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:

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? 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mulling it over Monday

June! It's June! And the Houston weather has slipped back to its set point of high in the 90's low in the 70's. The summer endurance contest begins. Next time I will report a temp change will probably be, um, October.

Last night's Game of Throne episode! What can I say without spoiling it? Except that I screamed. I have not read this far in the books so... I knew something wouldn't go well, but not THAT. Didn't see THAT coming. (If you watched, discuss among yourselves. If you didn't, get back to me when you have.)

And my signing yesterday at Katy Budget Books with Sophie Jordan and CC Hunter was such fun. I love Sunday afternoon signings. Everyone's always relaxed and having a good time. Thanks to all who came out.

Mostly this morning I'm fretting over this whole reading trigger warning label thing that universities are threatening to place on books. We're not talking the basic movie/tv kind of warning like: adult language  and partial nudity. We're talking trigger warnings like racism or misogyny. As in a warning to students that what they're about to read might upset them.

So doesn't that change the entire reading experience? And isn't getting upset about the dark stuff part of the point? Shouldn't I be angry as hell at Tom Buchanan in Great Gatsby and not a watered down angry because I've been warned that my tender self might be hurt or shocked by that fact that he's a nasty misogynistic bastard? Isn't discomfort okay? Shouldn't my intellectual sensibilities be, um, challenged? Isn't this a first slide down the slippery slope toward making everything we read and see just one big bowl of mushy oatmeal?

Or is it the opposite? Will an advance trigger warning that, say, Shakepeare's Merchant of Venice contains uncomfortable and essentially unchallenged anti-Semitism enhance my reading experience? Or will it control it?

Where do we draw the line about these warnings? At what level of the human experience? The answer that keeps coming to mind is: all of it.

We are not always our best selves, we humans. Surprise, surprise! We hurt each other and destroy each other in so many ways that it defies the imagination, which is perhaps for the best. I spend enough time as a writer mining those awful possibilities that I'm clear on that. And anything my imagination conjures up is probably a poor substitute for what I will read in the morning news blasts. But I do not believe that I need an advance warning about that. I believe I already am fully aware.

Lots of people have been addressing this:

Let me know what you think, dear reader