Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday Musings

Last Monday in July and I am not sure how that is even possible! But I think the swift passage of the summer has a lot to do with releasing a book in mid May while editing another, writing another and revising (more than once) a proposal for a future project. Plus life and some travel and various other stuff both good and bad (I'm looking at you, new AC system. But thanks for cooling us off!) Also it is Houston. And it is currently hitting 97 every day. And even walking the dog sometimes feels like more of an effort than it's worth unless I heave us out into the cooler (ha!) 80 degree air at 7AM.


A few observations on this steamy Monday:

1. It's almost time for SCBWI LA! One of my favorite long weekends of the year! I get to see my lovely agent. This year I get to see one of my fabulous editors! I get to hang out with writerly types and friends old and new, and learn some stuff and fan girl authors whose work I adore and if I'm lucky, drink some wine and hopefully breath in some cooler air and see the ocean. (I can see the Gulf here in Galveston, but we're having a huge seaweed issue this summer and no offense to Texas but it's just not the same as dipping my toes in the icy Pacific. )

2. Still forging through the Outlander series. Just began book 6. (maybe that's where the summer went, too!) It has jumped the shark any number of times, (see: Claire and Bree kill a buffalo with a saw and pretty much everything that happens to Roger Mac: kidnapped by pirates; sold to the Indians; hit on the head numerous times; hung… but not killed) but no matter. I am in it to win it, people. A review when I crawl to the finish line some time this fall.

3. Very much enjoyed teaching my first class this weekend -- on POV this time-- at the new start up, Writespace Houston. I do so love talking about artistic choice, among the many other issues we discussed and worked on. Hooray!

4. A little birdie has told me that arcs of FINDING PARIS will be ready some time in September. I can hardly believe it! And did I mention that the book starts in Las Vegas? I'll be talking more about FP very soon.

5. Also, Sharknado 2 is coming! This either thrills you as much as it does me or it doesn't. It the latter, shame on you for not sharing my very lowbrow tastes. In that same vein, let me list some of my current favorite summer TV moments, in no particular order:
 a. the return of Annie Walker  and Covert Affairs. Annie and Auggie. Enough said.
b. the new season of RHONY. More specifically, the final episode. More specifically, Aviva tossing her artificial leg at Le Cirque. Because.. well, do I have to explain it to you?
c. the return of RHONJ. Although the twins aren't doing it for me. But Rino. (or however you spell his name). Yeah. And the return of Dina "nobody's that f-ing zen" Manzo.
d. The Bridge. Dark and sad. But probably a fairly accurate depiction in many regards of life on both sides of the Texas border.

I could keep listing. But then you'd think I never did any work. :)

Til next time...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Chatting Non-Fiction Writing with Author Patricia Newman

Today, I’m chatting with author Patricia Newman about non-fiction. I had the pleasure of getting to know Patricia when we were both invited to participate in Ellen Hopkins’ inaugural Carson City Lit Fest in June.  We were introduced by the equally talented Suzy Morgan Williams (Bull Rider), who was my host for the weekend. And then in that way that often happens, we simply slipped into a conversation that lasted well beyond the weekend.
I find a great satisfaction in talking with people who write in genres that I have yet to tackle. Particularly non-fiction, because at heart, I’m a girl who loves facts and figures and research. When I was a kid, I read reams of biographies and how to books and I’m still a fan today, even though I’ve yet to write one.
So it was with that mutual passion for learning stuff that I sat down with Patricia Newman, virtually speaking, to find out how she writes and what she writes and what inspired her to the field.
 Joy Preble:  How did you get started writing non-fiction? What first drew you to it?
Patricia Newman: I was drawn to nonfiction because I like research. Without meaning to sound pompous, learning new things has always appealed to me. I explore topics that pique my curiosity and fire my passion because if I’m not invested in a topic I will not be able to engage readers. I also like to puzzle out how best assemble the cool information I gather into an appealing format for children, but it’s a huge challenge for me. Where do I start? What’s my opening line? How will I hook my readers? What themes do I want to explore? The theme determines which pieces of the puzzle fit.

JP: When you are researching a topic, what's your process?
PN: I wish I could say that I’m organized and that I can lay my hands on the source material for every fact I’ve ever researched, but I cannot. I usually start with whatever prompted the idea—a newspaper article, a radio report, a TV special—then burn up the Internet in search of sources. If my topic is historical, I search the library catalog for nonfiction books for grown-ups. These sources usually contain bibliographies with primary source citations and terrific ideas for next steps. I always, always look for someone to interview. For Jingle the Brass I interviewed a retired Southern Pacific engineer. For Nugget on the Flight Deck, I interviewed a Navy fighter pilot and an Air Force pilot. And for Plastic, Ahoy! I interviewed three scientists who traveled to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Interviews are my favorite form of research because I meet the most fascinating people.

JP: Any interesting or funny stories from the people you've met while researching?

PN: I mentioned above that a retired Southern Pacific engineer named Al provided expert input for Jingle the Brass. When I first made the appointment with Al I wanted to conduct background research for a young adult novel on women working for the railroad during World War II. Al showed me around the old railyard and pointed out where various shops were located. He showed me where the water tower was. And how the transfer table worked to shift locomotives from the yard to the maintenance shop. He talked using the language of railroaders—phrases like bending the iron; ash cat; mud hop; and ticker. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have written Jingle the Brass. (And I’ve never returned to that novel, either!) When Jingle the Brass was released, I asked him what he thought of the illustrator Michael Chesworth’s slim, sprightly engineer character. He said, “There were some skinny engineers, but they were usually the grouchy ones.”

JP: I see from your bio that you have passions in many different subject areas from languages to literature to music to computers and much more. How has your formal education -- and your informal education-- informed and influenced the topics you are drawn to write about?
PN: My formal education gave me the ability to read critically and ask questions. I studied child development at Cornell University and the degree has come in handy with respect to the various developmental stages through which children progress. But my formal education doesn’t determine what I write about. Those topics are the things that make me laugh or ponder--the topics that send me to the Internet and the library to learn more. And I’m never sure where the next book or magazine article idea will come from. Recently my daughter and I have collaborated on animal articles for children. She currently works at the San Diego Safari Park, and I have to say it’s very cool to write with your kid! Our first article for AppleSeeds (Jan. 2013) was about birds’ super powers. Our second is about elephant migrations (Odyssey, Oct. 2014), and we’ve proposed a third to another magazine.

JP: Most authors have fascinating stories about unexpected things they learned while researching a book. What are some of your unexpected lessons?
PN:  a. Nugget on the Flight Deck:  A jet released down the cat stroke (catapult path) goes from 0 to 200 miles per hour in three seconds. During school visits, I show kids a video clip of a jet taking off a carrier. It never gets old.
b.      Plastic, Ahoy!:  On each confetti-sized piece of plastic floating in the ocean you could find approximately 7,000 different kinds of bacteria. The bacteria attract one-celled organisms which attract grazers and predators. So each tiny piece of plastic no bigger than your pinky fingernail has an entire ecosystem living on it.
c.       Dolphins saved the shark attack victim I wrote about in Surviving Animal Attacks.
d.      In Navy SEALs I wrote about the “sugar cookie” treatment:  SEAL candidates who perform too slowly during their training exercises have to dive in the surf and roll around on the beach to cover themselves with sand (like a sugar cookie) before they can rejoin their team.

JP: Is there a topic that you really fell in love with or which spoke to you personally and would love to approach again, perhaps from a different angle?
PN:  Conservation. I’ve just proposed a conservation-themed book to an editor, which reprises a theme in Plastic, Ahoy! Also, many of the animal articles my daughter and I write have a conservation bent to them.

JP: For the prospective writers out there, some advice for the novice non-fiction writer?
PN: I spoke about the steps to writing nonfiction at a New England SCBWI conference and I told the audience that when I began writing nonfiction, I tended to go from the idea stage to what I call the feeding frenzy (research) stage with no thought as to how I would collate and organize the information I gathered. As a result, I ended up searching (sometimes for days) for the correct citation to a particular quote I wanted to use. I implore you to organize your sources and citations very carefully. Nonfiction authors who can’t find the proper source citation for a particular quote or fact are forced to cut it—even if it’s the most spectacular quote/fact ever.

JP:  What are you working on now?
PN: I have four nonfiction novelty board books coming out—two in the fall of 2015 and two in the spring of 2016. My illustrator and I are working on delivering the final text/art to the publisher. I also have a few fiction and nonfiction picture book manuscripts under consideration with editors. My Plastic, Ahoy! photographer Annie Crawley and I are collaborating on a new ocean book. And I’m struggling with a YA novel.

Thanks so much, Patricia, for such a fascinating conversation!

If you want to know more about Patricia Newman and her books, go to:

Twitter @PatriciaNewman

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Keep on Swimming

Read this the other day by Veronica Rossi: -- 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?