Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Keep on Swimming

Read this the other day by Veronica Rossi: http://yamuses.blogspot.com/2014/07/eyes-on-your-own-work.html -- about 'keeping your eyes on your own work.'

Great advice that. It is so incredibly hard some days when you are making your living creatively to keep your eyes on your own work. I think so many of us have had those moments where we are certain that all the good fortune is happening to everyone but us. And the irony is that for every moment I've felt like that, someone else is out there thinking that my own career seems ideal.

The truth is, if you're going to do art, you're in it for the long haul. There will be a few elite souls who hit it big and stay there. But the rest of us, well, we have to keep at it. We have to want it--really want it, all-consuming fire in the belly.

 I just heard Diana Nyad interviewed on NPR and essentially what she said about all those attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West was that each time she stood on the shore ready to begin, she thought about many, many things, but what kept her going most of all was not the fear of sharks or jelly fish or getting hurt but the fear of failure. I think she is absolutely right.

 If one book-- often for reasons that have little to do with me-- has fewer readers or gets less promotional push or whatever, then I have to use that 'failure' to do the one thing I can control: Write another book and work to make it better than the last one. I can keep myself out there and keep swimming, or in this case, writing. Not to get all "So we beat on, boats against the current" Gatsby on you, but I think it's really true.

There is so much I can't control: I can't control book covers or reviews or where a book is sold or how many are stocked or placed on a shelf. I can't control how it is marketed, except for when I am the one doing the marketing, which often I am. When book 2 of the DREAMING ANASTASIA series was somehow placed in historical fiction (which it is absolutely not) while book 1 remained in paranormal, I couldn't even control that, as much as I tried.

So you keep on swimming. You keep your eyes on the lights of the shore. You convince yourself that you will get there. Because NOT getting there is unacceptable. Because you have a gift and it would be a shame to waste it. Because you want it that badly.

Diana Nyad, on her fifth attempt, swam from Cuba to Key West. She was 64 years old. Yes you read that correctly. Talk about age being just a number!

The least we writers can do, is write a bunch more books, each one better than the last.

We won't even have to avoid the jellyfish.

On April 21, 2015, FINDING PARIS arrives from Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins.
In Spring, 2016, IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS arrives from Soho Press.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mulling over the Point of View

Among other things this month, I've been getting ready to teach a workshop on point of view for the brand new WritespaceHouston.  So I've been pondering and reading craft books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, which I highly recommend. And I've been writing, too, for a variety of deadlines and it's been quite a lesson shifting from the final copy edits of FINDING PARIS, (April 21, 2015, Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins) which is written in 1st person, present tense and my first, still rather exploratory draft of IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS (Spring 2016, Soho Press), which is (at least at present) written in close 3rd person past tense.

What I always like to remind my writing students is that we have a huge amount of choices when we craft a story.  And each choice we make will shape the story in different ways, both obvious and subtle. Working in third person past tense for IWALT is a brand new challenge for me, but my gut said that the main character's voice and the overall fairy tale-like tone of the story couldn't be achieved without it.  Interestingly, when we'd first chatted about the story when he acquired it, my editor said that he saw it as a first person story. It wasn't a mandate, but just his vision, and to an extent probably in keeping with what I've previously written, which has been all in present tense. The DREAMING ANASTASIA series, (Sourcebooks) even with its multiple narrators, is all in first person present tense -- a choice that I stand by, but occasionally produced some rather thorny voice dilemmas because if you're not careful, 1st person present tense, while the most immediate and intimate of POVs, can also produce narration that sounds stilted or self-absorbed. Sometimes it feels tiring to be so constantly in the moment with your narrator. The exception to this was always the witch, Baba Yaga. Because she is such a cryptic character, even in the original Russian fairytales that help form the framework for the series, writing her voice in 1st person always seemed to flow easily-- I think because I found it fascinating to know exactly what she was feeling and thinking in any particular moment, even as other characters in a scene were terrified or mystified by her. So 1st person present tense worked well to establish the juxtaposition between those two things.

When I wrote the SWEET DEAD LIFE and its sequel, THE A-WORD (Soho Press), we decided that the book would be narrated through the journal entries of stoner-turned-teen angel's younger sister, Jenna. So it was first person again, but past tense this time, since ostensibly the events had all occurred by the time she was talking about them. For Jenna, fourteen going on fifteen by the time we get to book two, this was the perfect way to free her sassy, wise but still young voice. The novels are very much Jenna's journey, even though it's Casey who's died and come back as rather dysfunctional heavenly being. So 1st person, past tense allows us the best access to Jenna's experiences as she tells us 'this is what happened to me.'

And FINDING PARIS, (the arcs are almost printed!) with its twists and turns (all I will say for now!) needed to be in first person present tense both to place the reader very intimately inside Leo's head but also so that the reader can be surprised at many things along with Leo, feel what she feels and how she feels exactly in the moment. Distance of any sort would dilute this, I think.

My brilliant friend Jen Mathieu's equally brilliant debut novel THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (Roaring Brook) does wonderful things with multiple narrators written in 1st person past tense. Again, there is a 'reportage' feel to each character's telling of their version of the truth about Alice, who doesn't actually speak her piece  until the very end of the novel. Its a clever conceit because it's a story about rumors and gossip and slut shaming and about how quickly lies become truth. Fascinatingly, Mathieu points out in a recent interview that much of the most hurtful lies don't come in the form of texts or other social media but simply in sharpie on a bathroom stall, a tried but true method that's been around since, well, there have been writing implements and bathroom stalls.

But back to IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS. So there was my editor, thinking the book would be first person. But there I was, thinking, no. This book is going to have to be very different. It stretches over a long period of time-- 1913 to present-- and the story weaves back and forth over that continuum, but always with the same narrator. (This is not giving away anything; the deal announcement states that this is a story of 'a girl, a boy, a fountain of youth, and what happens when you're stuck at 17.' Of course the story is much larger than that, but that's the basic premise.) Which means my narrator while technically seventeen, evolves and changes emotionally and in terms of what she knows and understands, over that large period of time. So while she is always Emma, she is not exactly the same Emma in the various past scenes as she is in the present. And third person seemed the best way to bring that forth. Because I put your in her head, but I do so from a slight distance that allows you to assess her experiences and subtle changes without being so tightly in her head that you lose that extra frisson of perspective.

That's all I'll say for now except that I am in love with this book and I'm sorry you'll have to wait until 2016 to read it! (In publishing, you never know, though. Anything could happen. So I'll keep you posted.)

Anyway, I've taught newbie writers who refuse to write anything but first person. And those who slip automatically into third person. And readers who express a preference for one or the other. But really, it's about choice. It's about the best way to tell a story, about not only who is telling the story, but how you're having them tell it.

Anyone else have thoughts about point of view? About books you've read that do a particularly good job using their chosen POV?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Some Thoughts on Revision

When I talk about revision with writing classes and writing students, it's often a great eye-opener for novices to learn that real revision has very little to do with copy edits, i.e. -- proofreading punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. Real revision is the often very emotionally wrenching business of digging in and finding where and why a novel isn't quite working the way it needs to: Does the story start in the right place? Is the POV character the correct voice to narrate? Is the pacing working? Do the minor characters all serve a significant function? Is (to quote my agent Jen Rofe, who does some marvelous workshops on this), the 'so what factor' strong enough? That is, are the stakes high enough? Does everything that happens matter? Is the mc's emotional arc clear and strong? And a million other questions and issues that force writers to poke and prod at their work and make sure the story isn't hidden.

Case in point-- the new project I'm working on. I'm not going to reveal the specific details of the characters and plot here; I'm too superstitious to do that before it has any 'official' book status. But what I can say is that I've had this story idea for awhile now, simmering in the background while I worked on FINDING PARIS and the various edits for THE A-WORD (out now!) and dug into IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS (which you'll see in 2016 but I will finish by the end of the year). But eventually the time was right and I settled in to write synopsis and sample chapters and basically get a proposal ready.

And while the story was working, and I really loved it, and early readers really loved it, something nagged at me that I had hidden the real story under a plot that was possibly more complicated than it needed to be. And that if I was willing to keep the basic characters and inciting incident but start over and take it in a slightly different direction, the real story would appear. And it would be stronger and tighter and the emotional essence would shine. And hopefully, we'd all get goosebumps up and down our arms as we read, which would mean that I'd nailed the journey the characters had to take and made it real and solid and true.

Which, let me say, is easier said than done. Because once you've gotten used to seeing something one way, envisioning it another way is hard work. And there is always the fear that you will tinker so much that you will end up with a pile of mush and the slithery idea will slither away, as ideas sometimes do. (The muse is a tricky thing. You can over think it into hiding. Your really can.)

But what I think right now is that I have found my story-- the same but different and a whole lot better for the scary risk of doing 'surgery' on something that would have always been good but now has the chance of being really great, of making its truth shinier than it would have been before.

I'll let you know how it goes.
But I think I'm on to something.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Carson City Lit Fest Recap: Or, Ellen Hopkins is made of Awesome

This post is far overdue but there's been thing called copy edits for FINDING PARIS (which are safely turned in to my lovely Balzer and Bray editor now) and this other thing called the first draft of IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS (sample pages of which are now with my ever dapper Soho Press editor) and other things like the mess that had been shoved into drawers and closets around here for the past year and needed dealing with and the dog's UTI, which is now dealt with and a million other things that constitute LIFE. Not to mention some projects in the works that are as yet secret stuff.

But what I really want to talk about is Carson City Lit Fest, which took place in Carson City, NV earlier this month, in tandem with a weekend of writing workshops, the profits of which went to help support Ventana Sierra, which was founded by New York Times bestselling author and all around amazing human being, Ellen Hopkins to help young women who have aged out of the foster care system.  You can find out more about this important organization here: http://ventanasierra.org

I've been privileged to know Ellen for awhile now, proud to call her both a friend and a mentor, and have been a fan of her books for even longer than that. I get to meet a lot of authors these days and trust me when I say that while the kid lit community is one of the most amazingly generous and fabulous of any career I've had, not all of them reach out a hand in the kind of friendship and mentorship that Ellen has. She is just that kind of hugely special person.

 CRANK was the novel in verse that sent her career rocketing, a powerful and moving book rooted in her own daughter's terrible journey into drug addiction. It began its life as a small book, then took off in large part through Ellen's own untiring efforts to let people know how important this story was. The rest is bestselling history, but with that history comes a continued dedication to helping those (women in particular) who need someone to pull them out of situations that are swallowing them alive. CRANK was performed over the festival weekend, by the way: It's become a stage play called FLIRTING WITH THE MONSTER and I hope it too has a long and fruitful life in the theater.

The Lit Fest itself took place over a Friday - Sunday. Probably somewhere around 1500 in attendance, possibly more. Food booths and a story telling stage and a main stage amid the cottonwood trees in the perfectly dry and mostly cool Reno weather, where we authors got our 30 minutes or so to talk and entertain and read and answer questions. We came to meet our readers. We came to meet each other (more on that in a bit). And we came because Ellen asked us to. Because she had a vision and a cause and she called her community to rally. I know that we would all come again in a heartbeat. Not just because it was awesome fun - which it was. But because this woman not only talks the talk but walks the walk and it is often a difficult one because she writes about difficult issues, about people on the fringes and those people need her in ways that must be daunting some days. (My ANASTASIA and SWEET DEAD LIFE readers like my work. I do get email and letters saying that what I wrote made a difference. But let's face it: I have not been writing dark contemporary fiction. Although this will change with next year's FINDING PARIS, a book I am very, very proud of.) When I was teaching full time, more than once a student came up to me and said, "If you see Ellen Hopkins, tell her that she saved my life." And they meant it.

In any case -- it was great fun. I got to meet and appear with the very talented Jim Averbeck -- somehow we even sang a brief off key duet (don't ask; I think it was when the cottonwood trees exploded in a huge wind and pelted us with cotton balls) and I chatted (about Olive Garden and other oddities) with the very brilliant and also very talented Aaron Hartzler, who wrote a funny and wry and very thoughtful memoir called RAPTURE PRACTICE. (Jenna and Casey of THE SWEET DEAD LIFE would love this book, let me assure you!) And finally got to meet Corey Whaley and get a copy of NOGGIN, which I think Jenna
and Casey would also love, because it too tells a tale of someone who comes back different that he left and the shenanigans and heartbreaks that occur after that. And the delightful Terri Farley, whose SEVEN TEARS INTO THE SEA selkie story I'm reading right now! And many, many others including but not limited to the brilliant poet Nikki Grimes and the amazing picture book author Patricia Newman and the multi-talented Michelle Parker Rock and of course my friend Andrew Smith, who I hadn't seen since YAK FEST, which was before
GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE arrived and blew everyone, myself included, out of their seats! I adore this book so much. It deserves every award it is winning. And then some. Plus Geoff Herbach was there! My fellow Sourcebooks author and his new FAT BOY AND THE CHEERLEADERS! Herbach makes me laugh. A bunch.

This is only the tip of the author iceberg. Ellen asked. So A.S. King came. And so did Ceci Castellucci. And Veronica Rossi. And Eric Elfman. And many, many more, including Ellen's editor, the very brilliant Emma Dryden.

Plus my lovely hostess, the delightful Reno author Suzy Morgan Williams, (BULL RIDER) a fellow Class of 2k9 member and the fascinating Joanna Marple, with whom I fed April the goat each morning, followed by bacon and eggs. Because Suzy cooks! Which is great, you know.

I've missed a million names. But you get the picture.

Thank you Ellen Hopkins for creating this weekend and founding Ventana Sierra. And being the awesome human being you are.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Three for Tuesday: Vinyl, Dr Pepper, and True Detectives

Midway through June and I finally purchased my summer pool pass. Now let's see how many times I use it! And with that bit of info imparted, let's move on to the Tuesday Three!

1. So vinyl! It's a thing again. Prodigal son just purchased a turntable and has cast longing glances at our various LPs. (for those of you unschooled in the clearly hipster return to vinyl cause it has an enormously better quality of sound movement-- LP stands (I think) for long play and in any case means a big size record. As opposed to the little records called 45s. So yeah. Finally I'm ahead of a trend! Let me confess here, that I am so rarely ahead of trends that I can actually keep track of the ones I managed to beat: To whit-- I began ordering mojitos (which have come and gone at this point) long before they were a thing. (Don't laugh. I am the woman who once very famously announced, "Beanie babies? Who would want that?" Followed by a similar pronouncement about Tickle me Elmo" If you are too young to remember the 90s, look it up.) Anyway, vinyl. The sound really is better. You get to enjoy the album cover and read the liner notes and get a real sense of why the musician chose to put the songs in a particular order. And it's back. Even at Target.

2. According to my lovely agent, copyeditors are the unsung heroes of publishing and I do believe this is very true. Have just finished going through the fully copy edited manuscript of FINDING PARIS and have been fully schooled on the glory that is the Chicago Style Manual. I'm an English major and English and writing teacher, so it's not like I didn't know. But I'm a lazy academic and writing a 300 page novel is different than writing research papers or articles for English journal. And in any case, I recently learned that there is no period after the Dr in Dr Pepper! So now you know, too! Although according to Wikipedia, the period used to be there and was discarded in the 50s for 'stylistic reasons.' I also learned that my trip to Vegas to vet this book went to good use. I believe the exact phrase in the comment section was "author knows her Vegas!" Now I need to write a book where someday I can read the CE phrase, "Author knows her Paris!"

3. The Hubs and I have discovered True Detective. Or rather, we finally carved out some time to semi-binge watch the 8 eps. Sad. Atmospheric. Violent. Brilliantly acted. If you get a chance, let me know what you think. Matthew Mcconaughey  and Woody Harrelson are phenomenal. Their characters are layered and troubled and the mystery their uncovering in rural Louisiana and Texas is chilling and awful. I don't know where this could go for a second season, but we're six eps into this original round.

Til next time...

Monday, June 16, 2014

In Which I Talk about Fault in Our Stars (book and movie) and other things

So here's the thing: I liked the book better. A lot better, actually, even though watching the luminous film and the absolutely brilliant and lovely Shailene Woodley was a satisfying experience and one that stayed quite true to John Green's text. It just didn't move me the way the book does. Why? Lots of reasons, and I know I'm not the first to post them.

But for the record: The return of Gus's cancer comes without any of the tragic foreshadowing that accompanies it in the book: the argument with his parents that Hazel overhears as they're about to go to Amsterdam. His overwhelming on and off exhaustion while there, including after their love scene. And likewise his death, which comes without the full and not at all hopeful litany of his downslide and the ravages that the illness make on him as he heads toward both the tragic and the mundanely inevitable. I wanted it to be real. As real as it felt in the book. And it felt… not quite there. Close -- like the scene in the gas station, yes. But not quite there.

Feel free to disagree with me. That's the great thing about lit and film-- we all get to have our favorites and our opinions. (yes, even those of you who review my own books!)

Maybe it's because I loved the book so very much and I wanted every word of it be somehow reflected, which I know is impossible, but still.

Maybe it's because I also missed Phillip -- the night time breathing machine to which Hazel was hooked up in the book but was missing in the movie.

Maybe it's because I wanted to cry more. I did not cry when Gus died. But I did cry when Sam Trammel, as Hazel's dad, held up that welcome sign at the airport. Something in the way his face crumbled with both joy and sadness when he saw Hazel and  her mom and Gus just wrecked me.

Pondering all this on this fine Monday morning.

If you've both seen the movie and read the book, what did you think?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Three for Tuesday: Copy Edits, Marketing Books, and Other stuff

And the top three for today:

1. Waiting for copy edits to come back to me from FINDING PARIS (spring 2015, Balzer and Bray).  I am both excited and nervous about this. If you're not a writer, let me explain that up until a project goes to CE, it's been just you and your editor (and earlier, your agent and before that your critique partners/beta readers). But after a while, they know your story. You know your story. And now comes this person who's going to do a thorough cold read, which means they haven't been reading various incarnations for the past year or 2. Your copy editor will (hopefully) catch inconsistencies and errors and will also give that fresh pair of eyes that we all need before book becomes 'official' manuscript and then galley.

And so I'm waiting. Particularly because PARIS is a complex project with a lot of emotional twists and turns and secrets and dark stuff. 

Let me interject here that the dog is sitting at my feet whining through her big basset nose because she wants my toast. She is not going to get my toast, in case you were wondering. Nose whining is a high-pitched sound, by the way.

2. So it's a given by now that I'm reading book after book of OUTLANDER. But I am also currently reading THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer, which I am liking very much. And a slim volume of Kurt Vonnegut's graduation speeches, which are mostly fascinating, although oddly, not always. 

3. Also thinking about marketing today. The publishing kind, not groceries. As my agent just observed, John Green is a marketing genius. But so is the team that supports him, with their clear attention to making the stars align (pun intended) for FIOS, a book that I adore mightily. It has been a prodigious campaign. As has the marketing campaign for another book I admire hugely, WE WERE LIARS, by the delightful and generous Emily Lockhart-- to whom I shall always be grateful because she loved and blurbed SWEET DEAD LIFE. The promotion for LIARS has been quite clever, with the focus being on not revealing the ending (because really, you can't with this book) and emphasizing the idea of  liars and unreliable narrators and basically putting out the tease of the mystery in all these well-plotted ways for months and months before it hit the shelves on 5/13. Of course the best type of publicity is still word of mouth, but campaigns the size and breadth of these pretty much insure that word of mouth is going to happen and won't just be something that miraculously occurs. 

Even on my smaller potatoes level, I know that the unexpectedly continual word of mouth for DREAMING ANASTASIA back in 2009 was certainly to some extent miraculous, but to an even larger extent, the work of my publicist at the time. I was his first YA book and he wanted to show that he could take an unknown high school teacher and make her book sell. Which he truly did and for which I am forever grateful. (yes, I worked very hard on marketing and still do. But he focused that work and partnered with me to make sure what I did made a difference.)

Let me interject here that one clear component for me has always been the two-pronged effects of the wonderful bloggers who support me and my books and the amazing and tireless indie booksellers who hand sell my titles. I owe them a million sparkly things. And I make my appreciation and adoration known to them regularly. Like now! :)

And then there are those--including some very successful self-pubbed authors, particularly those who write romance-- who manage those prodigious and highly successful marketing campaigns on their own.  

The truth of course is that there is very little authors can actually control in making a book successful. We can write the best book possible. We can make ourselves accessible. But for the most part, we cannot control the cover, or store placement or co-op money or whether we're going to be a lead title or whether we will be widely stocked or even where. We can simply keep writing better and better books.

So if you're reading this, your question is: What book marketing campaigns have stood out to you and why? What, beyond word of mouth, makes you take a second glance at  book and pick it up?