Saturday, January 31, 2009

I Hate This Part

I've been pounding away on The Looking Glass for a month now.  

Actually, I've been writing The Looking Glass for the past nine years- I learned to write with this story. Last year, however, I realized it needed yet another rewrite- one that would weave a completely new subplot through the story. After finishing my degree in December, (hello sleep and free evenings!) I began rewriting the entire novel.

I despise ... loath ... detest writing first drafts.  

And this rewrite needs tons of new material. I am not the writer who creates beautiful first drafts. Writing first drafts feels like a bad date: I'm awkward, uncertain, unable to maintain a conversation, and hoping- please, dear God- that it will end soon.  

Since I'm working with a novel, I've been writing the first draft for a chapter and then moving on to the next chapter.  It's killing me to leave so much unfinished business behind. These drafts aren't even good enough for the Slushies to read yet.

Still, it's been a great experience, this butt-in-chair time (as Jane Yolen calls it).

I've found gems in every chapter. I discovered a great character. I spun a beautiful sentence. (I doubt I'll keep any other part of that chapter, but the sentence is a good one. It's the heart of that portion of the story and the place I'll begin when I revise.)

I'm realizing that this horribly uncomfortable process doesn't mean that I'm a bad writer. Good writers ... write. Even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard. It takes courage to write something I know will begin as utter dreck. It requires confidence and tenacity to turn that beginning into something I'll be proud of.

This beginning is the part of writing that curls my toes and gives me nightmares. But I can do it.

So I will.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Shout-Out for Critique Groups!

Last week I was reading Sarah Davies’ blog about whether or not there were enough toilets for the Inauguration, her point being that the big glorious things don’t mean a whole lot if there’s not some serious attention paid to the details. She went on to relate this to writing, and I thought, This is exactly what I have a critique group for.

When I get lost in my own big ideas or the frenzy of an exciting plot, it’s always the Slushies that bring me back to the details. But how could she actually see around that corner? Where did all these porcupines come from? What exactly is she feeling here? Who’s Boris?

Good points, all of them. Just when I think I’ve got a great action sequence, I need someone to remind me that just because my main character doesn’t know what’s going on doesn’t mean the reader will deign to suffer the same thing. Readers need a few more hints to direct them through the action. It can’t all be mysterious or it’s just plain boring. After all, readers have choices. They can stop reading at any time. My main character isn’t so lucky. She’s going to be kidnapped by pirates no matter how much she kicks and screams.

So hurray for critique groups! I may sometimes groan when I hear their suggestions because it means yet another re-write and possible overhaul, but I am always always thankful for those six extra sets of eyes and ears.

When I’m a better writer, maybe I’ll think of all those things myself, although I suspect not. Until then, I’m sticking with the Slushies.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

International Meetings

Last night we had our second Slushbusters meeting using Skype. We had a few technical problems at the beginning. My computer was slow to boot up, either from sitting in a cold car all afternoon or some other unknown reason. We're still experimenting with camera placement. Last meeting we affixed the webcam to the computer and pivoted it to show the person speaking. There was more background noise around us last night, so we tried passing the camera around the table. This worked great for sound, but I'm worried that we gave Lisa motion sickness!

Once we got rolling, everyone was more relaxed than the first time. We try hard to take turns speaking, but tend to jump in when someone says something we have an opinion about. This often leads to brainstorming as a group to solve a problem of character behavior or logistics of action. Personally, I think the interrupting and discussing is one of the more valuable aspects of the group meeting, as opposed to email critques using "track changes." It's the combination of both that works best for us.

Time spent on critiques last night was more concise, partly due to better detail in our emailed notes, and partly because we realize it's one am in the Netherlands. Lisa stayed with us for a while after we finished her critiques, but she eventually faded and went to bed while the rest of us finished discussing Steph's and Joan's work.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Jip en Janneke

I just started reading a book of Dutch children’s stories – in Dutch – called Jip en Janneke. It’s at my reading level with enough pictures to keep the pages turning. Every Dutch child growing up in the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s knows this book. They read it the way I read Pippi Longstocking, Frog and Toad, Winnie-the-Pooh, and later the Ramona books.

It’s a chapter book and I’ve only read about five of the stories, but they are so simple and delightful. In one story, Jip and Janneke must carry a basket of apples to opa (grandpa). On the way they argue about which apples taste better, red or green. Of course they must find out, so they sit down and take little bites out of each apple to determine which are best. When they arrive at opa’s they are scared to give him the basket of bitten apples. But opa says they must be tastier with a bite taken out and they all sit down and eat them together.

In another story, Jip goes to meet Janneke’s new baby cousin. He leans over the bassinette and remarks that she looks like a little piglet. Janneke’s aunt asks if Jip would like to have a baby cousin of his own. He says, no, he’d rather have a real piglet. Besides, he already has a cousin who is six and doesn’t look like a piglet. Janneke gets mad and runs off. Jip goes after her and says that her baby cousin is a sweet piglet.

I love these stories! And because I’m reading them like I read my first books in English – not quite knowing all the words or grasping the finer details but wanting to read them over and over again anyway – it takes me back to that time when all stories were new and magical and every book an undiscovered adventure waiting for me.

And the most exciting part is that not only do I get to revisit my own childhood, but I also get to share it all with my son, who is almost two and LOVES books – Dutch, English, modern and classic.

So what books take you back?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What if the audience was me?

Writers have an audience that we think about when we create our stories.

For the first time this Christmas, I was the audience. I don't mean a book was written for thirtysomething women in a particular demographic. A book was written just for me, as a gift. I was given a hand made, custom picture book. The amazing thing is that it was from someone I had never met.

We spent the holidays with my husband’s family, including his brother’s wife and her parents and sister. Because there were twelve adults, my sister-in-law drew names for a gift exchange. Her sister Heidi got my name.

Heidi lives in Saskatchewan. I live in Virginia. We all met up in Park City, Utah. Heidi and her boyfriend Jeff were scheduled to arrive around dinner time on Christmas day. Throughout the night before and all day on Christmas, blowing, blinding snow fell on Park City, accumulating to around two feet. Southerner that I am, I was doubtful Heidi and Jeff would get there.

Park City has committed road crews and determined drivers. Just as we finished our meal and were clearing the table for dessert, they arrived. We hugged like old friends, having heard all about one another. After they ate and settled in, we opened gifts.

The book is made of cardstock, bound by metal rings. Heidi made detailed paper collages as illustrations. Everyone who has seen it has been impressed, asking if she is a professional artist. She isn’t. She’s just a wonderfully creative person, who thought I’d enjoy a handmade book. And she was right.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It worked! Bwah ha ha....

We had our first international Slushbusters meeting last week, with Lisa joining us via Skype.  (Thanks to Michelle for setting everything up!)  Wonderful time had by all.  We were coming off post-holiday craziness so only three of us had submitted- Bridget, Lisa, and Steph.

Main points of critiques?  Perspective.  Maintaining tension.  Making clear what the main character was thinking.  And, of course, Steph suggesting something that would involve a major, novel-wide rewrite.  (Steph does that often.  We think it's because we haven't had time for one of her writing exercises for at least 6 months.)

Oh, and we discussed how much we actually pay attention to each other.  

I'll occasionally read on a blog how someone's manuscript was ruined because they tried to incorporate an entire critique group's feedback.  So never, ever listen to a critique group.  They are evil.  

It makes me want to borrow Miss Snark's clue gun and gently but firmly make the following points:

1.  If your critique group is giving you bad advice, find a new critique group,


2.  Have the sense God gave a goat.  Take said critique group's advice with a grain of salt.  Keeping something that doesn't work in your manuscript says more about your judgement than it does about your critique group.  

(I have no idea how sensible goats are, but the alliteration sounds nice.  Care to weigh in on the subject, Alison?)

But I digress.  (Don't I always?)  

It turns out that all of us Slushies incorporate criticism.*  Sometimes we keep the edits.  Sometimes we don't.  I haven't always followed a Slushie's suggestion.  However, I've learned that whether the suggestion works or not, there's always a reason it was given.  I just need to figure out how best to address it.

So here's to critique groups!  May you be lucky enough to find a good one.

*This is where copying a portion of the manuscript to another document comes in.  It's so much easier to edit something if it's not in the "official" manuscript.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pizza Porridge, Please

So, I’m in the Netherlands, and I’m trying to learn Dutch. It’s not an easy language, but it does have those little threads of enchantment that keep you hanging on. One is the idioms. Dutch is rife with them. I often have to stop a conversation to say, “Okay, I was following you until the monkey came into it.” But then that’s because here when one says, “Kwam de aap toch uit de mouw,” (the monkey came out of the sleeve), they’re not talking about an actual monkey. They’re saying, “Ah, the truth has come out.”

Some of their idioms are similar to ours, and I can deduce their meaning easily. Het paard achter de wagen spannen. The horse stands behind the cart. While our sayings tend to be phrased as cautionary advice (we wag a finger and say, “Don’t put the cart before the horse”), the Dutch tend to simply observe that the horse is in the wrong place. And while we may know our own idioms, we rarely use them in daily speech. They’re things our grandmothers might say. Not so in Dutch, where idioms are an active part of the modern language.

Here are some of my other favorites:
Hij is met zijn neus in the boter gevallen. He fell with his nose in the butter. Meaning, he fell into the right place; he was lucky.

Zij zetten the bloemetjes biuten. They set the flowers out. Meaning, they’re partying.

Daar kun je naar fluiten! You can whistle after it. Meaning, it’s gone (often used about money).

Het staat als een paal boven water. It stands like a pole out of water. Meaning, it's obvious.

Daar lust ik wel pap van. I’d like to make porridge out of that. Meaning, I suppose, that something is so good you just want to mash it up and eat it.

I asked my husband, “So can you say that about anything you really like?”

“Yeah,” he said, “you could say that about pizza if it was really good.”

“Yuck, pizza porridge.”

"It's an expression," says my husband. "Nobody thinks about what it literally means."

Except us foreigners, that is, who keep wondering how these Dutch can eat such disgusting porridge and why so many people are pleased to have butter on their noses.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Just finished A Christmas Carol... again

I read A Christmas Carol every year, and finished it again for this Christmastime.  This was the first time I read the version illustrated by P. J. Lynch, my favorite illustrator.  

(In my dreams, he'd illustrate my little picture book fairy tale.  I don't mind admitting this on the Internet.  Why?  Because, statistically speaking, I have a better chance of convincing George Clooney to marry me.  I understand and accept that.)  

But I digress.

I read it every year.  My old copy of the story has hot chocolate stains on it.  I'm a fast reader, but I love to savor the text, sometimes whispering it aloud to make sure I don't move too quickly.  Last Christmas, I ended up reading the last two chapters to two girls I taught.  We planted ourselves in a Barnes & Noble as I read aloud.  I loved how folks nearby would linger and smile at all the right parts.  And I tried desperately not to let my voice break when we got to other parts.  (I failed.)  

I read A Christmas Carol for the joy of it- not to hone my writing skills or better understand how to craft a story.  Yet I realized something as I finished it this evening.  I love it because of Dickens' own joy.  The text is steeped in his humor and delight- as well as his indignation.  (I get chills every time the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge off while they're visiting the Cratchits.)  The truth is, I can't help but follow Dickens emotionally.  

It reminds me to bring my own heart to bear this year as I write.  I can get lost in getting the plot, characters, and story arc just right.  All are essential aspects of writing.  However, I want to leave a path of my own emotion  for the reader to follow.  

Easier said than done, but a worthy goal for 2009.