Saturday, October 20, 2012

Coming to the end…and grinding to a halt

For weeks now, my MG manuscript has been on the verge of being a finished first draft. Weeks. Seriously.

Instead of finishing it, I’ve cleaned toilets, baked gluten free experiments, set up an entire year’s worth of horse show events on Facebook for my daughter’s team, watched all of the new episodes of Castle on my iPhone, and started a new Twitter account. I’ve consumed a lot of coffee, helped assemble 725 nametags for TEDx Columbus, made a new friend, and taught numerous classes for work. Oh… and now I’m writing this instead of opening my book file.

Yes… I’m sitting on the platform at Procrastination Station ignoring every train that whistles down the tunnel.

My writing partner once heckled me about getting distracted so easily. We were in her basement trying to plot out our first novel and write something – anything – that we could call a beginning. I could focus for only so long, eventually trying to convince her to go see the new Star Trek movie. She looked at me as if I’d grown an extra ear in the middle of my forehead.

So you see… I know I get distracted. I know I tend to lose focus at the worst possible moments. But this is getting ridiculous.

I’m beginning to realize I might just be experiencing not just writer’s block, but some sort of writer’s paralysis. What will happen when the plot curve is complete? As I wrap up the climax and falling action, how will I know if it is, indeed, finished? And then what? In my head, I can only see a dark tunnel, leading to who knows where – and not a flicker of light at the end. I write the last few chapters. I go back and fix a plot hole I know exists earlier in the book. And then… Then I have to do one of two things:

1.      Put the whole thing aside for a few weeks and ignore it. (I’m pretty good at ignoring it now, for heaven’s sake. So this shouldn’t be intimidating…but knowing I have to set a date and come back to it for editing and eventually finding an agent. This is what stops me in my tracks.)

2.      Find a reader or two. Readers I trust. Readers who will give me critique, creative criticism…and who will hopefully find a way to let me down gently if they see clearly what I cannot – if they know it is just plain bad.

So which one will it be? Virtual shoebox under my bed? Or courageous leap into handing over my written baby to someone else to examine?

Maybe if I can make this decision, I can focus again. Write those last few chapters. Carry my characters home.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rory's Story Cubes

I was wandering through the toy aisles at Target the other day, waiting for my son to choose a birthday present for a friend. In the section with the smaller, travel-sized games and card decks, I did a double-take.

Have you seen these?
If not – and if you are a writer, you MUST go find them right now. No matter your age…if you love stories, like writing, want to entertain your kids or yourself or just like to toss dice…this game is a winner.

9 cubes. 54 images. 10 million combinations. Infinite stories.

Heck yeah!!

Go on. Stop reading this right now. Set your coffee cup down and shut your laptop. Get your keys.

You’ll thank me later.   


Still here?
Seriously. Go… Then come home and play. Post your story in the comments below. I dare you!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cougar in My Head -- (or the Gift of Metaphor)

I attended a storytelling workshop today for business people. Fantastic experience, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was this discovery: Other people don’t think automatically in metaphor.

OK… I can hear you thinking, “Whatever. She thinks she’s tough you-know-what, doesn’t she?! Thinking in metaphors…Bah!” OK -- so maybe I don’t automatically convert events or people or circumstances into metaphors all day long, but I do find myself making comparisons often in my writerly brain. It helps me sort out reality, I think. Handle and parse and prioritize.

So I was taken by surprise when, during this class, we were asked to come up with a metaphor for a particularly sticky work situation. For me, it was harder to decide on the situation than it was to find the words to make the comparison come to life. I settled quickly on comparing my difficult situation to feeling like a sheep climbing a mountain, while cougars leapt out at me from behind random boulders. Not the most elegant (or eloquent) of metaphors, but for a 30 second exercise, it worked.

Here’s the thing – others in the class couldn’t do it. Or they struggled a lot. A LOT.  Many couldn’t wrap their heads around how to describe something by catching the essence and comparing it to a seemingly unrelated item. Something I guess I’ve taken for granted in my own “toolbox” in my head.

After the class was over, I stood chatting with the speaker, Ruth Milligan. (Ruth is the curator for TedX Columbus and my newest storytelling-geeky BFF!) She had some great insight: People who don’t read, struggle with that metaphor exercise. This makes great sense to me. It was, as they say, an “a-ha moment.”

I read about a novel every week. I write a lot for my day job and my dream job. Thinking in metaphor is part of my bread and butter. But like any skill, if you don’t tend it –if you don’t practice creating metaphor or recognizing good ones – that skill will wither and die on the vine. (See that? Metaphor right there! I’m too cool….)

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading a lyrical novel called The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Simply lovely language. There is magic, love, regret, action, spell casting, shape shifting, and sprinkles of Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts, and almost every other classic fantasy story mixed in. Quite a brilliant ode to the genre.

Here are some quotes from Mr. Grossman’s work that I’d marked in the novel simply because I thought they were beautiful. Some are metaphor or simile, but some are just lovely use of language. And considering my self-discovery today about practicing with recognizing and using metaphor, it seemed like a good thing to share with all of you. Here goes:

“Martin stalks away into the dense Darkling Woods, weeping wimpy English schoolboy tears.” – page 75

“A gang of wild turkeys patrolled the edge of the forest, upright and alert, looking oddly saurian and menacing, like a lost squadron of velociraptors.” –page 79

“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” – page 107 

“Once in a while, an entire sub-sub-category that had long been thought safely dormant would take wing with an indescribable papery susurrus.” – page 128

“It had a clean, industrious air of a room that had just been vigorously swept with a birch-twig broom.”  -- page 150

“His head felt huge and diffuse and empty, like a puff of cloud hanging above his shoulders. The cloud began to drift away. He wondered if he was going to pass out.”  --page 285

I mean, seriously? Lost squadron of velociraptors? Papery susurrus? Puff of cloud hanging above shoulders? Hit somebody or start a blog? This is great stuff! The kind of writing that makes me smile, dog-ear the page just a tiny bit, then go back a day later to find that magical (forgive the pun) sentence or phrase, just so I can smile about it again. (And I'll give any writer bonus points for susurrus. One of the best words. Ever.)
Have you found any great metaphors lately? Do you think they are hard to write? Or do you, too, tend to think in them more often than others? Maybe it’s a writer thing. Maybe we are lucky enough to be wired to think in metaphor, poetry, and description. If so, it’s a gift I never realized I had…until today.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Inspiration at a time of need...

If you ever wake up one morning and decide you need a good dose of inadequacy in your life, have I ever got a tip for you:

Try picking up the beautiful book A Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman – reading it in big gulps, gasping for breath as you fall in love (and hate) with Kings and Queens, with courtiers and knights in shining armor and their stories. Then…only after the last page is read and you’ve closed the back cover…pick up your current work in progress.


Nothing like consciously trying to NOT compare yourself to other writers, right? Oh yes… my middle grade fantasy seems oh so lovely now that I have King Richard III and his court charging through my head. In Ms. Penman’s lovely, lyrical voice.

*Sigh* again.

OK – Seriously. I’m not the first writer to float on this kind of wave of inadequacy, right? So if you are there with me (or ever have been there) – here are some words of inspiration from a couple of world-class storytellers. And here’s the great part – they DON’T WRITE BOOKS! So no comparing your current work with anything they’ve done, ok? Just not right.

Enjoy – and keep writing!

(Word to the wise -- Mr. Stanton uses some rather adult language...)

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Young Henry Jones Jr. -- A Perfunctory Prologue Lesson

My hero.
Saturday afternoon. Too hot outside for gardening or … well, pretty much anything. So I sat down with a cold drink, some chips and salsa, and one of my all-time favorite movies: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

(Confession time: I want to write like these movies. All action, adventure, ridiculous life or death scenarios, and a hero in a cool hat. But I digress…)

You know the movie, right? It starts off with a bunch of Scouts taking a trail ride in the desert…where we quickly realize we are going to be treated to a glimpse of Indy’s boyhood. Whoever cast River Phoenix as the young Indiana Jones was brilliant, in my humble opinion. (Digressing again, aren’t I? Sorry.)

This flashback beginning bit doesn’t make the plot of the Last Crusade move forward; however, at this point in the movie series, these cinematic prologue does a couple of things: it pulls us into the fictional world of Indiana Jones, while at the same time giving us information about HOW and WHY he is who he is.

Ahhh, youth.
Remember: this is the third movie, so by now, Indy is a well-known and well-loved character in pop culture. We all know a lot about what he does and we have come to expect him to behave in certain ways. In fact, we know him so well, we don’t even need to see his face. All we need to see is that hat. Better yet, the hat paired with the whip. Or hear his theme song. No actual Indy required to know you are about to have a Raiders of the Lost Ark type experience.

And the second thing (the real beauty of the boy scout prologue) – now that we know about the adult adventurous Indy, a glimpse backward shows us how he came to be. That prologue gives us an enormous insight into his character in just those few minutes. The climb into the cave, sending a friend for the police, stealing the priceless artifact (Coronado’s cross) out from under the professional treasure hunters, the chase on horseback and the circus train, all culminating at his Father’s doorstep. Seriously…we find out how he gets his first hat, why he carries the whip everywhere he goes, why he hates snakes. We get a peek into what drives his love of history and why he lives to bring priceless artifacts to museums for safekeeping. We even find out how he gets the rakish scar on his chin, for heaven’s sake.

The nearly unbelievable situations started at a very young age for our hero. Of course they did! This is the world of Indiana Jones, people! Where a bag of sand might save your life or trigger a booby trap. Where knowing that being penitent means to “kneel before God.” Where diving into a magician’s box on a moving train might be the only way to save Coronado’s treasured gold cross. And where struggling with a bad guy on the roof of a moving train can only be stopped by nearly being impaled by a rhino’s horn!

This movie prologue ties us back to what we already know about Indiana Jones before the newest story even begins. It reminds us of his faults, his flaws, and his desires – and sets us up for the conflict (which we already knew back when we bought the popcorn): a search for an historical artifact of unbelievable value – and Indy’s attempt to do what is right above all else.

So here’s what I’d like to know: What is the best prologue example you’ve seen in young adult or middle grade novels? What about prologues in your writing? Do you use them or not? Why or why not?

While you’re thinking that over… I’ll pop more corn and settle in for another chapter of Indy and his hat. Gotta love that hat.

And the winner is...

Congratulations to Ben! Thanks for visiting Carpe Keyboard, Ben...

Now here is your challenge. Go to and take a look at all of Brent's published books. Select the one you would like to receive and send the title, along with your mailing address to me at

I'll then forward your info on to Brent!

Happy reading!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Talking with Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club

I’d like to welcome Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club and more in the Russell Middlebook series.

Mr. Hartinger’s first book was published in 2003. Since then, he has gone on to publish many more “page turner” YA novels -- not to mention his ongoing work in play and screen writing, counseling and teaching.

I’ll steal a line directly from his website here:  Brent’s many writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Book Award, the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, a GLAAD Media Award, the National Best Book Award, and a Book Sense Pick (four times).
Pretty amazing, right? I’m honored that Mr. Hartinger was able to take time to do the following interview for us all at Carpe Keyboard. Welcome, Brent!


Carpe Keyboard:  I read about Geography Club in a recent article on Huffington Post. The article wasn’t about the story – but about how you have sold the movie rights. Congratulations! What is it like to get a call like that? To know your novel is going to go to the big screen?

Well, it's incredibly validating. I mean, someone wants to spend millions of dollars making of a movie based on a story that you just invented out of thin air? How can that not be incredibly flattering? I was at the movie shoot the night they shot a scene in a stadium with a thousand extras. Looking at all the actors, and the cranes and cameras and all those extras, I thought, "I wonder if this is how the Pharaohs felt when they were watching them build the pyramids!"

But "the call" you're talking about isn't exactly what you think. It's been such a long, grueling process getting here, such an emotional roller-coaster. The rights to the book were first optioned right after the book came out in 2003. For the next ten years, producers came and went, directors came and went, financing came and went. Contracts were written and rewritten as options expired. Every possible scenario you can imagine, it happened. My hopes had risen and been dashed dozens of times. And I've gone through the movie thing on other projects too, other books and screenplays and plays.

So when another producer -- the fourth -- finally invoked their option and purchased the rights a year or so ago, I was still thinking, "Well, the money is nice, but the movie probably won't ever happen." Like I said, I've gone through this before, had many promises and assurances made to me, and it NEVER ended up happening.

Then it finally really did. Until the day the movie wrapped, I was thinking, "Something's going to go wrong!" Just last week, I thought to myself, "I hope the director and the editor are making copies of the footage in case their computers crash!"

But at this point, I think we're finally good. And I'm over the moon about it. Just couldn't be happier with the production or the script or the cast. And to top things off, they've treated me like royalty. For ten years, I was living every horrible Hollywood cliche, but with this movie, it's been the opposite, in a wonderful way, of what you always hear.

CP:  Russell and his friends' dialog and actions rang so true. Your characters never felt forced or fake – but like we were peeking into the lives of actual teenagers. Was that voice hard to come by? When did you realize you could write in the voice of a teenager?
It's an excellent question, but it's funny how I never thought like that before I had been published and reviewed. I never thought about it all. I just knew I'd worked with teenagers a lot, I knew I like teen books, and I knew I related to teenagers in a really basic way. Even today, whenever one of my adult friends complains about their teenager, I almost always secretly side with the teenager -- even without hearing his or her side of the story!

I do remember being frustrated by all the dour, depressed, and sarcastic teen voices in YA literature. To me, that's a cliche, that's how teens act on bad TV -- how adults THINK teens sound, because that's the teen they see. But that's only how teens act around adults. When they're around their good friends, most teens have a great time. Sure, it's hell sometimes, but I had some of the best times of my life as a teenager, even as a closeted gay teenager. Why don't more adults remember how incredibly fun and freeing the teen years can be?

Anyway, it was really, really important that my book include more than just teen angst. That's the key to the teen years, IMHO: the low-lows, but also the high-highs. It's the extremes, the worst of times, but also the best of times. That's why good teen stories are so appealing, those extremes, why they make such good, universal drama.

Now, of course, I'm much more conscious of whether my book teen voice sounds "authentic." I'm much more aware of craft in general. That's good in a way, because I think my voice really is better now, better crafted. But on the other hand, it was nice to be so innocent. In a way, I think that innocence contributed to the authenticity of my first few books.

CP: In my own writing life, I’ve read lots about the character’s arc or the character’s journey. Russell takes quite a journey of his own in this book – of self-discovery, crushes, difficult decisions (and a few bad ones). Did you map out a character arc for him either before or during writing? Or do you use a more organic method?
I'm an outliner. My books usually end up being pretty different from my outlines, but I always know how the story is going to end before I write a word.

When I first started writing, I really resisted the whole idea of outlines and structure. I used to say I thought it was too confining, but I think I was really just lazy. I wanted to get to the fun and easy part, which is writing those first three chapters, before you have to deal with the dreaded second act, what the book is ABOUT.

Then I started writing plays and screenplays, and I realized that structure is essential, just ESSENTIAL, for what I consider to be compelling storyline. I know some people can do structure intuitively, but I still think most people can't. Alas, I think a lot of people, even some readers, just don't care that much about plot or structure. But it's so important to me, and it's, frankly, annoying that more critics don't seem to respect the beauty of truly well-crafted plot. Language, they appreciate, and character and voice. But plot? It's like they couldn't care less. Oh, it's nice if the ending is inevitable, yet completely unexpected -- the hallmark of a good ending -- but it's certainly not required or anything.

For me, it IS required. It's one of the essential elements of storytelling. For me, a book with a thin plot is like a book with cardboard or cliched characters. Character and plot are BOTH essential. Maybe it goes back to my thinking like a teenage boy, but I am IMMEDIATELY bored with meandering, sloppy, or non-existence plots, even if they're beautifully written.

Now I know everyone sees the world differently, and viva la difference! But this is one of those differences that I truly have a hard time understanding, because it's so far from my experience. I'll read a plot-less book or see a plot-less movie, and I think, "Why isn't the whole world as bored as I am with this thing?"

But for the record? My fascination with plot? I totally think that's part of the reason why my books have attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. Movies are ALL about plot. So it's nice to know there's one place where being a "plot" guy really, really helps. 

Basically, plot won't win you any awards, but it sure helps pay the bills. And it gets you lots of appreciative readers. 

CP:  Geography Club tackles some sensitive topics… did you see reservation from the young adult publishing community about representing a novel about gay teens and their stories?
Ha! Boy, did I ever! I wrote the first draft of the book in 1990, and I spent the next eleven years trying to sell it. I heard from so many editors how much they loved it -- three even took it to acquisitions. But they, and I, were always told: "It's too controversial. A book about gay teens won't sell. Libraries won't buy it, and bookstores won't stock it."

And the thing is, they may have been right at the time. It was a VERY different world back in the 1990s. There was a few other gay teen novels, and a couple, like Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, were even really good. But I think if my book had sold, it would have come out, sold a few thousand copies, and disappeared into the ether.

So it's probably a good thing that it wasn't until 2001 that an editor at HarperCollins, Stephen Fraser, bought it. He had to fight tooth-and-nail, and the advance was almost nothing. But when the book came out in early 2003, the world was ready. By the end of the first week, we'd gone into a third printing.

CP:  When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Well, I am so not one of those writers who writes every day. I wish I was, and I respect that, because I think writing is ALL about dedication and discipline. But I hate writing. It destroys me, just consumes me. I love having written -- I feel an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment. But while I'm in the middle of it, I become obsessed. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think of anything else. I have this weird quirk where once I start something, I have to finish it.

It sounds nuts, doesn't it? It IS nuts. I might even be a little manic in that respect -- although, thank God, I never get depressed. But I'm glad I am the way I am, because it's served me very, very well. When I'm working, I am incredibly productive. But when I'm not working, which happens from time to time, I am soooo not working. I'm busy reading and playing video games and watching movies and going on hikes and bike rides. I don't even think about my books. Never. I don't get ideas, I don't keep a notebook. I totally have to turn it on. Everyone has their own process. By this point, I'm very familiar and very happy with mine.

CP:  How about your editing process? Can you tell us how you go about moving from a first draft into editing? And how do you know when you are ready to share a manuscript with the outside world?
It's an excellent question. I think the biggest mistake new writers make is not structure or outlining their stories. But the second biggest mistake is not revising, not knowing what to do with a first draft.

My first drafts suck. They really, really do! Even working from an outline, there's always some massive contrivance, and some huge plot revelation that isn't working at all, character arcs that aren't developed, writing that's sloppy.

So I show my partner, and he tries to help me see all the flaws I'm usually very resistant to see or even admit. It can get snippy and nasty. But I eventually see the light. Then I rewrite. Then he sees the book again, and I rewrite again. Then it goes out to a handful of readers, and I initially resist but ultimately accept their feedback too, and then I rewrite again.

Then it finally goes to my editor (if it's under contract) or my agent (if it's a spec book that we're trying to sell). But that, of course, is just the beginning of the "actual" editing process. I'll usually do at least one more draft with the editor. But I have been told by quite a few editors that my submissions are pretty "clean." I think that's because I've already rewritten the book four times before he or she even saw it!

Here's the thing: we're all terrible judges of our own work. We all think we're geniuses. We're not, but we just can't see it. We know what we're trying to say, but it's not necessarily reflected in our words. On one hand, I'm excited by the rise of indie e-publishing. But on the other hand, I'm frustrated, because I'm seeing all these people publishing the first or second drafts of their books. The books could have been good if they'd finished the writing process, but they didn't. They got impatient.

Writing is rewriting. I'm not the first one to say it, but it's true. It's literally the difference between an amateur and professional. Every professional writer I know knows that the first draft is just the start of a long, complicated, difficult, horrible process.

Oh, are we done already? Thanks! Loved the craft questions. I wish more people would ask me about that!

And feel free to have your readers check out my website or follow me on Twitter or Facebook

Mr. Hartinger has generously offered up a book – your choice of any of his published novels! – as a giveaway for Carpe Keyboard readers. So… you know the rules. Leave a comment below, contribute to the discussion of Mr. Hartinger’s work and his interview. I’ll put your name in the proverbial (and in this case, literal) hat for the drawing!
I’ll draw a winner on Monday, August 6 and announce it here on CP.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Winner of Seize the Story… and Summer Reads

Last week, I posted an opportunity to join a conversation about the art of writing dialog. The luck y winner of Seize the Story (drawn from those who commented on the post) is…
Nancy Barth!
Congratulations Nancy and thanks for reading Carpe Keyboard! Please email me at with your mailing address and I’ll send the book to you asap!
So – what are you reading this summer? Anything great?
Right now, my shelf has a bunch of library books piled up and I’m plowing my way through with the summer sunshine and some cold (cold!) iced tea to help me along. Here’s what I have lined up this month:
A Million Suns by Beth Revis

City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare

    Fear by Michael Grant

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger

Turns out – all of them are parts of different series, which is coincidental (I didn’t specifically go looking for series books to read) but not surprising in today’s YA market.
Have you read any of the above? What did you think?
I’m a fast reader, so will have these finished in a flash. Any suggestions on other YA or middle grade novels I should look for?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Dialogue Albatross

Dialogue is my albatross.
My own, personal albatross. I think I'll name him Henry.
Seriously. Words contained between double-quotes feel like they are slung around my neck right before I plunge into the watery abyss of writing.
Sometimes, when I feel like I’m successfully treading those artistic waters -- writing without pause, feeling like the crazy plot living in my head might turn into a story – the dialogue emerges from the depths. The damned spoken words, neatly packaged in those double-quotes wrap themselves around my neck and tug me under the surface until, desperate for air, I gulp mouthfuls of cold, salty writer’s block and sink below the surface.
Is there a life vest for writers? Do they sell those on the internet?
But I digress…
I was prompted to write today about dialogue because of the book I’m reading at the moment. It is a YA novel – a first novel for this author – published a few years ago. An adventure story full of possibilities. A journey, a kidnapping, murders, magic spells, mysterious symbols and dusty libraries. What’s not to like, right?
Well… I’m nearly finished with the book and I’ve decided I need to study this writer’s dialogue. Like me, I think she must find writing dialogue a mostly painful experience. Or that is how her characters speak: as if their writer was struggling for her life, trying to find something (anything!) for them to say to each other that might (maybe!) sound like spoken words.
Her characters say things that sound out of place, especially considering the emotion or tension of the scene. I’m hesitant to provide direct quotes here as examples because I believe strongly in supporting writers on this blog – not being a scratchy, prickly critic. Instead, I will say there are lots of exclamation marks when her characters speak. And they are often “overheard” saying things like, “So, what’s been going on?” to each other in the middle of a journey to the villain’s lair.
But that’s the rub with dialogue, isn’t it? Trying to make talking sound like real talking is so very hard. Dealing with those moments when, in real life, we would make idle chit-chat, can kill a scene. That albatross could peck out your eyes as quick as a wink as you try to show tone and volume with punctuation.
Desperate to find a life preserver, I googled “unrealistic dialogue” and found some helpful thoughts from other writers. Check these out:
Oh – and one more observation about dialogue from my erstwhile YA author: Don’t try to introduce coinkidinky plot devices via dialogue.
For example, if the world in which your characters live is full of horses and wagons, ink-drawn parchments, and no technology more sophisticated than a wheelbarrow, please don’t suddenly have a character exclaim, “Why are these letters on this parchment printed so perfectly? It’s almost like they were printed by…a machine!” 
To which a supporting character suddenly replies, “Oh yes! We discovered that document 30 years ago and we think it was printed … on a machine!”
Yeah. Don’t do that. It’s a teensy bit jarring to the reader. Even with the albatross of my own slung haphazardly across my shoulders, I hope I can stop myself using bad dialogue as a vehicle for coincidences that pull together an otherwise holey plot.
What about you? Any difficulties with writing dialogue? Or have you read any particularly great (or horrible?) dialogue lately? Please share!
In the spirit of constantly honing our craft – leave a comment below to enter your name for a chance to win a brand new copy of Seize the Story by Victoria Hanley.
It is a handbook for teens and writers who write for teens – with a whole chapter on ….drum roll, please… writing dialogue!  Just leave a comment below with your email address included. On Wednesday, July 25, 2012 I will randomly draw a name and email the winner.
(As usual, if you don’t respond to my email message within a week, the book will go back on my shelf for another drawing at a later date.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Influences, schminfluences

Do the books you are reading leave their footprints on your works in progress? When you write, do you sometimes look back over the last few paragraphs or chapters and think, “Gee…that sounds sort of familiar…” and then realize you just rewrote a scene from your current favorite read? And your characters are now helping themselves to some other author’s plot?

OK…maybe I’m the only one.

But seriously, when I go from reading the last book in the Song of Ice and Fire -- Game of Thrones series, then crack open my middle grade fantasy WIP – and see bits and pieces of my own little game of thrones going on, it makes me pause.

First of all, don’t get me wrong. My 12 year old characters are not lopping off each other’s heads or marrying their own cousins, hatching baby dragons or even shape-shifting into huge, wild wolves when they dream. (Forgive me, George R. R. Martin! But I’m not really stealing your stories!!) There is, however, an element of a tug-of-war over a throne, cousins vying for the King’s attention, eccentric characters and even a dragon coming to life in my manuscript.

So after editing 40 pages last night, I stopped with fingers poised over the keyboard and said, “Oho!”

OK…I didn’t say it out loud. But I thought it – loudly – so that should count for something.
            “Oho!,” I thought. “THIS might be why there are only so many plots in the world! Writers steal from each other. And I bet everybody knew this but me!”

(Oh, come on. You totally have moments where you talk to yourself like that. I know you do. Just admit it.)

“West Side Story really IS Romeo and Juliet rewritten!” I mused.

My thoughts continued to meander, eventually focusing again on my own characters, their story and their world. But I suddenly felt like I had a better grasp on why they were doing some of the things they were doing…why I had written parts of the story a certain way and what I should think about changing, expanding, and deleting as I was editing.

What novels have inspired you? What influences can you trace in your own writing? Poets? Essayists? Novelists? Playwrights? Do you see Shakespeare’s plots or a shimmer of Emerson’s words in your pieces? Maybe Stephen King’s tension or characters that remind you of someone from a Norah Ephron screenplay?

So maybe my MG novel will be the Game of Thrones for the elementary school set.

HBO, here I come!!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Getting into the groove...again

This summer, I will regain my love of writing. I will write more, more, more. I will open the dreaded manuscripts and read my old heart and soul. I will be gentle with myself. I will write to put words on paper – to open my heart to the page – to get thoughts that circle and circle inside my head to journey outward. I will allow myself to write crap. I will allow myself to read old crap I’ve written without judgment. I will edit and change and read and probably slap my own forehead in frustration – but I will write.

I will let the stories that float in my mind come to life. I will nurture characters, flesh out their worlds, build their conflicts and tear them down again. I will measure success not in finished paragraphs, but in the number of days I create the time and space to write – even if it is only a few words scribbled on an old receipt or a limerick on a restaurant napkin. I will make the time.

This summer, I will believe that I should write. I will silence the evil monkey mind – the one that sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear the dirty secrets about how I can’t, shouldn’t, will never be able to write. I will, with a flick of my finger, send that monkey flying from my shoulder. At least I will try. I will acknowledge that the evil voice has many cousins who will continue to try to keep me so unsure and off balance. But in that acknowledgement, I will not acquiesce. I will fling all of them – the cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles of my monkey mind – all of them from my shoulders. I will believe that I should write. I will believe that I can write.

This summer, I will go back to the form of literature I love while embracing even older lovers. I will seek out new books by young adult authors and old middle grade classics. I will also let myself sink into Shakespeare or Austen or even read trashy romance novels or geeky science fiction – as long as I remind myself to learn from each and every author.  I will seek out the reasons why I love characters or hate settings. I will focus on plot curves, conflicts and resolutions, character arcs and symbols. I will think about how beautiful a well-crafted heroine appears on the page. I will recognize the warts and wrinkles and puss-filled carbuncles of poorly written prose and acknowledge that maybe…just maybe…I could write more elegantly, even though they got published and I haven’t yet. Yet. Yet….

This summer, I will get my groove back. I will write again. I will stretch again – in body and mind. I will talk books, go to critique groups, find new writing friends and ask for advice from old partners. I will remember what it is to be a writer.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Our Story...Our Point of View

I’m sure you’ve been in a hurry before, driving in heavy traffic, and perhaps been a bit too eager to merge onto the crowded highway. Did you think thoughts like, “Why won’t anyone let me in? Don’t they know I’m late for my meeting/operation/UN Summit?”

I’m also sure you’ve been the schmuck stuck in traffic on the freeway when someone in a hurry tries to merge in front of you… (Although God knows why they don’t SLOW THE HECK DOWN – no meeting/operation/UN Summit could be THAT important!)

See? Same story, different POV.

Today, I was visiting a friend in the hospital. This friend is knowledgeable about medical issues and procedures, therefore had intricate, complex questions for each of the doctors and nurses who came into her room. She was anxious about a specific procedure – involving the insertion of a metal filter into a major vein in her body to prevent blood clots from moving into her lungs or heart. She focused on two examples of negative results she’d found while doing research, and looked for assurance that the suggested procedure was absolutely necessary.  She didn’t want to rush into taking action that was “too invasive” when there might be good odds that she could risk not going through with it.

From my point of view – sitting in the oh-so-comfortable plastic chair in the corner of her hospital room, balancing a Styrofoam cup of room temperature water on my knee and trying not to notice the antiseptic smell wafting through the room – most of these conversations seemed … well … unnecessary, quite frankly. I heard “filter to catch BLOOD CLOTS” and I found myself nodding in agreement. Granted, they weren’t my blood clots…but seriously? Even I know that the words “blood clot” and “heart” shouldn’t every occur in the same sentence, right?

I have no medical background, unless giving birth twice counts. So if someone told me that they could insert a filter to prevent blood clots from moving into my heart – I’d say, “How fast can you put that thing in?” Seriously.

Odds? I’m not a gambler.

Questions about risks? I might ask a few basics, but would be ignorant of many that my friend was clearly concerned about.

Seeking absolutes? I don’t think I would. I think I’d have to trust the medical training and professionalism of the experts around me. My POV doesn’t include experiences and knowledge about veins, blood pressures, thrombosis and embolism. Just not in my vocabulary, really. (I’d still be stuck on clots and heart.)

It was frustrating to sit and listen and try to see things from her POV, when what I wanted to do was grab her by the shoulders, shake her a little, and say, “WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM, WOMAN? Let them put the darned filter in!!”

On my drive home from the hospital, I found my “writer self” wondering how different all of our stories would be if we could suspend our own POV and see things – really see them – from someone else’s angle.  Like the different drivers in rush hour – or different women in a hospital room -- how often do we each interpret our own story to make ourselves the hero? Or the victim? Or the villain?

There was  a piece aired on my local NPR radio station recently that talked about how Americans tend to  see the world –their own place in it, their stories – differently than many other cultures. We are the driver in a rush – with a good reason to be rushing. But we can also easily re-write the story so that on another day, we become the driver frustrated by others rushing into her lane. We accept both as truth without stopping to see that we have rewritten the same story to have a different meaning based on where we sit within it.

Apparently, we Americans are very attached to our own POV, and make very little attempt to see things from someone else’s POV. So attached, in fact, that we will change the truth of the story to accommodate our different role, depending on the day.

It makes me wonder how my WIPs would differ if I swapped my main character for another in a story. Why did I choose to write my YA novel from the girl’s POV, anyway? Maybe I should try a scene or two from the boy’s point of view – just to see what his truth in the story really is.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Flashbacks? Useful or no?

Question for you, CK readers: How do you feel about flashbacks in fiction?  Useful? Not? Overused, perhaps? Or used for the wrong reasons?

If you use them in your own writing, why? What purpose do they ultimately serve to your plot? For me, I'm fussing with one in particular -- trying to use it to establish part of a character's personality and show the beginning of a relationship. The seeds of a love story, so to speak, planted with a battered guitar on a hot summer driveway.

Here's a brief excerpt I've been playing with... narrated by Sydney, a teenager on the run with her boyfriend in one of my WIPs.

Neil's Guitar

Neil didn’t know I was watching. I didn’t move, just opened my eyes enough to see him sitting in the wingback chair by the window. His quiet humming hadn’t wakened me. Not really, anyway. The song had woven its way into my dream and brought me to the surface enough to realize Neil wasn’t beside me in bed anymore.

Instead, he sat across the room, his eyes closed. The fingers of his left hand played the chords in the air, close to his chest; his right made vague strumming motions against his thigh. It was a piece he’d written for me as a gift. It was soft and gentle, soothing and haunting. It raised goose bumps up and down my arms every time he played it.

It killed me that we’d left his guitar behind. He’d been lugging it around – almost everywhere he went – since we were both kids. He picked it up at a garage sale one day when Gran made us go with her on one of her “Sale Tours” around town. Gran took forever at those sales. She’d wander around, picking up this chipped coffee cup or that dented serving tray, remembering out loud some time when she’d had supper with the owners. It took ages. So I’d hunt for piles and boxes of tools or car parts, and Neil would hover at the end of the driveway, staring off into space, biding his time until we could leave. He’d never complain – he loved Gran too much to do that. But this one day, he got out of the car and made a bee-line for a battered, black guitar case.

It still had stickers on it from the previous owner. Seventies bands and peace signs and one that said “Make Love Not War” in tie dyed letters. One of the latches was broken. But inside, Neil found his treasure. An old acoustic guitar, missing a string, but still remarkably in tune for how long it had probably been sitting in a closet. He picked it up and held it to him like a baby. And he strummed and fingered the notes for the opening of Stairway to Heaven. He was thirteen years old and he’d never told either Gran or I that he played.

I watched him from where I was crouched by a banker’s box of old paperbacks. Gran watched him from the top of the driveway, even waving off Mrs. Cutshall who wanted to reminisce about when she last used the limp tablecloth Gran held absently in her hand. Gran nodded once, and started bargaining with Mrs. Cutshall quietly. I turned back to watch Neil, who had settled down in a rickety old ladder back chair, lined up with several of its mates along the edge of the yard. He’d moved on from old rock classics, to…strangely…children’s songs. He was playing All Around the Mulberry Bush for some of the little kids, now gathered in front of him. They clapped and danced when they recognized the song.

Even then – the slow smile that spread across his face as he held that old guitar made me hum inside. Made me feel warm. Made me want to touch his cheek or smooth the hair out of his eyes. Even then, I was in love with him.

Gran marched down the driveway toward him. “Pack it up, Neil.”

“Is it time to go already?” He tried to look bored again as he laid the instrument back in its case.

“Next sale won’t wait forever. And don’t put that back. Bring it along, now.” She pointed at the guitar.

Neil stood, holding the case to his chest with both arms. “Bring it?”

“Well, sure. It’s yours.” That’s all she said. Just walked back toward her Chevy and left Neil to stare after her, wondering if he’d understood.

“C’mon, dude,” I’d grabbed his arm and tugged him down the driveway.

Now, sitting here in this dingy little motel, all I wanted was to give him that guitar back, battered case and all.

He came to the end of the piece and stopped humming. I’d been watching his fingers as they formed the chords, but when they stilled, I realized he was looking at me.

“Did I wake you?”

I shook my head.

He didn’t say anything, but looked out the window and cracked his knuckles, rubbing his thumb over the calluses on his fingertips.  

“I love that piece. Takes my breath away every time.”

He looked back at me with his slight smile. “I’ll breathe for you, babe.”