Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wishing You a Happy New Year!

Around here, all is still holiday hustle and bustle. There is still lots of visiting with family and friends going on, not to mention too much eating of too many Christmas cookies. So, this post is going to be short and sweet:

Wishing you a very happy and healthy 2012!!!

I have a bad track record keeping resolutions made on the cusp of a new year, so I make resolutions as I go along. However, I’ll admit that I am looking forward to a 2012 of writing and completing projects. I am also looking forward to reading lots of wonderful books.

How about you? Are you making any resolutions for 2012? Dare I ask if you kept those you made for 2011?

Happy, happy New Year !


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rainy Days, Lost Luggage, and Tangled Lights

Maya Angelou said this: "I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage,

and tangled Christmas tree lights."

Now that the holidays are upon us, I’ve dealt with two out of these three in the last few weeks. Happily, not the lost luggage. Although, it’s not hard to imagine how I would handle this—with lots of frustration, especially if I had a work in progress or even a good book in the missing bag. However, I’d be reminding myself not to kill the messenger. The person delivering the bad news that my luggage went missing in action probably wouldn’t be the same person who hurled my bags out the back of the plane somewhere over Missouri.

As for a rainy day. . . Well, if I have the luxury of staying inside and I have my good book and my trusty laptop (assuming they didn’t get lost with the luggage), bring on the sloppy weather.

Christmas lights are another story. No matter how hard I try to wrap these little buggers while taking them off the tree, they somehow tangle themselves in the basement from January until the following December. Every year I curse them and call them ugly names. It doesn’t help that while unknotting and detangling, I am thinking about how much writing I could be getting done.

What conclusions might Maya Angelou draw from these scenarios? Probably that I adore writing, revising, and reading enough that I get cranky when life keeps me from indulging in them. Something tells me she’d understand.

How about you? How do you handle rainy days, lost luggage, and tangled lights? What does this say about you?

Wishing all of you a very merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What’s In a Name?

I have the hardest time naming my characters. The only thing more difficult for me is coming up with a title for a manuscript. Pure torment. I feel clumsy and awkward as I pound my head against my desk in search of the perfect character name. And why not? Names tell us so much about a character that we’re reading about. The greatest of writers have sculpted the greatest of names. Think Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter books. When I read that name, I think Dracula or dragon, and malice or malformed. As another example—Snape. It sounds like snake, don’t you think? Or consider Ebenezer Scrooge. If someone suggested you have dinner with an Ebenezer Scrooge, I bet you’d think twice before accepting. I would. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate if the name happened to be Stuart Little, even before realizing that he’s a mouse.

When I am trying to come up with a character’s name, I try to channel Charles Dickens, but that doesn’t usually work. So, I try a few other techniques beyond the baby name books and the telephone directories.

I brainstorm and scribble down words that come to mind when I think about one of my characters. Then I mix and match parts of these words to see if something interesting pops up.

I search out names on the Internet. For example, I might do a search for names of famous warriors if my character has a strong and aggressive personality, or names of chefs if he or she loves to cook. By the way, did you know that Draco was the name of a 7th-century Athenian statesman and lawmaker responsible for a code of laws that prescribed death for almost every offence? Something tells me J.K. Rowling knew this. Anyway, you get the idea, but I should add that I will often play with the names I find to make them a little different. Draco isn’t obvious, but Zeus and Thor are.

Year books, the Bible, dictionaries, and encyclopedias can also be great resources for names, but again, sometimes a bit of editing and word play may be required to nail that perfect name. And speaking of word play, why not check out the meanings of mundane names in other languages to add a bit of spice? Did you know, for example, that Antonio Banderas translates to Tony Flag?

What are some of the greatest names that you’ve encountered in stories?

If you are a writer, how do you come up with great names?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When to Ask What

I’ve heard authors say that as they write, they ask themselves what their readers want from the plot and characters at each moment or scene of the story. I find this admirable. I’m not surprised that writers care this much about their audiences and are passionate about giving their best. But. . .

I don’t obsess in this way. I don’t ask myself what potential readers want from plot and characters while I am beating at the keys of my laptop. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this or blog about it. Believe me, I do care a lot about my audience, really I do, but once I’m writing the first draft of my stories, I don’t ponder what the readers want. There is too much else going on in my brain. I am too immersed in my story and my characters while I am scraping out the first draft. I am right there with those characters, getting to know them, going through the motions of the story, tripping over road blocks, living the moments. To consider the audience too much would yank me out of this story world. A sports commentator might say I’m “in the zone.”

I do, however, consider audience during my first step--when I’m outlining and crafting the skeleton of the story. Does that count?

As a reader, can you tell when an author has been keeping you in mind?

If you are a writer: At what point do you ask yourself what your readers want? Or do you ask yourself this at each moment and scene of the story?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Promises, Promises

In an article titled “6 Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense” by Steven James, in the most recent Writer’s Digest, Mr. James maintains that suspense occurs in the still moments of a story, between the promise of something happening and when it actually happens. He writes:

“If readers complain that ‘nothing’ is happening’ in a story, they don’t typically mean that no action is occurring, but rather that no promises are being made.”

Interesting. Suspense could be born of a promise or promises of a happening or happenings to come, couldn’t it? It makes sense that “nothing” happening in a story could be attributed to a lack of promises. When I think about the novels I’ve most enjoyed reading, they have indeed made pledges. As I read, I anticipated what was coming based on how my expectations had been primed or set up. Make me big promises in a story, and I’ll be flipping pages to find out what happens and if the commitments are fulfilled. Isn’t this page flipping and inability to put a book down what readers crave and what writers strive for?

Which means, promises need to be kept. How frustrating to be expecting resolutions and get squat.

Are you aware of the promises being made to you when you are reading?

If you are a writer, are you aware of the promises you make in your writing? Do you keep your promises?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It’s blog day, but it’s also the day before Thanksgiving. This explains why I am typing with greasy fingers, sporting a soggy dishtowel that smells vaguely of celery over my shoulder, and brushing baking powder out of my hair. So, forgive me if I keep this short. I’m sure Martha Steward would agree that cranberry sauce on a keyboard would not be a good thing. And besides, I am well on my way to freaking out over a large turkey that

refuses to thaw. This may mean a game of bob the bird in a very large bucket of water. This is never pretty. Believe me, I know.

Anyway, as I thaw, freak out, bake, stir, and chop (trying to keep my fingertips out of the stuffing), many thankful thoughts mingle inside my head. I love Thanksgiving (yes, I know, you probably thought otherwise based on the first paragraph). Not only is the day a great excuse to pig out with friends and family, it is delicious to focus on being grateful. At the risk of becoming more gooey than the pecan pie I just pulled out of the oven, I am thankful for all of you, my blogging buddies. Not only do I appreciate your follows, but I have learned, laughed, and loved your comments as well as your wonderful posts. What a great community.

So, tomorrow (oh heck, who am I kidding—today, too) I will raise my glass in gratitude for my passion for writing, all the amazing and wonderful books out in the world, and all of you amazing readers and writers who generously share your experiences, thoughts, and love of books and writing.

Wishing you a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving full of gratitude, even if you have already celebrated it or it is not a traditional holiday where you live.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Movie or Book?

The release of The Hunger Games movie trailer got me thinking about great novels and their movie counterparts. When you’ve read a great novel and it becomes a movie, which do you end up enjoying more? It seems logical that a writer would answer “book,” right? Well, not always.

I saw the movie The Outsiders long before I read S.E. Hinton’s amazing novel. This is sort of odd since the novel was published in 1967 and Francis Ford Coppola released his movie in 1982. Nonetheless, I loved that movie. I really cared about the characters. When I read the novel, years later, I still had Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez and the rest of the cast in my head. I think this enhanced the reading experience for me. In the end, though, I preferred the movie.

On the other hand, I didn’t love the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. You might be gasping at this (the way you might have gawked at my liking The Outsiders movie a wee bit more than the book). I know, I know—everyone loves Gregory Peck as Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. But because I adore the novel, I had Scout, Jem, and Atticus etched in my head before I popped the movie into the DVD player. Even the great Gregory Peck couldn’t mess with my preconceived notions. Sorry, Mr. Peck. *shrugs*

Generally, I am disappointed by the movie version of a novel I love. Not so for the Harry Potter movies. I was mad about Harry and the Potter books, and thrilled with the movies. I do, however, try to put a chunk of time between reading a novel and seeing the movie version. I still haven’t seen The Help, a novel I adored (ADORED).

How about you? Does your love of a novel influence your opinion of the movie version, for better or for worse? Any thoughts on why?

For those of you who have read The Hunger Games: Are you anxious to see the movie or a bit leery? In case you're not sure, here’s the movie trailer: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/lions_gate/thehungergames/


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Far is Too Far?

According to Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

This quote starts to make my brain hurt. I understand the satire, but still, it makes me ponder. If a story is obliged to stick to possibilities, how far is too far when it comes to these story possibilities? Part of me believes that a really talented author can make me believe anything. Yet, anyone who reads narrative fiction has probably had the unfortunate experience of having his or her sense of suspended belief sour into disbelief. This is never pretty. Is this because fiction didn’t stick to possibilities, as the great Mark Twain told us?

I think about all the times someone has said to me, usually after some real-life scene when at least one person has behaved really badly or in an absurd or embarrassing way: “Oh, you should write about that.” Almost as often, I reply: “Readers would never buy it. Seeing is believing.” Truth can be stranger than fiction.

What do you think about Mark Twain’s quote? Is anything possible in fiction? If not, how far is too far when dealing with the possibilities? Can you think of an example?

P.S. Does your brain hurt yet?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Advice and Ex-President Zombies

Doling out advice can be a lot like handing out Halloween candy. I came to this conclusion this past weekend, at a killer Halloween party. There, an ex-president zombie discovered that I was not just a black cat, but also an author of middle-grade novels. He asked me how he could best transform his ideas for children’s stories into best-selling books. Good question, right? Still, that zombie sort of caught me off guard. Maybe

because I was having tail issues (it’s not easy impersonating a cat), or maybe because I didn’t expect the undead to be into kid lit. Foolish.

As I wrestled with my wayward tail, I offered advice the way I hand out Halloween Candy. I suggested that Mr. Zombie President check out The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I pointed out that going to conferences is an excellent way to break into the business of writing books for children, and I recommended Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic as well as Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, by Deborah Halverson. Since my zombie friend gobbled these suggestions (What else would a zombie do?), I rambled on about novels and picture books he might read. By the time he ambled off, he seemed grateful (as grateful as a zombie and ex-president can be).

The next morning, while downing a couple mini Milky Way bars with candy corn chasers for breakfast (which do not fall under the dairy and veggie sections of the food pyramid... please don't judge), I wondered if I gave out the best advice.

What do you think? What would you have said or suggested to our ex-president zombie friend?

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do We Wear Masks?

“People are NOT what they seem to be before we really get to know them,” an acquaintance of mine said with great authority. She went on to say that the true, hidden natures of most people are concealed behind masks of polite behavior and what they think is expected of them. However, once the pressure is on, the masks come off. True natures are revealed.

"The more stress people are under," my friend said, "the less guarded they are. And then their actions reveal them.”

For better or for worse, this conversation brought me back to a certain tragedy I had been a part of, once upon a time. In this incredibly stressful situation, people were under immense pressure. Anxiety times one thousand. Despite all the fear and the horror, people acted with amazing kindness and heroism. However, I've also witnessed some pretty hideous shenanigans from people under crazy amounts of stress. Were all of these folks, in both situations, showing their truest selves? Do we reveal who we really are by the spontaneous choices that we make under duress?

Of course, this applies to the characters in stories, too. After all, they should be having rough times. They should be up to their foreheads in trouble and tension and stress. So, if my friend is right, there should be lots of opportunities for writers to show the truths behind their characters.

What do you think? Do the choices people or characters make under pressure reveal their true natures or simply other facets of their personalities?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Go Team!

I’ve been thinking a lot about teamwork, especially the camaraderie in the world of writing and publishing. Maybe because a part of my heart is breaking for a talented writer friend who is having a tough time, as another part of me rejoices for a different writer pal who, after a rough go of it, is spinning with exciting publishing news. Where would we be if we couldn’t share our lows and our highs with each other?

I’ve also been feeling the love of teamwork in regard to promotion, which is not my favorite word. When my novels came out, promoting could be lonely and painful. However, I was lucky enough to be adopted into a fabulous group of authors that work together to promote. The KidLit Authors Club (http://kidlitauthorsclub.com/HomePage.html) was started by authors who realized that promoting solo can be miserable, but promoting as a group can be a blast.

A couple weeks ago, for example, I attended an all-day book festival. Had I been alone with my books, I would have felt awkward and uncomfortable. Think stray dog in need of a home. Sitting at tables with other authors, though, chatting and laughing and sharing books (our own and each others) with people made the day fun. I think we actually attracted readers to our tables because we were enjoying ourselves so much. Teamwork and camaraderie in action.

If you’re a blogger, or a fan of Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or other similar sites, you know all about the rewards of connecting with others. Going through trials and triumphs with kindred spirits—people who understand the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly of life—makes such a difference.

How has teamwork and camaraderie made a difference in your life? I’m guessing it has.

Footnote: Speaking of teamwork, I am now overseeing the Twitter account for the KidLit Authors Club. If you follow us ( @kidlitauthors ), I promise to follow you back! : )

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Save the What? When?

I have been reading a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat! I love cats, but I wondered what a book about screenwriting had to do with felines. Blake Snyder, the author of this book with the orange tiger kitty swinging across the front, explains that the “save the cat” scene in a movie is when the audience observes the hero doing something that makes him likable--such as saving a cat. This action defines the character as a good guy. Score.

I got the impression that this saving business should happen sooner rather than later, as in when the audience first meets the main character, at least in a movie. But is this necessary in a novel?

I can’t help thinking about one of my favorite classics—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In this fabulous tale of redemption, Ebenezer Scrooge is far from saving any cats when the reader meets him. Yet, at least for me, Scrooge is still a compelling character. Yes, he’s cynical (you know: “bah humbug”), but he is also lonely and empty.

It seems to me that Charles Dickens sets Scrooge up to be such a crusty dude that the reader senses that change must come. The story becomes more interesting because the reader wants to understand why Ebenezer has developed into such a callous of a human being.

So, by the time ol’ Ebenezer finally has an epiphany, at the end of the story, and saves a cat, the reader practically cheers (or, at least, this reader did). The reader has been hoping that the wicked can turn kind-hearted, and Scrooge has. By the close of the story, he has saved multiple cats and this works.

What do you think? In a novel, does a character need to save a cat right away? Is Charles Dickens the only guy who can pull of making a main character pretty unlikeable and yet compelling until the very end of a story?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Got Tension?

Tension. We wade through it every day. It’s in the smallest moment of conflict and (of course) the rip-the-hair-out-the-head melt down. If someone asked me on any given day if I would like another helping of tension, I’d back away screaming “Noooo!” But give me a novel that lacks tension, big or small, and I’ll scream the same.

Without tension, the novel becomes a kind of sleeping pill, right? That’s why these statements from The Fire In Fiction, by the amazing Donald Maass fascinated me:

“What many do not grasp, though, including many published novelists, is that what keeps us turning hundreds of pages is not a central conflict, main problem, or primary goal.”

“Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether. Micro-tension.

“Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story, but in the next few seconds.”

Wow, these statements resonated with me. When I start reading a book and emotional conflict happens on the first page, I’m in. Maybe there is a rivalry between characters or a misunderstanding that can’t be ignored. Suddenly the dialogue between these characters has snap and crackle and pop. There is friction as a result of animosity, jealousy, passion, or other churning emotions. What is going on inside them is intriguing. This, it seems to me, could be an example of micro-tension--a moment of tension that keeps me reading and anxious for what is going to happen next, as in immediately next. It isn’t necessarily about the overall plot or even the stakes of the scene. It’s more focused on the conflicting emotions of the characters.

Of course a writer needs to pay attention to how to build the loud tension of the main character’s struggle for the ultimate goal, and all the opportunities for big tension in the story’s plot, characters, and setting. In between these building blocks of story, though, it makes sense that there can and should be the smaller conflicts called micro-tension. The mortar between the building blocks that holds them together.

What do you think?

For all your writers out there: Have you considered the concept of micro-tension? Do you incorporate it into your writing?

For you readers: When has micro-tension had you flipping pages while reading?

Last but miles away from least: A huge thank you to Ashley at http://ashley-nixon.blogspot.com/2011/09/blog-award-whoo.html?showComment=1317679295538#c7788470722401726733 and to Nutschell at http://www.thewritingnut.com/ramblings/blog-awards/#comment-4597 for gifting me lovely blog awards (and nice words about this blog). Big smile. : )

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Music or Karaoke?

When I listen to a great song, I am often amazed by the lyrics. Every word counts, works hard, and sometimes does double duty.

Good writing has rhythm, whether the writing is a song or a novel. The reader rides waves of sounds. Achieving this musical quality in writing can be tough, though. If a sentence is not constructed well or is riddled with mistakes, the result could be more clunk than melody. If a sentence is not divided well with commas, dashes, colons, etc., it could hit the ear like bad karaoke.

Echoes in a story can also ruin the music of it. Maybe a character’s name or pronouns such as he and she are repeated too often. Maybe the writer has a tendency to use the some words too much. *Raises her hand sheepishly.*

Too much alliteration can also snuff the rhythm and good writing.

I find that reading my stories out loud is the best way to find those places where the writing loses its rhythm and song. The rough patches hit my ears like gravel poured out of a metal can. Cutting often helps to fix these sound and rhythm issues. If I simplify (the writing not the thought or content behind it), the music sometimes comes back into the sentences.

William Stunk and E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

What do you think? Does music come from making every word count? As in

poetry? As in lyrics? When you are reading a novel, how much does the music of the writing affect your reading experience? If you write, how do you infuse music into your work?