Monday, March 30, 2009

Professional Writing

The Caren Johnson Literary Agency had a great post last week. Actually, they have many great posts, but this one really struck home with me. It’s about an unprofessional query they received – the writer kept querying them with the same piece even though he’d been rejected each time. His reason for doing so? “Until I get a hit, I must submit.” Um...

It always amazes me how people don’t see writing as a professional thing. For the non-writers among us, I can understand a little. Only writers know how difficult it is to write well, just like only a doctor knows how stressful it is to have a patient’s life in his hands.

But for a writer to treat writing with such indifference is kind of...well...I find it insulting. I have worked really hard to get where I am with my craft, and he thinks that he can just submit the same piece over and over again in order to get published? The only consolation I have is that I know it’ll never happen for him because he’s not willing to grow or learn. And that is the one thing that writers MUST do.

With any office-like job, what do you do? Do you sit around with your feet up, cranking out the same mediocre work time and again, and then expect to be praised? Probably not. If you did, you’re likely to get a Conversation with your boss. So how can people think writers do this? Because we really don’t. We work just as hard as 9 to 5ers, in a depressingly negative environment. It's RARE to get a zing of inspiration, crank out the story in a matter of days or weeks, and then have it become a classic/best-seller/whatever. We have to work to get it right.

I guess this is a sore spot for me. My husband is supportive of my work, but I have other family members who are not. One has said more than once that I should just self-publish and be done with it. And he won’t see me as a writer until I’m published. Which is kind of sad, but not really my problem. I know what I want, and I know what I need to do in order to get it. His approval isn’t going to change anything, is it? :) I'm a Writer, and I know what it means to me to be a Writer. He doesn't.

On that note, I guess I have one more consolation with the ‘until I get a hit...’ person. He’s not really a Writer. He’s not willing to put in the work, learn the craft, explore, make mistakes, and then learn from them. He thinks he can crank something (anything) out, then have accolades and money dumped on him. Well, it doesn’t work that way.

Sadly, folks like him won’t seek out writing blogs like this one. Probably not even the Caren Johnson Agency’s blog. Instead, he'll just keep submitting. *sigh*

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Winner of the March Book Giveaway...

So many entries!!

This is how I handled the drawing. I wrote everyone's names out next to a number - wrote down your name more than once if you were a follower or posted a link. Then, I used a random number generator to choose the winner.

And when I looked up the person assigned to that number, I just couldn't stop laughing. I mean, it's SO fitting! Because the winner is none other than the Queen of Zombies herself....


Carrie has been blogging about zombies since she started her blog, and obviously the powers that be felt she needed this book. So, congratulations Carrie! This is just too perfect. :)

Drop me a line at tabitha at tabithaolson dot com so I can get your address!

And, don't forget to stop by next saturday to see what I'm giving away in April. Here's a hint: there will be more than one book. :)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spreading the Library Love

Jenn Hubbard charged anyone willing to participate in a Library Blog Challenge. Since I love libraries, I'm happy to oblige.

So, for every unique commenter on this post, I will donate $0.25 to the Chicago Public Library system. I'm afraid I'm not made of money, so I'll have to cap it at $100. And no commenting 100 times! If you want me to donate more, then spread the love by spreading the word. :)

From now until Saturday, March 28th at noon, I'll be accepting comments - which will benefit libraries!

If you want to participate, feel free! Send me your challenge, and I'll link to it. Now let's start spreading the love!

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Plot Summary: Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver. Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn't simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life's ordeals. On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through. In the end, despite what he sees as his own limitations, Enzo comes through heroically to preserve the Swift family. Having learned what it takes to be a compassionate and successful person, the wise canine can barely wait until his next lifetime, when he is sure he will return as a man.

I don’t usually review adult fiction, unless it’s also a crossover to YA. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is adult fiction, and it’s not a YA crossover, which means I wouldn’t ordinarily review it. But, in this case, I have to make an exception.

I checked this out from the library, but now I need to pick up my own copy from the bookstore. It is amazing, heart-wrenching, joyful, funny, and will leaving you sobbing with a pile of tissue, yet feeling elated at the same time.

A story told from an animal’s perspective is usually pegged as a children’s book – one that no one will want to read. But this is definitely not one of those stories. Enzo’s personality and wit come across clearly, as well as his doggie ways. I found myself cheering him on many times, even though I knew some of the things he was doing would never come from a real dog. But that didn’t matter. And, through him, we feel an immense amount of sympathy for his owner, Denny, and all the things this poor man goes through.

There is car racing sprinkled throughout the story, but you don’t need to be a racing fan to enjoy this book. Nor do you need to be a dog lover. It’s just a story about the parallels between human life and racing, told from the perspective of someone who isn’t human.

I rarely cry when I read books, and this book made me cry. In a very good way. I enjoyed it on multiple levels – as a daughter, spouse, parent, and explorer of life. If you are any of these things, you’ll enjoy it too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview with Carrie Ryan!

Carrie Ryan, author of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, has agreed to give us a fantastic interview! As with everything else on this website, the interview is more about the writing aspect of things. Sooooo, here's Carrie!

Tell us about your book.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a post-apocalypse romance about a young girl struggling against the strictures of her village and hoping that there’s a world beyond the fences and the forest surrounding them.

What was the inspiration behind your idea?
I’ve always been drawn to post-apocalypse stories and after reading two in 2006 I wanted more but couldn’t find any. So many people say you should write the book you’d want to read and so I thought about what I’d want to read and that’s what lead to The Forest of Hands and Teeth!

How many drafts did you go through?
I’m not even sure anymore how many drafts I went through! For a while I was saving each draft as a new document but I gave up eventually. I’d bet that I went through ten drafts if not more.

How many drafts did your editor go through with you?
I think we went through three or four rounds of edits. The first one was really broad – she sent me an email with about eight different points she wanted me to address. Each round we went through after that was more and more detailed so that in the end we were trying to figure out where to add contractions!

How long did it take to find your editor?
I was really lucky that it all happened pretty quickly! My agent sent the manuscript to a few editors on a Friday and my editor called Monday morning with an offer. She’s been awesome to work with.

How do you get to know your characters?
It’s funny, I get to know my characters through writing the book. Like, I’ll never know random details (like what color the character loves or what music they’d like) until it’s important to the story. So I definitely know them a lot better once the first draft is finished!

What was your favorite part of writing this book? Least favorite?
My favorite part were the moments when the words just flowed and I lost all track of time. The hardest parts were when I didn’t know what happened next and I was afraid of messing up the story.

How does it feel to have your first book on the shelves?
It feels like it’s happening to someone else! It’s just so surreal!!

How did you get into writing for kids?
I always loved reading YA novels – Christopher Pike is one of my favorites! I feel like because YA books are all shelved together that you can blend all different sub-genres and don’t have to follow the “rules” of each one. I really love that freedom and think it’s one of the reasons that there have been so many amazing YA books recently.

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m revising The Dead-Tossed Waves which is the sequel/companion to The Forest of Hands and Teeth and is coming out Spring 2010.

Do you work on one project at a time, or multiple?
So far I’ve only been able to work on one project at a time. It’s hard for me to switch gears between characters and worlds and I’m afraid my characters will end up sounding too similar.

Are you a paper person, or the computer-only-type?
Very definitely a computer-only person. I can’t hand write fast enough to keep up with the words.

What are your favorite reference books? And why?
I’m a huge fan of the dictionary and thesaurus. Because I get to make up everything else in my world I don’t have to consult too many reference books (yay!!)

Thanks, Carrie!! And congratulations on the release of your very first book!

To see more of what Carrie is up to, visit her website at To win a copy of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, go here and leave a comment. The contest ends this saturday, and good luck to all who have entered so far!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Plot Summary: Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy-an ancient Indigo Man beneath the hill, a gateway to a desert leading to an abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible menace of the Sleer. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family...

I was already a fan of Neil Gaiman before I picked up this book, and now I’m an even bigger fan. I mean, how many people could pull off a story of a boy being raised in a graveyard? Not many.

I had some trepidation about the subject, and the manner in which this boy came to the graveyard. But Mr. Gaiman handled it beautifully. Despite the underlying darkness, there are no gruesome details. No horrifying scenes. Just action, adventure, and a lot of sympathy for a boy named Nobody.

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

This whole book is told from Bod as a toddler to Bod as a teenager, through vignette type stories. We see Bod grow up, and are only given the most important details along the way: Scarlet, fading, the ghouls, etc. They all play a vital part in the end. I was fascinated by this strategy, because it reminded me of a series with an overall storyline.

This is also a multiple viewpoint story that doesn’t head-hop. We see the information we need to see while maintaining our connection to Bod, and we don’t migrate from head to head within a scene. The different viewpoints have a definite purpose, and are clearly laid out so the reader knows who is speaking at all times.

There were more telling phrases than I prefer (“Bod knew” or “Bod thought” etc), but it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I was both pleased and surprised that this book won the Newbery. It’s more plot-driven than character-driven, which doesn’t usually get recognized.

Overall, I loved it. And I think it’s a book that kids will love, too, though a warning that the story opens with murder might be in order. : )

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why I Write What I Write

I’ve talked before about why I write – that is, why I put pen to paper. But I’ve never talked about why I write the kinds of stories I write.

Why does one gravitate toward fantasy? Science fiction? Chick-lit? Christian? Who knows. It’s just what we want to write about, right? That’s what I thought, until recently.

The novel I just finished was the hardest thing I’ve written to date. It’s not a novel I gravitate toward when I’m skimming shelves, it’s not about anything I’ve experienced personally, and the style is way out of my comfort zone. But, now that it’s done, it’s also the best thing I’ve ever written. And I’m convinced that’s because it was so far out of my comfort zone. It forced me to stretch myself into the unknown, which meant I flopped on my face more than once. And, with each flop, I learned not to make that mistake again.

The project I’ve just started working on is turning out to be similar. Again, it’s not a novel I gravitate toward. It’s not about anything I’ve experienced personally. And the style and subject are way out of my comfort zone. Does that mean I shouldn’t write it? Nope. I’m still going to. And I’m going to flop on my face along the way. And that’s okay.

Agent Elana Roth wrote a great post about the craft of writing, which she compared to making pottery. It is brilliant and everyone should go read it. :) It illustrates exactly what I’ve been experiencing for the past few years.

I’ve been working on selling my first novel for quite some time now. It came really close last year, right down to the wire, but the house ultimately said no, and now it’s back in my hands. If you’d asked me a year ago how I’d feel about this, I’d have said “devastated!” But, I’m okay. In fact, I won’t be heartbroken if it never gets published. Not because I don’t think it’s publishable – I think it is, and that it would do fairly well – but because I know I can do better.

Everything about that book was well within my comfort zone, yet it didn’t produce my best work. I didn’t have to do anything in order to write it, except for writing it. Clearly, that doesn’t work for me. I need to be able to stretch and grow, and I can’t do that if I’m always working on projects within my comfort zone. This may not work for everyone, but it’s working so far for me, and I expect it to keep working. So much that when I eventually have an agent and editor, I want them both to feel free to look me in the eye and say "you can do better," and then send me off to do just that.

A year ago, I wrote about writing what you know, and what it meant for me as a writer. It still means the same for me now, but I would add to it: Start out by writing what you know, then move on to writing what you don’t know. Otherwise, how are you going to grow?

So, why do you write what you write?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp

Plot Summary: Sutter Keely. He’s the guy you want at your party. He’ll get everyone dancing. He’ll get everyone in your parents’ pool. Okay, so he’s not exactly a shining academic star. He has no plans for college and will probably end up folding men’s shirts for a living. But there are plenty of ladies in town, and with the help of Dean Martin and Seagram’s V.O., life’s pretty fabuloso, actually. Until the morning he wakes up on a random front lawn, and he meets Aimee. Aimee’s clueless. Aimee is a social disaster. Aimee needs help, and it’s up to the Sutterman to show Aimee a splendiferous time and then let her go
forth and prosper. But Aimee’s not like other girls, and before long he’s in way over his head. For the first time in his life, he has the power to make a difference in someone else’s life—or ruin it forever.

This book was nominated for the National Book Award, along with the likes of THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS, WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED, and CHAINS. And, let me tell you, it’s worthy.

This story is realistic, with a realistic ending. And it’s so rich with craft and strong in voice that I could not put it down. It’s just as strong as CHAINS in the showing department, but surpasses it in active word choice. This whole story is alive simply because of the words that Mr. Tharp chooses to use. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy. NOW.

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

Even though Sutter Keely would never admit it, he’s obviously an alcoholic. But his story is not about him coming to terms with this, or even wondering if he has a problem. At least, not in the traditional sense.

It takes years to get over alcohol addiction, and I applaud Mr. Tharp for not giving Sutter that zinging moment where he realizes he’s an alcoholic and vows to never drink again. That’s just not realistic. It’s tough to get over any kind of addiction, especially when you don’t believe you have a problem. And Sutter clearly doesn’t believe he has a problem. But acknowledging similarity traits between himself and his father is a clear baby-step toward recovery. It leaves the ending open-ended. Sutter could stay on that path to recovery, or he may not. We have no way of knowing.

On top of all that, Mr. Tharp shows the perils of drinking without preaching. No easy feat.

This is an amazing book. Go get a copy.

Edited to add: I cannot believe I forgot about this!!! This book has the most effective use of present tense that I've ever seen. I only noticed it because I notice all present tense, and then usually adjust accordingly. There was no adjustment here - present tense worked from page one all the way through to the end. Which makes sense, since the book is called THE SPECTACULAR NOW. :) Tim Tharp just keeps making me grin with all this cool stuff he does with craft. :)

And now back to your regularly scheduled blogging... :)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Tools

The concept behind these words was constantly driven into me while I was growing up. As a result, I have a really hard time sitting and doing nothing. Even if I’m watching TV, I still have yarn in my hands as I’m crocheting a baby blanket or something.

I’m also an extremely hard worker. If hard work must be done, I don’t waste time wishing it could be easier. I just roll up my sleeves and get started, making sure things get done right. I even made up a rhyme when I was a kid.
The sooner I get done,
The sooner I have fun.

Those words got me through many piles of dishes, mopped floors, and scrubbed toilets. : ) And, lately, they’ve gotten me through some really rough drafts.

This is all fine and dandy when I’m at the beginning of a story, or even a new draft. But when I’m at the end, I run into trouble. I need to set my manuscript aside so I can get some distance and perspective before I start revisions. This is a concept common to most writers, I’m sure. Distance is the key to attaining objectivity, and objectivity is the key to making good revisions.

After finishing ROYAL ROSE, I took a two week ‘vacation’ from my computer, with the intent to pick up my wip, PUZZLING FAITH, at the end of it. In the past, that’s always been ample time for me to switch from one project to the next. Except, this time, it isn’t. And I’m not sure why. At the end of those two weeks, I sat down at my computer and began to review FAITH, but I couldn’t concentrate. I felt as keyed up as I had right after finishing ROSE, and it made it impossible to concentrate.

Maybe I’m still too excited about ROSE (I’m very excited – we’re taking shout-out-from-the-rooftops excited, and I'm not a shouter) and it's throwing everything else off. Maybe I’m just not ready to get back to FAITH. Or, maybe I’m subconsciously procrastinating. I honestly don’t know. But these idle hands are driving me crazy!!

What do you do to occupy yourself when you’re between projects? Or do you just dive right into the next? For those of you who can do this, I’m green with envy. : )

Saturday, March 07, 2009

March Book Giveaway

Good morning, all!

This month, the book I'm giving away is THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan. And, look for an interview with the author later in the month!

To enter, leave a comment on this post.
For one extra entry, post a link to this contest on your website or blog (or some other public forum), then let me know about it here.
For another extra entry, become a follower and then let me know about it here (or let me know you already are a follower).

I'll draw the winner out of a hat on saturday, March 28th.

Good luck!!

And the Winner Is...

Mary Witzl!!

You are now the proud owner of THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp. Congratulations! :)

Drop me a line (tabitha at tabithaolson dot com) so I can get your address, and then send it off to you. :)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Harmless by Dana Reinhardt

Plot Summary: One friday night, Emma, Anna, and Mariah, three best friends, are out doing something they shouldn’t. They make up a story so they won’t get in trouble at home. It seems like the easy way out. What happens next challenges their friendship, their community, their relationships with their families, and their sense of themselves. What happens next shows the harm one lie can do.

I’ve read one other book by Dana Reinhardt, and didn’t care for it much. But I never let that deter me from reading other books by the same author. After all, she could have written something very different that I might want to read over and over. So, I picked up HARMLESS with a completely open mind and ready to fall in love.

Unfortunately, I didn’t. After this happens twice, then I begin to think my tastes don’t mesh with this particular author. So, keep this in mind as you read this review.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below (that give away the ending of the book).

This story is told via three points of view: Anna’s, Emma’s, and Mariah’s, and they tell a lie about a strange man attempting to rape Emma (there was no man - they were lying to avoid getting into trouble). The story started off okay, and it was interesting to see the girls' different perspectives . But, as events unfolded, the multiple points of view actually put me off. I felt like I was missing too much with the switch from character to character. Especially when the big things happened toward the end, and we only got one character’s perspective on it.

For example, when the girls are arrested after the truth has surfaced, we only hear Anna's account of it. But this is such a huge thing that I felt cheated out of how the other two girls handled this situation. Especially Emma, since she's the one who got them all arrested. I wanted to know if she felt vindicated, or if she'd made the biggest mistake ever.

To me, this really felt like Emma’s story. It was Emma’s idea to lie about the attempted rape, and then it was Emma who confessed the truth to the police. She didn’t consult Anna or Mariah beforehand, nor did she seem to consider how her confession would affect them. Yet, we never fully understand her reasons behind the confession. Granted, we see that she’s in turmoil and falling into something like depression, and we can kind of understand why. She had sex and wasn’t ready for it, she made up a story that painted her as a sexual victim, and now she’s seeing looks of pity mixed with fear everywhere.

This is where I believe the real story is. A girl proposing an outrageous lie to avoid a simple grounding, then having that lie turn on her and make her life miserable? That's a riveting premise. Anna and Mariah had their own story lines, of course, with character changes and separate paths to the conclusion. But, in the end, they just weren’t interesting enough. Emma’s inner turmoil overshadowed them in a very big way.

I think that if this story had been told solely through Emma’s perspective, I would have loved it. And, I think the multiple points of view made it more complicated than necessary. In the world of good stories, less is more. :)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen or a Well-Run System of Chefs?

Sorry for the lateness of this post. After I finish a draft, I always take a ‘vacation’ from my computer for a week or two. I’ve had posts scheduled up to today, and I realized this morning that I never finished the one for today.

Anyway, today I wanted to talk about using multiple points of view in a novel. I see writers asking about this technique in forums, critique meetings, conferences, basically everywhere. The question I see most often is “I know it’s considered a no-no to use multiple points of view, but do I *have* to stick to just one person?”

This often prompts the same reaction from me. Why is it that a lot of writers think we’re not supposed to use more than one point of view? It’s obviously possible, because there are some great books out there with more than one main character. Two good examples are THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS series and SKIN HUNGER by Kathleen Duey.

I’ve never been tempted to write a story from more than one point of view. Why? Well, to be honest, it scares the daylights out of me. More than one point of view means more than one major plot line, as well as more than one path of character growth. Also, the multiple plot lines and character growth need to mesh with the overall story, not unlike a series or trilogy.

But the most daunting concept in multiple points of view is that each character must have his own story.

For example, in SISTERHOOD, each of the girls’ experiences, reactions, and growth is unique. The threads connecting them are the pants, and the fact that they are spending their first summer apart. In SKIN HUNGER, Hahp and Sadima don’t even live in the same time frame, so their stories are so completely different. Yet, there is an underlying thread of magic, as well as two characters, connecting them.

Lisa Yee did something close to multiple points of view with her MILLICENT MIN series. It’s the same story told three different times, through three different characters. I think that if she’d put all three points of view into one novel, it wouldn’t have worked. The reader probably would have tired of hearing the same thing over and over, even though it was from a different perspective. Instead, she changed the main character with each book, retelling the same story, and allowing us to form a connection to each character. Very effective.

I think the reason a lot of writers think they can’t use multiple points of view is that it’s hard to do right. That is, it’s easy to head-hop from character to character so you can get every aspect of your story across, such as things going on that the main character doesn’t know about. But, is it *really* necessary for the reader to know so much so quickly? If the reader doesn’t learn these aspects of the story until the main character does, it creates a stronger bond between the two. Then the reader can feel whatever emotion the main character experiences, and the story ends up having a greater impact. It’s harder to write this way, but it’s also much more effective.

This is mainly why I didn’t care for the SEPTIMUS HEAP series. I assumed the main character would be Septimus Heap (since the series is named after him), but he didn’t even make an appearance until several chapters in to the first book. And, once he did, we heard nothing from him until the end. It left me scratching my head, and I never picked up the next book.

Anyway, I think Cheryl Klein said it best at last year’s SCBWI –IL conference: for multiple main characters, each must undergo his own change or internal plot. Otherwise that character isn’t necessary. So, if you are thinking of writing a story with multiple main characters, ask yourself this. Are you ready or willing to put multiple plots within one story, and then tie them all together? If not, then perhaps you have a single viewpoint story.