Saturday, February 28, 2009

Revisions - Again!

I spent the last week revising two WIPs that I have had at our critique group in the past year. As Meg has been saying, we have a great group. The members isolate the elements of the manuscript that need work, and once the writer digests the reviews, she can see that they are right on - that this character needs more or different motivation or more realistic dialogue, or that you might need a different angle on the plot.

I often wait a bit after the group critique and then can go back and read and assimilate the comments in the context of time and the whole story. Most of us couldn't do without an involved critique group. Our group knows each other's story characters almost as well as our own and looks forward to seeing them again in successive chapters and critiques.

I was revising my picture book about beaches and a story about New York Island and harbor over the last few weeks, and as I was going over the manuscripts, I could hear again the various members of the critique group suggesting their solutions for specific problems in the stories. As you struggle to make the right fixes you hear their voices and explanations, and as you work by yourself, you feel you are discussing the pros and cons of each choice with mentors, and coming up with good solutions.

Revising is sometimes fun, and always work, but with the suggestions of a good critique group to consider, it produces a good story.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Fine Line

Last Sunday I attended a NJ-SCBWI Mentoring Workshop at which there was a First Page Session. In preparation for this I submitted a first page to my critique group. It was a revised first page of a WIP that has been IP for years. It's a project that, for one reason or another, has been difficult for me. I've stopped and started, abandoned and returned to it many times. In the current return I have decided to pretty much chuck all that I'd written previously and take on a new direction with a new main character, new POV, and essentially new everything.

My critique group trashed it.

Yes, this group of writers who I consider among my best friends literally ripped my first page apart. A first page! Quite honestly, I didn't know one could find so much wrong with a single page. Don't worry, they all did it in a nice way and started and ended their eviscerations with positive comments, but Gale still had to call me the next morning to make sure I wasn't planning on doing a Sylvia Plath. (I wasn't, just so you know).

I went off to the Workshop on Sunday with two first pages. The first from my contemporary YA which has been critiqued in so many First Page Sessions I felt confident it would not be torn to shreds in public - it was safe. The second first page in my writer's bag was the ripped-to-shreds first page of my current WIP with a few minor changes (the ones that could be managed without a complete rewrite). Standing at the desk where I was instructed to leave my first page, I couldn't decide which one to leave. My hand was on the ripped-to-shreds one, but my ego wouldn't let me pull it out. I chickened out and put the safe first page on the pile. My skin was not thick enough to weather a second shredding in less than 48 hours.

Something you should know about me is that I love First Page Sessions, often finding them the most valuable part of a conference. It doesn't matter if the first pages are accomplished pieces of writing simply waiting to find the right editor or a newbie written page that makes you cringe just to listen to it (and admit it, there's always at least one in a first page session that makes your hair stand on end). I learn something from every page that's read.

What I learned on Sunday when the editors read my safe first page was that I had some dialogue that wouldn't really happen, but conveniently allowed me to bring up a point of tension between two characters. That's a valuable criticism and something easily fixed.

But what I REALLY learned on Sunday came from other people's first pages -- To recognize the thin line that exists between starting with action, which is something we always hear, to dropping the reader into a scene without them having the slightest notion of what is going on. A Thin Line. And I understood immediately what my critique group was trying to tell me.

Now one could argue that my beloved critique group could have lightened up a little bit. On the other hand, our group has never been known to blow hot air up anyone's skirt. We all call it as we see it, which is one of the things I value most about the group.

It's another thin line, one we balance on at every meeting.

I'm not sure if I regret playing it safe on Sunday. Given that the rest of the Workshop went so well, maybe I could have weathered a second evisceration if I'd been brave enough to submit my WIP first page. It's a thin line.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

How We Do It...Critique, That Is

Our critique group meets in a library conference room, twice a month for two hours at a clip. Generally, we critique two submissions each meeting. The submissions are sent out at least a week in advance. Shorter subs are sent via email; longer submissions are delivered in hard copy, usually at a prior meeting.

Does this mean we spend more time critiquing each other’s work than groups who do not read submissions in advance of a meeting? Yup.

And is it worth it? Yup. Every minute.

I can’t even begin to count how much revision time I’ve been spared by the thoughtful comments of my crit-mates. I recently submitted the first 75-pages on my YA WIP. A subplot had threatened to take over my main story. I needed some feedback before I spent a few months on a train headed in the wrong direction.

The critiques I received were specific and grounded in what was positive about my work. Not only did they help me figure out what to do with that meddlesome subplot, (a couple hints here and there will do it -- the rest gets cut and pasted into the “maybe I’ll use this someday” folder) I now have a much clearer understanding of my MC’s emotional depth. I was so hung up on the physical plot, the emotional plot was lacking. I’ve forged on with my first draft with renewed focus. I look forward to revising that initial chunk knowing the answer to the age-old question: What does your character want?

Reading, marking up and analyzing 75-pages took a lot of time. And for that, I thank my fellow paperwaiters and their collective knives.

Some writers may feel differently than we do -- that spending so much time critiquing other people’s work takes too much time away from one’s own writing. I find, however, that by taking a critical look at other people’s work, I become a better writer. And by others taking a critical look at my work, I save a lot of sweat equity.

I’d love to hear from other writers about this. How does your critique group operate? Do you feel you get what you give?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

There Could Be Gold On Them Thar Shelves

Don't know if other children's writers collect children's books, but I've acquired shelves and shelves of them over the years. Many I bought new, but I also haunt used bookstores for out of print favorites, first editions or signed copies. My collection ranges from the early 20th century to the present.

What are my 1st edition and signed books worth? Recently I looked them up on and Used booksellers' prices range widely, but I got some great news and a few surprises.

My 1972 copy of Watership Down by Richard Adams is worth between $150 and $300. Why? It's a 1st edition, 1st printing. The dust jacket is in good condition and is unclipped (meaning the original price is still there). Sometimes you buy a new book and it becomes a classic!

I was surprised by the prices for my 1973 1st edition of Cathedral by David Macaulay. Even though it's a Caldecott Honor title and my copy's dust jacket is in good shape, it's only worth about $20. Why? There are scads of them available. Cathedral marked the beginning of a splendid career but the book isn't worth what I thought it would be. Then again, I didn't buy it for investment. I bought it because I loved it.

I couldn't find a match for my 1922 1st edition of The Rootabaga Stories that is signed by Carl Sandburg and illustrated by the Petershams. I found one selling for $275 and it wasn't signed, so mine has to be worth more. I paid $100 for this like-new copy in an antique/book shop in Bath, Maine.

My best news rode in on The Polar Express. I own a 1st edition, 1st printing, with a good dust jacket. Equivalent books are listed online for $700 to $900. I bought it new in 1985 because my library's copy was always out and I needed one for reading aloud to classes. I'm glad I took the jacket off when I used it!

You never know what could be lurking on your shelves, or which book you buy today might become a classic. Take care of those pesky dust jackets! They add to a book's value.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

It took me less than a year to write the first draft of a middle-grade manuscript. Revising it, on the other hand, is taking years. The book is now entering its tenth draft, thanks to several rounds of critiques from editors, agents, and this group. Since I started the first draft, the cows have come home, had calves, and raised them too.

What the Dr. Seuss is taking me so long to finish? Part of it is the time needed to make revisions. Part of it is because I'm working in stops and starts.

I try to blame the latter on the two major time-eaters in my life. First, my two young boys, both of whom are cling-ons. Second, my husband’s recent lay-off, which caused me to freelance again, eating up most of my work time.

But who am I to complain about a time-squeeze? Stephenie Meyer has three mom-thirsty spawn, and she’s as prolific at publishing as she is at procreating. Louise Erdrich, author of 20-plus books, had seven, until one tragically died, leaving six. And J.K. Rowling wrote H.P. 1 on napkins in a cafĂ© while her infant daughter napped in her carriage.

Oh, pooh on them.

Hoping to cheer myself up, I searched for examples of how long it took famous authors to finish their books. Some, needless to say, made me feel better than others.

*Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman), The Running Man, three days
*Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, nine days
*Barbara Park, Junie B. Jones, five to six weeks
*Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, a few months
*J.K. Rowling, H.P. 7, two years
*Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, 6 years
*Joni Sensel, Bears Barge In (a pb), 8 years
*Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 20 years

But my absolute favorite example is how long it took Neil Gaiman to write The Graveyard Book, this year's Newbery winner. In a post-win interview, Gaiman revealed that he started writing it more than 20 years ago. “I read the first page and I thought ‘This is a better idea than I am a writer. So I will put the idea away until I’m a better writer,’” he said. More than two decades later, after many stops and starts, he finally finished it. Worth the wait, doncha think?

I guess the answer to my question is, there is no answer. Some people work fast, some slow. Life gets in the way. Motivation comes and goes. Talent increases. Timing is important.

I read this quote somewhere and it spoke to me: "A novel will take as long as it needs. Give it room and keep writing."

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Day One Drama

A few days ago I started a new book. This isn't something I do often, as I write novels for the most part, and I can only juggle a couple at a time. So, day one of a new book is a big day. By which I mean, a bad day. Most writers would agree that rewriting is far easier than writing. But when you're starting a book, there's nothing to build on, nothing to improve, just a blank page.

So, that first line of the book, after all the research has been done and the noodling around with plotlines, and the various windy treatments, how do you do it? For me, it's akin to jumping off a cliff, which I haven't actually done, but I assume it feels the same. You stand on the edge for awhile, terrified, and then, knowing you have to do it, close your eyes and jump. In many ways this sounds easier than writing that first paragraph. Because more often than not what happens is that I dive into the writing, hoping and praying that something worth salvaging will emerge, and nothing does. The first attempts are awful and get erased immediately, leaving me with nothing, once again.

And then the self-flaggelating sets in. But since I've played this game with myself many times, I know somewhere deep inside it's all part of my perverse process, so I go back to the computer and try again. Eventually I craft a tiny foothold, a sentence or two that work, and from there I am able to claw my way forward. I know this all sounds very dramatic, but the truth is, that's the way it feels. I can't imagine I'm alone here.

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

25 Random Things About You? I Tagged a Famous Friend on Facebook

And here is my famous friend's response.

25 Random Things About Me:
1. I come from a single parent family.
2. My favorite foods are bananas and nuts.
3. I'm a kidnap victim who lives in permanent exile, but the trauma hasn't made me neurotic.
4. Always wanted to fly like a bird. Fell off an ocean liner trying to soar with the seagulls.
5. Once I dialed a random phone number and all hell broke loose.
6. I was born in a jungle.
7. I'm pretty good at folding and floating newspaper boats.
8. I dislike zoos.
9. I like to ride bikes and to fly kites.
10. Thanks to luck and my agility, I once escaped from jail.
11. Yellow is my favorite color, but I wish a certain someone would ditch his nerdy yellow hat.
12. I never obey traffic signs or signals.
13. Once I swallowed a puzzle piece and ended up in the hospital.
14. I'm not afraid of heights.
15. I enjoy making people smile.
16. Zoom! I love to race when I'm chased.
17. I have parachuted out of a space ship. Earned a medal when I landed.
18. I've worked as a house painter. Love spreading those colors around!
19. Sometimes I smoke a pipe after dinner.
20. I have good balance - can walk on telephone wires.
21. I'm fond of balloons, especially red ones.
22. I've ridden on a 78rpm record player.
23. I have trashed an exhibit in a natural history museum.
24. Sometimes I wish I had a sibling. Double the fun and adventure!
25. I'm exceedingly curious about everything.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

To Facebook, or not to Facebook

Last spring I received an e-mail from a writing buddy of mine who I hadn't heard from in a few years. It was an invitation to visit her Facebook page. I'd mostly heard of MySpace, and as a parent, only the bad things about it. So I was a little leery entering this virtual world.

I followed the prompts and set up my own account. When I visited my friend's page, which at the time didn't have that much info, I sat back and scratched my head...huh? In other words, and at the risk of sounding like a nitwit, I didn't get it.

Almost a year later, I'm still not sure that I do, but at least my avatar isn't a swirly headed ghost person anymore.

I know as writers part of our job is to self publicize and connect with our audience. And even those among us who are pre-published (love that term, Brianna!) should get our act together and get out there on the web. I have no problem doing any of that. I do have to question, however, if I want potential fans to know that Robin is eating cold pizza and looking forward to Idol. Does it make me more human? Or seem pathetic? Or as a writer should I keep my status as Robin is toiling away on her next masterpiece...quiet, please.

Facebook IS addicting. Although I know Facebook is like the older, more mature first cousin of MySpace, it does make me feel like a teenager at times. Especially when it suggests that you get together with People You May Know. Imagine my surprise to see a picture of the girl (now woman) my high school boyfriend cheated on me with, pop up on the sidebar tempting me to "Add as a Friend". Yeah. Thanks, Facebook. Forgive and forget I have, but build that bridge again? I think I'd rather sing in front of Simon Cowell.

My one friend likes to post embarrassing pictures of me from various stages of my life, most recently a horrible picture from 1986, which was a colossal bad hair YEAR for me. I've also been Kidnap'd to Sydney with fuzzy pink handcuffs, involved in a virtual snowball fight and apparently am saving part of the rain forest every time I send someone a virtual plant for their L'il Green Patch. I've found out I was Marilyn Monroe in my past life and the 80s movie I'm most like is Say Anything. Don't even get me started on Pieces of Flair. Johnny Depp is my Hollywood Twin. (Who knew?)

Fun and games? Sure. Way to waste time I should probably be using for a higher purpose? Absolutely. Way to publicize myself and connect with possible readers? HELP. I'm not trying to be snarky here.

Recently while researching publishers, I Googled an editor I'd met at a conference. One of the links took me to her Facebook page. Her list of friends? Writers I admire. Editors I'd love to send my manuscripts. People who obviously enjoy Facebook, or at least see it's value.

So my questions are you think Facebook is a necessary publicity tool or just another way to waste precious time you should use for writing? And if you are using it, how is it working for you?

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