A Day Late and 1,668 Words Short

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The novel I’m writing has been gestating in my mind for the last three years. It’s a middle grade-ish novel about a girl who pretends to be her own identical cousin in 1965 because she feels so invisible. I’m itching to get it down on paper. I designated November as my month to do it and I joined NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month was created for November by a group of writer friends. It’s become a nonprofit organization with staff, sponsors, a fund-raising gala and nearly 120,000 participants. That’s not counting those who may not officially sign in. As I did for several years.
I never signed up because I knew I’d never do it. I was already involved in a project, either well into writing it or editing it. This year I’d just completed a final (yeah, right) of my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied and sent a round of twenty queries to agents.
I was ready for NaNoWriMo!
Each day the writer must produce 1,668 words in order to reach the goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month. I began writing this blog post on a flight home to San Diego from Maryland on November first. I was already a day behind on NaNoWriMo.
Yes, I know, as someone pointed out, you can write on an airplane. Well, I can’t. But I figured I could make those words up. I started the next day with eager enthusiasm. I knew how the story started, even had notes on the first few chapters. Had some pages that could be cut and pasted. I wasn’t sure if this was cheating, but I had those words to make up.
Dog concerns (was Bug going to need a vet? No, as it turned out), previous scheduled commitments, our son moving home, upcoming friend visits, and finally agreeing to attend a Thanksgiving dinner as well as the daily grunt work of shopping, errands, cooking , cleaning and caring for pets made for a lot of holes in my tight writing schedule. The word count did not multiply as quickly as I’d anticipated.
This doesn’t make sense. In spite of the distractions, I have most of every day to write. I have no excuses. And yet, maybe I do –
The November/December issue of Writer’s Digest has a section on NaNoWriMo. There is a section about how there’s a paradox of creativity in that is seems to benefit from pressures and boundaries. I have found this to be true for me. This blog entry, for instance. I would never post a blog without it having been read to my writers group and gotten critiqued. The group, The North County Writers Bloc, meets tomorrow morning. So I have to get this done – now. It’s amazing how the words flow when they have to.
The words that are going into this new book are pretty much crap. But that’s what editing and writers groups and meetings with agents at conferences are for. I think we have to figure that writing this fast is not going to produce publishable work without a lot of revision. Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen started on NaNoWriMo. You can be sure it did not come out the best seller it was without a lot of editing.
And yet participants will send agents their first draft messes. Apparently agents shudder at the volume of queries they receive after November each year. “I have written this book in a month and here it is.” No book is written and ready in a month. So, slow down. But not until after November 30th.
This yearly challenge does seem needlessly masochistic. I feel a little like I’m drowning as I fall behind on word count. I’m sinking beneath those unwritten words.
But there are also positives to get from this exercise. I am building a habit of writing every day. My process has always been a slow one of outlines and first drafts on note paper with pencils. I want to train myself to have the ideas go directly from brain to keyboard to computer screen. While I still outline a little to help me when I’m stuck, figuring out how to go from A to B, I am getting more streamlined in my process.
Today is November 17, two days past the midway point. I am about 4,000 words short and expecting company for the weekend. I do not know if I will finish on time but I still maintain the delusion that I can.
Stay tuned.

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The Thrill of It All

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I am not a thrill seeker – don’t like heights, don’t like going downhill fast, don’t like endangering my life and limbs. I’m a wuss that way.
But today I wondered if that were true. I just finished reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s the kind of book (actually, for me most are) that takes me away until I am lost to this world, this time, my life. I live for however long it takes me to complete the story, in this other reality, this other world. For that length of. time, I live the life of other people.
Sometimes I hesitate to start a book. I avoid reading because once I’m into a book, I don’t want to do anything else. Bring me drinks and food and shut the door when you leave. Thanks.
And when it’s over, when I raise my head and contemplate Real Life, I do wonder how the world is still turning, how everything is as it was, when I feel I’ve changed so completely. I wonder if anyone realizes the trauma I’ve just experienced. This has been said before and more eloquently and I’m sure many know this feeling.
Wait, I’m coming to my point.
This book, All The Light We Cannot See, takes place in Germany and France before, during, and after World War II. The story follows a German boy and a blind French girl .
I am with them for it all – pre-war privations, the terror, the grief and in the boy’s case, loss of soul. I’m there, all along the way. These characters are brave and daring and selfless. Either of them, or their loved ones, could die at any moment. It’s terrifying for them. I had an epiphany. This is my thrill seeking.
I don’t need to be a dare devil – I’m a reader!
Sure, we get a vicarious rush watching movies or television, but it’s a surface adrenalin charge. With reading, you get under the skin of the character. I know it sounds odd, sounds contradictory, but with movies and television, to me, it’s more tell than show. You’d think it would be the other way around. But in a book you’re more involved, you get inner thoughts, you get the motivation and you‘re feeling the fear, the awe, the surprise, the love, the hatred as the characters as they feel it. And it’s because the author has shown, not told.
But wait, there’s something even more thrilling for us armchair dare devils – writing a book! Then you get to create your own adventures. The occupation of being a writer is a thrill in itself. It’s not safe, it’s the opposite.
I have been a Pony Express rider, have traveled across the country in 1862 with a band of Shoshone Indians, lived in oceans and conversed with goddesses and eluded a shark as a mermaid and most recently, went back to middle school. It doesn’t get scarier than that.
Our chapter of The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators has begun a new season. Our first speaker did a session on Voice. She gave book titles as examples as she went along, giving me a whole new list of future adventures. Who knows what I will encounter as I read these stories? I can hardly wait for the exhilaration of experiencing new places, new cultures There could be time travel, heart pounding chills, heartaches and hope.
It’s okay though, I’m up for the challenge. I’m a thrill seeker that way.
Stay tuned. See you in November.

Chasing the Dragon

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“Everybody’s a junkie for something. We’ve all got something
pretty funky that we do. Everybody’s a junkie for something. I’m
a junkie, you’re a junkie, too.” Everybody’s A Junkie from bimbo,
a multi-media musical, written and directed by Jack Barnard.

According to Wikipedia, “Chasing the Dragon” is a slang phrase of Cantonese origin from Hong Kong referring to inhaling the vapor of a heated solution of morphine, heroin, oxycodone, or opium. To a junkie, the term “chasing the dragon” refers to locating and ingesting your drug of choice. To me, a writing junkie, it means writing a great book, a book that attracts an agent, is sold to a publishing house and becomes a bestseller. Maybe it’s made into a movie. It’s my immortality.
Immortality – that’s a weighty matter with me. I suffer from Gerascophobia. That’s right, fear of aging. It’s a real thing. I remember a friend in high school lamenting, “It won’t stop!” It struck a chord with me. I’ve been a bit obsessed with aging ever since. It’s not fear of death. It’s not the dying, it’s how I’m getting there. Because of this affliction, I’m always doing the math. How long do I have to chase my dragon?
How long do any of us have, really? We don’t know. We should be actively chasing our dragons, our dreams. And we should have a good time doing it.
I came across this horoscope in a magazine: “In recent years, Libra (that’s Me) has walked over broken glass and hot coals. Life has certainly not been easy for you, due to an unusual array of difficult aspects; and at times, the challenges may have seemed nearly endless. (Yes, revising Alex Bullied has seemed that way) Now this period is coming to an end with the arrival of Jupiter, planet of good fortune, when it enters Libra on the 9th for the first time in twelve years. At that point, you will enter one of the very best years of your life. Get your wish list ready. (List follows) Your sparkling aspects will keep on coming. On the 30th, the new moon in Libra will be one of the most divine of the year. ( A new moon will always open a portal of ten days to take action toward something you want dearly.) (Queries, anyone?)
Yay. I’m not a big horoscope reader, but I like this one.
I made some birth year resolutions –
1. Finish Alex Bullied revision.
2. Query while I do this to keep me on track.
3. Write My Identical Cousin – inspired by real events. A middle grade novel set in 1965.
` 4. Turn Morning of the Mermaid into a graphic novel.
5. Celebrate the small victories.
This makes me accountable – to you, Faithful Reader, and to myself. If I’m going to do the math, I need to make it count.
The goal is not to keep chasing the dragon, but to catch that bitch, and take it for a ride.
Stay tuned.

 

Writing Humor is No Joke

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I’m taking my attempt seriously at making my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, funnier. I need readers to understand immediately that this is a humorous take on bullying. It’s Revenge of the Nerds for the new millennium. No one thought that movie was pro-bully and neither is my book. So I have to make readers see that from the first line.

Could I teach myself to write funnier? Are there rules? Guidelines? It could be, as it is said with novel writing, that there are three rules – but no one knows what they are.
In the introduction to the book Comedy Writing Secrets by Mil Helitzer, we are told that the truth is anyone can learn to write humor. Humor writing can be taught and the skills can be acquired. This three-hundred page book with loads of overwhelming advice, gives a recipe for humor. The ingredients are Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion, and Surprise. It all starts with one cardinal rule: Don’t be inhibited. Its better to take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around taboos. Nihilistic humor is based on the theory that there is no person or thing so sacred as to be beyond ridicule. That should include bullying, right? I mean, bullying is not a laughfest and I don’t mean it to be, but we can look at it with some humor, can’t we?
Gene Perret agrees in his book Damn! That’s Funny! Writing Humor You Can Sell. He says a quality that’s helpful to a humor writer is a sense of irreverence. By being irreverent, we purposely look for the fun rather than the gravity in everything. Mr. Perret encourages humor writers to “see the unusual, the bizarre, the zany, the wacky, the funny in whatever we observe. Don’t allow reality and pomposity to obscure your humorous point of view.”
One component for writing humor is realism. There has to be some fundamental basis of truth, something with which the reader can associate. The challenge is to take that truth and use another of those ingredients, exaggeration. Alex Bullied has that. A thirteen-year-old starting eighth grade in a new school, and the trepidation he feels, is reality based. The way The Mathia go after Alex is exaggerated almost to silliness. But maybe I need to up the silliness, the nonsensical. That’s what humor is, turning sense into nonsense. Stretch the truth to its limit.
Getting back to the recipe, three more ingredients are Hostility, Emotion and Surprise. I can think of few things more hostile than bullying. Emotion seems self- explanatory. How could you have humor without emotion? It’s no surprise that surprise is a major element of humor. Damn That’s Funny says it’s the essential element to humor. The funniest jokes are those with punch lines that surprise and, sometimes, shock us into laughter.
Finally that first ingredient in the recipe for writing humor – Target, which is the reader, our audience. The humorist expresses what the reader is thinking. I have to express what is going on in the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy. Whatever made me think I could do that? But then, why not?
There’s the voice, Alex’s voice, since it’s in first person POV. He should have a wry voice. His observations and thoughts should be twisted a bit. How do I do that? I think wry must come naturally, either you have it, or you don’t. The closest I may get is wry adjacent.
“Funny” is basically an attitude. It’s a whimsical, irreverent (that word, again), tongue-in-cheek look at practically everything. Humor is also subjective, so I know I won’t get everyone to laugh or even smile. Some readers are not going to like this book. Some are going to be offended by any humor associated with bullying. So be it. But this book also has an anti-bullying message, and may give a giggle to the bullied out there, to see Alex get what he’s given.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this blog post and the challenge of telegraphing to the reader that this is a comedy. I need to hint in the first line that this will be a humorous book. Even with bullying, laughter may be the best medicine.
I think I’m going to start with a fart. Stayed tuned.

Bone Gap

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A librarian once told me her favorite book was usually the one she’d just read. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby fits that sentiment for me. Have you ever reached the end of a book and all you want is for everyone you know to read it? That’s how I feel about this book. I feel like recommending the crap out of it.

I also felt an immediate compulsion to contact the writer and drool all over her. It’s easy these days –. look up the author’s website, go there and send an email. So I did. I don’t think any writer every gets tired of hearing how her story affected a reader. The last time I wrote a fan letter to an author I was twelve and the author was Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote the Lad a Dog books. I received a return letter from Mr. Terhune’s son. His dad had passed away some years before. I hadn’t written a fan letter since.

Bone Gap is the story of two brothers, the girls they love, and the town they live in, Bone Gap. It begins with the kidnapping of one of these girls. And that’s all I feel I can tell without spoiler alerts. I will say it’s a great example of magical realism, has some gorgeous language, and with characters that jump off the page.

I’ve been in a bit of a writing malaise. When I’m in this state, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad that I read a book like this. To be able to write a book with so many levels, that touches a person so deeply, must be awesome. I don’t know if I will ever write anything remotely resembling Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap. On the other hand, the book makes me want to try harder to achieve something close to it.

My malaise may be lifting.

Thank you, Laura Ruby, for this wonderful story. Thank you for the inspiration and challenge. You’ve made me want to try again.

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Trying NOT to Kill Our Darlings

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One night, when I was about twelve-years-old, my sisters and I watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. We huddled together under blankets, ready to cover our eyes when the scary parts came on.

Then our mother came into the room. “Oh, Abbott and Costello,” she said, “I always loved them. They’re so funny.”

We looked at each other. Funny? We lowered our blankets.

That’s right, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was a comedy. We went into it thinking Horror.

That, I think, is a big problem with my middle grade novel Alex Bullied. Readers go into it thinking it’s a story about the horrors of bullying but what I intended to create is a comedy. Bullying is horrible and this book reflects that too. But I don’t know if readers are getting it.

When I conceived it, Alex Bullied was meant to be a silly, funny, Abbott and Costello book about a bully who learns when it’s like to be bullied. It was meant to be Revenge of the Nerds for the middle school set. It was not meant to be a serious look at bullying. There are plenty of books for that. I hate bullies as much as the next person, but it is not my platform. My platform, I like to think, is that of storyteller, creator, writer.

I’m done with making excuses, whining and bitching about this book. I know how hard I worked to make it great, not just good. Maybe, ultimately, I don’t have what it takes, but I tried. I read a lot — novels, both middle grade and adult, and how-to books — attend two critique groups, and I am Hospitality Coordinator for the local chapter of SCBWI, through which I attend workshops and conferences. I used a professional editor.

I guess this one got away from me. Honestly, I don’t know what went wrong.

Hopefully I have learned from this experience. My next one will be better. MY husband recently shared that he’d been reminded of the Ten Thousand Hour Theory. Many successful people agree that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at whatever you’re striving to do.

And wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

When I began this blog it was to be a journal of sorts of my process getting this book published. I was filled with faith and optimism. I honestly thought this one would go the distance and I tend to be cautious and painfully objective. I’ve been knocked around a bit since then.

I still think, if the right person reads it, it could make it. I will stand by it for another round of queries. Each of my books, and I’m sure yours, are their own entities. In that way they are like our children, our darlings. It’s hard to watch the creation we have poured our hearts and minds into, go through the torment of growing pains and rejection.

I’ve decided I will write for the next year or so, and not focus so much on querying or what others think. I will write for the fun, the joy and the challenge. Write for my number one reader, Me. And while I’m doing this I will make these stories the best yet.

So that’s the plan and I’m excited about it. I am glad to be posting in this blog again. I will continue on towards publication. And I’ll let you know how it is, every agonizing step of the way.

Stay tuned.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein Clip

 

Perplexed, Puzzled and Perturbed

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Happy New Year!

This is a follow up, a continuation of my last post. It’s the last time I bitch about this, I promise.

I’m perplexed.

I’ve been told, several times, that the main character in my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied, is unlikeable. His attitude on entering his new shcool, the way he sees the other students as beneath him, his swagger and unrelenting meaness make him unrelatable. I need to soften him up, give him reasons for his bullying. Give him heart, so readers can accept and root for him.

When I started this book, I wanted Alex to be unlikeable. So, when he becomes the bullied, the reader doesn’t immediately sympathize with him. I have done as agents and several readers suggested. I have smoothed the rough edges and given him the motivation needed to explain his actions.

Then a book on a store shelf caught my attention — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully. The cover seemed to suggest that it could be similar, if not spot on, to Alex Bullied.

I bought the book and read it. It’s written in comic book style — the text looks handwritten and the story is told with drawings. It is set to resemble a journal.

The kid writing the journal is a bully in the first degree. He’s been caught dunking a smaller student head-first in a toilet. His mother is furious, his principal is at his wit’s end. So he is forced to see a therapist who insists he keep a journal and write down his feelings, to get to the root of his aggression.

His journal, instead, is a how-to manual for bullying. This kid is unrepentant. he glories in his bullying. In the end he’s as big a jerk as when the book began. I never had any sympathy or empathy for him. I never cared about him at all.

Not at all like Alex Bullied. Alex changes over the course of my story. He comes to understand that what he’s done is wrong and he’s sorry.

So I’m puzzled.

The author of Journal of a Schoolyard Bully is Farley Katz, an American humorist and a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker. This is his first book, followed by a sequel — Journal of a Schoolyard Bully: Cyberbully. I didn’t read that one but I’ll take a guess that this time around we’ll learn how to bully online.

Agents and editors are more forgiving of an author with an established name, I assume. Even if writing cartoons is his primary expertise. I say this with all due respect for Mr. Katz.

I’m just perturbed.

Maybe it’s true that an as-yet-unpublished writer cannot defy conventions, although I’m a bit confused as to what the conventions are.

I will stand by the revisions I made. I like this warmer, baffled, reactionary Alex. He does seem more fleshed out. By the end of the story, he has a change of heart. And the story does not glorify bullying.

Querying begins again in a few weeks. Stay tuned.