Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Irony of It All

Can you believe it? This comic strip ran in our newspaper this week, the very day I put final touches on my query letter. Oh, the irony of it all.

And now the query has gone out. I'm doing a happy dance that I've gotten this far...

...and that the mailbox is still out there.

I take that as a good sign.

Have a great rest of the weekend!

And to others who are in the querying stages, too--good luck. Don't let the mailbox scare you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wrestling the Octopus of Revisions

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor." --Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

She's done it again, Anne Lamott has--she's helped me with an aspect of writing. This time, the subject is revision. She even puts a face on it. Tell me if this doesn't describe our wrestling matches with words!

In Bird by Bird Lamott writes: "There's an image I've heard people in recovery use--that getting all of one's addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed. I think this perfectly describes the process of solving various problems in your final draft. You get a bunch of the octopus's arms neatly tucked under the covers--that is, you've come up with a plot, resolved the conflict...gotten the tone down pat--but two arms are still flailing around. Maybe the dialogue (doesn't) match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional...But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free..."

Now I know why I feel so exhausted--I've been wrestling with an eight-legged creature here. And each of its legs needed its own bell-ringing go-round and could not be ignored. Whew. Then, about the time all seemed  settled, another leg would wave wildly again, and I'd have to revisit the problem. The legs I wrestled with include:

1) Voice. Is it consistent, authentic, and appealing?
2) Characters. Do I really know--and connect with--them?
3) Tension/Conflict/Narrative. Is there a good balance?
4) Point of View. Have I stayed true to it (in my case, third-person limited)?
5) Description/Sensory Details. Have I used them effectively to help draw the reader into the story?
6) Mastery of the Craft (showing not telling, active not passive, weeding out of redundant words/phrases, etc.). Have I identified--and corrected--most of the weaknesses?
7) Plot. Have I patched all the holes?
8) Story. Is it the best it can be? When do revisions end and queries begin?

When do we know when we are done?

Ms. Lamott goes on to answer this very question: "...even though all the sucking disks on that one tentacle are puckering open and closed, and the slit-shaped pupils of the octopus are looking derisively at you...and even though you know that your manuscript is not perfect and you'd hoped for so much more, but if you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it's the very best you can do for now--well? I think this means that you are done."

So, as I finish my last few pages of revisions, I am staring down the octopus and telling him we are done. Finished. Kaput. Go away! Well, at least until the next round...

In the meantime, here, among other books on writing and the many fantastic blogger posts that came to aid me in my corner of the ring during this process, are some links that I'm sure you'll find helpful, too: "Revision Checklist," Nathan Bransford; "What the Fiction Editor Looks For, Part 1" and "Part 2," Rachelle Gardner; "Revision is a State of Mind," Mary Kohl; and "Ten Mistakes Writers' Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)," Holt Uncensored.

What arm of the revisions octopus has been waving in your face lately? Do you enjoy the sport, or have to fight your way out of the tangle?

"There is always too much: Any good book spills over the sides, overwhelms the structure created
to contain it. Now you have to have some backbone and keep the book honest to its cause." --Philip Gerard

*photo courtesy of

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Through the Lens of a Conference, and Critique

"Seeing is a gift that comes with practice." --Stephanie Mills

Last Saturday's Central OH SCBWI conference opened my eyes to some fantastic tips. At one level, many were a review for me, but at another level something clicked. As in, Oh, now I get it!

First of all there are always too many *good* workshop sessions at a conference to choose from. But you sign up for as many as you can, glean what you can, and come home realizing you were in the right place at the right time. Not to mention the great people you meet, talk shop with, and spill water on (whoops, true story, filed under E for "embarrassing"!).

Anyway, from my notes...

Keynote speaker Mandy Hubbard, author of Prada & Prejudice, You Wish, and four other to-be-released novels for teens--and agent with D4EO Literary--shared her sometimes frustrating and nail-biting journey toward publication herself, and stressed that determination and hard work is key. "Believe in your work, no matter the numbers of revisions and/or rejections it takes."

Susan Hawk, literary agent with The Bent Agency, spoke on "Children's Books: Overview of the Marketplace," and emphasized communication and connections. "Communicate with your agent or editor. Focus on working together...And think of any connections you have that can help in promoting your book. What do you like? What can you do? Tailor your market plan to what works for you."

Mandy, again, in "Such a Pretty Flower--Catching an Agent's Attention from the First Page," read samples of first pages, noting things that worked and things that didn't. Her advice: "You need tension from the get go. Hook your reader. Open with some kind of conflict and tension."

Krista Marino, editor at Delacorte Press, titled her talk, "What an Editor Looks for in the 1st Five Pages." Among the gems she offered: "The first sentence makes or breaks your novel. The first sentence is what the book is all about. It should also pull the reader in, and should contain a person, place or problem." She also said, "Entertain your reader, that's what your book is for. Make it good."

Next came my critique session on my book's first ten pages, submitted in advance. If you ever get a chance to do this, I highly recommend doing so. I loved the face-to-face time with my critiquer, the dialogue, the opportunity to ask questions, the feedback! And I came away encouraged-- i.e. "good tension in the opening," but also challenged--"but you lose the tension after the other characters show up." Yep, a bit more work yet to be done. 

But I'm getting closer to my destination. Each time I connect with people in the business, I see things a little clearer. It's like putting on a new pair of glasses...or maybe just clearing the smears off the old. Like so many things, it's just going to take a little more practice.

What tips have you gleaned from critiques of your work? How did they help you "see" better?

"Composing is like driving down a foggy road toward a house. Slowly you see more details--the color of the slates and bricks, the shape of the windows." --Benjamin Britten

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Song for A Fifth Child"

I've been reminded lately of the joys--and struggles--of mothers of young children trying to juggle childcare, work, needs around the home, all the while desiring to keep important relationships strong and healthy. Add to this the love for--and the unfulfilled itch of--writing. Although my children are grown with families of their own, I remember those days.

Thus, in honor of those who are at that stage, I thought I'd share a poem that's always been a favorite of mine. You're probably familiar with it, it's been around a long time--once published, I understand, in a 1958 issue of Lady's Home Journal. But it's worth repeating. Take heart, young writers, time for writing will be there. The days of children being preciously small will not. So relax--and rock.

Song for A Fifth Child
by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton

Mother, oh Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing and butter the bread,
Sew on a button and make up a bed.
Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She's up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.

Oh, I've grown shiftless as Little Boy Blue
(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
(Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo).
The shopping's not done and there's nothing for stew
And out in the yard there's hullabaloo
But I'm playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look! Aren't her eyes the most wonderful hue?
(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).

The cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I've learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs. Dust go to sleep.
I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.

I'm heading off for Saturday's Central Ohio SCBWI conference. Can't wait to hear from Mandy Hubbard, author and agent with D4EO Agency, Delacorte Press Editor Krista Marino, and others. I've packed the picture books drawn from commenters' suggestions to donate to the Nationwide Children's Hospital Reach out and Read program, and look forward to the critique of the first 10 pages of my manuscript that were submitted for review in advance. I'll check in later with a report of all the inspiring things the day promises to hold. See you later!

Any rocking plans you have for the upcoming weekend?

photo courtesy:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Three Rules for Writing a Novel

(photo courtesy of

"There are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
                                                                                                            --William Somerset Maugham

Ha, gotcha'! And you thought, 1...2...3, you were going to get a simple answer?

If it were only that easy!

Maybe this will help?

"Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on reading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague."
                                                                                                       --William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

Hmmm. Maybe we're getting closer, but still...

How about this one?

"The big secret is the ability to stay in the room." --Ron Carlson

Ahhh, maybe we're finally getting somewhere. And then again:

"Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves, and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties." --Bonnie Friedman

There you go. Rule #1, 2, 3--all rules--come back to the one that trumps all: Write, and keep writing. And keep believing in the value of your work, despite the difficulties.

Oh, maybe there is one more. A clincher that can only be said of today's day and age (at least for me):

"Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet." --Anonymous

Good luck!

What's the best "rule" in your book for writing, and for getting it done?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Think Small: An Exercise to Help Grow Your Writing

"Writing energy is like anything else: The more you put in, the more you get out." --Richard Reeves

I managed to get a walk in this morning before the rains came, and was rewarded with my first sighting of the lovely violet.

I heart this little flower. It brings back memories of childhood and fistfuls of the purple joy often gathered in the field back by the creek and in turn offered to my mother, who would treat the dainty blossoms like a treasure and immediately put them in a small vase of water. The bouquet always took center stage on the dining room table. Nevermind that the violet is not a hardy flower, and that the whole bunch will wilt in a matter of hours. They're here for a short spell, then gone--but their beauty lingers because they existed.

Sometimes a writer's progress is short-lived, too. We sit down at the desk only to find that plucking the words out of thin air comes hard, the muse has wilted, the ideas that sounded so beautiful in the mind shrivel up once confined to black and white. How can we get started, foster creativity, and/or frame a bit of beauty through something as common and small as, well, words?

Sometimes simple writing exercises capture a bit of the elusive.

I recently came across an old issue of The Writer magazine (October 2002). In it, Diane Mayr wrote an aticle entitled, "Too Busy to Write? Keep in Writing Shape with Rhymes, Limericks and Haiku." Now, I'm not a poet, although in my secret life I'd like to be, but this caught my eye. Mayr says, "It could be your job, your family, your health, but whatever the stress, it's preventing you from working on that writing project you've been thinking about. When life interferes, the time has come to think small. I'm not talking about breaking down a book into segments that may be written a weekend at a time--stress doesn't usually take the weekend off. I'm talking about writing really small, five lines or less, and doing it whenever you can squeeze in a few minutes of writing time."  

She continued, "You must keep working through the stressful times, so you don't lose your writer's edge. One way to keep it sharp is by writing terse verse, limericks and haiku."

Terse verse? "Simply put, terse verse is an idea expressed solely through rhyming words." Her example: "Green/wood/scene/good."

"Can you see the forested landscape?" she asks. "Does it make you think of the good times you spent at camp, or a special spot? Those four words have done a lot of work!"

"Coming up with rhyming words," she continues, "is something that can be done anytime, anywhere. Use your commuting time to write terse verse. Experiment with different rhyme patterns...If you have a few extra minutes, flip through a rhyming dictionary...and be inspired. Keep those words working."

I returned to my memories of the violet, and picked up a pen. I scribbled...and ended up with: Violet/peeks/kisses the air/then once again sleeps.

Although the results won't win any prizes (I've already admitted I'm not a poet), the exercise got me started, and before I was done I had extra pages toward my day's writing goals to account for. I don't know if those few terse words can take all the credit, but I'd like to think they loosened the writer's dried-up soil a bit with their roots and fostered extra growth.

Still and all, don't ask me to do limericks or haiku. I haven't advanced that far yet!

Do you have any special exercises that help grow your writing sessions or you do on the run during stressful times? Want to try your hand at "terse verse," and share your poem here? Would love to read it!

"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going." --Jim Ryun