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.