move on, to learn to trust someone else, to make yourself vulnerable.

We didn’t realize how traumatized Cody must have been by his abandonment until we noticed that knickknacks and plants on our bow window’s sill had been moved every-so-slightly. To solve this mystery, we set up a camera. While we were out of the house, our 80-pound dog paced back and forth on the windowsill, carefully stepping in between the stuff on the sill.

Cody didn’t forget his abandonment quickly. It took him a long time to realize that we weren’t going to leave him. The first six months with us, he never barked. But he finally decided our home was his territory to defend, and his powerful barking scared us to death when we first heard it!

He eventually stopped pacing the windowsill, and the mailman can attest to the ferocity of Cody’s protection of the house (although when Cody did “catch” the mailman, all he did was sniff the man’s knee, wag his tail, and come back home).

Carpe Diem. Dogs (and small children) are great at living in the moment. The joys of little things are magnified, and the world is painted in vivid colors.

Cody greeted us with insane barking every day when we came home. He took us for several walks a day. He climbed up between my parents on the sofa as if he was a lap dog. He would sit on the sofa like a person, back legs stretched out in front of him, front legs tucked up like arms.

Cody loved the Barbie kiddie pool in the summer, where he would snap at the waves he created in the water. His first snowfall mystified him, but once he assured himself that the ground was still there, he rolled and bit it—a black shadow on the white snow.

He enjoyed everything.

Faithful Friendship. Any friend can stand by you in good times. A true friend will stand by you in bad times.

Cody fell in love with my mother. He followed her everywhere—upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside. He would sit outside the bathroom door and stare a hole in it when she was in there. My mom, who had sworn a dog would “never” live in her house, felt like she was being stalked. But it’s difficult to stay hard-hearted when a dog loves you so steadfastly. She fell in love with him. Cody became “her” dog.

Companionship went both ways. During thunderstorms, Cody would come and lay by my bed. On 9/11, I cried into his fur as I watched the Towers fall.

The Final Lesson.

Cody brought so much joy into our lives. For 13 years, he was a constant shadow to my mother. On April 30, it was time to say goodbye. After overcoming lung cancer, several tendon operations, and a myriad of other medical issues, he finally succumbed to old age.

I cannot help but contrast Cody’s beginning with his end. As a 1-year-old puppy he was abandoned in a backyard. As an old dog just six weeks shy of 15, he left this life surrounded by three generations of a family that loved him.

And perhaps that is the most important lesson of all—that to love and be loved is the single greatest gift we can receive in this life.

Juggling

Life is all about juggling, right? We’re always prioritizing something because our to-do lists never seem to get any shorter. We also have to juggle because so many things on our to-do lists require input from other people—and other people are not always as on top of things as we’d like them to be.

So I, like all of you, am juggling. I’ve got my 18-month-old daughter’s needs. I’m buying a house, so I’m neck-deep in the needed inspections and paperwork. I do have a husband, too, although sometimes he’s hard to see through the piles of diapers and mortgage paperwork. There are, of course, the hundreds of things that crop up that can’t be scheduled—like the air conditioning going on the fritz. And amid all that, there is my writing.

My writing time is precious (about 2 hours a day). In that time I not only have to write, but I have to keep up with the social networking that is so crucial for every author today. I read blogs (and write them!), as well as check in with Facebook and Twitter. So even within my slice-of-heaven writing time, I must prioritize.

As far as the actual writing goes, I am juggling two projects. They are both novels in the later draft stages. One is a middle grade that is undergoing a seismic shift into a different genre. The other is a YA fantasy that is in the middle of a post-beta-reader revision. Two very different projects that have the same deadline—December.

As an unpublished writer, I have the luxury of being able to work on what I want when I want. But as a serious writer, I know that giving myself deadlines and sticking to them is necessary to get ahead in my career. I wondered how best to break up my week between the two books—in chunks such as 3 days in a row each or alternating days.

I chose to alternate days. I think springing back and forth between the two plots and the two genres will help keep my mind nimble and my enthusiasm fresh. And it allows me to always have a feeling of forward progress on both projects. So far, it is working for me.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you juggle multiple projects?

Prologues: Thumbs Up or Down?

I just began another workshop with authors Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba. This one is called Write Your YA Novel in Nine Months. Its focus is to get at least a first draft completed in nine months, as well as gathering and polishing marketing material we will need to sell the book once it is complete. We will also discuss craft as it specifically pertains to YA and Middle Grade.

Our group is a lively one, and we got into an online discussion about Prologues. While I had been under the impression that agents and publishers did not look favorably on them, others pointed to a plethora of prologues in current books.

We also discussed whether or not readers actually read prologues. I always do. Another person in the group admitted to never reading them. I have found this split among my friends, too. It seems to be a stark black-and-white policy—no one “sometimes” reads prologue. It’s all or nothing.

So today I open the floor to those of you who have been around the publishing block a few times, as well as the readers among us:

Thumbs up or down on prologues? Why?

When It Rains, It Pours

Have you ever noticed how things in life all seem to happen at once? Like the day I had a pediatrician appointment for my daughter, then had a class, then faced a 5-hour drive to Virginia (in the rain)—until the skylights in my house started pouring rain on my head.

Everything at once. You all could tell your own version of the story. That’s life.

That’s also what makes compelling fiction. Piling one complication on top of another so fast that the protagonist can’t breathe—and raising the stakes each time.

You start small and build up: A guy and his wife buy a house. Then they find out she’s pregnant—with twins. She gets pregnancy complications and has to quit her job. Then he gets fired for a mistake someone else made. He starts doing something slightly illegal to make money. Then it gets more illegal. Then he gets in way over his head, only to find out that there’s about to be a terrorist attack sponsored by his employers. He snitches to the FBI but his identity is leaked. Now he’s on the run, but the bad guys grab his way-too-pregnant wife to lure him out. He finally gets to her, but there’s a bomb ticking down. They have time to run—but she goes into labor.

You get the idea.

I’m currently devouring the House of Night series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. I read the first one as a recommendation by our local librarian, and got hooked. The books are addictive, not just because of the strong voice of the protagonist Zoey and the well-drawn individuality of the other characters, but because Zoey’s life is a never-ending series of problems that simply get worse and worse. Every time she (and the reader) think that maybe she finally has things under control, that maybe things will start to go her way, that she can take a break and maybe even relax for a second, something else heaps on top of the burden she’s already carrying. Zoey’s problems start off normal—overbearing step-father and drunken boyfriend issues—and eventually (in Book 4) ramp up to saving the world.

There are nine books in the series (so far).

Zoey’s already trying to save the world in Book 4. What worse problems can she possibly deal with in the next 5 books?

I don’t know, but I’m sure going to read on to find out!

Camazotz, USA

Some images in books stay with you for a long time. I find that many of the most lasting images have come from books I read as a child—perhaps because children are so impressionable.

One of my favorite authors as a child was Madeline L’Engle, particularly her Murray family series. The other day as I was taking a walk, I saw something that reminded me powerfully of an image in L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.

In A Wrinkle In Time, the Murray children land on the planet Camazotz. At first it seems comforting, familiar, until they start to notice that all the houses are identical, all the mother figures could be the same woman, and all the children are playing in coordinated isolation. As the Murrays walk down the street, they notice a single child playing in front of each house. Every child is bouncing a ball—and the eerie part is that each ball is bouncing at exactly the same moment. The children and balls are all moving in perfect unison, as if controlled by a single mind.

I am not the first person* to equate L’Engle’s identical Camazotz houses with the sprawling suburbia of America. The fact that we often refer to subdivisions as “cookie-cutter” homes means that everyone understands the assembly-line mentality that has bled so much of the individuality out of our lives. The mind-numbing sameness of the houses is not, however, the image that struck me the other day.

Basketball nets stood in front of a dozen houses on a single street. As I watched, children came out with their basketballs and started shooting hoops. A single child at each basket. Seven of them, in all. They never even looked at each other, although they could all obviously see each other (since I could see all of them at once). And although they were not in unison, I could hear the sameness of their play—bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish. Bounce, clank, swish.

No so long ago, all these boys would have been down at the neighborhood basketball court, scrimmaging against each other, learning to play together, fight together, and settle their differences. Or there would have been only one net on the street, and the whole group would have gathered there. Now they played alone.

Of course, that was a single moment on a single day. Perhaps at other times these boys do play together—I cannot say. But as I walked along that façade of a neighborhood, I shivered. In spite of L’Engle’s warning in 1962, we are not that far from Camazotz.

*Hettinga, Donald R. (1993). Presenting Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Twayne Publishers. pp. 27. ISBN 0-8057-8222-2.

Machetes vs. Machinists: Reaching word count

I never liked math, which is one reason I decided against becoming a scientist (always loved astronomy). I went into writing because you don’t need math, right? Wrong! Who knew how often numbers would come into play?

The business side of things obviously contains a lot of math. Like figuring out percentages in contracts or how many books you need to sell to earn out your advance. Or how far you can stretch your money in a publicity campaign. Or how many conferences or workshops you can go to in a year. Or if you can pay your babysitter in Monopoly money.

I never realized how many times numbers can figure in the actual writing of the book, though. I mean, it’s words, right? But the devil is in the details, and one of the biggest details authors need to be cognizant of is word count. You know—a number.

Every genre has its own word count range, and authors would do well to try and follow them. If the author becomes the next J. K. Rowling, then word count goes out the window, but an aspiring author had better treat that number as if it is set in stone.

How do you make sure you reach that magic number? I have found two ways of approaching it. One, you write without counting and then edit down, like using a machete to cut your way through the jungle. Two, you control precisely how long each chapter is as you go along, with very little editing needed on the back end, like a meticulous watchmaker.

Personally, I am a practitioner of formula one. I write my first draft with no thought to word count at all. Which is fine because my first drafts are usually written short—I tend to leave out a lot of description and depth. My second draft is where my manuscript packs on pounds. I elaborate on everything that needs depth and color and description, and my word count balloons. It is only in the third draft that I start working on word count, trying to trim and rearrange and streamline things. Normally, I have no trouble getting down to my word count.

Those who follow formula two are something of a mystery to me. I see them post things on Facebook like, “I’m 1,000 words from my end!” How on Earth do they know how many words away they are? Chapters I could understand, but words? I suspect these writers have a very precise outline they follow, which would help them figure out words per chapter, etc. If any reader out there can elaborate on this technique, feel free to share!

So which are you? A machete-wielder or a precision machinist?

Foreshadowing Reality

I bet Suzanne Collins didn’t know she was an oracle. That when she wrote her Hunger Games trilogy, she foretold a revolution that no political expert in the world saw coming.

While watching the Arab revolution unfold, I was suddenly struck by how similar the circumstances of the two revolutions were. I found five eerie parallels.

Revolution was “impossible”
In the Hunger Games trilogy, the Capitol of Panem ruled all, controlling everything about the 12 outlying Districts, including supplies of food and medicine. While the Capitol glutted itself, people starved in the Districts. The Capitol considered the people of the Districts too weak and too cowed to ever rebel.

An Arab democratic revolution seemed equally impossible. The regimes were too powerful. The societies were too oppressed. There was no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble. The people had been starved and terrified into unwavering compliance. The youth had known no other way of life and would therefore not even think of demanding a change.

Unbearable conditions
In Panem, the chasm between the rich in the Capitol and the poor in the Districts was vivid. Every day, every year, the poor were forced to watch the rich grow richer. The rich grew ever more lavish and wasteful, while the poor sunk deeper into the depths. The most glaring reminder of their servitude to the Capitol was the Hunger Games, where a boy and girl from each District was sent to the Capitol to fight to the death—a sacrifice as punishment for a past rebellion.

In the Arab autocracies, the money stayed in the hands of the dictator and his family and cronies. They grew incredibly wealthy while many of their citizens struggled to put food on their table. Instead of focusing on bringing down rampant unemployment and bringing up the standard of living for the entire country, the ruling class focused on lining their pockets at the expense of their people. While no literal Hunger Games existed, many people sacrificed their dreams and their children’s dreams in order to survive, and many disappeared at the hands of brutal secret police.

The power of media
One key to the Capitol’s continued hold over its people was that they controlled all communications. The Districts saw only what the Capitol wanted them to see, and the citizens in the Capitol never ever saw what really went on in the Districts. Katniss Everdeen’s participation in, and subsequent winning of, the Hunger Games gave her a mass platform from which the message of revolution could spread. When the rebels managed to hijack the communications network, they were able to show the truth to the Capitol citizens, rather than the lies the government told.

Most of the Arab autocracies had tightly controlled state-run television and radio, and also limited cell phone and Internet access when it suited them. Technology eventually broke through the blackout, though, as the youth used social media to find each other, form protest groups, and get the word out to the world about what was truly happening in the protests.

Going viral
In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’ mockingjay symbol became the symbol of the revolution. All the Districts, not just her own, adopted it, using it as a secret sign of loyalty to each other and of defiance to the government. Katiniss did not initially wear it as a symbol of anything except her home, but the mockingjay spread virally to become the symbol to bind the rebels together.

Through the phenomenon of “going viral” allowed by the Internet, the protests that followed Tunisia’s revolution used many of the same symbols, particularly the same chants and musical anthems. The information on how to stage successful protests and avoid the police also went viral, and was adapted for use in many of the other Arab countries.

Unwitting catalysts
Katniss Everdeen never wanted to be a revolutionary. She just wanted to survive the Hunger Games and go home. In the end, though, her desperate act of survival sparked a revolution that led to the fall of the Capitol.

Mohamed Bouazizi never intended to start a revolution, either. The Tunisian street vendor simply could not cope with his life and its many frustrations and humiliations anymore. In a desperate act that was his only means of being heard, he set himself on fire—and his death ignited his countrymen.

Perhaps many revolutions follow these patterns—I am no expert. All I know is that Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy was a brilliant, searing look at what violence does to children and humanity. It also turned out to be a pretty prescient blueprint of a revolution yet to come.

Change Is Good, Right?

First off, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my fellow Irishmen and to all those who wish you were!

Second, my Act Like a Writer workshop ended last week, and I have had some time to think about the things we’ve learned. One of the biggest things about the workshop was facing your fears. Honestly, if you step back, what’s the worst that can happen if you flub a pitch or a panel or a reading? Dreadful embarrassment, most likely, and that has never killed anyone.

Even though our logical mind tells us this, fear is not logical. We spoke about our fears in the workshop, and they were familiar. Fear of babbling or stammering or not being able to speak at all. Fear of fainting or throwing up or falling down. Fear of embarrassment or insulting someone or provoking a confrontation. Fear of looking like a fool.

All of the above are very real fears. I share all of them, as do most people. They all stem from that little voice instructor Keith Strunk talked about, the one that whispers to us, “You’re nothing special. You’re not good enough. Just who do you think you are? Why should anyone listen to anything you have to say?”

I’ve heard that voice. We all have. But those fears, prompted by that voice, are not the fears that paralyze me. Face it, you don’t reach (mumble, mumble) years of age without having actually had many of those fears manifest themselves. Although those incidents were deeply uncomfortable, I’m still here. They didn’t kill me.

So what is scaring me so much?

You see, I also hear another voice, different than the “you’re not good enough” voice. (Did I mention that, as a writer, you are allowed to have voices in your head and still be called sane?) This other voice whispers, “But if you succeed, everything will change.”

Ahh, there’s the rub. Change and I, not good friends. I like my routines. Having a baby has made me a lot more flexible, but still…I like my life. If I get an agent, and we sell the book, everything changes. I go from being able to stop writing to play with my daughter to having to tell her occasionally that Mommy can’t play with her now. I go from being able to schedule my life around my family to adding in deadlines and crises (in business there are always crises—I remember that distinctly).

More than that, I go from being able write in comfortable anonymity to having to be public author persona. To have readings and signings and be on panels and do interviews, and all of those things that are so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see them from my spot here on the couch. What sort of an idiot deliberately places herself in situations she equates with being in front of a firing squad?

Apparently…me.

Because I want this. I want my work out there. And this is what it takes to be an author in today’s world.

I can do it, too. Act Like A Writer showed me that not only could I do it, I could do it well. And if I continue to work hard at it, someday it may even be fun.

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