Revisiting An Old Friend

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My young adult novel, Morning of the Mermaid, came about because a few lines appeared in my head –

When her parents died, an hour apart, of a mysterious fever, Calista  thought–now I will experience great grieving and utter desolation. All of her family had just passed on to the world of eternal rest, leaving her alone for the first time in her sheltered, pampered life. Yet she felt nothing. The depth of emotion she hoped for never came.

I thought these would make great opening lines for a story and a great character to explore. The story, from there, formed in about a week. I would tell of the first ever mermaid and how she came to be, starting with her mother’s story. The mother fascinated me, this gorgeous doomed girl who, because of a cursed beginning, never developed feelings.  Hopefully, readers would grow to love her as she grew to find love, only to die in  childbirth, leaving a daughter who was half-human, half-fish.

I wrote the entire first draft before I recognized the problem with it. Most of the first half of the book dealt with her mother’s troubles, how she came to live on a deserted island and formed a friendship with the creatures there, grew a heart and fell in love with the mermaid’s father, a man enchanted into dolphin form.

I would begin to tell friends the story and instantly they would ask, “Is she the mermaid?”

“No, wait,” I’d say, “and then…”

“But where’s the mermaid?”

Obviously, this should begin with the mermaid.  Total rewrite in which the mermaid, Kallea, not only seeks to find others like herself, but also to learn her mother’s story. It becomes the story within the story. And those lovely first lines come in somewhere around page 118.

I finished the manuscript, again, and took the synopsis and first two chapters to the summer SCBWI conference for a critique by an agent. I was told I needed to “take it to the next level.” The next level? What did that look like? Didn’t I just do that?

I spiraled into self-doubt, self-pity and defeat.  Which lasted for a few months.

Digression: I’ve never found time off from writing, for any reason, to be unproductive. I usually read a lot and do a lot of cooking and baking. And it usually results in fresh ideas and a wave of creativity.

This time was no different.  I knew what Mermaid needed. How had I not seen it before? The problem was that, for Kallea, the stakes weren’t high enough. All I had to do was make her troubles more do-or-die, put more shadow into the story.

I attacked another revision, the images clear in my mind. I wanted to make this book so good, no agent could refuse it. My mermaid deserved it. Her story should be read.

But a certain amount of my interest and faith had faded. And there was another, more insistent, story pounding on my door. This one had been wanting in for a year as I’d made notes and tossed them into a basket. It was time to put the mermaid aside and channel my inner eighth-grade bully.

The plan was to go back to the mermaid after I’d finished Alex Bullied. I strove, through several revisions, to make this the book that no agent would reject.

I got the idea for My Identical Cousin and decided that instead of tackling Mermaid again, I would write Cousin, because it would be a better book to follow Bully.  We all know how delusional I was. And probably still am.

Cousin had to be put on a back burner, which is fine, because, apparently agents can reject Bully pretty easily. I’m not ready to give up on either of them, but I needed a middle-grade novel break. I wanted to work on something new and different.

Or maybe old and different.  I’d decided to turn Morning of the Mermaid into a graphic novel. The time seems right to start that project. Graphic novels for the Middle Grade and Young Adult crowd are popular right now and not going away any time soon.

I bought some books on the subject, and am reading graphic novels that were actual novels in a previous life. A Wrinkle in Time is one of them. I’ve never read it. (I hear your collective gasp.) I’m reading the novel, then will see how it transformed into a comic. The San Diego chapter of SCBWI, which I attend, is sponsoring a graphic novel intensive next month. It’s a sign that this is the right course to take.

It’s so nice to revisit this old friend, the mermaid. She’s been so patient. I read some printed out pages of the book, the first chapter. Then I pulled it up on the computer and it’s a totally different first chapter. Which one is better? Which version is more suited to graphic novel?

And so it begins.

Stayed tuned.

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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.

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.

Journey Towards Publication Update

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One day back in October 2014, I sent three queries. The following morning a reply from one of the literary agents awaited me. It read:

“I enjoyed reading these opening chapters a lot. Funny and turning a bully on its head this way is great and refreshing. I’d love to keep reading — can you send me the full MS? I aim to read all full MSs within eight weeks of receiving them, if possible, but please let me know if the status of  ALEX BULLIED changes with another agent such that you should need a more immediate reply. Thanks so much!”

He wanted the full manuscript. The full manuscript! And he’d asked for it the day after I sent the query! This was a new experience for me. I enjoyed the feeling of validation and being wanted all day. I sent the manuscript, called and emailed people and celebrated with Husband.

The wait began. I continued to send out queries, even though I thought getting an agent was a done deal. Twelve queries in all. October and November came and went. The eight weeks passed. I decided after ten weeks to give the agent a little nudge.

He replied to my email with this:

“I haven’t had a chance to look yet, I’m afraid — it’s been a very busy fall, but I am still looking forward to reading. Thanks for your patience, and more soon!”

Still encouraging, could still happen.

Then came this, on February ninth:

“Thank you for the chance to read ALEX BULLIED and for your patience in awaiting my reply. I have had a chance to carefully consider it now, and though I continued to enjoy your writing, I am afraid the plot at times lost my interest — many of the secondary characters felt too flat for me, so even though the writing and voice were strong, I wasn’t as fully immersed in the story as I’d  hoped. I’m sorry to not have better news for you, but this is, of course, such a subjective business, and so hope you’ll continue querying until you find the right agent for ALEX BULLIED. With warm regards, blah blah blah.”

I knew it was a rejection when I saw the email in my box. If it were an acceptance, it would be by phone. Bad news is always in the mail. But, I learned a couple of important things from this letter; I need to take a look at those secondary characters and he thought my writing and voice were strong and I appreciated that slight ego boost.

Since June of 2014 I’ve received about twenty rejections. I have another twenty-two or so queries still out. Of those it’s probably been long enough to assume half of them are a No. So that leaves maybe ten that are still in the maybe zone.

This probably sounds depressing to you and you may be feeling sorry for me. But don’t, this is typical. I know a writer who sent over three hundred queries before giving up and self-publishing. And remember, The Help wasn’t accepted until query number sixty-one.

I recently read a young adult novel called Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is her debut novel and I loved it. It has a great hook — about a teenage girl after what is assumed to be The Rapture and her quest, not for faith, but the truth. The writing, I thought, was wonderful. I could hardly put it down. I took it to my middle grade/young adult critique group and it’s being passed around and read by each. I wanted them to see what we need to aspire to.

I’ve also just finished a middle grade novel called Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt that I thought was incredible. The story follows Doug, whose family moves to a new town just before he enters eighth grade. He hates the town, has a dodgy home life and school is not his thing. What does become his thing is the Audubon’s Birds of America book on display at the local library.

He begins to draw the birds in the book and each picture has an emotional impact on him The story is set in 1968 and told by twelve-year-old Doug and his voice is unique and compelling. He leaves information hanging, but as the reader, you don’t care. He dares you to guess what he means. I was willing to not know everything at the moment. It would all be clear soon enough and the pleasure of getting there was worth it. I highly recommend this book to anyone, adults included.

In the book Doug is shown how the birds are drawn by a library employee. He is taught how to take the drawing apart, shown how Audubon created the feeling of wind under a wing or the bird’s distress. After I finished the book and wiped by eyes and blew my nose — it had me almost weeping — I realized I needed to do with my next book what Doug did with those birds. So I have begun to reread it, to analyze how Schimdt created this story, to tear it apart and put it back together. And how I can apply all that to my next book, the one that no agent will be able to reject.

Stay tuned.

 

 

That All Important First Sentence

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I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – San Diego chapter. Award winning author of forty-one (and counting) children’s books, Richard Peck, spoke at a recent meeting. His topic was First Lines and he gave examples of great ones. Would the opening to my Alex Bullied be one of them? I thought not. It’s certainly no Charlotte’s Web, which begins “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Back to the drawing board. How do I make that first sentence sparkle? Sometimes a writer works and reworks a first sentence. I did that with my first book, Riding On The Wind.When I finally wrote–  “Carrie could barely sit still on the hard wagon seat. Never in her fifteen years had a trip into town taken so long.” I knew I had my opening.

When I first thought of writing Morning of the Mermaid, I was inspired by a line I thought would be the first sentence — “When Calista’s parents died, an hour apart, she thought, now I will experience great grieving and utter desolation.” I thought that had punch. But it just didn’t work and ended up somewhere in the middle of the book.

Anything else in the whole two or three hundred pages can be changed. We all know the quote — credited to everyone from Hemingway to King — “kill your darlings.” We know we cannot become attached to our words. But we fall a little too much in love with our first words. They’re our first-born. The words that make up our first line are the favorites of our darlings. But sometimes, woe is us, they have to go.

Here’s the thing about that first line, that first page. When we write the original, it feels fresh and right and pulls us in to keep writing all of those 200-300 pages. When we have to go back and start the book again, it can feel forced. Not like the first time when we were so inspired. We are all too aware, this second or third go-around, of how important our first lines are.

After listening to Richard Peck speak, I knew I would have to rethink the opening to Alex Bullied. I kept staring at it, hoping, I suppose, that it shone with such brilliance that it jumped off the page, snaring the reader. It didn’t. It began — “Geeks and losers streamed int Gureville Math and Sciences Charter Middle School.” Not exactly Richard Peck-worthy. I continued with — “September sunlight blinked off eyeglasses and mouths full of braces. I’d never seen so many buttoned up, tucked in, wrinkle-free shirts or high-waisted khakis in one place in my life. Where were the jocks? Oh yeah, no sports, unless you count chess or glee club.”

Don’t judge.

My first attempt was even worse. I had the kid imagining himself in an old black and white Twilight Zone. That really didn’t work, for so many reasons. Three pages in and I knew if I didn’t change it, the entire book would fall flat.

I kept thinking how important that first impression is, to the agent’s assistant, the agent, the publisher, the reader. And that’s when I came up with this, the final first sentence and opening to Alex Bullied — “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” my mom said.

Seems to me that says it all.