Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Critical Connections

We have often talked about the process of critique groups and their great value. But it stands out much more clearly for me when I am physically a long distance from my New Jersey SCBWI group in the winter and I am still connected by internet.

When I receive and read a colleague's work via email and comment on it in solitude I am still involved in the process. As I applaud the writer on the manuscript and note suggestions for possible changes I am hearing in my mind other members of the group making their comments too. And, I wonder, what would this person say about the plot or that one about the characters? Do they say ratchet up the tension or bring it down? Show these two characters as being much closer so it is believable that they will act for each other, or do they say, delete this guy? I can hear their voices discussing the pros and cons.

Receiving critiques on my manuscripts works well too. Every critique doesn't arrive on the same day so I have time to mull over the comments before seeing others. It's interesting to read each critique as it comes in over "the wire" and observe the similarities and differences of the comments. One of the fascinating aspects is the individual suggestions that the members make for improvements in the story - so valuable coming from different perspectives and choice of language and approach - unique word possibilities, plot twists or character enhancements - seeing these comments starkly black on white with no conversation is often very helpful.

Nothing, however, takes the place of being there - whether being in the mix of offering suggestions to other writers or receiving them yourself or enjoying the comaraderie of the bon mots and jokes that are interspersed in the commentary.

Critique groups are critical connections for writers and many of us find them invaluable. Since most groups work in similar but certainly in different ways too, what critical connections does your group offer you?And here is the rest of it.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Giraffe Juggling

As I revise my rhyming picture book manuscript, advice on writing echoes in my thoughts: “Don’t do it. The rhyme has to be perfect. You have a better chance of juggling giraffes than selling a rhyming manuscript.”

Yet it attracts me. I love to read rhymes aloud, from Dr. Seuss to Mother Goose. Rhymes are texts I remember, from Good Night Moon to The Gruffalo. My feet tap and my head bops when I read Barnyard Dance or Jazz Baby. My kids don’t think of Shel Silverstein’s books as poetry, they think of them as fun. Good rhyme is timeless.

And despite the alarm bells, good rhyme is good business.

And there’s the rub: can I write a good rhyme? I can, at least, try. And I can’t help myself – it is fun. 
Some of the mechanical details are lost in my high school memory fog: poetic rules for slants, accents, structure and form. Any suggestions on favorite poetic resources would be appreciated.

I read my stanzas aloud and I know that the rhyme must flow as naturally as dialogue, it must not be forced, and each verse must serve the purpose of the story, moving the plot forward. Knowing however is not always the same as doing. 

I’m going to try anyway. If anyone has any good tips on giraffe juggling, that would be appreciated. 
What resources do you use to help you hone this irresistible craft? Do you have any success stories about juggling giraffes (ok, or writing)?

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction

Last week, my mother and sister arrived for their annual spring visit. I no sooner picked them up from the airport than my mother began to talk about a book she'd seen on Good Morning America - Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Apparently mommies all over are devouring this book, some even forgetting to pick up their kiddies from school or daycare! And a certain passage, the beginning of chapter fourteen to be exact, made GMA's weather anchor, Sam Champion, blush.

Okay, sign me up!

Not too far into it...something seemed eerily familiar.

I knew nothing about this book before my family's arrival but after Googling it found that a)it's a trilogy b) it's erotica (now I'm blushing) c) it was born out of Twilight fan fiction.

Um, about that last bit...

If you don't know the story, here's an informative AP article, but the elevator pitch is this: E.L. James wrote a racy, fan fiction novel Master of the Universe based on the characters in Twilight, and now has a seven figure deal with Vintage Books. The characters are older, and the situations extremely adult, but there are similar themes. The first book, Fifty Shades of Grey is currently number one on the NYT Combined Print and E-book Fiction Bestseller List. The second book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker, is number two.

I'm not sure how I feel about this.

I'm not trying to discredit E.L. James because writing, in and of itself, is damn hard work. Putting one sentence after the other to create and shape a story takes hours...months...years. She found an audience, a niche for herself. These books had a built in following on a fan fiction site before they were published. So, Brava!

On the other hand, as I struggle - and I know I'm not alone - to create fresh characters, interesting premises and wrap it all up in a marketable package, I feel a bit disheartened. I want to believe that all my hard work will pay off someday soon, but news like this makes the saying "it's all just a crap shoot" that much more real.

Thoughts? Does E.L. James' success give you hope for all of us? Or does it make you just scratch your head and think WTF?

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Past Tense, Present Tense - Pros & Cons

Author in a quandary - should I use past tense or present tense in my novel? Big decision. Big difference.

Deirdre F. Baker's thoughtful article about the effect of past or present tense in novels appeared in the January/February issue of Horn Book.
"Present Tensions, or It's All Happening Now" is an interesting take on the relationship between tense and the author's role:

"The past tense shows the narrator, perhaps even the author, quietly admitting responsibility for the way the story is told, admitting that it's a product of looking back and seeing the threads of cause-and-effect. It's a silent declaration on the author's part: this is an act of interpretation, of art, with what I see as the meaningful bits included in the story."

So what about prose written in the present tense?

"Of course the story in the present tense is also shaped, but the present tense hides that influence. We don't have the past-tense assurance that the narrator has made sense of what's happening. . . In this way the present tense is a layer of concealment over the writer's influence on the way the story is told . . . The present tense is reportage or live drama."

Deirdre Baker also points out that present tense is the tense of Twitter, Facebook and the video culture of You Tube. "Re-viewing makes the past present." I never thought of it that way. Fascinating.

In addition to tense, of course, the author needs to choose a POV. I tend to prefer past tense no matter what the POV or subject.

Do you have a favorite combination of tense and POV? And how much does subject matter control these decisions?

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Can Characters Derail You?

Flipping through cable the other night, I came across the show "My Strange Addiction" on TLC. I don't normally watch it but found myself morbidly fascinated as I watched a clip of a guy in love, like physically in love, with his car. Odd, to say the least, but it made me rethink the post I'd been working on for fear that you, gentle readers, may think I've gone bonkers.

Then I thought, nah. Forge ahead.

So here is my "strange writing addiction"...

I'm crushing on my antagonist.

First off, no, this is NOT a physical relationship, and maybe it's not me, but my MC who's fascinated by...let's call him Luke. In my mind (and in my outline!) he started as a supporting role but suddenly? He wants to steal the show and my heroine's heart.

Thing is...Luke is selfish, mean and manipulative. And of course, totally hot, but a jerk all the same.

So what's a writer to do?

Years ago, I was in an online writing course and our chat somehow lead to the topic of "characters speaking to you". One woman confessed that her characters had told her how to rearrange the furniture in her living room. Thankfully, I was behind a computer and not in front of her rolling my eyes and whispering "They make meds for that, don't they?" to a classmate next to me. At that point, I just thought it was weird.

And now, here's Luke. Sitting next to me, convincing me to write a blog post about him. That's all sorts of sick...isn't it? I even defended him to my crit partners. I cringed when someone called him a turd. No he's not! You just don't get him. I thought.

And then I thought...WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?

I know there are schools of thought in writing that tell us to just go with it, to follow a character, see what comes out of their mouths, let them romp around and we're there to just write it all down. And a lot of times this works for me, when I get out of my own way and let the characters speak, scenes feel more natural and everything just sort of clicks into place. But do you think there's ever a time when a character is speaking a little too loud? A little too insistent, no matter, um, how charming he or she happens to be?

So my question Paper Waiters is this: How do you know if your character is driving you to the best possible scene or completely derailing you? What do you do? Reign them in or let them be?

*My original bad boy crush. Matt Dillon. There is no rhyme or reason for this picture being included with this post except that it's damn sexy - in spite of the cigarette, but I'll let him get away with it because he is, after all, a bad boy...

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Getting Ready!

When I started writing, I thought it would be really cool to do author visits. As a teacher, I loved teaching writing and wouldn't it be even more exciting to get to teach writing as a guest author? And in between writing, I daydreamed about the day those school visits would happen.

Now, those visits are no longer daydream. I've got my first one booked for just after DIGGERS releases (the elementary school I attended as a child has invited me to speak. Yay!), and I really need to plan for it!

I am still excited to be a visiting author, but now I'm feeling a bit nervous too. Will the visit go well or will it be a flop? What can I do to make it as successful as possible?

So I am asking you for advice? What tips and tricks have you used to make a school visit go well? What great strategies have you seen other visiting authors put into action?

Can't wait to read your ideas!

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Learning from Experts

I am a great fan of regional writers like the southeast Florida writer, Carl Hiaasen and the southwestern writer, Tony Hillerman. They know the areas in which they live so well that reading their books is like taking a mini vacation. What makes an interesting comparison is how they write for children.

In his adult books, Hillerman's characters reappear and by the time you've read several of them, they've become old friends. His retelling of a Zuni myth, "The Boy Who Made Dragonfly," is distinctly written for children. Hillerman's love for the southwest and his knowledge of Southwestern Indian life and lore permeate all of his work.

In Hiaasen's books for adults, different characters, but with the same weaknesses and outlandish attitudes of characters in earlier novels appear in subsequent novels. Hiaasen has a fondness for detailing the environmental challenges of south Florida. He's known for crazy, complicated plots. making his books great vacation "reads."

But his children's books are a different matter. "Flush," "Scat," and "Hoot," are first class. In each he has crafted a plot with the environment at stake, nefarious or crazy adults, and a child hero. Compared to his adult books, the plots are tight and the characters realistic. These books read easily and well. His latest book, "Chomp," is due out in March, and I'll be one fo the first to buy it. Adding to my enjoyment will be a good lesson in the art of writing.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Getting in the Mood

As I near the finish line of my WIP, I'm beginning to think about my next novel. Several ideas are fighting to be next in line, but today, one of them took the lead. I was in the mood.

Let me go back a few years. I had an idea for a middle grade ghost story set at the beach. I did some preliminary research, knew my two protagonists, and knew who my ghost would be.

But now I also want to write a book about a kid in high school band -- I've got the plot structure for that one, but no plot yet. I've got the beginning of a YA about a theater kid that I want to get back to, and a YA mystery begging to be solved.

So what happened today to make that MG jump to the front of the pack?

Well, I went for a walk on the boardwalk in Ocean City, NJ. I've walked that boardwalk countless times. My husband was born and raised there and my in-laws still live there. But today was different.

Today was...moody.

The sky was overcast, but the sun was breaking through in shafts of light right where the waves break. Sea Isle City, seen from a distance curving out and into the ocean, was shrouded in mist. The boardwalk was deserted. I was alone.

And more than anything, I wanted to write about it. I was in the mood.

I think my in-laws will see a lot of me this summer.

I'll share a photo when I get home to my own computer. Can't download from my phone on the one I'm using.

So does anyone else care to join me in a summer WIP? Plan it now and fast draft throughout the summer months? Come on in! The water's fine!

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