Sunday, November 30, 2008

Final NANO Update

Well, I got over 15,000 words written. Considering how much went wrong this month, I'm pretty happy! :)

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I was supposed to post pictures of the cake my oldest son wanted to bake, except there aren't any. He changed his mind from baking a cake to making his favorite vegetable: okra. Yes, okra. Who am I to argue with that? :) So there are no cake pictures, because there was no cake. But, christmas is coming and I've promised a cake that looks like a present to a good friend of mine. Those pictures will be forthcoming... :)

On a complete different note, we took our boys to the circus for the first time yesterday. Aside from it being a little too long, they loved it! My youngest was dancing and clapping in his seat the whole time - it was really cute. :)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Plot Summary: Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man—perhaps because of her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. When a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, however, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Shannon Hale is also the author of THE PRINCESS ACADEMY, a Newbery Honor, which I loved. It was fun with great characters, and kept me absorbed from page one.

So when I heard about Austenland, I got really excited. I’m a huge Austen fan, especially PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, so I opened these pages with anticipation.

First off, let me say this is an adult novel, though I can see teen crossover appeal. But it definitely has the flavor and forgiveness of an adult novel. I acknowledged this and adjusted, ready and wanting to love this book.

I didn’t. And I’m sad over it.

This book didn’t have Ms. Hale’s usual stellar writing and well developed characters. I guess you could consider this a light, fun read. But it’s also contrived, shallow, and predictable. Anyone who’s familiar with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE will know what’s coming well before it gets there.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

This was such a fresh, fun idea that I eagerly wanted to get lost in. But so many things just didn’t ring true. Like the banning of electronic devices (like cell phones) when most of the kerosene lamps were electric, plumbing used instead of chamber pots, and 20th century makeup instead of 19th. And smuggling said electronics can result in being kicked out? Seems a bit much. I mean, who cares what a paying customer has in her room with the doors closed?

But no, Jane is nearly thrown out for smuggling in her cell phone, and she does nothing to stop it. That I just didn’t buy, especially since Jane has some serious leverage over the establishment: a drunken actor was a bit too forceful in his proposition for sex. In fact, this bit of info is completely forgotten. I expected it to come up again at least at the end, when Jane finally comes into her own and gives the proprietress a reaming. But she doesn’t. So what was the point of the inappropriate proposition for sex?

There were other inconsistencies, but all of these I could have forgiven. But I couldn’t forgive the characters. They were all flat and predictable, even Jane. It was obvious what role Mr. Nobley was playing. It was even obvious what role Martin-the-gardener was playing. I was expecting a refreshing twist to turn the story on its side, but didn’t one. Ms. Hale, I’m sorry to say it, but I know you’re capable of better. I’ve read it in your other work.

Anyway, if you like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and want to read the same story in a modern setting, then you might like this. Otherwise, I’d stick to the classic.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

For those of you living in the US,


We're spending the day as a family, cooking our favorite foods. Even if it doesn't go with the traditional turkey dinner, we'll make it anyway. :)

Aside from a turkey breast, I'm making pumpkin pie. I look forward to a slice of this all year, slather with whipped cream. Yum!

My boys want to make cookies and cupcakes, of course. So we'll make them, but then I have no idea what we're going to do with so much dessert. But there will be pictures, of course. :)

My husband is going to add the flavor of India to our dinner. Which I'm really looking forward to. :)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Now, I must go put the turkey in the oven...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Make A List, Check It Twice

I recently attended the 4th Annual SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day, with an absolutely amazing lineup of speakers. I tried writing up a summary of the day in one post, but just couldn’t do it. So this will come in a series. And out of order. So, for those of you who were there, sorry for the confusion. :)

Jennifer Rofe, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, talked about Revision. She showed us examples of submissions that had come to her, the kinds of revisions she asked the author to make, and also the number of revisions editors had requested of the author. One editor asked author Cynthea Liu to cut 20,000 words from her MG novel, PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE. 20,000 words!! The entire room gasped.

The examples Ms. Rofe gave were really interesting and useful, but they’re just one piece in the puzzle of Revision. There’s no way I could write an entire blog post on that, because it was one of those things where you had to be there...

Then, Gutsywriter asked a great question: is there some sort of Revision Checklist that writers can utilize?

Aha! :)

Using this question, I was able to go back through Ms. Rofe’s examples and pick out her more generalized comments (plus a few of my own).

OPENING HOOK. Does your story start in the right place? Is the main plot apparent on page one? Has the backstory been introduced such that it doesn’t slow down the story? Above all, is this interesting?

CHARACTERS. Do they seem real? Are they flawed? Do they know what they want, and is there something opposing this (i.e. constantly keeping them from getting what they want)? Also, are all of them necessary? That is, do they contribute to the story in such a way that there would be a hole without them?

SETTING. Is this vivid? Can the reader close his eyes and picture exactly where the characters are? Is it realistic? If it’s a fantasy/sci-fi setting, has the world been defined and adhered to, without paragraphs of info-dumping?

PACING. Is there anything that slows down or takes the reader out of the story?

THEME. Have you said what you wanted to say without preaching or being message-y?

PLOT. This is huge, but this is generally asking if you have a beginning, middle, and end. Also, does the reader react sufficiently to the story as a whole?

RESOLUTION. Does it fit the story such that the reader will be satisfied? For example, a story about a war building, with anger and anxiety on both sides, ending with peaceful negotiation – it’s a good ending, but can leave the reader feeling let down. Are all subplots resolved? All necessary questions answered?

VOICE. This is also huge, and generally asks about the voice of the story as well as the characters. Is it obvious who is speaking simply by the dialog (and not the tags)? Does the story have its own Voice (I.E. can the reader see an obvious difference in narration between this story and another)?

STRONG WRITING. This encompasses everything from word choice to evoking emotion from the reader – far more than I can put into this simple checklist. But, basically, are all the words you’ve used necessary? Both to the story and to the characters? Has each word been purposefully chosen?

OBJECTIVITY. This is the single most important thing when revising. Distance and objectivity allow you to see your work for what it is, not what you want it to be. If you don’t have this on your own, then find at least one critique partner who can be both honest and constructive.

It’s hard to put together a checklist for revising, simply because the things involved in writing are so huge. One could easily create checklists for each of these main points, but then we could get mired down in the details and not get any actual work done. :)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

NANO update #2

Another week has gone by, and the flu has still infiltrated my house! My youngest son was down with it all week. Thursday was his first day back to preschool, and I got a little writing done on friday. So I'm up to 13,250 out of 50,000. *sigh* I was hoping to be further along, but oh well. :) With a sick child in the house, what are ya gonna do? :)

On the plus side, I absolutely LOVE my main character! I love writing her story, and right now I'm just writing what she tells me to write. It's such a joy, and her Voice is so strong! I guess you could say I'm in the first draft lovey-dovey stage, but there's more to it. She's a fabulous character to write, and so fun! That right there is going to see me through to the end of this story, and probably a zillion revisions afterwards. :)

On a completely different note, Editorial Anonymous has offered to grade writers on their ability to write a synopsis, based on a well-known novel. You'd think she'd have writers banging her door down, right? Nope. She's only got two, but she's giving everyone the weekend to write up a synopsis and email it to her. So if you want to test your synopsis-writing ability, get out those notepads!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Plot Summary: As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight...for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, are still sold to a New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but I’m a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson. So when CHAINS was nominated for the National Book Award, I bumped it up on my TBR pile.

I like history, but it’s usually presented in such a dry fashion that it can’t keep my interest. Not so with CHAINS. From page one, this story had me riveted. It’s an honest account of the time of the Revolution. It doesn’t paint all the Patriots in rosy colors, nor all the Loyalists as evil monsters. They were just people with different preferences and backgrounds.

Same with the slavery. It wasn’t just in the south; it was everywhere. Not all slaves are innocent victims, and not all slave owners are vicious monsters. Anderson has built this world through the most amazing way of Showing that I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s so good that I didn’t even notice how much she was showing me the first time through. I had to go through the book again, and then I was blown away. Fantastic.

This book is amazing, and I highly recommend picking it up right now. But, I warn you, you won’t be able to put it down...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Say Again?

What’s your favorite word? How many times do you actually use it?
On the flip side, what’s your least favorite word? And how many times do you use it?

The answer to both questions is probably “not very often.” But what about the words you don’t have strong feelings for either way? What about the words that come out while you’re trying to think of something to say? Before you address a crowd? When something happens that you don't like? How often do you use those words, and what are they?

Chances are, these words are something mundane, like “okay” or “yeah” or "crap" or something similar. A good friend of my says “I mean” quite often. My husband says “kinda like” all the time. I say “well,” and my oldest son is now picking up that habit. We say these things without thinking about it. Without even realizing it.

But what about when you write? Chances are, you don’t repeat the same kinds of words on paper that you do aloud. Then, what are the words you use over and over again when you write? If you don’t know, how can you find out?

Lucky for us, there’s a great website that creates something called a Wordle. It’s a visual representation of the words most often used in the text. The words largest in size have been used most often. The smallest, least often. So, does it mean that if you've got an enormous word in your Wordle, you're using it too much? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s worth exploring...

I copied in the text of my novels, ROYAL ROSE and BELIEVING IS THE HARDEST PART.

Both stories are in third person, so the word I (obviously) used most was the main character’s name.

In Miranda’s story, “said” is as big as the other characters’ names. But in Rose’s story, it’s much smaller. But in both of them, the word “eyes” is pretty darned big. I examined both manuscripts, and discovered that I use the eyes way too much when describing emotional reactions (with all my characters). It made me take a hard look at other, better ways of getting these emotions across. I also discovered that I use the word "just" too much. That one is definitely a writerly version of "okay." Nine times out of ten, I could delete the word "just" without it affecting my sentence.
This site was probably not intended to be used as a tool for writers, but I've found it invaluable.

What’s in your Wordle?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

NANO update

Two weeks have passed, and I'm sitting at 12,250 words. I'm supposed to be at 25,000 right now...leaving me 37,750 to write before the end of the month. That means I'll need to write 2517 words each day, including weekends. Or, 3775 words per day without the weekends.

Hmm...ain't gonna happen. :)

But hey, considering I only get two hours of writing time a day (not including weekends), and I caught a minor flu bug this week, I think I'm doing pretty good. :) I'll stick to my goal of 2500 words per weekday until I've finished this draft. Nothing bad about that!

On a completely different note, Nathan Bransford had a fantastic post on his blog about how the publishing industry should handle the current economy. The comments section is full of some really great ideas. If you're interested in such things, head on over and add your two cents. :)

Right now, I'm off to the SCBWI IL Prairie Writer's Day conference. There's a great roster of speakers, so this should be fun!! :) I'll do a full write up next week sometime.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter

Plot Summary: After staking out, obtaining, and then being forced to give up her first boyfriend, Josh, all Cammie Morgan wants is a peaceful semester. But that's easier said than done when you're a CIA legacy and go to the premier school in the world...for spies. Despite Cammie's best intentions to be a normal student, danger seems to follow her. She and her best friends learn that their school is going to play host to some mysterious guests--code name: "Blackthorne. Then she's blamed for a security breach that leaves the school's top-secret status at risk. Soon Cammie and her friends are crawling through walls and surveilling the school to learn the truth about Blackthorne and clear Cammie's name. Even though they have confidence in their spy skills, this time the targets are tougher (and hotter), and the stakes for Cammie's heart--and her beloved school--are higher than ever.

When I picked up this book, I was specifically looking for something fun to read. I wasn’t disappointed. This book was just as good as the first one I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU.

Actually, it was better because it had more oompf. The stakes were higher, there was more emotion, and the climax was absolutely gripping. And I absolutely love what the author did with the new girl from the first book: absolutely no cattiness, and she becomes a valuable ally.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

There was one place that gave me pause, and that was near the beginning. Cammie goes on an assignment of Counter Surveillance, meaning she has to discover who is following her and then lose them. Her teacher stresses that this is much more difficult than Surveillance, which Cammie has a natural inclination for.

Turns out that Cammie isn’t a natural at Counter Surveillance, and she fails her mission by inadvertently giving up info to one of the Blackthorne boys. When she realizes she’s failed, she thinks the boy who beat her is actually better than she is. Except there’s a logic flaw here: her teacher had already told her that Cammie’s mission was much harder than Blackthorne’s mission. Plus, the Blackthorne boy had an advantage over Cammie: he knew about her but she didn’t know about him. I think Cammie is smart enough to be able to look at the situation for what it is, learn from it, and not make the same mistake again. Instead, she accepts that this boy is better than she is when it’s not clear that he really is. As good as, maybe, but not better.

But that was the only place that gave me pause. The rest was just as fun as the first book, only better. So, if you’re looking for fun, go read this book.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Devil’s in the Details...

Last week, we laid out the overall shape and structure of plot based on the reader’s reaction. This week, I want to look at the details that bring the structure to life. Starting, unsurprisingly, at the beginning.

When should plot begin?
This is a question I’ve heard asked a thousand times over. And the answer? Immediately. In its simplest form, the main plot is introduced on page one via the characters, situation, and setting. If there is anything about the characters, situation, or setting that doesn’t relate to the main plot, then the story has begun too early. On that same note, the story might begin in a manner that relates to the main plot, but then could veer into unrelated territory. I.E. too much backstory, character pondering, irrelevant incidents, etc. If this is the case, then the story might either need a new beginning, or simply be tightened up.

What about subplots? When should they begin?
That, of course, depends on the subplot and how it relates to the main plot. In other words, the best place to begin a subplot is when it makes the greatest impact in the story. Vague, I know. :)

The way I see subplots is this: they’re what round a story out, showing the reader the main plot from as many different angles as possible. For example, the main plot in THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX is her journey to discover her heart and soul. One of the subplots is the heartless neighbor boy who relishes in violence. When these two plotlines are put together, Jenna’s journey becomes fuller, richer, and more heart-rending. Yet they are separate stories, tied together by a single thread. I think good subplots will enable the reader to make stronger connections to both the story and the characters. Therefore, they must be at least distantly related. If it’s not, then why bother?

Then how about plot twists? How many is too many?
I’m not sure there’s a magic number for plot twists. The best number is whatever works for your story. If it needs a zillion, then give it a zillion. Just make sure the reader isn’t going to get dizzy in the process...

Personally, I love plot twists. But only if they’re well done. I don’t want to see it coming from three chapters away. Not even three pages away. I don’t want to see it until I’m at most one page away, better if I don’t see it at all. But I never want to be asking myself "where did that come from?"

So, what makes a good plot twist?
That’s a good question. And a hard one. It’s hard not to say “it depends on the story,” which I’ve been saying way too much in this post. But, in general, a good plot twist will turn the story’s direction upside down while keeping the characters and situation true to themselves.

Twists are not sudden – often times there’s been subtle clues planted up to the twisting point, but the reader may not have picked up on them until after the fact. Twists don’t shift people out of character, either. If the twist requires a change in one of the characters, then that change has been subtly happening for many pages. I’ve read many a book where the big twist came out of nowhere and I was left scratching my head. I want to be able to see it coming, even if I don’t see it the first time. Especially if I don’t see it the first time, because then I’m guaranteed to go back and read the story again. What author wouldn’t want that?

Finally, what makes a good plot?
That’s a doozy of a question. Because, really, good plot is good structure, good subplots, good twists, good characters, good tension, good situations, etc. all rolled up in one. See? Doozy.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Plot Summary:
Frankie Landau-Banks doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Even when it means she can’t join her boyfriend’s all-male secret society – a society that does nothing but sit on the golf course and drink beer. She’s smarter than any of them, and knows she can take their lame pranks to a whole new level...

For me, this story started out a bit slow. I wasn’t so interested in awkward, fourteen year old Frankie. All I needed to know was that she “bloomed” over the summer before her sophomore year, and had heard her father talk about the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.

After Frankie settled in to school for her sophomore year, things got very interesting...and I couldn’t put it down.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Frankie is unique. She has the unusual gift of objectivity. That is, she is able to set her emotions aside and see things for how they really are. Not how she wants them to be. Not how others want her to see things. Not how her emotions or preconceptions might be skewing the facts. And she is able to act, based upon this objectivity, in order to get, or keep, the things she really wants. That’s partly why she’s such a good debater and strategist (the rest is good, old-fashioned smarts).

This kind of personality is often seen as cold, calculating, and heartless. Clearly, Frankie is none of these things. She truly loves her boyfriend, Matthew. She cares for her friends. And she still found ways to get what she wanted without sacrificing or hurting them. Someone like her would likely end up in a position of power, like the CEO of a successful company. Or a high position in politics. And she wouldn’t get there by stepping on those around her.

In the end, Frankie loses what she’s gained. She loses her boyfriend, she loses her anonymous position as leader of the Order of the Basset Hound, and she nearly loses her best friend. But what does she learn from it? To do things differently next time? Or to be more careful and not make the same mistakes again? Nope. The lesson she comes away with is “I guess I have to hide parts of who I am, or everyone will look at me like I’m a freak.” I find this both frighteningly real, and sad because it’s so real.

Because of who she is, who she’s been established to be throughout the whole novel, I don’t think the ending fits her character. Frankie has consistently shown us that she can think strategically, even when her emotions are rearing and she’s terrified she’s going to lose her boyfriend. It’s clear that she can’t help it – this is just a part of who she is. It’s how she functions, like breathing.

Hence, I just can't believe that she'd tell her boyfriend how she was the real mastermind behind all the brilliant pranks that Alpha had been taking credit for. That's a huge mistake that someone like her could only make if she were caught up in massive emotions. But she isn't. Right before she tells him, she has a logical, even-keeled discussion with herself and realizes that Matthew will never see her for who she is, never accept her as the strategic genius who provided them with so much fun.

If Frankie is who she’s been set up to be, she would never have fessed up in this manner. By telling Matthew, she’s handing him all the power...clearly something she doesn’t do. Instead, she’d have figured out how to retain her power.

So, I think that, instead of telling Matthew, she’d have told the school board on her own. Maybe even written the confession letter before it had been requested. This clears Alpha so he doesn't get expelled, and it puts him in her debt. Also, I could definitely see her stealing back the confiscated Disreputable History book and giving it to Matthew at the most opportune moment. Thus, putting the Order in her debt. Sure, she’d still be kicked out of the “in” crowd. But she’d probably be famous for years after she’d graduated. Not speaking up means she remains anonymous.

That’s what I think the real Frankie would have done. And I’d have cheered her on, because I absolutely loved her.

There are not many heroines written with Frankie’s personality. It’s refreshing to see this explored from all sides, and not shunted into the usual “bad guy” or “sidekick” box. So, thank you, E. Lockhart, for turning objectivity into a superpower. No matter how it may look, it's really not so bad.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

will the real blog post please stand up?

We interrupt your blogging enjoyment for a special announcement.

Due to technical difficulties...erm...okay, due to incompetent forgetfulness, your regularly scheduled thursday book discussion will be postponed to later in the afternoon, possibly friday morning. But absolutely no later than that. And it's going to be all about Frankie Landau-Banks, so stay tuned...

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Bare Bones

Plot has always been the hardest writing concept for me to grasp. Every time I would try to nail down exactly what Plot is in explainable terms, which is something I’ve been doing for some time now, all kinds of unexpected things emerged: fully developed characters, pacing, conflict, tension, character growth, trusting your reader, evoking emotion, etc.

This left me scratching my head. So I looked at what experts said about plot, and they came up with pretty much the same thing: Plot doesn’t appear as an entity unto itself. It appears as a manifestation of all these other aspects of writing. The ones listed above.

The only thing that seems to belong to Plot alone is the overall shape and structure of a story. The best way I’ve seen to explain this is to do it via the reader’s reaction.

Last year, I took a six-week workshop with Esther Hershenhorn, regional advisor for the Illinois chapter of SCBWI. She laid out a reader’s reaction in five simple, genius, steps:

1) “Oh.”
This is the story’s beginning. The reader is curious about the story, the characters, the setting or situation, etc. Something has caused the reader to pick up the book and begin to read, because he is curious what kind of story this is.

2) “Oh my...”
This is at the transition from the beginning to the middle. By now, the reader is hooked, interested, and has been pulled into the story. If he’s in a bookstore or library, he’d probably tuck it under his arm so he can take it home to finish.

3) “Oh dear!”
This is the story’s middle. The reader has gotten this far because he wants to know what’s going to happen. He likes the characters, and he likes what’s happened so far. If he set the book down for whatever reason, he’d come back to it because he wants to.

4) “OH NO!”
This is the transition from middle to end. At this point, the reader needs to know how this is going to end. If the phone rang or someone knocked at the door, he’d get irritated because it’s pulling him out of the story. And, once that distraction is gone, he’d go right back to it. If he’s being seriously needy, he might simply ignore the phone or the door.

5) “Oh yes!”
This is the ending, or resolution to the story. Your reader is left with a sense of satisfaction. The characters are where they should be, and loose ends have been tied up. If your story has been really effective, the reader may feel inspired, illuminated, or even feel the need to take some action based on what he’s read. Or, he may simply feel the need to open it back up and start it all over again.

Say your story has this structure. Is it enough? Yes...and no. In order for this structure to be truly effective, you also have to have fully developed characters, pacing, conflict, tension, character growth, trusting your reader, evoking emotion, etc. As with all parts of writing, having one good piece isn’t enough. They all must be good.

This is the overall picture of a story’s structure, but there are details within that play vital roles. Things like subplots, twists, subtleties, clues, etc. This post is already too long, so I’ll delve into these next week. In the mean time, happy plotting!