Tuesday, September 29, 2009
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
Monday, September 14, 2009
Now, where were we? Ah yes. Dave brought up the fuzzy line between the parameters of YA and Middle Grade, especially where longer works of fantasy were involved, pointing out that many of these longer books had complex plots and darker themes than was typically considered MG, so why aren’t they YA?
The truth is, a lot of fantasy falls into this older middle grade category. It can end up in that older category by virtue of length, themes, issues, or the narrative structure/format. And even with all of those being more sophisticated, it still doesn’t quite achieve YA. Why is that?
Kids mature at all different levels, some 11 year olds dying to begin wearing makeup and practice their booty shakes in the mirror, while some 13 year olds are clinging grimly to childhood with both hands. So there is a rather huge gray area that could go either way. But there are a few clues to look for.
One key indicator is the age of the protagonist. It is rare that teens will read books about kids younger than themselves. But even more, I think, at its core, it’s the nature of the issues the protagonist is grappling with. If the protagonist is still moving through their world as a kid, then it falls into an older middle grade category. If the protagonist is struggling with the issues of coming into their adulthood or some darker issues that simply aren’t appropriate for most 8-12 year olds, then it will probably be a YA.
Another factor is that fantasy worlds tend to be more complex than our world, and in a good fantasy, that world intersects intimately with the plot—meaning it cannot be separated out. So most of that world building will need to be there. And when you’ve created an intricate, detailed world for a book, it’s a richer reading experience if the plot connects with several layers of that world. Mythical or magical races, elaborate magical systems, Other societal structures and customs—all of those tend to require a bigger story in order to fully flesh out those elements.
So on one level, that older middle grade designation indicates more sophisticated story telling techniques and structures. A more complex, multi-layered reading experience for those kids who have the skills.
But is also encompasses slightly darker themes as well. Older middle grade can have a lot of things that YA has; violence, horror, complex interpersonal relationships, problems or issues. What it pretty much never has is anything of a sexual nature, except perhaps a very chaste first kiss—but a lust-less one. It can touch on the changes of puberty an 11 or 12 yo might be experiencing, but not the repercussions of those changes—lust, sex, etc. Once you get into those areas, you’re in YA territory.
Another area that I think is saved solely for YA are the deeply damaged, dark psyche issues. Cutting, anorexia, self destructive behaviors, child abuse, etc., are most often dealt with in YA. There will always be exception to every guideline out there, but in general, this seems to be the case.
There is a lot of crossover, however, because not all 12, 13, , and even 14 year olds want to read books that deal with YA-centric issues. They might just want a rich, complex story that doesn’t touch on “coming of age” issues.
The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney that Dave mentions is a great example. It doesn’t deal with any of the issues that immediately cast it as YA. However, it is a scary, dark story, not one that the average 8 or 9 year old reader would be ready for, and one that any number of 13 year olds (or adults!) might enjoy. (Scariest witch EVER!)
Fly by Night, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything too scary (if memory serves) but the world of the story is fairly complex socially and politically, and the reader needs to be old enough to understand those concepts.
And then you have The Graveyard Book, which is very clearly a MG by virtue of the story and the length, and yets open with a serial killer and explodes every preconception we have. :-)
I think Theodosia is pretty firmly older middle grade and doesn’t really have anything that would put her in a YA category, other than length. If she were crushing on Sticky Will, or antsy for her first ball or wondering when she was going to have her coming out or debut, she would be young YA. Or Tween, maybe. I also broke a cardinal rule in the Theodosia books, by having her only be 11. As I said above, you most often want to set the age of the protagonist at the upper end of the age level of your anticipated readers. However, a large part of Theodosia was her precociousness, and what is precocious at 11, is not even remotely so at 13, so she really needed to be younger. Luckily, my saint of an editor let me keep it that way.
I see a lot less of a line between some of the YA and adult fantasy books, especially since the coming of age hero is such a convention in a lot of adult fantasy. Again, what makes that determination is the scope of the story, what issues it focuses on; global, social, or inter-personal. Whether the protagonist is telling the story with the benefit of hindsight or distance, or whether they are fully in the moment. The truth is, a number of books can go either way and someone, the writer, his agent, or the editor, ends up making a call. Sometimes the book will be marketed to both audiences with different covers and shelved in two different places!
But if you are struggling with what your story is, I would look closely at the following:
How old is the protagonist?
Do others in the story treat her/him as an adult or a child?
What are the core issues the protagonist deals with? Do any of those put it automatically into the YA category?
Hope that helps!
Monday, September 07, 2009
1. Write blog entry for Shrinking Violets
2. Write blog entry for Enchanted Inkpot
3. Finalize queries on Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus galleys
4. Review the Beastologist II, The Basilisk's Lair galleys.
5. Revise Beastologist III, The Wyverns' Treasure based on my editorial letter.
6. Review Teacher's Guide for Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, so I can post it on my website.
7. Continue to work on YA so I don't lose the groove
8. Get my son moved up to Santa Cruz for the new school year
So, I might not be posting too much here this week. I WILL get back and follow up on the YA question that came up last Friday, and when I've finished the other blog entries, I'll post links to those. But it might be a little quiet around here until I get some of those things crossed off . . . just warning you.
Friday, September 04, 2009
I was explaining some of the delineations in writing YA versus MG versus adult books on a list I'm on and thought it might be helpful to post here as well.
Middle grade are emphatically kids books, ones written for kids about kid-like experiences. They can touch on tough things and sad things, but once it touches on anything very dark, it automatically becomes YA. There is a very strong protective bubble around middle grade stories.
Because middle grade books are short 20,000-45,000 words, their scope is much narrower and often the internal and external struggle are very strongly linked or intertwined. Books can be about trying to find a friend or simply objecting to a new move or school. For one, these books are so short, but two, those are the issues kids are dealing with. The range and scope of the actions a kid protagonist can take are greatly limited when compared to those of an adult, and kids need to see themselves reflected in the choices and actions of the main character. Even so, the best of middle grade is still multi-layered, even though subplots are kept to a minimum and interact even more firmly with the main plot than in adult novels.
One way I think that kids books can be different than adult books is that many of middle grade and YA books start with the protagonist NOT wanting something because for this age group, so many of their choices are made for them. Often part of their journey is learning how to make the best to those choices, or learning to live with them, or altering their perspective, or coming to understand how it was actually a good thing.
From a writing mechanics standpoint, MG is almost always told in a single POV.
All the elements of writing good fiction apply to both categories. As I mentioned in the last post, in YA, all literary devices and approaches are available to an author. There really are no limitations.
A lot of the single focus present in MG in terms of plot lines and subplot still exist in YA, but they can be broader if the story demands and supports it.
In YA books, a lot of the protagonists are often still having choices made for them, but they are in the act of claiming some of that power for themselves in a big way. The ways in which a 16 yo can take action are much different and more pronounced than the ways in which a 10 yo can take action, and the books reflect that. They are often about that moment when a teen recognizes they can seize the reins of their own life.
Teens are standing on the cusp of having to make all their own choices, often after years of having choices made for them, so seeing an active—or even a passive—protagonist learn to make choices and then suffer through the consequences of those choices, wherever they might lead, is a key component.
YA books, for many teens, are really safe places to experience a wide variety of things without any actual risk. Kids this age are overwhelmed by their emotions and want to see how others deal with this emotional tsunami that is adolescence, and books are a great place to do that. Which is why it is so ironic and irritating that so many clueless adults are afraid some of these books will give kids “ideas”, when in fact, they act as more of a safety valve. Or serve as a warning.
Teens want to feel emotions in a safe environment, and books allow them to do that.
The funny thing is, while the trappings of being a teen change radically from decade to decade, the core emotions and experiences remain surprisingly constant: friends, fitting in, first love, sexual experiences, defining oneself, coming into personal power, dealing with the mess parents have left behind, the scariness of impending adulthood—all the same stuff we dealt with in our own adolescence. So an ability to access one own’s inner teen is hugely helpful here.
My own opinion is that those core emotions serve as the wide portal for the stories, the big welcome mat that allow teens to connect with so many different types of stories, stories that the adult market considers entirely different genres.
I also think because teens are so fascinated by their own emotional world and sort of define narcissistic, more introspected and inner journey oriented books can do really well for this reader. Readers at this age really want to experience that angst along with the characters; they want to dwell in an emotional landscape.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Grilled Bread Salad
3 cups chopped ripe red tomatoes
1 1/2 cups cucumber (peeled and diced)
1/4 c plus 3 Tbs olive oil
five slices of sour dough, shepherder's, or french bread
1 Tb red wine OR balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp dried basil
Brush both sides of the bread with the 3 Tbs of olive oil. Grill over medium heat, about five to six minutes--long enough to get slightly charred. (This charring really gives it flavor.)
While bread is cooling, mix the chopped tomato and the chopped cucumber. Drizzle with the olive oil, then drizzle the vinegar over that. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and basil.
Once bread has cooled, slice into 1 - 1 1/2 inch cubes. Toss bread cubes with tomato and cucumber. Serves 4-6.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
So now with all that out of the way, in this draft I am able to really focus on the relationships between these characters. Their interactions are really sparking and growing, but without my dragging them, kicking and screaming, through the motions. For the first time, these relationships feel absolutely real to me, not part of a story I’m writing. It’s the dictation stage, where I just plop myself down as an observer and watch the characters interact and write down what they do and say. They are their own people now.
Relationships are the heart of story for me. Sure we need a good plot, some event or series of events. But that is mostly so we have a vehicle for getting everyone together, for getting them to interact with each other. The plot is the crucible we use to apply pressure to our characters to see how they act and react and interact when stressed. That's when true character emerges.
I love this stage, it is like watching a fire ignite after puffing and blowing on the kindling for ages.
(And I’d like that metaphor a whole lot better if it weren’t 90 degrees and fires raging in Los Angeles… ☹ )
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
In other compulsive/obsessive news, I have found the perfect music for this manuscript! I recently discovered DEAD CAN DANCE, and some of their music feels like it was written just for this mss. (The parts where Lisa Gardner sings--the other guy singer not so much.)
Here is the song I've been listening to all morning, fingers flying.