Monday, October 01, 2007

Spreadsheets - A Writer's Best Friend

Whenever I mention that I find spreadsheets incredibly helpful in my writing people look at me oddly, as if I’ve passed the line from eccentric writer to bona fide crackpot. So, in the interest of proving my sanity, I thought I’d post a picture of one of my spreadsheets and show how I find it so helpful.

Here’s the spreadsheet for Act 1 of Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris.

This is a great way for me to see my novel as a whole. Note the lovely colored lines. They have a greater purpose than mere decoration. I color code each scene by plot thread. In TATSOO, I had five plot threads moving throughout the book, thus the five different colors. Color coding like this is a terrific way to “see” the balance of your plot and subplots, you can easily determine if you’ve dropped a subplot or gone on too long without mentioning it. (The astute among you will note that there are only four colors. That's because I hadn't found a way to work the fifth plot thread into the first act yet.)

Next look at the scribbling in the right handed column, where I make notes. I can look and see when the last time a certain character appeared, or make a note of the first time some element is introduced so I don’t have the characters talk about it before then.

It’s also a great way to look at the plot arc, to make sure that scenes happen in the order that brings the biggest impact.

And lastly, it allows me to work on the novel in smaller, more manageable chunks.

Next up, how I use the spreadsheet to graph my novel.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Putting Today’s Youth in Context

I stumbled upon this terrific website the other day: It’s dedicated to exposing the rather hysterical stereotypes and doom and gloom predictions today’s “experts” and media propagate about today’s youth.

They take the very statistics used to paint today’s generation of kids as troubled or lacking, and show how they prove just the opposite, especially when compared to their baby boomer parents. For the truth is, today’s kids are much more likely to have a drug using, alcohol abusing, or suicidal adult in their life than they are to commit such acts themselves. And while losing even one kid to those influences is too many, it’s important to see them as they really are, which is living in families and communities where these behaviors are modeled by the adults around them. Still a tragedy, but not one of their making. And if we have any hope of addressing their behavior, we have to truly understand the root causes.

It’s a fascinating read of the statistics and a good tool for setting the record straight on today’s youth. Check it out!

Friday, September 21, 2007

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.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Demon Oreo

While Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos is most definitely fiction, her demonized cat is not. No, Isis after her brush with black magic is based on my own cat, Oreo. Now I realize that Oreo doesn’t sound much like a demon name, and frankly, if we’d understood just how ferocious and fickle she could be, we would have named her Lucifer or Mephistopheles or even Destructo Force (hey, don’t laugh, one of our kittens a long while back was named Black Ninja of Death by our then six and nine year old sons.)

She looked innocent enough as a kitten, until she began attacking our second kitten, who was a slightly overbred longhair who was sweeter-than-sweet, but dumb as a box of rocks and had no instincts on how to defend himself.

Luckily, our Jack Russell Terrier had a valiant nature and often stepped in and herded Oreo away from Peabody whenever things seemed too unfair.

Oreo has the softest fur I’ve ever experienced in a cat. It has the silky density of rabbit fur. And she can be very lovey dovey, liking to cuddle as much as any cat.

It’s just that one must always be on guard while cuddling because if she decides you aren’t petting her fast enough or hard enough or perhaps you happened to remove your attention from her for just one second, then Yeow! She shreds you with her claws. So we pet her at our own risk.

In her Devourer guise, she is a mighty huntress, catching rats and gophers and ground squirrels daily, even at eleven years old.

Her favorite indoor prey is cubes of butter. Yes, like you spread on toast. Woe to us if we leave the top off the butter dish, because she will sense it immediately, hop up onto the kitchen counter, and lick the butter to death with her rough little tongue. We have lost many butter cubes this way.

I know many people don’t let their cats outside, and frankly, I’m perplexed as to how they manage that. Demon Oreo insists on it. In fact, if we don’t let her outside fast enough, she’ll punch right through the screen and let herself out.

She’s equally determined when she wants back in, often leaping up on our bedroom screen at 3:00 in the morning and giving us a heart attack. Needless to say, we let her in immediately.

Her favorite torment of our dog is to eat his dogfood, just to make him jealous. It works every time. As soon as he sees her eating out of his bowl, he turns into Starving Dog and acts like he hasn’t eaten in weeks, even though he just walked by the bowl and ignored the kibble in there.

So for those of you who are curious as to where I get my ideas for the things in my books, this is one example of stealing straight from real life.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Going, Going, GONE!

I’ve just finished up Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris (TATSOO) and am hours away from hitting the send button and emailing it to my editor.

I am also mere hours away from driving my youngest son off to college, which I guess means I’ve reached the home stretch on him as well. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than hitting the send button, as there are scads of things to be packed and organized and washed.

One of the most annoying parts of my writing process is how I can adore a mss, love it, think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written right up until the moment I have to hand it over to my agent or editor. In the blink of an eye, it suddenly feels like trite drivel that is an affront to readers everywhere.

Luckily, I don’t feel that way about my sons. All the while I’ve been working on them, I’ve adored them, loved them, and thought they were the best thing I’ve ever done.

I’m pretty sure that at least, won’t evaporate when I send them on their way.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Coming Down the Home Stretch

My house is a mess, the dishes are piling up, the kitchen floor’s gone unmopped for nearly three weeks, I haven’t dusted in at least that long, and the socks on top of the pile of unfolded laundry in my bedroom is getting altitude sickness. My stack of mail and bills are resembling the leaning tower of Pisa.

Clearly I’m in The Deadline Zone.

Friday, August 24, 2007

SCBWI Conferene Notes - Tamora Pierce

I fell in love with Tamora Pierce’s writing the minute I opened Beka Cooper: Terrier, so I was thrilled when I learned she would be speaking at this year’s conference. I attended her breakout workshop entitled: Developing Cultures in the Fantasy Novel. A rather dry title for such a fascinating process.

Or maybe it was especially fascinating to me. You see, it turns out that Tamora Pierce has exactly the same research/world building process as I do! How cool is that! I feel so thoroughly validated now.

Here are some notes from my research twin.

She opened with a Lionel Trilling quote: The immature artist imitates. The mature artist steals.

One thing she talked about was maps, and here is where I confess that I am obsessed with maps. Love them. Since I’ve started writing fantasy, I’ve come to learn that I absolutely cannot create a fantasy world without a map.

Especially if I’m creating an original fantasy world, as opposed to creating a fantasy element in an historical setting.

The truth is, who we are, as a species, a race, a person, is all shaped by the land from which we sprung and the neighborhood we grew up in. Maps are vital to my process, and Ms. Pierce’s as well.

They also make terrific sources for surnames and nobility titles since many of those are based on landholdings.

Ms. Pierce also talks about following her obsession. When she was younger, she’d fall in love with an historical time period and absolutely devour everything she could about the time or culture, only to find herself using that years later when crafting one of her fantasy worlds.

Another tactic she talks about is studying a political system or culture, then recasting it in a different land or time period. (This is where the part about the mature writer stealing comes in.)

Her personal favorite as far as maps go is a map of Jerusalem, as it is a city that can be traversed in a day and as such makes a terrific launching pad for a city of your own construct.

She collects baby name books and cookbooks, both terrific sources of information about their cultures.

Finally, she reminded us that we don’t want to drown our readers in historical or fantasy world details, but to give them only a taste. Use the details to supply texture and detail and enrich the main conflict of the story.

Some other points she had to make about fantasy:

Fantasy is not safe
Kids need to understand that they aren’t the only ones to screw up.
Some of the deepest, darkest issues are dealt with in fantasy.
There is a current trend in fantasy to focus on the faults and weaknesses of governments.
Fantasy deals with honor. Honor is almost no longer talked about, except in fantasy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Editor's Thoughts on Perfect Books

Ever wonder what editors think makes the perfect book?

Duh? What writer hasn't?

At the recent SCBWI National Conference, we had a chance to hear straight from the mouth of five highly respected editors in children's books, and I thought some of you might be interested in what they had to say.

One thing that struck me was that they all enjoyed the search for the perfect book, but didn't expect to find it. Would, in fact, be disappointed if they found a perfect book because then there would be no role for them to play in the process of creating the book, which was a perspective I hadn't really considered before. As Julie Strauss-Gabel explained, they weren't interested in just being copy editors.

Dinah Stevenson of Clarion Books
  • Original, not derivative
  • Good story that leaves her perfectly satisfied
  • No indifferent reactions to the book, love it or hate it
Emma Dryden of Antheneum
  • Peeling away layers to tell the story
  • A book that has clearly been well planned, but also has room for surprises
  • Word play
  • Non rigid text that is open to many interpretations
Rachel Griffiths of PUSH (Scholastic Imprint)
  • She responds to honesty
  • A peek into a fascinating mind
Julie Strauss-Gabel of Dutton
  • The author of her perfect book would be independently wealthy and would consider editing to be a non-adversarial process
  • Ambition in terms of structural and emotional goals of the story
  • She is specifically looking for older YA literary, contemporary fiction
Allyn Johnston of Harcourt
  • Loves picture books
  • Wants a book to cast a spell around those reading it

Thursday, August 09, 2007

SCBWI Conference Notes-Series Proposals

It seems as if I'm always apologizing around here, mostly for being such an intermittent blogger. In fact, I was thinking that I would have to just give up and go on hiatus until after I got my mss turned in on September 1, but then I went to the SCBWI conference and realized I have tons of great notes to share. Hopefully that will make up for my lackadaisical blogging habits. Which will get much better come Fall, I promise. Plus, I am doing a large portion of my blogging on the Theodosia site, as well as over at Shrinking Violets.


I was one of the lucky few who was able to get in to Bonnie Bader's (Editorial Director Grosset & Dunlap) Creating The Series two part breakout session. She was hugely generous in the information she shared with us, so I in turn will share it with you. She listened to everyone's hooks/pitches, and handed out a number of successful series proposals that had sold, so there was tons of great, concrete information.

What Makes a Good Proposal

1. A strong, succinct logline - boil the premise of the series down to three sentences, making sure to include the hook. Bonnie really emphasized this hook concept. The hook/logline really needs to be fresh and different, a unique twist on stuff they see all the time.

2. A strong, succinct one page overview of the story. A synopsis that clarifies the arc of the series and the protagonists journey. Make sure any unifying elements for the series books are emphasized. Note: You can have different protagonists in each book, you just need to be sure and stress the unifying themes/elements in the proposal.

3. Character Breakdown - A one paragraph description of each of the main characters (protagonist, best friend, the foil, the love interest, the antagonist, etc.) Be unique and creative by using distinctive choices for your characters that help them stand out from all the others that cross their desks.

4. A half page synopsis each of the first three books and a smaller blurb for "possible follow ups."

5. Three sample chapters - the first three chapters of the first book, preferably.

6. Marketing Pitch (Optional) - info that can show the editor why this series will sell. This is NOT a "my book is the next Harry Potter" type hard sell, but a comparison to other similar books in the market place that is working and why yours is different and what hole or niche your series is filling.

Next up, brilliant ways to put the internet to work for you by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My Greatest Masterpiece

Lots of writers feel that their stories and manuscripts are like their children; they are such labors of love, and we invest so much time and effort in them, and the very best part of ourselves besides...but the truth is, no matter how much the manuscript means to us, it pales when compared to our real kids. At least mine do. So I'm devoting today's blog to my latest, and certainly greatest masterpiece, and congratulating him on making it through high school with flying colors!!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Left. Right. Left-Right-Left

When we were young, one of my brothers used to love to march. No matter how much he was balking at doing something or going somewhere, if you got him to march, he’d be okay. And of course, any of you fellow marchers out there recognize the call out for marching: Left. Right. Left-right-left.

Which oddly enough, described my writing process. (Oddly because I do not now, nor have I ever, had any interest in marching.) Only my left or right has to do with brain hemispheres rather than high-stepping.

Step One – Left Brain: Outlining and plotting.
When I outline, it is admittedly a rather messy process, but it is also organizational. I’m laying the foundations for structure, so it goes in the left brain category. In addition to exploring character and the story voice, I’m puzzling out the plot, what the conflict is, if it can sustain an entire book, what the turning points are, how the acts might break down. The thing is, I don’t force myself to adhere to this outline, and it almost always evolves during the course of the book as I get to understand my characters better. But it does give me some idea of where to go, of what to actually put on the page.

Step Two – Right Brain: The discovery draft.
This is pure, right-brained creative writing. Now that I have a basic sense of where I’m going, I just let ‘er rip. I try really hard to not censor anything and allow myself to go with whatever my subconscious tosses up at me. There’s tons of terrific stuff down there in our mental basement, along with an entire group of muses wanting to have their say. In Theodosia, much to my chagrin, I found I kept writing about her hat, and her not wearing one and getting in trouble for it. Enough already, I thought. But then at the end, I realized the hat was a lovely concrete object to stand in for her Father’s feelings toward her. If I had censored that out or tried to stifle it in any way, I would have missed out on a terrific ‘showing’ detail that kept me from having to ‘tell’.

Step Three – Left Brained: Structure
Once I’ve put aside the discovery draft to ferment, the structure loving half of my left brain comes out to play. And yes, even the left brain likes to play, even if it’s preferred method of play makes your palms break out in a sweat. I make lists of every scene in the book. On a spreadsheet. In one column I might note the source of conflict, to be sure there is one in that scene, and the next column might note what the plot goal of the scene is. If I have many subplots or plot threads, I’ll color code the scenes so I can be sure I’m keeping them balanced and not dropping any sub plot for too long a time. (Some people achieve these same goals with notecards or storyboards.) The thing I love about this method is that it allows me to see my entire novel at a glance, which is hugely helpful when looking at structure. And yes, I even—horrors!—graph my plots. (Just ask anyone who’s taken my online Revision class.) It allows me to check for rising action, to make sure the novel is getting more dramatic, more tense the closer to the end that I go.

Step Four – Right Brain: Deep Characterization work
This is where I go deep into all my characters heads. I usually have a pretty thorough idea of the main character, but in order to fully flesh out the novel, I have to know equally well all the characters. So I spend a few weeks journaling each of them to be sure I understand their motivations so I can make their actions and interactions believable. This is also where I look for all the breadcrumbs the Girls in the Basement might have left me. Things like the hat, that might lead me to something rich or thematic. You’d be surprised at how many clues your subconscious can leave you!

Step Five – Left Brain: Weaving and Polishing (Sounds like a day at a spa, doesn’t it? I wish!)
This is where I go in and weave everything from steps three and four into the manuscript and do a final editorial polish, cutting as much prose as I can. I am a huge overwriter (although, not on purpose) and Theodosia’s voice is especially prone to this, so I cut cut cut.

Such is my bizarre process. I realize it doesn’t work for everyone. Heck, it might not work for anyone but me, and that's fine. We writers are notorious for needing to march to our own drummer. (Ha! Get it? MARCH! I crack myself up some times.)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Music to Write By

One of the things I usually do for my works-in-progress is design soundtracks for them. While I can't listen to music while I write, I do love having music that helps me enter the story world, merely upon hearing it.

But I was having a devil of a time finding a soundtrack for Theodosia. Edwardian music is hard to find, at least labeled as such. Besides, Theo was rather ahead of her time so the little bit of Edwardian music I did find didn't really have the energy I was looking for.

But finally, with some help from a friend who is a self-proclaimed music freak, I was set on a path that led to a Theodosia soundtrack! Yeay! (and a HUGE thank you to Caridad Ferrer!)

Just in case you're curious, here it is:

Manic Monday- The Bangles
Walk Like an Egyptian - The Bangles
Girls Just Want to Have Fun - Cyndi Lauper
Orange Crush - R.E.M. (I have no idea why, it just works)
Other Side of the World - KT Tunstall
She Bop - Cyndi Lauper
Rumble in Brighton - The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds - Elton John
It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) - R.E.M
Man On the Moon - R.E.M.
Suddenly I See - KT Tunstall

Monday, May 28, 2007

Well, there's an awful lot going on in my world right now. First, and most importantly, I finished the first draft of Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris! Yeay! That's such a huge relief because whenever I write a book under contract, I suddenly fear I'll forget how to write. Or how to plot. Or how to get through the muddle of a middle. Or how to get to the end.

You get the idea.

So it's always a huge relief when I realize I haven't forgotten.

Second of all, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos was selected as a Booksense Summer Pick! Thank you Booksense!!

And lastly, French publication rights to Theodosia have been sold, so for all of you out there dying to read about her in French, you'll soon have your chance.

And I betcha they get my last name right in France. Or here's hoping, anyway... ;-)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Second Author

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis were my favorite books for a long portion of my childhood. I think I reread those puppies twice a year from about age 8 all the way up to age 12, when I discovered Tolkien.

One of the books, The Magician's Nephew, is set in Edwardian England, and since my Theodosia books are also set in this time period, I thought I'd give TMN a quick reread to see if I could pick up any period details that were particularly evocative.

I was quite looking forward to reading the book as it has been ages since I've looked at it. I remember being so enthralled with the incredible world C.S. Lewis had built, how he described them in such detail, how rich and dense the language was. I couldn't wait.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that, indeed, there weren't paragraphs and paragraphs of description or world building, but rather very simple, albeit elegant, sentences.

And that's when it hit me: Much of the description and world building that I remembered from those books had been put there by me. My own imagination had filled in all the lovely white space C.S. Lewis had left between the words.

Which really crystallized something that's been rolling around in my head for years; that it takes two authors to complete a book. One is the original author who wrote the words on the page, but the second, equally important author is the reader herself. What she "reads" and interprets in the white space of the novel is just as critical to her reading experience as the words the first author put on the page.

I also wonder if that isn't part of the drive for so many authors to be published; that unspoken sense that their work isn't complete until a reader, some reader somewhere, has read it.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Apologies All Around

Okay, I admit it. I have to be one of the people nominated for the World’s Worst Blogger list. My intentions are good, but we all know how much good intentions are worth.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m now juggling three blogs, but that’s my problem, not yours, so apologies for being such a lapsed blogger are definitely in order.

The good news is, that one of the major distractions keeping me busy is now over; the college application process. Both of my sons decided to go away to college at the same time, one as a freshman and the other transferring as a junior. Heavens to Murgatroyd! (or is it Murgatroid? Anyone know?) That college application dance is a part time job, I’m telling you. So all you parents out there, brace yourself! Your turn is coming, if it hasn’t already.

But that’s all done with now (both boys are going to their first choice college—yay!) and my schedule has freed up quite a lot. Which is a really good thing because I have a book due soon. Not only that, but I now have two college tuitions looming over my future. Must. Write. Faster.

My goal is to have my first draft done by May 12. I’m getting close, very close, so I’ve upped my words per day to 1750 up through next Saturday. I want to finish it and put it away for a couple of weeks for some fermenting and stewing time. Then, when I look at it with fresh eyes, all the flaws will be glaringly obvious and that much easier to fix.

When I did NaNoWriMo last year I discovered how valuable a full immersion writing stint was, so I’m really trying to replicate that more when I work on my first drafts.

For anyone who’s interested, I was recently interviewed over on Dee and Dee Dish…about Books. I’m sorry I didn’t think to mention in time for you to participate in the contest. My bad!

I will be better about blogging. I promise. And come September? When both boys move out? I won’t know what to do with myself, so I’ll likely be blabbin’ at you nonstop. Betcha can’t wait for that!

Thursday, April 12, 2007


It turns out that the launch party Houghton Mifflin and Storyopolis threw for Miss Theodosia and I was covered in the Publisher's Weekly online Newsletter, Children's Bookshelf! Too cool!

Of course, just to keep me humble, PW misspelled my name. Robin LaRevers--which sounds like something Scooby Doo would say, don't you think? But that's okay. I'm still wildly happy about the mention.

The only downside to all this? All this happy news is just a teensy bit distracting and making it hard to focus on finishing Theodosia Two, but I'm getting there! 40,000 words and counting. And whle that might sound like a lot, the first book clocked in at 70,000 words, so I have a ways to go. But I have all the hard parts figured out and now I'm working on the fun magic stuff.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Second Star to the Right...

Today is the official launch date of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, which makes it very fitting to be able to celebrate the publication with ::drum roll please::

…TWO starred reviews!! One from Booklist, and the other from Publisher’s Weekly.

Publisher’s Weekly called it “…a perfect blend of mystery and humor.” And then, my favorite line, “Loads of evocative Egyptian history and an oh-so-plucky, resourceful narrator make this the first volume in a series to watch.” You can see the entire review here.

Booklist says “It’s the delicious, precise, and atmospheric details (nicely extended in Tanaka’s few, stylized illustrations) that will capture and hold readers, from the contents of Theodosia’s curse-removing kit to descriptions of the museum after hours, when Theodosia sleeps in a sarcophagus to ward off the curses of “disgruntled dead things.” Kids who feel overlooked by their own distracted parents may feel a tug of recognition as Theodosia yearns for attention, and those interested in archeology will be drawn to the story’s questions about the ownership and responsible treatment of ancient artifacts. A sure bet for Harry Potter fans, as well as Joan Aiken’s and Eva Ibbotson’s readers. This imaginative, supernatural mystery will find word-of-mouth popularity.” —Gillian Engberg

Book reviews are a fact of the writerly life, and in my own case, they’ve never been a very pleasant fact of life, but rather one of those aspects that must be endured.

Until now…

Frankly, I’m still in shock. But Oh-so-happy!

Also, I’ll be in Bakersfield for a signing at Russo’s Bookstore on Saturday, April 21. If any of you live in the area, feel free to stop by!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Launch Party Recap!

Because I have the most wonderful publisher in the world, they threw a pre-publication launch party for my upcoming release, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. It was held at the amazing Storyopolis, which if you have never visited you must plan on doing so, soon. Fabulous book store.

I was very awed and humbled by the support of my amazing friends, family, and fellow authors. They even pretended I was articulate when my publicist made me speak! (Oh, the horror!)

I also got a chance to meet my darling publicist, Jenn, (whom I love in spite of making me talk in front of a crowd) and my agent (pictured), otherwise known as my creative anchor was there as well. (Just behind Erin's shoulder you can see me hugging my adorable nephew with my sister looking on.)

The incredible illustrator,Yoko Tanaka, who did all the spectacular artwork for the book was there. She was the most lovely woman! She did the coolest thing, too! She made a stamp of the cat from the book, out of a potato! And stamped everyone’s book with more of her original artwork along with her signature! It was a huge hit!

Signing my wonderful friends' (Kim and her adorable mother) books.

And then we had to futz around for one last group picture...(Oh, and that's Jenn, on the far left.)

Ta da! Although next time, we'll all practice looking at the same camera!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hit and Run

Sorry to be so absent lately! That thing called Life keeps getting in the way of my blogging habit.

And actually, part of the reason for my absence is that a friend and I have been busy launching a new blog Shrinking Violet Promotions. It will most likely only be of interest to writers as it focuses on the whole issue of book promotion and how does one do that comfortably when one is an introvert. Like I am. Like many authors are. So if you're interested, come on over and take a peek. If not, I'll be back here soon with more to say. (Like maybe a book giveaway?)

Some other interesting links this morning: For those of you curious about how the whole writer's pay thing works (and isn't that just about every writer, and about half the readers as well?) Justine Larbalestier discusses it in depth over on her blog. She also links to John Scalziwho also goes into much detail about writerly pay. (I've linked from here directly to save you guys having to search. Also, be sure to pay attention to how much of that he makes from corporate, writing rather than fiction writing.)

Back soon!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Santa Barbara Writer's Conference

I have recently been asked to be a workshop leader at the amazing Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Since I live within easy driving distance to SB, this was the conference I cut my writing teeth on. When the children were young, I could never manage to get away to weeklong conferences or even weekend ones that were out of the area. But I could sneak in a session or two at the SBWC and boy, did that help to feed my muse. I also learned tons, all of which I use every day in my writing.

Not to mention what a wonderfully full circle to have traveled, from student to teacher, and I now have a chance to give back to one of the communities that fostered me as an aspiring writer.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Of Sequels and Series

I am hard at work on my next book, Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, and I’m struck by the unique challenges sequels or series books present.

They have to capture the same tone and feel of the first book, the very stuff that made readers fall in love with it in the first place, but they also need to continue to excite and surprise the reader. Ideally, it should be just a little bit bigger, deeper, more exciting than the first, or if not more, then at the very least AS exciting. I think there can be a serious risk of diluting the essence of the first book, which of course I’m working frantically not to do.

I’ve already had to stop and make a number of major plot adjustments as I’ve realized that some of the stakes weren’t high enough, didn’t match the drama of the first book. However, if one keeps trying to top oneself, there is also the risk of becoming way over the top. Very fine line, that.

The second element, which I think is perhaps even more important, is the main character’s arc. The character’s own personal stakes have to be as urgent as they were in previous books. And yes, I’ve had to wrestle with a couple of major adjustments to achieve this, as well, but I’m getting there.

I know some people think once you’ve written a book--or five--that it should become easier. That once you’ve done it, the subsequent books shouldn’t be as difficult. But really, that’s like saying once you’ve had one child, you know everything there is to know about child rearing, and anyone who’s been around children can tell you that even siblings—or maybe, especially siblings—are entirely different people who often require an entirely different approach to child rearing.

Well, books are a lot like that. At leat for me. I’ve found that each book I’ve written has required it’s own unique set of approaches in order to coax it into existence. And really, that’s half the fun. Well, if you define fun as twisted, perverse, and challenging-yet-rewarding. Which apparently, I do.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Researching We Will Go

Some weeks it feels like I spend 80% of my time doing research and world building, and only 20% of my time writing the actual book. This is one of the reasons I’m such a firm believer in the “don’t have to write every day” theory. The truth is, without the research or the world building, I can’t write the story. I have characters acting out against white board in my head, and there is no life to them or the scene because I don’t know what’s happening.

This week for instance, I spent a huge amount of time researching street maps and neighborhoods in London, along with an old secret society called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Since my next few scenes involved a secret society (The Arcane Order of the Black Sun) I had to give myself a crash course in mystical occult societies of the time before I could write about one effectively.

Last week, I got completely sidelined by massive amounts of research into German and British Naval Power at the turn of the century and spent more hours than I care to acknowledge hunting down information on the battleship Dreadnought.

But the beauty of it is that once I’ve got the research and world building firmly in mind, then I can produce pages much faster than if I’d tried to slog through without the research.

Which is why I shoot for weekly goals rather than daily ones. Right now, because the process is so research heavy, I shoot for 25 – 30 pages a week. That will give me time to write plenty of drafts, with lots of resting time in between.

Um, that’s the manuscript that’s resting, not me.

I like to let the story ferment a bit, just like a lump of yeasty bread dough, because when I come back to it, I always find that lovely, interesting things have risen to the surface, which make the revision process it's own special brand of fun.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

O Fickleness...

thou name art muse.

I've spent the entire morning pacing around like a pregnant cat, trying to get some writing done. Stared at the computer for an hour, got two sentences. Went to my Sacred Writing Space with my alphasmart, got one sentence done. Swore at my muse, did a load of laundry, ate my breakfast. Then, in desperation, I picked up a pen and notebook and boom! the words came.

Honestly. Couldn't the muse just tell me she's in a pencil and paper mood instead of making me futz about and waste two hours??

In other news, I'm giving away an ARC of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos over on the Theodosia blog Feel free to pop on over and enter!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Power of Creativity

A few weeks a go I was asked to give a series of workshops to a local classroom. These were kids whose parents thought they were hungry for writing and would really enjoy this type of experience. So, armed with my books and my short lecture and my writing exercises, I arrived for the first workshop, full of enthusiasm and energy.

It was an unmitigated disaster. For many reasons, but primarily because these kids basically wanted no part of it. They were restless and silly and approached the writing exercises with little enthusiasm and talked almost non-stop. Truly, the worst workshop I’ve ever experienced.

But writers are nothing if not flexible. At the end of the workshop, I finally got them all to sit still and listen for a moment, then acknowledged that this clearly wasn’t working, and we needed to rethink this. “What,” I asked, “would your ideal workshop look like? How would you design it?”

There was stunned silence for a few moments, as if they’d never been consulted about how they wanted to learn something, then hands began to pop into the air.

Turns out they were HUNGRY for free writing time. Starved for it, in fact. They wanted free writing time and a chance to have their work critiqued by their peers.

Later that day, I had some conversations with some of the parents and quickly realized that with these kids, my job was to re-connect them with their enthusiasm for writing and their love of the creative writing process, which had been workshopped and tested clean out of them. Mind you, I’m not faulting the teachers—or anyone—on this. It is just the shape education takes in the classroom today.

So the next week I showed up with a quick lecture on the creative aspects of writing, showed them some collages I’d used for some of my stories, gave them some writing prompts for scene ideas in case they didn’t have any of their own, then turned them loose on the paper. We also talked about how they owned this process now. We were going to do exactly as they voted for, but that they needed to make it work.

And boy did they.

When there is intense, focused creativity going on in a room, you can feel it; it hums in the air, a quiet, contented crackling, and that’s how it was in that room. They completely lost themselves in their writing, then did a great job of breaking up into critique groups and critiqued each others work. After that we had a quick wrap up where I asked if people had any problems they’d run into. A couple of really great craft discussions ensued from the questions, and we were all totally satisfied. It was a complete 180 degree turn around from the previous week.

And I learned three important lessons:
  1. Always have a few alternative workshop angles you can use in case one approach isn’t working.
  2. Kids like to have some say in how they’re taught. They want a chance to own the process, and when they do, they commit to it in an impressive manner.
  3. Kids are hungry for structured creativity, which may sound like an oxymoron but what I mean by that is they want a chance to exercise their creativity but within a structured environment that gives them validation and takes that creativity seriously.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


First of all, I cannot tell a lie. MY BIG SISTER IS SO BOSSY SHE SAYS YOU CAN'T READ THIS BOOK is written by one of my very dearest friends, Mary Hershey. That she happens to be such a marvelous author is merely icing on the cake. This is one of those rare books that is both humorous and poignant, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In addition to being horribly bossed around by her domineering sister, poor Effaline Maloney is lonely and hungry for a new best friend. Her search for someone to fill the hole in her life is hilarious and touching and completely captures that absolute longing we all experienced as kids as we desperately wished for that one, perfect person with whom we could share our worries, hopes, and secrets. Effie quickly finds herself torn between her bossy big sister and doing the right thing. As she struggles to break out of her role as an easily bossed, somewhat naive little sibling, she has to learn to take charge of her life and come to terms with the recent losses that have occured. She does this with humor and pluck and with a truly unique voice. The book sheds gentle insights on siblings, loss, grief, and friendship, and managed to keep me laughing the whole time. Truly a remarkable feat!!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

This is one of the questions I get asked the most. All writers do. So I thought I’d devote a blog entry to it.

First of all, there are basically three ways to build a story. You can build it from a character, a premise, or a situation. I’ve written at least one book from each of these different ways.

Here’s how they differ.

Character – A miserable, mean twelve-year-old boy
Premise – A miserable, mean twelve-year-old boy finds redemption.
Situation – By befriending a wounded dog, a miserable, mean-spirited boy finds the strength to come to terms with his unhappy home life.

If you look at these approaches, you’ll see that in the second one, we’ve given the story an ending that we want to shoot for. It’s a really vague ending, but now we know where we want to take the story. In the situation, we not only have a character and an ending, but a good grasp of the meat of the story, of the how and why.

So now of course comes the even more basic question. Where do you get ideas for a character or a premise or a situation, let alone a plot? And now is where I’m going to tell you my secret weapon.

Have a curious mind. What if? and I wonder why? are a writer’s two best friends.

Because the simple truth is that stories are all around you. Everywhere you look, there’s a story to be told. Of course, the writer’s job is to make it interesting, and that’s not always easy. But the basic seeds of the story are there, just waiting for you to trip over them.

News, magazines, TV shows, popular culture are all terrific for finding story ideas. Books and movies are great, too. Not to copy, but to use as a launching pad for your own ideas. Maybe they raise an unanswered question in your mind. Answer it. Maybe they give you an idea for a character. Play with it.

Myths & fairytales are marvelous for story ideas. You can remain true to the core of the tale or turn it on its head in a twisted, fractured retelling. Or retell it from unusual point of view.

Personal experience is great, too: family history, your childhood or young adulthood, everyday life. The trick here is to remember that you have to make it interesting. It’s not necessarily your autobiography, although it can be. You’re looking for core ideas, elements, or situations that you can develop into a story.

Once you have a couple of ideas for a story concept, then the real playing begins. Consider different settings: time periods, geography, or cultural. Look at different kinds of physical action (plot) you could have in the story. What the character’s background, social standing, past, gender, age? What are the character’s weakness? Strengths? Fears?

Finally, use the tried and true who, what, why, where, when, and how to massage these vague concepts or premises into a full fledged story idea.

Or at least, that’s how I do it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Myth Busting – You Must Write Every Day

I think one of the biggest myths in publishing is the one that says you have to write every single day to be a writer.

That is horse pucky, pure and simple. For some people, their process might demand that they write every day, but it is not a universal requirement.

I have never written every day. Ever. My book that was nominated to the Bluebonnet list was written in bits and snatches, many no more than 20 minutes long, with an occasional four hour writing binge on the weekend. With the kids being younger, and much more time consuming, not to mention I had a demanding day job, that’s all I could manage. Another book of mine was written two pages at a time, over the course of a year and a half. With Werewolf Rising I actually walked away from the manuscript for about five months during a crisis of confidence. Even now, I have long, fallow periods, where I can feel the story bubbling and fermenting and fomenting, and I know that if I try to put pen to paper too soon, it will come out green, unripe, only half-formed.

Some writers would have you believe it’s like bricklaying. If you consistently lay five bricks every day, eventually you will have a wall.

But if you don’t take the time to move rocks out of the way, or level the dirt, or make sure the bricks are all the same size, then you’re not going to have a particularly good wall. What if it rains one day and the cement won’t cure properly? What then? Sometimes, waiting and planning and clearing the path is the best course of action.

So if the words or ideas aren’t coming? Take a break. Lighten up. Fill the well. It takes a lot of eclectic input to fuel creativity. Maybe you just ran out of gas. Maybe the story hasn’t gelled yet, or the story egg isn’t ready to crack or you’re just too tired or distracted by other demanding facets of your life. Our emotional lives are the stuff from which writing springs, so how can we ignore them when they demand our attention?

The only thing I would suggest is to try to stay connected to your work somehow, even if you can’t actually do the writing. Some people (those with much better memories than mine!) can carry huge sections around in their head for long periods of time and work on it that way. Story journaling – writing about what you’re going to write about, once you start writing again, has been a lifesaver for me. Often, it ends up priming the pump and lo and behold, I’m writing again!

Other things I do when I just can’t bring myself to write, either from emotional overload or exhaustion, is to sketch out a floor plan or map of the book I’m working on, even though I can’t draw worth spit. It connects me to the physical reality of the world I’ve created in a very visceral way. I collect pictures of great visuals for a collage for the work in progress, again, nailing a visual connection that I refer to time and again as I write the book. Use other creative muscles for working on your writing. Pick out a sound track to your mss, or decorate your heroine’s house for her. You’ll still be keeping in touch with your vision, while not overtaxing the writing part of your brain. And when the story egg is finally ready to crack, you’ll be ready.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Reading Recommendation-Terrier: Beka Cooper

First of all, I have to confess that TERRIER is the very first Tamora Pierce book I’ve ever read. And it was excellent. One of my favorite books in a loooong time. I cannot recommend it highly enough, to both kid and adult readers alike. And if you have a teen or tween daughter, I doubly recommend it.

The book is deftly plotted, but even so, it is the characters that make this book shine. From the main character, Beka Cooper, to the supporting cast and ancillary characters—they all came to life for me. And Beka is brilliantly portrayed. She is a tough girl who’s known hardship and loss and will look after her own. This leads her to a career in the Provost’s Dogs, which is very similar to a medieval, inner city police force. Beka is strong and tough and determined (hence the nickname Terrier) but she also struggles with nearly crippling shyness and a family who doesn’t appreciate or value the choices she makes. Even so, she continues on with her duties, not letting their doubts or lack of appreciation slow her down. Beka is so full of heart and determination! And so committed! But never in a annoying, cloying, or preachy way.

From what I understand, Tortall, the world TERRIER is set in, is the backdrop for a number of Ms. Pierce’s books. It felt very real to me, very grounded. Nothing felt unfamiliar or took me out of the story, which is more difficult in world building than it sounds. Beka deals with the Lower City, the slums where robbers, thieves, cutthroats, and other lowlifes prey on the less fortunate.

The whole book is full of wonderful characters, but I was particularly struck by the strong women characters, which I know are a trademark of Pierce’s, but were new to me. Again, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But be sure to clear your calendar for a day or two, because you won’t want to leave the world of the book once you’ve started. Oh. There is one cautionary note. There are about six prologues. Ignore ‘em. Unless you’re a long time Pierce reader, they won’t mean anything to you and will possibly deter you from starting the book.

Not only a Five Star book, but one that’s earned a spot on my keeper shelf!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Welcome to 2007!

So obviously one of my New Year’s Resolutions is going to be to be a more regular blogger! I promise!

First off, some updates.

I’ve posted the revised cover for my next novel, which also has a slightly shorter name now, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos. It’s still very much in keeping with the first cover, and I’m still madly in love with it. It was changed because The Powers That Be were concerned that my original title was too long, and such a mouthful, that it might put some readers off the book. And while I did like the original title, I didn’t want to risk even one reader being intimidated by it, so I listened to Those Who Know About Such Things.

There are also some new blog entries up on the Theodosia blog for any of you who are following that.

I also got some great reading done during my blogging hiatus, so I’ll have a review up for you later today or first thing tomorrow.