Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How to Handle Life's Lemons

I can remember from childhood the anticipation of Christmas, loving the carols, the snow, and the sheer wonder of the season. Unfortunately, the actual event always left me feeling let down. Sometimes beyond disappointing as a few of the worst times for my family happened on Christmas, including a horrible fight between my parents. When I had children of my own, of course I intended to help them have those wonderful Hallmark types of Christmases. How awful, then, to find myself getting sucked into the same stress-induced reactions to big holiday events that I recall my mother having! Christmas really is not going to be happy when Mom is having a meltdown, and I have had my own share of meltdowns when something goes wrong. It could be dinner doesn’t turn out right, or someone doesn’t show up, or the kids are too boisterous, or no one wants to help clean up the mess afterwards. The little things as much as the big disasters can make you feel like a Scrooge.

This year Christmas Eve started out badly for me.  I worked the night before and hoped to squeeze in about 5-6 hours sleep max before the kids came over from their father’s.  So imagine my surprise when one of them showed up about an hour before I planned to get up to practice singing a duet with a friend. She didn’t intend to disturb me, but first the friend rang the doorbell, and then she didn’t realize that I can hear just about everything in my room, no matter where in the house the kids are. I stewed for a while, trying to sleep anyway without success. Feeling sorry for myself, I thought my Christmas was ruined because I could see myself being a grouchy zombie the whole evening. When I finally gave up and got out of bed, my daughter felt terrible. I was too exhausted to yell.  I was also shocked that it was the oldest and not one of the others that had disturbed me.

Then something magical happened. I decided that no matter what, I was going to have a good Christmas. And really, that is the key: you are the only one who can ruin your holiday. There were some bumpy moments-the usual bickering between the girls, somebody feeling like her gifts aren’t as cool as someone else’s, temper tantrums that should have been outgrown years ago, hurrying to get out the door for church, etc. Somehow with each potential moment to lose my cool, I managed not to do it. I told the kids that I was turning lemons to lemonade, and inserted some humor into the tense moments by improvising lyrics sung to familiar tunes about making that sour yellow fruit become a delicious drink . (And yes, the girls found the opera aria and the Blues Clues tune, as well as a few other ditties, a little over the top!) But, we had one of the most peaceful, happy Christmases I can remember.
May your New Year bring you much joy and peace, but when it doesn’t remember you can choose how to respond to the lemons. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why All Writers Should Go See Saving Mr. Banks

This  inspiring movie tells the story of how Walt Disney convinced P. L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, to give him the rights to the movie. The acting is superb, but the story is wonderful. Filled with humorous moments, there is a very serious storyline as well since the process of working on the script with Disney’s writers and music team gives Mrs. Travers flashbacks to her young life. Very early on it is clear that something in her past wounded her and that the Mary Poppins stories are near to her heart because of it. While everyone is frustrated by her prickliness, as well as her insistence on no animation or use of the color red in the picture, Mr. Disney ultimately prevails by sharing about his own boyhood struggles and telling her that sometimes you have to decide when reliving terrible times is enough. The recurring flashbacks may be distracting to some viewers, but are so poignant and build tension toward the climax.

Do I understand that the film takes liberties with the truth? To that I say this film isn’t a documentary, nor is it meant to be an exposé. Every film about real people takes liberties with their lives in order to tell the story. Some may not like how Walt Disney steamrollers the vulnerable old lady into compromising on her dream. Some say that the film doesn’t reveal enough about Mrs. Travers’s faults, including how she and her adopted son became estranged, or that it makes her seem like a dried up old maid when she had several romantic relationships. Some may point out that Mrs. Travers actually did not like the film, and refused to allow sequels. Those people miss the point.

The story brilliantly illustrates how authors can use the painful parts of their past to fuel their stories and how cathartic it can be to do so, even for writers of fiction. As a writer I was enthralled at how clearly the connection was demonstrated. Most of film’s criticism focuses on the fact that this film glosses over truths, but the ultimate truth of this tale is the benefit of baring one’s soul to the world through stories. In a story an author is free to rewrite the past, so to speak, and make it better. Or, perhaps, just let it go. This film shows how the ability to rewrite the past is a very powerful freedom, one that can heal the storyteller and bring magic to the reader. To all writers, absolutely go see this one!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

House of Hades review

This book is definitely as good as any of Riordan's other works. He very skillfully gives each of the seven characters their own portion(s) of the story told in their point of view without losing the forward momentum of the plot. Each of them has some task to accomplish in order for their common goal to be met, and I honestly felt interested in what was happening to all of them.

There is also some great character development and darker moments. I particularly like the growth that Leo undergoes and the attention he gets since his is a character that could merely provide comic relief and mechanical skill, but his growth is more realistic, though in a conventional way. The revelations about Nico's struggles were annoying at first, because I usually feel (view spoiler at Goodreads) I don't know if Riordan always intended for Nico's storyline to go in that direction, but the treatment seems incredibly authentic to the feelings and reaction a boy in his situation might have, so kudos to Riordan for managing to engage my sympathy despite my initial reaction. Frank's growth, pardon the pun, is fairly predictable, but I enjoyed Hazel coming into more of her own and I look forward to her mastering her abilities even more in the next book.

As for Percy and Annabeth, I agree with some of the criticism I've read that, as awful as Tartarus is portrayed, the lighter/humorous moments are maybe not realistic, but it is a MG series so they are still appropriate. Seeing these two stretched to their limits and examining the morality of their past actions during other quests deepens this story beyond just an action/adventure fantasy. I really like how Percy is forced to reflect on his treatment of Bob. We already know Percy is not perfect, but this kind of reflection and growth adds another layer of depth that makes him more admirable.

Very satisfying read, highly recommended!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Allegiant review: great controversial ending!

Any book that leaves me still feeling an emotional connection more than a day after I finish reading it is one I have to recommend. If you want to read the spoilers, click here to see the full review on Goodreads.

I admire Veronica Roth for coming up with an unexpected conclusion to her trilogy. There were things I didn't like about the previous books, mostly the illogic of her premise that people of the future could somehow become separated into factions based on their dominant personality. This book has a reasonable, albeit delayed, explanation for that.

Tobias's mother, Evelyn, and her group of the factionless have replaced the former Erudite leader with another dictatorship, causing Tris, Tobias, and a few of their friends to join the Allegiant, those loyal to the faction system and the call to help those outside the fence. Tris and Tobias are chosen to be among those who leave the city to see what's outside, while others, later including Tobias's father, Marcus, continue to resist from inside the city.

What impresses me most about this book is the characterization of both Tris and Tobias, particularly Tobias. She continues to be a complex character, though we never really get an explanation for why she seems exceptional among the Divergent, [who turn out to be people with undamaged genes, and therefore possess a normal mixture of qualities from the factions.  Tobias turns out to be more interesting in this book because we see from his own point of view his flaws and weaknesses. Among the biggest conflicts of the book are those between family members, as Tris struggles to forgive her brother's betrayal and Tobias continues to feel anger toward both his parents. The most poignant scene, I think, is the confrontation between Tobias and Evelyn.

The ending is foreshadowed subtly in certain scenes, such as [spoiler]. For those who manage not to read the spoilers that give away the ending, I think there will be some dissatisfaction, but I do think Ms. Roth made a brillant decision that adds an incredible impact to this conclusion. [Spoiler] How Tobias chooses to handle his feelings, both regarding Evelyn and Tris in the end are handled realistically, using sound ethics. Some minor criticisms: the epilogue seems weak [spoiler] Also, the mention of several very minor characters as being gay seems fairly gratuitous as it has no bearing on the plot and the characters are so marginal.

Overall, I liked this book much better than the previous installments, probably because of the characterization and the depth of the themes. My Goodreads review gives it 4 stars, but truly I'd give it 4.5 out of 5!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

7 Tips for Attending Your First Writer's Conference

A week ago I attended my first writer's conference, held by SCBWI-Iowa. I had many expectations prior to attending and some nervousness as well. My advice for newbies to get the most from your first conference:

1. Think through what you want to get from the conference ahead of time. Meeting other authors? Getting a critique partner? Rubbing elbows with editors and agents? Learning more about writing craft? Deciding beforehand what your priorities are can help make the experience more satisfying.

2. Get familiar with the schedule and speakers prior to the conference. Knowing the schedule means you can focus on the sessions that have the most relevant information for you, and look for opportunities to network. Even though the conference I attended was small, I missed out on an opportunity to introduce myself to an agent because I didn't realize her talk was last on the schedule. Had I realized that before her session, I would have looked for a chance to say hello sooner.

3. Be friendly and willing to introduce yourself. Like many (most?) writers, I am an introvert and find it difficult to initiate conversations. A smile and greeting along with a question about what the other person is working on is a pretty simple way for anyone to enjoy small talk between sessions, and might lead to finding a real live critique partner or writer friend.

4. Participate in extra sessions if possible. At my conference for an extra fee, attendees could get an editor or agent to critique their first 10 pages. Though you may not get the glowing feedback you hope for, you can get some ideas about what in a professional's opinion works or doesn't work in your story (and they may love it!). This is also a way to rise above the slushpile as editors and agents will look more carefully at work submitted post-conference by attendees.

5. Do peer critiquing if offered. In addition to the editor/agent sessions, I had the opportunity to participate in a peer review session and received comments and notes on my first 10 pages of another work from three other writers-invaluable feedback for planning revisions to my WIP. If you hit it off with your group, you can continue to critique each others' work beyond the conference.

6. Enjoy the chance to learn something new. The sessions on writing MG/YA were helpful, but I was fascinated by the sessions I attended on writing and illustrating picture books. Even though I have no plans to venture into that market, I gained a lot of insight and respect for process of publishing for younger readers. Ironically, the best contact I had with one of the speakers was my conversation with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's art director, Christine Kettner, when I thanked her for a great session after her first talk.

7.  Attend the social events! The most fun session I attended was an optional trivia night event planned for evening entertainment. I got to know some wonderfully funny ladies in my SCBWI group and laughed more than I have in a long time.

If anyone has more tips for those considering going to a writer's conference, please feel free to share in the comments.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My True Life Horror Story

Monday morning it was still dark when I awoke to what sounded like rain hitting the ledge outside my bedroom window. Since it was only 5:10 I wasn't planning to get up, but I realized I couldn't hear rain outside the other window. Then the noise sounded more like a bag rustling than rain pattering. A mouse?

I didn't want to get up, and seriously thought about ignoring the sound and trying to snooze some more, but I pried myself up and flipped on the light. Not seeing anything by the window with my sleep-encrusted eyes, I went to take a closer look and imagined that a very large moth flew past me. At least once every summer one sneaks in through the window where the AC sits, but I had finally had my man pull the unit last week so the window was shut tight. I looked up above my bed  and wished I was still asleep.

With wickedly creepy outstretched wings, a BAT circled the overhead light. I stood frozen, thinking my spray that knocks the moths right out of the air was useless. Now, I could have panicked and called my man to come over to deal with it, but that would mean WAITING and WATCHING that thing fly around for who knows how many minutes first. So I ran to the kitchen, closing the bedroom door behind me to keep him trapped. I pulled on a pair of plastic gloves, grabbed a cookie sheet, and ran back to my room. No bat. What?

Fortunately, my winded entrance must have scared him out of his hiding spot because he resumed circling the light. On his next go-round I wacked him as hard as I could and he smashed into the floorboard near the corner, narrowly missing the shoes I had piled up nearby. Now the hard part--I needed to dispose of him. I pulled all the shoes away, grateful that I wouldn't have to throw any out (no I would not, could not wear them after a bat did). Then I crept close, shaking almost in time with the furious pounding of my heart, but could not, not, NOT force myself to grab a corner of one wing and plop him in the grocery sack I had brought. What if it's just stunned and it bites me? I decided to go the safer route of trying to scoop it up inside the bag. Right when I had the bag hovering above it (arms length away, of course), the bat flew up over the bag toward me.

I have always maintained I can't scream and my children are deaf. Now I know I am right because the very loud noise I made resembled a cross between a caveman's shriek and a cow dying. None of the four girls woke up to investigate Mom's possible demise, either. I dropped the cookie sheet that was still clasped in one hand. It landed upside down with the bat on top of it. I grabbed a shoe and wacked him again. Not hard, just to stun. Because I am so NOT cut out for killing and, honestly, I didn't  want guts on the carpet. A quick tip of the cookie sheet and tie of the bag ended the struggle with the bat, but my heart felt like a supernova. Ten minutes later the bat was out in the garbage and I was back in the house, hearing my still-pounding pulse throb in my ears and lamenting what a wimp I am.

As if that weren't awful enough, my man came over later to do an inspection of the attic and crawl spaces. No bats, no guano. No evidence of bats anywhere. So, I am left with hoping the darn thing flew in through an open door and nobody noticed. Because the alternative (I think with an insomnia-inducing shudder) is that there is a bat-sized hole somewhere in my bedroom just waiting to admit the next flying rodent to terrorize my sleep.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review of The Bitter Kingdom

This is my review of The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson I posted on Goodreads. There are some spoilers in the second paragraph so read the original here if you don't want to see them.

I have been captivated by Rae Carson's writing, and enjoyed the conclusion to her Fire and Thorns trilogy. The first part of the book, which focuses on Elisa's pursuit of Hector to save him from the Inviernes is outstanding. I was intrigued to learn more about the Invierne people and their land (and I love Storm's character!). The twist on another Godstone bearer and the gatekeeper was excellent, as is the fact that Hector and Elisa both have moments to show their strengths. Their relationship and characters have more depth because the author allows them both moments of strength and weaknesses.

Some criticisms: The whole trilogy has been focused on the idea that Godstone bearers have some unique and important, if misundertood, task to accomplish. With all the grand sweeping action and Elisa's focus on holding her kingdom together, her actual Godstone task seemed contrived and tangental, rather than forwarding the plot. In my opinion, it serves mainly to [SPOILER ALERT ensure that Elisa's invincible powers she obtained in the second book will be MIA] for the final climax. That, and [SPOILER ALERT hooking up with Hector before the wedding] diminished my enjoyment of the second part of the book.

Overall, though, I love the beautiful writing and the intelligence of the heroine, and am looking forward to reading more of Rae Carson's work.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Legacies and Writing

Lately I have been thinking about legacies and writing.

My (night) job for the last two years has been as a nurse in charge of a dementia unit. I have seen the end product of these victims' minds slowly unraveling, but never knew them in the days when their minds were active, vibrant, and rational. To me who they are is the person I help care for now, but to their family members they were once someone else. Whenever a family member reveals a part of their past unknown to me, it is a revelation, like when I found out one lady who now wanders aimlessly getting into other people's things was a foster parent for years. Who we are now is a snapshot in time that speaks to the essence of who we are, but may fade away before we die, and certainly is unretrievable once we are gone to those who didn't know us.

Unless, of course, we leave a legacy. A diary can transmit some of our essence clearly to future generations, but perhaps we aren't comfortable with writing out our personal thoughts, or don't have the time to keep one. I have a treasure box of items belonging to my precious deceased grandparents, which is a comfort to me, and helps me try to keep their memory alive for my children who were still too young at their passing to remember them well. My grandfather's letters to my grandmother from the Pacific during World War II are the most valued part of the collection because they reveal a whole different side of my grandfather in them.

So, what does writing fiction have to do with diaries or mementoes? With all the creativity, time, tears, and joy that goes into creating a novel that allows others to escape into a different world, I would say the novels we leave behind speak volumes indirectly about the author. Someday most of my trinkets might end up in a landfill, but I hope my novels will still be around for my descendants (and others) to get a glimmer of my essence.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Get Ready for MSFV Baker's Dozen

Contests? They are good nail-biting, fun-filled ways to get feedback on your writing and possibly net you some new critique buddies, an agent, or even a publisher. I've been following Ms. Snark's First Victim blog for a little while and am amazed by some of the talented writing on display in her contests. For those who may not be familiar with this blog, the anonymous host offers secret agent contests most months but has an annual contest coming up called the Baker's Dozen with multiple agents reading and requesting submissions from those who enter.

If you have (or will have) a polished manuscript ready to go by the end of October click here for more info on the contest and good luck!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Should an Author’s Worldview Intrude on their Writing?

 Occasionally when I am reading fiction I notice that the author’s viewpoint on certain issues intrudes on the story. Of course, I realize that if we follow the advice to write what we know, all stories will be influenced by the author’s worldview. Sometimes, though, particularly with fantasy, but even in contemporary stories where the story’s world is not the author’s, the intrusion of the author’s worldview pulls the reader out of the story.

As an example, I recently finished Rae Carson’s Crown of Embers, the second in her Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy and, while I enjoyed and would highly recommend it (the third book comes out this month and I am looking forward to it!), there were a few spots where I found myself thinking more about the statement she was making than about the character’s motivations. Toward the end of the book, a minor character offers the main character, Elisa, a natural birth control remedy so that Elisa can feel free to act on her attraction toward her guard.  She accepts the remedy (after a brief inner struggle) in order to “be prepared.” The issue of birth control for teens aside, my main objection to this incident stems from Elisa’s role in this highly religious trilogy as the chosen one, a person of prayer destined to act heroically for the good of her people. Though this is a fantasy, the story’s religion as described closely adheres to Christianity, even quoting real scriptures. I have no problem believing Elisa would struggle with an attraction for a man she can’t marry, but she decides very quickly to give in to temptation. To be fair, the characters ultimately do not act on the temptation, but the lack of inner conflict about her desire vs. her religion sends the message that it’s okay to have sex and ignore your faith if your desire is strong, but be protected. That message contradicts much of what Elisa does as the chosen one so it’s unbelievable to the reader, though the author probably assumes it shows how much she loves her guard.

My own works to date are fantasy tales, where I am free to create a worldview and I have tried to make the rules of my fictional worlds fall in line with my personal beliefs while avoiding obvious real world intrusions. The next work I am considering is more of a contemporary story and I am already trying to decide how much, if any, “real” religion and values will enter the story. Again, I am thinking my beliefs as they impact the story should be invisible, not necessarily absent, but I want the reader to be immersed in my tale so much that it’s the characters’ beliefs, not mine, that affect their actions. In my opinion the more the character's beliefs match their world and experience, the more effective they are in drawing the reader deeper into the story.

So fellow writers, how do you deal with your worldview in your works?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Charmed Memories Review: a Fairy Tale Mystery

Charmed Memories is the second in the Princess of Valendria series by Mary Waibel and follows the adventures of Prince Trevor, brother of the first book’s heroine. His fiancé Princess Elsbeth was lost at sea and presumed dead four years ago. Since then Trevor has refused to believe she is lost and feels honor bound to continue to search for her. In following every possible lead, he invokes the assistance of Woodland Guide Bri on his journey to find another clue to his fiance’s possible whereabouts. Bri and Trevor struggle with their deepening feelings for each other even as their search takes them to Elsbeth’s native country. Along the way, Trevor discovers Bri is the victim of amnesia. The closer they come to finding Elsbeth, the more their love for each other seems doomed. Trevor suspects Bri might be the princess he searches for, while Bri never realized how difficult helping Trevor would prove, nor how deadly.

This is the kind of book to curl up with late at night, romance and suspense intertwined with a fairy tale. Trevor is a conflicted hero, clumsy and somewhat clueless about Bri’s feelings for him, but devoted to his promise to the missing Elsbeth. Bri is a strong heroine who helps the prince because she loves him, but struggles with her fears at what the search might reveal to her about herself. The tension mounts throughout the story as it appears Bri may actually be the princess, or a girl promised to a different prince. The plot twists keep coming until the mystery is solved. For those who like me haven't read the first book, this book stands well on its own (though I plan to go back and read book one!).

The story is so fresh the fairy tale being retold is only hinted at until close to the end, but the mystery becomes more and more compelling. Some might consider this tale to be too divergent from the original version, but I think it adds to the romantic tension and a satisfying plot. The hero and heroine are well developed, with neither one being overly dominant and both having realistic flaws while proving themselves worthy of each other. If you like fairy tales and romance, this is the book for you!

In the interest of full disclosure I received a complimentary ARC of Mary Waibel’s Charmed Memories in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

7 Tips for Polishing Your Story

I finally finished reading Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer for the first time! I highly recommend this book, which was recommended to me by several people as a must-read for writers, with the caveat that the original copyright date is 1965. Since I am in the revising and editing stages of a manuscript, I thought I would summarize Swain’s tips for polishing a story (pp. 294-297).

1) clarity: make sure every sentence, phrase, pronoun clearly communicates to the reader. Make sure you don’t assume the reader knows everything you know.

2) clutter: avoid echo words, adverbs, lengthy descriptions, etc.

3) consistency: don’t contradict yourself. This is where a program like Scrivener or some type of organization system can help the writer avoid changing a character’s physical characteristics inadvertently, or having a dead person suddenly reappear. One of my favorite best-selling authors changes an antagonist’s eye color from gray to green in the middle of the book. Not a huge deal, but that eye color turns out to be important to a sub-plot!

4) sequence: Swain is a stickler for action happening in order. State what happens first, don’t change the sequential order of stimulus and reaction.

5) flow:  If the reader notices your bad writing technique, whether it is a lack of sentence variety or an incorrect choice of a homonym, you risk losing them.

6) impact: or timing. Rephrase and reword, experiment until you find the best way to make your statements come across.

7) idiosyncrasy: know yours, search for them, and get rid of bad habits. This can be anything from poor grammar choices to echo words. The “find” function in Word can help you hone in on your particular foibles.

These seven tips are by no means exhaustive, but provide a helpful list once you have that first draft written and your major revisions out of the way. What else would you add to Swain’s list?


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Waibel's World: How Authors Write- Ace Hansen with My Review

Reblog: Do you need to laugh today? Read this post and check out Julius Caesar and the Green Gas Mystery. Can't wait to read it. Waibel's World: How Authors Write- Ace Hansen

Updated to include my review:

Two days later I have finished Julius Ceasar Brown and the Green Gas Mystery. I could have read this in one sitting, it’s that good, but work and kids tend to interfere with my reading time. ;-) This book does not disappoint! Many times I found myself laughing at eleven-year-old Julius’s exploits as he tries to win the affections of the cute girl in his class, avoid the school bully and the Zombie Lady down the street, and solve the mystery of the world wide outbreak of smelly green farts to win a million dollar prize.

There are some serious elements in addition to the issue of bullying intertwined with the humor that are really well presented. Julius’s parents are divorced and the impact that has on him is very true to life as are the interactions Julius has with a stroke victim.

Maybe my funny bone is extra ticklish this week because I don’t normally like humor that involves mentioning bodily functions most people would rather pretend not to have, but I found this book to be both clever and hilarious. Julius is one of those wry, witty characters, constantly thwarted, bound to triumph in the end but maybe not in the way he envisions.

Boys should love this fast-paced story. The intended audience is 8-12, and based on initial opinions in my female-only household, I think it appeals more to the younger end of that range. If you need a good dose of juvenile humor, pick this one! 5 out of 5 stars!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Elements of Compelling Stories

A long time ago when I first started writing, I started with the kernel of an idea and began writing from chapter one to the end. Since my goal was purely to create a story for one particular reader, I wasn’t worried about following any rules, or impressing anyone beyond the ten-year-old who would eventually read it. Flash forward six years when I decided to polish the manuscript off for entry in a contest.  Suddenly I wanted not only to know what was wrong with my story, but how to fix it! I continue to troll the internet for online writing tips and have invested in a few books, most recently Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Any book on fiction writing is going to have plenty of tips for the novice, but since I am in the middle of Swain’s book, I am going to touch on his 5 key story elements (pp. 131-135).

·         Character: someone (MC) the reader identifies with

·         Situation: the circumstance or problem the MC faces

·         Objective: what the MC wants

·         Opponent: who or what stands in the way

·         Disaster: some dreadful predicament toward the end

Swain then uses these elements to ensure you have a story going before you begin the work of writing by creating what we would call a two sentence elevator pitch based on these elements. This distillation of your story in a concise format forms a basic framework to build on while ensuring you have a conflict that will maintain reader’s interest.

Prior to reading Swain’s book, I had formed vague plot ideas containing most of these elements before writing my novels, and then written elevator pitches when the drafts were complete. Now I can see how turning that process around will help sharpen my plots before I write a single scene. (Duh!) Starting from this point can also help develop an outline of your plot from the early stages. I have grown to appreciate the advantages of being a plotter rather than a pantser. More work up front means less work in the end!
By no means do I consider myself past the novice stage of writing, so I am always interested to hear what sources or tips have helped other writers hone their craft. What books or websites have provided you with the most helpful writing advice?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Editing with Enthusiasm and Empowerment

Do you ever feel like sparks are flying from your fingertips? That’s my day yesterday. I worked twelve hours Saturday night, then on the drive home got lost in thoughts of my latest book, Queen of the Night. I just started the first edits and revisions a few days ago, and I am psyched! Thanks to Margie Lawson, I am tightening up my story and it almost feels like magic masked as hard, incredibly fun work. If you haven’t checked out her website, DO IT! You’ll thank me (really)! I am taking what I think was a pretty good work, and jumping up several levels in my writing by using her Deep Editing process to empower it.  I bought a very reasonably priced online lecture from her website a month or two ago, finished that class, and am about halfway through a second class. I still consider myself a neophyte in the world of writing, but this is the kind of experience that moves me up a rung or two in my definition of the ladder of successful writing. Best of all, I am enjoying *writing* this book as much as I’ve enjoyed any book I ever read! If you want to read a very rough draft query for Queen of the Night, click here and scroll down.

Loving the story is vital, I think, as an author. There aren’t any guarantees that a work will ever sell, no matter how good it is, but if *I* can’t get immersed in it, I can’t expect readers will. Whether it sells or not, I love writing this book and am learning a lot so I am counting it a success.

Do you have any enthusiastic stories to tell about your writing process/WIP?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Review of The Seven Tales of Trinket

The Seven Tales of Trinket by Shelley Moore Thomas is a little gem for MG readers. Artfully retelling different folk tales, this novel reminds me of Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, only these tales are Celtic in origin and voice. The MC, eleven-year-old Trinket, goes on a quest to find her long lost father after her mother dies. She takes a faithful friend, Thomas, and along the way shows both cleverness and growth as she strives to become a bard like her father. I found this book in the "new books" section of my local library, though its copyright date is 2012.

  • strong, likable protagonist
  • lyrical writing
  • believable growth of the protagonist as she deals with feeling abandoned
  • the friends make mistakes, but always watch out for each other
  • coherent, original  weaving of seven different folk tales with fresh writing
  • each folk tale becomes the inspiration for the young bard's songs
  • great messages-the importance of perseverence, looking beyond appearances, and forgiveness
  • the story follows a predictable fantasy story arc-to achieve her goal, the protagonist and her loyal sidekick go through a series of trials  on the road to ultimate success
  • the ending is predictable, though MG readers may not think so

While the nature of telling multiple different folk tales lends itself  to natural reading breaks, I found the main story arc connecting them all compelling enough to keep me turning the pages. Despite my best intentions to be frugal with giving 5 star reviews, The Seven Tales of Trinket was such an enchanting read, I just can't help it-5 stars!

Friday, June 21, 2013

My Debt to J.K. Rowling

Unless you count a brief attempt to write a historical novel  at age 13 (aborted after one meandering chapter), I have not harbored the ambition to be a writer all my life. As a young child I read as voraciously as Eric Carle's caterpillar ate, and the magic of novels has continued to captivate me as an adult. So what turned this reader into a writer? The answer involves both J.K. Rowling and motherhood.

Once upon a time there was a mother who (mistakenly) believed that Harry Potter was He Who Shall Not Be Read. She lovingly read all the classic picture books and new favorites to Daughter #1, teaching her to read from age 2 so that she, too, could inhabit the wonderful worlds found in novels. When Ms. Rowling’s books became famous, the mother grew sad that the local library had so many books unsuitable for her precious now-ten-year-old child and not enough fantasies to meet her standards. Wanting something completely different from HP (though she never read the books!), the mother determined to write her own bedtime tale to tell her princess. An image of a hedge and a forest and a princess grew in her mind. But princesses, or girls who become princesses, fill the pages of countless fairytales. Novice though she was, the mother didn’t want to write the same old story redone, so she twisted the fairytale premise around: What if the princess discovers she is not a princess after all?

And thus was born my first manuscript over a period of about seven months of first scribbling frantically by hand, and then typing and editing into the computer. Daughter read and enjoyed, and then the book was put away. A few years later I had a journalist friend beta read it and tell me she thought it was charming and publishable. Just for fun I sent it off to a few publishers, who never pulled it from the slush pile. The story was meant for my children to enjoy above all, so I brushed off the rejection and the idea of writing, except I dabbled a little with a sequel until life got too busy.

 Then last year my youngest girls encouraged me to try again. “Mom, when are you going to publish that book?” I think they secretly hope that I am the next J.K. Rowling, as in “if you sell lots of books, Mom, you’ll be rich and we can have lots of cool stuff.” HA! I haven’t the heart to tell them how UNlucrative writing really is.

It is flattering to have your children believe you can beat the odds, though. Out came the MS from electronic storage. Several (okay, more than several) overhauls later, it is close to being query-ready. More importantly, I wrote another unrelated novel and somewhere along the way more ideas with plenty of details have popped into my head. With two completed novels in the polishing stages, I know without a doubt that I can turn my “what if’s” into books and I am hooked. Whether I can hook any publishers remains to be seen, but if my writing future has a happy ending, I’ll be sure to let you know. And yes, my first acknowledgments page will have a nod to Ms. Rowling for her unwitting inspiration.

So, for those of you authors born without pen in hand, what inspired your writing journey?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Quest to Write a Good MG/YA Fantasy

What makes a good MG or YA fantasy? When I began writing my first novel, a MG fantasy, my research consisted solely of years of reading the genre for pleasure.  That in itself was enough to pick up most of the standard ideas of what is expected.  Over and over since I got serious about writing I have seen advice saying to write what you love, not what you think will sell. Falling in love then, with a plot idea and enjoying the process of making it unfold, has got to be key.

After Googling the subject a little, I still believe the most important factor is the inspiration, or idea, for the plot, but it must be combined with excellent writing skills. Just about every site I visited discusses what conventions are expected, but there is a fine line between following expectations and writing a bad imitation of an overdone plot. If you are looking for a site to help you get started in writing for this genre, I like this one, and for knowing what to avoid if you seek to be original, Fantasy Faction has a top 10 cliche list.* Check out Obsidian Bookshelf* for a more extensive list of cliches. Those of us who feel naturally uncreative have a harder time coming up with ideas that are original. Nothing is more irksome than to realize midway into a work that some details too closely parallel those in another person’s book. 

As I have worked on refining my first novel and writing a second, I have spent more time working on character development. A great plot falls flat if the characters aren’t real enough to the reader. I think fantasy characters naturally tend to lend themselves toward being role models, providing inspiration in how to handle adversity. Magic happens when a writer comes up with a seemingly ordinary, or maybe even weak, character who struggles and finally succeeds in finding a way to overcome the challenges he or she faces.

That’s my take on elements of a good MG/YA fantasy. Of course that's just for starters. What else do you think is important?

*These links have been added as the original post had a link which is now broken.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Read Aloud Editing

Recently, I began a new read aloud with Lil, my youngest. The book is a MG fantasy that I am almost finished polishing. In fact, I have thought I was finished with it three other times, even begun querying and entered it in Writer’s Voice (see my first blog entry here for the opening of revision three). This time will be the last pass before starting the query process again, and her being my companion beta reader is only fitting. Prior to her prompting, the manuscript gathered dust electronically for almost six years after revision one. She is the one who, never having read it, said, “Mom, when are you going to publish that book?”

Having a beta reader who is part of my target audience is enlightening. A young beta reader can give incredibly blunt honest feedback of what doesn’t work. Her statement “that part is boring” when she first read several chapters on her own a few months ago prompted me to cut several chapters from the opening. Since our read aloud started I have made a few more modifications as we go. Some are typos that I have missed again and again in my edits which now jump out at me as I read aloud to her. Some are simple word swaps she suggested. For example, in my fairytale setting, I have a physically disabled character who refers to herself as “lame,” but Lil pointed out “crippled” is better as most kids think “lame” just means “stupid.”  Another edit involved removing an unnecessary character from a scene because Lil was confused by her presence. Most of my editing has involved older beta readers and their constructive criticism, definitely invaluable, but ultimately they are not my intended audience. Lil, at almost ten, gives me that reality check of whether the novel appeals to my audience. And there is nothing more gratifying than to hear her say, “Don’t stop. Read another chapter!”
What usual methods do you use to polish a work?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Humor in Homeschooling

I have homeschooled my children off and on since my oldest could recognize letters at two years of age. Sometimes it has gone very smoothly, and other times it has been quite rocky. Right now I am committed to it because the local and middle high schools just aren’t rigorous enough for my academic standards. My second daughter, nicknamed affectionately the Booge (don’t try to figure out why, I gave it to her and even I don’t know), is finishing seventh grade. She is a delightful child in many ways, with just enough age appropriate rebellion to add a strand or two of gray to my hair. The Booge is not enamored with the boxed curriculum that we use, and recently she displayed both her feelings and her cleverness with the execution of one of her writing assignments, which I am posting with her permission. The assignment’s directions were to write a sequence of events paragraph of 150 words or more, using the given topic sentence, which is the first one below.

                Monk the Monkey

Of all the spectacular performances at the circus, the antics of Monk the Monkey were the most amusing. To start off his act, he quietly crawled out of his cage before running around in circles and yelling so loud, he almost yelled off everyone’s heads. Next, he took some grenades and started to juggle them. They weren’t lit. Then, the ringmaster gave him some daggers and he started swallowing them whole. He cut himself many times. After that, Monk jumped on the back of a nearby clown, and started to hit him quite hard; he almost knocked the poor clown unconscious. Finally, at the end of the act, Monk motioned for everyone to quiet down. The orchestra started a drum roll.  Every act in the circus came out and counted to five. Then Monk exploded. It was quite funny; I laughed really hard, especially when I saw a bawling kid in the front row that had been blasted with monkey guts. So if the circus comes to town, visit Monk the monkey, the funniest monkey who ever exploded.

I am almost tempted to change her nickname to Monk in honor of her creativity. What grade would you give this monkey?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Does Bella Swan Get a Bad Rap?

A while back I came across an article linking feminine characters from Twilight and The Hunger Games to the political trends of their publication dates. Due to their wild success and vast differences, comparison and contrasts are inevitable between the books and their characters. Click here to see the original article. The author, Gregory J. Helmstetter, argues that Katniss is a better role model for teens because she is a strong, independent character. That may be true, but I think Bella is getting a bad rap.

Teenage girls (and women) love both characters because they embody our fears and our hopes. When we are weak and unable to cope, we want someone in our corner protecting us, especially if he's as perfect as Edward seems to be. We all hope we could summon the inner strength to be the one that does the saving when needed, to be capable of not giving up when life is blatantly unfair. I don't think politics has anything to do with either character’s popularity, but rather it is a matter of the author creating characters that speak to the essence of feminine desires.
Is Katniss really a better role model? For feminists reading the first book in each series, undoubtedly Katniss is closer to their ideal. She is the dominant character, who saves the weaker and nobler Peeta. Bella is the feminine version of Peeta, loving with a persistence that refuses to give in, even though she is the weak one. Ultimately, as Bella’s story develops through the Twilight series, she grows stronger despite her fears and weakness. Her strength becomes manifested as a shield capable of protecting her loved ones from certain destruction.
The power of love is a strong message, as are the hidden strengths of frailty. Where feminists go wrong is in losing sight of the paradox that femininity has embodied throughout the ages: a deep capacity to love and nurture makes the weaker sex more powerful than the man with the club by reminding him of what everyone wants—not dominance, love. That's not a bad message for youth by any standard.

Friday, May 17, 2013

My Love/Hate Relationship with AutoCrit

In my quest to polish up my MS and be ready to query, I decided to check out AutoCrit.com, a website I saw recommended several times on the ABNA discussion boards. Probably many of you have heard about it and used it yourself, but for newer writers, or writers just starting to explore tips on the internet, this website is designed to be a tool for editing your drafts.

I completed my MS years ago, and then life got in the way of pursuing publication. A few months ago, I dusted it off and did an editing pass, then had a critique partner review it. During this time, I have spent waaay too much time on the internet looking for advice on getting published, while somehow managing to write 30,000 words of my WIP. The net result is that I have learned quite a bit about the publishing process, and the seemingly impossible odds of getting an agent and/or publisher to print my novel. Apparently, the key is lots of luck and good writing. I can’t do anything about the luck, but I can keep polishing the writing. If I had extra money lying around I would hire a professional editor, but with four daughters, chances are I will never have the funds for that.

A subscription to AutoCrit is actually very reasonable and allows access to all the features, though you can run 500 words through the wizard and get limited feedback for free. I decided to subscribe, and ran my prologue and first chapter through the wizard. The results were reassuring and dismaying at the same time. While I am pleased not to have a problem with clichés or redundancies and pacing is good, the overused words are a killer. More distressing is the fact that my MS needs to be simplified for my audience. So, I am revising, one chapter at a time. But, in the long run, the book will be better, and I just might land an agent and sell the book.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Revisiting a tearjerker on Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day! In keeping with the theme of today, I thought of Robert Munsch's Love You Forever.
This is one children’s book I noticed sold almost 400,000 copies in paperback in 2012 according to Publisher’s Weekly. (See here.) I am absolutely positive its continued popularity isn’t due to kids, but to the effect this PB has on parents and/or grandparents. When my children were young, they would select Love You Forever as a bedtime story specifically to see Mom bawl because I could not read it to them without breaking down. No other read aloud ever had that affect on me, but even now just thinking of it I tear up. My copy has long since disappeared as my kids are tweens and teens now, but I imagine non-parents might be baffled at my reaction as I recall the simplicity of the words. In fact, the repetitive nature of the story, while common to PB’s, might annoy some adults. The killer here is the poignant love of a mother for her child being returned in full by the child as mom grows old and dependent, and for me the repetition emphasizes the strength of that love in a gut-wrenching way. If you have young children and haven’t read it, put Love You Forever on your read aloud list, but have the tissues handy.
Want to check it out? See here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Writer's Voice entry

The Princess Who Was Not query
Two girls, born a day apart in the kingdom of Arga twelve years ago, have fallen victim to an innocent deception with unintended consequences. The tiny princess Arlan is spirited away to the desert to save her life, but tragedy strikes, delaying her return. Raised as the princess, adventuresome Lilia loses her secure identity when the queen reveals her impending physical transformation into a Flyer.
The king hoped to save Arga from war with a betrothal, but Lilia’s transformation and Arlan’s frailty seem destined to thwart his plans. Together, the girls decide to secretly obtain a miracle that will save Arga.  The risks are great, if they don’t get caught first.  Their mission takes them upriver to a country patrolled by fearsome, gigantic birds and across hostile mountains.  Unlikely kidnappers and a deadly swamp threaten not just their quest, but their very survival. 

Both girls stretch themselves to the limit as they try to save the country they love while finding their place in the world. The Princess Who Was Not is a completed MG fantasy of 46,000 words about friendship and overcoming obstacles.  It appeals to readers who like Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda.
The Princess Who Was Not excerpt
“You are not my daughter.” Queen Lanah’s soft voice trembled, so difficult did she find the task of undoing her deception. She spoke to the girl believed to be the Princess Arlan. The two sat alone in the queen’s private chamber not long after the princess had celebrated her twelfth birthday.
“What did you say, Mother?” Confusion passed over the girl’s face. Was this some cruel joke? Surely not, for the Queen was a kind and gentle woman.
“Dear child, I love you truly as though you were indeed my own daughter, but the time has come for me to tell you the truth. I cannot keep it from you any longer. Soon it will be obvious that you are not my child. Now that King Galen is considering a marriage alliance with Rangul, it is imperative I stop hiding this.”
Any thought that perhaps her mother was playing an uncharacteristic joke on her died when the bewildered girl fixed her eyes on the pain-filled face of the queen. All her life, she had been reared in the castle of Arga City as the only, and deeply cherished, offspring of King Galen and Queen Lanah, rulers of Arga. Now she watched Lanah with a stillness born of her royal training and waited for the queen to continue. Deep within her mind she considered the consequences of the queen’s words, torn between panic and disbelief.
“Always I have called you Mother. If I am not your daughter, whose am I?"