Sunday, December 27, 2015

Drafting is rough. (And that's okay!)

I know the revision process better now, and I think it's made the drafting process less intimidating.

Project A has spent the year going back and forth between my agent and me as we've worked on revisions. Whenever it's been in my agent's hands, I've kept busy working on Project B, also a middle-grade novel. Today, I realized I was on the verge of the last scene and I might as well push through, so I did. I even have a last line that I don't hate.

I made a lot of additions to my revision list today, some about the scene I was in the process of writing and some about the novel as a whole. There are some blanks in the last few chapters because one of the revision list items is to figure out how each secondary-character classmate feels about the main events, and those decisions will determine who says or does certain things that, for now, I just needed any classmate to say or do in order to move forward. The word count is pretty low right now, but that's okay because the revisions are going to add more words.

Although the concept of writing a revision list as I go isn't new at all, I leaned on it more heavily this time than I have in the past. Now that I've done such extensive revisions on Project A, I know what people are talking about when they say revising is easier than writing a first draft. I know that when I'm getting everything down, it's a lot to think about making sure each character is well-rounded but distinct and everything is consistent and logistically possible and the dialogue tags aren't hokey and I don't make people nod five times on the same page. I know that I can go back and first make sure that one character displays a particular set of traits but not too much, and then make sure another character displays a different set of traits but not too much, and then make sure someone who lived on Main Street in Chapter 1 doesn't suddenly live on High Street in Chapter 10, and then double-check the science behind the chapter with the messy experiment, and then make some of my characters shake their heads instead of nodding because conflict, darn it, conflict!

I know I can trust the process. And I'm excited to start the next phase of it in 2016!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Why do I love Pop Culture Happy Hour so much?

I'd say I have an average level of interest in pop culture. I have favorite and not-favorite-but-I-like-'em TV shows and movies, but there are plenty of popular ones I haven't seen. I love me some late-night comedy and, while we're at it, some Ellen, and love that it's easy to watch all of the above whenever I feel like it. Most music makes me pretty happy, but I don't have a ready response to the ubiquitous "what kind of music do you listen to" question, and I don't think I'm well-informed at all about current artists. Even books for adults--I read some, but I definitely feel less aware of what's current now that I've been out of the bookstore for over a year. In short, my relationship with pop culture is casual, a far cry from my obsessive relationship with children's lit.

But I can't get enough of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour.

Before you write me off as the sort of person who only likes pop culture if it's on NPR, I hasten to add that most of my NPR listening tends toward the less serious shows, along the lines of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! Often, I enjoy PCHH for the same reason I might enjoy a talk show interview with the star of a movie that interests me--it's fun to spend time thinking about something you like and maybe learning more about it.

Naturally, I'm more engaged when the subject matter is something I've seen or planned to see (and it's a plus that PCHH does consider books part of pop culture). If absolutely nothing about the episode description interests me, I might even skip it. But this morning, as I started catching up on the podcast, I noticed something about my listening tendencies, not for the first time. The first episode in line started with a discussion of the movie Bridge of Spies; I'd downloaded it because of the promised second section, a more general analysis of Tom Hanks's career. (Who can't find something of interest in the star of Forrest GumpApollo 13 *and* a million rom-coms?) I haven't seen Bridge of Spies, and it doesn't sound like something I'm personally likely to rush out and see. But still, I found myself interested in the analysis of who this movie might appeal to and why. What was special about it? What was prosaic? What was a throwback?

The thing is, that's exactly how the people around me and I look at children's books. We raise these sorts of questions about them, we decide that the questions are important and worth spending time and brain power on, and we analyze them at length. The who-might-it-appeal-to question was particularly important in bookselling, but all the facets are of interest.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a PCHH interview with Robert Galbraith J. K. Rowling in my queue.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Passivity has been noticed (and, I hope, revised)

I sent off a draft last week after applying a few more revision suggestions. Two of the suggestions were basically logistical issues within the story, but the third suggestion was something a little bigger. My main character's interests were clear, and so were his reactions to the people around him, but his own personality was harder to define. Why couldn't he be more like my secondary characters?

My agent was right, and I did some work to flesh out traits that previous drafts had hinted at but not emphasized; I hope I've resolved the issue. But I also did some mulling over of why I had this problem in the first place. I definitely consider myself more of a character person than a plot person, but somehow, I'd ended up with strong secondary characters and a protagonist who mostly just reacted to them. This hasn't been the case in all my writing projects, but it also isn't the first time it's happened.

I typically write in either first or close third person, so both the reader and I go through the story, moment by moment, right with the main character. As in life, other people happen to us. As in life, we see others from at least a bit of a distance. We know that not every single moment of our own lives is character-defining--we might be mild-mannered but occasionally get upset about something that happens to us; we might be early risers but occasionally sleep in because we've had a tiring week. We know that we react to things that happen in whatever way makes the most sense--right?? So the things that happen are more important to the story.

Now that I realize this is a trap I can fall into, I'll react to that information by spending more planning time on my protagonists. It seemed obvious that I needed to do this for other characters, especially antagonists; after all, readers need an explanation for why they do the ridiculous things they do. I guess that's true of the story's hero(ine), too.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

You won't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any muse.

So I saw two very different musicals, The Book of Mormon and Without You, in the space of a week. (A wonderfully theater-geeky writer friend was involved.) It got me thinking, not for the first time, about my relationship with musicals as a writer, which is pretty deep-seated for someone who doesn't write musicals. I even started a post about my admiration for their clever lyrics, many of which have stayed with me so persistently that they've become tied to various in-jokes in my life. (There've been a few song parodies. Attend the tale of Soapy Todd, the cleaner barber of Fleet Street.) And about how they often motivate me to work on my own writing, both because they inspire me as achievements and because of the messages in so many of them. I hear the people sing and I want to seize the day and climb every mountain and defy gravity. (Come to think of it, defying gravity would make climbing every mountain a lot easier. Where was Elphaba when the von Trapps needed her?)

And then, while I was halfway between highlighting gems from a range of musicals and trying to convey their effect on me without quoting "Purpose" from Avenue Q too heavily, the soundtrack to Hamilton became widely available. The Internet, at least the bit of it that I follow, went nuts, and I knew that others understood.

I've only listened through once so far, and I have no doubt there's more to discover, but Hamilton is a perfect example of so much of why musicals impress me. The old refrain "surprising yet inevitable" keeps running through my head as I think about musicals, and in Hamilton's case, I think the opposite works: inevitable, yet surprising. Even vague U.S. history knowledge, enough to make you at all interested in this show, is enough that you probably know the ending going in, as well as a few things that will happen along the way--how the war turns out, for instance. And if you don't know the ending from the outset, you'll be told early on, and then there's lots and lots of foreshadowing to remind you. But the show gets there in an unexpected way, a way that the participants in the events couldn't have imagined. The same is true of a lot of other musicals--either they're based on a true or a familiar fictional story, or they sum themselves up in the opening number and leave it to you to figure out how they'll arrive at the projected ending. When they get there--or when they get close, and you can see how they're going to get there--there's a satisfying feeling of closure. On a smaller level, I love it when lyrics build to a word or phrase that's surprising but then seems obvious. ("Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak / Oh, why can't the English / Why can't the English learn... to SPEAK?")

It's a feeling I want to create in my own writing, both in large ways with plot arcs and small ways with details and dialogue. Musicals remind me that I have the chance to tell any kind of story I want in a resonating, satisfying way. And I am not throwin' away my shot.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

In the name of research

I spent much of my writing time today reading about, and watching videos of, what happens when antacid tablets interact with water, vinegar, or soda. In water bottles. In film canisters. I emailed a photographer friend with questions about the latter. And then I threatened on Twitter to start a list of things I've Googled in the name of research.

I did get some writing done today; the general subject of the scene I started should be apparent. (Teachers and other science-minded folks, any thoughts on how two ten-year-olds might safely make a cool-looking explosion are most welcome.) But, although I do indulge in an #amwriting tweet here and there, starting such a running list might provide a little too much temptation to turn #amwriting to #amprocrastinating.

So instead, I've decided to get it (at least mostly) out of my system here. Here's a sample of things my writing has led me to research. (Which, I should note, is mostly realistic fiction with relatively familiar-to-me settings.)

-Names. Oh, so many names. Often popular names in particular characters' birth years, extrapolated based on the assumption that it will be a few years before the manuscript reaches readers.
-Names I think I've settled on to make sure there's no one out there whose possession of said name might pose a problem. This also goes for towns, schools, camps, and fictional candy brands and social media sites.
-Activities at summer camps. (Apparently, some camps' summers don't culminate in an Israeli folk dance show. What do those campers do all day?)
-Types of paint and their advantages and disadvantages.
-How to use a zip line.
-Treatment of fractured wrists. (No, not directly related to the zip line.)
-Do kids still use alarm clocks?
-How old are kids when they get cell phones?
-How to make a web series. (This one, I Googled in character, trying to limit the search terms to a fifth grader's vocabulary.)
-Tips for filming with a smartphone. (I searched this one as myself; I might need educating, but the techie ten-year-old in question didn't.)
-Various points about hair care across ethnicities.
-Points about my own culture that I'm pretty sure I know, just in case. Yes, I confirmed today, Tums are kosher.
-Typical weather in a particular state at a particular time of year.
-Rules of handball.
-How many Legos in a tub?

This isn't to say the Internet is the only place for research, but since I'd rather not hit my neighbors' cars testing out a film canister rocket, it's a darn good resource. How about you, other writers? What has your writing forced you to learn?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

We're a team. Our captain wears high heels.

When I signed on with Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson, I didn't just get a agent. I got a team. A cheering section. A bunch of people who know how to express excitement because they're all writers. We cheer for each other and for our shoe-loving agent (see logo designed by author and illustrator Catherine Scully). And this week, author Dionna Mann is hosting a Team Howland blog party! She's come up with personalized interview questions for a whole bunch of us. Author Tom Mulroy and I kick off the party today, and I can't wait to read everyone else's interviews and learn more about my teammates.

Thanks, Dionna! Go Team Howland!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Children's lit friends. They're hard to shake.

Six years ago, I finished a two-year program in Writing for Children, with a healthy dose of children's lit classes. Six years ago. That's three Simmonses ago. Exact program lengths and graduation dates vary among my classmates, but basically, we all finished a brief grad program long enough ago to have pretty much forgotten about each other.

I spent last weekend at the wedding of one of those classmates, meeting the real-life versions of people I'd seen referenced in her writing. And this weekend was the beginning of a reunion that's been built around next week's Summer Institute. I brunched and picnicked with Simmons '09s and '10s from a few miles away, and from across the country, and from Across the Pond, who chatted about their writing, their work for publishers, libraries, bookstores, and schools, and which books they'd been sharing with their kids. They've been excitedly planning this visit for months, and more of them are coming in the next week. (And yes, the newly-minted bride and groom made the trek today.)

Children's literature is a field full of people who've held onto literary affections formed in childhood. Is it any surprise that children's lit people hold onto friendships, too?