Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Music's Inspiration

I'm looking forward to seeing some wonderful opera tonight by Puccini. And, I'm anticipating watching to see and hear the action and the music reach crescendo and climax with drama and soaring sound. Whether the music is folk, jazz, rock, reggae, hip hop, house, choral, symphonic or grand opera, I'm always reminded of story - writing the story - and taking the story to its grabbing and enticing heights of tension.

The overture offers strains of the coming sections of music, fragments of the happy and triumphant parts of the characters lives and dark and foreboding tones of the tragedy that may unfold. Like the composer who weaves through the symphony or opera the threads and clues to the characters' fates, so as story tellers we include suggestions throughout the story or novel that draw the reader in and propel the characters and plot forward.


I and most writers may not write with the mastery of the genius Puccini but the study of music can help illuminate for us skills to improve our writing and to bring the story to a high point of tension.

What is your favorite music style? Does it help guide you with plot, character development and crescendo?

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Monday, September 28, 2009


I have champagne-worthy news! I have an agent. I am now officially represented by Steven Chudney, and I couldn’t be happier.

It’s been journey to this point; one I’m glad I took. I began writing this manuscript seven years ago. I was already a writer, but a business writer. I was also an avid reader. But when my boys began reading novels, something clicked inside me. I read the books they were reading, and fell in love with middle grade.

I joined SCBWI and found my wonderful critique group. I dug into the process of novel writing, taking classes, going to conferences, and reading, reading, reading.

In 2007, I sent my MG out into the world and got a bunch of “good” rejections—a decent share of partial and full requests, even a trip to an editorial meeting at a major publisher. But I couldn’t figure out what was missing. What it was that made agents and editors ultimately say no.

So I gave my manuscript a time out—some drawer time for a year or so—and continued working on a second novel.

When I finally took my MG out of the drawer (or out of its Word file, really), I could see flaws that had been invisible the year before. I revised, ran it through my critique group again (and bless ‘em, they never said—again????), revised again, and last July, after carefully researching agents, sent off some targeted queries.

Two months and one revision later, my drawer time paid off. I now wait while Steven takes another read. When he deems it ready, out to publishers it goes.

I have to say, this feels really good. But what will feel even better, is getting a phone call and hearing, “I sold it.”

Photo: Ian Britton

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Friday, September 25, 2009

To Read or Not To Read Part 5: Morbid Inspiration

My husband and I have been spending a lot of time in cemeteries lately. Not because anyone we know has died (thank goodness), but as tourists. That might sound ghoulish, but it was not our intention.

In the last month we've been to Arlington National Cemetery, Christ Church Burial Grounds in Philadelphia, and Lafayette Cemetery, pictured above, in New Orleans.

Comparing the three cemeteries is like comparing apples and oranges. Arlington National Cemetery is 200 acres of pristine and uniform graves. It provides a snapshot of our national history. Did you know that the property once belonged to Robert E. Lee? I particularly enjoyed the section where the nurses are buried. Hundreds of women who served during war time. Their names alone are worth the trip - Phoebe, Constance, Betty, Gertrude. In comparison, the Christ Church Burial Ground is 2 acres with some 4,000 graves, including five signers of the Declaration of Independence and victims of the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak (I've added Laurie Halse Anderson's FEVER to my TBR list). The Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans is unlike any other cemetery (well, any cemetery above sea level). In New Orleans, tombs are used. So walking through the cemetery is like walking through a town - row upon row of tombs dating back to 1833.

So, what the heck does our morbid fixation with cemeteries have to do with writing?

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories lately. As part of my work for VCFA, I have to read roughly ten books every four weeks. For the last packet, I read all ghost stories. For the packet due in October, I'm reading stories that have Death as a character. Why? My current WIP is a ghost story and I've never written a paranormal story before. So I need to learn how others have done it.

Some of the books I've read in the last month are:
GHOSTS I HAVE BEEN by Richard Peck
GHOSTS OF KERFOL by Deborah Noyes
RUINED by Paula Morris (which prominently features the Lafayette Cemetery).
SKELLIG by David Almond (not really a ghost story but a GREAT book)

What I've learned from all this reading is that there are as many types of ghosts floating around in writers' imaginations as there are writers, and comparing them is like comparing cemeteries - apples to oranges. Some ghosts are menacing and scary and kept me up at night (THE GHOSTS OF KERFOL), some are loving and kind (THE GRAVEYARD BOOK), some are helpful (THE KILLER'S COUSIN). What it means is that I can have my ghost be any kind of ghost I want her to be. The only rules that exist for ghost stories are the ones created by the writer for their specific world. The ghosts must be true to that created world.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I've had a change of heart when it comes to reading YA. I never used to read it. Now, it's ALL I read. I read with a highlighter in one hand and stack of post-it-tabs in the other. When I'm done with a book it's marked all up and has all kinds of papers sticking out of it. I learn something from every book I read, even the ones I don't particularly like. The really good ones inspire me. And, the cemeteries have inspired me as well - through the ambiance of their hallowed ground and the voices of all those souls. After visiting all these places it is easy to believe in ghosts.

So I wonder, if I find inspiration from graveyards and ghost stories, where do other writers, whether you're writing contemporary, historical, sci-fi, whatever, get their inspiration? What are you reading and what have you learned?

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In the Writing Zone

I've been amazingly productive this month. Now that my son is back to catching the bus at 6:46 a.m., I'm at my computer, coffee in hand, by 6:50 a.m. (Or he misses the bus at 6:47 a.m., I drive him, and don't get that first cup of coffee until after 7:00 a.m. Grrrr.)

Either way, I've been kicking #@% keeping butt in chair. But what makes me even happier than the work at the keyboard, is the work everywhere else. I am in the writing zone.

I am so in the zone I finally figured out the mucky middle of my YA WIP and I haven't touched it in six weeks. My solid plot took twists and turns that that led straight into dead ends. But as I revised and polished my MG manuscript every morning until it's spit-shined, a funny thing happened every afternoon. My thoughts turned to my YA as I took care of all of life's other business. And I figured out where the plot went wrong.

I can't wait to dig back into my YA--I even have a new name for my MC--something that has driven me crazy since I wrote my first three pages.

Fellow writers, has this happened to you? When you take the pressure off, do the answers come?

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

As The Wheel Turns - Or Stops

Sometimes I picture my writing life as a spinning wheel. As I turn it, my ideas and words fill the spindle a thin strand at a time. Three weeks ago, I had an idea for a story and as I worked the wheel, the bare spindle slowly gained girth. Then the strands snapped. The wheel spun to a stop. I was plunged into a crisis of 24/7 care-giving. Forget fiction. Reality ruled.

How did I start to regain my writing life when the crisis was over?

My critique groups came to the rescue. This week I read and critiqued sections of two novels - an excellent way to reconstruct my writing frame of mind. Reading clever dialogue and vivid descriptions as I rooted for appealing three-dimensional characters inspired me. Thanks, fellow writers, I'm ready to return to writing.

Critique groups support you in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Right?

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Next Top Content?

If you’re a Google-based blogger, you probably know about Google Analytics, a nifty site that lets you track your blog’s stats. If you’re a newbie, to find it, go to the Google home page, click on My Account, then click on Analytics.

Et voila. Stats on top of overlays on top of stats. You can see where your visitors come from (Hong Kong? Wow!). You can see who referred visitors to your site. We love our visiting blucboarders from Verla Kay. And, hey, thanks for the tweets, Tara Lazar! Of course, we love all our followers and subscribers too, and are so glad you've stopped by, whether it's to join in the conversation or just do a little lurking.

Of all the stats, my perennial fave is Top Content, which tells you which posts were viewed the most over the past month. Since we launched our blog in March 2008, we’ve put up 164 posts, including this one. To my surprise, one of those posts, put up seven months ago, in February 2009, has had incredible staying power. Seven months later, it remains our most-viewed post, taking the top content prize month after month.

Here’s a little multiple choice question for you:

Is the title of our perennial top content post…a) How We Do It, Critique, That Is; b) There Could Be Gold on Them Thar Shelves; or c) How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

If you guessed c) How Long Does It Take to Write a Book, you’re right. It’s amazing how many people Google that question and wind up on our site. As the post said, the answer is, there is no answer. A book takes as long as it needs. Even so, I guess I’m not the only writer who felt like she was taking too darn long to write her book.

Because the post did so well--and I’m a sucker for good traffic--I’ve decided on the title for my next one: How Long Does It Take to Find an Agent? Maybe that one will keep bringing in the hits too. Stay tuned.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

I've Got An Idea--Now What?

I hope to begin drafting a new novel soon. I'm nearing the finish line for one WIP, so it's time to pull out the idea file and decide what to work on next. I've been tossing light bulb moments in a file folder for the past five years as I've worked on two different novels. So here's my question: How do you take a great idea, and figure out if it will make a great book?

My completed MG began with a problem and I built a plot around how my MC would solve it. My YA WIP, however, began with a setting and an idea for three friends within that setting. I then created a problem and kept writing until my MC figured out a solution.

Right now, I'm letting several ideas simmer. I hope in a month or so, one of them will demand my attention. But to my fellow writers, I ask, do you have a more structured process to developing your ideas into books?

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Changing Vision of Revision

Recently I've been revising a manuscript, and it's been a lot of fun.

Fun? Revision? That got me thinking.

When I first started writing "fun" wasn't a word I would ever have used to describe revision. "Torture" was more like it.

I hated cutting a paragraph from a treasured piece of prose. I hated changing my opening page. But, most of all, I hated being told my beloved first draft (or second or third or fourth) wasn't perfect.

So, what made me change?

The more I think about my change in attitude, the more it comes down to having a real vision for my manuscripts. The word vision isn't in revision by accident, I realized. When I really know what kind of changes I want to see in my revised manuscript, making changes to it is fun instead of painful.

Those changes can include making more varied poetic forms in a poetry collection or allowing the readers to get a better sense of my main character in a picture book manuscript.

I think the most frustrating part of revision for me now is when I know that a manuscript needs a change, but I can't figure out what. I've got a manuscript like that now, and it's driving me crazy. But, at least now it's driving me crazy because I want to revise, not because I don't.

Sometimes putting a manuscript aside gives me the distance to find a new vision for it. And, of course, wonderful critiques can always help to challenge me to bring a manuscript to the next level.

So, how do you find your vision for revision?

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Friday, September 4, 2009

A Detour in the Journey

After six weeks with three grandchildren, ages 10 to 16, my husband and I left on a long-planned trip. I had no preconceived notions about the journey. I was just happy to be going where I didn't have to cook for three weeks!

The subject and location of the journey were complicated, but as it turned out, we were lucky to have a guide who brought tremendous perspective to what we saw. Three days into the trip, the writer in me was screaming "article." The trip focussed on a subject that is little discussed and yet very important in today's world. When we returned, the article was half written in my head. Now I'm doing the research to support my ideas.

However, I'm already halfway through my current novel. Letting the novel's manuscript sit will certainly cause me to lose momentum. Perhaps the non-fiction writing will help the fiction writing. We'll see.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

#@%*#@%*! Synopsis

If you are a writer, odds are at some point you’ve been asked for a synopsis of your work. After months, maybe even years, of crafting a novel, writing a synopsis sounds as easy as making cupcakes for the drama club’s bake sale. Then you sit at the computer and realize that maybe you underestimated the task at hand, feeling as though you’ve just been informed that those cupcakes for the bake sale must be red velvet cake with cream cheese icing and oh yeah, made from scratch, without sugar or gluten and they still have to taste like heaven.

Not so easy.

Writing a synopsis is shrouded in mystery. Ask ten editors and agents and you’ll get ten different answers. One page. Ten pages. Shorter is better. Must include the beginning, middle and end. Should read like jacket flap copy. Shouldn’t read like jacket flap copy. Must see character arc clearly. Best if written with the same flavor as the novel. Is your head spinning yet? Mine is.

I recently had the the much, much, boiled down, then reduced again, 2 page, sound bite of my 65,000 word novel critiqued. The feedback was not all that glowing – the general consensus being the story was underdeveloped.(I can feel you shudder with me) Yes, it was helpful, but the sort of helpful that required going back to the drawing board for more than a ten minute fix. I now have about five different versions of my synopsis. Super-short to way too long. My favorite one stands at a hefty seven pages. The one I will most likely use is five pages. Some of you are probably shaking your heads thinking, “Dear, that’s about four pages too long.” But if an editor wants to see how your story is developed – I mean, really developed not the "a couple of really cool things happen, the character grows and it's all tied up in a big red bow" version – how can that be done in one page?

So I’m opening it up to you – what are your best tips for writing a synopsis? Any good references or definitive answers out there? It would be nice to have a reference point.

Or at least know I’m not the only one driving in the torrential rain with one headlight.

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