Thursday, February 26, 2009

This made me laugh

Remember how I've been enjoying my new-found free time after getting my degree?  Just picking books up off the library shelves?  

"The next morning, a Tuesday, I was lying in bed, wondering [...] what length of miniskirt would be acceptable in Amish country, when the portable phone rang."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Beauty, Discipline and Inertia...oh yeah, and Writing

Yesterday, for the first time in ages, I didn't work on my novel the entire day. I didn't write one new word. I didn't revise a single sentence. I don't even know that I thought about it. Today, I didn't get back to it until late in the evening, and by then I was practically shaking from withdrawal. Okay, not really, but my mind was surely shaking.

You see, for the first time in my life, I am writing regularly. Not a lot, but every day. Sometimes it's only 15 or 30 minutes, but those are good solid fingers-clacking-constantly-on-keyboard minutes not those mamby-pamby looking-out-the-window-thinking minutes. This, more than anything else, makes me feel like a real writer.

So I am here to say that I've discovered the beauty of discipline. And also that for me, inertia is everything. If I'm at rest, I'm likely to stay at rest...forever. But if I'm writing, and I keep writing every day, then eventually, I'm likely to finish this book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Spectrum of Rejection

Rejection is an inevitable part of the submissions process. Although I was prepared for that when I started sending my work out into the publishing world, I was not prepared for the range of emotions that came with them. As it turns out, rejections have made me feel everything from annoyed to thrilled. Who knew?

I hate receiving a rejection in a form letter. I completely understand why it is necessary, given the number of submissions editors and agents receive. That doesn’t make it any less irritating. Especially the ones which asked for an SASE, but then didn’t return my manuscript. Why did I bother sending it?

At the other end of the spectrum is the kind of rejection I got a couple of weeks ago. The agent who sent it apologized for taking so long to respond, and then thanked me for sending in my work. The letter glowed with praise and encouragement. It was hopeful. It let me down gently, clearly rejecting the work, but not me. And even though the work was rejected, it was complimented, leaving me feeling like it would not be foolish to keep trying, keep sending it out, keep writing. It didn’t leave me feeling embarrassed that I sent my humble manuscript to a big literary agency.

I realize that not all work is worthy of an encouraging and complimentary rejection. But the most striking thing about that letter was the tone of kindness. No matter how good or bad one’s work is, treating it with respect and kindness is the best an editor or agent can do, and I appreciate that this person took the time to do so.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Meeting in the Hague

It sounds so glamorous, doesn’t it? Dashing across the country, from Groningen to Den Haag, for a meeting of the Netherlands chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). In reality, it was a long train ride. But I got to leave my son with oma and opa and be a grown-up for a while. Besides, I’d never been to the Hague, so it was a good excuse to go.

The meeting was small. Only three of us showed up. I suppose everyone wanted to get out and enjoy the first sunny Saturday this winter. The chapter leader, Laura Watkinson, and another woman, Linda Lodding, and I sat down and talked. We talked books. We talked writing. We talked inspiration. And we talked about the plan of events for the coming year. The chapter is small and only started halfway through last year. So it’s pretty cool that next month we have British author Leila Rasheed visiting us for a reading, a talk, and manuscript critiques.

For me, it was nice to get out and talk to other writers, to speak English freely without worrying that I should be practicing my Dutch. And best of all, Linda and I made a pact. I’ve had some stories lying around ever since their last round of rejections in October. They really should be on their way somewhere or sitting in cozy slush on some editor’s desk. So Linda and I have agreed that by Friday we will both send off our stuff. Anyone else want to join in on the pact?

Oh yeah, then I got to walk around this beautiful city. I missed the Escher museum, but maybe next time.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

First Pages

Post-degree life has given me time to wander through the library and take home a fat stack of books. What did I do today, with five new books in front of me?  

I read first pages.  

First pages have been coming up a lot. There was a first pages panel at last October's Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference. Editorial Anonymous has been critiquing first pages at her secret blog for the Anonymati. (Don't tell her I sent you- or at least be sure to learn the secret handshake.) I've been trying to figure out what should be on my story's first pages.

Of course, the writer in me wants agents, editors, and readers to flip beyond uninspiring first pages. It seems shallow to stop reading after a page or two- like not getting to know a girl just because she's having a bad hair day. (Believe me, I know about bad hair days.) C'mon guys, I want to say. Give me a chance.

But the reader in me just finished skimming the first pages.* I didn't even realize what I'd done till a few minutes later. The truth is, readers have choices- lots of them. It's not shallow to make the doorway to our story as inviting as it can be. 

Gotta go.  I have a book to read.

*I think Nathan Bransford made the think-like-a-reader argument a while ago.  Much better than I just did. But I couldn't find the link.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Happened Next Changed Everything

So, I'm a bit of a snob about good writing. When I pick up a book I want to be transported. Anything that distracts me from that—stiff dialogue, one-dimensional characters, contrived plot-line, my husband asking silly questions—is a bit annoying and does not bode well for my finishing the book. I can overlook these things and plunge in anyway, but it requires a sacrifice. It requires that I turn off part of my brain and turn the pages faster.

I do this sometimes with sci-fi and fantasy, Harry Potter, and other things I've been hoodwinked into reading and then can't put down. I genuinely enjoy these books—a great plot can go a long way—but I don't savor the words the way I want to. It's like the difference between eating french fries (and I do love my fries) and eating mashed potatoes topped with a nice french lentil, mushroom and red wine sauce (yum). I guess you can say they're both potatoes.

When I read, I don't want to see the writer behind the writing. I want to believe. When writers reach into their bag of cheap tricks, it's difficult for me to bypass my critical brain and enjoy the story. We all know these tricks—telling instead of showing, using lots of adjectives and the dreaded adverbs, hokey metaphors, etc. And here's one that I've always rather despised: “What happened next changed everything.”

I mean, c'mon, we might as well put a big red arrow on the page saying, “turning point here.” But then (yes, you knew there was a but) I started writing a what-happened-next-changed-everything moment and well, I'm tempted. It would be so easy. I mean, I'm building the tension, people are running, things are flying through the air, trees toppling, everything in chaos. And then comes the moment. What's so wrong about telling the reader, “Hey, look here: This is the moment. Pay attention”?

I've just started reading the Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman because someone said my middle grade fantasy novel sounds “a bit Golden Compassy.” Good to know. So, I'm reading along. I'm liking the book—rich detail, sympathetic character, intriguing concept. And then I come to it. The moment. Already on page 6?

“What she saw next, however, changed things completely.”

And it works here. The sentence doesn't feel like a gimmick or a cheap trick. It chills me; it levels me. It sweeps aside the tangle of complicated plot intro and lush detail surrounding it and clears a path for the really important bit. “What she saw next, changed things completely.”

What's a snob to do? I may be softening my view. Maybe it's okay and even (dare I say it?) good to let the reader know what to pay attention to, in case they forget to fawn over every word that we so deliberately agonized over. Maybe we need to occasionally (once per book would be enough) grab them by the ears and say, “Pay attention to this.”

So, what's the verdict? Cheap trick or useful writing tool?

Monday, February 2, 2009

SCBWI Winter Conference: the Blog

The Slushbusters are big fans of children's authors. We love going to conferences. Unfortunately, none of us was able to make it to the SCBWI 10th Annual New York Conference this past weekend. Fortunately, we have Alice Pope, editor of Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. In addition to her regular CWIM Blog, Alice has been posting snippets of the conference all weekend. (The title of this post will take you there.) What she's done makes me feel like we've had a Slushbuster there representing. She's giving the same kind of tidbits and information that we do if one or more of us goes to a conference and then reports back at our next meeting. Thanks, Alice!