Friday, December 24, 2010

Things look different depending on who is doing the looking…

Strangely, in this week before Christmas, I’ve been reading a lot about dystopia. (I’m hoping there isn’t a connection there, but who knows? The coming of Christ…a whole new world… hmmmm.)

Of the two different dystopian worlds I’ve read about in the last week or so, I’ve been sort of fascinated with two choices these writers had made: verb tense and point of view.

 It struck me that both writers used present tense throughout their stories. Just interesting, isn’t it? They chose to use present tense to describe a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. I wondered if that was consciously influenced by their plot and subject matter. Is it best to speak about a created world – one that supposedly results from our own culture and society -- as if it is happening right now? Will readers invest themselves more readily in these worlds of despair and struggle? (Because, if you haven’t read much dystopian fiction lately, it is ALWAYS a world of despair and struggle.)

I haven’t taken the time to look at more adult fiction of this vein to see if those writers, too, present their stories in present tense… But I have Cronin’s The Passage on a shelf upstairs. I should look…

In Unwind by Neal Shusterman, for example, are we more in the action during this scene because it is told in present tense?

A nurse blots swat from his forehead. “Relax, I’m here to help you through this.”
He feels a sharp pinprick in the right side of his neck, and then in the left side.
“What’s that?”
“That,” says the nurse, “is the only pain you’ll be feeling today.”
“That’s it, then,” [he] says. “You’re putting me under?”
Although he can’t see her mouth beneath her surgical mask, he can see the smile in her eyes.

Would you feel differently (see the scene differently) if it was told with “saids” and “saws” instead? Would you have the same visceral reaction to what is going on with this character? Maybe…maybe not. I’m not sure. Perhaps it is up to each reader.

Each of the books I’ve read this week also chose a different point of view.

I’ve struggled with point of view with many of my own projects, and I know a few writers who have started a project in one POV, only to change their minds part way or all the way through, and rewrite the whole work from a different viewpoint.

In Unwind, Mr. Shusterman used alternating third person, sometimes called third person multiple vision. Each chapter was told from a different character’s point of view, focusing mostly on the main three characters, but with some minor ones thrown in for certain pivotal events. After all, things look different depending on who is doing the looking, right?

From a reader’s perspective, I found this constant switching around to be a little distracting. It made me feel a little uncomfortable with the narrative; it was harder to follow than a more traditional third person single perspective or even first person strategy. But again – I now find myself wondering if Mr. Shusterman chose this as a strategy. His story is all about discomfort. His story is about the aftermath of a civil war fought over reproductive rights and the resulting society where abortion is forbidden, but where children can be “unwound” after the age of 13. Discomfort, indeed. (You’ll have to read his book to find out what unwinding involves…no further spoilers here! But trust me – it is uncomfortable, to say the least, to read about it let alone immerse yourself in his dystopia.) So was the flitting back and forth between different views – different perspectives on events unfolding in the story – a conscious decision to transfer the tenuous sense of survival to the reader? Interesting thought, right?

The second novel – one which I haven’t finished yet, but will admit to being completely caught up in despite my initial hesitation – is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Also told in present tense, this one is told from first person POV. We learn about the settlement on a planet (not Earth) and the impact of a mysterious disease loosed on the settlers by another alien race. We see this world, society and the unfolding events of the plot through the eyes and voice of the main character, Todd Hewitt.

Told in this POV, we only know what Todd knows. We don’t glimpse any of the knowledge that might be held by other characters – older settlers who witnessed war with the other alien race, for example – until they decide to tell Todd what they know. The history of the settlement prior to Todd being old enough to remember his own life is just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Todd. For us readers – this leaves us with more of the unknown and maybe  more of a relationship (I think) with our friend, Todd. We are on this ride with him. He is our narrator in a way that characters in third person stories never get to be.

The other benefit of first person (again, in my opinion) is that we hear the main character’s voice throughout the story. Well – I guess that depends on the skill of the writer, doesn’t it? At any rate, told from the “I see..” or “I ran…” or “I heard…” point of view, we hear the Voice of the character with every sentence. It isn’t limited to just dialog, as it is with other story structures.

So what do you think? Conscious decisions to help the dystopia come alive for readers? Or maybe decisions made based on the skill or tendencies of the authors? Either way – I’d say both strategies made for effective storytelling.

I did get out my Gotham Fiction Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction, The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School to see if they had a chapter on POV. Yep. They do. A pretty good one, too, in case you are looking to do a little light reading on craft over your holiday vacation.

Here’s a thought: Take a chapter or scene from a story you love. Pay attention to the POV. Rewrite it from another character’s POV or change the POV altogether. If the author wrote it in first person, you rewrite the events in third. Or vice versa. I did this once as an assignment for a class taught by the talented Lisa Klein, and it was a fantastic, thought-provoking exercise…A step toward making very conscious decisions in your own stories about how the POV will help or hinder your readers as you take them on a journey.

Happy Holidays, everyone! And Happy Writing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Beauty of the Season and Beauty on the Page

It’s snowing here. Has been for a few days now. It is really lovely -- gentle flakes, floating around outside my window. Just enough to make me think we might have a white Christmas. And enough to make me wish for a fireplace (we don’t have one) and a hot mug of chocolate.
I stumbled upon two gems this week. One of them made me think about what it means to me to write and the other  had me pondering what role books have played in my life. Both touched my heart with  beautiful language, so I want to share some of the most stunning prose with you.
The book is A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. She has a new release this season called Revolution. I haven’t read that one yet, but you’d better believe it is on my TBR list now!
Here are some of my favorite passages from the paperback (Harcourt,  Inc., 2003).
Page 11 A description of the main character’s sister –
Our Abby is a sprigged dress that has been washed and turned wrong side out to dry, with all its color hidden.
Page 17 Describing the neighbor, Emmie—
As I tried to figure out what I could say – to find words that weren’t a lie but weren’t quite the truth, either – I thought that madness isn’t like they tell it in books. It isn’t Miss Havisham sitting in the ruins of her mansion, all vicious and majestic. And it isn’t like in Jayne Eyre, either, with Rochester’s wife banging around in the attic, shrieking and carrying on and frightening the help. When your mind goes, it’s not castles and cobwebs and silver candelabra. It’s dirty sheets and sour milk and dog shit on the floor. It’s Emmie cowering under her bed, crying and singing while her kids try to make soup from seed potatoes.
On page 37, the main character is reacting to some pretty harsh criticism from a less than talented teacher. (Mattie is a writer, but at a time when girls and women weren’t supposed to be anything but wives and mothers. Her teacher wants her to write about “beautiful thoughts and fine words.”)
I’d seen all the things she’d spoken of and more besides. I’d seen a bear cub lit its face to the drenching spring rains. And the silver moon of winter, so high and blinding. I’d seen the crimson glory of a stand of sugar maples in autumn and the unspeakable stillness of a mountain lake at dawn. I’d seen them and loved them. But I’d also seen the dark of things. The starved carcasses of winter deer. The driving fury of a blizzard wind. And the gloom that broods under the pines always. Even on the brightest of days.
It’s really that last line that gets me: the gloom that broods under the pines always. Beautiful, right?
Page 149 Describing the main character’s uncle and his stories  (I liked this particularly considering the many descriptions of her father and how you know from this one passage how different – foreign, even – her uncle is to her and her sisters.) –
They were whoppers, my uncle’s stories, every one. We knew it and we didn’t care. We just loved the telling. My uncle has a beautiful North Woods voice. You can hear the dry bite of a January morning in it and the rasp of wood smoke. His laughter is the sound of a creek under ice, low and rushing.
The other book I gobbled up was a middle grade novel called Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan. It touched my heart in a different way – with a brief, quiet story of fourth grade children learning how words can be powerful and learning that we can, all of us, be writers if we let the words come to us…word after word after word.
Have you read any passages that made you sigh this week? Dog-eared any pages so you could find that one sentence again or remind yourself that words have the power to take your breath away? If so, I’d love to know about it…

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Growth and Development....a la Rose Hathaway

Richelle Mead’s sixth and final book in her Vampire Academy series came out this week. I got my hands on a copy of Last Sacrifice on Thursday and tore through the latest chapter in this saga – finally finishing while curled up on the couch this afternoon with a down blanket and a hot chocolate for company. (Rose has a weakness for sour cream and onion potato chips and candy bars…I thought the hot chocolate was a fitting tribute.)

You know how a traditional story arc and character development “rules” say that the main character (well, heck…all characters, I guess) should change throughout the story? They should show growth, learn from their experiences, and in the case of YA fiction – perhaps even grow up a bit on the inside as well as on the outside during their adventures?

It is hard to do! At least I think it is. Often, I find myself knowing more about how I want my character to act – who I want them to be – at the end of the story. Backtracking to allow for that change and growth is just darned difficult. I think we tend to grow and change at an alarmingly slow pace as real live people compared to the accelerated development of a character written on the page. It takes 10 years (give or take a few) for a child to grow through adolescence into adulthood. But your MC…Well, he or she has to cast off childish things in 300 pages or so.

Granted, your MC isn’t going to tackle everything real humans do…BUT she needs to have problems and lessons that are realistic enough that your readers will connect with her. Her issues, her growth need to be believable. In a word: honest.

Enter Rose Hathaway. Of all the young women in YA lit today, I’d most like to braid hair and pain nails with Rose. She’s sort of my hero. Or maybe Ms. Mead is really the one I want to hang out with…Either way – popping popcorn and bonding with either of them sounds like it would help my writing career along!

If you’ve read the Vampire Academy series, I’d love to hear what you think of Rose (and Lissa, Adrian, Dimitri, and the others) as characters. And if you haven’t read Ms. Mead’s contribution to modern vampire lore – then I’d suggest that you can read them with a writing lesson in mind: Character development.

Rose begins the series as a child. An impetuous, bold, leap-before-she-looks girl. I don’t want to give away any points of the story, and Ms. Mead’s work can certainly speak for itself, but I will tell you that Rose transforms throughout the series. She is a different character in Last Sacrifice than she was in the beginning (Vampire Academy).  She grows, develops, changes – from student to warrior, from girl to woman, from idealist to realist. Her character is honest in her growth. She makes mistakes. She slides backwards and then has to run twice as hard to make up for lost time. She tries to protect everyone around her, and forgets to save some protection for herself. And in the end, she is different. She’s still Rose – but in a way that lets Rose the woman shine.

Not only is she a great example of character development and growth – but she’s a strong girl, a beautiful character, and something many readers might find unexpected in a story about a school for vampires: she is a role model.

So girls: Be strong. Be warriors. Be lovers (eventually). Grow up – but make mistakes along the way.

And Writers: Be strong. Be warriors. Be lovers (always!). Help your characters to grow up and make their own mistakes along the way.

Go forth and tell stories! We need more strong girls and strong writers in the world today.

(If you'd like to read another Carpe Keyboard post that talks about Rose Hathaway and the Vampire Adacemy, click here.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Patterson's Pacing and Less than Purple Prose

One of the criteria for writing for young adults seems to be a fast pace. Events need to happen and happen quickly with very little down time in between the action sequences. (At least that’s what I’ve read and been taught in my toddler-aged career of writing for kids.)

The pace – or the speed with which the reader moves through the story – needs to be rapid. Long periods of contemplation, descriptions of static scenes, or rambling soliloquies are all verboten unless you have a VERY good reason that your story can’t exist without them.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to like description. (I like to write it as well as read it.) I’m in love with the adjective. I drool over a well-turned metaphor and smile slyly when sighting a singular simile. I bat my eyes at visceral descriptions that make me smell and feel, as well as see, the characters and setting.

Alas – I read “adult” fiction for those things. I’m not saying that all YA authors avoid similes and descriptors; however, I do think you are much more likely to find even the humble adjective used (overused?) when reading a novel written for a more adult  (less young) audience.

This week’s book that has me thinking about pacing and description? James Patterson’s third episode in the Maximum Ride series: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports. Patterson has over 140 million books in print in forty languages. He’s right up there with Mr. King as a top-seller worldwide. He knows how to put a plot together and has the fast-paced crime novel market pretty much cornered for the adult book-buying crowd. He took his rapid-fire plots for his crime novels and skinnied them down – sped them up – for his first series for younger audiences.

These novels aren’t short – no. This one weighs in at a hefty 405 pages (paperback). But the pacing and writing style are such that I can sit down and read one in only a couple of hours. (Granted, I read like a crazed biblio-maniac hopped up on chocolate covered espresso beans…but even a normal YA reader could whip through one of these in an afternoon.)

So here is what I’ve observed about how these books move so quickly for the reader.

1.      Short (and I mean SHORT) chapters. 133 of them. Most of them max out at 3 pages long. They start part way down one page and cover maybe another page and a half – leaving lots of white space at both the beginning and the end of each chapter. All that white spaces does a few things: Pulls the reader forward (leap-frogging over the blank stuff to get on with the story) and forces the reader to literally turn pages quickly. The faster you turn pages, the faster you get to page 405, right

2.      A plethora of dialog. Patterson’s action is conveyed, in many cases, through the first person narration of Max, or…the smokin’ fast dialog between the kids who make up the “Flock.” (Yeah…flock. Think a gang of good kids who can fly. With wings. Like birds. Apparently, Patterson decided younger readers need a little fantasy in their thrillers.)

3.      And tons of dialog leads to very short paragraphs. The pages are chopped up into one or two or three line paragraphs. Even those that aren’t dialog are short. Again, let me point out how that creates white space for the reader and keeps your eye moving along.

4.      Finally – there may be a lot of chapters and a lot of dialog, but there is a decided dearth of adjectives and description. In fact, there are so few, that it sort of turns me off of the books altogether. For someone like me who enjoys the way a juicy description can make me feel, the stark style of Patterson’s stories is sort of … well… annoying, actually. In fact, I was so distressed by his lack of description, I started counting adjectives.

(Go ahead. Roll your eyes. If you’ve read much of this blog, you should already know I’m a geek! Get over it!)

# of Adjs.
New, experimental, limited
Cool, another, send
Bird, lousy, blue-uniformed

You may want to call me a geek, but you have to admit – not the juiciest of word choices, huh? I mean, seriously. If you are only going to use 3 adjectives on a page, couldn’t one of them be something other than cool or new?

But I digress. Patterson is such a prolific writer and sells so many gazillions of books, that his formula – short paragraphs, short chapters, tons of dialog and a (sigh) shortage of description – certainly works for him.

Perhaps we writers should take a page from his book. Literally. Here’s a challenge: Write a page of fiction with no paragraph longer than 3 lines and with no more than 5 adjectives on the whole page. Or take one of your works in progress and pull up a random page. Take a look at how chopping out some non-vital descriptors and adding some white space might change the pace.

Go forth, ye writers, and quicken your pace. But don’t forget to tell your story along the way!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And the Winner is...

The winner of Seize the Story is...


If you send your snail mail address to me at, I'll be happy to put the book in the mail to you as soon as I can.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fairy or Folk?

I’ve been reading Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. The cover shows a castle floating on clouds, an old woman picking her way up a lane with a long walking stick, a creepy scarecrow (complete with a crow sitting on its shoulder), and a hovering face – blue with wispy flames for hair and sharp, wicked teeth. 
Not the same cover I have, but
great scary face, huh?

Fantasy, anyone?

The style in which it is written immediately reminded me of a folk or fairy tale. It didn’t begin exactly with “Once upon a time…” but it could have. Instead, it begins:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Right away, Ms. Wynne Jones lets us know a lot about the story to come. We know we are in a made-up location (I’ve never heard of the land of Ingary, have you?). You also know this story has fantastic elements (magic boots and cloaks), and most certainly will be about a character who is the eldest of three who all go out to seek their fortunes.

Will the eldest, our hero or heroine, fail? Yep. Will she fail miserably? Probably. Will she gain her fortune? We don’t know exactly from these two sentences, but I’d hazard a guess that she’ll achieve something good. Some change will come about. She will learn that her supposed misfortune is really…maybe…a fortune in disguise.

Did I give the story away? Or do you think the reader was supposed to learn all of that from those first two sentences? After all – what do we know about folktales just from reading or hearing them all our lives? (And what do we know about beginnings of stories in general?)

We know there will be a hero who will have some sort of challenge or face great adversity, right? (Think Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood, or even Jack and the Beanstalk.) We know that the situation we find at the beginning leads us to fear for our hero or heroes…but we also know that the journey the hero takes will lead them to a new understanding – of themselves, if not the world around them. (Speaking of the Hero’s Journey…if you haven’t ever watched or read Joseph Campbell and his interviews with Bill Moyers – do so. As a writer…you should hear what Mr. Campbell has to say. Fascinating stuff…)

So, as I’m musing about folktales and the style in which they are written – and reading Ms. Wynne Jones’s fantastical story about wizards who are full of themselves, witches who don’t know they are witches, floating castles and magical boots – I find myself wanting a strong cup of English Breakfast tea and a biscuit. And I began to wonder about folktales vs. fairy tales…and how myths fit into the mix.

So (to save you the trouble and show that I do more than just ramble aimlessly along in my own grey cells), I’ve collected some definitions.

Folktale: a short story that comes from the oral tradition.  Folk tales often have to do with everyday life and frequently feature wily peasants getting the better of their superiors.  In many cases, like in the folk tales we've selected, the characters are animals with human characteristics.
In their original versions, most folk tales are not children's stories (or at all appropriate for children) because they are bawdy and often violent.  However the themes of little ones having power, venturing out into the world, and good triumphing over evil are common. (

Fairy Tale: Fairy tales are a subgenre of folk tales and almost always involve some element of magic and good triumphing over evil.   A good rule of thumb: if there's a fairy in the story, it's a fairy tale. (

Well…that seems a little obvious, but I guess I was hoping for more of a definitive difference between the two. And I guess that means I tend to like folktales more than fairy tales. I’m quite partial to giants and witches and youngsters in trouble – hiding in the dark woods, following breadcrumb trails, seeking fortunes, etcetera, etcetera.

For good measure, here is the definition of myth: A traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people. (

Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t truly fit into any of these categories. It is a novel, not a short story. It, I’m pretty sure, didn’t come from the oral tradition of any country. It has no fairies, and finally, it doesn’t explain the world view of a people. But…it is sounds like a folktale and certainly has elements that bellow “FOLKTALE!” throughout. Ms. Wynne Jones has picked her niche and filled it well. She can write these stories so that it doesn’t matter if they fit into the academic definition. In reality – this is a folk tale, by style if not by history.

Do you have any folk or fairy tales you love to tell or read? Have you ever written a folk or fairy tale? Read any from other cultures lately? (I’d recommend this collection of Bengali folktales!)

And we didn’t even talk about Tall Tales, did we? Hmmm. Love that Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Love them. No matter what type of tale they tell.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Have Words Made You Gasp Today?

Since I write with a partner, I'm always on the lookout for books written by co-authors. Over the last few months, I've come to love and anticipate books with the author listed as "Rachel Cohn and David Levithan."

Please. Whatever you do about reading over the holidays...GO GET THIS BOOK! Now. Drop what you are doing and go buy Dash and Lily's Book of Dares.

You still here? Why aren't you muffled in a scarf and digging out your keys? I'll still be here when you get back, I promise. Go on!

OK...Fine. Keep reading here if you must. But I just have to pass along one passage from this book that took my breath away. I just love it when I read something that is so artful (in a good way, not in a black-beret-wearing-snark-at-the-paintings-at-the-gallery way) that it makes me shiver and wish I could ever (EVER) put words together like this.

Check it out:

"She led me into a room that could only be called a parlor. The drapery was so thick and the furniture so cloaked that I half expected to find Sherlock Holmes thumb-wrestling with Jane Austen in the corner. It wasn't as dustry or smoky as one expects a parlor to be, but all the wood had the weight of card catalogs and the fabric seemed soaked in wine."

Sigh. I mean, really. The weight of card catalogs...fabric soaked in wine...

Be still my beating heart.

I dog-eared the page just so I could read it again on a whim. Whenever I need to.

What are some of your gasp-worthy reads lately? Quotes that you love or language that covers you with goose bumps? Words that move you to tears of make you snort iced tea out of your nose with laughter? Please...share!

(PS -- Thanks, Partner, for recommending this book. I owe you one!)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Being Grateful for Writers and Community...and a Free Book

Thanksgiving weekend. Here I sit, eating left over apple pie (my kids ate all of the pumpkin!) and waiting for my cup of tea to cool. I’m thinking about this writing journey of the last few years.

(Now is a good time for the flashback-I’m-reflecting-on-pleasant-memories music. Bee dee boo, be dee boo… And maybe some fuzzy picture of me looking thoughtful that fades into a montage of scenes where I’m typing diligently away… Sorry. I really was a film student at one point in time.)

Anyway…. I’ve been thinking about how amazing the children’s writing community really is. Most of the people I’ve encountered since I’ve started really focusing on writing have been considerate, kind, helpful, and encouraging – and that goes a long way when you are just starting off in any endeavor, let alone something as difficult and – let’s face it – personal as writing.

My thankful thoughts today are going out to the folks who have been there, been available, listened and encouraged and generally nudged me along on this adventure.

Like other local authors I know, especially Linda and Lisa. They have been a source of great information and encouragement…and growing friendship along the way. The simple fact that they and others I’ve met through SCBWI here in Ohio are so willing to share their experiences (and an occasional falafel) is pretty darned amazing.

Speaking of authors – I’ve also had pretty fantastic experiences with other authors since starting this blog. I’ve gotten very brave about writing to writers (no matter who they are or how famous) to tell them how much I admire their work. And I often add a quick request for an interview. So far, I’ve found that most writers I’ve contacted are very willing to participate, which means spending some of their valuable writing time writing to me instead of writing books! Pretty cool, right?

Not to mention writers who took time to offer advice on the hunt for agents. I had some of those e-mail “conversations”, too. The simple fact that a couple of best-selling authors would be positive and encouraging to a perfect stranger (me!) about the craft and the biz…just something to recognize and be thankful for, I think.

And even agents and editors who have turned my project down. Yep…you read that right. I’m even grateful for their input, comments, and yes…encouragement.

This community of children’s writers and children’s book professionals is one of a kind. And I’m glad to be a fledgling member.

So…in the spirit of offering encouragement and sharing what I know with others, I’d like to offer another book drawing! I’m giving away a copy of SEIZE THE STORY by Victoria Hanley – a book about writing craft and storytelling. It is marketed as a resource for teen writers, but I found the information on plot, character, dialog, etc. all helpful and useful to a number of my own projects.

If you’d like to enter the drawing for this great writing craft book – just type a comment below. It would be great if you’d tell me something you are grateful for this Thanksgiving holiday, too. And if you link to Carpe Keyboard from your Facebook or other social network, leave me a comment about that, too. I’ll put your name in the drawing twice!

I’ll draw for the winner on Saturday, December 4. Good luck! And be thankful!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Write What You Know, Love What You Write

I read Jane Smiley’s The Georges and the Jewels last weekend. This is Ms. Smiley’s first novel for young people, and even the cover made me think of the old adage: Write what you know.
For me, one of the things I know is horses. I’ve been a horse person (or at least a horse-crazy girl!) pretty much for my entire life. I played with  model horses as a kid; held mock horse shows on hippity-hops with my sister in the back yard; spent untold hours in all seasons hanging out at the barn with my little Arabian pony; read every Black Stallion and Marguerite Henry book I could get my hands on. You get the idea. I started riding when I was about 6 years old, and with the exception of some time off to have babies, I’ve been riding ever since.
So, although I’m not a horse trainer and I don’t make my living with horses, I have a knowledge of them and many things equine by nature of long exposure. And love.
Before I finished even the first few chapters of The Georges and The Jewels, I knew one thing for sure: Ms. Smiley is also a horse person. There is something telling in the way she writes about not only the horses in the book, but the environment and the people. Only someone with a love for these large four-legged beasts could write so viscerally about a barn or a fenced pasture or how it feels to run your hands through a colt’s sun-warmed coat on a Spring morning.
You may have seen a barn, a pasture and a colt…but until you immerse yourself in them, know them – until you open yourself up to the smells, sounds, sights, and magic of those places – your writing might just end up flatter than a writer with a deeper knowledge of their topic.
Anyone can research their writerly hearts out and put sentences, paragraphs and yes – even stories – together about a given topic. But there is something deeper than just research, isn’t there? Something deeper than just the facts and being able to string them together to show action, plot, character and description.
When you know something – really know about it in your heart – you have a level of knowledge that others can’t attain by just wishing they knew it, too. As a writer who knows about something, you have power. You will be able to convey a message or an image or a story with more power because of your knowledge and your love of the topic.
Could be baseball. Could be horses. Could be cooking or Italy or mythology or medicine. Doesn’t really matter what the topic. What matters is that the topic has touched you somehow and has had an impact on your life. If you can really feel the scalpel in your hand or the spring of the risen dough under your palm…if you can smell the vineyards in the Tuscan summer sun or tell the stories of elephant-headed gods with joy and passion…then you will, in turn, touch the hearts of your readers.
After I closed the back cover of Ms. Smiley’s book, I peeked at her bio on her website. Yep. I was right. She’s a horse person. And I, for one, hope she continues to write about these critters and how they touch our lives.
And maybe I will, too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Frey Fry Fo Fum...I Smell the Blood of a Young Writer!

Have you seen the latest brouhaha over James Frey? Yes…that James Frey. The one who was called to the carpet by Oprah for lying in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

New York Magazine printed an expose on Mr. Frey’s “fiction factory” on November 12, 2010. According to the article, Full Fathom Five is the company created by Mr. Frey to recruit creative writing MFA students from places like Columbia. Their goal: to produce the next Twilight. Really. He wants to get a bunch of hungry, young talent together to churn out YA fiction and stamp his name on it. Or Pittacus Lore’s name. Whichever. The point is: he’s setting up “collaboration” without any of the benefits of a real collaborative effort. He’s creating an entire company to take advantage of writers who are eager to be published, no matter the cost. And, according to the article (and other reactions across the blogosphere) the Full Fathom Five contract is heinous. Bordering on criminal. But still legal if a desperate writer signs on the dotted line.

Here's the rub: The first book from this fiction factory is already out -- and the movie is in the making. So it sounds like maybe...just maybe...Frey's organization might be a fast track to the top of the publishing Everest.

But...the contract promised virtually no payment in return for entire manuscripts – other than a few hundred dollars paid up front. No recognition, no author ownership of the final product…ultimately no control. And it included a confidentiality clause that prevents the writers from telling anyone that they wrote any book that might end up published from Full Fathom Five. So what would you do? Sign up to “collaborate” with a best-selling author (with stars in your eyes and dollar signs floating in little thought bubbles over your head)?? Or press on...on your own or with a partner, trying to slog your way up the mountain the "old fashioned" way?

Here’s a quote from the NY Mag article. The speaker is Phillip Eil, a first year non-fiction student at Columbia regarding a visit Frey made to his school:

We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.

These young writers are so far out of my world. Seriously. For a writer – as yet unpublished writer – to believe they could find the magic bullet that would mean they could avoid a “day job” and immediately sell movie rights…never have to “suffer as a writer”…is just a bit odd to me. I had to remind myself that these students – who definitely don’t deserve to be taken advantage of by Mr. Frey or anyone else – are students. Still idealistic. Still dreaming of their “real lives” after school. Still believing they can create art and live like a literary royalty while basking in the glow of their fans’ admiration.

Sigh. If only it worked that way. (Jaded? Maybe. Realist-- yes.)

I’m a collaborator. I have a partner and together we have produced a novel. Although my partner is a Published Writer, having a few wonderful titles to her credit, none of her books are fiction. So – even though she has some experience and an amazing gift for writing – this genre, process, and art form – it’s all new for both of us.

And we have a contract. We didn’t make anything legal until we were in the final stages of signing a contract with our agent; however, we do have a legal collaboration agreement that holds us to certain promises.

Did we need it? Well…we’ve known each other most of our lives. I trust her. She trusts me. We probably didn’t NEED it. But we did both have enough common sense to agree that it couldn’t hurt. And our agent insisted on it. It is just smart business.

Hear that? I said the “B” word! Ultimately, all of this fabulous art we create…these stories…turn into business opportunities if we are very lucky. After all – books have to sell to make anyone money. And they have to sell well to make the publisher and the writer some money.

(The New York Magazine article does go on to talk about how writing programs owe their students education on the business side of things, which sounds like a great idea. But what do I know. I’m just a writer. Not a student of a writing program.)

If you are interested in more insight into how writers are paid for their work, check out this essay from the New York Times about author advances.

So…do you need a James Frey and a wicked contract to collaborate and get your first work published? I sure hope not! In fact, I’m betting my dream job on the fact that I can collaborate with a real partner – with someone creative and funny and fun to work with, who understands my dreams as I understand hers – and not have to resort to selling my work in secret. No back alley deals done in the dark, with no recognition for me. Nope. No weird contracts that ask me to sell my soul to …anyone… to get my words in print.

No thanks, Mr. Frey. Even if I was a student at a prestigious university writing program…I’ll stick to good business. I’ll write for myself and collaborate with a real partner.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Club Booger. Venting about Poorly Written Kids' Books

Have you ever found yourself settled in for a good read – perhaps a soft blanket, a cat or dog and a hot cup of tea all present and accounted for -- and ended up hating the book? Yep. I’ve been there, too. Very recently, in fact.
OK, so “hating” might be a strong word. What other words could I use? Bored? Disgusted? Frustrated? Disdainful?
Usually, I try to write about the books I love. Stories that touched me somehow, stories I learned from either as a writer or as a person. And I’m going to TRY to turn my recent disappointing experience around. Really, I am.
Here goes:
I’m part of a book club. Most of the members are kids. I love this book club. I love being the “bus driver” and getting the kids to the meeting. Love listening to their energy and excitement when they read something they really connected with. Love that I get to sit in a hard blue chair and sniff elementary school scents around me while we discuss the month’s selection. Love that the adults involved (there are only 3 of us) are not “in charge” of this experience – we are on equal footing with the kids and take turns with them when choosing what book to read each month.
But… I absolutely didn’t love this month’s book.
I know you’re now asking… “Well? What was the book?”
I’m not going to tell you. I feel very awkward and very writer-bashy if I put the title and the author’s name out there for all to see. Plus, as you all know, I’m trying to break into this biz myself. And tromping all over someone else’s PUBLISHED BOOK doesn’t feel like the right thing to do right now.
But seriously? I’m so jealous I could just spit. I read a book like this Book Club Selection for November, and wonder how it ended up published and distributed by one of the world’s largest kids’ book distributors. Why is my book -- a (um…ahem) BRILLIANT, fast-paced, exciting story full of relatable characters and tigers and stolen treasure – not already flying off of shelves and being drooled over in book clubs around the world? Huh??? Really! As my friends at Forever Young Adult would say: What’s the shizz?
I’m seriously doubting the logic and inner-workings of the publishing industry today. All over this one book.
Here are the things that annoyed me most about The Book Club Selection:
1.       Unbelievable events. I mean, kids are notorious for being sticklers for the details. This book is not fantasy, mind you. I can deal with vampires and killer unicorns like any other red-blooded American reader. This plot was just full of things that were supposed to be realistic and believable – but just weren’t.
For example: Kids lost at sea during a hurricane, rescued by dolphins…then riding the dolphins (and holding hands) to the nearest beach. Seriously. I couldn’t help it. I kept trying to picture how two children would straddle their dolphins, who must have been swimming practically on top of each other, and then happily smiling and holding hands during a fierce hurricane in the middle of the ocean. Have you ever seen a dolphin swim? Those suckers are fast! And they move around a lot as they swim. And in a hurricane? Who would believe this?
2.       Stilted, unrealistic dialog. I wish I could give examples, but again, I’m not too comfortable with this “negativity” to actually put quotes in here. Suffice it to say I’ve never ever heard any kid talk like these kids talked. It was enough to interrupt any flow of the scenes and make me chuckle out loud while rolling my eyes.

3.       Evil People Hurting the Beautiful Unspoiled Environment storyline. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for being green and doing everything possible to protect what few unspoiled parts of the planet that may be left. But the villains in this story were so cliché it was, again, enough to make me laugh out loud. They were not only going to ruin an unspoiled beach by building a hotel – but they were outsiders making money by allowing the evil military of an unnamed country to test sonar (Purpose? Never revealed. Just mystery sonar tests.) which hurt the dolphins. Evil white outsiders hurting or taking advantage of the native population – who, by the way, weren’t “with it” enough to do anything to stop the evilness without the help of some 11 year old castaways.  Again, I found myself thinking, “Oh, give me a break.”
Lest you are thinking I’m just being a stuffy adult over this middle grade book: I’d like to remind you that I’ve read dozens of kids’ novels over the last few years. Many dozens. And most of them are pretty darned good. I’ve read literary fiction for young adults, mainstream popular fiction, fantasy, sci-fi…you name it, I’ve read it.
So how does a book like this get published? I really want to know! Because there must be a trick to it. How do poorly written stories with clichéd plots and over-used, one dimensional characters make it through the enormously high hurdles of the publishing world?
Sigh. It’s a mystery to me. And I’m gonna have to get over it. And keep writing…and keep learning from the great writers I find. And learn, too, from books like the Book Club Selection for November – take their mistakes, the things that drive me nuts – and try very hard not to repeat them in my own work.
Note to self: Avoid unbelievable situations, stilted dialog, or clichéd characters.
Wish me luck.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Twirling Hero, Man-Eating Unicorn, and Poetic Villain....? (Or Tools for Writer's Block)

This week, I was reading Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant. My writing partner recommended this story – based on the fact that it was about killer unicorns. Seriously. Fang-bearing, poison-oozing, carnivorous, scary unicorns.

My first reaction: “No! You’ve got to be kidding!” Upon further thought: “Pretty funny…” (picturing rainbows and sparkly unicorns with golden hooves and baby blue eyes suddenly sprouting fangs). Finally: “Why the heck not?” After all -- killer unicorns would have to be more interesting than the ones you always see lying peacefully in some maiden’s lap on those big tapestries, right?

The book, by the way, was GREAT. Yes…killer unicorns…and a fabulous heroine in training to be a reluctant warrior. Strong, smart, and fierce – all the things I want my own heroines to be when I write them. (Thanks, Ms. Peterfreund, for adding to the growing collection of girls and women to stand on their own two feet – and sometimes wield a claymore or a crossbow!)

Anyway…the story got me to thinking about turning the accepted or expected upside down. And how, as a writer, I should use that concept more often. Take an idea – mine, or even a traditionally held idea (unicorn hiding in forest with maiden) and be brave enough to mix it up… a lot. Could there be a werewolf who watches for the cold weather to arrive rather than watching for the moon? (Sounds familiar…) Could there be vampires who can’t be in the sun because they sparkle? (Oops. That one’s been done already.) What about a simple country girl who turns out to be the star of the high school football team. Oh…wait. That’s already been done, too.

OK – so this isn’t new. Writers have been using the unexpected to gather readers in and keep them following along in the story for ages. But what about using this tactic when you are stuck in your writing?

So, in the midst of these mind-meanderings, I was speaking to groups of eighth graders at a local middle school this week, and someone asked how to deal with (da da da dummmmm) writer’s block. I found myself telling them to let yourself go wild – turn your story inside out. Write the unexpected. Push the limits.

If you’re stuck on a chapter or a plot point – and can’t seem to get your groove back, make your story stand on its head. You don’t have to keep it there…and what you write might not even make the final cut for a “finished” story, but I bet it will get you out of your rut and get your juices flowing again. Have your villain speak in iambic pentameter. Make your hero twirl everywhere they go. Let your setting morph into a Martian landscape. Not forever…just for a few paragraphs. Just until your characters tell you they are ready to go back to their real purpose. When your characters are ready to resume the story you really want to tell.

I have no way of knowing if Ms. Peterfreund came up with the idea of killer unicorns because she was stuck on some other story. But I do know that when I’m feeling that (da da da dummmmm) block coming on, or if my characters are suddenly stuck in a rut with nothing interesting to do or say, I might just throw a killer unicorn into their path to see what happens.

How do you deal with (da da da dummmmm) you-know-what?

(Oh…PS: Keep an eye out here on Carpe Keyboard for an upcoming interview with Rampant author Diana Peterfreund!)

Winner of Linger and Shiver!

And the Winner is....KENDA!

If you would email me at and provide your mailing address, I'll be happy to put the books in the mail to you asap! Congrats! And thanks for reading Carpe Keyboard!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Where the Heck are Mom and Dad? And a BOOK GIVE AWAY!

Read on to see how to win a set of Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls books: Shiver and Linger.

**Warning: Possibility of slight spoilers ahead! ***

So, you know those kids we love to read about? The middle graders and young adults snuggled in the pages of books about high school, mysteries, werewolves, vampires, or first love? I have a question: Where are their parents?

It seems to me, there is usually at least one parent present in the story somewhere, but they are rapidly shoved into the margin of the story. If they do play a role bigger than putting the occasional meal on the fictional table or asking some random question about homework as our hero walks through the house, it is often a role destined to cause strife for our hero…or even send them to a therapist’s couch in their later years. Are there any examples of loving parents in YA lit? There is probably a better chance to find some in the middle grade shelves, just by the nature of the younger reader. (Not, as of yet, ready to push the parental units away like their teen counterparts, I suppose.)

In the last few weeks, I read Maggie Stiefvater’s popular books, Shiver and Linger. In case you aren’t familiar, here’s the setup: Grace is in love with a wolf that frequents the woods behind her house. The wolf pack nearly carried her off as a light supper when she was small; however, instead of being afraid, she is fascinated and somewhat obsessed with them – especially the one with the yellow eyes. Enter yellow-eyed Sam, a musical, literary, homeschooled boy only appears in Grace’s town in the Summer. Because…(wait for it)…he’s a wolf during the winter. Ta da!! (Think Twilight, but with wolves instead of vegetarian vampires.) Romance and adventure ensue.

Sam’s parents: tried to kill him when he was very young. They couldn’t handle his early months as a werewolf – the switching back and forth between hairy beast and beloved little boy sent them over the edge. They decide they would rather he die than be possessed. The man who plays the adopted father role for Sam (Beck) is more often a canine than a human – which pretty much means he falls into the absentee father category.

Grace’s parents: Talk about absentee! They live with Grace and are still married, but between her artsy, flighty mother and her self-centered father…Grace is more of a roommate/housekeeper for them instead of a daughter. She comes and goes, and even manages quite easily to have Sam spend the night in her bedroom for weeks without her parents catching on. Very absentee. Although…very convenient for the story.

Beck and Grace’s parents breeze through an occasional scene, but their presence is more notable by either their absence, or—occasionally – by Grace or Sam mulling over how different their lives would be if the parents were present.

Are there any books for teens where the parents play a realistic role? Where they are involved, interested, present, caring, etc., etc.? (In other words, the kind of parent I, for one, hope to be as my kids grow up.) Do teens not want to see solid parents even for their fictional “friends”? Or is this part of the escapism of YA lit? Is this one way kids remove themselves from the reality of their own busy lives – sinking into a good story that takes them away…even from whatever parents they have in real life? To imagine a life where parents aren’t a big part of the picture at all? To dream about life without them or start thinking through how they will make decisions and move through life if Mom and Dad aren’t there to hold them up?

Lest you think I only considered Stiefvater’s characters, here is a quick rundown of the state of parenting on some other YA books:

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: Mom abandons Taylor.
Gone by Michael Grant: All parents disappear instantly in a cataclysmic event.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini: Craig’s mom is occasionally present, in a sort of enabling way.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: Like Gone, the kids are trapped together – without adults -- in a dystopian world.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld: The post-apocalyptic setting removes kids from their parents’ homes at a young age, when they are housed in dorms together and exist with very little exposure to their families.

See what I mean? Parents not there – either literally removed from the scene or more subtly absent from the hero’s life. Heck, even Percy Jackson’s mom sends him away to live at Camp Half Blood for months at a time!

Are there examples of teen lit where the parents are present and provide? I just scanned my bookshelf again, and not a single title jumped out at me. So perhaps this is just one of those elements of lit for this age group. Or maybe…someone should write good parents into the genre…

In honor of parents in teen literature, Carpe Keyboard will give away a copy of Shiver and the sequel, Linger, to one of you! Just leave a comment below or mention Carpe Keyboard on your Facebook page/Twitter/other social network (and tell me about it in a comment) and I’ll put your name in the drawing for the set of Maggie Stiefvater’s great stories! I’ll draw the lucky winner on Saturday, November 13.