Friday, June 20, 2008

Anybody Can Do It...

“Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mixing Mothering and Writing

Sara Dessen has an interesting take on the writer's life and the pitfalls of having too much time on your hands.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

Super Similes

I recently read Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes. He, as usual, provided an excellent read with interesting, quirky characters and a quiet plot. I was also struck by his masterful similes:

A house "neglected for quite a while, so that all its lines, angles, and corners were softened like the edges of a well-used bar of soap." pg. 2.

" . . . a twitch of excitement spread over him like a stain." pg.25.

A dog that "circled and circled, then settled down, curling up like a cashew." pg. 30.

Lilacs "long past their prime, brown, like clusters of scorched popcorn." pg. 46.

Before a storm, "the low clouds moved fast, like rolling clumps of steel wool." pg. 121.

Laura Backes, writing about similes and metaphors in the June 13th issue of the CBI e-mail newsletter, makes the point that metaphors and similes should fit naturally with the characters in the story. I agree. So thinking of the steel wool scrubbing pads in my kitchen, I wondered about using this last simile in a book with two boys as main characters. Then I remembered that "clumps of steel wool" could also be used in a woodworking class to sand and finish a project. So it fits after all.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Bitching About Pitching

I went to the NJSCBCI Conference last weekend too (see post below). Like J.A., I loved Cheryl Klein’s workshop on how to create characters. She basically had everyone in the room working together to create a character, by filling in a list of 20 or so character traits divided into two categories—who the character is (his/her essence) and what the character does (action). I’d like to try this exercise with my critique group on Friday, if everyone’s game.

Also great was a slide show presentation given by an editor (Robin Tordini) and creative director (Patrick Collins) from Henry Holt, showing interior and cover designs through each stage of the approval process from initial sketches through bound books. Even though the workshop had a design bent, it reminded me of how many people would have to approve my manuscript if it’s going to be accepted. Not that I needed or wanted reminding.

I opted out of the group speed-pitching session, but I stayed in the room and watched it happen (and took pictures, above). I must say, it scared the writerly pants off me. I don’t mean the pitching part. No, I mean seeing the large room, filled wall-to-wall with writers and illustrators, the noisy sound of simultaneous pitching, everyone clamoring to make a lasting impression on an editor. A writer had only two minutes to do this before the heartless whistle blew and he or she moved on to the next two editors. When the whistle blew a third time, it was game over. Time to leave the pitching mound. Buh-bye.

Sure, plenty of lovely requests for manuscripts came out of it, so why was it so scary? Because it was a living, breathing, deafening microcosm of what I’m up against as a writer: The mind-boggling number of writers trying to sell books, some just like mine. Editors becoming glassy-eyed (despite their best efforts) as they listened to pitch after pitch. I mean, how different could this be from reading piles of manuscripts at the office? It was yet another not-so-gentle reminder of how frighteningly competitive the market is. Not that I needed reminding about this either. But there it was.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Catch 22 of Conferences

Last weekend I attended the New Jersey SCBWI Conference. I took the two-day option with a sleepover in the seminary. For real. The conference began with a lovely luncheon and discussion with Jerry and Eileen Spinelli and ended with the speed-pitch of death. I was dog-tired to start with. It had been a busy week, but I had cleared the decks and set aside Thursday night to put all my stuff together. Then my refrigerator died and my dog had a major poop-attack all over her bedding. I took the trip to Princeton on four hours sleep.

I got there in time to help set up and enjoyed the lunch chatter. Jerry and Eileen Spinelli were really terrific. Funny, encouraging and helpful. There is nothing like sitting opposite hugely successful writers who tell you their rejection stories. It makes you believe published writers are simply writers who didn't give up.

Cheryl Klein's workshop on character was really well done. And something I needed to hear. Coupled with the editor critique on my WIP, I realize my writing will be more effective if I create in-depth character sketches before plunging into drafts.

At the Saturday morning panel, all attending agents and managers introduced themselves and mentioned what they were looking for or what they generally liked. Following that, I had a first page session. I used that anonymous opportunity to hear comments on my PB.

Next up was a session with Regina Griffin from Egmont. There is real opportunity here for writers as it's a start-up, but with great support from the British parent company and Random House sales connection.

The afternoon workshops were okay. They offered comprehensive handouts that almost negated the need to hold them.

And finally--speed-pitching. What a riot. They had about eight rows of editors and agents, grouped three to a row. A chair faced each one. Writers were assigned a row and had two minutes with each editor to pitch a project. Not to blow my own horn here, but after years in PR, I know how to pitch. One editor already had my MG, but confirmed she's still looking at it, so we talked about my WIP. The other two editors invited me to send fulls.

But here's the rub. I want an agent. I most certainly lessen my chances with an agent if the book has already been seen by a number of editors. It's the great Catch-22 of conferences. You meet lots of editors but that doesn't necessarily help if you want to go the agent route. Which I do.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Writing Every Day

As a writer, I am supposed to write every day. But I don't. Even when I am "in the zone" I don't write every day. Sometimes life gets in the way. Right now, my regular life is busy and, if I am to be perfectly honest, I am still ticked off about the rejection from the agent, so I am not writing. That is not to say that I am not thinking. Personally, thinking about writing can be just as helpful as forcing myself to write. Sometimes, when I force myself to write, all I get is garbage. I know, I know that we all have to get through the garbage to get to the good stuff, but I find it unproductive to write what I KNOW is garbage just for the sake of writing. Lots of times I'll write whole chapters and then discover that it's garbage. That's part of the process. I know that. But writing what I know is bad just to say I wrote doesn't seem worth it. So, as I said, right now I'm not writing, I'm thinking.
My character is alive and well in my head. She's having conversations, adventures, and meeting other characters. Some of what's going on in my head is garbage and will never see the light of a computer screen, but some of it isn't half bad. It will get written down when life slows down....maybe next week.
Summer is always my slow season, my excuse used to be that the kids were home from school, but now only is one is home and he doesn't exactly need me to make his lunch and snacks (although he might like that). I am not sure why I find it difficult to write in the summer, maybe it's simply that there is more action in the house which I'm not use to. I usually write when no one is around. Maybe I still function on an academic calendar and now that it's summer my mind has gone on vacation. It might be that I'm feeling morose about the rejection and wondering what the point is. It might be all those things. But whatever the reason for my lack of productivity, I'm not feeling bad about it. I know I'll write again.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

book launch 2.0

So this is what we have to look forward to when we market our books?

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Jury Duty...Hassle or Writers Retreat?

If you're like me, the moment you go through the mail and see that official looking government notice with the red word SUMMONS across the front of it, your heart will go into panic mode. My first reaction was to shred it but after realizing that would be a federal offense I circled the dates on my calendar in red and prepared myself for the adult equivalent of getting sent to the Principal's office.

Why is jury duty such a drag? For me it's the fact that I have to travel on a bus to a courthouse in an area where you don't want to be after the sun goes down. As writers though, our job is to see things from all angles and while I'd much prefer to spend a day at the spa or at the beach, jury duty turned out to be a wonderful place for me to have hours of unencumbered WRITER time. How?

As I sat there on a bench designed for no more than fifteen minutes of comfortable sitting, I looked around the room and realized I was in a living, breathing character study. So I took out my notebook and wrote. I've never been good at writing on demand, but I forced myself to look around the room and describe people's expressions, clothing, and what I imagined might be going through their minds.

There were lots of business men, clearly in denial, setting up their workspace with laptops, blue-tooth (or is it teeth when talking in plural?) at the ready to accept calls from the outside world. One man received a phone call, packed up his briefcase and went into the glass jury booth. Moments later he was taking off his juror badge and heading out while the rest of us were left to wonder what excuse got him out of his civil duty? It was only 9:30AM.

Did I write for eight hours straight? No. I read. I worked on a manuscript I'm in the middle of revising. I ate lunch at possibly the world's slowest Burger King. And I continued to observe with my writer's mind all the places and people I came into contact with that day. The upside of jury duty for me is that until I got called for a judge's panel, I had to answer to NO ONE. No one needed a fresh pair of socks or a glass of juice. No one needed to be walked or fed. I didn't need to make any appointments or answer the door to receive a FedEx. Essentially I got to check out of my life for eight hours. And it was pretty cool.

Did I get anything out of my scribblings for the day? Not sure. It was definitely "fun writing". A trick that got my pen moving. And who knows what snippets my subconscious tucked away for a rainy day? There is one thing I desperately want to use in a future work, and I still don't think I have the description quite right. I'll end this entry with it.

There was a woman wearing a jacket that at one time might have been fashionable. The jacket was cocoa colored, with rows and rows of little Necco-wafer sized circles that fluttered when she walked. I couldn't make out what the jacket was made of. My first guess was leather, but the fabric had so much movement. Polyester? It looked too substantial for that. The one sentence I came up to describe it was this... "The jacket looked as though it could have been unearthed in a long forgotten trunk in the wardrobe department of a Star Wars movie." Good description? What if my reader doesn't know about Star Wars? Or Necco wafers? What then? So I forced myself to dig deeper, get basic. I'm still working on it, but I promise, I WILL use that jacket some day.

Or maybe I already have?

So the next time you get that summons in the mail, wipe the sweat from your brow, pack yourself a notebook and some good reading and take advantage of what my be the most perfect writers retreat of them all. Jury duty. And you don't even need an SCBWI membership to get in.

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