“Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die … My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”

-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Company You Keep

I've written before about the importance of community for writers, but until the last few months, I haven't been taking my own advice.  I do have a few writer friends, try to stay up on blog posts from my favorite writers/agents, and always want to attend all of the fantastic conferences and events from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the Writers League of Texas.  But, the truth is that I haven't been part of a real community of writers since I attended graduate school (gasp!) ten years ago.  How did I let this happen?  There's the usual list of excuses: I have a family now and a full-time job.  I have family and friends I don't see enough.  The truth is, however, that just like anything else, building a community of writers takes effort.

This winter, I took the plunge and signed up for a class at The Writing Barn (an awesome resource for writers in the Austin area.  It's an oasis smack dab in the middle of south Austin that boasts 7.5 wooded acres and offers classes, retreats, Write Away days, etc.  While taking the class, I was working on a scene outside when a group of deer came vaulting over a nearby fence and bounded right by me into the trees...).  The class was titled How to Captivate Young Readers and was taught by Shana Burg, a talented and relatable middle grade writer and teacher.  It was thrilling to be back in a writing class after such a long hiatus, and Shana did not disappoint.  We had a great group, and everyone gave insightful and helpful feedback in the workshops.

After the class, a few of us decided to form our own writing critique group.  I was part of another group a few years ago, but we only met online and it quickly fizzled out.  Meeting in person with these women has already made an impact on my writing.  For one thing, it's so helpful to have firm deadlines.  They keep me in check, and I feel more inspired to get that chapter finished when I'm not just writing in a vacuum.  But more than that, it's such a relief to have others to talk to who are in the same boat.  I've always struggled to discuss my writing with people who don't do so themselves, and having this group of women in my life makes a huge difference.  There's also few enough of us that we are submitting large chunks for each meeting, and we're each becoming invested in the others' novels.

I've been working on a draft of a young adult novel, and the feedback from this group has been critical in working toward a polished manuscript.  I have yet another big life-changing event coming up in November.  While I would love to have the novel ready to go for submissions to agents by then, I'm not sure if it's realistic.  However, with the help of this group, my chances have increased exponentially.

What I'm Reading Now: I've just started the third installment in The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness.  The author is a professor of European History at the University of Southern California.  Her scholarly background certainly comes in handy in this ambitious series about witch and vampire academics who fall in love, thereby breaking the rules of their underground society, travel back in time to Elizabethan London, and work to solve the mystery behind The Book of Life, a Bible-like text that possibly explains the origins of creatures of their kind (also the name of the last book in the series).  I can't wait to see how she wraps up their supernatural love story.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Write What You Know

I recently picked up Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  This book is chock-full of great insight, and I'm sure I'll keep coming back to it, much as I did with Bird by Bird.  One thing King writes about is the age-old adage, "Write what you know."  Novice writers are known to take this advice too literally.  They often feel they don't know enough yet, have not experienced enough of the world to be an expert on any subject.  But if you love to write, then you love to read, and King states that reading is gearing us up for writing.

"If you happen to be a science fiction fan, it's natural that you should want to write science fiction ... If you're a mystery fan, you'll want to write mysteries, and if you enjoy romances, it's natural for you to want to write romances of your own.  There's nothing wrong with writing any of these things.  What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like ... in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues.  What's equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money.  It's morally wonky, for the one thing - the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story's web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck.  Also, brothers and sister, it doesn't work."

This is sound advice from one of the most prolific and successful writers in the world.  He doesn't write horror stories because that's what America wanted to read and he could rake it in.  He writes horror because he loves it, has been drawn to it since he was a boy.

I can speak from experience that the above quote is true.  A couple of years ago, I was feeling frustrated with the whole process of looking to get published.  My friend and co-worker would come to work and tell me about the latest romance novel she was reading.  One day, we started talking about the formula for a popular romance novel, and we convinced ourselves that we could write one and make tons of money.  I had read maybe two romance novels in my entire life up until this point, so I borrowed a couple of hers for research.  After flying through them, I was even more convinced that writing one would be a breeze.

We started brainstorming during lunch breaks and after work over drinks and came up with an outline for the novel quickly.  The plan was for me to then write the first few chapters and edit them with my writing partner.  But when I sat down to write, I ran up against writer's block like never before.  I would write a few sentences, check out Facebook, send an email, go eat a bowl of cereal.  It was my usual form of procrastination, but usually once I get going, I get into a groove and knock out a couple of paragraphs at least.  Not this time.  I finally had to admit that I didn't want to write about our heroine because I just didn't care about her.  I didn't care about any of the characters.  I was trying to force it because of the popularity of the genre and because I thought it would be fun.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with these kinds of books; romance simply doesn't happen to be my genre.  It goes to show that what King wrote is accurate: you have to write what you know, what you love or it just doesn't work.

What I'm Reading Now: Last night, I finished E. Lockhart's newest book, We Were Liars.  The young adult novel focuses on the Sinclairs, a wealthy New England family who hide devastating secrets behind a perfect facade.  The main character and narrator, Cadence, is eighteen years old and suffers from debilitating migraines brought on by a terrible accident that she can't remember.  The accident occurred two years ago on the private island she and her family visit every summer, and over the course of the book, she grows closer and closer to the truth of what happened.  It kept me up late several nights, and the climax did not disappoint.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Doctor Is In

I posted several months ago about our decision to hire a developmental editor.  My writing partner and I received her comments last summer and have been working through a substantial revision process since.  At first, the task felt overwhelming.  When you've been working on something off and on for years and realize that there is much, much more work to be done, it can be disheartening.  But after several reads of her critique, we knew that her suggestions would greatly benefit our story.  It's taken months of hard work, but we are now wrapping up our edits and can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.  As I wrote before, even if our novel is never published traditionally, the changes we made have made it the best it can be.

One of the recurring issues we faced was that we were not being clear enough.  Our book is a fantasy novel with lots of side stories, mysteries, and plot twists.  This is one of the many reasons that outside readers are crucial.  To us, the clues leading up to each revelation were as clear as day.  After all, we have dreamed and talked about these turn of events for years now.  But to outside readers, especially ones in the age group we are writing for (middle grade), it is imperative to foreshadow well, to fully develop each story-line, to not risk confusion for the sake of mystery. 

Once we have finished with our edits, we will start the process of submitting to agents again.  It can be a time-consuming and frustrating process, especially when you receive no responses and end up feeling that you're sending something so precious to you out into a black hole, but I'm looking forward to it.  My writing partner and I both have big life-changing events coming up in the next few months, and I'm eager to have a better idea of what may happen with the book before then.  If it's not meant to be published traditionally, we'll just have to look into other options and try not to feel discouraged.

What I'm Reading Now: I started Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler last week.  We're reading it for a book club I'm a member of and then plan to see The Great Gatsby together when it comes out in May.  As with The Paris Wife, I find myself carried away by the romanticism of living an artist's life in the 1920's, traveling the world, even as the author depicts the Fitzgerald's tendency for excess and the crumbling of their marriage.  Fowler does a great job of showing Zelda as the woman she was as opposed to the legend her husband created through his writing.   

Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Year, New You

The new year offers that longed-for opportunity for us to reinvent, to become the best versions of ourselves, the people we've always known we were deep down ... if only we could get to the gym more often or budget more effectively or go to church on Sundays.  It my be cliche, but every year, I reflect on how I have never kept any of my resolutions, not to the degree that I resolve.  But maybe that's the issue.  We're too hard on ourselves.  Making a promise to never, ever, ever eat fried food again may be a tad unrealistic.  We should start with more realistic goals so that we can pat ourselves on the back when we reach them.  I will only eat fried food once a month.  Now, that's better.

Though I don't get out the old stone tablet and engrave my resolutions in blood, in the back of my mind, I keep a running list, whether it be the new year or the middle of the summer.  And at the top of that list is always to write more.  To my dismay, I have never nailed down a systematic writing schedule.  I want to be one of those writers who gets up two hours early in the morning to write before work.  And it's not that I've never done that.  I've just never done that consistently.  I go in fits and spurts of great production, and then nothing for a while.  Take this blog.  I've been feeling increasingly guilty about my lack of posts, so of course one of the non-official resolutions was to post immediately.  Imagine my shame when I logged on today and realized that I haven't posted in almost SIX months! That's half a year.

So, to get the year that I unofficially resolve to write more off to a stellar start (19 days late), here is a list of inspirational quotes from some great writers on writing every day:

"You must write every single day of your life…You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads….may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world." -Ray Bradbury

"Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time…The wait is simply too long." -Leonard S. Bernstein

"Planning to write is not writing. Outlining…researching…talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing." -E.L. Doctorow

"I've shirked two parties, and another Frenchman, and buying a hat, and tea with Hilda Trevelyan, for I really can't combine all this with keeping all my imaginary people going.” -Virginia Woolf

What I'm Reading Now: Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. This novel is from the perspective of a fifteen year-old girl living in Westchester, New York in the '80's when her beloved gay uncle dies of AIDs.  I'm about halfway through, and so far I've been moved by the author's ability to convey beauty, despair, and loneliness through the observations of her young narrator. I can't wait to read on.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

While You're Busy Making Other Plans ...

You've likely already read the article in the following link, as it was getting circulation on all social media sites, but I had to share it here just in case:


As all great writing should, the article encouraged me to turn an appraising eye inward and re-evaluate my own daily life and feelings concerning "busyness."  At Tim Kreider's depiction of people replying "Crazy busy!" in response to how they're doing, I laughed out loud.  Basically everyone I know gives this response more often that not.  And he's 100% right when he observes that "It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint."  What an odd society in which we live where running around like a chicken with its head cut off to complete tasks we have created for ourselves on a self-imposed schedule is the recipe for success.

And, as much as I would like to exclude myself from this category, I'm just as guilty as the next guy of filling my days to the brim.  With my current schedule, I work two weekends a month.  On those weeks, I get two days off during the week.  So far, I've loved this schedule because I feel like I get much more taken care of on my weekdays off than I do on weekends.  But after reading the above article, I looked over one of my recent "To Do" lists.  The thought of how productive and accomplished I feel after checking off the most meaningless of tasks (i.e. 'clean out sock drawer' or 'return library books') embarrassed me.  Do these these things need to be taken care of?  Yes, eventually.  But would the world come to a screeching halt if I didn't take care of them today, if I, say, went for a walk or grabbed coffee with a friend instead?  Obviously not. 

I've discussed here before how much I think commitment, dedication, and ass-in-chairness have to do with the success of a writer.  And I'm not backing down from that assertion.  But what Kreider has observed in this article is also true: we need to remember the joy of just 'being' in order to create beauty.  If the meaning of life was truly to go, go, go until we can't anymore, if the heart of man was meant to beat for the 8 a.m. meeting instead of for the love of his life, then who would want to be a writer, trying with man-made words to get at the heart of the matter?  Who would care?

Last week, I finished reading the best book I've ever bought in an airport.  When flying back from Florida, I added The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma to my purchase of a bottle of water, and I'm so glad I did.  This sprawling, genre-crossing, fantastical novel is nothing short of a masterpiece. The author creates both new, larger-than-life characters, as well as re-imagining historical and literary figures, including Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells.  The character of Wells, in one of his reveries on time, life, and writing, offers insight into why writers in particular may feel frantic to accomplish as much as possible each day: "...was there a novel lurking somewhere in his head that would allow him to express the whole of what was really inside him?  The idea that he might discover  this too late tormented him: that as he lay on his deathbed, before his last gasp, the plot of an extraordinary novel he no longer had time to write would rise from the depths of his mind, like a piece of wreckage floating up to the sea's surface.  A novel that had always been there, awaiting him, calling out to him in vain amid the clamor, a novel that would die with him, for no one but he could write it, because it was like a suit made to measure just for him.  He could think of nothing more terrifying, no worse fate.And, ultimately, isn't that how every writer feels?  That's one of the reasons it's so difficult to slow down and experience life instead of tormenting yourself that you haven't put pen to paper that day.

Not too long ago, I watched an interview with one of my favorite young adult authors, Lauren Oliver.  In it, she mentioned that she is disciplined with her writing schedule and has a certain word count that she has to reach each day.  I've certainly heard other authors mention this, but it was what she said next that intrigued me.  After she completes the allotted word count, she does not allow herself to keep writing, even if she is inspired to go on.  I think this is a fantastic strategy to produce the amount of material needed every day, still go out and live life, and come back with a fresh perspective tomorrow.

What I'm reading now: I'm about halfway through How To Talk To A Widower by Jonathan Tropper.  This is the second book I've read by Tropper, and he is truly a master of finding the humor in heartbreak and in depicting the dynamics of dysfunctional families.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Book Doctor

In several of my former posts, I have addressed the challenges of the contemporary world of publishing.  Gone are the days of agents and editors who are willing to take on a novel they believe in, even if it is a little rough around the edges.  In this competitive publishing market, books have to be in as perfect condition as possible before they are submitted.  Agents and editors, drowning under a growing pile of submissions, don't have time to find the innovative story marred by a few too many plot twists or the beautiful writing hidden behind an overuse of adjectives.  They need novels that are ready to go to print yesterday and that are on-trend.

There are plenty of free options for writers out there who need a new set of eyes for their work-in-progress.  Critique groups, friends, family; all of these should be exhausted first.  But sometimes there comes a point in the writing process when an author needs professional help.  My writing partner and I have come to that point, and we have decided to hire a Developmental Editor.

While I usually write alone, several years ago I decided to collaborate with a dear friend on a book idea we had for a middle grade fantasy novel.  We were both living in Los Angeles at the time, but I have since moved back to Texas.  Six years, several submissions, and many, many versions later, we are still unwilling to give up on the book.  But we both feel at the end of our rope with the editing process.  Recently, I decided to research the idea of finding a Developmental Editor or a Book Doctor.

At first, I was wary.  A rule of thumb for writers shopping for an agent is to never, ever pay for services. An independent editor, obviously, is a different story.  They won't be getting a cut if your book eventually sells, so they have to charge for their work in order to make a living.  But it's still important for a writer to do his or her research.  There are plenty of scam artists out there in any profession.

When I began to seriously consider going this route, I looked for Developmental Editors through a few different channels: suggestions from friends, ones listed with SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and the Writers' League of Texas, and those registered with Publisher's Marketplace.  Through the latter (a subscription-based site dedicated to publishing news and a fantastic resource for anyone serious about getting published), I found a great suggestion.  The Editor and I emailed back and forth, discussing her services, and I found her to be charming, witty, and knowledgeable of the market. 

Still, I was unsure.  Through conferences and research, I've now learned of countless authors who decided to go this route prior to getting published.  But, I've heard just as many cautionary tales of writers losing their voice by having their work over-edited.  What ultimately helped us decide was that the Editor offered a preliminary evaluation of 3-4 pages of the entire manuscript for a cost that I found to be reasonable.  This way, we were able to read her evaluation and decide if we felt strongly enough to move forward.  Luckily, I found her comments to be right-on.  She was able to verbalize the problem areas of the novel and offer suggestions for how to proceed.  It was obvious that she understood what we were aiming for even when we were not successful.  We have decided to move forward with her services and honestly feel that, even if this project is never published traditionally, it will benefit both of us as writers to work with such an insightful professional.  I'll post an update when we receive her final edits at the beginning of July.

What I'm reading now:  I don't often pick up more than one book at a time, but I've done so in the past few weeks.  For our book club, I've been reading the Steve Jobs autobiography.  This is something very different for me, since I usually stick to fiction.  But it's been interesting to read about such a fascinating, complicated individual and the roller coaster of his career and personal life.  On the side, I sped through Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (otherwise known as Lemony Snicket).  This is just a great, great, beautiful story that will resonate with every person who had their heart broken in high school (i.e. pretty much everyone).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Meaning of Love

With the passing of Valentine's Day and all of the manufactured references to love, I can't help but think of its true meaning. It is, after all, the driving force of the greatest novels ever written.

In a recent post, I mentioned that I tried my hand at an essay for a contest in Real Simple magazine. The question the essay was meant to answer was, "When did you first understand the meaning of love?" As I didn't end up winning the contest, I thought I would post the essay here.

A Bird's Eye View of Love

In the last week of my fifth grade year, I found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest in our back yard. My father had just gotten home from work, and he came over to investigate with me. It was a Blue Jay, and its mother was nowhere to be seen.

“Do you think the mother will come back for her?” I asked.

Dad gazed into the branches of the pecan tree above us and shook his head. “I don’t know, kiddo. But if we leave her here, she may be dinner for one of the cats.”

I decided to call her Bonnie. My father gingerly moved her into the house. We had an old cage left over from a science experiment the year prior, and we used some towels to make a bed for Bonnie on the floor of it.

My father, a doctor, has a genuine love for Math and Science. I professed to be bad in the subjects, but the truth was that I simply did not find them as interesting as English or Drama class. The year that we used the cage for a science experiment, we bought mice. The experiment focused on whether they thrived more in light or darkness. For the first time, I expressed a real excitement for Science and would rush home from school every day to record my findings. A year later, Dad and I had a new project, and I could not wait to see Bonnie the Blue Jay every afternoon.

Upon discovering her, in typical Dad fashion, my father immediately researched the best plan to reintroduce her to her natural habitat. We wanted Bonnie to learn to fly and to live outdoors, as nature intended. The first step was to keep her away from the dog (who was not a real threat) and the cats (from whose greedy fangs a goldfish had never survived a night in our house). We placed her in the back of the house in the game room with strict instructions to my mother and sister to keep the door closed at all times. Dad formulated a plan to teach Bonnie to hunt with worms in the yard. But for the time being, we concentrated on nursing her back to health with water and little bits of damp bread.

Back at school, I bragged of Bonnie to my friends and explained how Dad and I planned to teach her to hunt. Some of the girls wrinkled their noses at the mention of worms, but the general consensus was that she sounded ‘awesome.’ My classmates could not wait to see her in a few days at the “End of the Year Party” at my house.

When Bonnie had been with us a few days, Dad decided we should take her out of the cage. We secured all of the doors, and he coaxed her onto his finger. He slowly backed away from the cage and stood up straight, Bonnie’s clawed feet clinging to his finger all the while. Her little eyes darted around the room, but after several minutes, she began to chirp. Cautiously, Dad placed her on my shoulder. I giggled as she flapped her wings and hopped in place.

“That’s a good sign,” he told me, smiling. “It won’t be long before we can take her outside, and she will really learn to fly.”

I went to bed that night with a huge grin on my face and dreamed of soaring through the air on blue wings.

The rest of the week was filled with excitement over graduation from elementary school. I attended a small, private school and had known most of my classmates for more than half of my short life. The next year, we would be scattered amongst the few public middle schools in town. Even at the tender age of ten, we sensed the end of innocence approaching. The girls, especially, looked forward to middle school with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. We had heard tales of the advanced ways and wardrobes of the public school girls with whom we would be matriculating. We relished our last few days of being the oldest in the school. Graduation was a bittersweet celebration.

On the day of the party, my house was bustling with activity when I left for school. My mother frantically darted around, picking up the breakfast plates and cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder, asking what time the snow-cone machine would be delivered.

It was only a half-day of school. My classmates and I spent the morning signing yearbooks, cleaning out our lockers, and bidding farewell to our favorite teachers. Several of us carpooled home with a friend’s mother, and, when we arrived, everyone ran straight to the backyard. Half of the class stripped off their clothes and jumped in the pool while the other half bombarded the snow-cone machine. Contrary to rumor, the “Pina Colada” flavor did not contain alcohol, but it was still the most popular. I started to shout over them that they should come inside to meet Bonnie, but eventually, I gave in and ordered my own snow-cone.

It was hours later when I finally snuck away to check on her. When I burst into the game room, I was confused by the absence of her cage. I ran back outside to ask my mother where Bonnie was. She explained that she had moved her to their bedroom at the front of the house where it was quieter. In my parents’ room, Bonnie’s cage was perched on the desk. I tiptoed up to it as my father had taught me, careful not to frighten her. Even at a distance from the screams of the children outside, the commotion must have been too much for her young heart. Bonnie lay on her side at the bottom of the cage.

That night, when my father came home from a 12-hour shift at the hospital, he and my mother had a whispered discussion in their room. He would later come in to comfort me, to explain that I did nothing wrong, that, sadly, death was sometimes a part of life. But first, he went about the chore of burying Bonnie in the backyard. I watched out a window as he dug a hole in the flower bed, lay down Bonnie’s body, wrapped in an old pillow case, and replaced the dirt on top. He stood with his back to me for several minutes, gazing down at the small grave. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt, and it occurred to me that my father was crying. When he finally turned back toward the house, the porch light hit his face. I was surprised by how worn out he looked.

Years later, Dad’s own father would pass away from prostate cancer. My father was heartbroken, and I am sure that he shed tears. When he himself was diagnosed with the same disease and, later still, when he went into remission, he must have endured private moments of despair and profound relief. At my older sister’s wedding, and later mine, at the birth of her two sons, his eyes shone with joy and pride. But to this day, the night of Bonnie’s death was the only time I have ever seen my father cry. Because of this, the memory will be seared into my memory forever.

Of course, it was not only for the short life of a sweet, blameless creature that he wept. It was also for the loss of innocence of his youngest daughter. It was also for the fragility of life. It was also for sheer exhaustion. But, ultimately, it was for love. And standing there, at a window of my little girl bedroom, my ten year-old self understood with perfect clarity the meaning of that love for the first time.

What I'm reading now: After years of talking about it, I am finally part of a book club. We've had our first meeting and chosen our first book, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin. The premise of the book is a fascinating one. It is historical fiction, based on the life of the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland. The life of Alice, as told by the author, is one filled with a great deal of joy and sorrow and is haunted by the character who charmed the rest of the world.