Monday, August 30, 2010

Writing by Numbers

This may sound strange, but I didn't want to read another novel after I finished Mockingjay. The story left me with so much to think about and I wanted to keep thinking about it, not immerse myself in someone else's story. So I picked up a book on writing that a friend had loaned me a while back.

Blake Snyder wrote Save the Cat! for screenwriters. But a lot of the information applies whether you're writing for print or movies: master your pitch, know what your character wants, conflict in every scene. I found a lot of great tips in this book, but what stood out for me was the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. This is a "template" he uses to outline his story. For a 110 page script, he breaks it down this way:

  1. Theme stated by a character by page 5
  2. Catalyst (life changing moment) on page 12
  3. Act Two starts on page 25
  4. B Story, the theme or the love story, starts on page 30
  5. The midpoint where the hero thinks he peaks or collapses hits on page 55
  6. The All is Lost moment comes on page 75
  7. Act Three, where the internal and external stories intertwine, begins on page 85
On pages 85–110, the hero leads the way based on the lessons he learned in Act Two.

There's more in between, but basically, he emphatically states that you should hit your Act break on page 25, hit the midpoint and All is Lost moment hard, and stay within these page confines to keep your script from getting too bloated. Since a novel is much longer, you'd have to do some algebra *cringe* to figure out the page or word count equivalents for a novel, but this skeleton outlining system fascinated me. I've gone back and forth trying to decide if this would help or stunt creativity.

What do you think?

BTW, saving the cat refers to a scene near the beginning of the movie where the hero does something, like saving a cat, to define who he is and make us like him. He could be a criminal, but that save the cat moment shows us his humanity and gives us hope that he'll be okay.

Friday, August 27, 2010

From the Mind of a 7-Year-Old

Emptying backpacks after school is never my idea of fun, but when I come across a gem like this, I immediately change my mind. This was from an in-class writing assignment. The teacher gave them the first few words of each sentence and they had to write words that described themselves.

I am happy, adventurous, fast.
Lover of animals and space.
Who dreams of space and dinosaurs.
Who fears spiders and were-wolves.
Who wishes 5¢ could get you a pound of candy.

Last year she was scared of coyotes, now it's werewolves. *sigh* I might have to give her Shiver sooner than later. That'll cure that fear :-)  But that's my daughter. It's a snapshot of being seven that I plan to hold on to for a while.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Editor Spotlight on: Jennifer Rees

It's no secret that I love every book Suzanne Collins has ever written. I've blogged about it here, here and here. So I was thrilled to meet one of her editors this summer in L.A. When I found out that Jen Rees also acquired Jordan Sonnenblick's book Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie (which I raved about here), I knew I wanted to talk more to her because she obviously has great taste in books!

Even with all the flurry surrounding the release of Mockingjay yesterday, Jen was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions, dish about the release party and offer up some advice for writers.

Photo: Rita Crayon Huang, ©2010, SCBWI
Okay, so not to go all fan-girl on you, but you’ve edited two of my favorite authors. Both are amazingly talented writers. What do you think makes their stories so irresistible?
Well, it’s nice to hear you’re a fan, thank you! I think readers seriously connect with both Jordan and Suzanne on levels that are deeply personal, intellectual, and emotional. I never get a lukewarm reaction to either writer. With Jordan it’s always something like, “Jordan’s book made me laugh and cry so hard I went through a whole box of tissues!” And with Suzanne it’s usually something like, “I couldn’t stop reading her book—it kept me up all night!” This sort of readability and connection is something I’m always looking for in a manuscript.

Yes, well I did get up at 1:30 to start reading Mockingjay on my Kindle. Who needs sleep? :)

I know entire families (son, daughter, mother, father) who are obsessed with The Hunger Games. When Suzanne Collins proposed her trilogy concept to you, did you have any idea that it would find such a huge audience, both young and old?  

The varied audience of The Hunger Games trilogy is certainly a thing to marvel at. We hear a lot of stories about parents and teens stealing copies from each other so they can finish the book. Talk about putting a spin on typical family dynamics! When Suzanne told me and fellow editor David Levithan about the project, we loved it right away—the project sounded intense and incredibly cool. We believed in Suzanne because of how much we love her Gregor the Overlander books—and we knew her new trilogy would be fantastic. It wasn’t until she delivered the manuscript for The Hunger Games, however, that we truly realized just how big and wide-reaching a project this was. We literally walked around with goosebumps for days.

I can just imagine. I've been blown away by that book every time I read it. And Gregor—well, anyone who can make me cry over a cockroach is an amazing writer!

People who read my blog know I love Jordan Sonnenblick. I couldn't stop raving about Drums once I finished it and then he was so kind when I emailed him for an interview. Were you surprised when he decided to write a sequel to Drums?  

I wasn’t surprised as much as I was extraordinarily happy! Having Jordan work on the sequel felt just right. Over the years, devoted fans have asked about Jeffrey as if he were a real kid. “What happens to Jeffrey? Is he okay?” is a question we both entertained a lot. So, when Jordan told me he had an idea for Jeffrey’s story, it felt like the perfect bookend to Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie. The story is remarkable and fans are pleased!
It's in my pile! I know I won't be disappointed.

Have you ever fallen in love with a manuscript but not an author? Or vice versa? Do you have to love both the writing and the person to be able to work with them as an editor?

Oh this is a tough one! There have been a few instances where I like a manuscript, but for whatever reason an author and I don’t have a shared vision for their project. I’ve also admired many a writer but for whatever reason haven’t connected with their story. Before I acquire a project (that I’m wild about!), I like to be sure that the author and I will be able to work well together and that we agree on the work that needs to be done for their book. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful list of authors! But I also only work with people who you’d want to be out there writing books for kids. No jerks allowed! :)

Have you ever published a slush pile story?
I have never published something that I found in the slush. I keep hoping, though! I just love those success stories.

 Me too. But you have your own impressive success story for landing at Scholastic Press. I mean, for you to look at the spine of Out of the Dust, see that it was a Scholastic Press book, and decide that you had to move to New York and work there—that's amazing! What was your first job there?  
My first job was as an editorial assistant at Scholastic Press to then Editorial Director Liz Szabla (now at Feiwel & Friends). From the very beginning Liz was a mentor to me—I feel very fortunate to have had that experience which gave me room to grow and spread my own wings. Becoming a children’s book editor was definitely one of those rare things in life where everything aligns perfectly. One minute I was working as a children’s bookseller at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, and the next I was in New York City sleeping on a friend’s couch with a dream of becoming an editor. I interviewed at several houses, but Scholastic Press felt just right. I still have my tattered copy of Out of the Dust, the book that pointed me in the right direction.
I love that story!

You’ve attended a number of conferences and always have great advice for writers. What do you think is the most important take away for attendees?
I always try to impress upon attendees that if they aren’t feeling passionate about a project, there’s a reason why. Maybe it simply is not the story they personally need to tell right then, or maybe they need to rethink certain aspects of the story. I always ask attendees to keep an open mind. It’s important that they listen to editors and agents, but also to their peer groups. You never know what piece of advice might click and make your story better. A lot of writers unfortunately attend conferences with hopes of selling their book, but if you’re shut down to revisions, or are inflexible over your vision, that’s going to be a tough road to go down. Take the advice that feels right and leave the rest behind! Writing a novel or picture book is hard work, but if a writer listens to himself or herself, as well as others, hopefully with hard work and dedication it will be a successful and satisfying journey.

I think it's a journey that all of us writers want to take. What’s the biggest mistake you see in submissions from people who have attended conferences?  
Photo: Rita Crayon Huang, ©2010, SCBWI
Mostly, I get things that simply aren’t right for me or Scholastic Press—even after I speak to an audience for an hour about what I’m looking for! I understand the drive that’s behind that kind of submissions blanketing, but it’s really just a waste of everyone’s time. And it means the writer isn’t listening. Part of the necessary hard work behind getting published is in doing mass amounts of research and soul-searching to find a house and an editor that’s right for you. You worked really hard on your project, so you’re going to want it to end up in the right hands.  

You’ve said that voice is the number one thing you respond to in writing, regardless of the genre. Is there a type of book that you haven’t seen yet on your list, where you’re looking for someone with a great voice?  
I’d love to see more middle grade and YA boy books on my list, but I also like variety. So, for me, when I find an author and a story with a great voice, it almost transcends genre. I love to say to people, “This author has an amazing voice—you are going to love this story,” even if the story is in a genre that they maybe wouldn’t normally read. That’s the magic of voice. If you can hook a reader, that reader will follow. The Hunger Games trilogy, of course, is a perfect example.

My son wanted me to ask this: What is the one question you’ve never been asked in an interview that you think someone ought to ask? Ah, your son is a journalist in the making—I like that! Let’s see, I always thought someone ought to ask me what else besides The Hunger Games I am excited about on my list! And then I’d have to say, “Well, how thoughtful of you to ask! Everlasting by Angie Frazier, Sellout by Ebony Wilkins, Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman, Finally by Wendy Mass, Sunny Holiday by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, and an amazing new picture book called Swim! Swim! by Lerch (aka James Proimos), just to name a few.”

Sounds like a great list!

So tell me, how was the release party last night at Books of Wonder?

The Mockingjay party was amazing! Fans clearly adore Suzanne and were so eager to hear her read the first chapter of Mockingjay and get their copies of the book. Some enthusiasts even dressed up—one fan came dressed as Effie and another was wearing Katniss’s wedding dress! At one point in the evening, I got tangled up in someone’s bow! Now that’s a good event . . .

I saw that photo of the girl in the wedding dress. I love that people were so into it...and a bit jealous that I couldn't be there :)

Thanks so much, Jen. I've enjoyed getting to know you better!

Thanks, Sherrie, this has been fun!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The 2AM Wakeup Call

I've been on a bit of a reading binge. Summer does that to me. Warm sun, lounge chairs, a tall glass of iced's the perfect setting to kick back and read.

The funny thing is, I woke up at 2 a.m. the other day with the opening of a story in my head. It wasn't like anything I had read. It wasn't like anything else I had written. But the voice was fully formed and it wouldn't go away. I finally had to get up and type out the first four pages or risk not sleeping the rest of the night.

Since then I've been turning it over in my mind, trying to figure out the rest of the story, where the character goes from here. Even as I try to work on other things, this story keeps interrupting.

Have you ever had a character show up in your brain and demand that their story be told?

Friday, August 20, 2010

That Unexpected Something

Venice Beach is known for its crazies.

In the space of a city block you can pass by a wannabe Captain Jack Sparrow, fat Elvis and a six-foot-tall Yoda swinging his lightsabers around. You'll be serenaded by the Worlds Greatest Wino singing, "Jingle bells, jingle bells, help me get drunk," every day of the year.

Guys on bikes with surfboards under their arms cruise by muscle men pumping iron and people hawking cds they burned on their computers the night before.

But if you wander just two blocks away from the boardwalk, you'll find this. A quiet, completely unexpected little paradise hidden behind the houses.

Every novel needs to have something unexpected, something that takes our breath away and surprises us, makes us want to turn the page.

We just have to be willing to wander away from the crowd and make visible that unexpected something...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making Things Visible

We took our kids to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles today and if you’ve never been, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not into art, riding the tram and just walking around the campus is a treat in and of itself. The amazing architecture of the buildings, the stunning gardens and the views of Los Angeles from the museum’s hillside location made the trip worthwhile.

But what stuck with me were two quotes from a video we saw there.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
                                                  Henry David Thoreau

Art does not produce what is visible, it makes things visible.
                                                  Artist, Paul Klee

I know they were talking about art here, but these quotes really hit home for me as a writer. Because that’s kind of our job as writers. We make things visible, see beyond what everyone else just looks at, pull ideas from the recesses of our minds and turn them into stories that take on meanings we never even realized. And that’s pretty cool.

So this week as you write, keep those thoughts in mind. Turn what you see in your head into words on the page and make your ideas visible for the world to see.

Lofty? Maybe. But I think we can do it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Team Peeta? Team Gale?

One week from tomorrow it comes out.

If you don't know what I'm talking about then you need to get to a book store and buy the first two books because let me tell you, everyone's going to be talking about Katniss, Peeta and Gale next week. And for good reason.

I reread The Hunger Games a few months ago. My son was curious about it so I read it out loud to him. It was my third reading, and still I discovered things that I didn't notice on my first two times through, details that she weaves into the story, things you don't pick up on until you know the ending.

Then on Saturday I picked up Catching Fire, just intending to read a chapter, admire the prose. Yeah, right. I was totally sucked into the story, unable to put it down until I'd devoured the entire book again. And I have to say, I appreciated it more this time through. Maybe because I wasn't holding my breath as I turned each page. Amazingly, the tension was still there on every page, but I was really reading every page, not racing to find out what happens next.

So now I'm pumped. I'll be poised with my Kindle at midnight to download the book so I don't have to wait until the bookstore opens at 10am. I'm too eager to read it. But I'll be getting a physical copy of as well. I know, totally crazy. What can I say. It's just that kind of book. I must read it the minute it's available and I must have a copy that I can touch and flip through and read again. And again.

Just out of curiosity -- are you Team Peeta or Team Gale?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Meeting Maggie Stiefvater

Wow, talk about a conference high. I went from SCBWI-LA to WriteOnCon and now my head is swimming with so much great information!

But, in the days leading up to conference mania, one of my favorite authors visited California and I joined the hundreds of people queuing up to see her at Borders in Glendale.

Yup. That's me with Maggie Stiefvater. Yay!!

And let me tell you, when your book opens at #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list (and stays there for two weeks!) you can expect big crowds at your book signing. Men, women, children, teens -- the entire spectrum of humanity was represented here. They had at least 75 chairs set up for people to sit in and there were people crowded into all available floor space in and around the area where she spoke and signed books. It was crazy!

The book store arranged a fan art contest that included drawings, cupcakes, potential movie posters and a song inspired by the book. This was an epic signing event unlike any I've ever attended before! And see the cranes strung above the seating area? If you've read Shiver and/or Linger you know what that's about. I really wanted to take one home!

I was one of the lucky ones near the front of the line. I honestly think she had to be there for hours signing books because that line was HUGE! And some of those people had stacks of books for her to sign (why didn't I think of that?!).

Before she did the signing and judged the art contest, Maggie talked about writing, wolves and bugging her father for medical details. Here's a short clip on why she isn't a big fan of werewolves.

If you'd like to see the full 15-minute video, I uploaded it (in two parts) on my YouTube channel. Note: The video would have been longer if my battery hadn't died. Story of my life!

Happy Friday the 13th and have a great weekend!!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Prepping for WriteOnCon

By now I'm sure you've heard about WriteOnCon, the awesome FREE writers conference that is the brainchild of Casey McCormick, Elana Johnson, Shannon Messenger, Jamie Harrington, Lisa & Laura Roecker, and Jennifer Stayrook. If you haven't already registered, head on over there. It's FREE. What have you got to lose?

I've interviewed a few of the authors, editors and agents who will be presenting during the conference, so I thought I'd post some links here so you can anonymously stalk read a bit more about them before the conference starts tomorrow.

Weronika Janczuk is the newest agent at D4EO Literary Agency. I knew that girl was going places when I interviewed her back in March! Read the announcement on her blog then read her interview here.

Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, from Nancy Coffey Literary Agency, is one of the coolest agents you could ever hope to know. Famously generous with her time and advice for writers, it's no surprise that she was willing to be part of this conference. Join the Epic Query Contest she's hosting after you read her interview here.

I interviewed former California girl Kendra Levin on the blog on Friday. An associate editor at Viking Children's Books, Kendra will be addressing revisions tomorrow on the conference schedule. Read her interview here.

Author and master critiquer Cynthea Liu always has great advice for writers. Like Kendra, she'll be tackling the revision process on Wednesday's conference schedule. In this interview from last year, she talks about writing, marketing and the aftermath of the epic fundraiser that launched PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE.

The Story Queen herself, author Shelley Moore Thomas, signed with Joanna Stampfel-Volpe earlier this year. Last week she announced the sale of her first novel. Woo-hoo! Read her announcement here and my interview with her here.

If that's not enough to keep you busy, head on over to WriteOnCon to look at the schedule, explore the forums, or check out the faculty of agents and editors, writers and illustrators. I'll be "attending" the conference so don't look for another post from me until Friday. Until then, have a great week!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Spotlight on: Editor Kendra Levin

Earlier this year I took a writing class through MediaBistro with Kendra Levin, an associate editor at Viking Children's Books. Her supportive critiques and insider's view of the publishing industry made the class extremely relevant. Her YA Novel Writing Workshop will start again in September, but you can get a FREE preview of her brilliance if you're registered for WriteOnCon (she'll be a presenter on Monday). A few lucky authors will get to meet her in person at the Los Angeles Working Writer's Retreat (check to see if they still have spaces available). She's a certified life coach for writers, an award-winning playwright, and in her spare time, she edits picture books, middle grade and YA. Whew!

I have to tell you, your status keeps rising at my house. I was already impressed to learn that you were one of the people working on Thalia Chlatas’ book, Because I am Furniture. But then my son discovered that you worked on his favorite historical novel, Blood on the River. Very cool!

Thanks, Sherrie—I’m honored to be included!  That’s one of the great things about the way the editorial hierarchy is structured—I got the opportunity to work on lots of amazing (and quite varied) books as an assistant at Viking.  The editors I supported were very generous about sharing their projects with me, and I was able to learn a huge amount from getting involved.

You’ve worked on such a range of material, from David Adler’s Cam Jansen books to Susane Colasanti’s teen romance novels to picture books by Nancy Carlson. What makes you fall in love with a book and say I want to edit that?

One of my favorite aspects of my job is the variety.  I love that I’m always bouncing between projects of totally different age levels, subjects, and styles.  Inheriting a long-time Viking author like David Adler has been a wonderful learning experience for me, since he’s been in the children’s books business since before I was born!  But when it come to new projects, my best barometer for figuring out if a project’s a match for me is the subway read.  I commute about an hour a day, total, and I usually use that time to read submissions.  If a manuscript draws me so deeply into its world that I miss, or almost miss, my stop, I know it’s worth serious consideration.  It’s a good barometer, but it has caused me to be late for work a few times because I actually missed my stop!  

I’ve heard that most editors are so busy they have to read submissions in their spare time. Considering those time constraints, how many pages are you willing to read before you pass on a book?

It depends on many factors, including how busy I am, what I already know about the author, the backstory of the manuscript itself, and other things.  Twenty pages should give me a good sense for whether I love or hate something, but if I get to twenty and am on the fence, I’ll continue reading.

What’s something you’re looking for that you haven’t read?

I would love to see more fiction that takes place in, or at least relates in some way to, countries outside of the United States.  As much as the internet has allowed us to become more global in our interactions, it’s also given us a way to narrow our worldview and select what we see and don’t see.  Books remain a vital way for readers, especially kids, to see and experience a world totally unlike their own, filled with characters to whom they can relate in spite of superficial differences.  So I’d love to see more stories set internationally, or even in regions of the U.S. that we don’t typically see in fiction for young readers. 

I know you were published in an anthology of young writers. Have you tried your hand at writing a novel?

Luckily, writing a novel has never really been a goal of mine.  I say luckily because I know just how hard it is and how long it takes!  While I wrote fiction when I was a teen, once I started studying dramatic writing at NYU, I felt more at home in that format and all the writing I’ve done subsequently has been for either the stage or screen.  But fiction writing was actually what led me to my career in publishing.  A year or two after I won a Scholastic Art and Writing Award for a short story I wrote in high school, editor David Levithan contacted me for permission to include the story in an anthology.  I had just moved to New York and asked him if he was looking for interns, and happily, he was.  I interned at Scholastic until I graduated from college, and that’s where I fell in love with working in children’s books. 

You wrote an award-winning play while you were in college, correct? And I know you harbor a secret crush on Hamlet  :-)  What is it about stories on the stage that fascinate you?

I love the immediacy of the theatre, the sense the audience has that this moment will never happen in exactly the same way again, that they’re part of a wholly unique experience.  My parents took me to many, many plays the whole time I was growing up, and I think that fostered both my love of theatre and my comfort with the medium.  And yes, it’s no longer a secret, Hamlet and I did have a little thing going on—you can read about it here.   

I don't know, that experience sounds like a great basis for a YA novel...! What made you decide to work as an editor?

I mentioned my internship at Scholastic—it was an incredible learning experience and exposed me to a whole world of ways to use skills I had that I hadn’t known might actually make me employable!  I was mentored there by Joy Peskin, who’s now my colleague at Viking and who was incredibly generous about sharing her knowledge and expertise with me.  I was also lucky enough to learn from the late, great Craig Walker, a true visionary who did the coolest and most empowering thing anyone can do for an intern—he took me seriously.  After that, I was hooked.   

Having mentors can make such a difference in your career. I know it has for me as a writer. Now I know that a lot of times internships = slush. Did you ever pull something from the pile that ended up getting published?

I read slush in my internship at Scholastic, later as a freelancer for Scholastic, as an editorial assistant at Viking—and I still read it today, when I can make the time.  Once when I was an intern a particular editor, one whom I didn’t normally support, asked me to read a self-published fantasy novel and report on it ASAP.  I remember bringing it with me to my cousin’s bar mitzvah in Florida that weekend and reading it in the hotel room while everyone else was at the pool—definitely a future editor in the making!  Though I’m not usually a great lover of fantasy, I thought it was really well written and suspenseful, with a detailed, fully realized world.  I suggested a few tweaks but recommended that the editor acquire it.  Unfortunately, Scholastic didn’t make the winning bid for Eragon, but I was gratified to find out that I’d given them good advice!     

Omigosh, that's so cool! I think that's one of the amazing things about being an editor: seeing these stories go from unknown to loved by readers everywhere. As an editor, you get to play a huge role in making that happen. But do you ever have time to just pick up a novel and read for pleasure?

Yes, it’s sort of ironic that editors almost always love to read, but we so seldom get to read purely for pleasure!  Though I spend a lot of my non-submission-reading time checking out the YA and middle grade from Penguin’s other imprints and from other publishers, I love to read books for adults.  The last adult novel I read that I loved was Little Bee by Chris Cleave—I gobbled it down on my vacation in about two days because it was so powerful and the voice was so compelling, I really couldn’t put it down.  And I’m a fan of great non-fiction for adults as well—I recently read America’s Women by Gail Collins, which I highly recommend.  It’s a fascinating overview of women’s history in America and taught me as much as a college course.

Are you planning to be at any upcoming conferences where people can meet you in person?

It’s been a busy SCBWI year for me, and it’s only getting busier!  The remainder of my 2010 plans include the SCBWI-LA Working Writer’s Retreat in Palos Verdes, California (September), the Falling Leaves Masterclass Retreat in Silver Bay, New York (November), and the Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Editors Conference in NYC (November). I’ll also be participating in WriteOnCon, an online children’s book writers’ conference, next week. I always enjoy getting to explore the country and meet children’s book authors, so I’m always open to invitations.

And I'm sure writers enjoy meeting you. In fact, think people often go to conferences with wild fantasies of going home with a contract. What advice do you have for conference attendees so that they can (realistically!) get the most out of their time?

While conferences are a great place to potentially meet editors and agents, they’re an even better place to network with fellow writers and share tips, create critique groups, and offer much-needed support to each other.  Don’t focus so much on getting an editor’s ear that you lose sight of a wonderful opportunity to connect with your regional writing community.  If the conference includes a workshop, make sure to go into it with an open mind—you never know what you might get out of looking at your work from a new perspective.  Let your paradigms get shaken up!  And remember to pay close attention to what editors and agents say they are looking for.  If you disregard their requests and send them submissions that don’t fit the genres or age levels they work on, they’ll think you weren’t listening to their talk—not a good impression to make.

And we all know how important it is to make a good impression! One of the things we talked about in class was the importance of self-promotion, and showing your editor that you’d be willing to work at promoting yourself and your book. What are some ways that you recommend for writers to do this, even before they are published?

There are so many ways to self-promote these days, so it’s important to choose the method you feel best reflects you as a writer and as a person.  Some authors love to tweet; others find it distracting.  Some enjoy reaching out to the writing community or to teen readers through blogging; others feel it takes too much time away from their creative writing.  Some people like to have an active promotional presence on social networking sites; others create a fan page for themselves and leave it at that.  The important thing is to choose a method that you won’t get sick of, that is not purely self-indulgent, and that allows you to showcase your talents.  Be creative!  What can you come up with that’s germane to the subject or nature of your manuscript, that’s different from what other writers are doing to promote themselves?  You might connect your writing to a social cause, create or participate in an event…the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

I realize being an editor is a pretty cool job, but if you weren't an editor, what would be your dream job?

Hmm…that’s a tough one!  I used to think someday I’d become a therapist, but then I discovered life coaching.  And just when I thought teaching might be a good direction for me, the chance to teach at Mediabistro came along.  Most of my dream jobs have come true, without my having to give up my job as an editor!  That makes me one of the busiest people I know, but I consider myself one of the luckiest.

Thanks so much, Kendra. It was a pleasure getting to know you better!

Thanks for including me in your excellent blog!

You can sign up for classes with Kendra at these sites:
L.A. Working Writer's Retreat
Falling Leaves Masterclass Retreat
Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Editors Conference

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Notes from Rachel Vail

One of the best speakers at SCBWI-LA, for me at least, was Rachel Vail. I'd never read any of her books before, but I made sure to order some from the Book Loft when I got home.

Rachel was extremely comfortable being in front of an audience (I'm sure her theater background helps a lot). She infused her talks with humor, practical tips and a list of questions to ask every character in your story.

Here's the condensed version...

  • Don't "Write what you know." Start with what you know. You are like the hero and you are like the bad guy too. Keep making stuff up until it's true.
  • Know absolutely everything about your characters. You don't have the right to write about the character until you know them inside out.
  • The first draft is boring, it's cliche. The fact that it's not good, doesn't mean you're not good. You have to do the work. Redraft and redraft. Know the history, the background details that don't show up in the story but that inform everything about how the character feels physically and emotionally.
  • Distinguish characters by the things they notice, what they talk about and what they hold back.
  • The story begins when the character's life is thrown off balance. The character spends the rest of the book trying to regain that balance.
  • Use the forces of opposition. For example, make one character explosive, the other implosive. Or if you have a character who is scared of everything, let them do something brave, or place them in a situations where they are forced to deal with that fear.
  • We can't be brave if we're not scared at all. Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
  • Human beings grow up in full sight. We don't get to hide in a cocoon. We have to do it in broad daylight, bombarded by adult feelings without the benefit of adult perspective. The first time you experience those emotions they knock you over like a wave on the sand. You need to respect that as a writer for young people. You need to be true.
  • Often when you're blocked it's because you don't know the character well enough, or you're avoiding a scene. The scene you're avoiding is the scene your book needs. You have to rub it like a bruise. It hurts like hell. It's the exhausting scene. 
  • We write to live in the mind of another.
  • If your character says to another character or herself, "I don't even know what I want anymore," that's actually your character talking to you. That's the character knocking on the page saying, "Excuse me. Need a motivation here. Tired of hanging out here chatting." 
  • As hard as it might be to get into character, sometimes it's hard to get out of character at the end of the day, and stop being that stomping 12-year-old girl who feels so vulnerable. But it's important. We have to be grown ups as well. If you're going to be a writer, you can be your creative self, but you're also an independent business person and you have to take responsibility for that part as well. You can't always be a teenager. Thank God. It's bad for your skin. And your marriage.

Most Important Questions for your Characters
  • Who am I?
  • What do I want?
  • Who is stopping me from getting it? (Hint: It might not be the antagonist.)
  • Why are they stopping me?
  • Why do I want it?
  • What do I really want? (Hint: Often the opposite of what the character says they want.)
  • What will happen if I don't get it?
  • What is at risk?

Imagining is tied up with remembering. Get inside and remember the emotions brewing inside.

One of the great comforts of books is that they can be company in this sometimes lonely life. A good book, a book with heart, can introduce us to characters who are more daring, or maybe more shy, older or younger, different genders or talents, living in familiar or exotic places, and we take a journey that is not our own, could never have been our own, but becomes our own as we gaze through a window made of paper and ink.

Life and death moments are a dime a dozen in 7th grade.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Highlights from SCBWI-LA

What an amazing weekend this has been. Dancing with Bruce Hale on Saturday night was absolutely a highlight, but some of the breakout sessions have blown me away. I always know I'll be inspired, but I'm often surprised by where and who.

Some of my favorite quotes from keynote speakers:
Gordon Korman: When we are writing for kids, we're writing for ourselves.
Gail Carson Levine: Plot arises out of situation, how the main character reacts to the situation. We all create plot as we create our lives. We become ourselves through our acts and so do our characters.
Marion Dane Bauer: If you don't have a struggle, you don't have a story. Story is something that feeds you, that answers your deepest needs. As you write, you discover your own personal truth.
Rachel Vail: Sometimes the deleting is the most important part of the writing. Do not fall in love with your words or your characters. Be ruthless and cut what doesn't work.
Gennifer Choldenko: The best novels teach us something about ourselves. Give yourself space to take risks.
I'll do a more coherent post once I've gotten home and had a chance to process more of what I've learned. Today, I'll be soaking up more and hoping it all stays with me for the next year...
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