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!