Monday, February 28, 2011

Charlie Sheen and the Sucky Writing Week

Sigh. The way he was.

So. Charlie Sheen is a wizard.
I admit, I'm a fantasist too. I wanted to believe that Jed Bartlett was the real president of the United States so badly that from 2000-2008, I'd have dreams about it. But even I can't believe Charlie's 'clean' - despite being the fruit of the most sacred Martin Sheen loins. He's having the worst week yet, though he doesn't know it yet. The come down is going to be a welt-raising bitch slap.

Why am I writing about Charlie Sheen? Because I felt like it, and because I'm trying to avoid writing about writing. Last week was the worst writing week I've experienced in a long time. It just sucked. Literally, sucked the life and joy right out of me. It started off with a vague malaise where I'd think, "Hmm. Maybe it's not going so well...Never mind! I'll just push on!" It ended with a deep, self-pitying depression leaving me on the floor, face planted next to my charcoal drawing of a three-toed sloth, telling my husband that the only decent thing for me to do with my WIP is to use it as kindling. He reminded me that since I hadn't printed it out yet, that wasn't a good idea.

No he didn't. He would never say something meanly snarky like that, that was what I would have said to myself. What my good, kind, husband unleashed on me was a soothing cloud of sense and logic, support and love. I tried my best to ignore it and sulk anyway.

Instead of what I usually do on bad days, which is try, try again the next day, this time I just shut down. Didn't write for nearly six days, didn't post and didn't think about my little, fragile WIP world. I just put a lid on it and walked away. Frankly, I was afraid if I didn't do that I might go in there and start ripping shit up.

This week, I think, is better. I'm posting. And I'm thinking about writing and the writing world. And I'm trying not to be such a tissue paper mess. We'll see how it goes.

What do you do when your writing world falls apart? I know, I've asked this question before. I just like hearing the inspiring responses.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Writing Tip Thursday #7 - Sketching for Writers

I write the way that I draw and paint. The punch line would be ‘ha ha, not very well” but I do draw and paint rather well. And I do it in a way that makes sense to me, process-wise, despite teachers who have told me I would get better results doing it another way. I sketch. I sketch and I sketch lightly. I put in rough ideas and, when it strikes me, I flesh something out, but other things I leave just surface impressions of. Some writing advice says you should, like the Red King, start at the beginning and keep going on until the end, then stop. Other advice has it that you should just write what you are excited about at the moment and go back and piece it all together later. 

All great advice. But for me, I need to power through. I need to get something, a couple of lines a feeling, no matter how dumb or poorly written, down on the page. I grant you, it's much more daunting for me to go back and fill in, shore up weaknesses and rout problems. But it's the only way that I can keep going. I've tried the other way and it makes me stall out. I sit and think and think until I'm so thunk out that all I've got to show for it is a firm believe that I'll never be a writer. By sketching out I can show myself, my harshest critic that I can create something and it's not half bad. In the face of 80k words of evidence, it's harder to nay-say.

I also sketch when I'm stuck. A few days ago, when I was looking at what I'd written and deleted, written and deleted written and started to delete again, I stopped. Put the laptop DOWN. And got out my sketchbook. I drew this:
It's Finis Terra City, a place in my WIP.  Now, this causes it's own frustrations, of course. This isn't really what I had in mind and as a drawing, it's kinda poor (I did have to use my daughter's crayons, so that's one reason it's not the best) but it does two things: It takes my mind off of words to tell my story. Having to visualize what my world looks like brings me out to the 'bigger picture' literally - what does this world look like? Second, it keeps me in my world but not concentrating on plot or action - what's next, what's next? I can contemplate the architecture of this world and the idea I had of concentric fortress walls. I can ask myself, what kind of technology exists here that doesn't exist in the rest of BookEnd? And why?

This is still working on my book, still 'writing' in fact, it's crucial to do. And the perfect way to unblock.

When that doesn't work and I need to get away from my WIP, but I don't want to sit drooling in front of the TV, I sketch. This time, because I've volunteered to create a 24' mural for International Day at my daughter's school. Here's a detail of a toucan for the mural:

Why is this important? Because being creative, in whatever way you do it, feeds other creativity. I firmly believe it. Whether it's writing a blog post, drawing, singing, whatever uses your creativity and makes you feel like you've made something wonderful - do it. I guarantee that it will help move the ball forward. Even if it feels like goofing off. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesday! 2.23.11

My brain is fried. I look like Patrick Star at the end of the 'Chum is Fum' episode - you know, when Plankton hires Patrick to come up with a slogan for his restaurant and, after coming up with both 'Chum is Fum' AND 'Fum is Chum' he burns out, a big, sizzling hole where his brain used to be.

I fought a battle with my WIP and WIP won, hands down. I ran away from WIP, tale between legs, hoping it's better tomorrow.

Oh well. I've wanted to introduce a 'weekly round up' segment to the blog for a while and couldn't come up with any catchy name for it. I also don't think I'm particularly coherent at the end of the week (I'm not. That's why I don't post on Fridays.) Bearing this in mind, welcome to Wednesday! wherein I recount some interesting things that I found. I am your golden retriever, I fetch you muddy sticks. You're welcome.

1) What to get Salman Rushdie for his birthday
Someone in England made the most awesome birthday cake in the world for their six year old. A real, working, non virtual, edible, Angry Birds game. Salman Rushdie is an Angry Birds aficionado. The awesomeness boggles:

2) Borders - Post Mortems continue as Borders exclaims "But I'm Not Dead Yet!"
Several musings on what went wrong and what it means. I am thinking of adopting a red with white trim armband.

-Why Borders went bankrupt.
-Melanie Benjamin offers up a 'Where were you when it happened' moment that's really poignant.

3) Marginalia
Which I think will be a country in one of my books one day. Or a disease. But it's really the notes people make on the margins of books they are reading. A NYT article sees a dim future for marginalia in light of e-readers.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Squeee! It's a Moleskine - Writing and Schedules

I am a schedule fetishist. I adore all kinds of planners and I have owned, at the same time, several competing brands of Modular Planning Paper Devices (Day Runner, Filofax AND Franklin Covey.) I covet Moleskine and Rhodia planners like other girls covet designer handbags. Nothing gives me greater joy than planning out, to the half hour if possible, how my day is going to shape up.

It never goes the way I plan, of course. I know that and am not surprised when at the end of the day only 2 of 20 items are checked off and several others have arrows (add to tomorrow's list) and question marks (what the hell was this again?) next to them. Amazingly, I don't get upset about what I don't accomplish (you know, except when it involves paying the power bill and such.) My schedules are not about finishing but about process. I know that the stuff that needs to happen will and the stuff that I think needs to happen but really is just me paying lip service to something, those suckers will fall to the way side. I have faith that the plan is the plan only until it isn't and that's ok. I am open (way the fuck open) to improvisation.

Today I was supposed to wake up at 6 and write for an hour. I was preempted by my two year old waking up at 4 with a raging ear infection and cough. I was supposed to write in the hour that she usually takes a nap AND I was supposed to treadmill for a half hour after they went to bed. She refused to take a nap but I did sun salutations while she watched Cat in the Hat and then burned off probably 10,000 calories ice skating with my oldest daughter's daisy troop. I didn't write today, but while putting my youngest to sleep, nearly falling asleep myself in the rocking chair, I realized an important scene that my WIP needed - I wasn't trying to work on it, I didn't schedule any 'thinking time' I just dozed a bit and realized that on the way to the City, Fin had to see the fields and towns around BookEnd deserted, destroyed, the people fleeing. I realized to NOT have this in there would make the rest of the end of the book not as strong. I'm feeling smugly satisfied that I figured that out, though it was literally a sleepy-time muse whispering in my ear.

So, what do you schedule, how closely to you adhere to that schedule and how do you deal with real life?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Requiem for Langhorne Borders

I'm sorry, dammit, I'm sad. I know that there's some schadenfreude going on about Borders' bankruptcy and 200 stores demise, about how this is just karmic justice for all the mom & pop bookstores they put out of business 20 years ago. But I grew up with Borders. It was to Borders on Oxford Street that I went when I was in London, not Hatchards (which was too damn intimidating for me). I went to car boot sales and local used book stores too, but Borders was the place to go to see what was out.

And now, now that I've finally gotten my shit together and almost finished my second book, the one that I started writing during NaNoWriMo in this Borders and is 10k short of being finished - when I was composing in my head how I would list  the cool baristas and sales associates on my 'thank you' page (I KNOW, cart/horse, but I do fantasize!), MY BORDERS, is closing in a month. The Everything Must Go signs are up, the lines wrap around for several aisles. The cafe staff are red eye and everyone has to find a new job in April.

So, as a senseless, futile and ultimately-going-to-fail gesture, I'm determined that I will finish this book before Langhorne Borders closes and I will finish it here.

Damn Damn Damn.

Here's a great post on Edward Champion's blog that lists the 200 Borders that are closing and, next to that location, lists the nearby independent booksellers. The only one near Langhorne that I'd add is the Doylestown Bookstore, which is also stellar. (There is a Borders near Doylestown, but didn't want to leave D-Town books out)

RIP Langhorne Borders

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing Tip Thursday! #6 - You Don't Need to Copy Another Writer's Habits*

Before I got serious about writing I didn’t know I wasn’t serious. I bought books on writing, blank journals and fancy pens. I would stock up on issues of Writer’s Digest and Zoetrope All Story. Let’s just say that if it wasn’t for me and my writing-retail therapy, perhaps Border’s would have hit rock bottom sooner.

The only thing that I didn’t do during that time was write. I read tons, about writing, how to write, when to write, what to write with, on, and about. What kind of food is conducive to writing and what never ever to do when writing, which turned out to be what to always do when writing, according to someone else.

The advice was so often contradictory that I’d get disheartened. And when it wasn’t contradictory it was so simple it had to be wrong. Write, every day. Keep writing. Don’t stop. For someone looking for alchemy this didn’t seem like the kind of advice that would turn any of my ideas to gold. I looked to the books on writing, to the interviews with authors, as a roadmap, steps I could follow, like Weight Watchers or programming the DVR.

Now I’m writing, every day and not stopping. Now I read about the industry and work on building a sustainable writing life. And I realize that I’ve always had a very particular way of creating, I just didn’t give it value, always looking to others to try to tell me how to do it. Tomorrow, I’ll have an interview with myself and I’ll ask myself to elucidate, just how do you write?

*Take the time to find your own way.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bead up Nose = No Coherent Post

St. Mary's Medical Center is only fifteen minutes away from my house, and they offer complimentary hot beverages. I recommend it when bleeding, hacking or puking in the area, or, as in the case of my youngest daughter, sticking a shiny pink bead up your nose.

My eldest stuck a pea up her nose when she was two, so we must carry the foreign object gene, god help us. But the trick to getting the pea out doesn't work for a bead, would you believe. So we wait for the doctor.

Just happy it's only a bead.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Music to Write By

I'll be honest. I'm much more particular about what I listen to than what I read. When someone recommended the twilight books to me I borrowed them from the library - but when the twilight soundtracks were coming out I pre-ordered the effers. Those bad boys, I had to OWN.

I'm snobbier, more critical and much more selective of what I listen to, always have been. I don't think I ever listened to commercial radio, preferring to listen to the same CD (or, God help how old I am, cassette) over and over again rather than risk listening to an imperfect (to me) song.

I'm not exactly proud of this, I think I do this because I have a stunted 'musical' palate. I basically listen to the kind of music I first liked in high school. I try not to be completely fossilized. I remember my friend from elementary school, Jason. His dad had jet black, slicked back Elvis hair and only ever listened to 50's era rock and roll, well into the 1980's. It's a cautionary tale, and I try to keep it in mind when iTunes starts playing Head on The Door by the Cure - again.

Still, music while I'm writing is forward motion. I can't really get started without it. I like and Pandora because I can tell it to call up, for example The National and it will create a radio station around that band and bands like that. In Philadelphia in particular there's a great music scene and an awesome radio station online Y Rock on XPN. If you like alternative music (I despise that term, but can't think of another one) check it out.

So, what do you listen to when you are working? Or is silence what helps you write? What's your playlist, right now?

My playlist from tonight:
Time of Our Lives - Paul Van Dyke
The Cave - Mumford & Sons
Some Cities - Doves
John Saw that Number - Neko Case
Never Anyone But You - The Clientele
Swanlights - Antony & the Johnsons
Lit Up - The National
Big Bamboozle - Barry Adamson
About Your Dress - The Maccabees
The Funeral - Band of Horses

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Writing Tip Thursday! #5 - First Revision: Steps One - SPELLCHECK THE FRIGGING THING

Last May I went to my first writing conference at Pennwriters. I didn't attend the whole weekend, money and mommy duties being what they are, but I did attend a one day intensive workshop with Timons Esais. He's a writer and a teacher and people, he's just good. I admit I was quaking in my boots when I turned up, having never faced the inquisitorial power of the writing conference before and - did he make me feel warm and fuzzy? Did he tell me I was a genius just waiting to be discovered? No. He made me work and think hard. But, for the effort of sticking your hand up and your neck out to answer a question or read from your WIP, he did give out candy.

He gave us advice on how to revise after the messy business of birthing the first draft. I pass it on to you in the hopes that it helps. It helped me get to stage two editing (where I linger, likely because of fear, on my first book)

1) Spell check the entire manuscript with a notepad and pencil in hand. Every time spell check brings something up DO NOT hit ignore like I do. Write the word down. There are so many words, especially in a book like mine where I've made up names for things, that I just ignore in spellcheck. Fair enough, but then how do I know that I'm consistent with my made up cosmology? Keep a log of the words that are coming up as misspelled. Later you can go back to that handwritten list and see how many different ways you spelled the name of your made up country.

2) Using that same hand list, check the spelling of names. You'd be amazed how many times I come across misspellings (or creative spellings) of my characters names. Jen, Jenna, Jenny, Jennifer - how could a reader know if it's the same person or four different people? This goes triple for creative names like Story (Storey, Storie). Creating a bible, or series bible in my case, is a good way to have a fixed reference for character names, nicknames and spellings.

3) Start looking for words you use a lot. 80K words is a tonnage for someone to spew out and some of those words, lots of them, are repeats. That's all well and good, but writers have favorite words that they use when they are being lazy. Words that are fine on their own in a paragraph, but when read as a whole 'clang' that is, they stand out as being repeated too often. This can cause the reader to come out of suspension of disbelief and that is big trouble. Watch out for these lazy words that are used as filler. Write them down and then keep a tally of how many times they appear. Some software programs do this for you. It's an eye opener.

4) Read your work out loud. This is a great way to uncover those 'lazy words' in #3, because you'll remember just hearing a word a few minutes ago, whereas sometimes, when we read, we don't 'register' every word, especially as the writer who knows the words so well. I think we unconciously polish and edit, making it sound better than it is when we read it to ourselves. Read it out loud, no matter how much you hate the sound of your voice. You'll hear clangers and awkward places immediately. Again, don't stop and try to fix it on the spot - write it on your 'revision' list for later.

Pennwriter's Conference is in Pittsburgh this year so I'll be missing it unfortunately, but I definitely recommend it. It's a great group of people and a great starting point for newbie conference goers.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mi Nombre Es

Maybe it was the affect of the tail end of the sixties, or maybe it was the weirdness of being strangers in a strange land, but my parents almost named my older sister Rocco. Disappointed that she was not a boy and grudgingly accepting that Rocco was not an appropriate name for a girl-child, they named her Anamari after a character in an opera.

Five year’s later they were ready to try again. This being before the time of ultrasound they hoped they’d hit XY paydirt. I was born female, two months early and just under two pounds. In 1972 this was all bad news. I imagine, though I never asked them, that they contemplated naming me Rocco anyway. There was some discussion that I might not survive, so they could name me Rocco and maybe, if the third child was the charm, recycle the name for him. Everyone agrees I was ugly. My mother still remembers that my hands were so small and thin that she could hold them up to the light and see through my skin to all the veins. Did my dad think that naming me Rocco might strengthen me to fight for my life? Did my mom think that St. Peter would look at the girl baby named Rocco and find it funny – not in a good way? I don’t think they named me for quite a few days and when they did, I was named after my father’s absent father. Read into that what you will.

Names have power. Names have histories and meanings and layers. Names ARE stories. I believe, fervently, in the power of names, particular in making inanimate characters alive.

BUT. I have trouble naming my characters. When I first get an idea for a story and start to build it, either in my mind or in notes, it’s always ‘woman, girl, boy, man,’ as if giving the character a name in those early stages is too restrictive, asking too much of a as yet fragile structure. I’ve tried giving my characters ‘placeholder’ names and that is worse. So for now, for some of the stories I have yet to tackle head on, it’s ‘the sisters’ ‘the man who was the mayor’ ‘the storyteller’. It can get a little confusing, but that’s what works for me right now.

What works for you? How important is having the right character name while writing the first draft? Have you ever gone on to the second draft and realized a name is all wrong?

Monday, February 7, 2011

The White Mountains - For kids or young adults?

I'm reading Fool by Christopher Moore (really, I AM!) and I'm enjoying it. But I'm cheating on Fool with a couple of other side-books. It's my 'one book constant never' nature.

So I've been spending time with John Christopher's Tripod trilogy, which my husband left on my desk as a reference to my current WIP. The series, if you haven't read it, is great. like the Wrinkle in Time Books or the Narnia books, they resonate forever with a specific ring of childhood.

Which made me think - how old is the reader of this book? I don't count myself, I read children's books of all kinds for fun, and not only since I've had children. But who is, to use a hateful term, the demographic?

This mulling comes from some feedback I got from my crit group that my WIP seems middle-grade. To me, writing it, it always seemed young adult. My main character seems to be younger than I want him to be - more like Will in the Tripod series than, say, Katniss in the Hunger Games series. (I don't know what possessed me to write a boy protagonist, it didn't even occur to me that a 16 year old would shave - thanks, Greg, for pointing that out!)

Is the age of the protagonist the indicator of the age range of the reader? Well, that may be a starting point I guess, but Lyra Silvertongue in His Dark Materials starts out age twelve, but most of the people I know who have read and adore those books are adults. So, topics? Depth? Complexity? What are the general parameters of these designations, and how fixed are they? (I'm not talking to myself here, I'm asking YOU! What do you think?)

I certainly don't know. I didn't decide to write a children's book (I didn't even think about it as a children's book until I got an forwarded info on the NJ SCBWI conference this summer) I had an idea about a book about a teenage boy. Then I decided it would be in the first person and then the story came out. Voila, a children's book. So, after an exhaustive google search lasting about 2 minutes, here are some links to publishing definitions of genres:

Children's Books Genre Definitions (from

Interesting definition of YA - which spans a broad range from 12-18

Anyone got any other resources they can share? Not just on children's books genres but genres in general? Seems to be a hard beast to pin down.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Writing Tip Thursday! #4 - Procrastinating Productively

There are times, when I'm in the world I've created, sitting around a table with the folks I've brought to life. I'm drinking tea, because I always drink tea, and I'm suddenly so effing tired of having to figure out  what everyone else is drinking. Oh, she wouldn't drink that, she's allergic to milk. No, he's never touched a drop of whiskey since the war, or she'll wet the bed if you give her another. I. Am. Sick. Of. Being. In. Charge.

That's when I scarper, which is a fine old english* word for doing a runner, and surf the intermanet, as my husband calls it. So does everyone else in America when they are simultaneously bored and tethered to a computer. BUT my writing time is so little, so precious, that I have a rule: fool around and fritter away time, but do it on writing sites. My twitter account only follows things of writerly interest, the blogs I follow are also writerly, whether by writers, about books or about the business. I look up conferences that I have no money to attend. I work on my series bible by looking up Irish slang terms. I spend time doing the administrative work of writing. I TOUCHETH NOT THE FACEBOOK!

Here are two links that I came across today that I found inspiring in a writerly way. These are the kinds of voices in the abyss that help keep me going.

The Rocky Road to Paper Heaven by Margaret Atwood

Three Years Ago by Natalie Whipple

I only glanced, three minutes tops, E! online, and I save the guardian and the new york times for the mornings when I need a jolt of 'ugh' to wake me up.

How do you waste your writing time?

*No it isn't.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

TBR Challenge - REVIEW - A Certain Slant of Light

I am listening to: I Might Be Wrong, Radiohead

First of all, I want to say HURRAY! I finished a book that I was supposed to read! I've talked about how rubbish I am at reading on demand as I'm easily distracted by other shiny books.

Secondly I want to say that I've never written a review before, so I'm sure to cock it up and I'm not sorry. I'm just going to write what I think and leave the rest up to you. Nah Nah.

"In the class of the high school English teacher she has been haunting, Helen feels them: For the first time in 130 years, human eyes are looking at her. They belong to a boy, a boy who has not seemed remarkable until now. And Helen--terrified, but intrigued--is drawn to him. The fact that he is in a body and she is not presents this unlikely couple with their first challenge. But as the lovers struggle to find a way to be together, they begin to discover the secrets of their former lives and of the young people they come to possess." - from

This is a YA novel that's different, thoughtful and thought provoking. It's different because, though it's fast-paced and has some supernatural elements (ghosts) I haven't read another YA book like it. The main characters are adults that inhabit teenage bodies - which makes it sound like Freaky Friday or something, but I assure you it's not in anyway corny or exploitive. Ms. Whitcomb does an amazing job of seamlessly combining the interior world of a ghost from another century to the exterior world of modern day high school and all the craziness it entails. The juxtaposition of what the teens have to endure in their daily lives (restrictive parents, algebra, bullying) and the longing of the ghosts for each other and for closure - after all, they don't know why they're haunting the earth - is masterful because it never seems confusing or forced.

For a book exploring big themes like spirituality and freedom, it clips along. This is the first book I've ever stepped into the shower with, admittedly, I stayed away from the spray, as I was waiting for the water to get hot. The last few pages I shed a few tears, probably because I have kids and because I'm a sucker. The ending was a little  'spiritual' not to say dogmatic or religious (it's not) and I felt a tiny bit disappointed by that. But hey, they're ghosts. Some great reward has to come to them sometime. 

So, because I'm feeling cutesy, here's my system on reviewing, based on the old nursery rhyme about magpies:

One for sorrow (DON'T BOTHER)
Two for joy (NOT BAD, NOT GREAT)
Five for silver (BUY IT BUY IT BUY IT)

A Certain Slant of Light - Five Magpies

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