Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Books Read in 2009

  • ~ The Last Camel Died At Noon by Elizabeth Peters
  • ~Shopaholic Takes Manhattan by Sophie Kinsella
  • ~The Silver Crown by Robert C O'Brian
  • ~Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge
  • ~Meridian by Amber Kizer
  • ~The Youngest Templar by Michael Spradlin
  • ~Soulless by Gail Carriger
  • ~Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
  • ~Stone Heart by Charlie Fletcher
  • ~Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • ~Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
  • ~When You Reach Me by Rebecca Steadman
  • Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
  • Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • Shiver by Maggie Steifvater
  • JULY
  • ~What Happens In London by Julia Quinn
  • ~Incantation by Alice Hoffman
  • ~Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • JUNE
  • ~Namah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey
  • ~The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • ~The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne
  • MAY
  • ~My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Piccoult
  • ~The Sharing Knife by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • ~Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • ~Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • ~The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • ~The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  • ~Lady Macbeth
  • -Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out Of A Tree by Lauren Tarshis
  • -Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach
  • -The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg
  • -Everything On A Waffle by Polly Horvath
  • -The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs
  • -Masterpiece by Elise Broach
  • -The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
  • -The Serpent's Tail b Ariana Franklin
  • -Allie Finkle: Moving Day by Meg Cabot
  • -The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • -The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
  • -The Mistrest of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
  • -Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
  • -The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
  • -Graceling by Kristin Cashore
  • -The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong
  • -A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  • -Bloodfever Karen M. Moning
  • -The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime
  • -How I Live Now by Meg Roscoff
  • -Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
  • -The Magicians and Mrs. Quent
  • -Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
  • -The China Garden by Liz Barry

Monday, December 28, 2009


I have spent the morning picking up the last traces of holiday wrapping and ribbons, putting away the last of the gifts, and generally de-bugging my house of all the holiday cheer. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great lover of Christmas—it is my favorite holiday. Just ask my poor husband, who used to endure weeks of holiday frenzy and mania as I celebrated every day of advent with unrelenting enthusiasm.

But this year, this year it came at a spectacularly poor time. It was nigh unto painful, having to break away from The Great Race to the Book Deadline and . . . celebrate. Suffice it to say, I was not in a celebrating mood. It was akin to having to stop in the middle of giving birth to go dancing. I was pretty much just wanting to focus on getting the job done.

However, now that it’s over, Theodosia is coming out to play in a big way. And none too soon, I might add. Trust her to wait to come out until all the guests have finally gone home—just like our cat.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Quick Monday Fly-By

With some books, you fumble and struggle until you hit the Mother Lode of story, then everything begins to flow with ease. Other books, not so much. Alas, this book is one of the no-so-much variety. What that means is that every scene, every story nugget must be painstakingly researched, located, then clumsily excavated, only to have to go through the exact same process five pages later. If you listen closely, you can hear my daily scream of ARGH!!! all the way from where you are.

So after today's hacking and prodding and coaxing, I have promised myself a trip to the movies to see AVATAR with the family.

In other news, I rarely link to reviews here, but this one thrilled me so much I can't resist. It's from Colleen Mondor over at Bookslut, and she so thoroughly got Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, that I have been glowing ever since. In fact, it's been my security blanket in the last few days as I've wrestled and fought with the current WIP. My favorite part?

"There’s no Oliver Twist here, or even Harry Potter, but rather an original blend of fantastic and fun that is far more about the boy than the magic."

Love that a lot. It's what I always aim for--character driven fantasy--but never know if it actually ends up that way on the page.

Now off to see if I can do it again!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If You Give A Book A Gremlin . . .

. . . it will acquire a mind of its own to go with it.

Seriously. Once you give in to this organic thing, all hell breaks loose. Mysterious elements show up out of seemingly (key word, that) nowhere, characters take on a mind of their own and refuse, refuse, to do what you’ve told them to. The bad guy decides he’s not the bad guy any longer and strange interpersonal dynamics and heretofore unsuspected relationships that you have given no conscious thought to, begin appearing on the page.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? ☺

The thing is, this is one of the reasons people give for not wanting to outline--a fear of stifling just this phenomenon, and I totally get that; that's their process and choice. For me though, I don't know how to get moving on the page without some sort of outline or plot and it is only when I am actively moving on the page that these sorts of spontaneous things begin happening.

I read somewhere, and I can't for the life of me remember where (Katy, you might know the source of this idea) that the reason music became part of religious ritual was because the monks believed it created a space through which the Divine could enter.

Maybe for some of us outlines are like that. Creating an outline is like playing the music that will allow the Creative Spark to ignite...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Plot is NOT the Story

It seems I have to learn this lesson at least once with every book I write:

The plot is not the story. The plot is simply (ha! nothing simple about plotting!) the device or vehicle that gets all the elements together so that the real story can happen.

The real story is the characters and relationships and growth that take place because of the plot.

I swear to god, I'm going to get that tattooed on the back of my hand where I can see it 139 times a day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Getting My Gremlin On

I can't remember if I talked here about how Greasle came to take such a prominent role in Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist. It is an important lesson that I have only begun to learn, and have certainly not yet grasped. Not if the last few weeks are any indication, anyway.

The mythology in the Beastolgist books is simply that all the mythical creatures featured in the medieval beastiaries are real. They truly exist in hidden pockets of the world and only the Fludds know the exact locations of those. Simple enough.

However, while I was writing the first book I ran into the problem of Nate and Aunt Phil having to travel all over the world (there's that travel issue again!) and how to make it interesting rather than episodic or a simple tour guide recounting. Drama, I thought! I need to increase the tension! Make Nate proactive!

So I had Aunt Phil send Nate out on the wing to go up to the propeller and see what was gumming up the prop. He'd have to do the aeronautical equivalent of singing for his supper.

And much to everyone's surprise (not the least of which mine) it was a gremlin who was gumming up the works and out she popped into the story.

B-but . . . I didn't want a gremlin in the book! It didn't work! It mucked up the world I was building and mixed mythologies and . . . and . . . No, I wailed!

But try as hard as I might, I simply could not write the book without her. And if you know how life works, it is probably not surprising to learn that for many readers she is one of the most popular parts of the book.

So the lesson was clearly that one has to embrace one's creative wild hairs and just go with them some times. Only apparently I haven't truly internalized that one yet.

I've been plugging along on the new book for weeks, and it hasn't ignited in that way that it usually does--the way that makes it the most fun thing in the world to be doing. And it's because I've been resisting this odd, different angle/approach/thread that keeps wanting to come into the story, and I keep thinking, No. It doesn't work.

Only, I don't know that it doesn't work. I'm just afraid that it won't work. (Yeah. Fear never makes a good critique partner.) But the story is digging in its heels and refusing to come to play unless I do it its way. ::sigh::

So this weekend I gave up and said what the hell, and began incorporating that odd little element, and vavOOM! We're off! I would be banging my head on the desk in frustration at my own obtuseness if I weren't so relieved I've figured it out. I've finally found my gremlin for this book.

For me, this is one of the single hardest lessons in writing--learning to trust that creative vision, that quirky spark that wants to play in the story world I've created. I tend to think things aren't allowed or simply aren't done or that trying to combine too disparate elements creates incoherency rather than something new or fresh.

I wonder how many more times the Universe will have to slap me up side the head with this particular lesson? Should we start a pool?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Randomness

Just some random stuff for today. I'd had a post on the trickiness of traveling in the course of one's manuscript halfway ready, but then I got the stomach flu yesterday and nothing got done. Oy. Thank gawd it was the 24 hour variety.

The only good thing that can be said about the flu is that when it's over, you feel like you've been given a whole new lease on life.

My son and I have been watching the first season of The Wire, in no small part because Nathan Bransford has frequently declared it the best show on TV ever. No small praise, that. I have to admit that it took me about three episodes to get into the swing of things, but after that it was terrific. Great characters, great layers and complications and people getting in each other's way without being evil. Loved it a lot. However, I was surprised at how thoroughly they wrapped up Season One. It left me really wondering what they would do with Season Two, which we started a couple of nights ago.

It did not disappoint. And it reminded me of a few really important things we need to keep in mind as storytellers.

One, keep things fresh. The second season did not return and dip directly into the well that had fueled Season One's success. They went someplace totally different. I loved that. I loved the risk of it and the surprise of it.

Two, the entire first episode was set up. And a little bit of catching up on where our favorite characters were now. And the reason I was struck by this was that it showed huge confidence in their storytelling. Especially in this day and age where we are reminded to cut to the action immediately, set up is slow, bad, needless, get rid of it.

But this totally worked. It was a slow build, and I was very aware of a large net being cast to show us the scope and breadth of what they were building. But the thing that made it work, I think, is that the set up kept raising all sorts of dramatic questions in our minds. And I think that's the key to making set ups work. If you can create the set up so that the information you give them raises dramatic questions, or creates stakes, or tension, then it can work.

In other news, I just found out that Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist Book One will be published in China! How cool is that? Can't wait to see the complex Chineese characters on the page. Besides, I figure since everyone keeps predicting China will be the dominant world power here in the next few years, it can't hurt to be available in that market. :-)

Have a great weekend, and I hope you get lots of holiday shopping and baking done!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A New Plot Predicament

Remember how I said that each of my manuscripts demands its own, unique plotting method? Well, this book is no exception. ::le sigh::

As I struggle with this current manuscript, I’m discovering that there are a few structural things that are forcing me to look at this book’s plot in a completely different way.

For one, it is the first book in which I’ve changed locations this many times. It starts off in Cairo, then moves to Luxor, then the action moves to An Undisclosed Location, then back to Luxor. Even harder, the travel part is not necessarily part of the dramatic action, so that is dead time story-wise, and better left off screen. The travel sequences also rather neatly bisect the book into four acts.

Normally I write to the turning points; the big moment of dramatic action, the big reveal, or a reversal of some sort. However, the turning points in this book don’t exactly happen at the change of location moments, but since those so firmly feel like act breaks, I’m stuck having to factor those into the plotting momentum somehow.

What I find is that I am writing the acts as individual pieces of a whole, rather than writing to the turning points, which might be a matter of semantics. Or not. I can’t quite tell yet. But the process feels different, and that’s why I’m kind of stumbling around.

Hm. This just occurred to me. (And this is why I blog—just talking about this stuff brings clarity.) The reason it feels different is because normally when I write to a turning point, I leave one act at a moment of high drama which then propels us into the next act.

But by writing each act as individual units, I find that the highest point of drama comes just before the act ends, then there is a minor moment of resolution or transition before proceeding into the next act, which takes place in a new location. It mirrors the structure of the end of the book, with a climax and resolution, rather than a turning point acting as climax and building on that. So it's like four separate little stories (structure wise, not thematically) with their own completion rather than a set of building blocks.

I’m trying to decide if this is good or bad or just different, and how much energy, if any, I should spend fixing it or trying to massage it into a different shape.

Needless to say, this whole structure thing has made me painstakingly aware of the logistical difficulty of traveling during a story, which I will blog about in a separate post since it is a big enough issue to warrant its own topic.

Monday, December 07, 2009

An Altered Book

I've already talked about the collages I do for my books, and the travel journal I'm doing for this particular Theodosia book, but I also wanted to talk about something I started doing a while back. It's similar to a collage in that it helps me access the story world in a much more, loosey-goosey creative way, without the specific writing tasks I expect to accomplish with the travel journal (voice, descriptions, travel logistics). This altered book is really more about helping me stay fully immersed in the world, while giving my mind something else to focus on besides the words on the page.

And here I must insert my disclaimer, that I am a rank amateur in the world of altered books, but I do have fun.

So first, I had to find the right book to alter. How thrilled was I to find the above book at the library's used book store--it's even a translation of an Arabic poem! How perfect.

This first image was my first experiment. It's very simple, but again, I was surprised at how much fun my subconscious had ruminating while my fingers were busy "building" something from the story world. This image is just a mood piece for the first book, touching on picking up Mother from the train station.

This next picture was trying to evoke the sense of showdown I felt when writing Book Two, involving the Dreadnought, the Serpents of Chaos, and a certain prophecy regarding a red sun...

And lastly, a scene in the catacombs, with all those mummies...

While I will confess to being all thumbs when it comes to art, I do love collaging. I love the whole "found" thing aspect of the art form, the junk turned to jewels element of taking used and discarded trash and debris from lives lived, and using that to create something beautiful and evocative.

It reminds me very much of writing, actually.

As a writer, I collect mental junk, a face here, a look there. The snippet of conversation I overheard at the restaurant. The scolding I heard the mother give her son at the grocery store. The surprising sight of a teenage punk driving his 80 year old grandmother around in his hyped up jalopy. A sunset. A birdsong. A remembered feeling from when I was seven years old. This is the sort of detritus I collect in my head, where it rolls around for years, decades sometimes, until it becomes tumbled and smoothed and juxtaposed with other things and becomes something entirely new.

Best of all, the girls in the basement LOVE it a lot, and it gets them all juiced up so I can write and write and write...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sherman Alexie - Luddite or Prophet?

My son directed me to this clip on the Colbert Report. Must See TV for any and all writers. In it, Sherman Alexie talks about the potential impact of digitalization on the publishing industry.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

How impressed am I that he refuses to allow his work to be published in electronic format! And how sobering are the points he makes. That so few artists make money off their CD’s or albums any more, and all their income comes from concerts. (At $400 per ticket, how much longer will there be a viable audience for that?) And how depressing that the entire local media and appreciation of books has disappeared. It just shows that there are still a lot more conversations to be had about these issues . . .

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's Alive!!

So, last week I ended up having to put aside the Theo Four manuscript and instead pick up my Theodosia Four journal. For the week prior to that, I had been pushing the characters around on the page and it felt just like a four year old pushing peas around the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. Nothing pretty was happening.

I have to say, I so admire people who can fly into the mist and just write. Not knowing much about their characters or their stories, they simply begin, knowing they will discover these things on the page.

I don’t seem to be able to do that. Instead, I had to regroup and spend the last week journaling all my characters’ histories. I need to know who they are and what life events have shaped them before they will come alive for me on the page. And since so much of that is backstory, it doesn’t seem to emerge in the actual writing of the book. Nor do I seem to be able to make them do anything on the page except walk woodenly across the stage until I know them better.

But all that journaling? I inevitably get frustrated along the way and feel like I’m spinning my wheels or procrastinating or being overindulgent of my process.

Except, as I journal these people, they begin to come alive for me. At first inception, they are mere stick drawings, a few bare lines in black and white, little more than placeholders. Sometimes I know so little about them that I can’t even define what they want within the story, or what their goals might be.

That’s when I begin to root around in their past, digging through their history in an attempt to understand them. For example, I have an elderly gentleman in this book, and I ended up printing out a timeline of British history from 1830 to 1900 so I could see what skirmishes and battles and experiences would have shaped him. After all, the events going on around us shape who we are as people, whether we live through a Great Depression, survive 70’s disco music, or enter the job market at one of the worst times in history—all these things shape our outlook on life. If I’m writing a novel that takes place in a different time, then it makes sense that I need to understand which historical events shaped my characters.

This is where I actually ‘draw’ my characters, only using words instead of lines. The form and shape and texture begins to show up. Once I have all this stuff, the character’s context and worldview, I can then go in and do the detail work, the stuff that will show up on the page. What are this character’s emotional wounds? His motivations? His goals? Why does he want that? What personal events and circumstances have combined with the broad strokes of history to shape him?

When I know that, I know how he will react to the people and events around him. How he will respond to Theodosia, the magic swirling around them, how he holds his head or looks down his nose, or whether he responds with disdain or respect.

And then a really cool thing happens, a bit of magic akin to when the wooden Pinocchio became a real boy. The character begins to take on attributes that I haven’t designed for him. He begins to become a real person in his own right until finally, he becomes so real and fully dimensional that he gets up off the page and walks into the book, finally a real person.

Which is a long way of sheepishly confessing that I guess all that journaling time isn’t wasted after all.

How do your characters become real to you? What tricks do you use to b ring them to life, both for yourself and your readers?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Pass the Alleve, Please

I long for a simple plot. I long for the kind of plot where the protagonist wants this, but can’t have it because [fill in the blank] and so must spend the rest of the book struggling against the antagonist or antagonistic force in order to achieve her goal. And of course she’ll triumph and live joyfully ever after.

But instead, my plots tend more toward: Protagonist wants this, but can’t have it because of a trick within a ploy, hidden in a stratagem, deeply embedded within a subterfuge, sprinkled liberally with deception and a dollop of double cross on top.

The ever tightening concentric circles of my convoluted plot makes my head ache. Although, I suppose that's progress. At least now I have a plot to b!tc# about...

Also, for any of you who are feeling discouraged over not finishing NaNo this year, Maggie Stiefvater has a wonderful post about breaking up with NaNo--a must read if your NaNo experience left you feeling less than satisfied.

Today is also the last day to enter the contest to win an ARC of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus. Check the contest out here on Hip Writer Mama's blog.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Vanities...

Phew, copy edits are in the mail. Now I can let the official Thanksgiving festivities begin!

It has also been frustrating to be up to my elbows in deadlines when a hot discussion is swirling around the internet. At last I can weigh in.

Is it just me or do the recent Harlequin Horizons and Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press Vanity press ventures strike anyone else as the publishing equivalent of credit default swaps?

Sure, every business wants to make money, and rightly so. But there is a point when the legitimate desire to find revenue streams crosses over into predatory behavior. Not only is this bad for the parties involved, but over time, it threatens to topple the entire business model and crash economies.

Just like Wall Street, publishers are now wanting to hedge their bets. They want to continue to take only professional, agented, submissions, but with these vanity press ventures, they also want to take out credit default swaps on those they’ve rejected just in case they’ve missed their guess. But sometimes, when we hedge our bets, we remove the impetus needed to make the original enterprise a success.

It is also hugely frustrating to have those who oppose this move called Luddites or be told they are standing in the way of progress. No one has managed to convince me that this step is progress. Exploitation is not progress. Nor is what these companies are doing part of a legitimate publishing model. Publishing involves paying a fee to license intellectual content, enhancing it with editorial input and professional book design, marketing it, and distributing it. With this existing model, the publisher definitely adds value to the original content. In this new scenario, they do not. They act as a print broker, hooking up eager writers with a printing service, a service they could just as easily access on their own—and keep more of their profits to boot.

It also strikes me as the very opposite of a sound economic model. When you are looking to increase the value of something, is it really wise to flood the market? Everything I’ve heard has lamented that there are far too many books published every year already. Does it really make sense to add more? And books that, by and large, were not able to cross the bar of existing standards?

I am so proud of RWA for moving so swiftly and decisively to repudiate HQ's move, and am equally pleased that the other writing organizations (MWA, SFW, and NINC)
have their backs.

If the internet is becoming a more and more critical factor in publisher’s book promotional and marketing strategies, are they not now flooding those same channels with even more choices and distractions? They have basically just polluted their own stream. It’s similar to the current phenomenon of how there are 763 available channels these days, but one can never find anything good to watch on TV. It seems to me that when businesses spend so much of their energy trying to capture market share and cover all the bases and hedge their bets by being involved in too many ventures, they end up diluting the initial spark and value that so many got from their product, and consumers give up.

This coupled with the recurring meme out there that information wants to be free worries me. Not simply because I love being a writer and being paid for what I do, but because it is one more step in a long line of steps of devaluing everything except the bottom line. Those who do the actual work or create the content are diminished or expected to find or create other revenue streams to support their art, while the ability to shuffle paper and come up with ways to charge money for nothing are praised. Personally, I think they need to shuffle paper for free and find other revenue streams to support that enterprise.

Yes, the current publishing model is far from perfect. The inefficiency can be staggering and the distribution expensive. But let’s work on improving the current model instead of blowing everything up. We already did that with Wall Street, and look how well that turned out.

Now lest I get accused of elitism, please understand that at one time my books could not cross that bar either. (And as far as some readers are concerned, may still not cross that bar.) But that’s part of what separates published writers from those that don’t get published—that huge drive and commitment to do what it takes to produce a well-crafted, saleable book. The tools to do that are available to anyone—especially here on the web. You can give yourself a master class in novel writing techniques by a judicious visiting of a number of great, informative sites.

Will it be quick? No. Will it be easy? Hell no. But it is part of what is required to produce work of a certain quality.

Another huge downside to this of legitimizing of vanity presses is that budding authors will shift their focus. Once they have that unsaleable manuscript in book form, they will likely spend all their time flogging a new book that has little chance of furthering their career instead of spending that time improving their craft. Why should they? They already have the carrot! But there is a reason a butterfly has to struggle its way out of its cocoon or a chick has to fight its way out of the egg—there are huge lessons and great skill building in the struggle.

Even, I suspect, for publishers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Winter Blog Blast Tour & ARC Giveaway!

I'm being interviewed over at Hip Writer Mama as part of the WBBT today. And, for those of you eager to get your hands on a ARC of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, we're doing a giveaway in conjunction with the tour. Come on over and enter if you're feeling lucky!

Also, this Sunday I'll be attending the California School Library Conference brunch. I'm very much looking forward to chatting with all those excellent librarians. And rumor has it I'll get to meet the legendary Mitali Perkins! Can't wait!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jump Starting a Novel

Alas, I keep priming the pump but only dribbles are coming out. Time to bring out the big guns. Er, index cards.

I've talked about index cards before, and how I use them to help me see plot holes. They do, however, have other uses. They can also be a terrific tool to help me build or jump start the novel's plot.

Usually when I begin a book I have some key scene ideas and events that I know will need to be in the story. (This is especially true when working on series and sequels.) That in turn, means I usually have a pretty good idea of how many plot threads or sub plots I'll have.

When I'm trying to take this info and massage it into a plot, here's what I do. I take a fresh stack of colored index cards and assign one color for each plot thread. Then I write down all the key scenes that I know will happen in that thread.

Now some of the scenes ideas might be pretty well formed, and others might be unbelievably vague: Theo's first sighting of Chaos in Egypt. But they work as both a place holder in the overall structure of the plot, as well as a jumping off point for brainstorming. How does Theo become aware of Chaos's presence? And then I begin running through possibilities for those.

Some of the scene notations might not just be vague, but also unbelievably mundane and boring--not the least bit dramatic. Theo and Mum visit Antiquities Service to obtain permission to dig.

But once I know that, then I can begin thinking of how to turn that scene into one with dramatic action. How can that scene become a vital part of the plot? How can I add drama? Tension? Is there the opportunity for a reversal of some sort?

So listing what I do know about the scene, however sketchy it might be, shows me where I need to begin to excavate in order to find the right story bones I'll need.

Once I have those, I can begin to assemble those very raw and sketchy bits into some semblance of structure, because the structure of the novel will also help focus my brainstorming.

So my (very raw, very sketchy) first act looks like this:

In my second act, things really start to happen and I have a lot more cards:

So now I have some raw material to work with. I have an idea of the ebb and flow of the scenes and activities that will need to happen, and where those scenes will fall, and I can now try to beat them into submission breathe some life into them.

(And uh, yeah, I am very well aware the yellow cards petered out in act two. I can't decide if there are two plot threads, yellow and blue, or if they are both really the same thread, but I'm not worrying about that at this stage of the game.)

And yes, this is VERY left brained, and NO, I don't do this for every book. Just the ones that are being stubborn and won't come out to play.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Collaging: A Novel Approach

So you all know I like collaging as a way to help bring my story world to life, and I've shared some of the past collages on the blog. This time, however, a regular collage didn't seem to be working for Theo Four. For one thing, collages are big and tend to evoke a story world rather than represent it, and for this Theo book, I needed factual specifics. It takes place in Cairo and Luxor in 1907, both real places and real times, so I am somewhat constrained by, you know, reality. And in order to write about it, I need to see it. But if I paste the old photos I find on a collage board, they become lost or overwhelmed.

Well this weekend, I stumbled upon a fix to this conundrum. I decided that instead of creating a collage board for this Theodosia book, I'd create a travel journal such as Theo herself might have kept to record her trips.

(Sorry about the glare.)

So now I've been cutting and pasting all the old photos I've found in my research into this book, then making notations and observations in Theo's voice next to each picture.

This is doing two things. It's a great way to accumulate all the research visuals I need in one place and in chronological order, and it's allowing me to focus on seeing them through Theo's eyes. It's really helped me "get into the mood" for writing this book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cover Art Extravaganza!

I am the luckiest of authors. If you doubt it, simply feast your eyes on the latest, bee-yoo-ti-ful cover art for my two upcoming books!

Coming in April of 2010, Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, by the amazing Yoko Tanaka.

It is hard to say just how much I love what they've done with this. And in case you missed it, there are TWO preview chapters available over on the Theodosia website.

And coming out in June is Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist: The Basilisk's Lair by the lovely Kelly Murphy!

Really, she did such a terrific job of capturing exactly what a basilisk lair looks like. Does it not seem simply too awesome that one author should get so lucky, TWICE??

In other news, I am finally making some progress on Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh. Angels wept.

Also, if you're looking for some great reading material this week or wanting a shot of inspiration, be sure to tune in to the Winter Blog Blast Tour. They have an amazing line up of authors, including a number of my favorites. Oh, and I'll also be featured, but not until Friday. But really, check out these interviews, they are sure to be full of a wealth of great stuff!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Looking for Arcs in All The Wrong Places

Since this blog is basically a big, fat window into my writing and my process, there is a good chance I will begin to repeat myself since I tend to struggle with similar issues with each book I write. However, the solution to those issues shifts slightly with each book, so hopefully there will be something of use to people in seeing those different solutions.

For example, one of the reasons I’m floundering with Theo Four is that I’m having a hard time pinpointing her internal arc. Frankly, it’s one of the challenges when writing a series with the same MC, giving that person an internal growth arc for each subsequent book. However, I think it is a vital part of the story.

I do have a bunch of internal things she learns. For example, she’s now seeing the world with her rational blinders off (due to what happened in book three) and she is hungry to understand WHO she is, how she got to be the way she is, and she begins to see the human cost of political actions, but I don’t have one cohesive umbrella under which to put all those things, such as there is no place like home, or she learns to accept herself. I wish I did, but I don’t.

So then I decided to rummage around looking for a theme, then see if that could lead me to a possible internal arc. Book Four is about Theo’s full initiation into the Other, her wandering in the desert/going into the woods and learning the answers to the mysteries that only she can provide.

It also occurred to me that this is the realization of all that she longed for in Book One. She’s going to Egypt with her parents and being asked to participate on a dig—to bring her talent to the project. Maybe she’s clinging blindly to that old goal, not realizing that she has outgrown that goal. She’s changed too much over the course of the last few books and she will never be in that simple or innocent place again. So while she’s gotten what she wished for, she herself has moved beyond that now.

Hm. I’m going to just keep plodding along and play with what I’ve got for a while. Maybe I’ll find a way to tie all these elements together under one internal arc umbrella. Heck, it could even be staring me right in the face and I’m just being too obtuse to see it.

Or maybe I’ll just pray that the big final scene at the end ties them all together. ☺

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Theodosia Chapter Up!

I totally forgot to mention here that the second chapter of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus is up over at the Theodosia site.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Out of Nothing…Something

So there is this concept I am really taken with and I've been rolling it around in my mind, exploring the shape and feel and heft of it for a few weeks now. It was something someone said a couple of months ago in a comment on my FB page (I’m thinking it was Shevi, but I might be misremembering—speak up if it was you!) They said something to the effect that unlike the sculptor who starts with a stone they can turn into something, writers must first make the stone, then use it to build their stories. It has resonated with me ever since. Particularly in the last week or so as I try to jump-start this newest book.

I am struck by the clear delineation between the two parts of writing—creating the material for the story, then building that story. And I think that’s where a number of beginning writers stumble. They think that what they’ve created IS the story, and it’s not—it’s the material from which they will create the story.

I also think this is the key to effective revision—being willing to see the first draft(s) as the base material you will be working with to create the actual story, rather than simply polishing a first draft. (Whether you do this scene by scene or draft by draft is less critical than the fact that you are willing to take things apart and look for clues and breadcrumbs in your first drafts rather than feel they are cast in stone.)

Then because life often loves to be sure I really GET the lesson it’s sending me, someone forwarded me a link to a NaNo pep talk Neil Gaiman had given about writing being like building a stone wall, and again I was struck that as writers we need to create the d@mn stones from which to build our walls, not to mention that we have to shape each piece so that it fits in the whole without huge gaps or worse—threatens to tumble at the first big breeze.

Anyway, it helped me realize that a big part of my writing process, my pre-writing process to be exact, is not about outlining or planning so much as it is about creating the material I will need to tell my story. Collaging, research, reading other books, journaling, note-taking—these are all the tools I use to give birth to the rocks I will need to build my story. And yes, that's a wince-inducing metaphor, but honest to gawd, sometimes that's what it feels like. Not always, by any means, but definitely this week.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Highly Suspicious...

When I got home last Saturday, my son had just contracted the Creeping Crud; either a bad chest cold (his vote) or swine flu (our vote). He was sick, but not deathly ill. So guess who started to come down with it yesterday? Yes, yours truly. I cannot believe I managed to fend off every single germ in the Katy Texas School District only to be felled at home.

The highly suspicious part? I started getting sick the day after my Muse went on strike. See, she thought I was rushing the writing part of the new book; she needed a bit more pre-writing and world-building before she was ready to get on with the show. I rushed it, then boom; I start to get sick.

Probably not a coincidence. So we made a deal, my muse and I. I will spend the next four days drinking hot tea, taking naps, popping Vitamin C & zinc lozenges, and reading research books, and she will be sure this doesn't develop into full-blown swinegitis.

There! I feel better already. Never bet against your muse...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Recent Reads

I read a couple of awesome books while I was away. The first was SOULLESS by Gail Carriger. I had seen the cover a few months ago while stumbling through the cyber-maze that is Amazon, and fell head over heels in love with its cover. The book itself did not disappoint; very arch and amusing. I loved the voice. The author took a lot of chances and they all worked for me, so I applaud her willingness to take risks.

I also read STONE HEART by Charlie Fletcher. AMAZING book. Thanks for the recommendation, Lisa B! Loved it a lot. A great middle grade fantasy that would also appeal to slightly older readers. (Becky, I’m thinking of your son—has he read this yet?) Talk about turning setting into a character—quite literally. And as if having a brilliant fantasy going wasn’t enough, he totally nailed his character, I thought. The opening sequence of the book was such a dead on capturing of a 12 yo boy’s social hell. Brilliant. I bought book two, IRON HAND, at Chaucer’s yesterday.

On a side note, if you ever want to REALLY explore a book store, go to a well stocked independent with a brilliant school librarian (Yes Lisa, I’m talking about you.)

I also finally got around to reading the second Percy Jackson book, THE SEA MONSTERS. Another rousing good read.

I also started a history, THE YOUNGEST TEMPLAR, which I am enjoying quite a lot. Some day I will get around to updating my reading list over in the sidebar.

Next up, LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld.

What about you guys--do you have any must reads to share?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

I'm Baa-aack! (Finally!)

So I am well and truly back. It was the trip of a lifetime and an overwhelming positive experience.

I gave myself all of Sunday and Monday to recover, then jumped in with both feet. First up, getting started on Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh.

I had planned to do NaNo this month, thinking that with starting a new book and desperately needing to pound out a first daft, the timing would be perfect.

Sadly, it is not. I still have too much world building to do, especially since this book takes place in Egypt. I had thought I could just start NaNo late, but the pressure of it is weighing on me so much that I find I am rushing to spit out words before they’re truly ready.

Trying to do a fast first draft when the story hasn’t gelled yet is akin to trying to build a wall with un-cured bricks—the end result will need to be torn down and require massive amounts of rebuilding.

Not sure if this is a sign that my entire process is changing or if it is just the way this particular book needs to be brought into the world. Either way, I need a more thoughtful, measured, slow-but-steady draft this time around.

I am not despairing. The story IS coming. When I sat down to begin journaling some ideas on where to start the story and what the first scene might look like, lo and behold, out popped a first scene! Thank you, dear Girls in the Basement. Have I mentioned lately how much I adore you?

I also returned home to the Spring 2010 Houghton Mifflin catalog with both Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus and Nathaniel Fludd: The Basilisk’s Lair nestled in its pages. And as if that weren’t enough riches, there was also a pile of Eyes of Horus ARCs waiting for me! How cool is that? I have no idea what to do with them ::drumming fingers and looking up at the ceiling:: but I’m sure I’ll think of something. ☺

My top focus/priority for the next four months is this fourth Theo book. In an effort to stay on task, I’m going to be adjusting my online routine a bit, as in I probably won’t get online until I get a decent amount of work done each day. So look for me by moonlight…no, no. That’s The Highwayman. What I meant to say was, look for me sometime after noon…

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Does An Aviatrix Have In Common With Writers?

Sunday night I went to see Amelia, the movie about the famous aviatrix (I love that word—don’t get to use it enough, in my opinion) and I was surprised by a few things—things that had an awful lot of similarities to the current predicament many writers find themselves in these days—that delicate balance between promoting and fulfilling their artistic dreams.

For one thing, I hadn’t realized Amelia was married to George P. Putnam, yes THAT Putnam, of Putnam Publishing fame. Furthermore, this icon of Good Old Fashioned, Respectable Publishing was widely hailed as an aggressive promoter. In fact, he first approached Earhart because he knew her presence on a cross Atlantic flight would increase the attention the event received and create a bonanza of publicity, which would in turn support and promote the book she had yet to write!

Sound familiar? Of course it does, it is hugely similar to publishers today looking for a platform for their authors. They were putting the cart before the horse, even back then. Not only that, but he promoted the heck out of Earhart. He had her hawking cigarettes and waffle irons, a line of clothing and luggage. When she gently complained, he reminded her it was the only way to finance her flying. Planes and fuel were expensive.

Wow. That sounds JUST like what we writers of today wrestle with all the time. Only it turns out, it isn’t a new phenomenon at all. It’s been around for quite a while and in quite a wide variety of fields.

And THAT in turn, gave me a lot of comfort. This new cry of Grab A Platform, Any Platform is not a new, sweeping revamping of Publishing As We Know It; it is an age-old technique that some people use successfully. However, even though it has been going on since Earhart’s day (and probably long before that) it has not completely subsumed the other business model of publishing—finding a great book and creating a platform around that.

Anyway, I was truly struck by how Amelia’s balancing act mirrored what writers struggle with today. Just thought I’d share.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Overwhelmed-ville, Texas

Or maybe exhausted is a better word. Either way, I don't even know where to begin. The school visits are going swell, especially the speaking part (great sigh of relief heard ‘round the world). But that fourth one each day is a REAL push. I am pretty physically exhausted by 4:00. I drag my limp body and empty mind back to the hotel room and fall on the bed and nap for an hour. Or maybe I’m comatose—I can’t be certain.

But other than the stamina factor, I am LOVing Texas! The schools here in Katy are aMaZinG! I have serious school envy! And the school libraries! Oh my. I begin drooling every time I see one. Each of these school libraries is bigger than the library in my town. Clearly school libraries are a HUGE priority in Texas. (California—are you paying attention??)

The teachers here in Texas are pretty amazing as well. I am hugely impressed by these fun, loving, warm, firm women. I would have loved to have any one of them as a teacher when I was in grade school. I would have felt very cared for and safe, both physically and emotionally.

Also, I have to say, the Texans' idea of a small town has me laughing. It takes an hour to drive from one end of town to the other, and Katy is a “small” town. Texas-size, that is.

Have gotten exactly zero words written, so it’s a good thing I didn’t set that as a goal for myself. And tomorrow I’m off to visit Blue Willow bookstore, a legendary indie bookstore here in Texas.

Mostly just wanted you all to know I was still alive and kickin’. Well okay, drumming my heels anyway; I’m way too tired to actually kick.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Future of Publishing and Books

We talked about this at an event I attended last weekend, and I thought I would share my thoughts on it here...

There has been a lot of chatter lately about the changing face of books as well as how books in general will fare against the new media. And while I’m all for better living through technology (Roomba, anyone?) I can’t help but be somewhat cautious. Not because I am a Luddite or a technophobe or even just set in my ways. No, what concerns me is the issue of access.

Books are, and have always been, a path to power. Books are the great democratic equalizer of our society. The reading experience is universal. A rich kid reads in pretty much the same way a poor kid does.

Books are also cheap. For seven bucks, hours of enjoyment can be had, then re-read, then passed on to friends or family. But even with books being this cheap and reusable, there are a shocking number of kids in this country who have never owned a book, or who own very few. The question I keep asking myself is how does digital publishing serve them?

And the answer I come up with is that it doesn’t. Add a $300 or $200 or even a $100 reading device into the equation is only going to erect yet another barrier between them and reading. And not only them. There are a huge number of families across America who simply do not have the money to purchase e-readers for all their kids.

Not to mention there is now yet one more divide between the rich and the poor, one more way in which less advantaged kids will be forced to do something in a less cool way than their rich counterparts.

Even worse, what if paper books become to expensive to produce with the primary revenue stream being e-books? Will only old books be available for less advantaged kids? What will happen to those readers then? How much farther behind will they fall? How much more onerous will reading become for them, forced to do it in such an old fashioned manner?

The printing press was a radical invention of its time and caused an enormous amount of upheaval. Suddenly the masses had access to the same information and ideas that only an elite class had had access to before. Wouldn’t it be a shame if our next big advance in book technology was a step backward in terms of access?

One of the cornerstone’s of public education is that it is open and accessible to all, regardless of circumstance. Poorer kids already at a huge disadvantage, even with this highly democratic and accessible system. How will ebooks and expensive digital readers help that? There will simply be more barriers between them and information; between them and the power of stories.

I worry that in the rush for the latest greatest technology or most profitable business model, we are forgetting the role good old-fashioned books play in our society.

As we writers and publishers and educators look to the future, we need to be careful not to leave behind those who are counting on us the most.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pick A Color, Any Color

A couple of months ago someone had asked in the comments to explain how I use color pens. Since I was taking a bunch of pictures for my upcoming school visit presentations, I snapped a few of my color pen graphs.

My primary use of colored pens is to help keep clear different characters or plot line.

This picture is a chart I made for Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus. I divided it up into days, then made a tiny list of what was happening with each character or plot thread on each of those days.

Also, when I'm trying to be sure that I've created enough steps/actions/lessons in any given characters arc, I'll list the major beats down on a piece of graph paper and use a different colored pen for each character. I'm not even sure I can explain how this helps me keep things compartmentalized--it must have something to do with how I absorb information visually--because the different colors really help me.

The the third most common way I use colored pens is when I am writing a hugely complex, mind boggling, confusing action scene that has to be orchestrated with lots of beats and characters. It's kind of like I sketch the scene out with little colored text blocks, like so:

Also, I forgot to mention the lovely PJ Hoover interviewed me over on The Enchanted Inkpot today.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Monday Randomness

I so appreciated Dave's reminder in the comments that I really don't have to blog every day. The thing is, I really enjoy blogging and miss it when I can't fit it in. Plus, I have an over-developed sense of guilt and responsibility which kicks in when I miss a day.

However, in the interest of maintaining some semblance of sanity, I am going to cut back on blogging for the rest of the month. I leave Saturday for my big Texas school visit, and between getting ready for that, then of course actually doing the visits, my time (and energy!) will be greatly reduced. So yeah, you'll probably be hearing a little less from me in October. :-)

~In the interest of saving my right shoulder, I am trying to acquire mousing skills with my left hand. Interesting, to say the least. Lots of fits and starts. Practice, grasshopper.

~In other exciting news, I got a netbook!! I'm so excited! I dragged my feet on this for the longest time, trying to convince myself to lug my husbands 15 lb laptop to Texas with me, then just gave up. It is so cute and efficient! I spent all of yesterday playing with it (it's a Samsung) and loading it up with software. I envision and long and happy life together. (Thanks, Katy for answering all my questions, and thanks Dave, for all the technnical information you shared a couple of months back.)

~And lastly, but most defnitely not least, let's all take a moment and wish Miss P.J. Hoover a happy launch day as she releases The Navel Of The World (Book Two of the Forgotten World series) into the, er, world! (There's even a contest to win a copy!)

Congratulations, PJ!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Scooting In Under The Wire

Sorry I didn't get anything posted today. I'm working like a madwoman trying to get ready for my two week long visit to Katy, Texas, where I will be visiting twenty schools in ten days. :-) Yeah. Making packing lists, fine tuning the presentation, practicing, and trying to tie up any household loose ends that might crop up while I'm gone.

I suppose this is a good time to remind anyone in the Houston area that I will be at Barnes and Noble in The Woodlands on October 18 at 2:00.

Also, for those of you who don't follow the Theodosia blog, I've posted the first chapter excerpt (the first of six, one a month until the publication date). If you're dying for your next fix of Theo, pop on over there and check it out!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Story Eggs

Someone asked me to explain what cracking the story egg means.

For me, each story feels as if it already exists and my job is to discover it and then unearth it, not unlike an archaeologist. But I have also found that each story has its own key for being discovered. For some it might be an particular insight to the main character that cracks the whole thing wide open so that I suddenly see the story. Sometimes it’s tied to the antagonist—that is who is key to understanding the story and “cracking” it open. For Theo Four, it was simply remembering to see the world through her eyes. For the first Beastologist, it was the gremlin Greasle who cracked things wide open for me.

When the story spring to life and begins to spark, then the story egg has been cracked.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Great Book Alert: Monster Blood Tatto by D. M. Cornish

I’m reading D. M. Cornish’s FOUNDLING: Monster Blood Tattoo 2. If you haven’t read the first book, I highly recommend it as terrific, original fantasy akin to another one of my favorites, SABRIEL, in terms of uniqueness and just how much I loved it. (Hm. Both are Australian authors . . .)

The second book is equally good. One of the things this book did for me as a writer is remind me how much I adore detailed world building, how passionately I respond to that as a reader, which in turn reminded me that is one of my passions as a writer, which in turn tilted how I was viewing the writing of Theo Four on it’s head and helped me crack that story egg.

Which is why I think all writers are readers first, and there is no better teacher of craft than excellent writers we love to read.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Couple More Thoughts On Setting

I often think of working on a book’s setting as being similar to an artist prepping a canvas; laying down the foundation that will support and enhance all the future layers to come. Some canvases are prepped with layers and layers of white, trying to create as clean and blemish free foundation as possible. Other canvases are prepped with layers of gesso, building upon each other to create texture and depth that will in turn contribute significantly to the finished texture of the painting.

Setting is the same way. Setting informs character. The type of world we live in, the neighborhoods we haunt, the homes that shelter us all shape us in different ways.

Nearly all cultures and societies are influenced by geography—their creation myths, belief systems, pantheons cultural taboos, their diet, their sources of wealth, all are shaped by their geography.

People too. Even siblings. I’m constantly amazed at the wild differences between siblings. I remember reading somewhere that part of this is because each child is born into a “different” family. The first child is born into an adults only family, the second child is born into a family with another child in which the focus has already shifted from couple to family. And that’s not even taking into consideration the hard-wired personality factors involved.

And even if none of that makes it on the page in an overt way, it will color everything about our characters. Our main characters see the world differently than anybody else. No one has seen Egypt in quite the same way as Theo sees it. That is where the depth and texture, drama and tension will come from.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Painting Oneself Into a Corner

Sometimes, as writers, we paint ourselves into a bit of a corner. I found myself in that position while jotting down notes for Theo Four. As I began my research for the setting—Old Cairo and Luxor—I felt a lot like a bored tourist as I tried to wrap my mind around the layout of the cities (in 1907, no less) and the various societal elements at play. I was uninspired. Nothing was getting my blood running, and I really need that to happen. If it feels boring and flat for me, it most certainly will for the reader.

However, due to the events I had put in play in Book Three, Theo HAS to go to Egypt for this book. But the setting just wasn’t working for me, it wasn’t feeding the story in the way setting needs to. So I’m panicking, stuck in Egypt with no way out, but not loving being there. That’s the corner I’d painted myself into.

A bit of a disaster, really.

So I picked up my pen and notebook and began journaling on the setting. In doing so, I became aware of a couple of things. One, I needed to give myself permission to build my world of 1907 Egypt in a way that served my story rather than historical accuracy. Every writer who writes a story that takes place in New York writes about a slightly different New York—one created or interpreted for their fictional needs. I needed to remember that.

Secondly, and more importantly, I needed to remember to see Egypt through Theo’s eyes—not a dusty 1907 British traveler, but Theo herself. What filters does she have in place as she travels through Egypt?

Well, for one, she’s looking for signs of the Serpents of Chaos everywhere. She is also almost painfully aware of the hum and throb of all the magic in the air, emanating off artifacts large and small. She is also nearly beside herself with excitement at being back in Egypt on a real live dig with her parents. Which is overshadowed by the promise she’s made to someone and the reason she finagled herself along on her trip.

Boom. Remembering that, putting those filters on as I tried to establish the setting for the book, totally made everything come alive again. Ho hum buildings and dusty streets teemed with lurking shadows and haunting magic (and yeah, Theo’s a little melodramatic...) Everyone Theo saw held the possibility of being a Serpent of Chaos, a Chosen Keeper, or an Eye of Horus. (No, you won’t find out what that is until Book Three.) Truly, it was like looking through a pair of binoculars and twisting that little thingey in the middle so that everything came into sharp focus. Very happy moment.

And then, finally, the thing I always wait for began to happen. Bits and snippets of the “movie” of the book began playing in my head and ideas began forming. It became clear to me that I need to spend the majority of the next two weeks building the “set” of this book. Creating the inherent conflicts that the streets of Cairo and Luxor, the nearby temples, the parents’ dig, the various antiquities and consul offices will provide. And I need to all of that with Theo’s filters firmly in place.

Sometimes I think that nearly every problem we run into in writing can be solved through character—we just have to dig deep enough.

Friday, October 02, 2009

When The Muse Won't Come Out To Play

One of the things I miss most about being an unpublished writer is that I could pretty much dance when my muse said to, and sit on the sidelines when she remained silent. I know there are many, many people out there who disdain that, but my muse is pretty active so it was rare for me to not write for more than a couple of days, and I always found that this little mini-break from the story served me well by giving my subconscious time to figure stuff out. In fact, this works so well for me that even still I tend to think in terms of weekly output and set weekly page goals rather than daily.

But now that I'm published, I have, you know, deadlines, and professional expectations I need to meet. Which means that even though story A may be screaming at me, agents and editors might have other plans or publishing needs for story B . Which is very, very thrilling, don't get me wrong, but since my muse is totally right brained, she doesn't see it this way. Very spoiled and demanding, is my muse. I found out just how much so when on a walk this morning I happened to listen to a song on my dark medieval YA's playlist. Oh my god. My muse immediately got all aroused and began pining for this project in the worst way. I imagine it was how Juliet felt about Romeo. Very distracting.

Only problem is, I canNOT work on that right now. Between the presentation for my upcoming two week stint of school visits in Texas and the impending deadline for Theodosia Four, I simply have other projects.

However, I also apparently drained my battery way below critical levels, because I am still not being able to jump start things like I normally can. In fact, I had to laugh yesterday when I got my Daily OM, which said:

Your energy may be low from working too much, and this could leave you feeling tired today. Perhaps you feel that without you your work would not get done, and as a result you have pushed yourself to your physical limits.

I tend to think of exhaustion as a physical thing, so I forget that we can do this mentally and creatively, as well. I also wonder if that's why my wrists gave out. Our bodies are very good at sending us messages, which we then ignore at our own peril.

So I am going to do something a little daring and scary for me: I'm going to give myself permission to not write for the next four weeks (two of which will be an insanely busy school visit trip, so I'm only loosing two weeks working time, but still.) Yep, even though I have a deadline in five months. I'm going to trust my muse here, and listen to her. An old boss of mine used to have a saying about needing to "dance with the one that brought you." Well, my muse has gotten me where I am today, so I need to remember to trust her. So for the next month I am simply going to journal any ideas that occur to me for Theo 4, putter with an outline, do some research every day, and work on my school presentations.

Then I'm going to hope my muse will become so restless from all that down time, that come Nov. 1 she will come out with both barrels blazing. (Am I the only one having fun with the mental picture that brings? A filmy, airy muse sporting two pistols?)

The other thing is that I will be coming off a two week immersion in kids, something that is always energizing, uplifting, and full of revelations. (Okay, and exhausting when done in huge quantities.)

I might even consider signing up for NaNoWriMo, just for the absolute focus it brings. We'll see.

Warning: Do not try this at home unless your muse is a proven producer and has demonstrated a high level of dedication in the past. :-)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Some Thoughts On Writing - From a Picture Book Editor

I was going through some old notebooks yesterday (whenever I finish up a project I go on a massive de-cluttering frenzy) and I stumbled across these notes from an SCBWI Writer's Day I attended a couple of years ago. And while I don't write picture books, I was struck by the wonderful advice this picture book editor, Mary Lee Donovan of Candlewick, had to give. Not to menion that Candlewick is a publisher I’ve always admired.

Ms. Donovan gave the attendees a checklist of things they should look for in their picture book manuscript when trying to decide if it was “ready.” But as she listed out her points, I realized that they really applied to all writing, so I’ve substituted “reader” where she used the word “child.”

Does the book:

Relate to a reader’s experience
Will they care?
Is the book written for the reader or the author?
Is the why of the story—the purpose—clear?
Is the conflict clear?
Does it include credible, authentic characterizations?
Does it feature a balanced, complete world?
Does it use delicious language?
How fresh and original is it?
How well is the story told?
Does it throw out a welcome mat and invite you in (I just love that one!)
Next, does it slam the door behind you, locking you in?
Does the opening text set the rhythm and tone for what follows?
Does it illustrate personality with evocative words?
Does it use dialog to move the story along?
Does the dialog deliver information about the characters?
Does it nourish and satisfy with a sense of completion?

So there you have it. Just a few more goals to reach for in your writing on this Thursday morning!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Turning the Page

I spent yesterday afternoon disassembling all my Beastologist materials; putting all my notes and manuscript versions into files, putting the research books back on the shelves, filing away the manuscript journals and the Beastologist Series Bible in the cupboard until it’s time for Book Four. Not only do I desperately need the desk and table space for the next project, but I find this little ritual of packing up all the physical manifestations of the creative process really helpful. It is a way to bring a clean, bracing whoosh of fresh air to clear away all the remaining bits of the old story that might still cling to the recesses of my brain. I’m telling myself that I won’t even have to think of the Beastologist books for another five months. (Yet another good example of what prevaricators we writers are because I KNOW I’ll see both the copy edits and galleys before then, but I’m wanting to pretend I have an absolutely clean slate.)

Not only do I have to clean up the last remaining traces of Beastologist, but I need to simply CLEAN. Vacuum up all the cat hair and foxtails off the carpet, clean the bathroom, mop the floor, scrub and bleach the kitchen sink--just generally live in THIS world a bit before I dive back into the next imaginary one.

I’m toying with a couple of different approaches to the writing of this next book, as well as trying to step back and letting myself consider doing some radically different things with the story in Book Four. Okay, not radical probably, but reminding myself that series does not equal formula or template. I want to approach each book a little differently, give each one slightly different emphasis, and not become stale or predictable. Which is a challenge when you also have readers’ expectations to deal with. What I want to do is exceed reader expectations, but in an unexpected yet hugely satisfying way.

I don’t want much, do I?

Serpents of Chaos I wrote mostly to entertain myself and reconnect with the sheer fun of writing. When I first started it, it was really and truly a “just for me” book. One that I didn’t really intend to show anyone else—after all, it was so different from all my previous stuff. It was my own private sandbox that no one else could play in. I could be as greedy and self-indulgent as I liked. As I think I’ve mentioned before, imagine my surprise when my agent ended up liking it best of all my stuff. Important lesson in there.

In Staff of Osiris I wanted to do a couple of things differently. I wanted sustained and steady pacing throughout, and I wanted to weave a complex, multi-faceted plot that all came together in the end. I think I accomplished that.

For Eyes of Horus, now that I’d established the community and parameters of Theo’s world, I wanted to delve deeper into each of the characters and flesh them out more, allow the reader to get to know them better. I also wanted to flip a couple of assumptions on their head.

And now it’s time for the fourth book and I haven’t quite decided what my next evolutionary step is. I know I’ll be having fewer plot layers in this book, since many of the players won’t be making the trip to Egypt. But I also want some narrative element to keep it all fresh—I just haven’t decided what yet.

As for the actual writing of it, I’m torn between two approaches. I want to either put together a long, solid outline of about twenty five page and then write from that. OR I want to do the preliminary research and brainstorming and just jump in like I did when I started writing the first Theodosia. Not sure which one I’ll try yet—I’m waiting for a signal or input from my muse. This is also complicated by my upcoming two week long school visit that I’ll be doing at the end of October. So for the next three weeks, I’m allowing myself to fill the well, stir the creative stew, throw in anything I can get my hands on, and let it gestate.

I’m also toying with trying to put together a book trailer for Nathaniel Fludd. I know there is no consensus as to whether or not they actually sell books, but they are definitely fun and give one something to talk about. It also seems a shame not to showcase all the terrific artwork in the book. Plus, I like to keep my technical skills current. I have iMovie and wouldn’t mind learning how to use it. It could also end up being a major time and energy sink though. Must think about that some more.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Monday!

It is finally foggy here, so color me happy!

Plus I'm about to get the Beastologist II galleys off my desk this morning, yet another reason to be happy.

And as if all that weren't enough, today is Nathaniel Fludd's official launch day! Go Nate! My co-Violet, Mary Hershey, did a fun launch post over at Shrinking Violet. There may even be a chance to win a copy of Nathaniel.

Lastly, I completely forgot to mention that I did an interview last Friday over on Dee Garretson's blog, complete with another chance to win a copy of Nathaniel Fludd!

Also, if you are looking to acquire a copy of Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, I am having a contest over on the Theodosia blog.

Phew. Now back to those galleys...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Getting Started Part II

The other thing that happens once I line out what has to take place in the book is that I am able to pinpoint what exactly I need to research. Note, I try to pinpoint my research to what I will specifically need for the book or else I could get lost in months of pure research, and that way lies total procrastination.

So my research list for this book looks something like this:

Antiquities Service in 1907 Cairo and Luxor
Means of traveling to Luxor
What household arrangements British archaeologists had in Luxor
Logistics of working on dig
Specifics of parents discovery
Luxor itself in 1907
Egyptian Nationalist movement in 1907
And then five or six elements that are far too spoilerish to mention here.

But the thing is, I know, KNOW, that as I research the list, new plot points and actions and events will become clear to me. That's why I love research--it is like the vein of ore from which I mine my stories and plots. There are always answers in research, and new intriguing questions, and things that are just so cool, I will simply have to include them.

And speaking of research, I stumbled on this site by the Art Institute of Chicago, which is a great resource for historical interiors. They have rooms from the 1500s up through the early 1800s.

Getting Started

Even though this is my twelfth book (not counting all the practice ones still hiding under my bed) getting started can be daunting. I look at all those 300 blank pages looming in front of me and think: can I really make something out of nothing? Again?

Of course, the answer is always yes (so far!) but that doesn’t diminish the sheer overwhelmingness of the task sometimes. Especially as part of me is still wanting to hang out in medieval France with my dark YA heroine. But duty calls. And this is where “love what you write” is so important, because if I didn’t adore Theo and her world so much, this switch would be excruciatingly painful.

So what do I do when I’m stuck staring at a blank page (or 300 of them) and need to get moving?

The first thing I do is write down what I DO know about the story. All the characters, plot layers, locations, events, and actions that I know will have to be in there.

Some of them will be there because I’m picking up threads from previous books. Others I know because they are inherent in the concept itself. Then others can be extrapolated from that.

This will be tricky without spoilers, but I will try to show you what I mean.

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh
(An aside: I am amazed at how I manage to misspell pharaoh every. single. time. Medieval, too. Which is astonishing when you think about how often I use them.)

What I know has to happen in the story:

Theo et al have to get to Egypt
Arrive in Cairo
Meet with Antiquity Services officials (simply b/c Theo’s parents are returning to their dig)
Illustrate burgeoning nationalist movement (because that is the backdrop the plot plays out against.)
Travel to Luxor
Set up household there; living arrangement? Servants?
Meet Luxor Antiquity Service personnel
Theo meets XXXXXXXXX
Parents begin their work in Valley of King
What does Theo do during that time?
At some point in here, she will need to see that Chaos has a presence in the area. (Did she and Wigmere have planned for this?)
Theo orchestrates her clandestine trip to XXXXX to XXXXXX – complications ensue.
Brainstorm complications
Theo is introduced to the concept of the Last Pharaoh
Theo plans trip to return XXXXXXX to the hands of XXXXXXX – her plans either go awry or are thwarted.

This last entry was Theo’s original goal in this book-to accomplish this. So now she’s finally worked her way to being able to accomplish this, and it has to explode in her face. This will come at about the midpoint of the book.

I know it’s a little tricky with all those Xs to avoid spoilers, but you can see how sometimes just taking stock of what you do know highlights what has to happen in the story either to connect the actions and events or for them to make sense.

Also, looking at the sheer mundane-ness of some of that stuff, setting up a household for example, it becomes clear that whatever does happen, has to have some drama to it.

And now I'm off--beginning a new adventure with Theo and seeing all the possibilities on paper like this gets my blood humming. To work!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Perils of Pushing Too Hard

One of the things that is keeping this whole carpel tunnel thing from being too frustrating is the fact that I have also managed to burn myself out. I had a bunch of personal and professional deadlines that hit all at once and lord; I am still flat lined from that.

So it’s a good thing that this week all I’m really doing is working on finalizing a revision for Beastologist 3 and proofing the galleys for Beastologist 2. I’m giving myself permission to be burnt out until Friday, and then—ready or not—I will dive back into my projects. (This is the discipline part of being a working writer.)

And since this blog is a total reflection of what I’m absorbed with in my writing life, it will return to it’s more craft/writing related format then.

Another post-burnout activity I’m working on is hunting and gathering the research materials I’ll need for Theo 4. While Theo visited Egypt before, it was a very quick trip with a very narrow focus. This time, the whole book will take place there, so there is a lot more research.

When I manage to work myself to a nub and run my well dry, one of my favorite resuscitation techniques is reading. It’s also when I’m most likely able to lose myself in a book, because my own projects aren’t calling to me at all, let alone loudly.

I read a pretty amazing book this weekend—WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. It seems like a quiet book, but the author does a fabulous job of creating this underlying urgent thread that imbues the narrative with this terrific tension. Of course, the problem with that is always whether or not the pay off will live up to the build up, but in this case it absolutely did. I am not ashamed to say I cried—in a wholly satisfied way. Loved that book. Go find it, read it, then donate it to your local library.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Don't have much of a blog entry today because I managed to give myself carpel tunnel syndrome. Blearg. It happened when I was redoing my entire YA mss into present tense and was typing/writing about 4,000 words/day in addition to blogging and whatnot. Who knew my brain spit out content at just the right speed so that I wouldn't injure my wrists? But all that went flying out the window when I was typing so much so fast. That'll teach me.

So part of my coping strategy is to pace myself. And since I will be blogging later in the day over at Shrinking Violets, I am just doing a quick fly by here. I'm thinking one blog entry a day is plenty. At least until my wrists get happy again.

Hope you all had a great weekend!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rerun: Can Writing Be Taught

I think I may be suffering from just the teensiest bit of burn out, so today I'm going to post a rerun from the archives and wish you all a great weekend and with LOTS of writing time tucked in there somewhere!

Can Writing Be Taught

I recently attended a conference where a number of the faculty was wont to proclaim that writing couldn’t be taught.

Which made me want to stop and ask them what, then, were they doing there, not teaching us?

Frankly, I think that is poppycock. Good craft can absolutely be taught. I know because I’ve had some amazing teachers who’ve managed to drum craft concepts into my rather thick head.

While writing is an art form, it is also a craft. In fact, this is true of most creative endeavors. Most people have to labor lovingly at their craft for years and years before producing art. The key word being “lovingly” because the truth is, when done lovingly, it doesn’t much feel like labor at all.

Once craft has been mastered, it’s a matter of tweaking and experimenting to find which type of stories coaxes your voice to life on the page. Which magical combination of plot and character, setting and theme will make your craft spark and turn into art.

Can someone teach you how to jump start that sparking to life on the page? No. However, they can teach you the differences in point of view, what you gain and lose by choosing each one, what the restrictions and benefits of each choice is. They can show you different ways to plot, from highly structured plots to organic plots and how to build those from the deepest level of your character. You also be taught how to analyze your language use, look for your own rhythm, pace and flow, how to use metaphor and simile to best advantage, techniques for showing rather than telling.

In short all the tools you need to write can be taught. Just as grammar and spelling and punctuation were taught to you in elementary school.

And many, many writers started off with no spark of inherent talent. But by learning and practicing their craft, they planted a little seed, from which their talent later grew.

But as with all truly important things, you are the one that has to do the heavy lifting. Yes, others can teach you the craft and how to discipline yourself and the inner workings of publishing, but you’re the one who has to plant your butt in the chair regularly and practice, take that emotional leap and put yourself, your ideas, your fears, and your hopes for humanity on the page.

So while writing can be taught, the passion and persistence you need to pursue that dream cannot. You have to find that on your own.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Odds and Ends

First of all, the bRiLLiaNt illustrator, Kelly Murphy, has posted a sneak preview of the second Nathaniel Fludd cover. Love it! Check it out here. Poor Nate is about to enter The Basilisk's Lair...

Also, found THE best research resource EVER. Well, okay. Maybe just the best research resource for Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh. Rice University has a Travelers in the Middle East electronic archive that is chock full of late 19th century travel accounts, guidebooks, and photographs. I love the internet.

Also, for anyone in the Los Angeles area, I will be speaking on a panel at a meeting of the Greater Los Angeles Writer's Society this Saturday. It's free, so if you're in the area, think about stopping by! I'm very excited because I'll be speaking with some of my favorite authors, Mary Hershey, Val Hobbs, and Lee Wardlaw.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quirks and Foibles

It seems to me that the best writers, the ones whose books really stay with me, are connoisseurs of human nature. Being proficient at craft, or excelling at it, is good, but not enough, nor is a crackerjack plot. I relish learning things about the human condition and people.

I also think this is part and parcel of what propels some people to become writers—this desire to wrestle with and better understand the human condition. Do writers become observers of people so they have material? Or, do acute observers of people become writers so they have something to do with all that knowledge they’ve accumulated? Chicken? Egg? For most writers I know, this people watching begins at the earliest of ages.

I’ve also decided that people fall into two groups; those who like and are attracted to perfection, and those who are charmed by and attracted to quirks and foibles. I am willing to bet that a majority of writers fall into that latter category.

The thing about perfection is that it is often boring in its beauty, there is nothing innately interesting or human about it, no place for me in its vista. And I say this as a rank perfectionist—if I am not perfect, I have failed, so as a goal, perfection holds huge appeal for me. And yet, what I love most about people is their quirks and foibles. Their personal behavioral tics and oddities.

~The thirty five year old muscle bound guy who still has a baby animal calendar.
~The precision machinist who can’t get the sugar in the sugar bowl or the coffee grounds in the filter, but can execute the most precise of measurements on a metal lathe.
~The sleek, sexy brand spanking new black dodge charger being driven by an eighty year old lady.
~The woman who feels called to the priesthood, but also has an unholy obsession with Jimmy Choos.
~The guy who drives a gorgeous Porsche, but can’t stand driving in traffic so he rarely gets it out.
~The laid back surfer girl who cannot be in the same room with a change jar without sorting the coins into neat little stacks.

Quirks can also be physical—the kid whose ears turn bright red when he gets embarrassed, the stunning woman who bites her lip or nails, the kid whose twirled his hair so often he has a bald spot…

Quirks and foibles are often a chink in our armor, an indicator at how hard won our mastery of some skill or behavior really is. They are a physical manifestation of our deepest level conflicts.

Take a look at the people around you. What is it that most endears them to you? I’m betting it’s not their straight A report card or excellent punctuality record. No, I’m betting it’s that little something that only they do, it might even be a tad odd or strange…The thing is, a lot of this behavior can cross over into the highly annoying, it’s a matter of degree really.

But I wonder if we use that enough in our writing?

What quirks and foibles do your characters have? Not just pasted on to simply be funny or clever, but one’s you can trace back to their development as a person?