Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Giraffe in my Grasp

In my last post I suggested that it might be “easier to juggle giraffes than to sell a rhyming picture book manuscript” (see “Giraffe Juggling”). That’s still true, but at the moment, I feel like I’ve caught a giraffe and am bracing myself for the toss.

The latest critique of my rhyming PB manuscript left me stymied by a new question: “Have you thought about where you might submit this?” Submit? Really?

Immersed in meter, plot and my thesaurus, I had resolved not to consider next steps. I consulted the wonderful resources you readers suggested (thank you!), and revised, revised, revised. And, surprise -- the manuscript earned a thumbs up from my critique partners.  

I am thrilled to see light at the end of the revision tunnel. Admittedly, the manuscript needs tweaks, but they feel manageable. Today, my efforts to hone this craft made a difference and lifted me to a new level of confidence.

I’m not juggling yet, but at least the giraffe is within my grasp. I know this is just the beginning of a confidence-deflating process (ah, rejections) but still, I'm looking forward to launching that giraffe skyward.

So this is my way of encouraging all you frustrated writers out there: Keep at it! You can catch a giraffe too.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Chatting with YA Author Brigid Kemmerer

I’ve never met agent sister Brigid Kemmerer in person, but after interviewing her for The Paper Wait, I feel like I’ve had a virtual cup of coffee with her! Brigid is the author of the Elemental series. The first book Storm is due out Tuesday, April 24th. If that’s too long a wait for you, the awesome prequel, Elemental, is available for download NOW. Last week she took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about craft.  

Four brothers who can control the elements – how cool is that! How did you get the idea for the Elemental Series?

The first novel I wrote in high school was about four vampire brothers, named Michael, Nicholas, Gabriel, and Christopher. It was a silly story, but I still have most of it on paper. In my twenties, when I really began to take writing seriously, I wrote a few books but was unable to find a literary agent or a publisher. I couldn’t get those four brothers out of my head – but I didn’t want to do vampires again. I started tossing around ideas that would work with the number four. Four horsemen of the apocalypse. Four leaf clovers. Four, four, four. The four elements of earth, air, fire, and water seemed to work best—and I had a lot of ideas how I could make it fun. What teenagers wouldn’t want to be able to control the elements?

Did you originally set out to write a series or is that something that came after you began writing?

I love discovering new series, so I wrote the book with the hope that I’d be able to write more—and luckily Kensington chose to buy three! Storm is out on April 24, Spark will be released on August 24, and Spirit is scheduled for early next summer. When I originally started the series, I planned on having the books follow Becca’s point of view all the way through, much like Bella in Twilight or Katniss in The Hunger Games. I’d even written half of Storm entirely from Becca’s point of view. But then I realized I was selling the brothers short, that they should each get a chance to tell their story. I went back and rewrote the first half of Storm to include Chris’s side of things, and it just developed organically from there.

In regards to the prequel, Elemental, I actually wrote that after Storm was completely finished, and I was halfway through Spark. There’s a lot of reference to an event five years before the events in Storm, and the short story came together easily.

What inspires you to write – do you start with characters or plot?

Characters! Wait. And plot! No, seriously. I think one of the greatest writing mistakes is starting with a scenario instead of a plot. (I used to do that all the time, and my books ended up long and rambling.) Starting with a scenario is easy: it’s like coming home and saying to your spouse, “I stopped off at the grocery store, but armed men jumped out of the freezer aisle.”

Instant conflict, instant excitement. But if you don’t start the story knowing what those armed men want, and how the story is going to ultimately resolve itself, you’ll spend 400 pages floundering around trying to figure out your plot. That’s what I had to make myself do with Storm. I knew what the ultimate conflict was going to be, and I kept my eye on the ball the whole time. That’s when I finally sold a novel.

What have you learned on your road to publication?

Wow. So many things that it’s hard to think of them all. There’s definitely a learning curve to this whole process.

Top two:

1) Keep your eyes on your own paper. Someone else said this to me, and it’s so true. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in what everyone else is doing, and it’s human nature. There’s always someone with a bigger deal, a bigger book, a bigger fan base.

2) Once you’re a published author, you’re more than just you. Everything you say online is a reflection of your brand—and it’s permanent. That’s not to say you can’t use profanity or talk about risqué topics, but I have to remember that it’s not just a handful of people reading my posts anymore. There are teenagers and teachers and librarians and editors and readers and writers and whole lists of people I don’t even know. I made a flippant comment to a friend on Facebook that was totally misinterpreted by someone I’ve never even met. Now that Facebook has the news feed on the right hand side (and now that non-friends can subscribe to your updates), Facebook is every bit as public as Twitter. I love social media (please follow me @BrigidKemmerer! I love new friends!), but I always have to remind myself how things might come across.

That’s a really great point, and I think one easily forgotten. How long did it take you to get to this stage of your writing career?

It took a long time. I once read a John Grisham (I think) interview where the interviewer said, “How does it feel to be an overnight success?” And he responded, “It’s only overnight to you. For me, it took ten years.”

I wrote in high school, but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I finally got it into my head to research publication and find an agent. Even then, my first book never got picked up. I had a paranormal romance about the son of Apollo running a music store in downtown Baltimore called A Wicked Little Rhythm, which landed me an agent in August 2009. I was over the moon, thinking it would sell right away. It didn’t. By March of 2010, I’d started Storm, and it sold in February 2011. Writing is not a “get rich quick” scheme.

Haha – so true! How do you juggle your family/work responsibilities with writing time? Do you have a specific routine? Word count?

My husband would read this question and laugh hysterically. I have a family and a full time job on top of this writing gig. I write in the middle of the night sometimes, or early in the morning. I’m not good at catching a random hour here or there—I need a solid block of time to get anything productive done. If I only have a half hour, I’ll back-edit. I don’t write draft after draft, I constantly revise, so when I get to the end, it’s done. I also keep an open file where I add notes (i.e., “Go back and add foreshadowing about …”), then cross them out once they’ve been done. I also keep a timeline in the same file and add notes where I need to make changes. This was especially helpful while writing Spark, because I have numerous house fires, and it started getting hard to keep track of what day things happened.

For word count goals, I’ve been trying to write 7,000 words a week. But that doesn’t always happen, and I’m okay with that.

Do you think it’s important for an author to work with an agent?

My agent gives great editorial advice, and when my first agented novel didn’t sell, she really helped me get Storm to a saleable place. She also had several publishers interested, which turned into an auction, and I ended up with a much better deal than the first offer. People harp on that 15% sometimes, but I think having the right agent is worth every penny.

What part of the writing process do you like the best?

There’s a great quote: “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” That says it all right there. I love telling stories. I don’t mind revisions at all, because the story is done.

I love that quote! Any books from childhood that particularly inspired you to be a writer?

I loved Christopher Pike and L. J. Smith when I was a kid. Christopher Pike had a great book called Master of Murder about a teenager who was secretly a bestselling YA author, and all his friends at school were shocked it was him. I loved that one. All his books are great. He wasn’t afraid to be edgy and dark.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Keep writing! Don’t give up! I know, I know, it sounds trite. When I go back and read the first novel I started submitting to agents, I want to change my name and enter the witness protection program. I cringe and think, “You sent that out???” But it’s true. I think writers should beta read for strangers on the internet as much as they can, because it helps you develop a keen eye for editing. I learned so much from reading other people’s writing.

A very heartfelt thanks, Brigid! Good luck with the Elemental series and beyond!!

Read more!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Inspiration . . . Frustration, Chapter IV

Chapter summary:
2011 - Chapter I. PB truck story finally gets written. (Aug. 11th post)
Chapter II. PB truck story goes to a conference. PB truck story appeals to an editor and she takes it with her. (Sept. 28th post)
Chapter III - PB truck story is revised twice (based on editorial suggestions) and resubmitted in November. Email from editor saying "looking forward to reading it over the long weekend." (Thanksgiving)
2012 - Chapter III, con't. Email from editor on 1/20, "looking over it now . . . more thorough response soon." (Feb. 16th post)

Last Thursday, tired of waiting for a response, I called the editor and left a message. Two hours later, I received an email

REJECTION . . "most likely not going to work . . . the plot has become too complex . . . the sweetness and charm of the first draft has been obscured. One thing I regret about our earlier revision talks is that I think I may have been too forthcoming with my own ideas. I would be happy to see another draft, but you know what my hesitations are so it's up to you whether you want to put in more work." She wrote a long and thoughtful rejection letter and I agree with some of her comments.

For months I felt disassociated from this story. It belonged to the editor and she controlled its fate. The worst part about a rejection? Now the story's mine again. I'm forced to face the fact that my first draft needed work, but the changes I made last November damaged the tone of the story.

Revision is a tricky! But that won't stop me.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Fighting Writer's Block

Lately I have writer's block. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I feel paralyzed. It doesn't immobilize me, but it does restrict my range of motion, dooming me to write the same stupid sentence over and over again. With modifiers. Without modifiers. Eventually the sentence just becomes a heap of words that I wouldn't waste wood pulp on. Oh, this feeling is bad. But I've been here before and I know what to do.

I have started to re-read Brenda Ueland's IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE AND SPIRIT. Brenda first published this book, which I consider to be the best one of its kind, in 1938. She based it on her experiences teaching writing classes in Minneapolis, after returning home from some wild Bohemian years as a freelance writer in New York City.

I discovered IF YOU WANT TO WRITE in the late 1980s by accident, as a staff pick in the now-defunct Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore on the Upper West Side, and it was the single thing that helped me through my first and worst writer's block, the one that lasted for years after college.

Here's just one of my favorite quotes from Brenda: "Inspiration doesn't come like a bolt, nor is it a kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes to us slowly and quietly and all the time...I learned that when writing you should not feel like Lord Byron on a mountaintop but like a child stringing beads in a kindergarten--happy, absorbed and putting one bead on after another."
What are your weapons agains writer's block? And do you have a favorite writer on writing?

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Poetry Suggestions?

In honor of National Poetry Month, my 5-year-old and I are trying to share at least a poem a day together. With some of the wonderful poetry collections we have been reading, sometimes it can be hard to stop at just one.

My son has loved the poems in Douglas Florian's "Monster Motel" and Kenn Nesbitt's poems have also been a big hit, especially "Please Don't Read This Poem". (My 5-year-old says, "Please do".)

We even found a beautiful picture book edition of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening". Yay!

Having started the month off on such a roll, I am asking for your suggestions to help keep us going. What great poets / poetry collections would you introduce to a 5-year-old to?

(It can be so sad to me when I often see so little children's poetry stocked on bookstore shelves. I hope that we can turn my son and other young children into poetry fans. Let's help those poetry collections fly off the shelves!)

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A "Live" Character

How do you learn to breathe life into a character? I am reading the masters, most recently, Isabel Allende's "Eva Luna" and two novellas by Edith Wharton, "The Bunner Sisters" and "Summer."

Allende creates a sensuous account of a young woman who matures during the Latin American struggles of the 60's and 70's. A storyteller, Eva Luna lives in a canvas that might have been painted by Frieda Kahlo, a canvas dripping with color and lush scenery. Each character in Eva's life is more exotic than the next, each scene more unbelievable. Yet the reader never loses sight of Eva and her response to every ludicrous situation. You couldn't cut a sentence without tearing the tightly woven fabric of Allende's tale.

Far more restrained, Wharton's novellas take place on Cassat-like canvases with their women in dove gray dresses, or perhaps faded pink. Unlike Allende's multitude of characters, few customers cross the threshold of the Bonner sisters' shop. At the end of the novella, only one sister is left to battle loneliness and penury in her twice-turned faded black silk. The reader wants to reach out and take her hand. In "Summer," descriptions of the fragrant New England meadows and the hurly-burley of its small towns never once draw us away from feisty Charity Royall, consumed by turmoil and anguish as her story unfolds.

I have learned I must interpret my protagonist from the inside out rather than by simply describing her and her actions. Only then will she keep the reader interested.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Tics That Make Characters Tick

Plot driven vs. character driven-- I love them both. But even books with the most crazy, imaginative plots (HUNGER GAMES, anyone?) better give me characters that make me care. Characters I want to spend time with. Characters I HAVE to root for. Characters that break my heart.

When I read HUNGER GAMES, I was ready to jump in and watch Katniss's back. And I was Team Peeta all the way. But in John Green's latest novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Hazel and Augustus did more than break my heart. They shattered it.

Green's writing is so much more than witty dialogue and gritty truths. He finds ways to show fierceness and bravery in simple, unexpected choices.

Augustus doesn't smoke cigarettes. He dangles them. His biggest character tic is one of choice. That unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth screams in frustration and pain, boasts of triumphs great and small, and shouts out laughter and fear.

All by choice. Augustus' choice.

In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, lots of stuff happens that the characters can't control. And that broke my heart. But the choices they made -- well, that's what shattered it.

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