Monday, December 28, 2009

It's almost the New Year

There isn't much writing or related activity going on in my world right now. After all, it is the holidays.

The Slushbusters have developed a couple of traditions as a group. The first is that every year we plan to have two meetings in December as we do in every other month. Then, inevitably, we cancel the second meeting because almost no one can make it due to all the other activities their families have.

The second isn't really a Slushbusters tradition, but it's starting to feel like one. Alison's family invites all of us (and a bunch of other people) over for New Year's Eve. Last year I was on my second flu-like illness of the season, and only went for about an hour. I'm feeling pretty healthy right now, so as long as the weather holds out, we should be good to go. The weather forecast is for more snow or the infamous "wintry mix." Let's hope it passes us by. Alison has requested I make my spiced pecans again. I will, and plan to add cayenne cashews as a bonus.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

First, I want to wish everyone who celebrates it a Merry Christmas.

I'm feeling a bit strange this morning. The NaNoWriMo novel I worked on all November begins on Christmas Eve day with an unsettling event. It is based on something that really happened the Christmas I was ten. Christmas Eve was on a Thursday that year, just like today. I think about that day every Christmas Eve, but since I've spent so much time thinking about it while writing my NaNo, it is definitely more intense and present in my head this year. I hope it passes soon so I can enjoy the holiday. Meanwhile, I have several dozen dinner rolls to make.

Than you all for coming to visit us here on Slushbusters. May your wishes come true this holiday season!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Slush of a different kind

Like most of you on the East Coast, we've been snowed in for a few days. Here in Virginia it snowed for about 24 hours, Friday Night through Saturday night, with a total of around two feet. Because I live in a pretty rural area, our road wasn't plowed until Monday night. Well, some guy with a backhoe did come down the street Sunday afternoon, but I lived for years in upstate New York and that is not my definition of "plowing."

Today people are finally getting out and going about the business of living outside their homes. I'm torn. The library is open, but the roads, at least in my subdivision, are still terrible. I'm sick of being in the house, but uncertain of what may happen when I try to drive. Is it brave or foolish to venture out?

It struck me as similar to publishing. I want to send my work out there, but submitting to publishers can be a grit-your-teeth experience. You have to be brave to do it, although some may say you're foolish. But if you don't at least try, you end up stuck in your house, forever waiting for a thaw that might not come. Oh, sorry, I'm back on the snow thing again.

In both cases, I'm prepared as I can be. For the publishing, I've researched agents and publishers, read in my genre, and spent time reworking and polishing anything I decide to submit.

Today I will venture forth into the world. I will dress warmly, take my cell phone, and perhaps a container of ice melt, just in case.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Travel and Writing (Not Travel Writing)

I love to travel. I love the adventure of it. I love plunging head first into the unknown. Sure, I plan a bit. I take a map. I try to learn a bit of the language. I have in mind a few must-sees. But the best things about traveling, for me, are the surprises along the way.

Sometimes it's scary—lost on country roads in France with a huge pack on my back, blisters on my feet, and not a town in sight. Then it starts to snow. It is both beautiful and terrifying. Will I freeze to death in France?

Sometimes it's just plain miserable—finding three museums in a row closed. Is there a holiday we don’t know about?

And sometimes it is magical—hacking through the jungle in southern Mexico and happening upon stone ruins and a hidden waterfall. Sunlight filters through the canopy and we lay down our machetes to rinse our sticky skin in the cool pool.

For me, writing is like traveling. The best things come when I lay myself open to adventure.
Sometimes, afterwards, I look back and think that I could have got a lot more out of Paris if I'd had a better travel plan. But then I would have missed that flock of birds rising out of a tree in front of the Moulin Rouge that I’d just walked by without noticing. Or the funny little couple that we kept bumping into.

Like anything, there's a balance to strike.

Now that I'm slogging through revisions on my novel, I sometimes wistfully think that this stage would be so much easier if I'd started with a more comprehensive outline. As is, some chapters have to be completely re-written. (I'm talking, scrap everything but two paragraphs and fill up that blank page.) But, if I'd had a more detailed outline, Annabel would have walked right by the lovely family in the woods. She never would have met Mieka and Lumi and Nana Trots. She also might never have had that vision of her mother, the one that plays before her eyes throughout the rest of the book. And I never would have written pages and pages of back-story on one supporting character that helped me understand the rest of the story in a whole new way.

So this is my homage to first drafts, to plunging boldly into the unknown, to going forward and not looking back until you have something whole to look back on.

Great Christmas song

Authoress over at Miss Snark's First Victim has created a true holiday treat. Check out her agent-centric holiday song on today's post.

Happy weekend before Christmas! We're due for some serious snow in our part of the world.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Yet another reminder that reading is subjective

As writers, we're supposed to read in the genre we write. We're supposed to know what our potential audience reads, and keep that in mind when writing. Nicola Morgan addressed this topic on her blog today.

I try to read a balanced mix of middle grade, YA and adult books. I read adult because I am one, YA because I like it, and middle grade because I love it and that's what I write. I pay attention to what people in the library are reading. I read many publishing/book review blogs, and I try to read books I see mentioned in lots of different places. Because most of the information I get about who is reading what comes from bloggers or the library public, I feel like I have a pretty good idea what is popular with readers versus what is being heavily marketed.

I found out the other day that this is not a perfect system. We got our next batch of books for the girls' book group at the library. Our first book of 2010 is by a very well-known middle grade author, and I've read maybe five or six of her books. I love two of them, like one, and could take or leave the others. As we have some younger girls this go-around, we will be reading the shorter, less emotional, lower stakes one of the two that I love.

When one of the girls' mom was picking up her copy of the book, I found out she had already read the other book I love by this author. Apparently the whole fifth grade reads that book. I asked her mom if she liked it. She hated it. The whole fifth grade hated it. I was stunned. This is a child whose reading choices I respect, and we often have the same taste in books. We recommend books to each other.

I immediately began to worry about the book for the club. After all, if they all hated this author's other book, would they hate this one too? But I remembered that I didn't love every book by this author. Reading is subjective, and that goes for all levels of readers, including ten-year-olds. As writers, we can never hear this often enough, because the same is true of agents, editors, and the book-buying and reading public.

I have read many books because they got a lot of buzz, but then I was disappointed. An agent, an editor, and thousands, maybe millions of readers adored those books, but I didn't. So I remind myself that a rejection here or there does not mean everyone will hate my book.

And the early feedback on the club book? So far, so good.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Interview with author Suzanne Morgan Williams

Today the Slushbusters
welcome Suzanne Morgan Williams, author of the YA novel Bull Rider. Suzanne is a member of the class of 2k9.

Bull Rider is the story of Cam O'Mara, a fourteen year old Nevada boy whose family has long been involved in the rodeo. Cam wants something different for himself, and spends his time practicing skateboarding tricks. When Cam's brother Ben, a Marine, returns injured from the war in Iraq, Cam begins to change his mind about bull riding, knowing it is up to him to continue the family tradition.

Bull Rider is your first novel for young readers, but you have written several nonfiction books. How did you come to make the transition from nonfiction to fiction? I’ve always wanted to write both fiction and nonfiction. My nonfiction books happened to take off before the fiction did, but while I was writing nonfiction I usually was writing fiction too. The skills I learned about listening, observing, and research for nonfiction were extremely valuable with writing Bull Rider.

How did your nonfiction background help you in researching Bull Rider? As I tell kids at school visits, I’m not a bull rider, a skate boarder, or a fourteen year old boy. Neither have I been injured in Iraq. In order to stay honest in writing Bull Rider, I needed to research rodeo, bucking bulls, skateboard tricks, ranch life, traumatic brain injury and recovery. Although some parts of this were personally more difficult than other parts, none of it seemed overwhelming. I already knew how to find experts, interview, what sections needed to be vetted, and when to stop researching. All good to know. Last, I spent several years working with native people on nonfiction books. From them I learned patience and the ability to listen well. I also learned to take in and adjust to difficult information. I couldn’t have researched and written about the war injuries in Bull Rider without those experiences with my tribal experts.

What gave you the idea for Bull Rider? Did you start with a plot, a situation or a character? I actually started with the title! I usually start a book with a setting and a character and ask myself, what about this place makes people grow up different from other places. But with Bull Rider that came second. I was talking with an editor who was visiting and Reno and she suggested I write a book and title it Bull Rider and set it in Nevada. Then I sat down to think about what that book might be.

How different is the final product from your first conception of the book?
Wow, they are really different. That first book was for a series aimed at seven and eight year olds. It was a 75 page manuscript, number one in a series of three. Because it was for younger children, the book didn’t have any of the war stuff in it and it had a much simpler plot. Cam wanted to ride a bull and his mom didn’t want him to do it. When that series didn’t work out, I knew I needed to make the book bigger and I wanted to write it for older kids. The setting and the family remained the same, and Cam’s friends and skateboarding stayed. That first manuscript was kind of like a prequel – Cam O’Mara at age 11. Bull Rider, as it is now, is a 256 page novel for ages ten and up. It’s been embraced by middle school and high school aged kids and Cam, aged fourteen, and Ben, aged nineteen share center stage. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to turn Bull Rider into the novel that was eventually published.

What is one of your favorite parts of Bull Rider? Why do you like it so much and how did it come to be? Oh, that’s not fair. How can I pick? You’ll just have to read the book. I did love writing the ranching scenes, though.

At what point do you outline? Before you even start writing? After the first few chapters? I do a lot of prewriting about characters, creating voice, and maybe writing up some scenes. I create a cast of characters and think of what they want and need from each other. Then I do a very basic plot outline – it probably fits on a page. From there, I begin to write the book in sections. If I start to get confused, I will outline a section or three or four chapters. After my first draft is done I may outline the book again, this time chapter by chapter, and then trim and add scenes as needed.

Are you part of a critique group? If so, how does that fit into your process? At what point do you let someone else read your work? Good question. I have been part of critique groups and they’ve been very helpful and supportive. Right now, I’d say I have four or five critique partners who aren’t part of any formal group (they don’t even live in the same states) but who I feel absolutely confident showing my work to and asking specific questions of. We do this as we need input, not on any schedule. I did belong to a critique group when I wrote the first version of Bull Rider and I shared the first draft as I wrote it. I remember one evening one of the women said, “That’s just great, it sounds like a real book.” That was pretty much the idea. . . At this point, I try to get my work to a polished point before showing it to anyone unless I need specific direction. I can see the promise in my early drafts but others may not. I’d rather get the draft where I’m feeling either confident or stuck and then share.

The Slushbusters as a critique group help each other improve our writing. Beyond that, we’ve grown into good friends who support each other through successes and failures. How have other writers in your community done the same for you?Oh my gosh, I think most of my dearest friends now are writers who I’ve been in groups with or who I met through SCBWI. The fact that I don’t have a critique group right now doesn’t change these friendships. And they keep coming. This year as a member of the Class of 2k9, I added so many more friends to my circle. Not only do other writers support me personally and inspire me creatively, they are often extraordinarily important in my professional life.

What is one question you've not been asked but are always dying to answer? Would you do this again? Yes!!!

Thank you, Suzanne for stopping by! We look forward to reading your next book, China's Daughters, when it comes out in 2010.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What books are you giving this year?

I assume many of you give books at the holidays. I do, especially to my nieces and nephews and children of close friends. I have a "No toys that require batteries or make noise or a huge mess" rule when giving gifts to other people's children. Some years, it's a no-brainer, because I've been to a conference and met authors and got signed copies. I love that. Last year, after the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference, most of the kids got signed Jane Yolen books. How cool is that?

Having not recently met any authors of books appropriate to the current ages of the kids, last weekend I went to the book fair. Talk about choices! Yes, they had a lot of remainders and the like, including previous years' editions of travel books and Writer's Market. But they also had some fantastic deals on kids' books.

I got books at every reading level from board books to adult novels. My favorite find was a bunch of Curious George books with CD's, which only cost $3.50 each. For the cost of about what I'd pay retail for four hardcover picture books, I got two board books, nine paperback chapter book/early readers, four hardcover picture books, four picture book and CD sets, and two paperback adult novels, one of which was a NYT bestseller. All the books I bought were either relatively new titles or classics which I know kids still read, because they check them out of the library.

There's a part of me that feels I should probably be buying books from the many local independent bookstores around town. Goodness knows, Charlottesville has some of the best bookstores you could ask for. But at the holidays, when I'm buying books in quantity, I'm looking for more book bang for the buck. One day I hope to publish my own bestsellers to support my book-buying. Until then, I support the independent bookstores when I can, and buy from them when I only need one or two books at a time. It's a constant dilemma in these economic times, choosing between supporting the local economy or meeting your own financial needs. I feel the same way about the farmer's market and local grocery stores vs. big box stores, and I try to strike a similar balance there too.

So anyway, back to the title of the post. Are you giving books this year? To whom, and what books? Some of the books I bought were:

Snow by Cyntha Rylant and Lauren Stringer
Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert
Mr. Putter and Tabby series by Cyntha Rylant and Arthur Howard
My Weird School series by Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot
Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa series by Erica Silverman and Betsy Lewin
Help Me, Mr. Mutt! by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel
Curious George books by Margaret and H.A. Rey

I wrapped everything after I got home, and I can't remember other titles at the moment. And no, I wasn't being compulsive about the gift wrapping. My family celebrates Chanukah and Christmas both, so I had to get some packages in the mail Monday to arrive before the beginning of Chanukah Friday evening. I guess I'll be surprised when the kids open them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Video Bloopers

Remember back in the summer when the girls from the library book club made StoryTube videos? Well, the clips from the video based on Rodzina are up. It hasn't been edited, but rather posted as a series of blooper videos. This one is my favorite of the two longer clips that really show what the story is about.

Rodzina is an orphan from Chicago in the 1880's. She is traveling west on an orphan train with a group of other children, supervised only by Mr. Szprott and Miss Doctor. Rodzina as the oldest often has to look after the other children. Rumors among the group have her convinced they will all be sold into slavery. In this scene, two old sisters have just adopted Rodzina against her wishes and are driving home from the train station.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Things I learned while NaNo-ing

I should start by saying that I was impressed by NaNoWriMo. I remember thinking last year that it overlooked the craftsmanship in writing, that nothing mattered but word count.

This year, however, I knew I needed to bite the bullet. The revisions in my novel called for a cut and then the addition of half a novel. I needed to add about 50,000 words, and I'd been putting it off ... or writing 1,000 at a time and then revising and revising.

I love revision. First drafts? Not so much. For me, revision is safe.

Revision is Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn.

First drafts are your crazy Aunt May who thinks her blue hair looks natural and makes embarrassing comments when she meets your friends. Aunt May with the really big purse that stopped looking like leather the minute she cut off the price tag- 10 years ago.

Not surprisingly, that was one of the first lessons I learned.

NaNo Lesson #1. I embraced my crazy. I invited Aunt May over for coffee and let her eat cookies till her purple velour pants with the elastic waist grew too tight. NaNo was my chance to experiment. I got to do whatever I wanted, just to see what would happen. Or, as Gail Carson Levine mentioned in her blog*, it was a chance to be extravagant: "See what you can put in that your ideal reader- the one who most gets you, who best loves your mind- will adore."

NaNo Lesson #2. I really can just write. I'm all about the writing ritual and the writing space, and settling down to write thoughtful, insightful prose. NaNo was about butt-in-chair time. Now I realize I don't have any excuse not to write. I just need to do it. Rituals are helpful until they become excuses. My ritual had become an excuse.

NaNo Lesson #3. Middles are so much easier after the end has been written. The Slushies will tell you that I have no trouble revising one chapter (just one!) for weeks till it's just right. I learned that it is so much easier to polish the middle after you've written the end. I cannot tell you how many notes I made to myself about what I needed to do with those middle chapters. I wouldn't have figured that out no matter how much I'd revised them. I wish I had just pressed through to the end and then circled back. I know better now.

So there you have it! I'm not sure if I'll NaNo next year, but it was a great thing to do this year. How 'bout you? What do you think about NaNo? Did you attempt it? Learn anything in the attempt?

*She wasn't talking about NaNo, but that one comment sure shaped how I thought about NaNo.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Congratulations are in order

Tess Hilmo, fellow middle grade author, blogging friend, and Slushbusters follower, has sold her book! You can read all about it on her blog. If you aren't already following Tess' blog, which I know many of you are, stop over there. She has a lot of great thoughts about writing, publishing, and the like, and she's got a friendly and welcoming spirit.

Also, congratulations to Sarah. She didn't post about it herself, but she also won NaNoWriMo, finishing her 50,000 words Monday evening. I'll keep our "winner" word count widgets (I didn't mean to be so alliterative!) up for a few more days.

At our meeting last night, Sarah and I talked about what we learned and how we felt about the NaNo experience. I think I'd do it again, but Sarah wasn't so sure. She doesn't understand how I did mine without a concrete plan, and I don't understand how she was able to write so much so fast on a story she's been working on for a long time. We're both looking forward to the editing part, which we prefer to the first drafts. This underscores how the Slushbusters are: the same in many ways, but so different in others.

Monday, November 30, 2009

It’s a small world at Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference

The conference has a very homey, small world feel. The fact you’re jammed into a church assembly hall doesn’t detract from the warm, friendly atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly, like we all came from the same hometown. You could strike up a conversation with anyone – a fellow aspiring author or illustrator, an agent or even a famous writer. The organizers go out of their way to assure you are as comfortable as possible, like you are an invited houseguest.

But for me it was a small world in many other ways.

I met the local chair for SBWI. A new position, our area has finally gotten enough members to warrant a chairperson. Turns out I had met her before at the school where I teach. I am her daughter’s art teacher. Small world.

Ran into my old friend Caroline who lives just 45 minutes down the road from me. I have known her for twenty plus years but we seldom see each other. I had been expecting to see her there. Only recently had we discovered we both were writing for children. Small world.

Caroline introduced me to one of her critique group members. Christa is a scratchboard artist and lives in my hometown of Williamsburg. I mentioned to her I was about to do some scratchboard art with my fifth graders. I asked her if she might be interested in coming to do a workshop for us. Small world.

As a volunteer for the book signing committee I was assigned to help Patricia R. Giff. This Newberry Honor Award author is one of the most personable people I have ever met. We had barely gotten started when I explained to her that I had never done anything like this before. She assured me I was doing fine. After switching seats, turns out she is left-handed, we got into a groove. It wasn’t long before she said to me, “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” Each and every person who came up to the table got her undivided attention. She took her time and made you feel like she was ready to sit down and have tea with you. A wonderful experience, one I’m not likely to forget. Again, it left me feeling like it was a small world.

By the end of the conference I felt like part of a community who shared aspirations, triumphs and low points. I highly recommend this conference for the feeling of camaraderie, the injection of inspiration and for the great contacts you make.

I never expected that the children’s writing community would have such a small world feel.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What a difference a day makes

I woke up this morning feeling better than I had in three days. I showered. I put on my brand-new NaNoWriMo Writing Machine t-shirt. I put my butt in the chair. And I made myself stay there. Mostly.

I worked on my novel. I talked to Alison on the phone. I wrote a thousand words. I read and sent some emails. (Thanks, Lisa, for the cheerleading!) Another eight hundred. I took a lunch break. I wrote twelve hundred more words. I took a half hour to walk the dog and meet the new neighbor, because I cannot sit in a chair all day and the weather was beautiful. But I kept coming back to the chair. I kept forcing myself to close the Internet windows and open the Word document titled, "NaNoWriMo 2009." I just wanted to be done already.

And I finished! I pushed through, so I could finish today and actually enjoy some of what's left of my weekend. And let me tell you, the joy of seeing the "winner" screen was so worth it. Jumping up and down and shouting worth it.

If I can do it, you can do it. Any of you who are still pushing to finish, you can do it! And thanks, everyone, for all the support. I couldn't have gotten here without you.

Let the editing begin! (Well, not right away. I need to actually finish the story and then let it percolate. You know. But trust me. There will be editing.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

This is really bad

The NaNoWriMo, I mean. I've been kind of sick the past two days. I slept through most of Thanksgiving. Fortunately we had already planned a quiet dinner at home, so my being sick didn't affect anyone's holiday outside of mine and my husband's.

But I didn't get anything written yesterday. And I want to finish. Or die trying. So today, in between naps, I wrote 3000 words. And they suck. I tried changing POV to another character, but that's not really working. I haven't thought enough about her to make her sound any different from the MC most of the time. So I switched back. Thank goodness no one is going to read this draft!

So now, I have to write at least 2107 words a day for the next three days. Two weeks ago that would have been a lot easier. I'm running out of scenes in my head. The editor in me wants to go back and flesh out scenes that already exist, but I'm not sure I can rack up the word count that way. My ten year old MC has a love interest, so there's some potential there, but have you ever had a conversation with a ten year old boy? They don't say much.

All right, I'm done venting. Just wanted to leave a progress report. Anyone else care to share how they're doing on this last weekend of NaNoWriMo?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And one for the picture book people

On our way from the airport to Concord we took a couple of hours to walk around Boston. We stopped by the Public Garden long enough to visit the famous sculpture based on Robert McCloskey's Make Way For Ducklings.

I checked the book out of the library today, because it had been such a long time since I read it. I had forgotten the illustrations of the pond and bridge. They look a lot like my own photo. How cool is that? We saw plenty of real ducks and geese too, which were the original inspiration for the story.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Concord as inspiration

I was in Concord, Massachusetts over the weekend attending my cousin's wedding. All month I've been trying to stay ahead on NaNoWriMo so that I didn't have to worry about it on the trip. I brought my computer anyway, just in case I had some time to write. I wrote about 600 words in all the five days we were there.

In Concord, however, you can't help but think about writing. It smacks you in the face pretty much everywhere you go. One of the things I most wanted to do during our non-family time there was visit Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived while she wrote Little Women, and where the story is set. It is plainer than many of the nearby houses, but boy, you can see where the inspiration came from. The Alcott family moved around a lot, and didn't live there until Louisa was an adult. Her sister Elizabeth, on whom the character of Beth was based, had already died. But Louisa's room, full of light and books and a writing desk her father built, was just as you'd imagine it to be. And her sister May, on whom Amy is based, had a room decorated with her drawings and paintings. In fact, they adorn the whole house. She even drew sketches on the walls, which are still there today. It was a pleasure to hear about the real lives on which that book was based, and the tour guide had a passion for telling us about every detail.

I was commenting to my husband that I should consider Little Women for the girls' book group at the library. After all, I said, we try to do some classics, and we are going to read The Secret Garden this spring. The guide overheard and showed me a group photo of a women's luncheon that Louisa May Alcott attended. Also in the photo: Frances Hodgson Burnett. I had no idea they knew one another!

After the tour, we visited the local library, which was just about the most beautiful public library I've seen. The librarian I met was very friendly and welcoming, and showed me all the drawings they've received from children's illustrators. I stared up in wonder at the two levels of balconies surrounding the largest room in the center of the library. The special collections room, with its rare editions of local authors Thoreau and Emerson, as well as Alcott, made me feel a reverence, like stepping into a church.

On Sunday, after all the family festivities were over, we took a walk around Walden Pond. It's larger than I'd imagined. And while we were there, even my husband said that it inspired him to write. So now, I've recharged my imagination and am ready to revisit my NaNo.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I love it when this happens

Yes, I will get down to working on NaNo soon. It's been a busy week, and though I haven't written as much as I should, I have written, which is good. Yay, me!

So, I picked up a YA book at the library this week. I'd read the author's previous book- a retelling of a fairy tale I adore- and hadn't been entirely pleased with it. She had re-imagined it beautifully, bringing out so many wonderful aspects of the story. She added a culture and history and way cool stuff. (Note my precise language, there.)

But the tone was wonky- to me, at least. The dialog seemed modern, the cadence of the narration choppy.

I was not happy.

Now, don't get me wrong. I never threw the book down and wondered why it got published when I here I was with a fairy tale novel that was half re-written, with it's own blotchy tone, and a still-to-be-resolved plot line... hey, wait.... I mean, brilliant book of my own.

I was disappointed, though. Her re-imagining had captured me, and I was peeved that the tone (in my opinion) didn't serve that re-imagining.

But her new book? The book about another one of my favorite fairy tales? Lovely! It read like a fairy tale. A few rough patches, but still great.

I was so jazzed for her. Can't wait to read the next one.

Now since I'm hijacking the blog to write about improving authors (when I should share conference notes- just remembered that), please join me. I'd rather not feel alone and self conscious. Are there any authors that you've seen grow? Or any that- like Athena springing fully grown from Zeus' head- seem marvelous from the very begining?

I'd love to know.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Happy Birthday! Or Anniversary. Or something.

Today we are one year old. The Slushbusters blog, that is. The Slushbusters as the group we now have are roughly a year older than that, although some of us have been part of this critique group for even longer. And we came up with our name in April of 2008, immediately following our first group road trip to an SCBWI event.

Anyway, it's the birthday of the blog. And I wanted to acknowledge it. Imagine me typing this while wearing a party hat and blowing on one of those horn things that unroll the crazy paper tube. (What are those called anyway?)

I propose a toast. To our friends, both the ones we started this journey with, and the many of you we've met out here in the blogosphere. We've been lucky to find you. Thanks for coming to the party.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tension Headache Rx

Presentation at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference

Getting up a 4:30 in the morning on the weekend for me is akin to jumping into cold water. You don’t much like it at first but you can acclimate. I did that this past weekend in order to attend the SCBWI conference in the D.C. area for the day. Well worth it! Inspirational speakers, excellent presenters and panel discussions one right after another. Here is a sampling of one of the presentations.

Linda Pratt, a literary agent with Sheldon Fogelman, spoke about tension in children’s literature. She informed us that current market conditions prescribe tension. Her recommendations were individualized for picture books and novels.

Trying to implicitly teach is the biggest pitfall an author can make with a picture book. The learning must be disguised as fun. Not having a beginning, middle and end, especially if there is not something at stake, is another pitfall. Her prescription for adding tension was two-fold. One, less text is more. The illustrations and text should NOT be able to stand-alone. Second, master the art of the page-turner. This can highlight the tension.

She also pointed out a few pitfalls in novels concerning tension. Don’t overprotect your characters. Look for opportunities for them to get hurt, either physically or emotionally. Another is not to confuse action with tension. Driving down the road is not tension. She added that the reader must be emotionally invested in the characters to feel tension. Her recommendations for creating more tension are: chart your character arcs and embrace character flaws. On the first point, you want to be sure each of your characters changes over the course of the novel. If he or she doesn’t change, play the “what if” game. Throw out different scenarios and see what comes of it. As far as character flaws go she suggests that you give them flaws you personally don’t like. Make a list of things you like and dislike about your characters.

What I found made a lot of sense was to not overprotect your characters. It makes sense that a little pain would create tension. The idea of giving flaws to your characters seems like it would add conflict to your story too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Halfway there

It's been a productive week. On Monday I went to the YA committee meeting for the library and heard about a whole bunch of wonderful books I now want to read.

Tuesday was Fran's author visit. If anyone out there is thinking about inviting Fran to your school or library, she's wonderful. She has the rare ability to engage an audience of adults and children, keeping everyone interested in what she has to say. Lots of the girls from our book group came, and it was a big deal for them to talk to a real author and find out that she was once a kid who equated being an author with being a superhero.

I spent Wednesday in the company of the entire staff of the regional library system, learning ways the library can better serve the community.

Yesterday I hit the halfway mark of my NaNoWriMo word count.

Today I hit a wall. I was so tired that I overslept, and probably need to eat something and go straight to work after I finish this post. I won't be writing 2000 words this morning.

NaNoWriMo saw that wall coming. They periodically send out emails from well-known authors. This morning I had an email from Maureen Johnson. If you haven't read her, and you're a YA author, give her a try. I loved 13 Little Blue Envelopes. She addressed the issue of middles, and the vast wilderness that exists there. I feel better. And I have a whole weekend to wander that wilderness.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More is Less

Since Sarah started it, I'm happy to continue the discussion about REVISION. (Somehow, it merits all caps.)

I am deep into revisions right now and it seems the more I write, the more I cut. And the characters and story get stronger the more I carve away from them. The funny thing is, whenever I cut entire pages or multiple paragraphs from a chapter, replacing them with one or two sentences, the Slushies always comment about how they like that I've included MORE description or explaination or history in this version of the chapter.

I look back at the earlier version and find that yes, indeed, I have taken three paragraphs and reduced them to one sentence, and lo and behold, my critiquers tell me I've added something.

What that tells me is that I've clarified. I've eliminated what doesn't need to be there and reduced the important stuff to its very essence. It tells me that my writing is getting better.

Good, because I don't know how many more revisions I can do. This is tough stuff.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An author visit, a new friend, and art

Local 2k9 author Fran Cannon Slayton is coming to our library tomorrow evening. You can get more information on the library website. We talked to Fran about her middle grade novel, When the Whistle Blows back in August. Her discussion will be family-friendly, so definitely come by if you can, and bring your kids.

Meanwhile, in NaNoWriMo land, things are rolling right along. Sarah, Bridget and I met for coffee Friday afternoon. Bridget hasn't been as active in the Slushbusters lately, due to her other commitments, but we wanted to catch up with her. While we were filling her in on our latest writing adventures, a young woman came over to us from the next table.

She said she'd overheard us talking about writing. I immediately noticed she was wearing a NaNoWriMo t-shirt! She was working on her novel right there in the coffeehouse. We invited her to join us, and continued talking about the writing process, NaNo, critique groups, and the like. Before we left, we swapped email information. You never know where you're going to meet a new writing buddy.

I gave myself a day off writing yesterday, since I've been doing well staying ahead on my word count. My friend and I went to the Workhouse Arts Center. It was a refreshing change to talk to artists who aren't writers. I'm the first person to notice sensory information in a story, or if it is missing and needs to be there. It had been a while since I spent time in a space where I could see the colors of the paintings, touch glass and wool and wire, smell clay and watch a glass blower manipulate shapes with a flame. After all this writing, what a relief not have to imagine the sensory information in my head!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The scenes we leave out

I figure it's time for a break from all things NaNoWriMo (Especially since I'm behind in my word count- don't worry, I'll catch up.)

Since NaNoWriMo is all about just getting words on the page, I'm going discuss

drum roll please


A very specific form of revision, actually.

Several months ago, I wrote a great scene for my WIP. It established aspects of my MC's character I hadn't ironed out, introduced us to people in her past, and solidified the life she had before the story begins.

Great scene. I love writing it. I loved reading it. So did the Slushies.

But the consensus was that it didn't need to go at the beginning of the story, because it's not really part of the story. It was also too big to be a flashback, and too involved to be split into tiny flashbacks.

It took me a while to realize that I shouldn't do anything with it.

And not in the this-is-gorgeous-and-insightful-prose-and-no-unhallowed-hands-shall-cut-it-from-this-manuscript sense. Nothing, as in the-readers-will-never-see-it sense.

Here's why: it wasn't part of my story. It set the stage for the story.

So why didn't I sob silently as I cut this really cool bit from my MS?

Because it will be in everything I write. It will show up because I know it. And because I know it, the reader will, too. That scene shaped the way I viewed my story; it informs the way I'm crafting it.

A professor of mine once told me that everything we cut from a MS haunts it. The weight and sense and soul of what we cut lingers in our work, even if it isn't visible on the page.

It doesn't mean readers won't feel the effects of my special scene. It just means it that a reader won't be able to turn to such-and-such page to find it.

How about you? Any really good parts that you've cut, that you realized you needed more than your readers? I can't be the only one.

Meanwhile, I have some serious catching up to do with NaNo...

Friday, November 6, 2009

The widgets are working!

It turns out the NaNoWriMo site has gotten so much unexpected traffic that they hesitated to get the widgets up and running until things were running smoothly. But now you can follow along with Sarah's and my progress as we go. Encouragement and cheerleading is much appreciated.

In my own week, the process has gotten a bit more difficult as I've gone along. Some of it was due to more limited time in my day, like yesterday when I had to take the dog to the vet before work, and therefore had less writing time. (He's fine. It was just a checkup and shots.) More often it's my old problem of second-guessing myself. I'm writing middle grade, so 50,000 words is a lot. I know I'll end up cutting out a lot of what I write this month. But even as I'm writing, I'm asking myself, "Is this conversation necessary? Is it boring?" Then I shrug and write it anyway, because this is first draft territory.

I'm amazed at how many people are participating, and how many words are being written. Of course I realize that doesn't mean they're good words. Some of the publishers and agents are a bit concerned about that, including the guys over at Pimp My Novel and Upstart Crow. Not that they're unsupportive, just cautious. I'd be cautious too if an event might lead to my inbox filling up with garbage.

So keep noveling, people. But don't forget to go back later and revise, revise, revise! And no December submissions on those novels!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

We interrupt this WriMo

to let you know we've just become members of Kidlitosphere Central. It's a kind of all-in-one place resource for bloggers of children's and young adult literature.

If you're looking for author and illustrator blogs, publisher and editor blogs, or just all around children's literature blogs, check them out. We're listed under the group blogs.

OK, back to our regularly scheduled noveling. My word count to date: 7403. The widgets still don't appear to be working.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo: Day 1

So it's 8:51 am on Sunday. I just finished breakfast. (Thank you, Husband!) I had a word count of 864 this morning before breakfast. I know, I know, I need to stop blogging and start noveling again. I will in a minute.

I wanted to let you know that the word count widgets don't appear to be working yet. So if you want to track my progress at this point, you'll have to join NaNoWriMo and become a writing buddy of mine! I'm michellebe on there, by the way. So far, Sarah is my only buddy, but that's mostly because I don't want to spend a lot of time looking for people.

I'll try to keep my word count current on the NaNoWriMo site, and cross my fingers that the widget starts working soon here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Stepping off a cliff

The minutes crawled before I rappelled for the first time.

It took forever to get to the cliffside. I watched while ropes were secured, harnesses checked and doubled-checked, gear adjusted. (I swear it was in slow motion.) I nodded (also in slow motion) while the whole process was explained to me.

But the entire time, part of my brain (probably the part devoted to Survival) kept returning to the fact that I was going to step backward off a cliff. A cliff that looked much, much taller now that I was standing on top of it.

I was about to step. Off. A. Cliff.

Which is sort of how I feel about NaNoWriMo. I am so not the sort of person who pounds out prose and then thinks I'm finished once I type "The End". Or that it's revised if I spell check it.

I'm the one who obsesses over what I write, who loves revision.

Who hasn't finished this completely new plotline of my novel because I take so long writing. Who has been very busy these past few weeks with her new job, and has a perfectly legitimate excuse for just going to bed instead of writing. Whose brain has whispered every day this week that I have committed myself to writing over 1,500. Words. A. Day.

Who, ultimately, can't revise until she's got new material to revise.

So I'm gonna do this whole NaNoWriMo thing, just like the rappelling. When I rappelled, backing over the edge of that cliff was the hardest part. The rest of the trip down felt like flying.

I think committing to NaNoWriMo will be the easiest part- I don't expect much flying after that. I am however, at the top of a cliff looking down. I might not love the trip before me, but I'm already anticipating the moment when my feet touch bottom.

November 30 can't come soon enough. December 1, I start revising.

How about you? Do you have to push to write new material? Or does it start to feel like work when you edit?

And what do you do to keep going?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest

I just found a link to the Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest. Here's the description from the website:

Serendipity Literary Agency, in collaboration with Sourcebooks and Gotham Writers' Workshop, is hosting its first Young Adult Novel Discovery Competition for a chance to win a one-on-one consultation with one of New York's leading YA literary agents!

The contest is open the entire month of November in honor of NaNoWriMo.

So, are you going to enter? Let me know...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lately, I Feel Like a Writer

Because I don’t get paid to do this all day long, I often don’t feel I have the right to call myself a writer. But lately, I lay full claim to that title. Why? Because I’m earning it. For the past two weeks I have had my butt in this chair every day for at least a couple of hours. (I do have a job and a toddler.) And I’m not browsing the internet. (Haven’t seen a post from me in a while, have you?) I am sweating and bleeding onto the page. I am toiling over words. It feels fantastically awful and awfully fantastic, depending on when you ask me.

I’m feeling like a writer because I’m pushing through the tough parts. A few days ago, I plunged into the next chapter of revisions and found I had to rewrite an entire scene. I sat down and wrote it, and it was really, really bad.

Usually, I would be so discouraged by this initial failure that it would take me a few days to face the page again. But this time, I went right back to it the very next day. I worked it. Then I moved on. And it’s better. Not perfect, but better. I can live with that.

I’m feeling like this is my job that I go to every day without question, without stalling, without excuses. Inspiration doesn’t make me feel like a writer. Working at it every day does. Hey, I may finish this novel yet!

When do you most feel like a writer?

I hope all of the NaNoWriMo participants out there will also feel like writers very soon, if you don’t already.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Plan B it is

Today I talked through the NaNoWriMo stuff with my husband. He convinced me that Steph and Joan may be right. I trekked down to the basement and found the diary and scrapbook, as well as a couple of other things from that fifth grade event. So I'm going to try writing that story. From two points of view. One will be a fictionalized version of my own POV, and the other of a friend who was there. We'll see what happens.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Google readers versus following blogs

Just out of curiosity, how many of you follow blogs in Google Reader? Are they the same blogs you follow publicly, or are they different?

I follow a bunch of blogs, but also have them in my Google Reader. I also read or at least skim a lot more in Reader. Some I'm just checking out for a while and have yet to decide whether I like enough to be a follower. Others are in a format that's easier to follow that way because they are LiveJournal or something other than Blogger accounts.

I've noticed our follower numbers are about the same in both Reader and on here, but I don' t know how to account for the overlap. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Did anyone notice

the NaNoWriMo widget in the right margin? I have signed up. Last night at our meeting Sarah tried to convince me to put in one of the word count widgets. We'll see. I told her I'd do it if I'm not the only Slushbuster with one up there. She says she'll sign up.

I've been struggling with changing one of my picture book stories into a MG novel. I've thought up new characters, a structure, and new events to help it build. But the writing hasn't gone that well, and I keep second-guessing myself. I've written about four different versions of a first chapter, but haven't gotten much beyond that. So I signed up for NaNoWriMo to force me to just write it and stop thinking about it. I'd put it aside and let it go, but it's a story that's been in my head for 20 years, and I'd like to get it out of there and into the world.

Last night, Steph and Joan were trying to convince me to write a completely different story. I don't even remember how we got on this subject, but I was telling them about a major event that happened to me as a ten-year-old. The more I told them, the more they were convinced it should be a story. I have a lot to work with, including a diary I kept at the time, and somewhere, a scrapbook my mom made. I don't have a plot exactly, but there's potential. So I guess this may be NaNoWriMo for next year. Or this year if I remain stuck on the first chapter of my original plan.

Anyone else signed up?

Monday, October 19, 2009

2K9 Interview: Megan Crewe

Another installment of the 2K9 author interview series right here on the Slushbusters’ blog:

Photo Credit: Chris Blanchenot

Today we are interviewing 2K9 member Megan Crewe about her YA novel, Giving Up The Ghost, which was released September 15, 2009.

First: Megan Crewe’s Bio, from
Megan Crewe lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and two cats. She works as a tutor for children and teens with special needs. In her free time, she reads everything she can get her hands on, practices kung fu, and speculates about the ghost that may or may not be living under her bed. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines such as Brutarian Quarterly and On Spec. GIVE UP THE GHOST is her first novel. Visit her online at

Give Up the Ghost synopsis, from
Cass McKenna much prefers the company of ghosts over "breathers." Ghosts are uncomplicated and dependable, and they know the dirt on everybody... and Cass loves dirt. She's on a mission to expose the dirty secrets of the poseurs in her school.

But when the vice president of the student council discovers her secret, Cass's whole scheme hangs in the balance. Tim wants her to help him contact his recently deceased mother, and Cass reluctantly agrees.

As Cass becomes increasingly entwined in Tim's life, she's surprised to realize he's not so bad--and he needs help more desperately than anyone else suspects. Maybe it's time to give the living another chance...

Slushbusters’ Interview:

Why this book? Of all the ideas you have for possible stories, how did you decide that this was the one you would commit to? (Do you have drawers full of ideas, half-finished novels, or completed manuscripts?)

I have lots of ideas, but I can usually tell when one's ready to be (and worth being) written. If the story continues to intrigue me, and more and more details come to me when I think about it, then sooner or later I'm going to write it down. With GIVE UP THE GHOST, I think the most important factors were the main character, who had such a strong voice and so much emotional turmoil that I wanted to see her through, and the different take on ghosts--having them as friends, getting gossip from them--which I thought would be fun to explore.

How different is the final product from your first conception or first draft of the book?

Not very! All of the important elements have been there since the beginning. Some of the details changed--a few minor characters were taken out or replaced, scenes were expanded or trimmed or set in different locations--but the main characters, their struggles, and how they dealt with them have remained the same.

Were some of the scenes or themes harder to write than others? Tell us about some of the trickier aspects of writing this story and how you were able to overcome them.

I think the hardest scenes to write those when Cass was on her own. I find it much easier to keep the characters engaging and the plot moving when there's dialogue and interaction happening, but sometimes she needed time to contemplate what was going on. The way I dealt with it was by having her doing something else while she was thinking, and to keep her thoughts as focused as possible--not to drag those moments out.

Did you outline all the plot points and themes that run through the story from the beginning, or you did you go back later and add in, for example, Cass’s storyline with her absent mother or her lack of fashion sense? What about the world building of the ghosts -- did you make up details as you needed them or plot everything out ahead of time?

The most important things (like the characters' relationships with each other) I knew ahead of time, as part of my planning and outlining. But a lot of the details came as I wrote--whatever seemed natural in the moment. Picturing Paige in the first chapter, for example, I knew the kinds of things she would say, and it seemed to fit that she would brighten and fade depending on her mood, and that she'd have trouble with her memory. But I didn't know any of that until I wrote the scene.

As you know, the Slushbusters are primarily a children’s writer’s critique group. Did you use a critique group for your book before you sent it out? If so, describe how your group works and how they helped you.

I have both an in-person critique group and critique partners online, and they all helped get GHOST into shape. My in-person group meets every other week to discuss short stories or a few chapters from members, so from them I got more focused comments on specific sections of the book. They helped me see when I was on the right track and when the story was confusing or wandering, and they also caught details that were contradictory or implausible. My online critique partners read the whole book at once, and gave me feedback on big picture factors like plot, characters, and themes. They let me know what worked for them and which didn't quite, and how I might strengthen the latter. I'm incredibly grateful to all of them--I don't think I'd be at this point without the help of my critiquers.

Is this the first book you have ever submitted to an agent? How many submissions did you send out, and how long before your agent took you on?

The first book I ever submitted to agents was the YA novel I wrote before GHOST, but I only queried three and then started to feel the book wasn't quite ready yet. (I might still go back to it.) With GHOST, I queried about 50 agents over the course of six months, and got about 15 requests for more material. Right after I'd sent out the last round of queries, my agent called and offered representation!

How did the revision process go? Were there any surprises, difficulties or major changes?

The most major change was that I took out an entire subplot (that consisted of three scenes in the book) and replaced that material so that the scenes fit the overall story better. But that wasn't a surprise--I'd actually always had the feeling the subplot didn't entirely fit, but I was hoping it was just me being paranoid because I wasn't sure how to fix it. ;)

The most difficult part was that I disagreed with my editor on a major change to the ending. But after discussing it and hearing my suggestions, she understood my point of view. I made a few changes that I think do make the ending stronger, but was able to keep everything that was important to me.

What are your thoughts on creative inspiration vs. discipline? How do your family and loved ones fit into your writing life?

I think it's a lot easier to be inspired than to write a book! Seriously, I have tons of ideas, but only a few of them have become actual novels. And that's because not every idea, however inspiring it might feel, is actually going to make a good book, and no idea is going to make any sort of book if you don't find the time and energy (and determination!) to sit down and turn it into one. I adore inspiration, and the feeling when I see something from a completely different angle that seems brilliant. But I would attribute most of my success to the fact that I'm disciplined about sitting down and getting those words out, and then trying to make them the best words possible in revisions.

My family, thankfully, has always been supportive of my writing. I used to spend hours in my room tapping away on the computer as a teen--I even had an old laptop I brought along on family vacations so I could keep going with my stories--and my parents never complained (in fact, it was my dad who helped me find and purchase the laptop for that very purpose). My husband has his own creative endeavors, so he totally understands the odd schedules and emotional ups and downs that come with this kind of career.

You have said in your author’s bio that you have never met a ghost. Are there any parts of this story that are semi-autobiographical?

The closest parts of the story to my life are not actual events or people, but the settings. I borrowed a lot from my high school in describing Cass's school, and the lake and the park nearby look like Lake Ontario and the Beaches area of Toronto in my mind.

There are scenes of alcohol abuse by teens, drinking and driving, and references to specific sexual activity in your book. What are the rules for dealing with sensitive topics in this genre and for this age group? Did your editor change any of these scenes?

I'm not sure that there are any specific rules! My rule for myself was to try to deal with those issues in a way that was true to life--including the consequences. Some of the issues I touch on in GHOST are pretty serious, and I made sure to treat them that way. My editor had no problem with that content and it's changed very little from the earlier drafts.

What have you learned from your first publishing experience that might be helpful to those of us still trying to get there?

The most important thing is to keep at it, and keep writing. I wrote several books before GHOST that I knew weren't ready yet, so I just kept writing until I reached the level where I felt comfortable sending my work out into the world. If I'd given up because my first, or second, or third book wasn't quite there, then I wouldn't be here talking to you right now.

What are you working on now and can you give us any ideas when we might see the next book by Megan Crewe on the shelves?

I can't give you an idea because I don't know myself. I can tell you that I've been working on a couple of different YA novels involving ghosts (among other things), but ghosts of a different sort than you see in GIVE UP THE GHOST!

Thanks, Megan, for a great interview!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I'm pretty sure this is it

I don't want to go on forever with all my JRW conference notes, so I'm going to condense and pick out some of the bet bits.
  • From Clay McLeod Chapman: If you lure people in with humor, you can do anything.
  • Scott Nelson said he writes his inner critic's POV, telling him the worst he can think of. Then he locks that in his hard drive and moves on.
  • Find a way for the characters to tell the story. Get different characters if you have to. Don't use tricky plot devices like letters found in an attic. Don't cheat.
  • From David Robbins: Concoct villains that make sense to people. Create motives for them to behave the way they do.
  • From Michael Knight: Most readers are sympathetic toward flawed characters.
  • Katherine Neville's suspense technique allows the reader to know information just before the character finds out. But she doesn't wait too long for the character to discover it, because otherwise they seem stupid.
  • Wish list from the editors' panel (Richard Ernsberger, Jennifer Pooley, Paula Squires
    Moderator: Virginia Pye): Original stories, ones that look at the world in a different way, through different eyes. An emotional experience and connection to the character.
  • Pet peeves from the editors: spelling mistakes, wrong name on a query, sloppiness, tardiness, sending work back too soon after proposed edits
  • Endings should "bookend" a story, reflecting the beginning, and showing the whole theme of the book.
  • Sub-plots can be tied up before the very end, but save the central problem for last. Then wrap up so the ending doesn't feel tacked on.
  • When you re-read your work, if you don't feel some emotion, it isn't right.
  • Authors research lots of topics that don't make it into their books.
  • A writer who gets excited about edits will be successful.
  • Action in a story should mirror what's happening internally for characters.
Unless Sarah, Joan, or Alison has more to add, that should do it for our JRW posts. Watch for Alison's interview with debut YA author Megan Crewe in the next few days.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tenderfoot attends first writer’s conference

James River Writers Conference Oct. 9 & 10, 2009

Attending my first writing conference felt like an initiation. Though there were no ceremonial rites into this community akin to joining a sorority, fraternity or secret cult. I was not required to streak across campus naked or prick my finger to mix blood with another. But after the conference, I felt I could now consider myself a serious writer. As with any new club membership I have responsibilities: to treat all other writers with the utmost respect, to give honest feedback when asked and to lend a hand in tasks that advance our community.
The James River Writers put on a very professional, exciting and worthwhile conference, especially for a greenhorn. As I sat only a few feet from NYT bestselling authors, I was in awe. I felt like a kid at his first firework display. Plus the speakers were so accessible; you could walk up to any one of them and strike up a conversation. Not that I had the guts to do this, but I could have.

Pearls of wisdom flowed from the speakers: the setting is like a fragrance, the story arc needs to include dabs of emotions, and your first chapter is like the infant version of the last one.
I, as a new recruit, would recommend this conference to anyone. And the food wasn’t bad either.

A few gems I mined from JRW

One of my favorite parts of the James River Writers Conference has been the first pages critiques. This year's panel was made up of Elizabeth Evans of the Reece Halsey Agency, Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Management, Molly Friedrich of the Friedrich Agency, and Ken Wright of Writers House.

Most of what they said about the manuscripts was specific to each piece of work, but I noticed a few issues that came up again and again. Several of the manuscripts relied on cliches. The agents said that either the language or the character was too familiar, not fresh, even if it was well-written. Another mistake more than one writer made was in making their language unclear. In one example it was caused by overwriting. There were so many words the meaning was lost. The agents felt the author was trying too hard. The opposite problem occurred when someone wrote too few details, and again the agents were lost as to what was happening in the story.

They summed up by saying that this is a subjective business, and you have to keep trying and submitting in spite of rejections. Molly said she would have rejected one of the sample manuscripts simply because she'd just sold a novel with a similar premise. Paige commented that the way an agent is trying to shape her list will often affect what she chooses to represent.

Later in the morning I attended the panel discussion called "Putting Words in My Mouth: Dialing-up the Dialogue." Panelists included Frankie Bailey, Colleen Curran, and Jonathan Miles, moderated by Irene Ziegler. Here's some of what they had to say:
  • Use "said" in dialog tags for seamless dialog
  • The functions of dialog are to convey character, accent and mood, move the plot, set a rhythm, and provide exposition. Good dialog does at least two of these things.
  • Dialog shows. It is action. A narrator tells.
  • People often have two different conversations at once. Each person anticipates what the other will say, rather than listening to what is actually said.
  • Dialog doesn't have to be a volley. Just use the best parts.
  • Keep the dialog short, generally three sentence or fewer. If a character is long-winded, it's okay to say, "and then she went on for twenty minutes about what she ate for lunch."
  • Men are more likely to speak in incomplete sentences, while women speak in complete sentences.
  • Don't forget about subtext. People often say other than what is true. You can show this by their actions while they speak.
  • Use jargon sparingly when writing about a subculture. The same is true of dialects. A little goes a long way. It is better to use only a bit to convey character rather than confuse the reader and pull him out of the story.
  • As a rule, it is better to use the character's name before the word "said" in a dialog tag. People tend to skip over it, so the name needs to be right next to the dialog. "Dorothy said," not "said Dorothy."
  • Instead of adverbs, use physical acts to show how something was said. If a character says something timidly, for example, have her look at the floor.
  • There are no rules for inner dialog, but avoid quotation marks. You can use italics, but keep them brief because people don't like to read them.
That's a lot of notes, and we're only just getting to lunch time on Friday! You can see why we were so tired when we got home.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A winner and pictures

Congratulations to Amy, who is our winner! I find it fascinating that so many more people stopped by than commented. Maybe I need to pick different prizes. Anyway, Amy, email me your address at michellebe(at)embarqmail(dot)com and I'll get your notebook in the mail. Use the email address in the traditional way. Writing it out on the blog is a tip I learned from Tess to prevent phishing and spam.

Although we're often about words here, I'm going to let the pictures do the talking today. We'll be posting more about the James River Writers Conference throughout the week.

This is what we saw when we arrived in the morning. The folks who put on JRW are incredibly organized. The conference is held at the Library of Virginia. This is a wing off the lobby, complete with a large lecture hall and smaller meeting rooms for breakout sessions.

The food was excellent this year. The conference committee chose to serve local food as much as possible. Joan, Sarah and Alison are grabbing some breakfast before our full day of sessions. Note the aforementioned swag hanging from Joan's shoulder. We got messenger bags full of goodies.

And here we all are, ready to go. That's Alison's mom on the right. She writes historical fiction and generously hosted Alison, Sarah and myself Friday night.

There was so much going on in the seminars and panel discussions that I'll need to dig through my notes to mine the gems for you. When I find them, I'll post them, as long as I can read my own handwriting!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We're going on a road trip, so let's have a contest.

I'm getting myself together for our road trip to the James River Writers Conference tomorrow. The first time I went I brought a whole bag of stuff with me: notebooks, pens, manuscripts (hey, you never know!), envelopes, postage. It was a virtual office in a bag. I've since learned to pare back. JRW gives swag to conference attendees. Everyone gets a tote bag with all the essentials right there: notebook, pens, conference schedule, and a few other goodies. All I really need to bring is my Slushbusters button and a few business cards to trade.

If you'll be at the conference, so will Joan, Alison, Sarah and I. We will be sporting our Slushbusters buttons, which look like this:
I know they're kind of cheesy, but you wouldn't believe how many people we meet who are just curious about them.

So in honor of our first road trip in a long time, (When was the last one, anyway?) and the fact that I'll be away from the computer for a few days, (Remember, I'm traveling light!) we're having a contest. Leave a comment on this post any time between now and Monday morning. Once again, we'll be giving away a Moleskine ruled notebook. I'll draw a winner at random from the commentors. If JRW can provide swag, the least we can do is offer a little something as well. I'm hoping you all continue the conversation in our absence, so I'm turning off comment moderation. To get you started talking among yourselves, here's a question: have you been to any writing conferences? If so, which ones, and what did you get out of them?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Last night's meeting and upcoming events

It's been a while since we wrote anything about what we're actually doing as a group. We had one of our regular meetings last night. Bridget and Sarah couldn't make it, so Steph, Joan, Alison and I propped the laptop on the end of the table and Skyped in Lisa. Or what I'm now referring to as "talking to Virtual Lisa."

She was never more virtual than last night. (Sorry, Real Lisa!) She had a new camera, so her picture was often frozen, and kind of blurry or broken up as well. We could hear her, and were still able to critique. We're looking at the revisions of the early chapters of her WIP, the first draft of which we've read all the way through. It turns out some of what I thought was new wasn't. It had been so long since I'd read it that I'd forgotten details. Then there was the problem of not being able to un-know information. I know what's going to happen, and how the MC is going to learn bits of her own history. But now when I read stuff early on, I see it in a completely different light because my brain can't help but fill in the blanks. I'm not sure how to get around this as a beta reader. I know I can't do it with my own work. And just as we were discussing all this, Virtual Lisa disappeared. Our call was dropped, and worse, irretrievable. I couldn't get Lisa back online, either with video or instant messaging. So we moved on.

We critiqued Steph's chapter. We talked about the James River Writers Conference. Alison, Steph and I have been before, but this will be Joan's first conference. Sarah is going for the first time this year as well. We'll be blogging about it, although not in real time or anything. I'm not prepared to lug the laptop around with me all day. But I do promise to take good notes.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I saw this this morning on my embarq news page:

"LONDON (AP) — When we left them, Christopher Robin was going away, and Things were going to be Different. Now, more than eight decades later, a rumor is sweeping the Hundred Acre Wood. According to Owl, who heard it from Rabbit, who heard it from Piglet, the adventures are about to resume. It falls to the bear to pass on the news to Eeyore. "It's Christopher Robin," said Winnie-the-Pooh. "He's coming back."
The drama (and for the Hundred Acre Wood, where life is lived gently, this qualifies) unfurls in the first authorized sequel to A.A. Milne's classic children's tales. Called "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood," the book by author David Benedictus goes on sale Oct. 5 and picks up where Milne's "The House at Pooh Corner," first published in 1928, left off."

Wow. This is big news to me, and I don’t know whether to feel offended that someone would try to "steal" Pooh and make a buck off of him, or excited that another installment of my favorite children's book EVER is coming out.

What I REALLY feel like doing is yelling "Why didn’t anyone tell ME they were looking for someone to write more Pooh books??"

You see, I'm English, not that you can tell by speaking to me. We moved to the USA when I was four and so it is understandable that my British roots may be well hidden. However I did grow up in an English household, even when that household was located in the American midwest. And so I grew up on Pooh. NOT Disney Pooh, but REAL Pooh. Real Pooh, read to me by my Mum in an (authentic, mind) English accent. Not to mention all of A.A.Milne's poetry as well. (John's got great big Wellington boots on, John's got a great big waterproof hat.....well, okay, just believe me. I could go on…)

Naturally I abhore Disney Pooh. Naturally I read REAL Pooh to my own children. I have the Gund Classic Pooh stuffed animals. I even read the Pooh books as a child to my own tattered beloved stuffed rabbit, aptly named Bunny. Yes, I still have Bunny today…you can ask him.

Okay so not only do I have the credentials of a true fan, but I have actually been burning to publish a Pooh story since I was 9. This is my first memory of wanting to publish a story. I didn’t actually WRITE this specific story, but when you are 9, details like that are not especially important. My Mum wrote this story. “In Which”--- all Pooh chapters start with “In Which” – “In Which Piglet gets the Chicken Pox.”

I was 9. Miserable in bed with chicken pox. Couldn’t sleep. So my Mum made up a Pooh story on the fly in the middle of the night, and told me the above story at my bedside in the dark. I was captivated. Inspired. Amazed. Completely forgot about my itchy pox – I had suddenly realized that not only could you READ great stories, you could WRITE them too! I was on a mission to get my Mum’s story published. Why not? It was sweet, used the same tone and rhythm, and would fit right in with the Pooh stories I had grown up on.

Imagine my disappointment when I learned about copyrights and licensing and plagiarism.

All these years my Mum and I have been sitting on the perfect Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, believing it to be impossible to ever publish, and now along comes someone who has permission to publish a sequel. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL US????

By the way, my Mum’s story really is a very good Pooh story, even through my more knowledgeable adult eyes…just ask Bunny.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gotta love those banned books!

It's Banned Books Week! The American Library Association (ALA) is a good place to start if you're interested in finding out titles of some of the books that have been banned over the years.

Alice Pope has posted some good links on the CWIM Blog as well. I looked at Amazon's list of banned books for children and discovered I've read more of them than not. I love it! My all-time favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, is on the list, as well as other favorites. Where would I be without the Narnia books or the Little House on the Prairie series?

Do you have a favorite banned book on the list?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ogres Are Like Onions...

I haven't written much these past two weeks. My new job (yay!) involves co-teaching algebra, and assisting students taking virtual geometry and calculus classes. I love it, but my evenings have been full of numbers.

Lots of numbers. And then more numbers.

If Math were a guy, we'd be dating. He might even be meeting my parents.

Which is why it's lovely to play with words again.

Rachelle Gardner had a great post about proactive or re-active characters. I realized that in the beginning of the novel I'm working on, it's easy for me to let my MC fall into a reactive position. (No surprise to the Slushies- we've discussed this.) Now, part of that is because the story begins with my MC trapped in a completely new life. It can be hard to be active when your world's been upended. Sometimes, there's a period when you're just trying to get your bearings.

However, I think I've found a way to think about internal action. edittorrent had a great post on the layers of a character, using astrology as an example. I don't know diddly about astrology, but the idea is that each person has three aspects to them.

There's the sun sign, which represents their "core personality" and basic traits. I concentrate most often on this part of a character.

But then comes the interesting stuff. The ... (I'm looking back at the post- you really should read it.)

.... rising sign. This is what others notice about your character- first, second impressions. It also includes the persona your character wants others to see.

Then, finally, there's the ... (yes, I'm looking again)

... moon sign. This is what your character hides from others. It's what s/he doesn't want others to see. Doesn't mean it's bad, just something your character is embarrassed about. It's what makes your character blush or run for the hills.

Isn't that great? It really gave me another way to continue to wrap my brain around my characters.

And, bringing this back to active characters...

It gives me a way to keep my MC active. Even in a completely disorienting situation- when there isn't much physical action that can be taken- there can always be the tension between what she wants others to see and what she's afraid they'll discover- what even she is afraid to discover.

That sort of thing can make even the most basic conversation pop.

So what do you think? Do you like this way of looking at characters? What are some things that your characters are trying to project? What are they trying to hide? (I think that hiding part is my favorite.)