Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Speed Reading for Fun and Entertainment, Part 1

Speed reading gets a bum rap, mainly from all those speed reading courses designed by junk science or charlatans embarking on a process to drain your wallet.
I am a speed reader. I’ve taken an academic course designed to increase my reading speed and comprehension rate. I read leisure material at 500 to 800 words a minute. I can skim (which, technically, is not speed reading) at 1200 words per minute, and I can scan a bit faster than that (but not much).
Now before you think this is impressive, note I was one of the middle-of-the-road speed readers. There was one young woman in my class who left us all in the dust.
This class took an entire academic year, five days a week for an hour each day, sometimes more. The class consisted of technique (eliminating bad habits and pricing up good ones), vocabulary, and English language review such as sentence diagramming. There were also tests and quizzes, one every other day. It did not consist of the scientific equivalent of waving a rubber chicken at the full moon while dancing around a bonfire wearing a peacock feather tutu.
I can’t teach you how to speed read in a blog post, but I can give you some tips to read faster. Like kissing your paramour, a little technique and knowledge goes a long way. Before we get into that (reading, not kissing), let’s talk about what speed reading is not:
What Speed Reading is Not
Speed reading is not skimming. Skimming is the fine art of reading only pertinent data to derive at useful information retention. In other words, reading a written work to understand what the author is trying to convey without reading Every. Single. Word. On. The. Page.
Skimming has little applicability to leisurely reading. If you find yourself skimming a work of fiction or a bit of not-fiction picked up for fun, you either have ADD, the writing sucks, or you’re bored. This could be a sign to move on, or take some meds.
Learning how to skim while increasing your comprehension rate is a learned technique.
Speed reading is not scanning. Scanning is the technique in which a reader searches text for a singular answer. All other text, even important text, is jettisoned. The goal is to answer a specific question.
Speed reading is not lowering your comprehension rate. Reading so fast that you can’t comprehend the text properly is certainly not speed reading. That’s being a dork.
The Easiest Way to Increase Your Reading Speed
How fast does your mouth move? How fast do your fingers and hands move? How fast can you talk? How fast can you scratch your nose when it itches?
No matter what the answers to these questions, unless you have an uncommon medical condition, the speed is much slower than the speed in which your eyes move. Your eyeballs are close to your brain for a reason. Not only do the muscles attached to your eyes flit them about your eye sockets at great speed, your eyes can focus and defocus, adjust the pupil size to compensate for light changes, and send an enormous amount of data to your brain faster than you can blink. Your eyes are fast. They are an amazing body part. Human eyes, biologically speaking, are über.
Knowing this singular detail is the basis of speed reading. Letting your eyes do all the work for you will instantly increase the speed of which you can read for leisure, assuming you’re guilty of some bad reading habits. If you aren’t, next week’s blog post may be useful to you, so tune in next week!
To read faster, eliminate bad reading habits. A bad reading habit is relying on body parts other than your eyeballs:
The Don’t List
  • Don’t move your finger along the page, or use your bookmark to guide your eyes. This artificially decreases the rate in which the eyes can process information. Most people don’t do this, but some do. I’ve taught several introductory speed reading classes, and I’ve always found at least one person doing this, and they usually were not aware of it.
  • Don’t physically mouth words as you read them, either with your mouth closed or open. Not only will this dramatically slow your reading rate, it’s completely unnecessary as you can get the same effect from simply subvocalzing. Subvocalizing is controversial, but can be thought of as “talking to yourself.” We’ll talk about subvocalization next week.

    You think your tongue is fast? Well, I beg to differ. Your tongue is a piker, a
    piker compared to your eyes. Don’t move it while reading to mouth words. Don't mouth words, at all.
  • Don’t fidget. Being a fussy-butt causes your brain to use other parts of your body to process information. The eyes are still faster.
  • Don’t read with visually distracting data in your peripheral vision. This is a sneaky one, but can really hammer on reading rates. Movement or intermittent light sources are distractions in the literal sense: your eyes leave the page or you have to expend effort in keeping them there.
That’s it. These are the killers and will artificially lower the number of words read per minute you can read. It is my experience that some people are really done in by some of these. For example, distractions on the peripheral vision with some people are just a killer, but with others, it’s no big deal and has no bearing on the speed of reading text.
Not to leave on a negative note, here are things that can increase your reading rate:
  • Make a conscious effort to increase and retain vocabulary. If encountering a word for the first time that is unfamiliar, take the time to look it up. Encountering unknown words while reading is a rhythm killer. Learning the meaning of one word is cascading. Other little-encountered words become easier to decipher as your vocabulary improves.
  • Read with good physical reading habits on a regular basis. Yeah, this is me channeling my inner piano teacher: practice.
  • Lighting makes good video, it also impacts good reading. You can read in the dim because your eyes will adjust. However, there is one truism to light and reading: contrast. When the contrast between text and background falls below 4.5:1, most people have issues making out words. You can eventually figure it out, even quickly, but not as fast as a proper contrast ratio provided by good lighting. There are exceptions to this such as large fonts in big-print books, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

    (pet peeve: websites that break the well-documented 4.5:1 contrast rule)
I hope you enjoyed this minor digression into reading faster. Next week, we’ll explore reading mechanics beyond the physical. Knowledge is power, and a little knowledge about how the brain processes words can be helpful, or, at least, mildly entertaining.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stories about Parenting

Everyone has parents. Lots of people actually are parents. Therefore its fair to say stories about parenting, or being parents, are easy to relate to. These stories can be tragic, happy, uplifting, but for me the best ones are hilarious. Every parent does something stupid once in a while, and every child has a story about their parent making a mistake. We are all human after all.

Have you ever tapped into these stories, in your work in progress?

I have. In my latest I recount a story about my dad and I on an old wooden boat dock at a small lake in South Dakota. I don't remember how old I was, probably 3 or 4. My father was busy talking to a friend, not really watching me, while I'm sure I was terrorizing the local fishermen.

I still don't remember how it happened, but one moment I was playing on the wooden dock, the next, I was staring at the bright blue sky. Almost immediately after that, my back splashed into the water and I went under. I tried to stand, but it was much too deep, and, I didn't know how to swim. Of course my father jumped in as soon as he understood what happened, but the experience gave me a horrible fear of water that even to this day hasn't completely gone away.

I used that story to give my protagonist an irrational fear of water, and I think it works, mainly because it's from personal experience. I can easily explain the feelings my protagonist has, because they're mine.

I don't blame my dad for the incident. We laugh about it.

From my own experience as a parent I have another one. I haven't used this one yet, but we'll see if I can fit it in one of these days.

My son was about 2, in a car seat in the back of our Ford Explorer, which happened to be stopped at a traffic light facing a major intersection. The light turned green and I was about to pull into the street, when something in my peripheral vision to the right, made me hesitate. A second later a bicyclist shot through the intersection, directly in front of the Explorer, probably missing my front bumper by a foot or so. If I had left on the green light, I would have hit him.

I was angry. This guy had run a major traffic light and nearly caused a serious accident. I thought for sure I would be blamed for the accident, so I did something stupid. I rolled down my window, stuck my head out, and yelled "asshole" at the guy. He, of course, didn't turn around, didn't slow, and ran the next traffic light as well.

As I pulled into the intersection I heard a little voice from the back seat speak. "Asshole."

What about you? Do you use parenting stories?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In the Domain of the Dragon, Nothing but Terror Awaits

Style. Speculative fiction. Elements of horror. A study of character. Honor. Duty. These are things I learned in a single hour. Permanently. We’re talking a lesson in storytelling that I will never, and I mean never, forget.

It sometimes haunts my dreams.

And I share this lesson with thousands of people. Thousands.

Intrigued? You should be. What I and these other poor souls experienced was something so unique, so mind-boggling perfect, I became addicted to terror. Addicted to science fiction. Addicted to style. Addicted to storytelling.

But a small digression, my friends. Some of you have forgotten. So I’m going to bring up a buried memory. For that, please forgive me.

What I am talking about is a TV show. A single episode of Space 1999, a fantastic show that went downhill after its first season, but even at its worse it was so damn good.

Mom was a Trekie, Dad loved to watch TV at the end of the day. We ate Space 1999 like no tomorrow. I loved that show, even if I didn’t understand half of it. I even had the lunch box, a pair of walkie-talkies that looked just like the communicators, and of course the fist guns. I even had a white bike that I could pretend was an Eagle Shuttle.

We had started our Space 1999 addiction in the middle of season two, so we had no idea when we started to watch Dragon’s Domain as a rerun what we were in for. We had just gotten a large color TV to replace the black-and-white version. It was the 70’s, and we were riding the wave of home entertainment.

It was the last episode I was allowed to watch. My parents never let me watch Space 1999 again.

The story is thus:

A man wakes up to a bad dream and attempts to hijack a shuttle. He is stopped by his friend. Eventually, the story shifts to the past (1996), and we learn our hero’s back-story is Basically Filled with Really Bad Things.

In the past, a team of scientists, lead by the man with a bad dream, a Russian astronaut, are on an exploration mission. They are flitting through space visiting a newly discovered planet in our solar system, one that has derelict spaceships in orbit.

They dock with the ship, and encounter a strange swirling light display at the airlock, so they quickly close the airlock.

Too late.

At the stern of the ship appears the Dragon, as if materializing from somewhere else. The Dragon is some tentacle monster with a big glowing eye. And it screams and unearthly sound, followed by billowing gusts of air as a tentacle lashes out at a crewmen, who struggles until he is mind-blasted in submission. While the rest of the crew watches in utter terror, the Dragon pulls the crewman under it. He disappears in the howling wind and mass of tentacles back-lit by a terrible glow.

Then he is regurgitated out. He comes back to the crew, stopping at their feet, as an acid-burnt husk. His brain has been sucked out of his eyes-sockets. His eternal organs were removed from holes where his limbs used to be attached to his torso.

He looked like this:

Then the monster selects another victim, but this time the hapless soul realizes exactly what’s going to happen to her. The Dragon does this to the entire crew, one acid-eaten crew member at a time.

And. It. Never. Stops. Screaming.

Our Russian friend tries vainly to save the last beautiful crewman, but she succumbs, and is spit back out just like the rest. The pilot escapes by decoupling the pilot module from the rest of the ship and makes it back to Earth. But nobody believes his tale. The rest of the episode deals with him slaying his Dragon, figuratively and literally. He must master his fear.

He does, but dies in the attempt. The same way his crew died. He did not die in vain, for the Commander, his friend, learns how to fight the Dragon, and kills it.

How many children and adults has Dragon’s Domain fucked up? It must be thousands. I could not go to sleep that night, and the next day, my parents banned me from watching the show. In fact, they stopped watching it. I recall my mother having nightmares.

As science fiction goes, Dragon’s Domain was perfect. The use of music (Tommaso Albinoni's Adagio for Strings and Organ in G Minor) was excellent. The visual effects were memorable (for 1975). It was a character-driven horror story, a delicious bit of terror, which, at its core, played on our subconscious need to embrace fear to overcome it. It was so fundamentally awesome; elements of it would appear in the ground-breaking film Alien.

And it scared the crap out of me. It still does. It was only a TV show but it was so well done I can close my eyes and hear the scream, see the crew disappear into a swirling mass of evil. And it was so very dark, this tale of the Dragon. The hero did everything right and still died. He died badly.

Here’s a clip from Dragon’s Domain. Watch it and snicker at the cheesy special effects. But there is a small slice of my generation that is, basically, fucked up because of that one episode. I’ve talked to other people about Space 1999. The first thing out of their mouths is “that oven monster episode fucked me up!”

Now that’s storytelling!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Agent Research

How much research do you do before submitting to an agent? None you say? You've just lowered your chances of connecting quite a lot. A little research? Well that's a start, but the answer should be as much as you possibly can.

It does absolutely no good to submit your thriller to an agent who is only interested in children's books, or your YA book to someone who only handles nonfiction. You are going to be rejected as fast as they can press a button on the keyboard.

OK, so let's say that the agent's bio says that they handle commercial fiction and you write mysteries. You probably won't get rejected right off, but you still may not have submitted to the right agent.

Let's look at it from the agent's point of view. They probably fill out a questionnaire to help authors understand the categories that they handle. The last thing that they want to do is miss a good book so they make the categories as wide as possible. The more specific agents are on the questionnaire, the more likely that an author may determine that their book doesn't fall into the category that the agent handles, and therefore not submit. The agent misses out on the next big book.

It is true that the book may or may not be in a category that the agent handles at the moment, and maybe the agent realizes that it could be a brand new category. I mean, before Harry Potter, how many agents had YA fantasy as one of their featured categories. I think this happens, but is very rare, so the chances that this happens to your book isn't good.

OK, so back to the budding author. You've looked at the agents bio and realize that they handle fiction, and you are ready to submit your new thriller. Hold on a second. Have you looked at what type of fiction they are most interested in? Some agents will say they are interested in mysteries, thrillers, and commercial fiction, and that's a help, but the best thing to look at is their clients and previous sales.

I was researching an agent for my latest thriller, and his website says that he is interested in fiction, mysteries, thrillers, etc. But when I look at his client list, and the books that he has sold, they are better described as historical fiction, or quirky fiction. I could submit a query to him, and maybe he would take a look at it, but I think the chances of him liking it are slim to nonexistent. It's true I could catch him on a day when he's just read a great thriller, and get lucky, but that's just the point, when the match isn't a one to one, you have to rely more on luck. You are better off picking an agent with a much better match.

Agents don't simply need to like your book, they need to love it. Make sure that your agent loves not only your genre, or type of book, but books like yours as well. If you find books like yours in the bookstores, look at the acknowledgments, or do a web search to find their agent, and submit to them.

Of course it almost goes without saying that before you submit, to make sure that you have the best query letter you can generate, the best synopsis possible, and have edited your novel until it's as good as it can be.

What about you? How do you pick the agents you submit to?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The place of fiction

A question that pesters me: In a world where entertainment means digital and interactive, where celebrity news and unscripted reality shows vie for our attention, what exactly is the status of a book of fiction? I don't have the answer to this one. Any thoughts?

Friday Fricasse!!

So .. as you might have known, three weeks ago I SOLD MY BOOK.


My debut!

Yes, POSSUM SUMMER will be released from Holiday House in 2011!

And then, one and a half weeks ago, MY BABY CAME. She was not planned to come at this time, so I've been without an internet for awhile!

It's so bizarre. I've wanted a baby ever since my hubs and I got together, we just never could make it happen. And I wanted a book, MY book, published loooong before that, but ditto. I don't know which was harder, and I don't know HOW I managed to have both of them happen in the same freakin' month! Ha! Bizarre.

But now that we're home, and everything is becoming the new normal that it is, I wanted to say (for her) HELLO WORLD. HELLO WRITERS.

I'll be back to normal next week! I hope. Or I'll schedule it!

Hope you all have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


It always surprised me when I receive private comments on a post; mostly because the posts I think I will get comments provide a chorus of chirps and crickets, and the posts I think aren’t my best generate correspondence. My post from last week was popular with my email inbox, and it reminded me of an email I received early last year.

Did you know that book editors read comments on writing blogs? I didn’t either, until one emailed me cold and asked to submit a short for an anthology he was putting together. Like, for a book. He liked my voicing on the comments I was leaving on various blogs.

Wait… what?

Voicing? I had just learned what voicing was! On comments? Me?


Now, this was for a genre I normally don’t truck in, but, corporate researcher I am—I sleuthed that not only was his request legitimate, but he also was a respected editor in his field. I did what any good little budding writer would do: I put my work-in-progress on hold, wrote that short, and submitted that sucker with a thank you note for his kind reach out.

Alas, I didn’t make the cut, but then again I was competing against industry veterans. But it was more fun than a basket full of kittens.

This isn’t a great economy, and because I like the stability of work, I’m spending more time working this year than last. This leaves less time for writing blog posts, but, to be blunt, I’ll be dead before I stop reading other blogs and commenting.

Commenting is give and take, and I give much more than I get out of it. I’m in it for the engagement of other thinking people, not because I want another editor to ask me to submit (although, I certainly hope that happens again!). Commenting, at very least, lets the author know I’ve read her article and thought it interesting. I wish I had more time for the interwebs, I would comment even more! On the other end of the commenting cha-cha, a wonderful correspondence is born. Friends are made.

I challenge everyone to provide more commentary to the writing websites you visit. Don’t just comment on this post (unless you want to!), but reach out to your favorite places and comment either publicly or privately to the people gathered there.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Rock Tumbler

Out of the mouths of babes: I had a student once, years ago, who said something I've never forgotten. She'd had a hard life, and at fifteen, it showed in the smear of bright lipstick and hard, glittering eyes. It was also my first year of teaching, and my bag of tricks slumped a little on the empty side. In one of my conversations with her (in which I tried in vain to convince her to be kinder to her classmates), she said, "I'm a bitch. That's who I am. And if they don't like it, they don't have to talk to me."

My views on humans: I don't remember what I said, but I've remembered that line because it sums up the psyche of too many individuals I've met over the years -- thus instigating the following emotions regarding my view of the human race: we don't pop out our mamas perfect. We're each on our personal hero journey, and we're each in our own personal rock tumblers, buffing off the sharp edges. In fact, and I believe this with all of my soul, our most unique features can only be revealed once we've gone through the process -- and yes, it's humbling, and yes, it's painful, and yes, it's necessary.

Building character: You know where I'm going with this. If you haven't examined your heroine, if you haven't pushed her to the limit, put her feet to the fire, honed her character with her experiences, then you don't have a real, breathing protagonist. You have a two dimensional cardboard cut out. But it's more than just forcing your hero to face crisis after crisis. It's about the reaction, the growth, the tenacity, the perseverance, the willingness to get back up after he's taken a nose dive.

Of course, all of this rumination was sparked by Anthony & Moonrat. If you haven't read Anthony's thoughts on the perfect YA heroine, check it out.

What's the worst thing you've put a protagonist through? Did you do it to further the plot? or to further her growth as a person? And does it matter? Is plot or characterization more important or can a decision even be made between the two?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Makey up words

Do you ever use words that are not found in the dictionary? I'm not talking proper nouns for things found in fantasy novels, because it is pretty much a given that you have to do that.

I'm talking about verbs or adjectives that might be used in dialog or description to reflect either the voice of the character or your own writing voice.

I haven't done it yet, at least that I can remember, but have been tempted a couple of times. Let me give you an example.

Have you ever used absitively? It's a combination of positively and absolutely.

How about posolutely? Same words the other way.

The reason that I ask is that I sometimes hear words like this while talking to friends or acquaintances. (Yeah, I know I have weird friends, but they're mine after all)

I find that using words like this can add a bit of humor. If you are trying to give the reader a chance to rest from an intense scene, it can help them relax a little before you hit them with the next attack on their emotions.

Do you ever use made up words? What are your favorites?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The YA Girl

I had a good sci-fi centric blog post lined up, but, as often what happens when I turn to my RSS reader, I got sidetracked by a great discussion. One discussion I think you should not pass up!

The illustrious, and infamous, Moonrat asks:
Which kind of heroine do you think is better in YA fiction--one with a really positive self-image (to promote self-confidence in teen readers), or one with a flawed self-image (eg someone who has always felt like a misfit, who has never been labeled conventionally pretty, etc, to promote reader identification)?
Below is my reply. I encourage everyone in the YA space to head on over and provide your 2 cents. Or comment here. But Moonrat is a real industry person, rather than a corporate hack writer like myself. If you aren't familiar with her blog, you should definitely add it to your reader.
I like a YA heroine who does not have an IQ of 36D. I want her to like boys but doesn’t think she needs one to complete her. I like to read about girls not psychologically addicted to abusive stalkers, malcontents, dishonorable curs and scallywags.

I would like a YA heroine who wants to slap her friend alongside the head for being emo, but loves her too much to do so. I want a YA heroine who is comfortable in her own skin, likes chocolate, but doesn’t like the extra ten pounds from going on the pill. A YA heroine who gets all squishy when she hears a baby giggle, occasionally likes pink nail polish and gets mad when it’s her turn to cook the family dinner, because her brother is so much better at it. And he seems so lazy, it's rather unfair.

I would like a YA heroine who does normal things like going to church even if it is just to make grandma happy. One who aces her math quiz but still thinks the cute little black dress at the Nordstrom Rack would look great on her for the formal, if only she could figure out how to wear it without a bra while simultaneously avoiding the lecture from her father, the father that can’t quite come to terms that Princess likes to make out with the boyfriend.

I would like a YA heroine who isn’t a doormat and is trying to figure out the difference between self-confidence and being cocky. While we’re at it, I would like a YA heroine who actually isn’t an empty shell the reader can project herself into for a bit of escapism. The world is full of empty shells, filling one up at the end of the novel and saying “Done!” isn’t about the personal struggle. I would like a YA heroine who, at the end of the novel, persevered against conflict despite her mistakes that only a young adult can make. She came out on top because of her strength of character and learning from those mistakes, not some male provided deus ex machina.

I guess that means I am in the “give me an American young woman” category. Give me the visceral, the substance over style, the power in femininity, one who never stopped reaching for her dream because at no time did she think “I can’t do that because I’m a girl.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Audience Participation

At the risk of sounding bookish, reminiscent of a 19th century authoress, I must say: You are, Gentle Reader, the pinnacle of delight and goodness. I gleaned so much from your comments, your musings, your graciousness after last week's post that I am going to do something completely unorthodox and post your comments here for the world to see. Sometimes we don't always take the time to learn from one another.

But before we start, I want to share a quote with you. It speaks for itself, actually: There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

My favorite writing advice is simple and to the point, and it comes from Natalie Goldberg: Shut up and write. All too often, I find myself whining because the words aren't flowing as nicely as I want them to. I get grumpy and stomp around like a child. I lament on just how bad the writing is. I suck. I'll never be good, so why bother. Then, I think of this line. Shut up and write. Stop being dramatic and childish and put your butt in the chair. Type or scribble, whatever, just shut up and write. --Meika

Mine is from Stephen King: Give yourself permission to be craptacular. Just get it on paper and don't worry about whether it's perfect, or perfectly awful. Cleanup is what second drafts are for! --Suzanne

"The point is simple: you're surrounded by the most diverse, entertaining, encouraging, moody, hopeful, enthusiastic life-long learners that exist in the known universe." This is SO true. --Brent

The one that keeps running through my head is: Use the right word.I recently got some editing feedback that maybe I was employing a $10 word, when a string of 20cent words would do. I considered it for a moment, but then discarded the suggestion. I'd rather use one correct word than a dozen imposters hoping to kinda sorta get my point across. --Venus Vaughn
At first I hesitated to post the following. It's more personal in nature and isn't particularly advice (though I certainly feel that Liz has taught me something about attitude and tenacity and patience). Ultimately, I decided to include her words because they speak to me...and I hope they speak to you as well. Then do run on over to her site and say hello.
*sigh* this is just what I've needed to read lately. I'm a former athlete (though I've always been a writer and artist) though I was recently diagnosed with a rare genetic condition that keeps me from most athletics. I've been down and lonely hearing all about the long runs my former running buddies are going on. So, thank you for reminding me that I am doing something that many people also wish they could do and something I can do for the rest of my life, despite my "condition."-- Liz H. Allen
Thank you, all of you, for your wisdom and vision.
And now, I am off to a writing conference for teachers where I get to present a (hopefully) motivational workshop on the life of writing. Wish me luck ;)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cranking up the Tension

It's a topic that I keep on discussing, but one that is also very important for keeping the reader involved, tension. How do you generate it, and how do you keep it?

There are simple ways to do this. Put a bomb in a room with your character and light the fuse. Effective, but not very useful for most situations. Besides, you have to make sure the character cannot get out of the room, or they will simply run away.

How can you take that simple example and make the tension even greater?

In the first example, only one character is affected, so the tension is high for them, but if it is a minor character, or someone that we don't yet know, maybe we don't care.

One way around that problem is to put your main character in with the bomb, but if the bomb ends up blowing up early in the book, I think you are going to have plot issues.

How about if the bomb affects more than one character? How about if the bomb sets off a chain of events that could lead to the deaths of thousands, or even millions?

It can be a simple device, but making the consequences affect more than one person can be a good way to crank up the tension.

OK, so bombs in the closet are easy, what about personal relationships?

What if your characters' Mother becomes upset with her? That can be tense. Maybe not as tense as the bomb, but if well written, you can make the reader feel emotion.

What would make the tension stronger? What if the characters' Mother threatens to never talk to her again? What if the Mother threatens to reveal the affair to your characters' husband?

Now there are more people involved, more to get hurt, more that care.

The point that I am trying to make is to add all the tension you can, and then go back and make it worse, lots worse, make it unbearable not only to your character, but to you as well. If you feel like you can't do that to your character, then you should do it. Your readers will thank you for it later.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The spinning dancer

They say the direction you see her spinning in indicates the kind of brain you have. If you see her spinning clockwise, you are right-brained and creative. If you see her spinning counter-clockwise, you are left-brained and analytical. Do you believe it? I'm not sure I do.

Anyway, I would prefer to be right-brained, but I only ever see her going counter-clockwise.

What do you see?

Hey all!

Sorry for the late post, but I'm in the hospital working with baby and team of doctors and can't post at all, hardly!

I will post the winner of the Dust of 100 Dogs giveaway as soon as I'm out! So please, please keep your fingers crossed for me that they decide to do something!



Expect POSSUM SUMMER to show up on shelves near you in Fall of 2011 by Holiday House Books! (Feel free to skip over to my blog to read the story.)


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Onion Chronicles and Page One

My first week at college, I dived right into a prep cook job, and let me tell ya, chopping onions everyday was a great motivator to find something else to do.
I always smelled like onions and vinegar. We cleaned cooking surfaces with vinegar, I was quite the ladies’ man I am sure, as sometimes I had to run to class without changing.
But I digress.
I set off to the daily’s newsroom. It was a respectable newspaper, and I had won several (minor, but) prestigious awards in high school for writing and photojournalism. With my credentials, I was granted freelancer status and told to turn in “some cultural” piece in two days.
I asked around and found nobody had done any reporting on the new Native American museum. With my handy Pentax K1000 (the one made in Japan, not Korea) and my reporter’s notebook, the next day I interviewed the curator and staff. I took several pictures and went back to my dorm room to study and call it a night. I would write the story and develop the photos after classes the next day.
Back at Onion Central that next day, a disaster loomed. I was the only prep cook to report in, and I had to work a double shift, with my classes sandwiched between breakfast and dinner.
I had to slam out the story, quickly, and I asked one of the darkroom techs if she could develop my photos for me.
Re-reading the story, it wasn’t my best work. It wasn’t my best work at all. It needed some follow up and additional research, research I did not have time to do because I had to pitch in at the dinner shift. Oh well. During a break, I ran down to the newsroom to pick out the photos.
Only, in the excitement, I forgot to tell the tech I pushed the film so the negatives were underexposed. They didn’t look… bad, but they didn’t look good either.
The editor thought they were fine.
Publication day, I meander to the paper box. I was making a mental bet to see how far back in the paper my story with the blah pictures would go.
And there, on the front page, the very first page, above the fold, with my byline, was my piece.
On the front page.
On the Front. Freak'n. Page.
With the bad photo, only during the translation to print, it was worse.
I grab the paper and notice several of the paragraphs were out of order. So, not only did I have a mediocre piece, with a bad photo, but it was technically incorrect. I also noticed typos and grammatical errors.
I went to the newsroom for the daily evaluation from one of the professors.
You see, that was the start of a new school year. The editor was new. The copy editor was new. The layout editor was new. The darkroom tech was new. And I while I was young, I was the experienced journalist out of the bunch. And rather than helping out, I blew it.
The prof told the staff to watch the details, and demand better quality from the reporters. Despite the technical errors and bad photo, if the writing was better, he correctly observed, the front page would have held up. Unfortunately, the article set the tone for the rest of the paper.
I was so embarrassed; I never went back there again. Immature, I know, but heck, I was just off the train, literally. It did teach me one thing, however, and that was never, and I mean never, waste a writing opportunity. And in a team effort, where there are many pieces of the puzzle to a production, the foundation for all that follows is good writing.
I went back to chopping onions, and that’s when it hit me. I blew a writing gig for a crappy job with onions. And I think the darkroom tech kinda liked me.
It was a great lesson: Be careful with what your write. It could wind up on Page One despite your best, or worst, efforts.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Nulla Dies Sine Linea

Although writing is a solitary sport much of the time (unless you're like Anthony de la coffee shop), there is great comfort in knowing that it's a long-standing sport, with a rich and varied background. Indeed, it's older than the Olympics and has greater prestige than a well-earned gold medal in most circles.
Admit it. Who wants to run a .00005 second mile? Regardless of my sleek biceps (and struggling triceps) and my determination to do Bloomsday this year, I'm not wracked with jealousy or tickled with jogging lust. Nope. I'm happy for athletes everywhere and filled with a certain amount of dutiful admiration (which I give to anyone who accomplishes Great and Difficult Tasks that Require Much Focus and Tenacity).

But writing? Writing Rocks ALL YEAR LONG. And it does so with millions of people from a million different walks of life. I mean, seriously, let's remove the rose colored glasses. Let's get down to the nitty gritty truth. How many people have you met who have said, "Wish I could write." Or have confided, in dulcet tones, that "I'm planning on writing a novel someday." Or, "I'm working on something right now."


And those who pluck the golden ring? The world is at their feet! Crowds are cheering, panties fly through the air, and coins shower the stage.

Okay. Maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but you're with me, right?

The point is simple: you're surrounded by the most diverse, entertaining, encouraging, moody, hopeful, enthusiastic life-long learners that exist in the known universe. Writers. We are the cat's meow.

What impresses me the most is the knowledge we hold collectively. Frankly, it is awe-inspiring. I mean, sure, I could Google everything. But there's not that same pizazz, that zing, that special blend of AwesomeSauce. And it's this synergistic body of knowledge that builds and expands and pulses that truly makes me feel a part of this global community. We're more than warm fuzzies and group hugs (although, those are awesome, too!) -- we're writing fiends. And the things we know will blow the average mind.

So share some tips of the trade with us. What is your best writing advice? What have you heard, passed down from the writing gods of yore, that resonate with your writing soul? What pithy advice, gleaned from the blogs of agents and editors, rings true for you? What have you discovered on your own and crafted into a unique, alliterated proverb that you could share with us?

My favorite of all time is simple: Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without a line.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Which Protagonist is Yours?

Is your protagonist just a regular guy? How about a hero? Maybe she's a dark protagonist.

Today I'm going to continue with some of the things that I learned in superagent Donald Maass's class.

He said there are three types of protagonists, the regular guy, the heroic character, and the dark protagonist.

For a story about a regular guy to be interesting, something amazing has to happen to them. Something completely and utterly off the hook, otherwise, there's no story. For instance it would be hard to write a story about a regular guy buying groceries at the store. However, if the regular guy is in the grocery store when a giant earthquake rips a 10 foot gash through the middle of the floor, and he has to hang over the edge to rescue a supermodel that's fallen into the chasm, well, that's a bit more interesting, right?

OK, let's say your protagonist is a heroic character. Let's say they are a cop, or a fireman, or an airline pilot. In this case, you expect crazy things to happen to them, and it they act normally, it's boring. So the cop saves the day by shooting the bad guy, ho hum, the fireman leaps into a burning building and rescues the kid, yeah, heard it a hundred times. It's their job so we expect them to act that way. Get the picture? What makes it a story is if there is something different or unique about the heroes.

Maybe the airline pilot is afraid of heights. Maybe the cop is an opera fan that races motorcycles. Better yet, what if the cop sings opera while racing motorcycles? OK, maybe that's silly, but what if the fireman hated cats?

I'm sure you could come up with a lot more interesting ones, but the point is, heroic characters need a quirk or something different about them so that they don't come out too perfect. Perfect is boring.

The dark protagonist has to be a conflicted character. What does your dark protagonist hate about themselves? What are they powerless to change? What is the one thing that they would like to do better, but what ensures that they can't? There needs to be a struggle or you won't have a story.

Which protagonist is yours? Why are they interesting?