Monday, September 1, 2014

The Fruit of Our Labors

The U.S. Congress made Labor Day an official federal holiday in June of 1894. It's meant many things to many people over the years. Over time, it's become less about recognizing the hard work that bolstered our country during the Industrial Revolution when the idea of a day to honor that work began gaining steam, and more about a day of relaxation and a break from the mail. More about putting away the white shoes and pulling out the pencil case and maybe less about parades featuring proud carpenters and plumbers marching through hometowns.

But this Labor Day, take a moment to pause and consider the hard work that still goes into making our country buzz and hum, what gets it dirty and makes it clean again.

For writers, labor rarely means actual sweat (though it certainly involves plenty of tears), but it's good to remember that what we do is indeed work. Work is serious, should be taken seriously, and done well, provides a satisfaction not found elsewhere in life.

This Labor Day, take a moment to pause and consider what it is you do, why you do it, why you continue. Take a moment to consider what others do for you, through sweat and heft both of the body and brain. Take a moment to enjoy the fact that we live in a country that can and should and hopefully does celebrate the hard work of all of its citizens, those who haul the trash and create the roads and feed and clothe and house and entertain us.

This Labor Day, take a moment to rest and enjoy, and take a moment to remember it's our work that propels us on, all of us, that it's our labor that makes us great.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Architecture and Design

by Elizabeth

My oldest sister is an interior designer (don't get me started on the model home she once decorated with a French au pair suite and third floor office with a female mannequin toggling a cigar--wow!), and her husband is an architect. I always thought it would be cool if one day they went into business together, sort of one-stop shopping for home-seekers. Maybe their son would become a builder and the business would be complete.

This post, before editing
 
On my latest jaunt to the library, I scored a copy of The Artful Edit, Susan Bell's book coaching self-editing. I'm still reading, but already some of the ideas she introduces have made me think, and think hard. What a great resource, though: to be able to edit oneself. Not, of course, to eliminate the need for an editor, but to push a manuscript that much further along, and free up both the writer and the editor to achieve more because so much has already been achieved. Bell uses the example of The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald's relationship with his editor Max Perkins. (I'm pretty sure I recognized Perkins' name before perusing Bell's book in the stacks, but now I know I have to seek out another writer's work, Scott Berg, for his biography of Perkins.) I'm still early on in the book, but I have to say, it's heartening to know what went into that vaunted book, and what both writer and editor achieved in the process.

So what does this have to do with my sister's family? My vocational vision for them popped into my head when I read these lines of Bell's: "If writing builds the house, nothing but revision will complete it. One writer needs to be two carpenters: a builder with mettle, and a finisher with slow hands." A plan for a manuscript is one thing; a first draft another altogether; and a book? A novel? It is far, far more than a draft, much more like a furnished house complete with curtains and dishes and pictures on the walls. As for the clutter that makes it a home, newspapers on the breakfast table and food in the fridge? That is what the reader brings, I suppose. But if the writer himself can both build and decorate, and then turn to the editor, how much more efficient? How much more true?

My current MS is now in the hands of a fourth beta reader, and even as she reads through it, my mind is busy with the ideas Bell has introduced (or maybe just reinforced?). Sure, I'm counting on my  critique partners, but having confidence in myself, and acquiring the tools to justify that confidence--that's even better.

Monday, August 25, 2014

How Being a Writer Changes You

By Pamela

Cats at the vet
My girl asked me the other day, when I was a kid, what did I want to be. I remember my little self wanting to be a vet. I loved animals and still do, but when I learned about euthanasia, I changed my mind. Then, a fascination with the show Quincy, M.E. (starring Jack Klugman) gave me a brief aspiration to become a medical examiner. Then the thought of having to autopsy a child hit me, and that dream vanished, too. I still had a love of science, so I started college as a pre-pharmacy major. During my sophomore year, I decided spending my life behind a counter didn't sound too thrilling (and I was struggling with my anatomy class), so I changed majors to marketing. I didn't really plan to be a writer; rather the career found me. And now that I am, I realize how much my work affects my daily life; maybe yours too.

You no longer 'read for pleasure'

Sure, you can pick up a book and enjoy it, but every story is a lesson. You either marvel at the prose or become frustrated at the overuse of adverbs or cliched dialog. You no longer think 'this is a great story' but 'how did the writer pull this off?' You rarely read a book as a complete work but rather sit in awe at the pacing, the POV, the plot. Or maybe you reread books you once loved and think, 'Really? This isn't any good at all!' You also can't quiet your inner editor while reading (or on social media and someone types 'your so pretty' or any number of errors that makes you want to reach out and slap someone). Or maybe that's just me ...

The news becomes fodder for a story

You can't pick up the paper, watch TV or prowl the Web without deeming an interesting piece of news a potential story. Man burns down house while trying to kill a spider? Yep. Happens and wouldn't he make a great character in a novel? Woman discovers her husband was also her father? Ew, but yet it happened and, when you're in need of a good 'twist' in your novel, there you go. Jodi Picoult has made a career out of taking headline news items and crafting them into best-selling novels--Nineteen Minutes (school shooting), My Sister's Keeper (sibling marrow/organ donor), The Pact (teen suicide) and a dozen more. You might not write 'ripped from the headlines' stories, but you do keep an eye and an ear trained for news you can use--even if it's a juicy piece of gossip you hear from a neighbor. (Names changed, of course.)

You become more observant

A baby's velvet ear. 
You might not be the most poetic person in the room but you can't help staring at the burning sunset or watching two ambitious lizards wrangle a moth. You marvel at a baby's velvet ear or prefer a midsummer thunderstorm over a fireworks display. While the rest of the world stares at their phone screens, you prefer to watch the awkward college student attempt to talk to the pretty girl at the ballgame. If you're not working, you choose the table at the coffee shop nearest to the most eccentric-looking customers in hopes of overhearing some conversation.
Coffee shop patrons

You are constantly learning craft

My girl has recently taken to heart the phrase: You learn something new every day. And so she'll often ask me at night, "What did you learn today?" I nearly always have something to contribute. I know I'll never learn all there is to know about writing and have marveled at times that anything I wrote 10 years ago was even fit for public consumption. Part of your writing style is intuitive. You can't deny a certain giftedness you must possess. But I know I depend on my AP Stylebook to help me with an issue at least once every other week. I learn new words all the time--and then forget half of them, so they're 'new' again the next time we cross paths. I still can't explain to you what 'close third' is in POV even though it's been explained to me a few times. If you're reading, you're learning about writing. If you're writing, you're also learning by trial and error. Never stop learning ... that would mean you've either given up on writing or died. Either would make me sad.

You meet amazing people

When I moved to Texas nine years ago, I knew four people in my town ... and I'm related to all of them. It didn't take long before my homebodied-self ventured out to the library to take a class on writing taught by two authors--Britta Coleman and Candace Havens. At that class, I met a couple writers (who I still connect with via Facebook). From there I drove across uncharted freeways to Richardson Library for another gathering of writers and met Joan and Kim. (Best move EVER!!) It's amazing the number of people you meet while writing if you get out and explore. Visit writing groups, find a critique group, attend author signings, go to writing conferences. Sure you can discover a wealth of resources online, but making yourself reach out to like-minded individuals can keep you from giving up when the going gets rough. And who hasn't felt the urge to find a creative outlet that's less taxing on the ego?

These are just a few ways writing has changed me. How about you?

Flickr images of: 'cats at the vet' by Kami Jo; 'baby ear' by Tilman Zitzmann; 'coffee shop patrons' by Neo_II. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

By Kim

I've been invited by Denise D. Falvo to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. I know Denise from Writer Unboxed and the Pitches and Plots group on Facebook. We will finally get to meet in person at the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, which is taking place in Salem, MA, from November 3-8th. (Sign up for that here!) Denise is currently working on a fantasy series called StarDust. You can follow her on Twitter @DDFalvo and on her blog, Drakaenwood.  She lives in the Midwest in a century-old house with her husband, two daughters, a sassy cat and the ghost of a stubborn Irish Setter. (Another believer in ghosts!)

Without further ado, here are my responses.

What am I working on?

I can’t say I’m accomplishing much at the moment beyond playing chauffeur for my kids, but summer will end on Monday and my temporary hiatus from writing will be over. When I do have a few moments to myself I plug away at a rewrite of my historical novel, tentatively titled The Oak Lovers. Consistent feedback from agents convinced me my story would be best served by changing it from two viewpoints to just the one.

As many of our regular readers know, The Oak Lovers is the story of Madonna Niles, a gifted young artist who flees her morally rigid home in the summer of 1900 to join Roycroft, an art colony in Western New York. A chance encounter with landscape painter Carl Ahrens, a striking and worldly older man, draws Madonna into an exhilarating web of creative obsession and forbidden love. When Madonna is faced not only with the devastating reality of Carl’s tuberculosis, but also that he lives at the mercy of a wife who insists prayer will cure him, she must make a choice: abandon the man she adores for the sake of her own artistic ambitions, or shoulder the burden of his survival in a world that would forever be set against them.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

Many historical novels are written about familiar figures from the past, household names like Van Gogh or Napoleon or Frank Lloyd Wright. My novel features an artist who was considered a master in his lifetime but has been overlooked since. This prospect is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I have a story that hasn't been told before about an artist who deserves to take his rightful place in history. On the other, I have to convince an agent and publisher to take a chance on marketing a novel about a painter who, though larger-than-life, will have only a modest built-in audience.  I have to trust that in the end it is all about the story and that the book will eventually find a home.

Why do I write what I do?

Carl Ahrens - 1890 (colorized)
My answer boils down to one word. Love. Love for the idea of soul-mates. Love for a grandmother taken before I had the chance to know her. Love for the sound of native drums and the smell of sweetgrass. Love for a foreign land that has become my soul’s home. Love for the joyful cobalt blue dabs in most of my great-grandfather Carl’s paintings. Love for a story that is in my blood, a story only I can tell.

It was love that led me to attend a writers’ conference in Austin, Texas, several years ago in order to pitch a biography called Knight of the Brush. The subject was a certain Canadian painter. Agents listened kindly to my clumsily delivered spiel, some even invited me to send my proposal, but I sense most lost interest as soon as I mentioned my connection to Carl. Put Bullock at the bottom of the slush pile I imagined them saying to themselves.

An editor told me big publishers would never buy an artist’s biography unless his name was Monet or Degas—something recognizable. She suggested I approach a small university press in Canada, preferably from Carl’s hometown.

Undaunted, love led me to build a website featuring Carl’s best and brightest work, paintings that disprove his reputation as a “dark tree painter.” The president of the Waterloo Historical Society (Ontario) found the site and asked me to contribute an article about their native son for the Society’s annual volume.

Summer by Carl Ahrens
The “little something” turned into a 6,000 word cover story and an invitation to be the keynote speaker at that year’s launch, which was being dubbed Carl Ahrens Day. Two months later I did just that at the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery. It was the first time in seventy years that a collection of Ahrens paintings had been exhibited to the public.

Later that same year Carl shared the spotlight with Andre Lapine, one of his closest friends, at a second gallery. I spoke at the opening day, and have two more standing invitations to speak.

A powerful thing, love.

Powerful enough for me to scrap the biography and tell Carl and Madonna’s story in a way that would bring them to life for everyone else as they have always been for me.

Powerful enough for me to start over when my attempt to do so was not quite good enough.

I have no choice. There’s a story in my blood, and I’m the only one who can tell it.

How does my writing process work?

I won’t lie. This book has taken a long time to write, partly because it began as narrative nonfiction and has become more fictionalized over multiple drafts. This latest version is more "based on" the lives of my great-grandparents than an attempt to write any sort of joint biography. The framework of their story remains in place, but since it is now all in her viewpoint the story arc has certainly had to change. I had to let go of a lot of things, little “darlings” that wouldn't matter to the average reader, but meant a lot to me. These changes had to come gradually.

This is a difficult question to answer because my process for this book was different from what I used with my earlier novels, or what I will use with future ones. In general I get an idea, I research, and then I write a draft in anywhere from three to nine months. Then I revise and polish. The Oak Lovers took me about five years to have a complete draft because I edited as I went along.

Any other story would not come with any outside pressure to “get it right.” I would not have family or art collectors waiting to read with any sort of expectations over what I will put in and what I will leave out. It is hard to write that way and I would have given up long ago if I didn't know I was meant to tell this story, if I didn't have faith that I’d eventually do it justice.

And now I would like to tag C.G. “Chris” Blake to participate in the tour. Blake is an author and editor with more than 30 years of experience as a journalist. A former newspaper reporter, Blake is drawn toward stories about family dynamics. His personal “Holy Trinity” of authors consists of Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and Alice Munro, but he reads widely across many genres. Blake published his first novel, Small Change, in 2012. Family secrets are at the heart of Small Change. The Sykowskis, who live in the Chicago suburbs, and the Crandales, from rural Iowa, meet at a Wisconsin lake resort. The two families grow close over the years until a stunning secret threatens to break their bonds. He is working on a second novel, A Prayer for Maura. Blake maintains a fiction writing blog, A New Fiction Writer’s Forum (http://www.cgblake.wordpress.com). By day, Blake is an association management executive for two higher education associations.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Courage for Beginners

It's always fun to join an author for a book release, and even better when it's someone you know and admire. The talented and personable Karen Harrington released her third novel this past weekend, and there was a delightful celebration with family and friends and readers. And cupcakes!


How clever is the miniature hot-air balloon that Karen rigged for the release?

From the book jacket for Courage for Beginners by Karen Harrington: Mysti Murphy wishes she were a character in a  book. If her life were fictional, she'd magically know how to deal with he fact that her best friend, Anibal Gomez, has abandoned her in favor of being a "hipster." She'd be able to take care of everyone when her dad has to spend time in the hospital. And she'd certainly be able to change her family's secret: that her mother never leaves the house.

Seventh grade is not turning out the way Mysti had planned. With the help of a hot-air balloon and some unlikely new friends--and maybe even the heroes of the Teas Revolution--can she find the courage to change?


Karen and her younger daughter and some swag
What's interesting about Karen's career arc--her third middle grade novel was delivered to her publisher and slated for release in 2016--is that she started out as a women's fiction novelist. Her first book, Janeology was published in 2011, and her second, Sure Signs of Crazy (2013), was written in the same vein, but advice came in to change up a few things and she had a winner of a middle grade novel on her hands. Not one to ignore good advice (which is what spurred the writing of Crazy in the first place), Karen obliged, and the outcome was every writer's dream: she's published, and published well. She even got to dine with Lemony Snicket! ("The only thing in my writing career that has impressed my daughters," she noted.)
 
 
A sharpie: an author's best friend on release day
 
Congratulations, Karen. You're an inspiration to us all!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Tools of the Trade

By Susan

People fear change because it hurts like hell.

Even when we know that what is on the other side of the door is better for us-- like losing weight, shedding a vice, or changing a habit-- we still resist. I suppose we can give ourselves a million reasons for not changing a bad situation. And usually, that situation has to hit rock bottom before we make a decision. That's what happened to me this summer, when my mentor at Sewanee asked to see my working outline.

It was in complete shambles. I'd changed character names and plot points without noting them. I'd moved chapters around. I'd attempted to track my own word count manually and had failed in the most pitiful of ways. It took me two days of "cleaning" it to even feel as though it were halfway presentable, and by then, on the final day of the conference, it didn't do either of us any good for her to have it.

I drove home with a furrowed brow, my thoughts knitted together and forming a tangle bigger than the one I had on the page. My old ways weren't working for me anymore. I realized that because my outline was a mess, in many ways my thought process about the novel was also a cluttered debris field.

Now that I'm in my third rewrite (side note: I've stopped using the word draft, because the changes have been too significant at each go-round to constitute mere line edits) I'm realizing something new about my manuscript. It is still unwieldy. My characters still dance off the page when I'm attempting to make then stand still. I have a hard time keeping my own story straight in my mind. And I need a new method of tracking all my changes and research that has gone into this novel.

I conducted an informal poll of writing friends and kept returning to the same word of advice: Scrivener. Because I'm in grad school, I saved a few bucks by going with the education license (it is only $45 to begin with, and is $38.25 with the student discount) and then I was on my way to teaching my old-dog self a new trick.

I'm still in the throes of learning my new product, but so far, I can see nothing but benefits. It got me thinking: what other tools and technology are out there to help me organize my pages, outlines, and research in a better fashion than what I've been doing before? I found a few, and thought I'd share them with you today.

Cliche Finder-- a cool and free tool that will highlight overused words and phrases. The only problem is that it doesn't work on all text samples and frequently gives an error message. But it's free, and it's worth a shot. Find it at cliche.theinfo.org.

Zen Writer-- It's $9.95, but for the easily distracted, it's a great way to block out other internet draws. Basically it erases your desktop and turns off social media notifications so you focus only on your document. Be aware that Scrivener has this same option as a part of it's software, too. But if you only need a blank working background, you can find it at www.beenokle.com/zenwriter.html

Byword-- the app is $4.99, but it allows you to write, edit, and sync documents between multiple devices, meaning your can play with your manuscript from your phone, tablet, or laptop with iCloud and Dropbox. Excellent for those on the go. Find it at www.bywordapp.com.

Grammarly-- an advanced grammar check site and app. This is tempting, because after I uploaded a twenty page section of my novel it gave me the notifications for more mistakes than I'd like to admit. The only downside? It's $29.95 a month or $139.95 for the year. But if you are a full-time student making too many mistakes to get an A, or if you are a writer at the end of a manuscript who wants a complete scrub of your draft, this may be the perfect tool for you. It's at www.grammarly.com.

And my new toy, Scrivener--It was made originally for Mac, but is now available for both Mac and PC. It connects your outline to your scenes and chapters, has space for notes, research files, synopses, and more options and settings than any writer would ever be able to use, at least all at one time. It tracks word count and allows your to set and meet writing goals. The price is worth it, and it comes with an initial 30-day trial. You can find it at www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php.

Good luck!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What Girls Write: The Art of Being a Teenage Fangirl

by Fangirl

Hello great big amazing world of readers and writers! I am not Elizabeth Lynd! (Insert dramatic gasp here.) But, I haven't kidnapped her or anything. (Relieved sigh here.) Wonderful world of writers, I am her daughter. Codename: Fangirl! Today I will be giving you a treat! (Add excited squeal-y noise here.)  I am going to talk about being, as the codename states, a fangirl.
Me! In a hat!

I am an avid reader, writer and obsess-er. I prefer the tittle "Fangirl." For those of you who don't know what this is, I will explain. If you Google the term "fangirl," one definition you might get is: An obsessive female fan (usually of movies, comic books, or science fiction). In many senses this is very accurate. In all senses really. You've most likely heard of fanart--if not, it's exactly what it sounds like--and fanfiction. Fanfiction is one of the most common types of writing young writers do today. One simply takes the character(s) of a book and sets up different plots for them. For many young writers, this is their start of writing. Maybe they're not quite ready to tell their story yet. So, they elaborate off another's, practicing, churning ideas for their own books in the future.  In many ways, it's a beautiful process many young fangirls go through.


Me again. Another hat.
Of course, another thing fangirls do is read. And read. And read. For me, that's the best part of the day. Doing an excessive amount of reading can make one a little bit crazy though. Which explains me. I am crazy about some books. The characters leaping off the pages, the words swirling around me pulling me deep into the book, the places surrounding me as I sit on my trampoline chair in my rather messy room. The things that really pull me into a book stay with me. The things I dislike about a book also stay with me though. Which helps me know exactly what I want to write.

Being a teenager, thirteen almost fourteen, many people I've met don't take me as a serious writer. It's not just adults. The biggest naysayers are people my age. But the thing is, I have the same problems that I think all writers have. I can't get motivated to sit down and actually write. I stumble over words, not sure exactly which to use. I get writer's block. I'm busy. My first chapters are always a mess. I keep writing, though, because I enjoy it. I write and so do my friends. We're serious.

I want to bring people the pleasure I got while reading the Percy Jackson series. I want to have people experience the awe I felt while reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I want people to sob and rejoice the way I was while flipping the pages of  To Kill a Mockingbird. I want people to hear the story I have to tell and to feel something.

And, that my friends, is the art of being a teenage fangirl.
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