Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Recently, when reading up on writing advice and how to improve one's work, I happened on a quote from Mark Twain.

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very,' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

Today editors might not delete "damn" in children's manuscripts except in books for smaller children, but the message on the lesson from Twain stays the same. To improve my writing I need to continually prune unnecessary words. Any words that I think "actually" make the point more emphatically and importantly but actually get in the way of clear action and movement of plot are only window dressing. I need to cut and clear so the story itself is emphatic.

In clearing I also need to follow Twain's reasoning a little further and keep it simple. In revisions, I need to remember to cut the scenes, dialogue and plot points that are clogging up the flow of the story.

Some methods of attacking these problems are putting aside the manuscript for a time and working on another book so I'm refreshed when I come back to this manuscript and I can edit with new eyes, or taking it to my critique group where the writers will ably point out where the problems lurk.

How do you focus on keeping it concise - the extra words that clutter, and the scenes that bog down the manuscript?

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Set In My Ways

I have been writing seriously for roughly 13 years. I've attended countless conferences and workshops, I've read a bookcase full of books on writing, and I've revised and submitted, revised and submitted so many times rejection is beginning to feel normal. It's a feeling I don't like.

So, I've decided to challenge myself to improve. Starting in July, I will be attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Check it out at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I am thrilled! I am anxious. I am excited. I am scared.

I am thrilled to be accepted into a program that includes so many successful and respected writers. I hope I don't stand gaping at everyone.

I am anxious about putting my work out there where they can read and critique it. What happens if someone tells me I'm never going to make it?

I am excited for the opportunity to learn more about my craft. To take my writing to the next level and challenge myself to be the best writer I can be.

But I am most scared about living in a dorm with a roommate and having to walk down the hall to use the communal bathroom. I am a creature of habit. I have my ways. Besides, do you have any idea how many times I have to get up at night to pee? In addition, my husband tells me I snore. What happens if I snore so much my roommate can't sleep? Also, I am, probably like most writers, a bit of a loner. I like my private time. Where does one get private time when sharing a room and a bathroom? It's not even like the kids were little and you could lock yourself in the bathroom just to get away.

If a student has a medical condition they can request a private room (still with the bathroom down the hall). Do you think being a prima dona is a medical condition?

People have told me that attending Vermont has changed their lives, not just their writing. I don't mean to be cynical, but sharing a bathroom is definitely going to change my life!

Seriously, though, I am excited to be starting this new phase in my life and I hope my stubborn prima dona self learns as much as my writing self.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are You an Adder or a Cutter?

When you revise that is. Are you an adder? Do you find that on your second draft, you fill in details, emotion, internal thought. Do you add subplots, bring settings to life, lengthen dialogue ?

Or, are you a cutter? Did you throw everything into that first draft and now must chip away the unimportant, dig deep to uncover truths, tighten dialogue for clarity.

Or, like me, are you both? When I revise my first draft, I find myself with a lot of excess baggage. My characters may have led me to some dead ends. I may have a subplot that doesn't work. Or, (shudder) my adults might be a tad too important. I might even need to kill off a character or two. For me, cutting is the easier part.

Adding -- oh, adding. I spend a lot of time adding. My crit partners always tell me to add more internal thought and emotion. And I know they're right. I need to let my characters react to the action that surrounds them. I often feel like a therapist. I need to get my characters to admit what is really going on inside. Some days I can get them to open up and talk. Other days I'm met with a keyboard filled with quiet. Striking the right emotional chord is one of my biggest writing challenges.

How do you all feel. Are you an adder or a cutter? Any special revision challenges?

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Critique Crime?

I've belonged to two critique groups for more than ten years and there's a question I've never resolved, so I'm going public: if you appropriate specific word changes suggested in a colleague's critique, do you feel like a plagiarist?

Now I'm not talking about general critique comments. I'm talking about swapping your specific words, phrases, or sentences for those suggested in a critique line edit. They found the perfect word or phrase. You didn't. And now you covet them! Do you filch?

Or how about when a critique suggests how to end your story with a pow instead of a thud? And even gives you the sentences to do it? Do you rip them off?

Is this acceptable? Do we ask our critiquer for permission? Or do we just steal their perfect words, figuring that perhaps colleagues have kidnapped from our critiques and in the end it's all about helping each other be better writers?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Library Loving Challenge

I just wanted to make sure everyone knows about Cynthea Liu's wonderful library loving challenge. Leave a comment on her blog and she'll make a generous donation to a library in need. Click on the link below for details:


Plus you can still join in on the fun of Cynthea and her famous bunny Snoop's cool Red Light - Green Light Contest. Check out how to enter at:


The contest has been going on for a while, but there is still one picture book free-tique slot up for grabs. And Cynthea's free-tique's are incredible! Plus she's offered some feedback to every manuscript entered in the contest.

And the coolest news of all is...

my picture book #187 just won the first picture book free-tique slot! It's cool to have gotten enough "green lights" to reach the final page. And it's even cooler that I'm going to get Cynthea's opinion on how to make the manuscript better. (She helped me transform an easy reader several years ago after another wonderfully fun round of Red Light- Green Light!)

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Accidental Critique

If you’ve ever had the same manuscript critiqued by multiple agents and editors at conferences and received wildly different feedback from each one, raise your hand. (Wow. I see lots of virtual hands going up.)

Now, if you’ve ever had the same manuscript accidentally critiqued twice by the same agent or editor and received wildly different feedback from him or her, raise your hand. (Mine just went up.)

Here’s the gist of what happened:

Critique session 1: I sat down with Editor X for my conference critique. Editor X first apologized. She got sidetracked and wasn’t able to read my manuscript before we met. Would I mind if she read it now? Um, no. After some deft speed reading, she gave the manuscript a mixed review. She had problems with the plot. The characters could be stronger. Maybe it would work better as two books instead of one. Oh brother.

Critique session 2: A few conferences later, I was accidentally paired with Editor X again for a critique of the exact same manuscript (with a few minor changes). Of all the dirty, rotten luck. I braced for round 2.

To my surprise, Editor X gave the same manuscript--she’d read it in advance this time—a completely different critique. A glowing critique. Heck, one of the best darn critiques I ever got. This time, Editor X said the plot was intriguing. The characters were strong. The book worked. If I cut 50 manuscript pages, it would probably get published. Yahoo!

Why was Editor X’s second critique so different from the first? Was it because she was better prepared? Less rushed? Had she just downed a triple latte?

Who knows? But it reminded me of something I tend to forget. Editors and agents are people too. They have good days and bad days. Rushed days and slow days. Sometimes, the difference between a good critique and a bad one is beyond your control. All you can do is keep believing in yourself and keep writing.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt to bring an extra cup of Starbucks to your next critique either.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Crossing the Sea

For this year's second Passover Seder, we're planning to get together with a large group of family friends. This year the "kids' table" (a group of young adults in their twenties) has been put in charge of running the ritual-filled event.

Instead of the often traditional round robin reading of paragraph after paragraph from the Passover hagaddah, this group has planned something fun and outside the box. We're all going to be dividing into groups to discuss pre-assigned discussion questions.

My favorite two discussion questions were the following:

***What's your "Red Sea" today and how are you going to cross it?

***Where do you find your burning bush and what's it been saying to you lately?

I can think about these questions on so many levels. But the more I think about it, the more they make me think about my life as a writer.

For me, the Red Sea, makes me think of all those moments when I think I'm completely stuck. I just can't go on. Maybe it's a revision I need to make but can't figure out how. Maybe it's finding the time to write with a testing toddler and an infant with feeding issues. Maybe it's the search for that perfect idea.

Whatever the challenge, at the time I first encounter it, it seems as though there is no way I can possibly rise to meet it. Oh how I wish I had the clarity of God speaking to me in a burning bush to let me know how I should proceed... or that I should proceed.

Unfortunately, we writers don't get the benefit of a whole lot of burning bushes. Acceptances and publications are incredibly exciting, but (for me at least) there always seems to be stretches in between these wonderful events.

So often in that first draft or submission process, it feels as though there's nowhere to go. We are faced with our own personal Red Sea. In order to cross it, we must believe in ourselves enough to take that first step into the waters.

We keep writing through the muddle of a middle or get that manuscript out in the world for yet another time. And once we take the risk, the waters will part.

Maybe we'll feel like we're drowning at first. But eventually they do. We revise that ending till it shines or get an acceptance from that magazine we dreamed of breaking into.

Wishing us all luck in crossing our own writing Red Seas and congratulations to those (Mazel Tov, Valerie & Meg!) who've recently found their own burning bush!

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Who Is in Charge?

I started writing my current novel using some character sketches and short stories I had written several years ago. I've wanted to write this book for some time, but had no real idea as to how I was going to do it. The novel is based on my mother's childhood and I have at hand a lot of oral history. But where does reality end and fiction begin? My fellow writers advised me to go for straight fiction and not worry too much about historical accuracy, at least not in the first draft, and that is what I have done.

The interesting thing is that the characters I have created have taken over. As I started on the most recent chapter, I knew where the characters were and what had happened to them already, but I had absolutely no idea what would happen next. I knew where I wanted to be at the end of the novel, but no idea how I was going to get there. But as I started working on the chapter, the characters told me what they had to say and how they felt. I was not really "in charge."

Of course this is only the first draft and quite possibly I have too many characters. Maybe the last chapter will come first and the fifth chapter last. Maybe more incidents are needed, and maybe some have to go. But in the revisions to come, I'm going to do the same thing: listen very carefully to my characters. They know their story better than I do.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book Trailers

One of my favorite parts about going to the movies is watching the previews before the feature begins. As a matter of fact, if I don't get to see them, I feel cheated somehow. It's part of the whole experience for me, like popcorn, Raisinettes and an overpriced bottle of Dasani. Deep down, I know a trailer is just a glorified commercial, but getting a brief glimpse of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince just makes my day a little brighter.

What is it about movie trailers that are so appealing? They are the best parts of a film stitched together to whet the consumer's appetite. Some are even better than the films they promote. So how could this type of advertising work for a novel?

Book trailers, that's how.

So you're shaking your head right now - well, check this out. It's a book trailer for a debut YA novel, Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill. The title alone piques my interest, the book trailer - fun and scary at the same time - makes me want to run out and get it...now. (I'll have to wait until next week!)

I'm not sure how new the concept of a book trailer is, but with the advent of YouTube - anything is possible. Do a search for book trailers on YouTube and a myriad of titles will pop up. Some are a bit more homespun than others, and some are actually done by fans as more of a tribute than an actual trailer. Take a moment to view a few and I defy you to walk away without being intrigued by at least one of the stories.

I honestly don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, it's darn cool. In this day of shrinking houses and non-existent marketing dollars, a book trailer is yet another way for an author to get the word out there about a book. On the other hand, unless you have some video prowess or a friend who does, making a book trailer probably isn't cheap. Or in the very least, it must be time consuming.

One of the most magical things about reading a book is that it's personal - you can visualize the characters however you want. Would watching a book trailer that depicts the characters in a certain way take away from that?

So what do you think? Are book trailers like visual jacket flap copy - a tool to entice a reader to buy your book? Or something you'd rather not have to deal with?

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