Dec 29, 2011

Bright beginnings

Happy 2012, everyone! I hope you have big plans for New Year's Eve. My own include a game night with two of our three kids, eating the last of the Christmas cookies, and falling asleep in front of a movie while cuddling with hubsy. *yawn* I probably won't make it to midnight. Yup, I am Officially Old. :)

Next week, stop by on Monday to critique a few loglines and first 250 words of selected adult entries that didn't make it into the Baker's Dozen auction hosted at Miss Snark's First Victim. Not many have sent me entries yet, but I know those that do appreciate whatever feedback you share. And you're welcome to send your logline/first 250 even if you've never heard of Authoress. The more, the merrier!

On Friday, I talk with the lovely Rebecca Hamilton, whose novel, The Forever Girl, debuts next month as a print and e-book through her new imprint, Immortal Ink Publishing. Rebecca is also the acquisition editor for the company, which will start taking queries in May. She'll have a very cool giveaway you won't want to miss. (She's also just done a fantabulous blog makeover - definitely worth a click. I swear she's some kind of cyber-genius.)

In the meantime, I raise my nonalcoholic-apple-cranberry-spritzer to you! L'Chaim!

Dec 26, 2011

New Year resolutions

A quick google of 'new year writing resolutions' yielded the following: finish a novel, start a novel, publish an ebook, start a blog, post more regularly on a blog, read more, spend more time writing, submit writing....

Yawn. That's all great stuff but since those resolutions bounce around my head on a daily basis, they're not items I'll add to an annual list. Also,  those items are all about the writer and frankly, I'm getting a little sick of me.  So this year, my goals focus on others (and are in no particular order).

1. Pay attention to real life. My daily life is broken into two parts - writer-me in the morning, and teacher-me in the afternoon. Teacher-me constantly thinks about my students, how I can tailor lessons to fit their needs, noticing which child seems down/sad and thinking how to cheer them up. Those conversations - and the ones with my family and friends - pull me out of my writer-self, remind me to pay attention and not get sucked into my writer-me's head so much.

2. Write letters to our sponsorship kids. My family sponsors several children through World Vision. Each year we get letters from them telling us a tiny bit about their lives in Third World countries. Responding to them tends fall to the bottom of the to-do pile. This needs to change.

3. Hug my kids each day. In my experience, the older my children get, the less I touch them. Giving my almost-16 year-old son a hug requires advance stealth planning. But it's worth it. Soon they'll be gone and hugging them won't be as easy as chasing them through the house. :)

4. Give more away. Money and time - two of our most valuable commodities. I've pulled back a bit from volunteering this year after several year in a row. The break was nice but I'm ready to jump back in. And I'm upping my charitable giving goal by ten percent this year. Yeah, it's not a lot but it'll be a sacrifice nonetheless.

5. Be kind. At my school, we have several expectations of our students and this one is the first.  When I'm too focused on my own goals - if I'm running late or tired of waiting on someone else - my first reaction is to snap. At those times, it takes a huge effort to swallow my irritation. But it's necessary. I don't need to make someone else's bad day even worse with a careless comment. And I don't need to teach my kids that a snappish response is acceptable.

So what are your resolutions for 2012? Are you buying a gym membership, going on a big trip, changing jobs? What goals do you have that don't concern your writing life?

Dec 19, 2011

Using the dark

We are three days before solstice (72 hours but who's counting?) and down to around five hours of daylight. By daylight, I mean the sky lightens a bit to a kind of twilight. At my house, Pioneer Peak effectively blocks the low sunrise except for an hour or two each day. Which means we get very little direct sunlight right now, and we have to be looking south to see it.

Downside: Most of us sleep a lot this time of year. Also, Alaskans don't produce as much vitamin D which means our bones don't heal as quickly as yours in the Lower 48. (I found this out when one of my kids broke an ankle.) And some get SAD - seasonal affective disorder from the lack of light. I've never experienced this but people who do generally leave the far north within a few years.

There are upsides to this time of year. *head scratching* No, really, there are. I'll get to them in a minute. I want to stay with the downside because it's when reality - like the writing life - fails to meet our expectations that our story begins.

Before I moved here, I had this picture of life in a cozy cabin, log fire roaring, deep in the wilderness with moose for neighbors. We'd ski every weekend, and my husband would bring home caribou bacon. We explore the backcountry on our four-wheelers. Our children would be rugged, able to handle a rifle and skin a large animal with their other hand.

Reality is a bit different. We skipped the cabin in favor of a reasonable commute to work. We don't have time to ski nearly as often as I'd like, and my husband has yet to go hunting. We do have four-wheelers but my youngest has been too young (until now) to go very far.  Our children are typical kids, although all of them have been on skates since they were four and they never get cold. (Seriously. All three have been known to go jump on the trampoline in a T-shirt when it's zero degrees outside.)

So - dreams on one hand. Reality on the other. And the gap between desire and fact is the stuff of fiction.  Because it's only when things aren't perfect that we recognize what is. 

It's only when the lights go out that you know what you're missing.

When this happens in your writing (and it should!) does your character react with disappointment or reconciliation? With anger or surprise? With hatred or love? Does the gap change your MCs heart or harden it? What thought processes or personalities naturally lean toward one or the other? And what signals do they leave to allow you to guess?

As writers, we are supposed to be students of human nature. As humans, we use one sense above all others - our eyes - to figure out the world. But in the dark, you're forced to rely on the others: feeling, touching, tasting, smelling. The dark teaches you what stuff you're made of.

This is where your writing gets good. It gets hard, but if you persevere, it gets good. You'll start to notice the upside of being in this place.

Where I live, if we happen to catch the sun after it rounds the mountain and before it falls below the horizon, the light is ethereal. A shaft of rainbow in the black. A glittering ray of heaven showing off the muscular curves of Pioneer Peak. Or, on clear nights, the northern lights move like liquid dancers across the sky.

here's a certain kind of beauty that only comes in the dark. Wait for it. Be ready to use it when it comes.

Dec 15, 2011

Deja vuing: Characteristics of emerging writers

A do-over from a September post...

Check out other Deja Vu postings listed at Creepy Query Girl's blog...

I'm almost finished with a graduate program that requires a LOT of academic writing. This is a totally different genre from fiction, as Calvin demonstrates so succinctly.

Fiction writing, on the other hand, defines itself by carefully orchestrated simplicity. As authors, we take our readers by the hand to lead them down our winding story road. If we lose them, in most cases it's because they fell into a plot hole or were stolen by an evil, off-topic tangent.

Just like little kids first learning the mechanics of writing, we all have weak areas that show up in our writing. Our mastery of language comes through in what we write. This is why college professors, MFA instructors, and editors urge writers to read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (see great rap below) and other books on writing. If writing is an art, our grammar, word choice and structure are the canvas on which our stories are painted.

The difference between a master and a student is simply this: enough practice to recognize/catch these tendencies in the first draft. (And I’m nowhere near able to do this – which is why I have critique partners!)

1.A whole lot of nothing. In other words, your words take the reader nowhere. It takes 850 words to get your MC out of bed, or the MS reads like a playbook of movements – from the house, to work, to lunch, etc., with zero plot points to tie it together. Yawn. *checks watch*

2.Rambling/useless chapters. This is similar to #1 except the concept extends to chapters instead of scenes. Chapters are like rungs in a ladder – they’re supposed to take a reader to the next level. If they don’t move the story, your ladder turns into a treadmill.

3.Plotted like a potato plant. Here in my part of Alaska, we grow a lot of potatoes. To plant one, cut a potato in half and watch it grow. An emergent writer starts out with a great idea and then, presto, soon there are shoots popping out of the ground every which way. The reader has no clue which is the main idea because there’s so much going on.

4.Overwriting. Agent Mary Kole wrote a great post on how this rears its ugly head. All I’m going to say is: don’t tell us what you’ve just shown us is happening in your MS. It’s the equivalent of leading us there and then grabbing our face while yelling: “Look!” See here for more detail on this error.

5.Not enough tension. The reader needs to know why he/she is reading your story. Even a formulaic romance has the break-up. This is one I’m struggling with and it reminds me a bit of keeping a bunch of rubber bands tight while juggling a ball with one hand. According to Kristen Lamb, conflict must be constant.

6.Grammatical errors. Spell check is great but if you correctly spell a misused word, it’s still misused. Whether it's the incorrect use of they're, their or there, or the misunderstanding that you DO NOT add a possessive to a plural word (ie parent’s when you mean the two people who raised you) routine errors shout AMATEUR.

7.Thin skin. Emerging writers are reluctant to send out their work and react with anger/fear/sorrow when given constructive criticism. Sometimes they avoid it, or say they’re writing just for themselves. My response to that: keep a diary. Stories are meant to be shared.

So what did I miss? Share more characteristics in the comments!

The Elements of Style rap

The Elements of Style from Jake Heller on Vimeo.

Dec 13, 2011

Embracing the Critique Grinch

Let me count the ways the Critique Grinch makes a grab for our writerly confidence:

  • An unkind comment is made on your blog. The writer accuses you of being inaccurate and requests that, from now on, only 'real writers' write posts.
  • A critiquer rips apart your first draft, then uses one of your writing weaknesses as the subject of her next blog post.
  • An agent sends a form reject for the MS she's had for two months and gives zero reasons for rejection.
  • A friend/parent/relative gets a puzzled look whenever you mention your writing and wonders why you don't take up crafting instead because "at least then you'd have something useful when you're finished."
  • You read a fabulous blog post on setting and realize with dismay you've completely forgotten to add one element of it in the MS you just sent off to your no. 1 agent.

Whether it comes from a stranger, a beta, a professional, someone who's supposed to love you, or YOU, there are so many ways we can lose our joy of writing. Blogger Alex Cavanaugh has even started a blog hop  called the 'Insecure Writers Group' that meets monthly to shore up the crumbling walls of confidence.  It's no secret writer-folk are synonymous with needy-folk, because we need praise, help, companionship, encouragement. Writing is so solitary and ephemeral. It's very easy to get sucked into the vortex of despair.

This is especially true for the newbies. At the heart of rejecting criticism (whether it's justified or not) is the false belief that real, professional writers are above the common mistakes, whether it be punctuation,  spelling, paragraph development or story arc. 

If only!

As someone who was a professional writer for many years, I learned two things:

1. Criticism is necessary. The harshest criticism is often the best to help us grow. It's like really powerful fertilizer that can burn but also produces fabulous results when used properly.

2. The difference between a 'real' writer and a hobbyist is twofold - a real writer seeks criticism, both to get better and because he/she needs the writing to be shared. And a real writer can't stop. Not really. There may be a hiatus here or there but the need to write seeps through life like water seeps through sand. It's a compulsion, a weird personality tic that many would trade in a moment for, say, a gift for languages, organization, crafting, anything else that appears to be more useful.

So if you're like me and you can't stop, try looking forward to criticism. Don't be a masochist about it and don't be scared either. Words are powerful but in the end, they're just words. You get to choose which ones you let sink into your brain and which ones bounce off.

Dec 9, 2011

NetGalley for Christmas

Coming up for air
  So I'm taking writing breather this weekend and, in between Christmas baking, decorating, cleaning up after both, Christmas card sending, shopping, hockey game/practice, I'm hitting the books. *smack*

On my Christmas list is a Kindle Fire, which I'm almost certain Hubs has at least thought about purchasing for me. I can't wait, because my queue of ARCS at NetGalley is filling fast. It's a real pain to haul my laptop everywhere so I can read them.

ARCS, you say, ears pricking. You're getting ARCS at NetGalley? What is this fantabulous site of wherein you speak?

It's right here.   For all you NG virgins out there, I promise it's worth the click. Most major publishes - and several indies - make their ARCS or galleys available upon request. Just sign up, choose your genres and request what you like. My first week I requested 12 and got almost half. (Some publishers will only release to, say, Canadian residents, or they may already have met their pre-reader mark by the time I requested.)

And, like my buddy whale breaching there, I'm in a whole new element. My preferred genres aren't what I usually read - I decided to go outside my comfort zone and experience a wider range of writers, subjects, and styles. It's free, the books take up no space anywhere than on my laptop (or Kindle) and those I love, I'll buy when they hit the market. (Yeah, I'm a re-reader. I only buy a book if I've read it three times.)

Right now, I'm reading SPIN, a adult fiction debut by Catherine McKenzie (HarperCollins, Feb., 2012) Next up is the MG fantasy/mystery THE WEDNESDAYS, by Julie Bourbeau (Random House Canada, Aug., 2012) and an MG nonfiction, THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE, by Martin Sandler (Candlewick, Sept., 2012)

And I get to read them for FREE! And without entering a drawing against 100 other people! Wow. It really does feel like Christmas now. *misty eyed*  The only thing I'll need to watch is my tendency to over-shop. According to the timer on my e-reader, each book comes with a 60-day time to read before it mysteriously disappears and I lose access. Since I'm still well within my 60 day allotted period, I don't know if this happens. I mean, the thing is downloaded onto my hard drive, which suggests some kind of sinister encription to self-destruct came along for the ride. Hmmm. I can't figure out if this alarms or intrigues me.

If you're already a NG user, let me know! And share any navigation wisdom you may have gleaned. If not, give it a try. It's snowing and cold outside (or it should be to properly celebrate Christmas. Yeah, I'm looking at you, warm states in the Lower 48) and you can't bake cookies/wrap presents/shop forever. 

Dec 4, 2011

Revving up your revision

After a break of a few months, I've dived back into revising my finished MS. This round, I'm strengthening a few plot devices and giving my villain (and a few other secondary characters) a bit more depth. How to do this has been the subject of a few early a.m. brainwaves, during which I alternately told myself to go to sleep and mentally wrote this post. Hopefully someone will benefit from the dark circles under my eyes.

When it comes to characters, the best revision always includes background introduced in the right way, at the right time. As novelists, we're a bit like Hansel dropping crumbs behind the clueless Gretel, hoping our strategically placed information will keep our audience from getting lost in the forest. The problem is, we don't know when Gretel is going to look back and put the puzzle together. Here are three ideas that, if used properly,  won't fail to lead your reader to the right clues at the right time.

Stark motivation
Crimes of passion are the most common in literature. They're flamboyant, easily related to and usually involve a complicated knot of relationships.  They're crucial to mystery stories but even literary fiction benefits from characters who want something passionately.  Want - need - desire automatically sparks conflict because our MC wouldn't be in such a state if he/she already had it. Think Scarlett wanting Ashley or Jacob wanting Bella or Voldemort wanting power. Your villian must yearn for whatever with a strong intensity magnified by backstory. Was he/she an abused child seeking safety? An ignored teen yearning for revenge? An overlooked brother wanting attention? Whatever it is, be sure to make that stand out so your reader is in no doubt what's driving all the conflict.

Said is best
One of my betas reminded me of this a few months ago. I love words like retort and hissed and snapped. They fairly crackle with energy. Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind of energy. It detracts the reader from the dialogue, which, if I've written it right, should allow my reader to hear how my characters are speaking.  Too many of those tags and I'm banging you over the head with directions.  Since we all interpret stories differently, using a standard 'said' gives our readers freedom to build the world their own way.  It also gives them freedom to notice what's important in the plot at the time you intend.

Eliminating cliched personalities
There's this secondary character in my MS. I love her to death - she has the most sarcastic lines and is an excellent foil to my MC. Problem is, she's a cliche, about as substantial as an area rug. So I've given her a make-over. She keeps the lines but has a much darker outlook on life, one that's made her determined not to be shocked by anything. Period. And now she works so much better in my MS. So have fun with your secondary characters. Give them weird names, odd habits or accents or taste in clothes. Hollywood's preference for quirky sidekicks makes avoiding cliched personalities a lot harder but I know you're up to the challenge.

Those are my three - I know there are more but that's all I have time for. Please share your revision suggestions in the comments.

Speaking of time, I'll be taking a break from Friday interviews until Christmas break. A grant deadline, end-of-semester work at school, kid activities and my own MS revision have swamped me (not to mention all the Christmas mom duties awaiting me).  I'm cutting back to Monday postings - hope you can join me!

Dec 1, 2011

Meeting AdriAnne

My guest this week is soon-to-be breakout YA paranormal/urban fantasy author, AdriAnne Strickland.

AdriAnne picking fish

By summer a commercial fisherperson in Bristol Bay, and by winter a full-time writer, AdriAnne is represented by Sandy Lu of the Perkins Agency. She's also a former world-traveler, proud English major (I have my P.O.E.M. shirt, do you?) who carries around a fascinating group of characters in her head. Really. Check out her web site for a really fresh take on paranormal/supernatural.
Or just read on because that's what this interview is about. :)

1. What brought you to Alaska?
My husband. We met in college in Portland, and when I found out he was from Alaska, I said (acting tough) that I’d always wanted to try commercial fishing for salmon. He laughed, and said I’d better be telling the truth because he’d been fishing out in Bristol Bay pretty much all his life. So, I spent my first summer in AK fishing in Egegik, then we bought our own boat, and now five seasons later, I’m hooked… pardon the pun. (“Netted” would be more appropriate—goodness, and I claim not to pun!)

Oh go ahead. I resisted the urge to compare any knot-tying expertise you may have - fixing nets, y'know - with tying up your fictional characters  so puns welcome.
2. Your site says your first book was an adventure featuring a MC who was a little too much like Indiana Jones, and your second book featured a talking cheetah (which I would love to read.) So describe the book that landed you your agent.  
I wrote the cheetah book in third grade and I had dismal handwriting, so you probably don’t want to read it! First of the Fallen is the book that got my agent’s attention, though she works with YA too, lucky for me. It’s about, well, a fallen angel meeting up with the first angel ever to fall (guess who!) and accidently triggering Armageddon. I only know what initially attracted my agent  from what she’s mentioned: the fact that my protagonist wasn’t a woman prior to her fall, and Samael. My agent, Sandy Lu, really likes Samael. I’ll talk more about him in a second….

3. Your genre is supernatural and urban fantasy YA and, judging from your site, you're pretty prolific. How many hours to do you write a day?
I treat my writing like a full-time job for ten months out of the year, thanks to fishing. So when I’m deeply into a project, I’ll write for eight hours a day. Even when I’m not writing, I spend the hours from 9am-5pm working on a project, whether that’s the research stage involving a lot of reading, brainstorming/plotting, or staring at my computer in disgust.

Wow. Eight hours a day to write. *tries imagining this and fails*

4. Do you write different MSs simultaneously? Talk about your writing schedule or process.
I try not to write more than one manuscript at a time, because it takes a while for me to really lock into a project, and if I’m bouncing back and forth I end up distracting myself with shiny new ideas rather than getting much done. (I once ended up with 30 pages on three different manuscripts, and it’s telling that none of those three have been finished.) But I do like to have a completed project (or two!) that I can go to for revisions when I’m feeling stymied with a current WIP. Revisions give me a fresh perspective, at times. It’s been really great working with my agent, because I have deadlines, lots of revisions, and new projects to keep me constantly interested, though I feel like I get whiplash sometimes looking from one manuscript to the next.

5. The First of the Fallen is a supernatural about - wait for it - a fallen angel. Given that angels/demons are popping up everywhere in WIPs these days, how does your MS stand out?
I mentioned above that my protagonist was androgynous before she fell, and the adjustment to living as a woman is a large focus of the first part of the book. There are a lot of novels with sexy, aloof angel love-interests, but not many with a first person angel POV, really trying to dive into what it would be like to be an angel on Earth—the human side of them, if you will. The second thing that might make it different is Samael. He’s… uh… the devil. And he’s a love interest. And he’s a good guy. He also plays the piano, recites poetry, and saves the world. I think the idea of the Adversary just being misunderstood all these years is not something that many manuscripts tackle.

6. I love the premise of the Words Made Flesh trilogy. (Hey, I'm a sucker for glass pyramids and the word 'athenaeum.' I love saying it. Athenaeum.) Talk about how you drew on your life experience as a world traveler for two years to concoct this plot.
All of my projects come from “seed ideas,” something that just pops in my head, either as a random thought (First of the Fallen), a dream (Midnight), or even a phrase, which is how the Words Made Flesh came about—from reading, not from my travels. I did a lot of biblical research for First of the Fallen, and came across the line “the word made flesh” and thought—hey, what if words were really flesh? What if divine power came to be embodied in certain supernatural human beings? And then I ran with it. I loved writing Tavin—it’s the first time I’ve written a male first-person POV, and I used my wonderful, snide, loving brother as an inspiration. But some of my traveling experiences did come into play with the different Words (kids with powers), since they all come from diverse cultural backgrounds.

That sounds so cool. 

7. Your web site banner is awesome. (I'm talking about the photo of the wings turning into crows.) Where did you find that art?
I commissioned it from a friend, paying him with eternal gratitude and props for his awesomeness. Tony Clark, the guy who did it, is a graphic 3D artist working at Liquid Development (a 3D art team working on Halo 4, among other projects) in Portland right now. We didn’t meet in Portland—he actually grew up with me in my dinky hometown of Elko, NV. We drew together all through high school (mostly video game characters! Go Link!), though he was the one who actually ended up going to art school.

Well, he rocks. And I bet your first cover will be just as gorgeous if you're able to sign him as the artist. 
8. OK, now let's talk querying. Give us the deets - how long, how many agents, and if you can, share your query letter.
First of the Fallen is sort of a weird case, because it’s both my first novel (not counting what I wrote before college) and my fourth. When I initially wrote it, I made every beginner mistake in existence—much too long, much too rough for submitting to agents, an atrocious query letter, not enough research into the agents I submitted to, etc. The problem is, I didn’t know these things were mistakes at the time—I thought it was perfect! (hah)—and I only realized it after something like 30 rejections and multiple drafts later. By my fifth or so draft, I realized the book had flaws that I couldn’t revise away, and so I actually put it in a drawer. I think it’s really important to be able to move beyond your first novel (I know quite a few people who’ve gotten stuck there, unable to bear the fact that it might just not be good enough) and try something new, grow in another direction. I did move on—I wrote two other novels—but the story kept haunting me. So I returned to it with a different perspective and more writing experience, and literally rewrote most of it without looking at the old manuscript. So it’s also my fourth novel. I only submitted it in its new form to about seven agents (the query letter said basically what the little blurb on my website says about it), Sandy Lu requested the full, and then I went fishing. A few months, emails, and phone calls later, and I signed with Sandy.

9. Talk about designing your author web site. Did you do it yourself or hire someone? What are some tips you could share with authors who haven't yet put together their own site?
I had a friend help me with it, and did some of it myself afterwards after he worked on the nitty-gritty code stuff that I have no clue how to do. Tip: find a friend! Websites are notoriously expensive, and writers are notoriously poor. Sorry, that’s probably not too helpful. Let’s see… once you find someone to help you out, have a vision and a lot of content for it, otherwise you might end up wasting time and not getting what you want. So imagine your perfect website first, with all the text, pictures, art, etc., and then dive into it with that in mind. (But also have an idea that fits your budget.)

10. What's it like being out on submission? Is it worse than querying?
I’m only out on submission as of this week… so far, so good! I know I’m likely in for a long trudge, though, but at least it’s my agent doing the querying while I get to focus on my writing and revisions. So in that regard, I’d say it’s better.

Alaska fast five

Which brand of salmon do you crave - red, king, silver or pink?

King, preferably grilled over a drift-wood fire with no seasoning.

Your dipnetting record? (no fair counting seining or gill netting. I mean with your own two hands and a net.)
I've actually never dipnetted! (I know, I know, shame on me.) But I have caught a red salmon with my bare hands during the peak of the season. Does that count?

Yes! You're just like a brown bear! Only I'm guessing you didn't tear it open with your teeth. :)

Longest day spent on a boat without a bathroom break?

I definitely haven't stripped down out of my rain gear to use the infamous bucket for about eight hours before. Not fun! Guys have it so easy!

Most favoritist place in Alaska?

Probably the abandoned cannery in Ugashik, with only the tundra and nothing else rising up into snow-capped mountains.

Best movie you've seen this year?  (ok, this one isn't Alaska themed but hey. I need Red Box recommendations.

Black Swan. It was visually striking, and Natalie Portman's acting was mind-blowing... like playing both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the same time!

Thanks so much for stopping by AdriAnne! I can't wait to hear of your first sale.