Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Around the Internet

Before I sign off for the holidays, I thought I'd link to a couple of other places where I've landed on the internet recently.

First is a profile on the blog for La Muse, a writers' and artists' retreat in France I attended in June of 2008. I had a wonderful experience and this quick interview will tell you a little about my time there.

I also did a profile of Grassroots.org for the travel blog The Lost Girls. Grassroots.org provides free technical infrastructure to non-profit organizations.

And even though I'm not in this next spot, I'm there in spirit. My delightful employers Jill and Molly over at StoryStudio Chicago are featured in a video on Beyond the Pedway. This will give you a glimpse into my writing home. (Chicago writers, you can check us out in person at our next Open House on January 12th).

Happy holidays to all and talk to you again in 2010!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Talking Out Your Story

Mike and I were running errands this weekend and catching each other up on what we've been doing during a busy week. I finally admitted to him last week that I'd started a new novel, and he wanted to know what it was about. I was shy about it at first, since I'm still feeling things out, but I finally spilled the beans.

Unlike my last manuscript, I've started this one with a clear idea of the story in mind, and a crucial plot point. Thing is, I'm not sure yet where in the story this event should take place. I've thought about all the different impact this event could have if it happens earlier. Or, on the flip side, all the tension and obstacles that could lead up to it as a climax.

So I have a few paths of possibility in mind. Mike listened very nicely and attentively as we weaved through the snowy city streets and I rattled along, describing all the different ways I could tell this story. I'm jabbering on and on about my story, verbalizing ideas that have only existed in my head or in my computer.

And then when I got to one specific idea, Mike perked up and said "Ooh! Wow, that's really something!" One of the many ideas grabbed him. And that's a branch of my little story sapling tree that I'll now pursue.

For me early drafts of stories are safer in my head, or just on paper (and not even real paper, but a virtual electronic document). But talking out my story at this early stage gave me very clear feedback on what ideas were working and which were better left in my head.

What about you? How soon do you share your story ideas with the universe?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stories in Song: Evacuate the Dance Floor

Something a little fun for a Friday: finding the stories in songs.

I'm the youngest of eight children and my mom was a music teacher. Suffice to say there was a lot of music in our house. Everything from classical to rock to blues, and when I grew my own musical tastes, rap and hip-hop. While I imagine my parents must have screamed to one of us at some point or another, "Turn that music down!" I have no memory of music being shunned in our household.

And today, music is still a huge part of my life. I listen to music when I workout, I sing at the top of my lungs when I'm driving in my car (alone or not), and, like some sort of teenager, I still sing and dance in front of the mirror before I go out at night. I love music, and I also love lyrics.

As a writer, I've started to analyze songs for word choice. Songs are often mini-stories, and they really only have a few words to get their point across. So word choice is vital and I think we can learn a lot about how to express an idea, a feeling, an action or an image, with just a handful of the right words.

Take this song, "Evacuate the Dance Floor" by Cascada. Here's a snippet of the lyrics:

Steal the night
Kill the lights
Feel it under your skin
Time is right
Keep it tight
Cause it's pulling you in
Wrap it up
Can't stop
It feels like a overdose

Evacuate the dance floor
I'm infected by the sound
Stop, this beat is killing me
Hey Doctor DJ let the music take me underground

While it may look like a song about dancing at first glance, there's an underlying theme because of the specific word choice.

Evacuate evokes a sense of emergency. She didn't sing "Hey, get off the dance floor." With one word, she got her message, her sense of urgency, across.

She didn't use "turn off the lights" but "kill the lights." That's no accident. Kill creates a sense of danger. Same thing with "steal the night."

And then the music is an overdose. It's too much, it's killing her, but like a drug, she can't stay away from the music. And she expresses this in one word.

On par with overdose, she's infected by the sound. The music didn't just get stuck in her head, it's not pumping the beat through her veins, it infected her.

And when you listen to the song it sounds like "Mister DJ", a phrase used in tons of dance songs, she actually choose the unique label Doctor DJ. And who do you turn to for an infection other than a doctor?

Then she wants the doctor to take her underground. A reference to the underground music scene, or six feet under? The artistic interpretation is endless!

Through the use of specific words, Cascada created a dance song that's deeper than "I really dig the beat of this music." She labeled music as dangerous as the plague, said that it got her sick, that she was as addicted to it as a drug, yet she's willing to dance herself to death because it's all so good.

Here's the video if you'd like to have a listen. I've had this song in my head for months, and this morning was the first time I actually watched the video. While they missed out on a lovely opportunity to bring the imagery of the lyrics to life (Little Miss Performance Artist Lady Gaga would've had a field day with this one), it's still a fun dance video.

And look, I found an unplugged version! You can really focus on the lyrics better here. The song starts at the 0:48 mark, as the first part is an interview in, I'm guessing, German.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Writing Slowly, Words Faintly Falling

I’m just a few chapters into a new novel, but the words are coming out slowly. I’ve written previous first drafts in caffeine-laced rushes of worry and hope, afraid the words would disappear if I didn’t commit them to paper fast enough.

But this draft is different. I started with an idea. I shaped my characters ever so slightly – a job here, a hairstyle there – ahead of time. I’ve refused to outline in the past, shunning it as lacking creativity.

But this time, to feel out my four major characters, I’ve written scenes from their points of view. And through that exercise I’ve discovered this is not a story about what one character wants, but the ripple effect her desires have on others around her. And really, that’s what all stories are about, so mine is no different. But I know now the impact of everyone’s actions. I can anticipate how these characters will move across the dance floor of life.

This story’s paragraphs are heavy, full of metaphor and tension and theme. I’ve been reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book that will make a writer stop and think about just how full you can pack a sentence.

And as this story is coming out slower than anything I’ve written, these well-fed paragraphs drag me along to an end that, for once, is in sight. I’m sprinkling words slowly into this idea of a story, and like Joyce’s snowflakes, they are faintly falling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Early Morning Winter Writing

I am not a fan of winter. Sure, I fall in love with the first snow, I dig a White Christmas, and every winter season calls for a cute new hat-scarf-glove combo. But come January, when the snow is slushy and sidewalks haven’t been shoveled in weeks, and the tires on my car swish around while I’m driving, and the wind is too bitter to run in, I’ve had enough.

But this morning, I remembered one thing I do love about the start of winter. Getting up early, when it’s still very dark out. Walking straight to the living room (ok, quick stop at the fridge for a Diet Coke) and instead of opening the blinds, I open my laptop. I don’t turn on any lights and write in the dark, sleepy and cold, a blanket or two across my lap.

And by the time by husband walks into the living room, ready for work in a warm winter sweater, I’m a thousand words into a new novel, and not so mad at the cold.

I love summer in Chicago. I want to jog by the lake, run errands with my hair still wet from a cool shower, enjoy a four o’clock happy hour at an outdoor beer garden. But summer is not good writing weather.

Winter, I don’t love you all that much, but I will take your sleepy, dark, cold mornings and wrap them around a fresh first draft.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Books on the Beach

I was in Mexico for a beach vacation last week, and I'd say the number of books rivaled the number of bikinis. To my delight, everyone was reading! Because we all know the publishing industry isn't quite at the top of its game these days, (I do so love the idea of giving books as Christmas presents this year -- help an author out!) it was so refreshing to see books doing their thing: helping people relax and taking them into another world.

At one point when I was walking on the beach, I decided I wanted some stats on how many people were reading. It could've been the strawberry daiquiri-induced haze, but it seemed like all I saw were books. So I started to pay attention to just how many.

There is nothing sweeter really, than a couple reading side by side under a beach umbrella. Well, perhaps it could've been Tommy, who was reading one of the Twilight tomes on the flight home. Tommy, who wears boxers with green shamrocks and carries his wife's purple polka-dot Kate Spade shoulder bag. Tommy, who wore a T-Shirt with parrots on the back that read "Meet the Squawkers." Tommy, who's wife, I assumed, wrote the long, curvy, swirly inscription to him on the inside of his book. I'm going to take a leap of faith and say that wasn't Stephanie Meyer's handwriting.

But back to the beach: me walking along, searching out readers, starting to deduce that at least a third of the people had books on their bellies. Then I wanted to know who they were reading. I could spot some covers in an instant: Picolt, Brown, Meyer, Weiner, Irving. I felt foiled when I saw books in foreign languages. I stared harder at everyone, trying to distinguish the covers I didn't recognize. And suddenly I was staring right at a woman's bare breasts. Sorry lady, I was really looking at your book, I swear. At that point I gave up on data collection and focused on the surf.

Beach: relaxing. Frozen drinks: relaxing. Books: relaxing. By my little survey in the Riviera Maya, the publishing industry is doing just fine.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NaNoWriMo or Not, How About a Write-A-Thon?

I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo, but I will be working at StoryStudio Chicago’s November Write-A-Thon this Saturday. Need to catch up on your word count for NaNo? Trying to finish up a short story for end of year submission deadlines? Finally ready to start that first novel? Come on out and join a bunch of other writers who are looking for a quiet, distraction-free place to get some words on the page. We're in Chicago at 4043 N. Ravenswood, #222.

And if you do come out on Saturday, please stop by the front desk and say hello. While the studio is usually packed for these events, it gets very, very quiet at times, and I think people are often afraid to talk. So much so that I get afraid to talk, answering the phone in some kind of creepy whisper. We can chat about your current work in progress, brainstorm ways for your antagonist to antagonize, swap lists of our latest must-reads.

The studio’s open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and you can stop by at any time. Stay for as little or as long as you like. I’ll be there from one to five and hope to see some new faces!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

John Irving Video

John Irving was on The Bonnie Hunt Show yesterday and I saw the episode while I was running on the treadmill at the gym. He is my favorite author, and his interview made me stay on the treadmill longer than I intended. I can't find a video of the portion of the interview where he talks about writing just yet, but in my search I came up with this one. It's a few years old, but it's short and sweet, and emphasizes how a story needs to keep moving. He says this gem about his goal with the novel: "To make the story better, more compelling, more unstoppable on page 400 than it was on page 40."

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Lost Girls Book Review

Travel junkies, hop on over to the The Lost Girls to see my book review of The New Age of Adventure: Ten Years of Great Writing, a collection of travel articles from National Geographic Adventure magazine.

FTC, I don't even know what to do about you since all the book review fuss you made has kinda died down. But yes, I got this book for free. It was delicious.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Guide to Literary Agents Guest Post

If you haven't already found this article via twitter, scoot on over to the Guide to Literary Agents blog where I have a guest post about what gets an agent's attention. It's my review of an agent panel at the SCWW conference.

I think the GLA blog, run by Editor Chuck Sambuchino, is one of the best sources for agent info and query examples that doesn't get as much attention as sites like Query Shark and Nathan. I mean, Nathan only needs a single name to be identified. He's just like Madonna.

But the GLA blog has a great series on queries that work, where agents post a query letter for a book they sold and provide commentary on what in particular got their attention in the query.

They also highlight new agents, who are often more willing to take a chance on a debut author to build their list. I've queried many agents (who rep what I write) the day I see a review of them on GLA, and frequently get an immediate response. My request rate for partials is higher with these new agents too.

Plus, Chuck talks about his cover band. How can you not dig a dude who understands the beauty of Pour Some Sugar on Me?

It's a helpful and fun blog. Go check it out now!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Simple Statement About Loglines

I took a class in Freelance Magazine Writing and in our final session last night, we talked about writing query letters. Pitching an idea for a magazine article really isn’t that different from pitching a novel. You need that hook, the logline, that super brief description of your story.

Our lovely instructor Kate Ancell put it this way: “If you can’t get your story down to a sentence or two, you don’t really know what you’re writing about yet.”

That just says it all, now doesn't it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding Consistency in Query Letter Advice

On Friday I took two classes at the SCWW conference with agents who have a very clear point of view on what they’re looking for when it comes to query letters. One was by FinePrint Literary agent Janet Reid (see also Shark, Query) and the other by Greyhaus Literary agent Scott Eagan. (I missed the session by Knight Agency's Elaine Spencer, but Chuck Sambuchino blogged about it here.)

What surprised me was when an agent would dispense a piece of advice (you know, from their oodles of business experience where they slog through hundreds of queries each week) and a few people would get downright fussy. They’d shoot their arm in the air and say, “but hey, so-and-so agent just said that they don’t like to have information about where I found them,” or point out some other such minor differing opinion.

The agent would often say something about this being an example of personal preference or style. They’d nicely remind the attendees that every agent has his or her submission guidelines on their website, and they probably blog a lot, or are on Twitter, and with a little surfing you can learn their style.

However, the questioner might sigh or huff about how hard it is to figure out what agents want when they all want different things. So I thought I’d collect a list of similar things that agents do say about queries.

Perhaps if we focus on the consistencies, we can learn 80% of the tricks, and stop feeling so lousy about the other 20% seeming like a big mystery.

Here are things both Janet and Scott said in their sessions:
  • A query letter is a business letter. It’s not the time to be creative. It’s the time to be professional. Your manuscript is where you get creative. Janet even said, “Formality is never out of place.”
  • A query letter must tell the agent what the book is about. This is the story’s premise, i.e., “A great white shark haunts a sleepy New England beach town.” Be specific.
  • Query letters should never ever be longer than a page. Janet said about 250 words.
  • When writing a query via email, you don’t need to include everyone's mailing address up top. But darn it, don’t forget to put your contact information at the bottom! And have a professional email that identifies you by name, not snookypants49@yahoo or awesomewriter@gmail.
  • Include the word count and title.
  • The query must sell them instantly. Scott gives about twenty seconds.
  • Best quote from Janet: “You can query too soon. You can never query too late.”
  • Best quote from Scott: “Your resume is your manuscript.”

Writing a query takes a lot of work. It might feel like it takes just as much effort as writing the manuscript. But there are tons of great resources on honing your query letter. If you haven’t yet, check out Query Shark, The Public Query Slushpile, the QueryTracker forum, and from Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford, this post and this series. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Preparing for a Writers Conference

The past few days I’ve been preparing for the South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference this weekend. What goes into preparing for a conference? In my world, it’s this stuff:

Business Cards. I finally created business cards where my job title is “Writer.” I love seeing that. And to promote the Fiction City brand, the top of the business card uses the same image that’s at the top of this blog. Details on my business card include email, phone, blog website and twitter page.

Business Attire. Since I consider this a business event, I’m going business casual all the way. And because the weather is lovely, that means skirts and dressy sandals. While I’m excited to wear warm-weather clothes again, my look will still be professional and conservative. Check out this post on the SCWW blog and read the comments to see agent Scott Eagan’s confirmation that yes, agents to pay attention to how you use your wardrobe to present yourself.

Knowing the Faculty. Thanks to blogs, I already know a lot of stuff about much of the faculty. The great roster of agents, editors and authors is what attracted me to this conference. I signed up for agent pitches and manuscript critiques and could select my top three choices for each, but I won’t know who I’m matched with until I arrive. Still, I’ve been researching the reading interests, recent sales, and background of each agent so I’m prepared to talk business or fun no matter who I’m paired with.

Practicing my Pitch. I am ready to tell anyone and everyone what my book is about in one to three short sentences. I worked on my logline, and have it memorized and ready to discuss at a moment’s notice. I also think I’m able to rattle it off without sounding rehearsed. I’ve identified a few key verbs I know I need to hit, but I can mix it up depending on the situation I’m in – pitch session, elevator ride, or buffet line.

Sessions Selected. I’ve reviewed the schedule and already know which sessions I want to take. In some timeslots, it’s a clear choice. At others, there are three sessions I want to go to. I’m arriving Thursday night and Friday is an extra day of intensive sessions. During this extra time I hope to ask around and get to know more about each presenter to narrow down which session will be most helpful to me. But, just like I did when I went to conferences back in my business days (for free--sigh!), I have backup sessions ready to dart off to if the first session I chose just isn’t doing the trick.

I’m so excited to spend a few days surrounded by writers and other people who dig books as much as I do. My goal is to listen, learn and make new friends. And if I can squeeze in a quick walk on the beach, that’s even better.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Novel in Pieces

I’ve been hanging out in revision mode and making slow yet steady progress. I’ve focused on the first 100 pages and have tightened up the plot. The beginning needed the most work, plot wise. The middle and end are okay, but I know there are a few specific spots where I need to weave in my higher-stakes plot just right to make the story sing all the way to the end.

But looking at 85,000 words, how could I find those problem spots? And find them efficiently. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all my scenes. So the other day I assigned each scene a status regarding plot: fine, needs a few tweaks, or in deep trouble. The only other detail I will tell you about this spreadsheet (and therefore about me) is that it is color-coded on three different variables.

So now there were colors and labels and I knew there were spots that needed more work than others. Yet looking at my colorful contraption, I got overwhelmed. I’ve been going over and over the book so much I’ve started to feel like I’m not making as much progress. I needed to stir things up.

I learned long ago that when a task feels unmanageable, breaking it up into smaller pieces and focusing on one at a time really works for me. The task of “clean house top to bottom before entire family comes over for a party” sounds daunting. But what about “vacuum the living room?” Heck, I can handle that. “Clean the second bathroom?” Easy as pie.

Well the same thing works with novels, because a novel is just a bunch of little chapters. I seemed to forget this part. When I started revising and moved scenes around drastically, I kicked chapter numbers to the curb. I didn’t know what was going to end up where and labeled (alphanumerically) my scenes. Yes, each and every individual scene -- right now, there are 94 of them.

Now that everything is in the right place – story starts where the trouble starts, a nice reversal about halfway through – I felt like I could chunk the scenes back into chapters. And you know what? Seeing those chapter numbers (each set of scenes with their own individual border in the spreadsheet, of course) really made it manageable.

And of all those scenes, I identified eight chapters where I need to tinker with the plot. In some spots, it's just one scene that needs a fix. In others the whole chapter needs a good talking to. Before, I thought I was up against a whole novel. But now it's just eight chapters. I can handle eight chapters.

So take that, big bad scary novel. You’re just a bunch of little ole chapters after all.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Pitch

I'll be pitching my novel to agents at the South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference in two (count them, two!) weeks and I've been working on my logline. There are lots of great descriptions of what a logline is, like the ones here and here and here. But basically, it's that one sentence description that explains what your story is about. The word logline is more of a screenwriting term, but it clicks with me, so I use it. It's your story's hook.

And it's no time to talk about the character's "journey" or "self-discovery" or "search for self-identity." In the logline, you need facts. Get specific. What's the conflict? What's the obstacle? What happens? Oh yeah, and explain it in about 100 words or less.

Here are some posts that are helping me through the process. There are two great articles (part one and part two) from Edittorrent about how to write a logline. Also helpful is Nathan's Query Letter Mad Lib. That helps you get the gist of the story down to a few lines too.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere

Everyone has to start somewhere. Cranking out short stories in small circulation literary magazines. Writing the novel that never gets published but teaches you so much about the craft. Or a guest spot on Gilmore Girls.

Herewith, a younger, skinnier, not-yet-smoldering Jon Hamm (now know as Don Draper of Mad Men fame) on Gilmore Girls in 2002:

Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy and man of many voices) had a two-episode spot on Gilmore Girls. The only link I can (quickly) find is from the WB and it has a commercial in it! So I won't embed the video here, but here's the link if you want to hop on over to the WB website and check it out.

BTW, this episode aired in 2002, while Family Guy was cancelled. For the second time. For three years. And what did Seth do in the face of this rejection? He kept on working.

These little "before they made it big time" sightings are always reassuring to me. I know we'd all love to have that novel on the shelf at Borders right this very second. But perfecting your craft, whether at acting, writing or something else, takes time. Lots of time. At least these guys proved to us that plugging away on the small stuff can result to making it in the big leagues.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Getting Unstuck

September was not the best writing month I’ve ever had. I spent more time being stuck than being productive. I'd been working on weaving a stronger, meatier plot into my novel. It was a big undertaking, but I knew I had to get it right. But I got stuck, and for a lot longer than ever before.

Good news is that I’m finally back on the horse of productive writing and revising at a respectable pace. So I thought I'd share a few things that helped me stay on track.

I took a little break.
I knew I was facing a big change and I knew I didn’t know how to solve it. The words were spinning in front of me and I couldn’t see any story. So instead of writing, I went to movies in the afternoon. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. I took a few mid-day naps. Of course, at the time I was distraught by all these non-writing activities. But I see now that my brain needed a break from the book and I let it have it.

I didn’t give up.
After a couple weeks of pure nothing, I felt like I indulged enough. But I kept opening the document, and looking at it, and thinking about it. For one brief second, I questioned if I should just abandon the book. Then I questioned it some more. It was a good, important question. Was my approach of writing by the seat of my pants failing me? Did I discover the right plot too late and used up all the creativity I had on this story? But I knew if I gave up on the book I’d feel so disappointed in myself. Believe me, I’m a fan of walking away from things that just aren’t working for me. I don’t believe in banging my head against a wall. But I believed in this book, in this story. I knew if I gave up I’d feel like a failure. So even if the book never gets published, at least I know I finished what I started and gave the story a chance.

I talked about it.
No hiding in shame here. When people would ask how my book was going, I would gleefully shout, “Just awful! It’s a big mess and I don’t know how to fix it!” And these kind friends, writers or not, would listen and I would talk about what I was struggling with. By the seventh, or eight, or eighteenth explanation of what was wrong with my story, my mind started to jump alive with ideas on how to make it right.

I wrote new words.
At first, I kept trying to move the existing scenes around. If that approached worked by putting my inciting event in the right place, wouldn’t it work for the rest of my chapters? Couldn’t I just add a little paragraph here and a couple sentences there to support my new plot point? Unfortunately, no. The best thing that helped me see the story was to write brand new scenes. Entire, full scenes. I learned more about my characters and what they wanted. And I felt like I was making progress.

I kept sending pages out for critique.
Even though I knew I had a problem in a specific spot, I sent other chapters that were in decent shape out for critique. My critique partners were kind and patient enough to review what I had. And learning about what worked and what didn’t work in those other chapters helped me see the whole story and determine what I needed to add.

I stayed focused.
Mid-afternoon movies and naps aside, when I was working through this problem in the beginning of the book, I stayed focused on the beginning of the book. I focused on the first fifty pages, and when I got them in order, I focused on the next fifty pages. That’s where I had the biggest issue. But I knew that every word I would write past page 100 had to be supported by what happened in pages 1-100. And because I knew I was struggling with a plot issue, working on another section of the novel wouldn’t serve me well. I refused to move forward in the story until I got that section sorted out.

I didn’t give up.

This is worth saying twice. Sure, you can argue that no one is going to publish a really awful book (definition of awful is subjective, just leave Dan Brown alone, he’s getting people to read, he’s found an audience that loves his work). But what I really believe to be true is that no one is going to publish a book that isn’t finished. And if you don’t believe me, listen to agent Jessica Faust over at BookEnds when she says: Never Give Up. It's a tough business, and like any business, problems will pop up. But whether it’s during the first draft, final revisions, or agent search, you must just keep going. And keep writing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Where Does Your Story Start?

As I continue to learn about the writing process, I'm always excited when I hear a piece of advice for the millionth time. It means that piece of advice is probably pretty accurate.

I had this experience at a recent seminar that was filled with people who really hadn't even written a single word of fiction yet. I wish I had heard this piece of advice when I was just starting out, because it is perfect and true.

"In your first draft, your story probably doesn't really start until chapter four."

Or chapter seven. Or, in my most recent first draft, I'm pretty sure it was chapter fourteen. But that's okay, because that's what, as Anne Lamott calls them, shitty first drafts are for.

They're for feeling out your character, finding your voice, edging your way into the story. But, as you revise, you have to be able to lift away the muck that was your warming up writing and yank it out of the story. Get that gunk out of there. Delete it. Or, if you're like me, save it in a different precious little Word document so you can always go back and grab those words if you need them. Another piece of advice: you'll probably never need them.

It's hard to take a hatchet to your book. But your story will be better served if you can get right down to it sooner. So write away. Then as you revise, take a close look at where things really start shaking, and let your story begin there.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fun with numbers

I wish I could remind myself that it's really not necessary to count drafts. But I like having concrete goals and accomplishing specific tasks. It feels so fantastic to say, "Do you know what I did these past few months? I finished the third draft of my novel." Specific, concrete, and tangible. But hey, do you know what's not always specific, concrete, and tangible? Creative writing.

I wrapped up my second draft in mid-June, three very long months ago. And I've been plugging away at the book for most of those days, but certainly not all. There's been some stuckage. And I'm starting to make my way through the muck the past week or so. But when I solve the problem in one scene (for example, what happened to my antagonist? Why hasn't he shown up in forty pages?), another one awaits me right around the corner.

I've been doing a lot of cutting editing. When I cut a big chunk out of a current draft (anything more than two sentences) I save the text in a document called Extras. And just as I was getting frustrated about working hard yet feeling like I was going nowhere fast, I noticed some interesting math in my word count.

  • Word count draft one: 88,260
  • Word count draft two: 72,911
  • Current word count of draft three: 79,646
  • Current word count of Extras I deleted from draft two: 5,908

    We all know that a first draft is often full of awful, extra, excessive, unnecessary, redundant words. But let's take a look at what's happened between drafts two and three. My good friends over at Excel tell me this means that while I've cut about 6,000 words out of draft three so far, I've added in 12,000 new ones. My story isn't getting completely hacked away after all! And hopefully my sentences are getting more efficient. If I said it in ten words, could I say it just as well in eight?

    So back to the challenges ahead. One word at a time.
  • Tuesday, September 8, 2009

    Back to School

    I'm not going back to school, like at a place where they confer degrees and such, but I can't help get caught up in the spirit of the Back to School season. I've been thinking about my fourth grade Trapper Keeper, the one with the kittens, a lot. I have an urge to buy pencils and a new pair of shoes. I live across the street from a school and it was fun to see the kids file in again today.

    What I am going back to is writing workshops at my lovely neighborhood writing studio/place of work StoryStudio Chicago. First class (I'm taking two, two classes I say!) starts tomorrow and I've been doing critiques today. I love critiques, I really do. I love when I learn about writing from other people. I love when I recognize a little flaw that I've also made in my own work and finally see a way to fix it.

    I've been stuck on the book for a while. This summer I really focused on getting my hook nailed. Getting those first fifty pages just right, so that everything that flows after makes sense, is connected, appears somewhat logical, those kind of things.

    I think that now I can finally get on to those next fifty pages. I think I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel once again. So I'm kind of going back to school too, in my own little way. Which, I'm pretty sure, means I get to buy a new pair of shoes.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    What I've Been Up To

    What have I been up to this week? Well, it's not writing, I can tell you that much. This week I have not written or edited one word of the novel. Never you mind that I owe 10 pages for a manuscript evaluation by September 1st, or that I've had two critiques via blogs where I've received feedback that I could, you know, incorporate into said novel. I've done squat.

    Oh, and by the way, I don't believe in writer's block, so that's not the problem. The problem is that I don't know what to do with the story so I've been avoiding any and all work on it. I've been employing simple avoidance techniques. No writer's block to be found.

    And since I don't believe in whining either, and always try to look on the bright side of things, here is a list of things I have been doing this week instead of working on the novel. I offer this because if I stumbled on another writer's neurotic list of things she did when she was stuck on her book I might feel less alone and therefore slightly more hopeful.

    So, this week I:
    • Cleaned the lobby of my condo even though it is not, and has not, been my month to clean the condo lobby for quite some time.
    • Saw Julie & Julia (fabulous!) on Wednesday afternoon. Proceeded to prepare for weepy confession to hubby over dinner that I went to see a movie in the middle of the day instead of working on my novel. Wonderful husband didn't mind, perhaps because I was busy plying him with lasagna and Chianti and/or he was grateful he didn't have to sit through that movie with me.
    • Tried to think of other ideas for a new novel, since I keep hearing so many people say they know exactly what their story is going to be about before they even write a word. Needless to say, no luck there.
    • Recorded and watched every episode of Gilmore Girls available to me on ABC Family.
    • Cried a lot about being a lousy writer who will never, ever make it and wished I didn't want to be a writer so very badly so that I could actually consider the easier option of giving up.
    • Vacuumed living room and the little sun room where I write read blogs.
    • Stopped reading one book half way through (to protect the innocent, I won't say which) and started reading another (Queen of Babble Gets Hitched by Meg Cabot).
    • Exercised almost every day, because if I didn't I would be even more crazy than I currently am. Plus, now that my body can process red meat again I've been eating every cheeseburger in sight.
    • Tried not to think about partial I sent to agent last week.
    • Also tried not to read too much into agent's blog post about how all the partials she has are pretty good.
    • Washed and folded laundry, but did not put said laundry away.
    • Enjoyed two fun social evening events (yay for birthday parties!) but was bummed when two additional social evening events were cancelled. I needed four fun social evening events this week!
    • Gave myself a pedicure. Forgot about recent pedicure, and smudged six of ten toenails in less than five minutes.
    • Re-read one of my existing short stories and thought about making it my next novel. Got scared/overwhelmed by thought of starting another novel. Closed Word document quickly to avoid potential panic attack.
    • Wished I didn't blog so much last week so I would have more topics saved up to post this week instead of a terribly revealing list of novel avoidance activities.
    Yeah, that was my week. Quite the winner, no? Anyhoo, what have you been up to? And what do you do when you get stuck?

    How's that Novel?

    Well, I'm stuck. I just hope that I won't still be stuck in another three years, so that when, say, Stewie from Family Guy keeps asking me about it, I won't do this to him. Seriously, watch this through to the end.

    Friday, August 21, 2009

    Blog Goodness

    Before I leave the urban jungle for some weekend camping (read: drinking beer and eating chips while sitting next to a bunch of trees, maybe going for a hike) I thought I’d leave you with some blog goodness:

    Agent Colleen Lindsay of FinePrint Literary Management is hosting a contest for two scholarships to the Backspace Agent-Author Seminar in New York. This is a big deal. If you have a finished manuscript you’re ready to query, enter now.

    Really funny writer and twitter avoider Karen from Mentor created a story based on a list of random words, like birthday cake, submitted by me and someone named Estrella. It includes lines like this: "Now I love Cas more than birthday cake, and that's saying something because for chocolate birthday cake with butter cream icing I'd push my grandma into traffic."

    The ladies at edittorrent have yet another smart and helpful piece, this time on a story’s emotional arc. They remind us that "nearly every event is going to cause emotional effects in the POV character."

    The very cute and generous Miss Snark’s First Victim is hosting her monthly Secret Agent contest. I’m submission #31! Feedback is dead on and I’ve already updated my manuscript.

    Janet Reid goes, um, nice? She asks for advice to give a "very very beginning writer." Seriously, read the comments on this one.

    Celebrating Mad Men here and here.

    What to do when you realize “A monkey could have written something more coherent.” Although Ms. Freeman seems to insist that plot must be planned in advance, which I don’t agree is a requirement. That’s one option, but not the only option.

    I haven’t read his book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and apparently I’m the only one, since it’s a international bestseller. But author Jamie Ford keeps a blog at Bittersweet, where he makes frequent but brief posts on his book tour. It's clear that this guy adores what he does and is humbled by the success he’s earned. This post is worth a look.

    I continue to adore author Joshilyn Jackson because she says honest things like this: “I draft in huge awful hunks of steaming word poo.”

    That’s a lot of blog goodness!

    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    I'm Starting to See a Pattern

    I've finally been writing long enough that I'm starting to notice patterns in my writing habits. Note that I didn't say I've started to develop patterns. They've likely always been there. I'm just now noticing they exist.

    For example, my first draft is usually overloaded with dialogue. And to this, do I say, heck, I'll just take up screenwriting? Oh no, I do not. Probably because screenwriting is a completely different animal with its own rules of craft and I'm just starting to become good friends the fiction craft rules and they are all my brain can handle for now.

    What I do instead is create a lot of backstory. Oodles of it! Piles of delicious, luxurious, how my character felt about her elbows in third grade backstory.

    Problem is, backstory sucks. It's a little indulgent for both the character and the writer, not to mention super boring to read. But alas, it comes out of me. I cannot stop it.

    I've considered trying to just turn off the backstory spout (as if I could even locate that precious valve in my brain). But it has spit out some interesting nuggets about my characters. Instead, I take out the backstory hatchet.

    I do not know how to properly use said hatchet just yet. I don't know how much to cut vs. save vs. move. But I have the tool in my hand and I'll figure out how to use it little by little. (Hey, adverbs, are you listening? Scared, aren't you?) Anyway, I'm just glad I know that I need the backstory hatchet.

    So for now, I'm just going to write how I write. My plan is to take whatever writing pattern comes and work with it. Because if I run away from it I will have nothing but a blinking cursor and a really high score on must pop words.

    What are some of your writing patterns?

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009

    Women's Fiction

    When I dropped out of a Creative Writing MFA program after one measly, expensive semester, I was embarrassed to tell folks what I was working on next. But I've been getting more confident lately and a few posts from Bookends and Pimp My Novel have helped me take pride in what I do.

    I write women's fiction. There. You might even call my current novel chick lit, but some say the market got over-saturated and now “contemporary women’s fiction” is apparently where it’s at, although these hilarious girls believe that Chick Lit is Not Dead.

    A good three or four years ago, the first time someone suggested that my first novel was women’s fiction, I was insulted. To be honest, I thought my writing was more important than that. I thought women's fiction was too narrow of a category and not taken seriously. For folks who are better at explaining genre than I am, check out posts like this and this.

    But a few years of learning about how important it is to define your genre, how many agents are specifically seeking women's fiction, finding authors of that genre who I love (Lolly Winston, if you write another book I promise I will buy it and not just borrow it from the library), I've come to peace with the term.

    I love thoughts and feelings. I really, really do. I love to write about thoughts and feelings, I love to experience thoughts and feelings, I love to think about and feel thoughts and feelings. I just can't help it. Granted, that's not all that women's fiction encompasses, but it's what I'm obsessed with and so it's what I love to write about.

    However, my books aren’t just touchy-feely emotional dramas. There’s more to the story than just sex and love (but there is sex and love!) They do have some meaty topics, so I can tack on the term “upmarket”.

    But they’re not science fiction, crime, paranormal, thriller, historical, young adult, or steampunk (yes, that is a genre!). And based on how quickly I can whip out a draft, they’re not literary either. I tried to use the term “mainstream” fiction, but agents really, really, really want you to pick a genre.

    So I picked, or perhaps it picked me, women’s fiction.

    And that’s what I’m writing. I’m rather proud of my book. It’s cute. It’s not going to change the literary stratosphere or evoke world peace. But it might make you forget your crummy day when you’re riding home from work, and think, hey, that girl's kind of like me. How does she deal with all the crap going on in her life? Do I want to be like her, or the exact opposite of her?

    What about you, what are you proud to say that you write?

    Monday, August 17, 2009

    Conviction, Not Just Conflict

    I've been reading John Irving's "A Son of the Circus" and came across the following passage that really hit home. In this scene, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla is reading a book that completely drawing him in -- and it's at a time when he feels an urge to have a more creative endeavor in his life. He's completely inspired by the power of this particular writer. (Eerie flashback to me reading Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" circa 1996.)

    "But more than technical virtuosity separated Dr. Daruwalla from Mr. James Salter, or from any other accomplished novelist. Mr. Salter and his peers wrote from a vision; they were convinced about something, and it was at least partly the passion of these writers' convictions that gave their novels such value. Dr. Daruwalla was convinced only that he would like to be more creative, that he would like to make something up. There were a lot of novelists like that, and Farrokh didn't care to embarrass himself by being one of them."

    I love the line that this author was "convinced about something." It hit home for me, especially as a firm believer of Socratic ignorance, the idea that "All I know is I know nothing." I am a humble person and I'm just smart enough to know that I don't know everything and have so much to learn everyday.

    I always allow myself room to consider the other point of view, but this often leads me to be a waffler, which can be all sorts of types of frustration. I think this makes me easy to get along with, but it just might mean I'm also a pushover. Either way, I don't really mind. See what I mean?

    But, when it comes to writing a book, Irving shows me, the author is best advised to have a conviction about something. Perhaps a big idea: That other thing that the story is about, the stuff that bubbles underneath the conflict. Hope. Honesty. Betrayal.

    I have to say, I'm still picking away at what I'm convinced of in my current WIP. I can see this as a big problem this far along in the game. Or I can be grateful that at least I've learned this lesson now instead of two weeks from now, or two years, or never. See how waffling can do some good?

    Anyhoo, this conviction is something I don't quite have figured out for this book, but it's something new to add to the to do list. And when I write my next novel, it's something I will know to consider up front.

    What are you convinced about (or still unsure of) in your current story?

    Thursday, August 13, 2009

    Literary Twitter

    Check out this USA Today article on creative ways writers are using twitter.

    And how did I hear about this article, since I never, ever read the USA Today or visit their website? Well, twitter of course.

    I'm home alone writing all day and twitter keeps me connected. I've made a few twitter friends and visit their blogs regularly. I even won a free book yesterday by retweeting an author's post (thanks @LizandLisa).

    Twitter posts do not merely consist of "I'm going to the bathroom," and "I hate folding laundry." You don't even have to follow Ashton Kutcher, I promise. You really can use twitter to find a community of like-minded people who share the same interests. And if you're reading this, those interests are books, aren't they?

    You don't have to be on twitter all the time for it to be effective either. Check in when you can and read through the most recent posts. You will never catch everything, don't even try. But you'll probably learn more about the publishing industry, discover more books, better understand potential agents, and make a few more friends than if you never tried.

    Go ahead and give it a whirl and check me out at twitter.com/fictioncity. Send me a tweet and I'll add you to my Follow Friday list!

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    StoryStudio Chicago Open House

    Tonight I'll be swinging by StoryStudio's open house. If you're in Chicago, stop by and say hi! StoryStudio is located at 4043 N. Ravenswood, #222. It's right across from the Irving Park Brown Line stop and has gobs of free parking. The open house runs from 4 to 7 p.m. and I'll be there early before I head to the Cubs game.

    StoryStudio has tons of writing classes in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and oodles of other stuff. Plus, I work there, although I apologize in advance for how the coffee might taste. But the cookies are delicious. Check out the class schedule for more details.

    After India

    When I first heard that I might get a chance to spend a month in India this summer, I divided my to do list into two categories: Before India and After India. (The During India to do list would take care of itself, and it did, more photos coming later). The Before India list involved things like immunizations, buying summer clothing beyond Old Navy tank tops, spending as much time with friends as possible, getting through a second draft of the novel. Check on all counts.

    Then there were the things I would take care of in the second half of the year: After India. Namely, finish the novel. Well, here we are. And I think I can pull it off. Just as long as I can continue to make it through the "when will I have enough sanity to realize I am nuts to quit my job to write a book?" bouts of self-doubt. Because I sure don't ever want to have one of those "boy, I sure wish I took some time in my life to write a book" deathbed moments. I consider this preventative medicine to avoid regret.

    Anyway, what this means is there is a lot of writing to do. I had some pretty good breakthroughs on the book my last couple of weeks in India. It's really taking much better shape.

    So, the goal is to finish it by year end. It's harder for me to mark progress in the rewrites stage than I did in the first draft daily word count. On my trip, I tried to focus on the first fifty pages, and boy are they different. I can see the end in sight, I think, or at least I'm confident enough this morning to think so.

    So back to regular blogging, writing, reading and writing some more.

    Monday, July 27, 2009

    India Photos

    I've been writing, but I don't think my insights about learning that chapter three should be chapter one are as interesting as these photos.

    Woman at Russell Market. We stopped here on the day we took a cooking class with the hotel chef. I can now make about six different Indian dishes!

    Visiting Ooty, the highest point in southern India. The road winds through a beautiful, mountainous area filled with crazy hairpin turns.

    At a market in Mysore, where I bought perfume for two dollars from an eight year old boy who told me the scent was just like Calvin Klein's Eternity.

    Another bookstore! This is the Landmark bookstore (that also sells jewelery and luggage) in Bangalore's Forum Mall.

    India is full of contradictions. It's old world and modern. Luxuriously rich and poop in the street poor. Hard to break into and full of heartwarming hospitality. It's been an enriching trip.

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    Short Story Marketing

    Here’s the scoop on how I marketed “Silence” for publication. I started writing “Silence” back in 2006. It went through a few drafts with my writing teacher at All Writers. Kathie suggested I send it to PMS.

    I found a copy of their journal at a local bookstore and read it. Since they’re based in Arkansas, this is where national distribution helps. My story was a perfect fit. But their yearly reading period was over. So I sat on the story and didn’t send it out. And then I moved, and for almost a year my literary journals sat in an unpacked box. I was working on my first novel and forgetting about short stories.

    I sent the story out to two magazines (never heard back from them) in 2007, but missed the PMS reading period again. Last fall, I sent the story to five more magazines. I got one immediate email bounce back -- that journal was dead. I received a rejection from two more – both about three to four months later.

    Here is one of my most favorite rejections, from Epiphany: “Thanks for giving us the chance to read your work, but unfortunately it wasn't quite right for us. Never mind what we say. Keep writing!” Isn't that both efficient and fun?

    I still haven’t heard anything from the other two. In March, I sent Silence to PMS and one other journal.

    The PMS reading period opened again at the start of the year (January 1 to March 31st) and I sent the story on March 23rd. Spending a season as an editor for Oyez Review, I’ll suggest that you send your stories closer to the end of a reading period than the start. You probably won’t hear a response until after the reading period, so why have a story sitting around collecting dust all that time? This can be hard to manage for simultaneous submissions, but I’d recommend this practice for those “first pick” journals you’re especially in love with.

    PMS notified me of my acceptance via email on July 1, just three months after their reading period was over.

    I only submit to journals that allow simultaneous submissions, so I've notified the places I haven't received a response from that my story has been accepted elsewhere. Don't skip this step! It is professional and kind and just the right thing to do.

    In total, I submitted my story to nine journals. I found most of the journals through Writer's Market. I have the short story market book at home and also a subscription to their online database.

    PMS was the only journal I properly targeted -- by purchasing their journal and seeing if my story was a good fit. I’m glad I kept waiting for their reading period. I’m proud to be part of their journal.

    This acceptance, of course, is making me go back and take stock of all the short stories I've written over the years. More stats on those in another post! I know a lot of the readers here are novelists -- any short story writers out there who'd like to comment on their marketing process?

    Monday, July 13, 2009

    Still Life

    I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I’m familiar with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, The Bedroom and Sunflowers. But seeing an entire collection of an artist’s work gave me a new perspective. His earlier paintings were extremely dark, like he painted in only blacks, browns, and blues. Look at this link for an example of how the light in his paintings changed over the years.

    Only after he visited Paris and studied the work of other artists did he start using bright colors in his paintings. A description of one early painting noted how his perspective of a chair was technically inaccurate. So he had crappy first drafts, too!

    I was thrilled to discover that a brilliant artist like Van Gogh practiced and struggled with his craft, just like we do as writers. Just as I’m sure all artists do. I couldn’t imagine having all my early short stories, standalone scenes or pathetic attempts at poetry on display for everyone to see. But it was so helpful for me as a writer to see another artist’s growth process.

    There was one section of still lifes -- the basic paintings of a vase of flowers on a table and maybe some fruit. This collection had a painting from a different artist in the middle -- I think it was Pissarro’s Still life with Peonies and Mock Orange.

    It was flanked by two of Van Gogh’s still lifes on each side, one of which was Vase with Autumn Asters. (Anyone who knows anything about art, please correct me. I’m doing this from memory and I was jetlagged at the time.)

    As an exercise, Van Gogh copied paintings he admired as practice to hone his craft and technique, to learn about light and shading. And in some cases, I liked Van Gogh’s pieces better. The concept wasn’t original - flowers in a vase on a table - but it was a completed piece of work in his early years. It was an accomplishment to him. It was practice to get him to Starry Night.

    So when I write another story about love, or finding yourself, or the basic clichés (although, aren’t most stories, on some level, about love?) I will allow myself those practice stories, those still lifes, the "flowers in a vase" version of creative writing.

    Thursday, July 9, 2009

    Solo Trip in India

    Today I ventured out of the hotel. To another hotel. The ladies recommended Leela Palace as a place where I could be safe on my own and spend several hours. And dollars. There’s a mall there. I’ve never been a super big shopper, and since I gave up my job I traded in my bi-monthly trips to Ann Taylor Loft for visits to the library. But I ventured into the Galleria, to see it, to kill time, and to maybe shop.

    I circled the first floor and saw shops with rows and rows of fabric. The colors and patterns popped out so much I could even sense their feel from the other side of the glass windows – the smoothness, the swirls of silk, slippery. I waltzed past these shops, afraid – of spending money, not knowing what to order, or how to haggle – even as a man in a green T-shirt standing at the threshold of his store offered me, "Please, take a look." I didn’t even respond to him, just looked away – down even, not forward.

    I turned the bend and then in bright, yet soft, blue and white letters I saw the sign. I sucked in my breath. I saw rows and rows of them, upright, packed in tight, behaving, beckoning. Books.

    I asked the bookseller for recommendations on books written by female Indian authors. He went to the front display and bestseller section and handed me book after book. I declined to buy anything I knew I could get in the US. I told him I was a writer and I was interested in India’s version of contemporary women’s fiction – stories about love and life and self-identity. We ventured a bit from that criteria (although he did attempt to sell me Love Story, it’s apparently very popular there) and here’s what I ended up with:
    • Almost Single by Advaita Kala
    • The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama
    • First Love by Brinda Charry
    • The Argumentative Indian: Writings on India Culture, History and Identity by Amartya Sen
    • Multiple City: Writings on Bangalore, edited by Aditi De
    • The 24 X 7 Marriage, Smart Strategies for Good Beginnings by Vijay Nagaswami
    Books are very cheap here. On average, about $5 for a trade paperback. After lunch (Indian buffet, where the waiter told me they could also make me pizza – I declined – and where I had some of the best tiramisu ever) I went to a music store and asked for recommendations on CDs ($4) of popular Indian dance music. I bought The Power of Bhangra (closest thing to hip-hop) and Everyone On Dance Floor (no the), Level 7.

    Finally, I visited one of the many Shiva temples:

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009

    Short Story Publication

    I’m so happy to announce that my short story “Silence,” will appear in the upcoming issue of PMS poemmemoirstory. PMS is the annual, all-women literary journal at University of Alabama at Birmingham. (I’ve also had a short story published in Foliate Oak, the literary journal at University of Arkansas at Monticello - I guess they like me in the south!).

    I’ll post more on the marketing process for this story, but I thought I’d see if anyone has questions about marketing a short story that I can address in my post. Let me know and I’ll try to include any details you might be interested in. Fun fact about this story: I wrote the first draft three years ago!

    Sunday, July 5, 2009

    Amsterdam Inspiration

    On our way to India, Mike and I spent two days in Amsterdam. Since I rarely drive in Chicago, Amsterdam is a city that’s after my own heart. It's completely walkable and bikes outnumber cars something like 400 to 1 (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much). Bicyclists have their own traffic lane, but the roads in Amsterdam are curvy and crisscrossed, and riders gracefully weave their routes inches from the trams and skinny sedans. Bicyclists ride about without a care in the world – no one even wears a helmet. Each vehicle casually moves around one another like a comfortable, rehearsed dance routine.

    I was also awed by the thousands of bikes outside Grand Centraal train station. There’s a three-story bicycle garage and every inch is packed. It’s filled with rusty, old-fashioned, wide handle bar, fat seat street bikes. Not the mountain bikes we pointlessly ride up and down Chicago’s lakefront. I found the massive bike garage and the spirit behind it beautiful. I started a short story that takes place here.

    In this story, I’m trying to use the idea of fearless movement and practiced harmony. The few words I’ve written so far have a completely different tone than the pound-it-out-fast early drafts I’ve been working on lately. It’s a nice change of pace to have a mood in mind for a story, and I think it will develop slower. I’m sure it helped that I started this story freehand, armed with just a hotel pen and moleskin notebook.

    I’ve always struggled with setting in my stories and I think this trip will give me lots of practice. I’ve already hit a chord with something in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, it doesn’t involve giant wooden clogs.

    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    What’s the Big Idea?

    I feel like I’ve been working on my WIP in layers. I’m trying to really challenge myself and question everything in the novel. But every time I get one layer figured out, it makes me see through to the next one to wrestle with. For example, I recently spent time figuring out what my character wanted. Hooray! But then I got stumped when I had a good-but-not-great answer to the question “why does she want it?”

    This story is an office drama, but in workshop last week my instructor Jill made a comment that stories don’t really take place in a stinky old office, do they? Okay, Jill did not use the word stinky, but that’s how my MC Sadie would describe it.

    So Jill then asked the question, what’s the story about? Short answer: it’s about how a naïve, smart-but-not-as-awesome-as-she-thinks young woman deals with a re-org that puts her job in jeopardy.

    But Jill pushed further. She asked, “What’s the big idea?” To which I wanted to respond, “Hey, what’s the big idea with you, punk?” But Jill is not a punk so I figured she meant something smarter than that. And she did.

    She meant, what’s the big concept I’m trying to examine in this novel? It’s not just about office politics. While that’s all fine and good, Jill was looking for a big idea like love, loss, redemption, self-discovery. Oh boy, did I get worried. I did not want to write another love story. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write about love, but I also want to challenge myself to move beyond my usual box of tricks.

    But then, Jill said, “What about hope? This character, she’s a big cynic. Can she maybe be hopeful too?” Bingo. That was it. Wouldn’t you know it that I talk about hope in the very last scene of the book. Can I make that a theme -- a big idea -- that I weave throughout the story? You better believe I can.

    I don’t know how I’ll pull that off yet, but that’s okay. I know I need that layer, and that’s a big step. I’ll figure out how to make it work somehow. At least I hope so.

    So what's your story’s big idea?

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Writing Practice

    A week from today, I’ll be leaving for India for forty days. My husband is going for a business trip, and since I’m “self-employed” I’m tagging along to write. While this is first and foremost a work trip for both of us, we do have a vacation tagged onto the last week.

    But I’m trying to figure out how I’ll handle the work part. And by that I mean what are my writing goals? Goals keep me motivated and give me a sense of accomplishment when I cross something off a list. I pounded out the first draft by hitting a daily writing goal. I rewrote the second draft by refusing to focus only on the opening chapters and making sure I did a walk-through of the entire manuscript.

    A few months ago I thought my goal while in India should be to complete the manuscript. But I realize now that is way too aggressive. While I think my gushing it out by the seat of my pants sans outline approach really worked for my first draft, now it’s time for the manuscript to marinate. I need to listen to what my novel is trying to say, question my characters, and figure out what big ideas I want to investigate in my story. I can’t rush this.

    When I finished the second draft a few weeks ago, (which I realized I never blogged about, probably because I didn’t know what I was going to attempt next), I knew I needed a break before I dug back in. But I’m now considering not touching the book at all when I’m in India.

    Instead, I might do some practice writing. Just write for fun, write with no goals, create little scenes that may never see their way into a full story. And one thing I stink at is setting. What better place to practice that than in the color-infused, chaotic world of India?

    We’ll see if I pull this off. I’m most worried about making sure I still feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day. But I’m ready to shake up my process a bit and see what happens.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009

    Writing Without a Blueprint

    The past few weeks as I’ve been struggling with the mess of the first draft, I’ve questioned if my organic, writing by the seat of my pants with no outline or idea where I’m heading approach was really a good idea. But now I think it is. I never, ever would have sat down and dreamed up this story. Or these characters. They just kind of happened. And then stuff happened to them. As I got to understand my characters, I could put more story around their lives, finally build some tension, understand their goals and figure out what the big climax they’re all heading toward actually is.

    I really did like the ending of the first draft. The beginning was slow, as early beginnings tend to be in my world, but it had potential. Actually, I liked the whole first draft, the way you love a four-year-old’s weird crayon self portrait that is really just two squiggly lines, because hello, the kid is just four.

    So I say to my first draft, you are just a first draft, you don’t know any better. But you will grow up into a final draft, one of these days. You just need a little time and practice.

    Anyway, as I’m deleting and moving so much stuff in this next draft, I wonder if I could’ve made life easier for myself by writing under a more structured plan – i.e., an outline. I hear that people do this, yet I’ve never ever tried it. It just doesn’t feel, well, creative.

    My husband Mike suggested that how I write a first draft is like building a house without a blueprint. I know a house needs some basic things: kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room. I know a story needs some basic things: inciting event, conflict, voice, characters, climax, resolution.

    So I kind of built a house that has all the basic elements, but not so much in the right place. The structure of my first draft is kind of like a house where the front door opens right into the bathroom, and you have to step over the toilet, into the tub and then through the kitchen to get to the living room. My inciting event was on page 74 or something like that.

    On the second draft, I’m tearing down walls and really thinking about if I want an open floor living space or a separate kitchen and dining room. And I’m patching up that big hole in the roof. And I’m taking down the four by four room in the middle of the house with no windows or closets because who needs something like that?

    It’s pretty fun, this rehabbing of my story. Would I build a house this way? No, that would be super expensive and there’d be a heck of a lot of dust. But for a story, building it without a blueprint works just fine.

    So after I get the layout of the house in the right shape (plot), then I have the future drafts where I’m painting and buying furniture. And the final draft of polishing where I’m decorating and finding just the right piece of art to hang on the wall and candlesticks for the dining room table.

    And then I’ll have a real house, built in stages, little by little, nail by nail. And inside it will be my book that I wrote, also in stages, little by little, word by word.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009


    Check out my post at Listen UP! about why I heart twitter. I mention both Oprah and John Mayer. Also, some things about writing.

    Don't forget to follow me at twitter.com/fictioncity.

    Friday, June 12, 2009

    Blog Goodness 6/12/09

    Here are some interesting things I read this week on -- I was going to use the phrase the “interwebs” because everyone does that to be funny and I want to do it too. But then I worry there’s going to be one person who doesn’t know it’s a joke, and think I’m stupid, or worse yet, leave a comment that says “I think you meant internet.” No, I meant interwebs. Plural. There, I got that out of my system.

    Anyway, here is this week’s blog goodness:

    A sad but true tip from Janet Reid: “It’s too soon to query if … it’s your first novel.” I think she’s right and I wish I learned this a year ago.

    Great post on word count from Moonrat. I’ll pull out two comments here: “I would say that the absolute upper limit of OK is 100,000 for a debut novel, but you'll find some people turned off to it if it's anything above 80,000” and “Probably the most universal flaw in early-career writing is overwriting or over-inclusion of material.”

    Query Shark, who is Janet Reid, but the woman really has a knack of spelling things out for you: “Your job as a writer is to make me care about the protagonist even if I do want to smack her upside the head.”

    Via QueryTracker, some positive thoughts on the economy courtesy of Beth Fleisher from the Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency: "I am a huge believer that good books will always sell. I would be crazy to pass up a book I love and an author I want to represent because of the economy."

    From FinePrint Literary Agency: "Peter Olsen, the former boss of Random House recently wrote an essay on the future of e-books which is fascinating. Click here to read the whole essay. In part, Olsen says: 'Book businesspeople are about to make the same mistake that has devastated the music and newspaper industries: worrying about whether a new digital format will cannibalize their traditional business rather than focusing on how to make the new format more competitive with other digital media.'"

    At Editor Unleashed, a post by Jordan E. Rosenfeld that gives a different point of view to my take on Character, Story, Language. I love differing points of view! “So rather than trying to write character first, then going back to see if you’ve got a functioning plot, or hoping that you built a convincing setting, and so on, you’re better off learning to write integrated scenes.”

    And over at Bookslut: “If you had asked me if the world needed another 6-page examination of the usefulness (or not) of creative writing programs, I would have made obnoxious puking gestures. But surprise, surprise, the New Yorker manages to make it entertaining.” I haven’t read the full article yet, but as a proud MFA dropout I'm sure I will eat that one up.

    And that's what I call blog goodness!

    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    Character, Story, Language

    I’m tinkering with my writing process, figuring out what is most effective, motivating, efficient, practical, productive, etc. Last night, my shiny new critique group talked about our writing process. I am still a firm believer in writing draft one without an outline or even an idea.

    For this book, I used draft one to discover my character, Sadie, and figure out what she was like, how she talked, where she lived, how she spent her weekends. I found her voice.

    In the second draft I’ve worked on the story. I asked myself questions about Sadie. Now that I know her personality, what is it that Sadie wants? Why does she want it? And what’s the obstacle that’s getting in the way of this? What’s at stake if she doesn’t get it? This helped me develop the story I was telling about Sadie, aka the plot.

    The questions I answered (which I really forced myself to think about in this novel) are important and, frustratingly connected in different ways. I was happy when I was certain that I knew what Sadie wanted, then defeated when I realized I didn’t know why. I had an obstacle, but wasn’t sure what was at stake that motivates her to keep moving in the face of conflict. I’ll be spending at least one more draft (I wasn’t going to count them, but here I am doing it) working out the story.

    And then, once I my character is strong and my story is in the right place, I’ll focus on language. That’s when I’ll tinker for hours over one paragraph. That’s when I’ll search for opportunities to add metaphors and similes. That’s when I’ll decide if someone’s face is beet red or wine red.

    This is just one type of process, and it works for me right now. I may evolve into another process. Some people swear by outlines but that approach just doesn’t move me. Although, I’ve never seriously tried it, and someday I should to see if it works for me or if there’s anything I can take from that approach and apply it to my writing process.

    I don’t think it matters how you write, just that you keep writing. Whatever tricks you need to do to keep those fingers dancing across the keyboard is just fine.

    What's your process like?

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    South Asian Author Night

    Hey, hop on over to Listen UP! to check out my post on a South Asian Author Night reading I attended. Listen UP! is the blog of Story Studio Chicago where I’m a long-time student and a new staff member. They are full of the awesome!

    Monday, June 8, 2009

    The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

    The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson is now available on paperback. I know Joshilyn from her so-hilarious-you-will-spit-Diet-Coke-out-of-your-eye-socket blog, Faster Than Kudzu. Joshilyn doesn't blog so much about writing, but a lot about funny things that go on in her household and I would definitely say that she has a higher ratio of funny to non-funny than the average household. Maybe this is because she has kids.

    Anyway, she also is very talented at using all caps for emphasis instead of italics and NOT making it sound like she's screaming at you. I think this is very interesting skill and I'm not sure how she pulls it off.

    I have a copy of her book Between, Georgia here in the living room. It's in my "To Read" queue, and if the book I'm supposed to be reading next for book club doesn't come in from the library soon, I am going to have to dig into this thing. I was excited that I read Joshilyn's blog, went to my local library branch (yes, I'm in Chicago but the branch near my house is just teeny) and there was her book on the shelf. I felt famous just for checking it out.

    I feel bad that I didn't buy her book, since that's what authors really like you to do. But with the economy and all, I imposed a no book buying rule at the start of this year, and let me tell you that I am reading more books than ever.
    Courtesy of the fabulous Chicago Public Library (and likely any library near you), you can request any book you like online and the library will send you a nice email when it arrives at your local branch.

    So even though I haven't started Between, Georgia (okay, I read the first page when I checked it out and I was hooked and it also made me laugh) and I've never read The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, I can still heartily recommend Joshilyn's books solely by the quality and high level of fun in her blog.

    Because we all know a good blog means a good book.

    P.S. Joshilyn is hosting a little contest where if you visit her blog and make a comment, you'll be entered into a drawing for a free book. And if you post about The Girl Who Stopped Swimming on your blog or Facebook or MySpace, you'll be entered twice. Check out her blog for the details. And spread the word about a nice and funny lady who writes books for a living.

    Update: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming just made the 7/7/09 New York Times Bestseller list!

    Sunday, June 7, 2009

    Marketing = Work

    Just a test post. More details later.

    Tuesday, June 2, 2009

    Blog Goodness

    I read brilliant things on blogs (you have a blog reader, like Bloglines or Google Reader or something, so you only have to go to one place to read them all, right?). Sometimes I think I should just re-post what other people write on their blogs, since they are smarter, funnier and more successful than me. So, here are a few things I liked that I read on blogs this week:

    "When you're considering what to write about, you have to start with the assumption that everyone you're up against in the slush pile can write -- it's your idea that will set you apart." -- Super Agent Nathan Bransford, and this is even a re-post 2007.

    "Dialogue made up of nothing but words rarely works." -- Agent Jessica Faust at Bookends . Sounds so obvious, but think about it. What else is the character up to while talking? Give the reader that stuff too!

    "Wanting to meet the author who wrote your favorite book is like wanting to meet the cow that produced your hamburger. Basically, you’re only going to be disappointed." -- The prolific and adorable author Meg Cabot.

    "So every scene should in some way show the character (I mean, the scene's protagonist or central character) acting and reacting with the motivation or goal in mind. Their ambition/desire doesn't take a vacation. And if he should find himself going several hours without thinking of the goal or acting to fulfill the motivation, then it should be a conflict." -- Editorrent, a blog that I love but don't quite know how to pronounce. Editor rent? Edit torrent? Edit or rent? Anyway, it's written by two editors and they give lots of good craft advice.

    Now that's what I call blog goodness.

    The More You Know

    Hey, remember those cheesy self-help public announcements NBC used to do on Saturday mornings with the soft music and rainbow? Some star would talk to you about self-image or whatever and the tagline was “The More You Know?” Are they still doing those? I also heard a rumor that Saturday morning cartoons don’t even exist anymore. Thanks a lot, Saved by the Bell.

    Anyway, I had one of those learning moments about writing where I realized “Boy, the more I know about this, the more I learn how much I don’t know.” The longer I spend searching for things to fix in this draft, the more holes I discover. This is a good thing, I tell myself. The last thing I want to do is try to write a book thinking I know it all. I realize that I do not; but I still continue to amaze myself by learning exactly how much I don’t know.

    How about an example? I realized that my character doesn’t really change in the end! How dare she! There is a nice climax, a payoff for the reader, and a decent resolution. But this stuff happens to her. It’s not quite deus ex machina; the climax has been set up pretty decently, following a series of events leading it up to be believable. But Sadie isn’t the one calling the shots in the climax. She should be.

    The climax is the place in the story where something’s gotta give; something absolutely has to happen to change the course of events. My character is backed into a corner, and someone has to make a move.

    But what I realize is that Sadie has to be the one to make that move. She should be the one to affect change, not someone else. And the choice she makes should be evident of how she’s changed as a character since she embarked on this journey at the beginning of the story.

    This all seems obvious as I write it now. I’ve read it in countless writing books, heard it in plenty of workshops. But I didn’t know it was missing from this book until I sat around and stared at my story, going over and over it in my mind.

    Does this mean the climax of my story is going to change drastically? No, the end result will be pretty similar. There are only a few options on how the story can end (at least without getting aliens involved).

    What I need to do now is figure out how Sadie will change in the end. This is a very big question. It ties into the one I’ve nailed down recently of What does Sadie want? But I’m still fuzzy on the Why does she want it? I have to spend more time with her figuring out her motivation.

    To learn more about Sadie, I have to write more scenes for her and see what she does. Then once I know more about her, I can decide (or she will show me, really) how she’s changing or where she needs to change and why. Then I can decide which option for my climax would fit her actions, and go on from there.

    And then, hopefully, when Sadie is backed into the corner, she’s going to be the one calling the shots and we’ll all understand why she makes the choice she does.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009

    A Little Break Helps

    I know that I love my job when I kind of want a long holiday weekend to be over so I can just get back to writing already. I started my holiday weekend Friday at lunch and worked very little on Friday morning, if you must know the truth. I was feeling kind of stuck and pushed myself through rewriting a couple of scenes, but didn’t feel like I accomplished much.

    So on Tuesday, I was super excited to get back to the book. But I felt like I’d been a little slow last week and the story had started to get heavy in my mind. I spent so much time on that awful middle part of the story, I felt drained. I made progress in that section, but I was unsure of what was ahead of me when I opened the document again.

    Apparently I was so frightened, I never opened the document up yesterday. Not even once. I read a lot though, so that was nice. So this morning, full of guilt and determination, I opened the document up as soon as I got up. And I started rewriting.

    And things are just not that bad. The ending is pretty solid, at least that’s what I think right now. Getting through the end of the book actually feels possible. So I’m trading in my guilt and saying I really needed a break from the story to recharge my writing batteries and see things with a fresh perspective.