Monday, December 31, 2012

What I Read in 2012 Instead of Scrubbing the Floors or Ironing

Welcome to the best writing books I discovered/rediscovered this year.  Although I'd love to pretend that I'm up on everything shiny and new, by no means are these all 2012 specimens.  To be honest I have a lot of disdain for many instructional writing books out there that promise tricks of the trade and magical transformations of writing style when honestly reading other good authors can do just as much if not more.  That being said, I enjoy trolling sites trying to find or rediscover the good ones.  I also teach a Creative Writing course at my high school (yes - very lucky to do so) and I can rationalize reading these books not only as personal writing development but also research for school.  And who doesn't love multitasking!

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron - I love, love, love this one, and it flies against every writing principle I hold dear.  It speaks little of the beauty of writing and rather focuses on plot and the psychological impact your story can make on the human psyche.  Essentially what does our brain crave when we read a book?  Cron culls both film and literary examples, and I can't tell you how many lines I underlined of both her original thought and extensive psychological research that ties in perfectly with the writing process.  There's also a neat section at the end of each chapter prompting you to ask very direct questions about your own work.  I can't recommend this enough, especially since it's a short read.  I managed to get through in about three days.
Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi - More of a reference than a read, every writer needs this book.  No matter how skilled you are, you probably defer to a pout or a lip quiver for certain emotions, and this little guy provides pages of actions that help us show rather than tell in unusual ways.  Quite easy to navigate and very straightforward.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

The Elements of Style Illustrated by William Strunk and E. B. White - I hate grammar.  There, I've said it, and I half expect the English teacher police to drag me out to the back yard and beat me (or at least take my teacher's card away).  This is not to say I don't respect the heck out of grammar.  I love syntax, I love playing with words, I love splitting infinitives with purpose.  But I also hate the fact that not all of my mistakes are stylistic choices.  Sometimes I flub, and those mistakes bug me later on or worse yet, sometimes I don't catch them at all and feel like a ninny when someone else points them out.  I mean yeesh, I'm an English teacher.  Don't I know them all?  Nope.  And this is the seminal text on not all, but certainly the most important rules and more importantly how they affect your writing.  Another that can be used as a reference or read cover to cover.  There is a non-illustrated version as well, but seriously, LOOK at that cute dog on the cover.  Get this one.
The Elements of Style

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood - Margaret Atwood is brilliant.  Period.  Her fiction and poetry are sharp, her essays insightful.  And I love how creepy these two appear on the cover.  I bought this book at least five or ten years ago, and I finally got around to reading it.  A BIG WARNING HERE!  This is not a how-to write book.  Rather this is a highly intellectual look at her process.  That being said it feels like sitting down with her and peeking inside her brain, sort of a Being Margaret Atwood if you will.  It's not an easy read, and there are parts that drag.  But it's worth it.  The book will challenge your brain and make you question your own process.  It might be complimentary to read this with one of her fiction books as well (Oryx and Crake).

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

On Writing by Stephen King - On the flip side, I'm not a Stephen King fan.  I've read the classics and was never compelled, except maybe by It that just scared the living daylights out of me.  I find King formulaic.  But this book IS a how-to write masterpiece.  And it's worth a dozen reads.  Conservatively this past year was my sixth, maybe seventh journey through, spurred by one of my students reading it.  And I am never disappointed.  Half of the book is King's life replete with a detailed account of his love of reading.  In my mind he is an ideal model of a writer, who clearly states over and over "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or tools to write."  Never has there been a truer statement about writing.  I see too many writing students who insist on being writers when they either don't enjoy reading or refuse to make the time to read anything of quality.  And quality doesn't equal classic.  I learned plenty from the Sweet Valley High series when I was a teen.  The second half of the book is King's advice on how to write, and while his novels aren't my cup of tea, the man's a very, very good writer.  Pick this up and make it part of your yearly writer renewal.  You'll be glad you did.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Writing Resolutions for 2013

I tried to devise a snazzier title, but considering my resolutions are rather cut and dry this year,  a utilitarian title suits.  I had also planned to start by looking back at last year's resolutions and assessing those, but I think that's for another post.  Tonight I'm peering straight ahead into the next 365 day ride.

1) I need to write every day for at least one cheating.  I've always fought against this adage because in my own mind ten minutes of quality writing is worth an hour of garbage.  That being said, I'm too easy on myself.  I bank the good days of several hours of writing to justify lamer days where little gets done. 

2) I need to view writing as a primary job.  I'm a teacher...and I love it.  All the time, even on the days when a student has me ready to jump out a window.  But I love writing just as much, and I need to stop feeling guilty when I make time for it.  It may not be bringing in the big bucks just yet (or ever), but it still deserves as much attention as my other jobs like teaching, parenting, etc.

3) I need to build more Lego sets.  Seriously, it's important.  Yesterday my family and I raided our embarrassingly huge stock of unfinished sets and created the following:

The Mummy + Pirates of the Caribbean + LOTR + Bionicles + Avengers + The Hobbit + Star Wars.  At least three or four times during the building process my brain raced to places in my current WIP and other stories where I could add new ideas or create subplots.  The Lego adventure jumpstarted my creative process because I was making SOMETHING.  Even if it did involve following another artist's plans, and yes those Lego geniuses who make these schematics are artists, I still felt creative and there are too many tasks in a routine day that try to suck that creativity right out of my toes.  So I need to do more artsy and building stuff.

4) I need to talk to other writers.  I have friends who write who I speak to, but we tend to get sidetracked with children and teaching and shoes.  I need to do the writer speak thing more often.  I am excited when I hear others speak of their processes, and I am happy to blab endlessly about how I write, too. 

5) If I'm not sending my writing out SOMEWHERE, it's not suiting it's full purpose.  Don't get me wrong, rejection is an integral part of being a writer, and it's a terrifying one.  I know that there are some pieces I write which will never see the light of day.  (A month after graduating Dickinson I wrote a short story called Cats and Guinness that I fully believed would be published in seconds and sadly still pouts in my binder of early writing with no magazines a' calling.)  But it's the trying, the preparation, the process that can't really be a process without that last stretch.   Otherwise writing becomes more of a selfish act, a pleasing myself and then stopping sort of act.  And for me, anyway, that's not ok.

6) I WILL WRITE DOWN ALL OF MY GOOD IDEAS!  If it wouldn't have been obnoxious, I would have made that one a million and a half font because there are dozens of fabulous sentences and characters and bits that are lost forever because I simply refused to slow down and capture them.  I am not a surgeon up to my wrists in blood and a man's heart, I am not a pilot maneuvering an airplane above the clouds, and I am not a cowgirl engaged in a whiskey fueled gunfight.  Therefore I can stop whatever I'm doing and tap ideas into my phone or use the ridiculously bad ass fountain pen my husband bought me for Christmas to write things down.  No exceptions.  No excuses.

7) Last but not least, I will be grateful.  I get to be a writer.  Somewhere in my brain is an insidious spark to create things, and I am blown away that everyone doesn't want to write all the time.  Too often this past year I grumbled over minutia that wasn't that bad, or bad at all.  And those moments all stole from my general happiness of being and my writing.  Unacceptable, and I won't allow it in myself or those surrounding me this year. 

Of course there are a million other resolutions that would look fabulous on paper (or screen).  No more social networking.  Oh FB and Twitter, you time goblins!  Write every day between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. because I'm just that committed.  I will go to sleep reading Hemingway rather than swooning over The Vampire Diaries.  But I'd rather these resolution be honest, be straightforward, the way I hope my writing ends up.  Have a beautiful new year all you beautiful writers.  Let's make it the absolute best we can, shall we?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be...

I wanted to call this blog Why Stephenie Meyer Is Single-Handedly Destroying The Universe.  Then I realized that might be a slight exaggeration, so I thought perhaps Neil Gaiman Should Be My Starbucks Pal.  But that one sounded a shade stalker-like.  I'm definitely filing both of those away for another time, but today I'll simply stick with I Want to Be Mary Gaitskill When I Grow Up.

Why Mary Gaitskill?  Her writing is beautiful and genuine and slightly uncomfortable.  I've read and reread her short story collections a dozen times or more.  And when I write, I always hope that I can be that honest and raw in the words I put down on the page.  I've blogged about it before, but honesty in writing means more to me than just about anything.  And this leads me to my super obvious but utterly vital writer tip of the day.  

Good writers surround themselves with other good writers.  It's such a simple equation but one that I think people easily forget.  I constantly run into folks who either read junk, or worse yet, don't read at all.  Can you imagine that?  An author who doesn't like to read?  Sure there are a million excuses for not reading.  It's time-consuming.  It's costly.  It's a mental challenge that rarely yields the instant gratification of a quick game of Angry Birds.  But any reader worth his or her literary salt will quickly explain that those excuses don't matter because they can't live without reading.  They need to crawl into the brains of others like an addict needs his or her poison of choice.  Life...and reality...are just not good enough for readers when they know that just a hop, skip, and a Barnes and Noble or Kindle away, there are other worlds waiting with arms stretched open.  (I also quickly point out the films and television, in their own rights, do very similar things.)  But I digress.  You have to read to write.  It's one of those very clear universal truths. And this is how you discover writing mentors for life.

I note here that you have to read good things or else the equation collapses (hence the nod to Meyer, queen of the sparkling junk).  Good stories are chock full of exciting vocabulary, engaging plots, quirky characters, and reading those stories is like feeding your brain with spinach and sweet potato vitamin food.  Now I say this fully acknowledging that there is a vintage stack of Sweet Valley High books hiding in my basement.  (A personal favorite - Book 2, Secrets.  Oh Jessica, you vixen.)  In my youth I also read The Secret Circle Series and a few others that made my very academic parents' stomachs twist and shout.  But in between those fluff series I read every word L.M. Montgomery ever wrote.  And Sewell.  And Tolkien.  And eventually Angelou, Munro, Hoffman, Palahniuk, Austen, and a million others.  And I would argue that I know when I'm reading something quality.  Or as my husband will quip from time to time, game recognizes game.

As a writer finding those mentors, in my case the Neil Gaimans and Jennifer Egans of the world, to respect and emulate is crucial.  It's as much a part of the writing process as practice or taking classes or anything else.  Basically if we can't recognize good writing in others, how can we possibly hope to cultivate or identify it in ourselves?  I remember being obsessed with Joyce Carol Oates immediately after college.  I underlined every other word in her stories when I read them.  I copied down her phrases of wisdom and even tried on a few pairs of glasses like hers to channel the inspiration.  And there are faint threads of her style still present in my own writing today.  Little moments where making her my idol affected my process profoundly.

It's the one piece of writing advice I give without reservation.  Find the writers you love, and hate, because they write so beautifully you want to die with envy, but it's a stunning envy.  A fruitful one.  Study those authors.  Visit their homes if you can.  Wear a scarf of their favorite color on a day you lack inspiration.  Understand their style.  Read their works aloud.  And one morning, you'll wake up and realize that they've made a deep impression upon you.  And that you've established a relationship with them that will last a lifetime and beyond.

Mary Gaitskill, if you're reading this, seriously give me a call.  We have a lot to chat about.    

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Power Of Objects...Or Why I Was Crying in a Garage

My garages are train wrecks.  I'm not sure why my sense of organization and order doesn't translate there, but it's been a lifelong bad habit.  So today I (and when I say I, I mean my husband and me) tackled  the dreaded space.  Actually I spent the morning working solo as most of the stuff is mine.  Don't sign me up for Hoarders just yet.  There were no dead possums or hidden treasures from the early 1700's.  But there were many, many things.  Items.  Doodads.  Whatchamacallits.  And the further I burrowed into the crates and cardboard boxes, my hands covered with lovely yellow vinyl gloves that robbed the spiders of some of their creep power, I found myself overwhelmed by feelings that hitchhiked with the unearthed items.  (Hang in there.  Writing advice is on its way.)

Feelings welled up with every item I found, not just the sentimental photographs or schmaltzy notes from fourth grade friends.  Everything I touched harbored a distinct feeling, beyond tactile innervation, a biting spark.  Some positive, some negative, some just strange.  And I didn't reserve emotions solely for the unlucky objects headed into green borough bags.  The things I kept winked at me from shelves, wondering if I'd touch them again or reminding me that they used to live somewhere else, possibly a somewhere else I didn't want to return to, not even for a moment.  Others screamed on their way to the trash bag, momentarily stinging me before I could be rid of them.

One of the worst?  A piece of my son's old, blue cast.  I instantly remembered how heavy a sobbing four-year-old can be with a leg broken clean through, being carried through the ER.

Instead of dining on ashes though, I thought about writing.  I considered my most recent project and the role of tangible things in my stories.  Objects are powerful.  They remind, they cost, they occupy space.  How much does your character monetarily or emotionally pay for an object?  Where does that character put it in his or her life?  What is the effect on the surrounding characters?  And what memories forever affix themselves to the object?

What your character carries in his or her pocket, the thing that is buried in the backyard, the item that never leaves the nightstand...don't overlook it.  I strongly believe that a writer's subconscious is a fabulous and fanciful place, so if your brain plants a few choice items in a scene, never take them for granted.  Explore the power they hold over your characters and your readers.

In addition to a pristine garage and a roller coaster of emotions - yes, I'll willingly admit that I cried among TMNT figurines and Halloween knickknacks - I'm thrilled that I found a gentle characterization reminder.  I sit now scanning the family room, cataloging the objects and studying all of the invisible strings attached to each one.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sorry Story, It's Not Me, It's You

I never work on just one project.  Just one story.  Just one book.  On any given day I have seven or eight things 'in the works,' which is both a blessing and a curse.  I'm never bored, that's for sure. But I also find myself writing the wrong folks into the wrong pieces, or sometimes I mix up names.  Places.  Time periods.  That being said I am always engaged in my writing because there are choices in front of me, and when a scenario becomes too frustrating or I can't figure out a plot twist, I have the luxury of setting it aside and moving forward with something else.  Literally, I'm always writing.

Unfortunately I woke up this morning and realized that one of my projects has been frustrating and fizzling for way too long.   So it's time to say goodbye to it, and I can't express in words how much I hate doing that.  It's got the distinct taste of losing a friend or a favorite pair of shoes.  I have developed over the years a mental checklist, criteria a project must meet before I give up on it, to make the process vaguely more sterile.  Even that phrase, the 'giving up,' reeks of defeat and desolation.  But in certain cases it's necessary, and as writers sometimes we need to be told we're allowed to throw up our hands. 

Not every story gets off the ground.  The characters may be flat, the plot unbelievable.  But if we love it, if it's one of our favorites, it's so hard to admit to ourselves that it's just not working.  (Think toxic relationship as an analogy.  But I can change him... and so on.)  And particularly for projects we've invested time in, the letting go part is physically painful.  It's an acknowledgement of time wasted (which really wasn't time wasted at all because we learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes and blah blah blah) but it still sucks.  No way around it.

So how do we make the call to pull the plug on something?  What I'm proposing is only my criteria.  Develop a list of your own, or steal some of mine if you'd like.

1) Why is it taking so long? - Obviously good projects require time and revision upon revision, but if you find yourself spending too much time without forward progress, it's a big hint that the story doesn't have the lift to evolve into a published, polished piece.

2) How likable are the characters? - The best characters are the ones that nag you at the grocery store when you're trying to check dates on yogurt.  They keep you from yoga class because they are in crisis or in love or busy causing trouble and you have to write it all down.  Are your characters just lounging by the pool doing a whole lot of nothing?  Bad sign.

3) Where's the market for your piece? - In an ideal world we'd all just write what we want and not care a hoot about who will buy it.  Love it.  Promote it.  But if you have any aspirations of being a seriously published writer this consideration does loom out there.  Of course people have broken these rules, but generally if you can't think of a market that the project appeals to, there's a problem.

4) Are you in love? - Sure, we all crush on our writing at the beginning.  It's shiny and new but once the bloom is off the rose do you still care enough about it to give it the most precious thing you have?  Your time.  I have two children I adore, a husband I could talk to for days, a house I love cleaning and keeping nice, and a teaching career that is as much my passion as my writing.  So for a story to whisk me away from those things, it needs to be incredible. Not just good.  Not just passable.  It has to be something that haunts me and keeps me involved every minute I'm writing it.

A novel I started last year has met its maker.  It fails in three of the four areas above, and I've literally written hundreds of pages on the first draft.  But I'm not invested enough to continue.  I've saved the file in my writing graveyard.  I'm saying goodbye to it.  (I would never completely delete it, though.  There are many bits of goodness hidden in the mire.  In fact I just pulled out several lines I'm transferring over to my current project.)

Maybe the whole every failure is actually a success thing isn't quite the blah blah blah I think. :-)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks

No, I don't really consider myself an old dog.  But when it comes to my patterns of writing I do have fixed methods I cling to.  It's certainly not a miraculous process.  I start with an image and build the story around it.  Then I write till my fingers are sore, revise and share, revise one last time, and send off the story into the big bad world of publishing.

Simple, right?

And sometimes this works beautifully and the story gets published. Other times it's rejected and I send it back to the drawing board for more revisions or potential mummification until I'm ready to deal with it again, but generally it's a smooth and brief process.  The most fun part of it for me is playing with the words until they're just right and certain phrases or sentences give me chills.  I think that part is actually more rewarding than the publishing.  Well, maybe equally rewarding.  :-) 

Here's the rub.  I've also tried to write novels this way, and it just doesn't work.  Not at all.  Not a bit.  Novels are too big to stand on foundations of startling images and pretty words alone.  And after an incredible time at the Eastern PA SCBWI conference this past weekend, I've gleaned a fresh approach to crafting a novel, and it is working wonders for me.  I'm actually not going to spend the blog describing it, because that will be excellent fodder for another post.  But I did learn a valuable lesson about being a writer, and that I'd like to share.

I think as writers we find ways that work and stick with them like trains running on the same tracks that always lead to the same destination.  But therein lies the problem.  None of us are perfect writers.  And while our tried and true methods can lead us to success, they can also lead us to making the same mistakes over and over again. 

Without shaking up the process, we can't shake up (and improve) our own writing.  This is why it is utterly vital to go to conferences and classes, read books that tell us how to write in different ways, and study other authors' processes.  Of course we won't adopt them completely, just as another person's shoes rarely slip onto our feet and fit in both size and style, but these other techniques and methods do have the power to enrich and revolutionize our ways of thinking.

Laurie Halse Anderson (gasp...amazing, incredible, superb...ok I'm done now) spoke at the conference this past weekend, and I can say without reservation or reserve that I have never heard an author so passionate, so knowledgeable about her own process, and so realistic about the good and bad of writing.  She discussed the distinct stages of writing, analyzing structure, adding pertinent details, and fine tuning her novels.  

Silly me, I've always tried to accomplish all four stages at once, and it inevitably made me want to go insane.  That or I spent too much of my time working on the language first, terrified to write a bad sentence because I was afraid it would hang around and pollute everything it touched.  My approach, which could yield beautiful sentences for short narratives, crippled my novel writing endeavours because it denied attention to larger plot points and studying the structure.

And a novel without an airtight plot and authentic characters can go nowhere, regardless of the quality of writing.

Maybe I just needed someone, an expert, to give me permission (a word LHA used a lot in her talks) to  incorporate new habits into my writing rituals without fear that like a house of cards my writing would collapse.  Again, if I blogged about all the good advice she offered I'd probably fill up half my blogging space, but the experience is unforgettable.  

As writers we need to grow, we need to change, sometimes we need to embrace the advice of others no matter how comfortable we are in our own writing shoes, and sometimes we need to just stop writing and listen.  Whether it's at a conference, via a YouTube video, in a critique group, or just through a good old fashioned book, we need to take the millions of ideas out there and sift through them to catch the sprinklings of words that enrich our own writing.

I've also included a link to LHA's video about the creation of her writing cabin.  I think the space she creates is a beautiful metaphor for the space we all need to create in our brains for writing, the process, the passion, and the reality.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Writing Cabin

Sunday, March 4, 2012

George Michael, Tell Me More About This 'Faith'

It's been a productive few writing months.  I've entered a contest, fine-tuned my work for a double-critique session in April, and finished a packet to mail off tomorrow for a SCBWI writing grant.  My goal has always been to submit one piece of writing SOMEWHERE every month (give or take, deadlines are finicky), and I certainly hit that goal for February and now I'm ahead of the game for March.  Today, though, I hit a wall.  A very smart, friendly, exactly-what-I-needed sort of wall.

The wall ordered me to stop editing.

I've re-conceived, reread, and rewritten the opening chapter to my newest project at least a dozen times.  Probably more but after two or three I stop counting because I've become hopelessly obsessed with getting things right.  I change words back and forth.  I hunt for misplaced modifiers.  I add detail, only to realize it contradicts other details later on causing a terrifying chain of events that makes everything different in the book.  Not  necessarily better or worse.  Just different.  

Then I play with tone and dialogue and every other thing I can possibly fuss with.  Some of the editing is necessary.  Nothing emerges perfect the first time.  Ever.  Not for me.  Not for Hemingway.  Not for JK Rowling.  (I have to mention Harry Potter at least once in every blog.  It's just necessary.)  And it drives me insane when students refuse to believe this fact.  I teach a high school Creative Writing course, the writers in it are talented and inspiring, but some live in the stubborn land of refusal.  They treat editing suggestions like lepers and shun them away as quickly as they can.  

Unfortunately editing can take an ugly turn for a writer.  Over-editing can feed the pool of self-doubt that so many writers swim in.  Will it ever be good enough?  Have I made it perfect?  Can it ever live up to the great writing out there that at times dwarfs my own and makes me feel like a novice?  (Moments like this, I apply the Stephenie Meyer principal.  Read a page of Twilight.  You will feel so much better about your own writing.  :-)  At any rate, while it may be hard to motivate yourself to start editing, sometimes it's near impossible to force yourself to stop.  

This is why identifying the line, that spot where you've done all you can, is so important.  This is where the faith comes in.  You have to have faith as a writer that you are good and the words you've graced the page with are important.  It's a hard type of faith, particularly in the face of rejection.  And let's face it, almost all writers drown in rejection.  One of my favorite books, MetaMaus, shows a handful of the rejection letters Spiegelman received before a publisher accepted his beautiful project.  I guarantee he came to a point where he let faith override the 'no's' to accept that the graphic novel he'd created was worthy.

Let's face it, we're not all going to be famous writers who end up on the New York Times Bestseller list or in English anthologies that high school students are bludgeoned into reading.  And if fame and fortune are your only end goals, it realistically won't play out that way.  Instead come to the realization that you are a good writer already, of course with lots of work to do, but a good writer nonetheless.  And your writing will be important.  To someone.  It will be very important.  Maybe life changing.  Or maybe it will end up being a book that person holds on to for the rest of their lives.  That reader will give you all the faith you need.

One of my favorite childhood books was The Teeny Tiny Witches.  No, the author Jan Wahl is not super famous, and while he still may be living, I don't believe he writes books anymore.  This particular book is no longer in print, although Ebay has a copy or two bouncing around.  But I still have my copy.  And my daughter Sophia will read it.  (My son Matthew is more of a giant, scary cyclops sort of kid.)  I've conservatively read this book one hundred times in my thirty-five years, and I haven't even scratched the surface.  I'll read it again many more, and with some good preservation my grandchildren will end up owning it.  Wahl may have had doubts when he wrote it and gone through a few dozen revisions, but I'm hoping that faith in his story got it published and into my hands.

I'm putting down the editing pen for a few days and sending off my works with a smile on my face.  It's not the easiest thing in the world to find, but I've definitely found faith that what I'm writing is good enough.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Big Person's World?

With a healthy dose of editing this week I will finally, finally, finally have my young adult novel prepared and ready(?) to submit into the big bad world of publishing.  I've had a few people take a quick look at drafts with favorable feedback, so keep fingers and toes and eyes (not too long of course) crossed for me.  It will be a slow and torturous process, I'm sure, but I have a few other projects to flesh out which will keep my mind off of the inevitable waiting game.  

I am, however, struggling with a final component that will likely occupy the majority of my editing time this week.  How big a role are adults allowed to play in a young adult/middle grade novel?  Popular wisdom varies, and modern examples range all over the place.  The Dumbledores and Snapes of the world lead me down one path, authors like Lauren Oliver, one entirely different.  This leaves me in a quandary about the opening two chapters of my novel.

The aunt and uncle in the book occupy a huge space.  Mostly the aunt.  It's a long, complicated story, but the first two chapters are filled with the heroine's blossoming relationship with a pair she's never met and really knows nothing about.  I worry, is that too much time to spend with them?  Will a young adult reader scoff and say no, I'd far prefer to hear about the folks in the heroine's generational nook?  Or is good writing good writing and solid characters hold their own regardless of the age?

One of my biggest problems with bad YA books, and I've felt this way since I started reading them as a teen myself decades ago are the non-parent parents.  I don't want adults in my book to sit and smile at good grades or frown and remind the kiddos of their curfew while adding no value to the narrative.  I generally dub them the 90210 parents where in the first run of the series Jim and Cindy honestly did nothing.  Towards the end of the series there were one or two pithy episodes where they got their hands dirty, but it was far too little too late.  And if I minimize the presence of the adults my book may as well head into a Lord of the Flies zone where the adults can be dispensed with altogether.

On the other hand, this is a teenage girl's story.  Her experiences are the most important, her life changes the most drastically, but I keep finding myself on the precipice of falling into the aunt's story.  She is an older, bitter woman who would gladly snatch the narrative under her skirt and run away with it.  I think I've written her well, patting myself on the back a bit, and then I worry that I've written her too well.  Is she necessary in so many chapters.  Does she outweigh the other young girl who is supposed to be a villain?

I don't really have too many answers this morning.  Mostly questions.  I will do my best and see how the scales fall.  As always, I'm left with the thought that if struggling with my writing is the worst thing I have to do today, I'm pretty darn lucky.  

Happy Martin Luther King Day.          

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Time freeze, pleeeeeeease

I never want to write when I'm supposed to.  My husband has taken on the grocery shopping for the morning, Sophia is worshiping he who is Elmo.  Matthew is at a friend's house.  The dog and cat are curled up under my elbows like adoring furry armrests.  There is absolutely no reason on this earth why I'm not chugging away on one of the twenty writing projects having their own personal fight club in my brain to get down on paper.

And I got nothin'.

I can list the exact moments this past week when I've wanted to write.  First, right in the middle of reading aloud a chapter of Of Mice and Men to my vaguely interested students, I wanted to write.  In fact I could barely focus on Steinbeck's salty words in front of me because I had a great first line in mind.  A wonderful first line in fact.  And the students would not have minded one bit if I'd stopped, told them to go do something else and started writing.  But of course that would be bad teaching, so I read on and now for the absolute life of me I have no idea what that stunning first line was.  No clue whatsoever.

It also happened at the dentist's office, mouth wrenched open, a Novocaine shot hovering above my lip.  (If you know me at all,  you know that sharks and dentists terrify me more than just about anything else in the world.  And if a shark ever became a dentist, I think I'd just drop dead :-)  I'm guessing my dentist would not have been thrilled if I'd told him he could wait while I wrote down a resolution I'd been struggling with for weeks.  Is it still in my brain somewhere?  Probably.  But when I write it down now, nothing sounds as good.

I don't know if my writing muse is screwing with me, if I'm not as dedicated a writer as I'd like to think I am, or if the creative process is far too mysterious and arbitrary to ever understand.  I'm hoping it's the latter.  But these random bouts of creativity and lack thereof still challenge my weekly time management.

I'm never one to wish to travel back in time.  I have my memories and experiences tucked neatly away along with boxes of keepsakes.  I don't wish Matthew was still a baby because then I wouldn't be able to argue with him about the best way to make a Sherlock Holmes-style trap or watch him dominate on the tennis court.  And I never wish time away.  At some point my parents will no longer be here, I will not have a house full of children and animals and crazy.  But I would give anything to freeze time.  Could I find a whistle that I can blow the second I've got an idea and the world stops around me, providing those glorious few moments to jot down what I'm thinking of?

Since the magic whistle is not likely, my Plan B involves purchasing a Powerball ticket this evening, winning the lottery, and enjoying the luxury of hiring a stenographer to follow me around and take down all pearls of wisdom I come up with at odd moments of the day.  I do realize that Plan B is a stretch as well, but a gal can dream, can't she?