Saturday, May 28, 2011

Brave Writer

So…I’ve been working on two new manuscripts over the last…oh…two years. Well, one of them I’ve only just started recently, but the other one – code named RLR – has been a work in progress for a very long time.

It started off with a bang – tons of words over a very short time. Then it slowed to a trickle while I was co-writing and editing a different novel with a dear friend. I still poked around at it, but really didn’t make much progress. Then another wave of frenetic activity where I counted words, set goals and plowed forward. Followed…again…by a period of procrastination.

Well, if the pattern is to hold, it is now time for more focus. More goal-setting. More WRITING on that particular story. And there is a story to tell – one that is still floating in and out of the little gray cells in my head. That’s how I know that it isn’t just a dead end, you see. I can still see the characters, still wonder late at night what Neil would say or what Sid would do… How can I get Neil another guitar after I wrote that he left his behind when he ran with Sidney? What will Sidney do when she finally meets her long lost father? Will the villain catch up to them? The answers are in my head. Now I just need to get the energy and momentum to get them past my fingers and into a file.

But then comes the really scary part. Letting someone else in on their story. Eventually, I have to share it with someone. I’ve taken scenes to my critique group over time, but nothing sequential. They’ve seen a bit of the story here, and smidgen of a chapter there. Not enough to tell if I’m building cohesive characters, let alone a plot that hangs together. Don’t get me wrong…their help is invaluable. They are readers and writers, which is a very good thing to have in a critique group. If your partners are readers, first and foremost, they can offer observations about your style, pacing, word choice, etc. that help tighten paragraphs and force you to think about why you write the way you do.

I’ve found myself wanting something more specific, though. I hoped to find a group or partner who also writes the same genre. I needed someone with experience in YA and children’s lit to take a peek and let me know if I’m heading down a solid path, or heading down a proverbial rabbit hole.

So, I got brave. I’m a member of a website called She Writes. Mostly, I’m a lurker and a blog advertiser. I read other postings from folks in the groups and I promote Carpe Keyboard and my contests, but I’ve never used any of their other features or services. Until one day last week. When I got brave.

I posted a plea on a few of the She Writes groups. A sort of personal ad. “Married 40-something writer seeks other writer(s) of young adult stories. Loves to read and offer sage advice. Looking for honest feedback. Hates pina coladas, but does have an affinity for rain, as long no walking required…”

You get the idea.

Got a response, from another YA writer who offered to trade some pages so we could test out a critique round. I sent her a few chapters. I held my breath for about an hour (okay…maybe a minute, but seemed LOTS longer than that) after I clicked Send. Part of me was worried that she’d hate it. She’d realize in the first few sentences that I’m a hoax. A quack. A woman curiously obsessed with teenagers and their stories, who has very little talent and even less skill with words.

But, because I was being brave, I tried to forget about it until I saw her rather quick reply. She turned around my chapters overnight – reading them and giving really insightful comments! And no…she didn’t hate it. Or if she did, she kept that to herself.

But I’m pretty sure she didn’t hate it because she went on to send me chapters of one of her projects to read and critique. And guess what? I’m loving her story and her style.

Like a blind date in a way. We know nothing about one another, other than what our She Writes profiles say (which is little). But we know that we are writers. And I suppose we can now realize that we are brave writers who seek out comments and critique. Brave writers who want to write better than we did last week, hope to write even better next week. And one of the best ways to get better is to get your work out there in front of readers. Be open to their reactions, ideas, and questions. Take comments seriously – without giving your audience all of the power. It still is YOUR story, after all.

But open up. Seek feedback. Soak it up. Learn from it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Talking with Rhonda Stapleton, Author of the STUPID CUPID series...and a chance to win her first book!

At a recent SCBWI chapter event, I had the pleasure of meeting author Rhonda Stapleton. She presented a session about young adult literature and the market today. She talked about what elements make a successful YA novel (successful = high selling!) and story elements to consider if you write YA. And she was funny. Very funny.

I was her “hostess” for the session, which meant that I introduced her to the audience and got her a glass of water. In return, she planted a song in my head by humming it while she was preparing to begin her presentation. A song that is still….STILL…stuck in MY HEAD.

So, thank you very much Ms. Funny Writer Person with your cute bob hair cut and your tattoos and your love of the crazily addictive tune for “The Girl from Ipanema” for taking the time to talk with us here at Carpe Keyboard!

Carpe Keyboard:  We met at a recent SCBWI conference in Columbus, Ohio. When you spoke, you talked about YA lit and we had some discussion around the difference between “sweet” YA and “edgy” YA. How would you differentiate between the two? Where do your books fit?

Rhonda Stapleton: My books are definitely on the sweet side. There are no sex scenes, only mild cussing, very light alcohol use, and the focus is more on romance/love than grittier topics like sex, pregnancy, abuse, etc.

For your Stupid Cupid series, you cross over into a little bit of a paranormal-y storyline. Little mythology. Little romance. Did you set out to write something that was based on myth or legend? Why do you think the myth/legend/fairy tale retellings are all the rage right now?

I think people are always drawn to myths, and when an author can find a way to breathe new life into them it helps them continue in popularity. My original plan was to write a heroine who had an unusual job. Being a cupid came to mind. But I made mine different and breathed new life into the "cupid" concept by having her be one of many, and they use technology to make love matches. :D

Do you have any teenagers in your life? Do you use them? Do they shine your shoes, read your drafts, make you dinner, sing to you when the power goes out? Anything? Or do eavesdrop on tables of teenagers at a coffee house to get a glimpse into the lives of teenagers, like many other YA writers?

I have a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. My daughter has helped me brainstorm, and she's read my books. My son...well, I think my writing is a little too girly for him, haha. I shamelessly eavesdrop on their convos when they are within listening range. I also hang at the mall sometimes and just listen. It's amazing what you hear.

In oh-so-writerly classes and (self-help) books for writers, I’ve read lots about the character’s arc or the character’s journey. I’ve written, here on Carpe Keyboard, about craft topics, like voice and plot and dialogue… Do you follow any specific methods for developing plot or characters….or anything else about your stories? Any advice on craft for writers who are trying to break in to the biz?

For me, plot and characterization go hand-in-hand. And I base them off Deb Dixon's GMC (goal, motivation, conflict). What does your character want? Why? And what keeps the character from getting it? Being able to answer those questions gets me started on my storyline and keeps me focused. My biggest tips for writers: get that book, post-haste. It's amazing, and it changed my writing. Also, read read read READ. Analyze the stories that resonate the most with readers. WHY does it work? What is the character's path? How is the plotting woven? Those things will help you grow.

What did you do when you signed with your agent? Dance around like a crazy person? How about when you heard your agent sold your first novel? Run to the driveway and proclaim your talent to the entire neighborhood? (See…I’m planning what I’m going to do. Can you tell?)

When I signed with my agent I totally went out to dinner to celebrate. And I told EVERYONE. When I sold the trilogy...well, I bawled. haha. I sobbed and sobbed. And then went out to dinner to celebrate. Sensing a theme? lol

Can you tell us about your next book?

I'm working on a couple of different things right now--a teen paranormal that's waaaay more serious in tone, and an adult novel, actually. :D

 When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

I started writing in 2004. I used to write daily but it's not practical for me right now since I'm self-employed. So now, weekends are my sacred writing time. My goal is to do 10 pages each weekend day, which is definitely doable. I can break it up as I need to, so I don't always do the pages in one sitting unless I am in a groove.

Thanks, Rhonda, for your time and sharing your talent with us! Good luck on your next works…and keep humming!

To enter the drawing to win a copy of Ms. Stapleton’s Stupid Cupid, leave a comment below! I’ll draw the winner next Saturday, May 28. (As always, if the winner does not email me to claim their prize within one week, the book will go to another winner.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Inclusion Connections: Corporate America and YA Lit Mixin' in My Mind

Funny how things happen sometimes, isn’t it? I just finished reading Frozen Fire by Tim Bowler, then picked up Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  Both of these are YA novels, recent publications (well, 2006 and 2011), and both have a healthy dose of otherworldliness about the stories. These events alone are not surprising. I read about an average of two novels a week, and many, if not most, of them are YA.

But today I had to attend mandatory training at my new job. The class was called “Managing Inclusion.” Five years ago, it would have been called “Diversity Training,” but corporate America has matured, apparently, beyond simply understanding diversity and moved on to inclusion for all people.  This is a good thing. For a lot of reasons.

Again, not a weird or surprising occurrence. Corporate trainer attends mandatory session at work.
But here’s the rub: The combination of four hours of discussion about inclusion versus exclusion and the impact of both on the workplace resonated with me through the literature I’d been reading.
No – neither Delirium nor Frozen Fire is about corporate America… But hang in there with me. I really do have a point.

Part of our discussion in this class centered around how exclusion can be forceful and intentional, but it can also occur subtly without even the excluder realizing what they are doing. On the other hand, inclusion is always active. You cannot passively include someone. You must make an effort to make sure people are included. We also talked about how the behaviors of including and excluding people start very young. We learn very early in life to plop people into buckets, usually based on what they look like. And as we mature, those buckets get more complex, but the main skill is ingrained – we still sort and categorize…and judge.

So I’m listened and participated in this discussion with a room full of adults, all professional, all well-educated, all successful in their chosen fields. And I kept making “connections” (a word used by many a language arts teacher!) back to the two books I named, not to mention to recent conversations around my own dinner table.

In Frozen Fire, Bowler gives us examples of very active exclusion when the people in the town, specifically the teenagers, forcefully exclude a group of travelers from the town. People openly dismiss them and even take violent action against them. Worse yet – the same townspeople show how aggressively a mob can exclude based on rumor and hearsay when they decide one of the main characters is guilty of horrible crimes. Even when presented with undeniable proof that he didn’t commit the crime, he unwittingly proves his differences run deeper than the town ever thought. They are so threatened by this innocent boy, they still pursue him and force him out.

In the beginning of Delirium (on only about 5 chapters in, but had started reading immediately before the inclusion class, so it was fresh on my mind), a group of people live in the “wilderness” between cities. Everyone knows they are out there…calls them the Invalids “secretly” and understands that the government denies their existence because they are harmful and bad.
As I’m pondering the suggested actions I should take to make sure my work team is inclusive and thinking in the back of my head about how these stories illustrate exclusion, I started wondering at how the children of the world…the kids in my own home included…learn about actions that include or exclude. And how they recognize the consequences of those actions.

Recently, a sixth grade girl I know started talking to me about an event in her school cafeteria. The conversation went something like this:

My friend: “Sally got mad when someone tried to sit with us at lunch today.”
Me: “Why?”
My Friend: “Sally didn’t want her there. She doesn’t like her.”
Me: “Why doesn’t she like her?”
My Friend: “The other girl is pretty quiet and doesn’t have many friends. I guess Sally just thinks she’s different. But Sally said right to her face – go away. You can’t sit here with us.”
Me. “That’s horrible! What did you do?”
My Friend: “I made room for her to sit on the other side of me. Sally gave me a dirty look, but I thought she was being mean and hurting the other girl’s feelings.”

So…wow. Yeah. Exclusion right there. And don’t we all remember being the one made to feel the outsider for some reason, if not in childhood, then as an adult? And can I just say how proud I was of my friend – this girl who, at the tender age of 12, had it in her heart to do the right thing even in the face of disapproval from others? So proud.

Do we have enough positive messages of inclusion in the literature that kids pull off of library shelves today? Stories, after all, teach us so much. Stories model behavior. Or as my writing partner would say: Stories are good medicine.

Do we have enough stories with characters who are different – different in color, religion, language, sexual orientation, dress, body size…(The list goes on and on.) Are there enough stories out there where difference is just part of what characters are, not who they are? And is it up to us – as writers, as artists, as people who care about children enough to write books for them – is it up to us to make sure messages of inclusion are … ahem…included in our work? Should we, as a writing (and parenting, teaching, loving, grandparenting, aunt- and uncle-ing, working, living, breathing) community present as many stories with as many different characters as possible to illustrate the power of inclusion through art? And the flip side – the power of exclusion and its consequences?

Imagine the power of stories that model acceptance and inclusion – and how that could change our world.

Food for thought. Keep writing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Talking with Jake Wizner, Author of SPANKING SHAKESPEARE and Writer of Hilarious Poetry

Welcome Jake Wizner, author of Spanking Shakespeare and Castration Celebration to Carpe Keyboard! I blogged last week here about the fantastic “boy voice” in Spanking Shakespeare, so I got in touch with Mr. Wizner. He graciously agreed to spend some time answering a few questions about his writing life.

Carpe Keyboard: I heard about Spanking Shakespeare from another author who was speaking at a writer’s conference. Did you know you were being recommended as one of the funniest YA voices out there?

Jake Wizner: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how funny the book is, but it’s always nice to hear that other authors are talking about it.  All of the early reviews that came out commented on the book’s humor.  I loved that one of the reviews called me the love child of Woody Allen and Judy Blume.  One thing that took me by surprise was seeing the cover of my book featured prominently in a textbook as an example of humor.

 As an English Lit major in college, I studied quite a bit of the Bard’s work. And even though Shakespeare (Shapiro, not the other one!) obviously has a gift for writing, he isn’t much of a literature lover. How…oh, how?...did you decide to use Mr. Shakespeare’s name for your main character?

I studied quite a bit of Shakespeare in college too, but I don’t think that factored into the name, at least not that I was conscious of.  As I recall, I was just beginning the book when my wife was pregnant with our first child.  We were in New Orleans, and each day we would make lists of possible names.  We knew it was a girl, so Shakespeare never made any of the lists, but we were having great fun thinking up names that none of our thousands of students (we had both been teachers for many years) had ever had.  All of which is to say that unusual names were very much on my mind.  One day, the name Shakespeare Shapiro just popped fully formed into my head, and I thought, “There’s a name that would cause a boy a whole lot of angst.”  And with that, I began writing what would become the book’s prologue.

Some of the events at Hemingway High were so funny, they seemed like they had to be based on reality somehow. Did you ever write posters for fake clubs in order to incite riot in the hallways? Or ever compose (BRILLIANT!) funny poetry for a girl?

I based a great deal of the book, particularly the memoir chapters, on experiences my friends and I had growing up.  The actual events are often exaggerated or altered for comic effect, but… my mother did blackmail me into giving away my dog, my grandmother did take me to see a semi-pornographic movie, one friend who was afraid of going to baseball games did get hit in the face at a game, and another friend got stoned before a graduation luncheon and announced it to the crowd.  We never put up fake posters in school, but we did amuse ourselves with playing worst-case scenario games.  I never wrote funny poetry in high school, but I did write quite a bit of it starting in college.  The only time I ever wrote a poem to get a girl, it was a serious one, and it freaked her out.  Maybe I would have been better off sticking to humor. 

In oh-so-writerly classes and (self-help) books for writers, I’ve read lots about the character’s arc or the character’s journey. I love Shakespeare’s journey from insecure, self-deprecating boy to caring young man. Did you map out a character arc for him either before or during writing? Or do you use a more organic method? When did you know Shakespeare would turn out to be such a young adult at the end?

When I submitted the first draft of the book to my agent, she loved the voice, loved the humor, but had one big concern: Shakespeare seemed to be the same character at the end of the book as he was at the beginning.  Somehow I had become so absorbed in writing humorous memoir chapters, I had forgotten to think through the ways Shakespeare would grow and change.  It was only when I revised that I seriously thought through how Shakespeare would mature.  The key was creating the character of Charlotte, who did not exist in the first draft.  Once her story began to take shape, it was easy to see how Shakespeare might change.

What was your search for an agent like? Was there any hesitation on behalf of agents about any of your language or references to sex and … um… bowel movements? I’d love to hear about your journey to publishing…

I had written some of a middle grade novel in a writing class, and my teacher encouraged me to finish it and see if I could get it published.  I knew very little about the publishing world at the time, but I had a friend whose father was a children’s book editor and my friend passed the book along.  His father loved it, sent me revision notes, and began speaking about drawing up a contract.  It seemed like a done deal.  I was going to be a published author just like that.  But then one thing led to another, my friend’s father left his publishing house, weeks stretched to months, and my friend’s father eventually suggested that I would probably be best off getting an agent.  He recommended one person, and I sent along my book saying my friend’s father had referred me.  That was enough to get it out of the slush pile, but the agent decided to pass. 

My friend’s father recommended a second agent, who showed interest, but wanted to see other things I had written.  When I told her this was my first book, she told me to send her something else when I had written it.  That something else ended up being 40 pages of Spanking Shakespeare.  She loved it – more than the middle grade book I had written – and encouraged me to keep going.  She did not express concern about the language or content, though at one point she did advise me to cut a section in which Shakespeare and Neil carry on an extended cell phone conversation from their toilets, describing their bowel movements in great detail.  I spent more than two years on the book writing and revising before my agent felt it was ready to send out.  The first editor she sent it to passed, but the second editor, who was at Random House, made an offer.  It was a thrilling moment.

Can you tell us about Castration Celebration

I wanted to write a musical, which is a little bit odd because I have only seen two or three musicals in my life and did not particularly enjoy them. But I’ve always loved writing irreverent songs, and I figured that I could write the kind of musical that people who don’t like musicals could also enjoy. I started with the lyrics, and then I built a script around the songs, and what emerged was something outrageous, over-the-top, and really, really funny, at least to me.
I had also been playing around for a long time with the idea of setting a young adult novel on a college campus, because I had spent the first ten years of my life living in a dormitory at Yale. I remembered clearly what kinds of adventures a young boy could have, and I imagined it could be even more fun for kids a little bit older. So that’s kind of how the book came together. Take a group of teenagers, plop them down on a college campus for a summer program where they can be working on a musical, and see what happens.
There’s a scene early in the book where Olivia’s playwriting teacher challenges her students to write not what they know, but what they want to find out. That’s sort of what writing this book was like for me.  Whereas Spanking Shakespeare was rooted largely in my own experiences as a teenager, Castration Celebration was really a work of pure fiction.

 When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

 Since I am a full-time public school teacher and a dad with two young daughters, finding time to write can be challenging.  My girls go to bed relatively early, but after a full day of teaching and parenting I’m usually too worn out to concentrate on my writing.  My most productive time is during the summer.  I will usually write for a few hours in the mornings and then meet my wife and daughters wherever they are for the rest of the day.

Thanks, Mr. Wizner, for sharing some of your writing life with us! I’ll keep an eye out for your next book – since I’m always thrilled to find one that makes me laugh so hard I snort tea up my nose! J