Nov 27, 2011

Things I learned in Cancun

Thanksgiving day hot tub. :)

 I'm back to a 100-degree temperature difference between Cancun and home sweet home. Brrr! My extended family had a fabulous time getting reacquainted on the beach, eating too much and fending off second-degree burns on our lily white skin. :) This was our second time having a family reunion in Mexico and, while I can't recommend it as a getaway enough, there are a few things I learned this time around. Interestingly, all of these relate to writing.

1 Check your passport expiration date a month or so before leaving the country. Discovering it has expired four days before leaving costs a lot of $$ and lost sleep.
Writing tip: make your MC stupid at times. Stupid mistakes = tension.
American tourist in Cancun

2 The Cancun tourist industry delights in fleecing foreigners. A ten-minute cab ride from our resort to Tulum is $56. Each way. In American dollars. Going to the Cozumel ferry terminal costs $86 each way, or around $4 a mile. Compared to Puerto Vallarta, where cab rides cost around $2, this was a shocker. Note to self: reserve a car online before leaving.
Writing tip: Put your MC at a disadvantage. Fighting against a culture or expectation = tension.

3 Do not get so caught up in staring at the gorgeous fish swimming around the coral reef that you lose track of the current and find yourself stuck among rocks studded with sharp coral.
Writing tip = Distract your MC so he/she doesn't notice something important. Then have it bite them later.

4 Spiny sea urchin spines hurt. Especially when they're embedded in your fingers and you must swim a while to get back to the beach before yanking them out with tweezers.
Writing tip: Prolong pain for your MC. Lots of pain for even a short amount of time =  tension.

5.It is possible to have too many mixed drinks in a day. *burp*
Writing tip: Um...see no. 1.

6. Evidently the term 'medium-well' when referring to steak means 'raw' to a Mexican chef. As do the terms, well-done, medium-rare and medium.
Writing tip = See 1 and 4.

ugly gnome
7. It is too much to expect Husband and Son to spend money wisely while shopping for keepsakes. The ugly naked gnome Son wanted as a joke for his locker cost $20. *unhappy face*
Writing tip: Surround your MC with those who don't agree with his/her agenda. This builds conflict.

8. Even though the scale says you've lost weight, the camera shows otherwise. Note to self: delete all photos of woman-with-a-figure-like-a-fire-hydrant off Husband's Blackberry.
Writing tip: Slap your MC in the face with reality occasionally. This also builds conflict.

9. Also, that weight you lost? It's back. See #5.
Writing tip: Disappointment is part of life. Make sure your MC experiences that.

10. It IS worth it to scrimp and save toward a big family trip. The memories we have will last a lot longer than the wood floor I could've gotten in our living room. Okay, maybe not. But the memories are a lot more fun!
Writing tip: Achieving a worthwhile goal is also part of life. Balance out that disappointment with a satisfactory ending.

Me, just before diving into the Chichen Itza cenote

Nov 18, 2011

Off to Cancun

This is me.

 No wait...
Here I am, looking a little scary.

Also spending a lot of time here:

And visiting here:

In other words, I'll be having a fabulous Thanksgiving week. And here's hoping you are, too!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nov 13, 2011

Books that make me thankful

I'm getting a jump on Thanksgiving by posting some great book recommendations early. This time next week I'll be roasting on a beach in Cancun consuming a pile of mind-candy (ie paperback novels) in between reacquainting myself with my niece and nephews. Oh, and eating enormous amounts of food, snorkeling and touring Chichen Itza. Sounds like paradise, right? I hope so.

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. The story follows the saga of Reuben Land's family as they deal with the aftermath of Davy Land's retribution against the town bullies. MC Reuben narrates his father's unique faith, his sister's storytelling ability and his brother's struggle with the law. Enger's writing is flawless. His strong setting and character development will pull you in until at the end, reading it is a very sweet sorrow.

Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller. The subtitle of this book is: "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality", informing you that Miller's essays encompass the deep questions of life. This book changed the way I think about my own faith by confronting the hypocrises in some evangelical circles in a gentle, logical way.

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis. When Katie was 19, she went to Uganda on a mission trip and came home determined to care for the orphans there. She started Amazima Ministries, adopted 14 girls and now heads a staff of international people determined to make a difference for the people of Masese.  This book is the story of her journey from high school graduate to a modern version of Mother Teresa. Every time I read her blog, I'm humbled at God's grace/ provision and Katie's courage in living her faith. Learn more about her here.

Sorta Like A Rock Star by Matthew Quick. Amber Appleton lives on a school bus (Hello Yello) with her alcoholic mom, teaches English to the KDFC (Korean Divas for Christ), routinely dresses her tiny dog, Billy Big Boy, in ridiculous outfits and manages to stay positive despite struggling with homelessness.  When Mom disappears, Amber's despair causes her huge collection of friends - society's misfits, rejects and other outcasts - to surround this amazing girl and her remarkable faith. Amber is one of my all-time favorite heroines, right up there with Emily Starr, Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen.

The Space Trilogy by CS Lewis. (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hidden Strength) I first read these books as a student at Oxford University and they're still among my favorite reads. Although the technology and space knowledge is dated (Lewis's hero goes to a Mars populated by various Martians) the unique way Lewis views mankind is not. One of the 20th century's great apologists, this series proves the Narnia Chronicles weren't the only stories Lewis had in him.

So those are my choices. What books have you read that make you thankful?

Nov 10, 2011

Alicia Bessette and A Pinch of Love

 My introduction to Alicia came a few years ago, when I read Simply from Scratch, a novel about a grieving young widow who enters a baking contest. I loved the book and kept watching the library for Alicia's name to reappear in the New Books shelves.

Two years later, I was researching the guy who wrote Sorta Like A Rock Star, which I'd read an ARC of in 2009 and really, REALLY liked. I'd never written to an author before (cross my heart) and vowed at the time to send the author a note. I never did until one day, I was commenting on a blog that requested favorite YA reads and I wanted to recommend SLARS. Turns out that author is Matthew Quick, who is married to Alicia Bessette. *huge eyes*   Matthew's blog mentioned A Pinch of Love. I read the blurb and thought - HOLY COW! I remember this book but it wasn't called A Pinch of Love. (It's been renamed for the paperback version.)  The writing was soooo good. And Matthew is Alicia's husband?! How did so much awesomeness get in one family? (So that's where all the awesomeness went. I was wondering...) Anyway, I won a copy to re-read in about two days (still love it!), which encouraged me to cyberstalk request an interview on the off-chance Alicia was as gracious and classy as the characters in her book.
I'm not giving you my copy, which is autographed *holds onto it jealously* but I promise that if you buy APOL you will LOVE it. (Or you can send it to me for free.)

An article on your site suggests your husband's first sale was fuel for a total life-change - a move not only to a new community, but to becoming a full-time writer yourself. Talk about your thought processes then, and where you found the courage to quit your day job.

Yes, my husband and I have embraced several big life-changes. The first was in 2004, and it required the most courage. We quit our jobs, sold our home, and moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts, all in the name of becoming published novelists.
What fueled that change? Dissatisfaction. We were disappointed in our jobs and had no spare energy to fully pursue our shared dream of writing fiction. We decided that nothing would change if we didn't change it. Many people told us we were taking a risky and illogical step backward by forsaking our then-careers and moving in with my parents. But at the time there seemed to be no other alternative. While we both wanted to write, we couldn't afford for both of us to do that at the same time. So Matt entered an MFA program while I became a reporter for my hometown newspaper. Our plan was to switch places in a few years.
Which leads to the second big life-change in 2007, when Matt sold his first novel, THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. We had enough money to move out of my parents' house, and I could join him in writing full time. At that point, no courage was required to quit my day job! Matt's success was all the impetus I needed. We missed Philly, so we returned to that area and rented a small apartment. My "office" was a desk and chair in the corner of the living room. It was there that I wrote A PINCH OF LOVE.
Our third big change came this year, when we moved back to Massachusetts, to be closer to woods and mountains, which fuel our creativity. We're homeowners now, and I have my own office -- a real room -- bliss!

Yay! I always pictured you in New England because the world you create in APOL is so vivid.
How did you snag your agent?

I found my agent with the help of It's a very useful and informative website that I recommend to anyone seeking advice on querying, which can be a grueling process. (The first novel I wrote was not published, and was rejected by more than one hundred agents.) To any writers out there entering the agent search, stay hopeful; don't despair. Keep writing. Remember that every rejection gets you closer to the person who will become your agent. And, read this:

AgentQuery is awesome! So is QueryTracker...but I'm preaching to the choir.

Describe your writing relationship with your husband. Do you two talk about your work, or prefer to keep your professional lives as separate as possible?

We've built our marriage around fulfilling personal potential, so topics related to myth and reality, success and failure, meaning and meaninglessness, writing and editing, character development and plot, movies and books, frequently work their way into our daily conversations. Our professional lives and our personal lives are closely linked.

Your site mentions you're an accomplished pianist. Does your music encourage creativity at the computer keyboard? If so, how?

A friend participating in NaNoWriMo this month told me she wrote more than 2,000 words while listening to one of my CDs. I was so happy to hear that!
I usually listen to music when I write -- but I never listen to my own music, because all I hear are mistakes, places where I could have been either more or less subtle, both in performance and in songwriting. My mind becomes so preoccupied with my own perceived shortcomings that I can't focus on anything else. (For the same reason, I've never read A PINCH OF LOVE beginning to end in book form.) I'm very self-critical. That quality can be crippling, but it also can be a boon, especially when it comes to revision -- at the piano and at the computer.
That said, my writing breaks frequently feature me at the piano!

How do you balance life as a professional musician with life as a writer? Do you set practice time limits on both or set whole days aside to pursue one or the other?

I'm a hobbyist musician and a professional writer, and the two pursuits seem to balance each other out naturally. I made my two full-length CDs (with the help of an old friend who is a hobbyist music producer) during times when I wasn't writing much fiction. After Big Life Change #2 described above, I was separated from my piano -- it didn't fit in the apartment. That's when I really dove into fiction. Now, in our home in Massachusetts, I'm reunited with my piano. I'm playing and writing. It's a gift.

BTW, you can listen to some of Alicia's recordings here.

Your MC in APOL is a widow. I'm guessing you had to imagine yourself as a widow to get into her head. Was that hard? Did it make you view life any differently?

Instead of imagining myself as a widow, I imagined Zell, my narrator, as a widow. I got to know her entire personal history, from birth to now, in order to get inside her head as much as possible -- and out of my own. What about the grieving process is difficult for Zell in particular? Which of Zell's personality traits help her to cope, and which of her personality traits sabotage her healing? Those were my guiding questions in creating her voice and her world.
Writing a book -- especially a book that centers around grief and recovery -- is an emotional journey. I do view life differently after having written it, in the sense that perhaps I'm generally less judgmental of other peoples' complaints. Life is hard for everyone. No one is immune to pain.

What's the most surprising thing about being a published author?
How many people have participated in getting me here. No book is the result of one person working in solitude. So many people helped create A PINCH OF LOVE: first readers, agents, agents' colleagues, editors, editors' assistants, proofreaders, copy editors, publicists, marketing professionals, artists, and the list goes on. Not to mention my mother, who gave me a lined journal to write in for my eighth birthday; my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Moran, who made reading absolutely magical for me; and my creative writing teacher in high school, Mrs. Rubenstein, who took a special interest in me during a vulnerable time in my life.

Where are you headed in your next WIP - a sequel, a new setting or genre?? (hint: SEQUEL.)Many readers have asked if I'm working on a sequel to A PINCH OF LOVE. Right now, I'm not ... but that doesn't mean I won't ever be! Regarding my current work in progress, I'm too superstitious to discuss it in detail. But I have high hopes.

Hmmm...future blog post alert. What is up with super-secret WIPs? Foment your brains, people, and come back Monday to share your reasons for staying undercover.

Fast five ...
Cat or dog?
Dog. (Cat is a close second.)

Ocean or mountains?
Mountains. (Ocean is a close second.)

Favorite swear word and time/place you use it most often.
 The F-bomb. I use it all over the place.

Mine is g.d. I use it in the car all the time, ALL the time.  Each of my kids' first word was dammit which they said in the car.  (Not my finest mom moment. Dammit.)

First thing on your Christmas wish list

World peace. (Second thing: a red Le Creuset skillet.)

I'd like another pair of fuzzy socks. The kind with aloe vera in them?? They rock.

Thing you do that you know is annoying but you just can't stop.

Thanks for stopping by, Alicia!

Nov 6, 2011

Characteristics of overwriting

I've been doing a lot of critiquing lately and have come eyeball-to-page with this ugly symptom of first drafts. If your MS is a face - a perfect, symmetrical face of beauty - then overwriting is like an overbite. As soon as your story opens its mouth, overwriting is revealed. Readers are caught staring at it, rather than the whole story.

Since so many are in the middle of NaNo,  here are three common manifestations of this problem: too much telling, purple prose and too many stage directions. Find others at this great post by writer Cheryl Reif here.

Too much telling. "The sight of her made me feel awful. I felt queasy, my stomach lurched, sweat broke out on my whole body. She was really sick. She threw up buckets of green liquid and could barely breathe from wretching."

See what happened there? I told you what was happening and then showed you. Was it necessary that I tell you I felt awful/queasy? That I tell you she felt sick? No. Because I showed you in the next sentences. Telling-and-then-showing assumes your reader is an idiot. Give us the tools and we'll figure it out. Promise.

Purple prose. "His smile was a ghastly grimace. As wretched tears rolled down her trembling cheeks, she wondered if she'd ever see the light of day again. The knife blade was only inches from her pearly white throat. He laughed a maniacal laugh, his teeth tiny points of malice."

Oy. That was disturbingly easy to write. Those sentences are littered with adjectives/adverbs that are another form of telling. We get carried away by our own awesomeness, by the idea we can paint a picture with words instead of what isn't said. Let me say that again: what ISN'T said. The most effective writing is one that gives the reader enough info to populate his/her own imagination. It's a fine line and one that can years to perfect. Let's see if I can demo this right off the cuff:
"He grimaced so she saw his pointed teeth. Tears snaked down her cheeks, hot trails of fear fueled by the knife at her neck."
Far fewer words, yet a much bigger impace on the reader. Or so I hope. You'll have to tell ME which is better. (This is a subjective business, no?)

Too many stage directions.  "Hey," he said, sitting down next to me on the top stair. He put his backpack down and crossed his left leg, angling himself so he faced me.
"Hey," I said back, giving him a half smile so my dead tooth didn't show. I combed my hair with my fingers and then braided it into a single braid as thick as my wrist. "What's going on?"
"Not much." He rummaged in his backpack for an apple. It was red and had a bruise. He held it out to me with his right hand. The fingernail was broken on his index finger.

*sounds of choking*  Um... I don't care how they're sitting or if someone has a mole on their left butt cheek. (Unless the mole is somehow diabolically related to the plot in an intrinsic way.) I want to read the dialogue or experience another plot point, not feel like I'm trapped by every single move the MC makes. Good writing is all about the right kind of detail. Constant updates on the way somebody combs their hair usually don't fall in that category.

Those are my three...and I wrestle with them often. What's your idea of overwriting? Please share with examples in the comments.

Nov 3, 2011

Interview with Eowyn

Eowyn Ivey
Today I'm interviewing Eowyn Ivey, an author whose literary debut, The Snow Child, comes out via Little, Brown Feb. 1. I first met Eowyn in person last spring, but have known about her for years through mutual friends. (And yes, her name comes from that Eowyn in LOTR.) We also have daughters the same age, with the same name and some of the same talents so we run into each other performing mom-duties occasionally.  She lives with her family north of town, semi-off-the-grid, and is a life-long Alaskan. Last summer she spent rafting down the Copper River, writing her second novel and doing subsistence stuff like berrying, hunting and gardening.  She is sooo generous with her time, and sooo very talented, I'm always a bit in awe of her whenever we meet. I know you'll feel the same after reading her words, and will rush out to put in your order for her book ASAP. (BTW, isn't that a great photo? That was taken by another mutual friend. I'm surrounded by talented people!! When will that rub off? *taps foot*)
1. You found your agent in an unusual way. Please share!
I was attending the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer several years ago. I know a lot of writers go to conferences hoping to pitch to an editor or an agent, but that wasn’t my goal. I went to learn more about the craft and meet other writers. I was there with my mom, Julie LeMay, who is a poet. Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management was the presenting literary agent, andI was impressed with the titles he represented. But my novel wasn’t finished, and I wouldn’t have signed up to speak with him if my mom hadn’t kept prodding me. What did I have to lose? At least I could get a feel for how the novel might be received if and when I was ready to query agents. I described my concept to Jeff, and he asked to read the first 100 pages. Since I wasn’t there to pitch, I hadn’t even brought my manuscript! Thankfully, I was able to get the pages to him; he read them there at the conference and offered to represent it.
Isn't that a great story? I had no idea how lucky she was until I joined the query trenches a few weeks ago. It's like Eowyn got one of those Amazing Race fast-forward passes.

2. From your blurb, The Snow Child appears to have elements of a re-telling, magical realism and historical. What's its genre and how did it get classified?
It’s general fiction.  Although it has a fantastical element and is set in the past, it isn’t a genre novel. You’ll see it described as “literary fiction” by some bookstores and websites, but it’s a label I’m uncomfortable using myself because it seems to be a value claim. “Literary” to me is something that has stood the test of time. But The Snow Child would be shelved in the fiction section of a bookstore or library.
3. You did research prior to writing this book. Talk about how important the research was to your plotting.
The research provided more inspiration than facts. I was working a shift at Fireside Books when I stumbled on a children’s picture book called The Snow Child, illustrated by Alaskan artist Barbara Lavallee. That’s when I first learned of the Snegurochka fairy tale. Right then I knew this was the storyline I had been looking for. As I began writing the novel, I continued to learn more about the fairy tale. I discovered that over the centuries it has been retold in many versions and media– Russian lacquer paintings, Arthur Ransome’s translations. There’s even an opera and a ballet based on the fairy tale. All of this fueled my imagination.
Fireside Books is our local bookstore. I spend a regular chunk of Christmas dough there each year. So do my kids.
4. How important are beta writers or critique partners to you?
My family is my primary source of writing support. As I wrote each night, I would come downstairs and read sections aloud to my husband and older daughter. At the same time, my mom and I had an ongoing arrangement – each week she would give me a poem and I would give her a chapter. The rule was that, because these were first drafts, we could only say what we liked about them. It was really about having a deadline and encouraging each other. I was also fortunate to have other people who were willing to read finished drafts of it, including my dad, fellow authors and booksellers, and former coworkers from the newspaper business.
5. What authors inspire you with their style? Or, if you had to compare your book to others out there, what are they?
I could write pages and pages about the authors who have inspired me. My writing was born out of my love of reading. When I was a little girl, I devoured books such as Little House in the Big Woods, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, andThe Boxcar Children. As a teenager I read everything from David Eddings to Lois Lowry to Stephen King.  It was in college and later that I discovered authors such as Louise Erdrich, Larry McMurtry, Annie Dillard, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, and Charles Frazier. I am a member of a book club, and we’ve read a lot of classics over the years -- Frankenstein, As I Lay Dying,Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment. I read Austen, Nabokov,  Hemingway, Melville, Joyce, Chekov, Woolf. I also read a lot of modern fiction such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Tinkers, Everything is Illuminated, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, The Ice-Shirt. As a bookseller, I’m in constant contact with the fabulous new books hitting the shelves. I just finished Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Detour, and The Marriage Plot. Now I’m reading Pure by Julianna Baggott. As you can see my taste runs from westerns to fantasy, literary fiction to classics. And I would love to think that what I read influences my own writing.
6. What was going out on sub like? How did you fill the waiting?
It is a torturous process, especially having worked in journalism for nearly a decade. I was used to a fast turn over, same-day praise or rejection. In book publishing we’re talking months or even years. But I tried to put that nervous energy to good use. I wrote short stories, I began working on the next novel, and I read a lot.
7. Now that TSC has been on shelves in other countries and is doing well, talk about your expectations for the US debut. What advice have any publishing experts given you?
I don’t think anyone can give me advice on this one. The truth is no one – not the editor, the agent, the publisher, the bookseller, and certainly not the author – can predict how a book is going to do. We all just follow our guts, write and read what we love, and it can be surprising which books hit the bestseller list and which ones never see the light of day. I’m not talking about quality as much as theme and subject and approach. I believe a lot of different factors in society influence what books become well-loved at a certain time. So instead of trying to play that impossible guessing game, I’m just grateful for each email or tweet I get from a reader in Oslo or London or Orlando who has enjoyed it.
When I say 'doing well' I really mean it's a bestseller. Like, in Norway. And possibly in other countries by now.
8. You landed a grant to help fund research for your next novel. Talk about that process, including any tips for grant writing or research you may have learned.
It’s true what they say – try, try again. I’ve applied for grants before and not received them.  I think a few things helped me this time with the Rasmuson Foundation. I had a very concrete project that would clearly help me write my next novel. I had a polished excerpt from the novel in progress. I had improved my resume with short story publications and the acquisition of my novel by Little, Brown & Co. And I had attended a fabulous session at Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Denver that was all about how to write a grant proposal. I highly recommend to anyone who wants to write and publish and apply for grants to attend conferences like these. You can get a tremendous amount of helpful information!
9. Your debut is coming right up. How will you balance publicity for this book with writing on your next?
 We’re planning a book release part in conjunction with Fireside Books at the Inn CafĂ© in Palmer that evening. As for balancing everything, my goal is to enjoy the incredible ride. I write because I love to, and I always find the time when I set my mind to it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find The Snow Child opening new doors for me to publish essays and short stories. But however much writing I do, or don’t do, I know that publicity opportunities for The Snow Child are once-in-a-lifetime -- never again will I have a debut novel.
10. I've heard it said that landing the second contract can be harder than the first. What's your opinion on that?
I have no idea. I guess when I finish my next novel, I’ll find out.
 Well, dang. I was hoping you'd dispel that as an urban (or literary) legend. Sometimes the literary life seems like a climb up Lazy Mountain - just when you think you've hit the summit, you see another peak to climb...and then another...and another....

Alaskan fast five
caribou and Mt. McKinley

Do you prefer moose or caribou?
Caribou, but I’ll never turn down a moose.

Dip-netting record? (or gill-netting if that's how you roll)
Only four.  I’m lacking as a dip-netter. Lucky for me, my husband Sam is a natural and fills our permit almost every time he goes out.
Oh, we're tied! I caught four last summer...but I had my son's help. That net is gigantic and I kept slipping and getting stuck in the mud. And the salmon we caught averaged 15 lbs., which didn't help matters when we had to haul them onto shore as the creek rose. Bleck.
Cords of wood it takes you to get through the winter?
Six. And for those who don’t know the measurement, a cord is wood stacked 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long. So about six of those.
Also, Eowyn chops that herself. You should see her arms. (Kidding. Or am I....)
Gallons of water you must haul each week?
300. And we do laundry in town. We used to make do with just 50 gallons at a time, but we recently got a larger holding tank so we’re getting spoiled with hot baths and everything.
Luxury item you can't live without? (Mine is Oregon Chai Tea. Mmmmm.)
Good coffee with real half-and-half, no sweetener.

Thanks, Eowyn! She'll be popping by to answer any questions periodically, so fire away!