Thursday, May 28, 2009

For a Three-Dollar Plant, Dig a Five-Dollar Hole

I've just come in from working in a community garden, the George Washington Bicentennial Garden, here in New Vernon, New Jersey. My back aches from leaning over to yank out those troublesome weeds and from fighting the dandelion fluff. My hands are a little tired from pruning back a lot of the dead wood in the cotoneaster which now looks sprightly and fresh hanging over the wall after the tough treatment.

Frequently when gardening I think of the parallels between garden work and writing. When you start a new garden you create a design or plan including the elements that are going to make the garden blossom well, just as in starting a book manuscript the author builds an outline. The gardener researches seed, plant material, its colors and growth height, type of sun/shade needs and other details in the garden design. The writer researches setting, designs plot lines, builds character profiles, and develops an outline.

After planning, the gardener prepares the all-important soil and digs the holes. An old New England saying of my father's is "When you plant a three-dollar plant, dig a five-dollar hole." Careful preparation pays off.

Then with the good luck of adequate sun and rain, the garden grows...and blooms. But it only continues to bloom well, as the manuscript in progress improves, with the hard work of weeding and pruning and revising - yanking out those troublesome weeds and the unnecessary parts of the plot or characters that were not moving the story, and pruning out the dead wood and cutting the fluff and deleting the extra scenes and verbiage that weighed down the text.

After digging that five-dollar hole, the gardener continues to fertilize and water the garden as the writer continues to polish her manuscript.

Read more!

Monday, May 25, 2009

To Read or Not to Read - Part 4

This is my new bookcase. I love it! (I've been looking for an antique glass-fronted bookcase that didn't cost a fortune for years. But that's another post for another blog). I bought it because I've accumulated so many books that my old bookcase was filled and piles of books were amassing on the floor around the bookcase. Now look at all the empty shelf space begging to be filled! I love to read and lately, in the last year, I've been reading lots and lots of YA (see previous posts To Read or Not to Read - Parts 1-3). But now I find myself with a problem.

It is fear. Fear of Incorporation. Fear that I am never going to have an original idea again. Fear that I am taking bits from each of the books I've read and putting them in my new story. For example, if I have my main character see the school psychologist during school hours, is that stealing from Courtney Summer's CRACKED UP TO BE? If a character enjoys anagrams, is that too much like John Green's AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES? Or if the MC feels as if no one understands her, is that copying from David Klass's YOU DON'T KNOW ME? And what if I want to add viral infected zombies, is that too close to IN THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH? These are a few of the YA books I've read recently and I'm now calling into doubt every plot point I've imagine for my WIP. Did I think of that on my own, or was it something I read in someone else's story?

This, for me, is the dilemma of reading in my genre. I understand that the points I've picked out are small and insignificant. They can and do happen in real life (except for maybe the viral infected zombies) and given a believable and original set-up it makes perfect sense to fit these details into a story. And, given a believable and original set-up even the zombies could fit into a story. I just don't like second guessing myself. Maybe I should write a story that "steals" one component from every book I've read? A viral infected zombie who is misunderstood and has to visit the school counselor at lunchtime, but can only communicate through anagrams. Hummmm....maybe not.

I suppose I need to remember that there are no new stories to tell, only new ways to tell them. Now I'm off to the bookstore!

Read more!

Friday, May 22, 2009

True Confessions -- Have you used your kids in your writing?

We’ve had a rotten couple weeks in our household. Without going into great detail, let’s just say it involved a teenager, a teacher, and a high school election. The teenager is no Tracy Flick. He’s a good-hearted, hard-working kid, but the teacher was just as determined as Jim McAllister that said teenager lose the election. But in the land of careful what you wish for, while said teen did lose the election, the teacher in question also lost her job as student advisor, effective immediately.

I bring this up not to vent (what, me? vent?), but as an observation.

Earlier this week, Gale wrote about observing strangers in a waiting room. As we went through this experience, I found myself noting everyone’s reactions, including my own, and squirreling them away in my mental filing cabinet. At times I thought, “You rotten mother. You’re observing this like a writer!” But I couldn’t stop myself. It’s part of who I am.

I know there are times when I’ve used my kids in my writing. I look to them for authentic language; I test for valid emotions; and I have sneaked an anecdote or two -- maybe even three or four -- into my manuscripts. But I’ve never yet written anything based on reality.

Have you?

Read more!

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Case of Writer's Curiosity

My life has a new routine - showing up five days a week for a quick, painless medical treatment. After sitting for weeks in a waiting room with many of the same people, I've developed a new condition, a case of writer's curiosity. What works together to activate this syndrome? Eyes. Ears. Imagination.

One patient is the slim, handsome, European-looking man wearing expensive Italian shoes who is always accompanied by at least two women. His wife is pretty and expertly made-up, but ruins her image by cramming an over-sized rear end into tight jeans. Bummer. The older woman, probably his mother, is slender, well-preserved, and clanks with ornate silver and gold jewelry. Some days he also escorts a 30ish woman who often dresses in bold colors - a purple jacket, patterned red pants, and an orange shirt. A sister? A daughter? The family always sits together and talks quietly in what sounds like Portuguese. As they enter and leave, he always holds the door only for the older woman. Do they all come every day because they love this man so much? Or is it an ingrained sense of family duty?

Observing the mother-daughter twosome is painful. Mother (the patient) is confused about small things, asks the same questions over and over, and obsessively picks at her buttons, rings, or thinning hair. The daughter shows patience in her conversation, but her tight body language screams frustration. Do they live together? Is this daughter the sole caregiver? What's the relationship like when they're not in public?

One day I sit near the office window. Nurse One is telling how she lays down the law to her ten-year-old daughter.
Nurse Two advises, "Do it now, because the day will come when she won't listen. You won't be the boss anymore."
Nurse One declares, "That day will never come. She'll listen and I'll ALWAYS be the boss."
How soon will she be proven wrong? Will there be an explosive YA scene someday?

Back stories. Real time stories. Future stories. Writer in the waiting room. Eyes. Ears. Imagination.

Read more!

Friday, May 15, 2009

16 Questions for MG and YA Author Kristen Kemp

I was lucky enough to take a magazine pitching class with Kristen Kemp, the author of 13 MG and YA books, who also happens to live in my town. Kristen’s seven novels include Breakfast at Bloomingdale's; The Dating Diaries; I Will Survive; and Genny in a Bottle, a four-book series. Among her six non-fiction books are Strut Your Stuff; Who Are You Really?; 2 Grrrls Guide to Friendship; and 2 Grrrls Guide to Style. Busy as she is with her writing, Kristen was nice enough to do this interview. Thanks, Kristen!

1. You published your first non-fiction book, Jewel: Pieces of a Dream (Simon & Schuster, 1998), only two years after graduating from Indiana University. How did you land the sale? Was it your first manuscript?

Oh boy. I was working as an associate editor at a teen magazine called Twist. I was really enjoying entertainment writing at that time. I had written a story for the magazine called “20 Things You've Never Heard About Jewel.” I loved Jewel, and I did tons of research. I kept telling the entertainment editor, Marc Malkin (way before his gig on The Insider), useless facts that fascinated me. He said, "You should sell one of those quickie books." I wrote up a proposal, sent it to YA book editors, and it got snapped up. I was thrilled because this silly little book gave me the in with editors I was looking for. I wanted to write fiction.

2. Tell us about the day you found out you sold your first novel, Genny in a Bottle, a four-part series, to Scholastic in 2001.

I honestly do not remember. I chalk it up to aging. I can just say that I was thrilled and then terrified. After I got this four-book deal, I had enough money to quit my job at Cosmopolitan magazine. I was associate editor there. Again, I was thrilled and then terrified.

3. After the sale, were you able to make a living as a writer? If not, what did you do to pay the rent?

Absolutely. I only made around $30K per year at my full-time magazine editing jobs. I started bringing in $2K to $3K per magazine story I did on the side. At that time, my books were about $7K to $10K a piece. I found I could put together $30K fairly easily. I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then I found another cute and cheap place in Jersey City. I definitely made the rent.

4. You're 35 years old and already have 13 books under your belt. What's your secret to being so prolific at such a young age?

I wouldn't say I'm prolific at all. I just get excited about ideas and get to work on them. I've taught a lot of YA students as well. The one issue I see that keeps people from succeeding and selling their work is that writers don't finish what they started. I cannot think of a project I didn't finish, for better or worse.

5. Almost all your books were published by Scholastic. Why is that? Are you under contract with the publisher?

My editor is David Levithan. Now he's prolific as an editor and a YA writer. He's a friend of mine who became my editor. He has a reputation in the industry for not letting his writers go. That's been the case with me. He likes my ideas, and he buys them, even outbidding other publishers.

6. Do you or have you ever belonged to a critique group? If so, did you find it helpful?

Yes, I have. It is very helpful. It keeps me on deadline and gives me amazing feedback. The one thing about critique groups, though, is that I sometimes get bogged down by the work I have to do. I try to just pick out the top 3 bits of advice, make a few changes, but most importantly, keep moving forward in my writing.

7. You wrote most of your books before your 3-year-old twin daughters and 1-year-old son were born. How has raising a family impacted your writing?

I had so much more time. That's the biggest difference. I didn't sleep a whole lot until the last six months. Not sleeping really hurt my ability to plot and think creatively. It's getting better now. It's just a matter of finding time for my YA writing. We all have challenges to our writing.

8. Do you have an agent now? Did you have an agent when you wrote your books or did you submit on your own?

I do have an agent now, Dorian Karchmar at William Morris.

9. What do you love most about writing books for children?

My teen years were so hard. I don't know why this is, but I love to relive them. In my writing, I can make all the wrongs of my teens right. It's such an impressionable, emotional time. It's very special. It's also very difficult. I like dwelling on it.

10. What's the most challenging aspect of writing books for children?

Hmmm. Probably finding good topics that haven't been covered before in teen novels. Fresh, interesting, fun books with great characters are key.

11. What's your typical writing routine?

When I'm on deadline with a novel, I have page counts that I have to hit each day. If the manuscript is due in eight months, I might need to write five pages four days a week. I really stick to that schedule, and the book somehow does get done.

12. Do you have any books in the pipeline now?

My last book, Breakfast at Bloomingdale's, is coming out this fall in paperback with a fantastic new cover. I'm currently working on a nonfiction proposal about a woman who has become a wonderful friend of mine. We are the same age and both from the Midwest. But when she was 18, she shot her sexually abusive father to death to keep him from raping her little sister. She went to prison for life without parole. Just last January, she was granted clemency and released. I'm co-authoring her memoir--it's heartbreaking, inspiring and setting me on a wild emotional roller coaster. But I think this is a story she has to tell. I wrote about her a few years ago for Glamour, and we recently went on Nancy Grace together.

13. Do you have any general advice for children's book writers seeking agents?

Write a short, snappy, one-page query letter. Blow them away with the title and the hook of your story. Every teenage story these days needs a fresh gimmick of sorts. Breakfast at Bloomingdale's had all of those things.

14. What are your favorite new MG and YA books?

Suzi Clue (a former student wrote it), Violet on the Runway, What I Saw and How I Lied. There are so many absolutely amazing ones. I also loved Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist--the book and the movie.

15. What's the best piece of advice you ever got as a writer?


16. What's your best piece of advice for aspiring children's book authors?

Write stories that you love and know. A book idea has to really get you excited and keep you up at night. That's a clue to you that you need to write it.

Read more!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Careful What You Wish For

The good news first - I wrote half a middle grade novel with my writing partner, we got an agent, and she sold the book for us! It's spectacularly great, everything I'd hoped for, and more.

The bad news - we have to write the second half of the book, on deadline, with the added pressure that this thing will actually become a book on a shelf someday in the not too distant future.

More good news - it hasn't paralyzed me, but it has forced me to look at my writing with a far more critical eye. And writing on deadline is something that I respond to. It takes care of a lot of the game-playing I do with myself.

More bad news - I'm terrified, that I won't finish, that it will be rejected and our wonderful opportunity will be squandered, that I will be revealed as the fraud I suspect I am. The stakes were raised quickly, and I'm having a bit of a hard time adjusting.

I realize I have no right to complain, at all, and for that I apologize, but I think it's worth noting - the self-doubt, the questioning, the pesky blank page that stares right back at you - none of that goes away even if your book is going to be published. At least not for me, yet.

Read more!

Monday, May 4, 2009

To Season, Not to Smother

I'm reading Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Simon and Schuster, 2007. I'm working on the first draft of a historical novel and was interested in seeing how she handled her topic. She has done what many writers, including me, find difficult to do: She sprinkles the back story like she is seasoning a dish. She enhances the plot. She does not smother it.

The story is about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It starts as one of the main characters, a young Italian girl, arrives in New York City via Ellis Island. Now, had I been writing a book on this topic, I would have been tempted to start in the miserable village in Italy, or at least have one good scene in Ellis Island...a marvelous description opportunity...but she mentions the Island perhaps three times...and no more. On she goes to the plot. She weaves into descriptive scenes both action and emotion. Characters are defined by their action and their speech. No looking in store windows or mirrors to adjust their hair. We are aware of their shabby clothes and their foreign language, but action is primary on every page.

It's been a good lesson in restraint.

Read more!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Dolce Far Niente

As a writer, procrastination is not a welcome thing. Some might label it as writer's block. What I'm going through isn't writer's block exactly. I have three intriguing ideas vying for my attention. So, how, you might ask, am I going about getting them out on paper? Outlining each one? Jotting ideas down as they come to me? Speaking into a portable voice recorder?

No. I'm doing nothing. A much nicer way to put this is dolce far niente. (Gotta love the Italians) Sweet doing nothing.

I find myself sitting down at my computer, staring at the blinking cursor, trying like heck to get something down and mind wanders. Here's a typical conversation lately:

"Alright, so X inherits the car and then.." (the type A writer woman me says)

"And then...wouldn't it be nice to have lunch outside, it's 80 degrees and sunny, just look at that Carolina blue sky." (my sometimes hedonistic surfer dude of a muse says)

"Let's write the rest of the scene and then we can go out."

"But I'm hungry now, and you can take your notebook and jot some notes down outside."

"Well, if I can write..."

"And you might as well bring that book you're reading and get a chapter in because you can't really write with a fork in your hand..."

"Hmm...well, okay since I've got to eat..."

You can imagine how the afternoon went. I sat with my feet up, sipping sweet tea, sunning myself and happily (yes, must include that adverb here) reading The Time Traveler's Wife. Did I feel guilty for abandoning my work that day?

Would I be unprofessional if I said no?

I certainly don't do that every day. As the weather has gotten nicer though, I find my mind wandering a bit more than it should. Sometimes I win the battle and muscle through a scene, other times, like the above example, I don't. But I can hardly call it a loss. Many times, during that sweet doing nothing, my best ideas begin to flesh themselves out. When I return to my work the words I had previously grappled with come flowing out so easily I feel divinely inspired. Other times it takes a few of those afternoons for me to feel that way. It's my process, and I've learned to go with it the best I can.

If I don't give in now and again to the call of dolce far niente, I become a very grumpy individual. All a part of the balance.

So - do you allow yourself a time of sweet doing nothing? Or is it just an excuse to be lazy?

Read more!