Monday, May 31, 2010

Post BEA / Pre Summer Book Challenge

I'm fresh from the BEA, which was a terrific experience. I didn't get to do nearly as much as I wanted to in NYC - I'm sure that calls for another trip back. And here I am, late for my blog post again.

I was ga-ga at the size of the Book Expo (and I'm told this was a scaled down year)and I came back with a suitcase full of books to read and a cherished copy of Mo Willem's new book, signed for my nephew. The story makes me want to gather a group of preschoolers for storytime - right now.

So, I'm going to include all these books on my list for the "48 Hour Book Challenge", the wonderful beginning of summer reading and blogging challenge posted by Mother Reader. When I stumbled across this, I thought, what a great way to start summer reading! Then I looked at the dates, first weekend in June, my household will be down to one child – husband and two other children will be otherwise engaged. The luscious possibility of spending an entire weekend reading has given me goosebumps. I’m in, definitely. It doesn’t matter how much I actually get done, just devoting the whole weekend to reading will make me feel like a winner.

Thanks, Mother Reader, for coming up with this. It might be the fifth year but it’s new to me – and I’m pumped! Click HERE for all the details. Anybody else going to play?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Writer-Writer Chit Chat with Sydney Salter

I recently finished reading my 2K9 buddy Sydney Salter's latest novel SWOON AT YOUR OWN RISK. It was a delicious experience. Even though it rained for five straight days in Ohio and the kids were running through house pulling down the curtains, I felt like I was on a lawn chair beside a crystal clear ocean all by myself. Polly Martin's humor and emotional confusion kept the pages turning and her lightheartedness drew the summer into my early summer reading.

Polly has to navigate difficult family territory in order to make a choice about how she wants to see herself.

Sydney and I sat down to discuss how SWOON AT YOUR OWN RISK came together.

Here is our conversation:

I laughed out loud almost every page, Sydney. Do you have tips for writing comedy, suggestions you'd like to pass on? (I'm taking notes!)

Thank you! I’ve tried for years to figure out what makes something funny, and I guess it comes down to giving readers an unexpected twist. I think humor also comes through when a character doesn’t take herself too seriously—maybe the ability to laugh at one’s own foibles gives the reader permission to laugh as well.

How important do you think humor is to telling a serious story, because it soon becomes apparent that Polly's life is not all fun and games. Did you feel like you have to balance the light with the heavy?

In my own personal experience, life is much easier when I laugh through the tough times, and I guess that carries through to my writing. I think combining humor with serious topics often makes a book easier to swallow; I have some wonderful books on my shelves that I’m mentally preparing myself to read—just because I know they’ll break my heart. Adding humor eases overwhelming emotions—in life and fiction. I think that’s why I tend to watch funny movies again and again; whereas, some of those amazing, but hard-hitting, films get one tearful viewing.

Where did Polly come from? Do you think she emerged from a small piece of your psyche, or was she inspired by someone you know. Or, did it feel like she popped into your head out of thin air?

I’ve watched more than a few female friends morph their interests to match the guys in their lives—to the point where they lose themselves in a string of relationships. Most of my characters come from observing human behavior, but all of them contain bits of me as well.

Swoon includes three generations of women living under one roof, which is becoming a more typical family dynamic but not one I've often seen in novels. What inspired your choice to tell the story this way? Do you think this feminine connection is important? Part of our times?

I do think it’s becoming more and more common, especially in tough economic times. And it’s often a good thing for girls. My own mother lived with me for about six months, inspiring that aspect of the story. While we had more than a few rumbles over household matters, I appreciated the influence she had on my own daughters. Growing up, I also had a very close, dynamic, relationship with my own grandmother— and I’ve always been grateful that I had her perspective in addition to my mother’s. When it comes to raising my own daughters, my mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, give them emotional strength, wisdom, and experiences that I could not provide on my own. A variety of female role models gives girls a chance to figure out their authentic selves.

Xander is incredibly sexy. Were there any challenges to writing a "good" boy? Do you think well behaved boys get less attention?

I believe in nice guys! And I want my readers to know that good guys exist, and while “bad boys” may possess glamour, they’re not necessarily the best ones with whom to form lasting relationships. All girls deserve supportive, loving boyfriends who want them to flourish and succeed. As for writing “good” boys—I look to the many wonderful men I know and give those qualities to my characters.

One of my favorite male characters from Swoon is also Sawyer whose habit of malapropisms cracked me up. Even though he is one of Polly's ex's, he doesn't come across as too bad a guy. I know I'm a little old for him, but do you think he would date me?

I think his vocabulary would definitely improve if he dated you! Sawyer is a nice guy, he just wasn’t the right guy for Polly. That happens! Plus, I wanted to show that a lot of Polly’s relationship problems stemmed from her own fears of intimacy.

I loved how each chapter ended with either one of Sonnet's blog entries, one of Miss Swoon's columns or Xander's poems. In a way, these things added a kind of story within the story. How did you come up with this structure, was it something you included in early drafts, or did it come later?

I included Miss Swoon’s letters in the first draft, wanting to use them to echo the themes in each chapter. My editor suggested that I try writing Sonnet’s blogs—which initially scared me a little, but ended up being quite fun. Having done that, I decided to include Xander’s writing, too. I like the way the letters, blog posts, and journal entries allow me to flesh out secondary characters even though I’m writing from Polly’s point-of-view.

Finally, I happen to know that you are incredibly prolific and that you have published three books this past year. How do you do it all? Are there two of you?

Just one of me! But I do have an incredibly supportive family, and no one really cares if there are dishes in the sink, unfolded laundry, or stacks of books everywhere. I truly love to write and make time for it in my life; plus, I’m pretty sure that I’ll never regret having had a messy house, but I would regret not following my writing dreams.

I don't regret your (or my) messy house either. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts today. I really look up to you and I loved SWOON AT YOUR OWN RISK. I also realized I forgot to ask a very very important question. What is your next project and when can I read it????

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ooops. It’s my day to blog and I forgot. I had something planned a week ago, but then my daughter asked if she could please, please, please have a sleepover party on Saturday to celebrate her 9th birthday. She reminded me that I had asked her to help with the dishes three times and only called her younger brother stupid once. Even though her Dad was going out of town to a conference I said yes. He was coming home that evening. The girls she invited couldn’t have been nicer. I just didn’t realize this one thing—nine year-olds don’t sleep when you pack them into a single room like that.

So Sunday was a blurry mess.

Monday is the day I make all the official phone calls—the ones for doctor’s appointments, car repairs, and other stuff. I spent the morning on hold at about five different places and when I finished I noticed my blood pressure had risen so I walked the dog. I hiked farther than usual.

When I came home, my husband was bouncing around opening and closing doors trying to figure out what he was going to do on his first day of vacation and now that he had finished his big conference presentation. My husband de-stressed is pretty manic. We talked about trying to see Robin Hood and who could babysit and how he wanted to fix the gutter on the side of the house and whether or not I thought it was a good idea to retile the upstairs bathroom.

At the end of the conversation he reminded me that my in-laws were coming to visit at the week which meant we had to worry about unscrubbed and uncleared surfaces and legos on the floor too. While I settled in to vacuum, the bus pulled up and my kids hopped off. My daughter opened her backpack and waved a piece of paper at her Dad. It notified us that head lice had been reported in her classroom.

Oh no, I realized.

I had been hoping to prepare something wonderful about the habits of an efficient author for this blog, but you know, lice got in the way.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Revision Is A Bear! Or Is It?

As I new writer, I approached revision like this:

The mere thought of all the potential mistakes in my novel made me feel as if I were, well, being eaten alive by a bear. Where do you start when there are SO many problems with a story? I chose to ignore the big, structural problems, choosing instead to focus on small, safe things like word choice, punctuation...

And it wasn't too effective. My manuscripts gathered a stacks of rejection form letters from publishers. Eventually, I learned the importance of revision, but I still didn't have many effective tools for approaching it. I simply read through my manuscripts over and over again, looking for things to fix. And sometimes I couldn't see the problems through the, um, car windshield.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Darcy Pattison's novel revision retreat. Aha! Using Darcy's workbook, Novel Metamorphosis, we learned how to tackle revision issues one at a time. First we created a novel inventory, noting the plot action and emotion in each chapter. So helpful! At a glance, I noticed a potentially weak chapter and places where I could strengthen emotional resonance.

Another incredibly useful revision technique is the shrunken manuscript. Darcy showed us how examining our novel in 6 point font, single spaced, can show us the overall patterns in our stories. One attendee realized that her story lacked conflict for several chapters in a row. That's exactly the kind of comment I used to ignore (my critique partners just didn't get it, I'd tell myself). But it's hard to argue with bright, bold highlighting. To learn more about the shrunken manuscript process, check out Darcy's blog.

All weekend we worked on small sections of our stories, which made the process seem quite do-able--and not quite so scary or overwhelming. Because revision really isn't a bear, it's simply a series of small tasks. Think of them as cuddly little bear cubs!

Happy revising! (We couldn't resist stopping at Bear World on our way home from the retreat.)

Posted by Sydney Salter

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My writing and my mom

Mother’s Day is coming up this week. I could say any number of things about my mother and my writing. I could tell you how she taught me to read when I was four, had the chicken pox, and was bored out of my mind. I could tell about her love of poetry, how she always had table just my size with paper, pens, paint, scissors, and glue. But when I think about what she did that made the most difference in my life as a writer, it’s this: my mother never said a negative thing about herself in my hearing.
She had plenty of negative things to say to me which is why I had oatmeal for breakfast instead of brownies, and I am not picking my nose as I write this. But she never had a critical word for herself. I’m sure it’s not that she’s never had regrets or felt dissatisfied. But in a world that expects a woman to be self-effacing, she chose to remain uncritical of her appearance, her work, her relationships and her life choices. It is, in its silence, as bold a feminist statement as any I’ve heard.
And it has had an important impact on my own writing process. We all have our inner critic. The difference is that mine has never been one that says: “You have no talent. You are never going to finish this. You will never be good enough.”
I get my share of doubts and self-criticism, but they sound more like this: “This character is too much like this other one and needs his own voice. This scene needs more specific and detailed action. This piece needs more time to develop.”
It’s a subtle difference but an important one. One that helps me stick with a story until it’s done, look at the story dispassionately when I revise, and receive the critique of my writers group and editor in the spirit it is intended.
I’d like to say that I’ve done the same for my own daughters. I’ve certainly tried but it takes a measure of self-discipline to swim against a cultural expectation so ingrained I almost never think about it. So my Mother’s Day wish, beyond a lifetime of thanks to my mom, is that my own girls will learn to speak of their bodies, their choices and their work with respect and without excuses.
So how about you mom’s out there? Chime in on the comments with one thing about your work that makes you proud. Or maybe lay to rest for good a self-defeating phrase you hear yourself using. It’s the Mother’s Day gift that only you can give yourself—a gift that endures in the lives of your daughters. Happy Mother’s Day!