Sunday, November 28, 2010

Space...and Room to Grow

I climbed the stairs to the second floor, hearing the sounds of the exercise class instructor calling cues and the music of the dance class pulsing upwards. The Writers Group is meeting on the third floor said the Community House member. I tramped up the now narrower stairs to the third floor to find myself in the dark. Fumbling around I found the light switch and flipped it on and navigated into the only room that looked like it would accommodate the writing group. A fairly stark room - with two large lunch tables and about ten chairs - and the faint sounds of the first floor activities in the background.

It was different from the large and spacious room at the local library, which they had been generous to let us use, and which had been a good place to meet for over ten years, but now their schedule and ours just didn't match.

When the group arrived and we started our scheduled critiques of several members' work - one chapter of a MG novel and a PB manuscript - we seemed to melt into our space comfortably. No other groups were on our high third floor but the sounds of activities from the lower floors in the distance provided comfort and ambient background noise for our discussions. Once we're underway of course, we really don't hear anything else.

We are concentrating on the work and seeing the plot and characters we have been dealing with in prior versions and chapters come more fully to life. Now that we actually know the characters in these two respective manuscripts we speak of them as if they are real and living people, who we think would act, think and speak in a specific way. No, Sam would probably say this....Stella might behave like this instead....

By the end of the first evening, we were very comfortable in our attic meeting room, and I think that our literary characters were too. The space filled with thoughtful consideration - and it seems that the plainer the space the more room there is for growth and for thought to expand.

Certainly the physical place shouldn't matter and a writer could compose with just a pen and paper or keyboard, but in practical terms, a place with room to grow is a positive.

Our old space, comfortable and attractive and sometimes adorned with a local art exhibit, saw a number of books and magazine articles published and awards received, and I am hopeful that the new space will help frame the support for more good work.

Does the space where you write or group critique help mold your work or add to the atmosphere and is it helpful and conducive to the development of your work? I think our new critique meeting room is an ideal space for ideas to grow, thoughts to be exchanged and manuscripts honed into future books.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing Lessons from the TV Series "The Vampire Diaries"

One of the first bits of advice we writers who wish to be more prolific receive is to cut waaaaaaaaay back on our TV watching. For the most part, I don’t have a problem. I’m not into soaps, haven’t seen an episode of Oprah in years, but at night I will admit to unwinding in front of the flat screen. I can take the high road and say I only watch NatGeo or TLC (which can be a pretty bizarre trip into voyeurism) but if you’re looking for me on a Thursday night at 8:00PM - I’m usually curled up in my favorite chair with a cup of something warm anxiously waiting to travel to the fictional town of Mystic Falls to watch the Salvatore brothers get themselves into more trouble.

Did I mention the Salvatore brothers are vampires?

If you’ve taken leave from the planet for awhile you might not be familiar with The Vampire Diaries. First a YA novel series written by L.J. Smith (published in 1991, btw) and now a television series developed (and often penned) by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.

The Vampire Diaries on television follows the story of Stefan and Damon Salvatore, brothers from Mystic Falls, Virginia, who were ‘turned’ in the late 1800s by a vampire they both fell in love with named Katherine Pierce. Fast forward to modern day, Stefan returns to his home of Mystic Falls only to fall in love with Elena Gilbert, a young girl he saves from a car that had swerved off a bridge and into a river. Elena happens to be the spitting image of Katherine. Stefan enrolls in high school so he can get to know her. Elena is immediately intrigued by the smokin’ hot and brooding, Stefan. Soon after Stefan’s bad-boy brother Damon comes to town, with his own agenda, part of which is to make Stefan miserable and baboom!– instant intrigue.

My goal is not to summarize the series for you, but to point out some writing tips I’ve learned along the ride. And yes, this is an absolute justification to completely enjoy my guilty pleasure, but I’ve learned a lot.

Vibrant Characters – All of the main characters on the show are multi-dimensional, but for my purpose I’m going to focus on Damon Salvatore (played with sigh-worthy brilliance by Ian Somerhalder). Damon is described as the bad-boy. The pure evil boy might be more like it. One moment he will charm you, the next, rip out your heart. And I mean that…like…literally. And yet whenever the softer side of Damon is shown – you can’t help but fall in love with him. When he professes his love for Elena, even though he knows how many times he’s wronged her, it’s with genuine emotion, so that when he compels her to forget that he told her he loves her…you are just left heartbroken and rooting for him. Even ‘good boy’ Stefan isn’t all good, especially when he drinks human blood, which he’s sworn off of, even though it’s what makes him stronger. And it turns out innocent human Elena can pull a few deceitful tricks out from her sleeve in order to protect her man, um, er, vampire, as well. No one is either all good or all bad. It’s truly an awesome lesson in character development.

Well developed ensemble cast – The supporting characters are equally as intriguing and layered as the main triangle. There’s Bonnie, Elena’s best friend and yes, witch who helps her friend out of a myriad of tough situations in spite of having an intrinsic dislike for vampires. Jeremy, Elena’s brooding little brother (a character created for the television series) whose legacy is to be a vampire hunter and yet he can’t help befriending some of the bloodsuckers. And there's Caroline, Elena’s other BFF, often misunderstood and in Elena’s shadow, who becomes a vampire quite by accident. (yes, you read that right). I could go on and on, even with one-episode-only players, but I could fill the page. The lesson here is to make your supporting cast as interesting as your main cast so when they interact, your story is that much richer.

Triangles - There’s Stefan-Katherine-Damon, Stefan-Elena-Damon, Damon-Katherine-Mason, Elena-Bonnie-Caroline, Caroline-Damon-Caroline’s Mom (which is not as creepy as it sounds), Elena-Matt-Caroline, Bonnie-Jeremy-Luka, etc. etc. Having triangles – ever shifting and changing - keeps things interesting. Having trouble with a ho-hum relationship in your book? Throw another character into the mix, preferably one who will shake things up, and you’ll see sparks fly.

Keep upping the stakes – There’s barely a moment on Vampire Diaries that is NOT without life and death peril. And just when you think the story has slowed down or the characters are safe…another variable is brought in. How nice – Stefan and Elena are finally going to get some couple time, WAIT, in walks Katherine. Look - Elena has the moonstone in her grasp…oh no, watch out for those SNAKES! Whew –Damon staked the evil uber vampire Elijah…but wait, he’s not really dead, dead. He survived the staking and is now coming after Elena. Upping the stakes, and placing your characters in further peril equates to page turning plots.

All of this and more is why although I enjoy watching The Vampire Diaries, I consider it a master class in great story. Makes me feel a little less guilty enjoying my guilty pleasure. Kind of like knowing that dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants. A win-win situation!

So tell me Paper Waiters, have you found sound writing advice in the not so usual places?

The Vampire Diaries is on the CW, Thursdays at 8. For a more detailed episode guide, producing/writing credits and info on the gorgeous and talented cast, go here.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

BIG News

I am jumping the queue in our regular posting schedule because I have some BIG NEWS!

My picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass just made School Library Journal's Best Books 2010: Picture Books.

I had been thrilled with the starred review I got from SLJ. To be included on the list of Best Picture Books of 2010, with the likes of Mo Willems and David Weisner, is more than I could have hoped for.

I would never have gotten to this point if it weren't for my fellow Paper Waiters who brutally and honestly told me that my first version of this story stunk, but encouraged me to find the right voice. Thanks, PWers! I couldn't have done it without you.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Genre Confusion

I don’t know about all you fellow kidlit writers out there, but I’ve been stumped by at least one publishing term that an agent or editor has attached to my w.i.p.

Here’s an example. At one conference I attended, after pitching my manuscript to an editor, she smiled at me and said, “Hmm. It sounds very high concept.”

High concept? Um, okay. Was this a compliment or a thinly veiled insult? Having no idea, I simply smiled back and said, um, nothing.

After some frenzied, post-pitch googling , I was still stumped.

Luckily, Nathan Bransford posted about this meaning of this very term on his blog a few months ago. For those of you who don’t want to click on the link, here’s the nutmeat of what he wrote:

"High concept means that a novel’s plot can be described very succinctly in appealing fashion.”

Great, I thought. I have an appealing plot. But after reading further, I wasn’t so sure. As Mr. Bransford went on to write:
“High concept is very often misunderstood because what it sounds like it means and what it actually means are basically completely opposite. It doesn't mean sophisticated (opposite), it doesn't mean cerebral (opposite), it doesn't mean difficult to describe (opposite). And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.”

Hmm, maybe not so great. Maybe she thought my plot was unsophisticated, non-cerebral, and facile. Ouch.

But his post ended on a high note.
“And it's very important to know what it means because although high concept is often a term used derogatorily, I am hearing from more and more editors that they want high concept novels, even for literary fiction.”

Okay, so maybe my first instinct—it was great!—was spot-on after all.

Or, maybe not.

I guess I’ll never know. With a term like "high concept,” it could go either way.

Recently, I heard from a writer friend that an agent had called her manuscript too “commercial” to take on. At the time, I didn’t get it. Since when is being “commercial” a bad thing? Isn’t that the point, to sell as many books as possible?

Since I’m already over my word limit, I won't even begin to dive into my current state of genre confusion. To wit, is my fantasy w.i.p.…

a) straight fantasy
b) science fiction
c) urban fantasy
d) paranormal
e) high fantasy


f) steampunk (just kidding, I know it’s not that)

…since it contains elements that relate to all of the above (except "f"). Of course, in my query, I could always go with…

g) science fantasy (a nice hybrid term)

...or, as one editor called it…

h) a fantasy/mystery/adventure (a really nice hybrid term)

Frankly, I like “h” best, because it opens up more pitching possibilities. Maybe if I called it “a high urban paranormal science fantasy,” I’d hit the pitching jackpot.

Fellow Paper Waiters, are there any publishing terms or genres in kidlit land that have stumped you? If so, please share them. And it you have the proper definition, by all means, be sure to share that too!

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Friday, November 12, 2010

dePaola, Picture Books, & Cake

In honor of PiBoIdMo, I give you Tomie dePaola interviewed by Lin Oliver.
You're not an artist?
Well, writers, listen for his definition of a picture book. Illustrations are as important as the words that spring from your ideas!

So who has the best deal in this author/illustrator collaboration - the making (baking) of a picture book (cake)?

Is it the author who writes a recipe, lights the oven, gathers the ingredients, and whips up the batter; or is it the illustrator who bakes and decorates the cake?

Is it harder for the writer to worry about whether the cake will be perfectly baked and beautiful, or is it harder for the illustrator to worry about whether the recipe is pleasing and the ingredients have been measured correctly enough to produce a delicious cake?

Authors? Illustrators? How do you see it?

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Monday, November 8, 2010

PiBoIdMo: Electric Ideas!

In my last post, I was getting excited for Picture Book Idea Month. Now it's here, and I thought I'd post about how it's going.

If you had asked me after the first few days, I would have said pretty good. I came up with some cute ideas, but none of them were grabbing me quite yet.

Then came yesterday...

with not one but two really exciting ideas!

So, if you asked me how it's going now, I would definitely say, fantastic!

As I compared yesterday to the days before it, it's interesting to me to see how my idea gathering process works.

There are some ideas that I get and they go onto my list. I like them. I really do. And maybe someday I'll put in the effort to grow them into books.

Then there are other ideas. The ideas like the two I had yesterday. The moment I think of them, it's almost like a current of electricity runs through me. My mind can't help but start trying to figure out how I can transform this idea into a first draft. (And yes, by yesterday evening I had started to write a first attempt at both books.)

Now the first kinds of ideas sometimes do grow into books for me. Sometimes they collide with other ideas I've got and become something even more interesting.

But the second kind of idea. Now those are the ones that almost always turn into something interesting for me. They often take a very long time to complete, beyond the excitement of that initial spark. But that excitement for the topic seems to sustain me throughout.

So, why gather thirty ideas you might ask. Why not only gather the ones that send a jolt of electricity through you?

But it's only through regular conscious idea gathering that I was open to "catching" both of yesterday's ideas. I knew I was looking for ideas, so everything I saw became a potential idea.

Plus, it's interesting that yesterday's ideas really draw on two of the PiBoIdMo blog posts on Tara's site. One is about something little-- or at least not big (Thanks, Brandi Dougherty!) and the other is a list (Thanks, David LaRochelle!). I wasn't consciously trying to do either of these things, but I'm sure that subconsciously the blog posts stuck with me. (It is so great to hear how other people generate ideas!)

So, that's how PiBoIdMo is going for me. And I'm pretty excited about it!

How's your writing November going for you? PiBoIdMo? NaNoWriMo? Drafting? Revising? Editing? Waiting???

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Bubble Past the Guilt

I am so guilty.

Guilty of getting dragged into volunteering yet again at my kid’s school. Guilty of answering the phone when I should be focused on my writing. Guilty of checking my email every time it beeps. Guilty of surfing just one blog/website/forum. Occasionally, I’m even guilty of Oprah.

So I’m climbing into the bubble.

The bubble as described by Deborah Heiligman, author of Charles and Emma, and this year’s keynote speaker at the Rutgers One on One Conference. In between lots of laughs, Deborah doled out some exceptional advice. Some of her advice I already follow, like always carrying a notebook. But I do thank Deborah for the handy dandy all-weather notebook that now graces my shower. Who knew they even existed? Now no idea will escape me!

But Deborah’s bubble talk is what really got to me. She laid it out. Pick your time. Let’s say, from eight to one. That would work just fine for me. That’s writing time. Time when phones go to voicemail, the old information highway turns into a parking lot, and the only breaks taken are the ones that help spur the writing on.

So who’s with me? Who will stand with me against the time sucking internet behemoth and write in a bubble? Who will echo, “No. I can’t, I work during that time.” Come on, writers! Climb into the bubble!

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