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?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A note about my musical dad

This Father's Day, I give my dad credit for my relationship with the sounds of words. Which is no small thing.

My dad is a musical guy. He reads Torah, which involves memorizing chants and vowel sounds to read from a scroll where neither is printed, almost every week, and sometimes leads services as well. His conversation is often interspersed with lines from songs--why say you're going to have fun when you can channel the Beach Boys and predict "Fun Fun Fun?" Mention a familiar movie, and he'll sing its theme music. Hand him a book to read aloud, and you'll learn any song out there with its characters' names in the lyrics.

Even when he's not actually singing, he's putting things in rhythm. I realized recently that every time I count to five, I'm using the rhythm he used to teach first-grade me to spell write for a spelling test: W! R! I-T-E! My childhood was dotted with ditties; my little sister's name was tough for a four-year-old to learn, but who could forget it after a few dozen repetitions of "Leora does the horah, while she studies Torah?"

And then there are the puns. My dad isn't the sole influence (see also: grandfather; uncle who can't hear flexible without saying Flaxible), but he has influenced my soul. When you mention a skirt, it's absolutely necessary for my dad to say, "Let's not skirt the issue." When I think of a pun and I'm anywhere near Twitter, I will mistweet the English language.

As those who know me are aware, I love me some rhyme and meter. I don't sing especially well, but I love writing song parodies and noticing which song lyrics fit to which other songs' melodies. I have an ISBN song, similar to "Camptown Races," that helps me make sure I haven't missed any digits. In short, my life is a life of earworms.

Thanks, Dan the Man. Happy Father's Day.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Revisions and shenanigans

Just a peek out of hiding to say that I sent the second round of revisions back to my agent this weekend. The first round was big enough that finishing it felt momentous; in fact, I rewarded myself by finally subscribing to Netflix. The existence of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may also have played a role in that decision, but I held off until the draft was done, thank you very much.

The second round was less of a big deal; I found myself rewriting bits of scenes, rather than writing entire new ones. But both revisions so far have driven home the point that it's okay to lighten up. Creating characters and giving them funny things to say comes more naturally to me than unleashing the fury of plot upon them, and I think that knowing that, I focused extra-hard on the latter. A few unnecessarily serious plot elements are gone or altered now, leaving just the most important ones so the weight of the story lands where it's supposed to. And there are more shenanigans. Because characters with funny things to say are funnier when they have funny things to do.

Also, apparently some kids break the rules at camp. Who knew?*

*I'm not saying I totally believed the counselor who said our lips would fall off if we didn't sing. I'm just saying I got to know a lot of camp songs very well.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Can you tell me what you get, what you get from Sesame Street?

I Am Big Bird came to the Brattle Theatre this weekend. So did the filmmakers, star Carroll Spinney, his wife Debra, and Oscar the Grouch. And lots and lots of Bostonians.

The audience for the sold-out showing was composed almost entirely of adults--several decades' worth of adults. After all, Sesame Street's been on for 46 years. And I have no doubt that pretty much everyone in the room had grown in many ways since they were in the show's target audience. (When a passerby sounded amused at the length of the line for Big Bird, the woman behind me had some choice words that she probably wasn't using in preschool.) And the movie and Q&A made it clear that Spinney, along with his sense of wonder and understanding of children, has had plenty of adult concerns and joys, an utterly adorable marriage foremost among the latter. Big Bird and Oscar aren't always on our minds, not even on Spinney's. But when we were on the subject, the bird's and the show's importance was clear.

THIS is why I do children's books, I found myself thinking.

When we were little, Big Bird was a comforting presence for many of us. He was friendly, he was always there, and he showed us that it was okay to ask questions. At the same time, Oscar showed us a bit about how humor worked, and maybe let us imagine what it would be like to behave in ways we would never really behave. When we got slightly older, maybe we felt a little smarter than Big Bird and Oscar. Seeing that Big Bird still needed reassurance from adults and that Oscar needed some manners was comforting, too--it was okay if we still didn't have all the answers. And while they were at it, Big Bird, Oscar, and their buddies helped us learn some letters, numbers, and remarkable words.

Some people cried at I Am Big Bird. Whatever we took from Sesame Street in our earliest years, it's still in our brains, held there by a kind of emotional attachment inherent in young people who want to see the same characters over and over and over. For me, at least, the same is true of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein books, and Baby-Sitters' Club books, and books about redheads walking ridgepoles, all of which shaped my personality and my interests. That's why good content for children is important in all sorts of media. That's why I want books to be a place of comfort, why I care what children see while they're being entertained. Oh, and Sesame Street has consistently rocked that whole representation thing while being fun and educational all at once, so forgive me if I laugh at the idea that diversity doesn't sell.

Come and play. Everything's a-okay.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

There are two things you should know about me.

1) If spending my adulthood among children's books is wrong, I don't want to be right.

2) I love April Fools' Day.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A long-overdue announcement

Dear readers,
I want to thank you for your perpetual patience with me as I clung to the desperate delusion that children's books were a legitimate pursuit for a self-respecting adult. At long last, I have seen the light. Read, write, and engage with children's books? If we allow adults to do that, we might as well let them express joy or tell them it's okay to view the world as a place with new things to discover.

My next project will be a collection of four hundred essays on why life is bleak and why we must accept it. Essay titles so far include "Death," "Taxes," and "Parks and Recreation Is Over Forever." I hope you'll continue to follow this blog as I preview these essays and pontificate on why, if I had a lawn, the younger generation would be morally obligated remove itself from it.

I owe my thanks to the good people of ImPress for inspiring this decision. Check out The Horn Book's website today for the unveiling of ImPress's inaugural list.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Diverted: A Bostonian dystopia

It was dawn. It was time for the Waiting.

Three hundred thousand were Waiting. Some waited for Buses, some waited for Trains that would become Buses. Some tried different routes, and some gave up hope and called Ubers. But many remained.

Most remembered the days before The Big One. The days when roads had lanes in two directions. The days when, with a glance at a watch and perhaps a touch of an app, they could predict when their journeys would end. But remembering didn't help. Remembering didn't raise the wind chill, or lower the mountains so you could see what was coming, or add room to the Snow Farms. Remembering did nothing to end The Waiting. The Powers talked about solutions, but they were no match for the most powerful entity, a being that wasn't even human: President Snow.

But if you Waited long enough, the Arrival would come, almost surely. And if it did, you stood a chance. You might be left on the curb, one of the Unfit--it was all in the luck of where you lived along the route--but you might move on to the next phase: the Squeezing. Recorded voices gave reminders: "Please move toward the back to make room for others." Sometimes, you were the Chosen One: you could move a few inches and give another person room. (Sometimes, you didn't even know it, because you had headphones on.)

You might turn on the others being Squeezed, or you might band together to try to guess where you were if the windows were clouded. Whatever the details of the voyage, you would arrive. But the story wouldn't end, for the end of the day would provide a sequel: The Return.

*Disclaimer 1: My own experience has been inconvenient but nowhere near dystopian.
**Disclaimer 2: This is totally derivative of/an homage to The Toast.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Writing in coffeeshops; or, sometimes clichés come true.

Advantages to writing in coffeeshops:
  • Coffee. Duh. Or, more often, tea and something dunkable. Some sort of treat that makes you look forward to work time a little bit more.
  • Going somewhere. This means that if it's cold, you still get some sun on the way, and if you work on revisions for most of the day, you don't sit on your couch for most of the day. If you're a short-burst writer like me, you can do a short burst at home, and then a short burst while you're out, and maybe even another short burst when you're home again.
  • Listening to podcasts on the way. If they happen to be potentially inspiring author interviews, even better.
  • Creating a space that's just for writing (and dunking). You made the effort to come here; you have a certain amount of battery time left; you're going to focus. Bonus if the wifi isn't good.
  • Now that you're a cliché, you can get past wondering if the other coffee drinkers are curious about what you're writing and just write. None of the other laptop-bearers clamoring for seats have ever asked me if I think I'm the next J. K. Rowling or if print is dead, and I'm fine with that.
  • Actually, my experience is that strangers sharing space in coffeeshops are nice and considerate.
Disadvantages to writing in coffeeshops:
  • Strangers' conversations can be interesting, darn it.
  • Sometimes when you're writing, you want to act out the characters' physical motions to make sure you're describing them realistically. And when you're surrounded by other people, you may have to reign yourself in. Especially when one of your characters is kissing her food.
It makes sense in context. I swear.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Revising. Or as the kids say, #amrevising.

For the first time in a while, I'm in a phase with this manuscript where the ball is in my court. As I've mentioned, the next step of the process is to work on revisions suggested by my agent (yup, still both weird and fun to say). Carrie sent me an editorial letter that I think really got at which elements are the heart of the story, and which elements aren't helping in their current form and should either be developed or removed. Several of her suggestions were large enough that they would require a lot of work, and of course, in a novel, everything affects everything else. That meant that on the first read of the letter, although I did a lot of nodding because the suggestions made sense to me (and even felt relieved at the idea of letting go of some things), I also felt like my brain was spinning as I figured out where to start.

Well, these revisions are still a work in progress, but I feel much more like I have a plan, so I thought I'd share the process that seems to be working for me. I'm sure it will be helpful to me on future manuscripts, but I hope it's also helpful to other revisers out there.

The first thing I did was read the letter a whole bunch more times. One thing I appreciated was that a lot of its suggestions were phrased as questions or choices. As in, here's something that needs to be addressed, and you could go in this direction... or in that direction... I agreed with Carrie's insights, but I also felt like there was room for discussion. I responded to the letter, partly for her benefit and partly for mine. In most cases, I gave an answer in general terms about how I planned to address the issue. In a few cases, I said that I'd see what seemed to make the most sense while I was revising.

Once I knew the significant changes I planned to make to the manuscript as a whole, I made a scene-by-scene outline. For each scene, I wrote a sentence or two about what, if any, major changes would be necessary. Then I added some smaller considerations to the ongoing list of revisions I've had all along, everything from "make sure this relationship is consistent" to "stop making characters nod all the time."

Then I started a new draft in Scrivener. (I've found Scrivener super-useful for organizing one frequently-changing draft, and a little more unwieldy for balancing multiple discrete drafts, but it's working.) The step I'm working on now is to go through each scene, migrating what text I can from the earlier draft and changing whatever I've noted on the revision outline. I'd say I'm close to halfway through this part, though it's hard to estimate because chapter breaks have changed a bit. Some of this work is just copying and pasting, some of it is small adjustments, and some of it is rewriting scenes or parts of scenes to account for a character's presence or absence or to make events happen in more exciting ways. Once I have the bones of a new draft, I'll attack the list of smaller considerations, which is organized roughly from largest to smallest (a trick I learned from a workshop at an NESCBWI conference).

Although I don't have an official deadline, there is someone waiting at the other end now, which hasn't always been the case for my creative writing. That makes me feel a lot more accountable for doing this work, and having a plan in place means I can say to myself, "Okay, this weekend you need to get four scenes into the new draft." This time is also serving as a valuable reminder of something I already knew: that the more often I sit down to work on a manuscript, the easier it is each time. Cory Doctorow was right: Don't be ceremonious.