Monday, August 30, 2010

The Last Seven Days

It's Monday of the last week of summer vacation. I have my kids for seven more days, the weekend included, and then everything changes for us again. New wake-up times. New busses. New after-school activity schedules. New teachers and homework and friends and classes.

Usually this scares me. I don't like change that much. Especially when it begins at six in the morning. But this year, I'm sort of ready for it. Mostly that's selfish. I've gotten almost no work done this summer. Oh sure, I've had days of great revisions, and marketing for Some Kind of Normal is going pretty well, but on the whole... well, if the kids had been in school I'd be DONE with the new book. As it is, I'm less than half way through revisions, with the bulk of the hard stuff still looming. I want to be working on it, though. It's hard work, but I love it. There's hardly a thing I'd rather be doing than writing and revising.

BUT: I love having my kids home. Which is maybe my problem. I could plop them in front of the TV or computer, or send them out to play with the puppy, or over to a friend's house, and then write my heart out. But I don't have them home that much. All year they're in school, and this is my chance to spend time with them. To watch their endless concerts and doll fashion shows and play board games. It's my chance to go out with them to places like this:

This is where we went on Friday, where we hiked over the rocks and down the trails and found really cool places where water has carved out the perfect reading spot:

And this week is packed as well. The last week: the last chance to do everything we wanted to do all summer and now only have 7 days to do. On the schedule: baseball games and waterparks and the zoo and pool. Also time with friends and eating out and a bit of fun shopping.

So will I get a lot of writing done? Probably not. But next week I'll have the house all to myself. Six glorious hours to write and revise.

And no doubt, spend most of that time missing my kids.

How lucky am I that I love BOTH my jobs!?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's Water Doing In My Ceiling??

I had a great post planned for today. Well, probably not great. You know, it is still me. But I had something I wanted to say, and planned tonight to sit and write it.

And then my daughter walked into the basement and slipped on a puddle and slammed herself on her bum and started crying.

And that's when I noticed the water.

Dripping from the ceiling. Creating a rather large lake in the basement.

I ran upstairs to see what in the world could be causing water to leak through the floor and realized it was also leaking through the ceiling on the main floor.

You know what that means. Yup. Somewhere in this house there is more than one busted water pipe. And that means panic.

So there went the post. I have nothing to report on the water situation because the plumber we called two hours ago hasn't called back. And no one else is open for emergencies at ten at night. So the water is now off, which means no toilet runs or middle of the night drinks of water.

Of course, it also means no laundry and no dishes, so things are not all bad, right?

Yeah... sure. Let's go with that.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Procrastination Tips for Aspiring Writers

This blog post was sent to me, and I thought I'd pass it on to you writers as well.

I'm embarrassed by how many of these I've done, and how many more I could add to the list.

And yet... I'm still laughing. It's nice to know we all have that in common!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Kill A Manuscript

When I finished the Novel Under the Bed, and then realized it needed more revisions than a sweeping proofreading, the task seemed overwhelming. I knew I had a good idea: the first three agents I queried requested it. But the execution was lacking. I tried rewriting the first chapter.. six times. It wasn't better... it was just different. I put the book under the bed.

When I finished Some Kind of Normal I had a trick up my sleeve: a critique group. This fabulous group of writers read my work, pointed out a few places I need to beef up my descriptions and correct some typos, but overall, they gave it a thumbs up. Fantastic! That book was published with no major overhaul on my part. I liked that. I got spoiled by that.

This June, I finished my third novel, and when I sent it out to my critique group I felt less excited about it than the other two. Was I going to need to just scrap the whole thing?

Thankfully, I have a crit group that is more about the fixing than the scrapping. And they pointed out why it wasn't working for me and offered some ways to fix it. Big things. Overhaul things. Like the narrator's voice needs to change. A major character needed to be dumped. The main character's history needed to be altered and her new life needed something positive in it. Big things.

I sat on the ideas for a while. I won't say I wasn't discouraged. I wanted it to be easy. I wanted critiques that looked like, "Wow! This is perfect! I wouldn't change a thing!" or "Besides a comma or two, I think this is ready to go!"  I wanted this, even though I know it wasn't true. Still, it hurts when someone you look up to says, "You are really a great writer... the way you use words is amazing... but the story is somewhat a mess."

Because when people whose opinions you value tell you something needs to be changed, you know it needs to be changed. Even if it's a lot of work.

When I threw the first chapters at them months ago, when I was still in the process of writing, they said I needed to get rid of the male character. I wasn't ready. I tweaked him a bit, but truthfully, in my head he was such a huge part of the main character's history that I couldn't take him out. When they told me this time he still needed to go, I slept on it, and decided I was ready to do that. At least, I took him out of the story. In my head he's still part of Kat's past. He's part of who made her what she is, and I as the creator of her know that. But the reader doesn't need to know that, and so out the window he went.

And over the last two weeks I've worked on revising the hard to revise things. It's the first time for me that revising has actually felt like a struggle, and hard work. But as I was working through the issues, the book suddenly started to come together. The changes were good. Really good. They took the book from a story I didn't care so much about to a story I'm loving. The main character is someone I can finally see readers investing in and feeling for and rooting for. I find myself rooting for her.

Along the way, the changes have set up tensions in the book that weren't there before. They've created layers and complexities and depth. In short, my crit group was right.

All it took was a little humility to acknowledge it.

It was in the middle of these revisions that I stumbled on this article about Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, one of my favorite books of all time. If you are a writer, you need to read this. If you are close to revising, it's a must.

Because it turns out one of the classic books of the last century went through a lot of major revisions. A lot. And a temper tantrum by the author that had her manuscript flying out her editor's New York window.

The conclusion of the article is the same on I came to this week. Revisions can make a huge difference, but to get there it takes some great critical eyes, and a lot of humility.

I've got the first in spades. I'm working on the second.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Break-out-box-worthy Lines

When I first started writing novels and reading agent blogs, the rage was: You have to hook us in the first five pages. Then it quickly became, You have to hook us in the first page, or we won't turn it. Then someone sponsored a contest and discovered reading a million page-long entries was too much, so it became, You really need to hook us in a paragraph. But turns out reading a whole paragraph was too long for contests, too.

So the paragraph became the first sentence.

You now have one sentence to catch someone's - especially an agent's - attention. I've seen readers do that too, though. Open a book and read the first sentence and close the book and put it back on the books shelf. "Too boring." Really? Is that the length of our attention span??

So I thought it was funny when right about this time, Entertainment Weekly magazine added a feature to their book reviews: highlighting opening lines.

I wondered if that was the magazine's criteria now for picking a book to review. I mean, what if a book had a lousy first sentence? That wouldn't look good in the black break-out box, would it?

Well, apparently they ended up with a book they liked that didn't have a break-out-box-worthy first sentence, because now instead of first lines, they often highlight a "Memorable Line" instead.

For some reason, this makes me laugh hysterically every time I see it. Wow, that book must have a really lame first sentence for them to have to pick another sentence out of random!

But I digress.

The point is - well, I don't really have a point. Other than maybe to say I have favorite lines in my books too - and they aren't always my first line. I think some lines - the really great ones - have to be set up in some way. Given a context.

When I was writing Some Kind of Normal, I posted a few of my favorite lines as I'd write them:

I watch him trot down the halls, all legs and arms and purple fringe. I am ashamed that I wonder, if Ashley dies, will he be enough? 

And then there was this one:

"Which one of you is the patient?"
“The one who looks like her arm is a helium balloon,” I say. I get a look for that. “Ashley Babcock.” I think of SAT week 5: acquiesce.

“And what is she here for?”
I point to her bloated arm and neck. “I’m afraid she got in Willy Wonka’s secret stash of gum last night and things went terribly wrong when it came to the cherry pie part.” Ashley giggles, but the nurse gives me a look to kill. Clearly there is no sense of humor in the ER. 

Ha ha! I still laugh when I read that. I wrote in my blog post that I knew that last paragraph would end up being taken out by an editor, but it turns out my editor loved the line, and when a reader writes me to tell me what they loved about the book, 4 out of 5 times, they mention this line. I love that!

In the new book I'm now revising, my favorite line so far is this:

"She’d been cut out, from the time she was three, to be the girl guys wanted to have but not to keep."

So all of you readers and writers: do you have lines that have stuck out to you in books you've read? Are there lines you've written that you want to show up in that black box as EWs memorable line when they review your book someday?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Grab a Kleenex

If you're on facebook, you've probably seen this pop up a dozen times this week, but in case not, I'm sharing it here.

I think our military are amazing people, and each one deserves homecomings like this.

(And even if you don't hang out for the whole 10 minutes, hang in there until 1:40. The little girl is the best part of this!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Firestorm of Controversy: Spoiled Rotten

I don't rant often. I rarely get involved in someone else's rants. But last week, one discussion on one of my yahoo groups really got under my skin.

The group is one for diabetics, and the thread started with an innocent enough comment by someone who'd traveled outside the country and run out of insulin. Having to buy it out of pocket from a local pharmacy, she paid an enormous amount for the small vial. Truth is, if you have diabetes, you pay what you have to for insulin, because it keeps you alive.

Her comment though, was that she realized how spoiled she was in the United States with her insurance because she only pays a small co-pay here.

That was it.

You'd have thought she'd written something incendiary with the intent of starting World War III. If there were more diabetics on the yahoo group, I have no doubt WWIII wouldn't have been far behind.

The word spoiled, apparently, is a highly loaded word to which many people take offense. It lends a vision of Paris Hilton and pampered dogs and having too much you didn't work for and having no gratitude for that stuff.

The emails began flying. "I pay good money for my insurance. That isn't spoiled, that's working hard." "I can't take my family to Disney World because we spend that money on insurance and co-pays to keep me alive." "How dare you say we're spoiled because Medicare pays for insulin? Taking care of those who can't care for themselves is government's job!"

When someone people started mentioning how good we have it in comparison to other countries where people actually don't have access to medication, someone else wrote back this:

"Some people are dead. Am I supposed to be thankful I'm alive?"

Ummm..... Yes. Yes you are.

Is this not the most basic principle of gratitude? That every morning we wake up and we are gifted with another day? I can only think this man has never lost anyone he's loved, or come close to losing his own life, and for that, even he should be thankful.

Life is precarious. Every breath can be your last. In the two years I've known two people - both young (one in his early 20s) – who died in their sleep. Two who were murdered in their own house by an intruder. One who, while walking across his kitchen to get a cup of coffee, had a brain aneurism and fell to the floor unconscious.

Every day people die in car accidents. People are diagnosed with incurable illnesses. People who are otherwise completely healthy, have a tiny part of their body give out with catastrophic side-effects.

In many countries, walking down the street can get you killed. Sleeping in your house can get you killed.

There are people without food. People for whom clean, drinking water is not an option.

So yes. Yes you should be grateful you are alive. And yes, we in the United States are spoiled. Even if we don't have all we want, the majority of us have what we need.

If being spoiled means having more than what we need and not being grateful for it, I think we are spoiled. I grumble when I have to shell out money for insulin and test strips and pump supplies. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, I'd love to do something more fun with that money. But I am ever grateful for the ability to have them.

Even on my worst days, I'm glad to be alive, and grateful there is the promise of another day that might be better.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I Want It All: A Bold Proposition for Publishers

I want it all. I know I'm being greedy, but still, I want it all.

I want the e-book, the tree-book and the audio book. I think, if you spent $25 for a hardback, you should get a code to download the e-book and a code to download the audio book, even if those are temporary downloads, like checking out a book from the library.

This brilliant and yet probably a controversial idea only came to me recently.

When I first got my Nook, I only downloaded a few books I knew I wouldn't want on my bookshelves anyway. Books I knew I probably wouldn't want to read more than once, or books I wouldn't come back to later to flip through on some lazy, casual day.

Lately, though, I've read a few that I've gone back afterwards and bought the tree-book for. So yay authors and publishers. You got two out of me. Because I wanted to take it on the go, thought I'd only want to read it once, and then decided it was one I MUST have for my bookshelves.

Then last week, I checked out the audio book Under the Sabers, the non-fiction book the TV show Army Wives is based on. I wanted to read the book but it was checked out of the library already, and not figuring this one was one I'd read more than once, I figured I'd get the audio book to listen to at the pool or in the kitchen while cooking.

And while I loved doing those things - especially this weekend when I let my husband play in the pool with the kids and I laid nearby listening to hour after hour - I really, really wanted the paper book in my hands. I'm not an audio learner. I don't understand things nearly as well listening as I do if I can see it written, which is why in college I was a prodigious note taker. It's always been in one ear and out the other.

So while I love listening to a good story, this book is chock full of all kinds of great information I feel like I'm missing by listening instead of reading.

And an audio book isn't good to pick up and put down between kids pestering you for drinks or conversations about where to have lunch. It requires concentrated time to focus that a book is much more forgiving about.

Everyone seems up in arms about ebooks taking over, and the death of paper books, but the fact is that every type of book - paper, digital and audio - all fulfill a different purpose and are good for different things. Sometimes I'm fine with just one or the other.

But other times... I want them all.

Is that really asking too much?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fact as Strange as Fiction

I have three hydrangea bushes outside my basement windows. In the seven years I've lived in this house, I've watched them grow so that they almost take over the entire window, first with their huge green leaves in the spring, and then with their ginormous blue blossoms in the summer.

They have always been blue.

After moving into the house I saw someone down the street with both pink and blue bushes, and I though, "Wow! Such a pretty combination!"

I considered getting a pink one to put between my blue bushes, only to learn the very strange fact that hydrangeas don't actually come in different colors. They are all the same.

The colors of the flowers change depending on the elements in the soil, and if you want to change one to another, all you have to do is change the alkaline level of the dirt they're planted in.

This was intriguing to me mainly because I wanted to know how bushes so close together could have such different soil, and whether the owners of them specifically engineered them that way.

I however am not a green-thumbed individual, so my bushes have stayed gloriously blue.

This week I'm reading David Baldacci's book Split Second (the first of his I've read, and I'm definitely hooked), and in the book, the two investigators, hunting for a missing gun, notice an arrangement of hydrangeas in the garden that are all blue... except for one. The one in the middle is pink. One of the investigators starts digging under it while the other asks what the heck he's doing. Turns out, if something metal - like a gun - is planted under a hydrangea, it changes the alkaline of the soil under that plant and will change it's color.

Wa La. Murder weapon found.

And this morning, after seven years and a full summer so far of blue blossoms, I went outside to discover my hydrangea in the middle is now pink.

Coincidence? Maybe. But I'm still locking my doors!

Monday, August 2, 2010

 This photo is one I posted on my photo blog today, and after some of the comments, I started thinking about these rocks...

I found them in a large wooden crate in an outdoor market, all colors and sizes thrown in together, their pointy, crystalized faces gazing up at passers-by.

But when you pick one up, and turn it over, the underside is decidedly ugly and ... well... rock looking. It's grey. And rough. Uneven and splotchy. Nothing special.

I think about the people who find these rocks, and wonder if they know what they're going to see when they crack them open with a hammer. Do they know the color and gorgeous crystal interior by the shape or size of texture of the outside rock? Or is it all just a crapshoot - you pick up enough rocks and slam them open and eventually you get a good one that isn't rock all the way through?

I tend to think there are specialists out there, people who can come across a hundred rocks a day and know one particular one is the gem inside.

It reminded me of my character today. At the beginning of the book she's the grey, rough rock. She's nothing special. In fact, she's hard and tough and not totally likable. But someone knows. One person - two even, although that second one doesn't get enough time to get a crack at her - but one person can see what's inside that no one else knows.

Finding that inside isn't gentle or soft or easy, either. Like a rock, it take some strong whacks in her life to crack her open. Pieces of her break off. She shatters.

But by the end, if I've done it right, I hope the readers will see the gem she is inside.

Do your characters have layers, and how do you develop those through your story-telling?