Friday, October 28, 2011

Weaving Charlotte's Web

Did you hear about the book that came out over the summer on EB White and his journey writing Charlotte's Web? Apparently I'm behind on all the good stuff these days.

I'm a little obsessed with spiders since a new neighbor took up residence in my doorway (warning: don't click if you're squeamish about bugs). The smart pal who tipped me on Sims' book told me it's just a plain old cross spider, Araneus diadematus. I find this funny, because to me it looks like a cat-eating tarantula. It's gotten even bigger since that photo was snapped (The Scientist claims it's because he leaves the porch light on for an hour every night to attract bugs), and observing it has been neat over the last few weeks.

If you're not sufficiently grossed out, just know this: EB White is weirder than me. Halloween is on Monday, so this little bit on White's spider fixation from an NPR piece covering the book is appropriately creepy. After meeting the spider that would inspire Charlotte's Web, then realizing it was about to make mini spiders:

White took out a razor blade and cut the silken egg sac out of the web. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York. 
Weeks later, a movement on that bureau alerted him to the fact that tiny spiderlings were making a Great Escape through the air holes. White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained. 

Along with detail on the meticulous research and hours at the library that White put into his kidlit classic, The Story of Charlotte's Web also gives insight to his process. Here's a terrific thought for us slow writers out there. After finishing his first draft, White decided to shelve the book for a year: 
He said in a letter to his patient editor: "I've recently finished another children's book, but have put it away to ripen (let the body heat out of it). It doesn't satisfy me the way it is and I think eventually I shall rewrite it pretty much." 

Thank you, Mr. White, for making it okay to rewrite a book, pretty much. And also to be an eccentric spider-keeper.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Think Before You Slip Your Manuscript Into an Editor's Handbag

Just caught this September Village Voice piece eloquently titled: "I Will Not Read Your F@cking Script." It was pretty interesting, but also wince-inducing. As an unagented, unpublished n00b, I cringe at the idea of aggressively treading on people's toes to get my "in." If you've been to writing conferences, there's a chance you've witnessed some pretty embarrassing stuff.  

Luckily, kidlit isn't quite as cutthroat as Hollywood.

I especially like this part:
"Which brings us to an ugly truth about many aspiring screenwriters: They think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment. Everybody can write, right?"

There's a similar stereotype in kidlit - that it's not real writing, or serious writing, especially in the ways of picture books. Well, there's a reason so many great ideas don't turn into books... and a reason why the ones that do become classics stay with you for a lifetime.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Teddy Wants You to Quit Balking and Finish That Book

Checking in for Row80! My goals right now are all about revising, and I'm happy to report that I haven't derailed, despite attending an 8-hour work event on Saturday.

I only had 25 pages to read through this week, so I planned ahead and breezed through them by Friday. Today, I'm incorporating line edits and bigger changes for the first 50 pages into my manuscript doc. It's slow-going, but still satisfying.

I also reorganized the notes I have for the broader changes I need to make. They range from switching someone's name to rearranging entire chapters. This part gets a little sticky. One of the greatest things about writing a book is that you get to create everything - you are an architect, fashion designer, governor, CEO, psychologist, and sometimes chief torture agent.

Given all these fancy responsibilities, there are times I seriously don't want to make a decision. I wish someone would just tell me what to do. Beta readers and critique groups can give you ideas, but ultimately it all comes down to you and what you decide. Ditch an entire character? Rewrite the beginning? Switch from third-person to first? The pressure... the pressure!!!

This quote is a nice motivator for me when I want to demote myself from all responsibility:

Theodore Roosevelt: In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

I've been stuck doing nothing before, and it definitely is the worst.  Happy writing (and rowing) all!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gladiators and Tributes

What does it say about a person if one of her travel dream destinations is a place where people gathered to watch public executions in the form of charades, wild animals ripping each other apart, and fights to the death for entertainment? 

Don't get me wrong - I can barely sit through an episode of The Jersey Shore without feeling icky. Schadenfreude isn't really my thing. But the Colosseum has been an item of mystique for me since I was a youngin'. The size, the structure, the history… the way you can be walking down the street in a major modern city, and then boom, it's there.

Cleopatra: A Life, got me amped up to see some of Rome's ancient sites, especially the Forum. It also prepared me for the brutality of its stories. Whatever happened in the Colosseum was yawn-worthy compared to the carnage in the pharaoh's Ptolemaic family history. By the time I passed the gates into the great arena, I was rather freshened up on how sadistic we humans can be.
One thing I learned on the audio tour was how theatrical the events were. Many of the fights were staged as famous battles, and the arena was even flooded for mock sea combat. During the inaugural games, 9,000 exotic animals from around the kingdom - bears, ostriches, elephants, lions - were slaughtered. And one time, after a whale beached on a coastal town near Rome and became a national point of intrigue, organizers of the games constructed an enormous fake whale with a mechanical mouth. When the mouth opened, 50 ferocious bears poured out of it. Timely and fun!
Love those Roman bookshops!

Of course the extravagance mixed with bloodlust made me think about The Hunger Games - not surprising since Suzanne Collins cites ancient Rome's favorite pastime as a significant influence to the trilogy. From the stands where spectators sat to watch gladiators bludgeon each other for days, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that the people of Panem would tune in to see teens do the same. Unless they got mauled by a cheetah first.

On my last day in Rome, The Scientist and I happened to walk by the Colosseum again during sunset, when the light hits it in such a soft, magical way. I did a little digging, and found a fantastic Smithsonian article that makes my audio tour feel like a rip-off. Read it! All four pages, plus the photo gallery. If you liked The Hunger Games, it's pretty amazing/ insane stuff.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jill Corcoran's Query Letter Formula

If you've taken time to write a query letter, there was probably a point where you wished someone would construct a Mad Libs paragraph and let you fill in a few nouns, numbers, verbs, and adjectives. Literary agent Jill Corcoran blogged formulaic query letter tips that are the closest you'll get. Check them out - they're super easy to follow, and have clear instructions on what works and what doesn't.

More query articles here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tyra Banks and the 1,000 Page First Draft

Did you see Wall Street Journal's interview with America's Top Model/Talk Show Host/Author on her bestselling YA book?

Along with revealing the dangers of writing kidlit (the stress gave her alopecia), Tyra Banks mentions giving her first draft to a very close beta reader:

"Q:Who did you turn the first draft into?
A: My mom. I told her to go to a hotel and focus. It was 1,000 pages. First she said: Tookie has too many bad things happening to her, so I removed a lot of heavy stuff. It was imperative that the reader connect with her and invest. The second thing was she liked that she felt me, that kind of gay male thing that I do. That campiness was important. My editor said a lot of the same things as my mom. The next step was painful, because we had to cut 50%. But looking back I could cut more."
 Unfortunately, mama Banks didn't flag naming the main character Tookie de la Creme. Maybe it was the wagon-load of paper that distracted her. But she was spot on with her word count advice. Whenever you're feeling stubborn about killing your darlings, just remember that even super models have to follow rules. If Tyra did it, so can you.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Row80 Check In: My Brain, It's Storming

It's Sunday check in! And I'm happy to report that I'm making progress on my ROW80 goals.

The revising phase has been slow-going for me, but every time I get through a section or a draft, my manuscript becomes more book-shaped. This week my goal was to work on pages 1-25 - the dreaded beginning.

I spent a long time - months, actually - revising the first 30 pages of my book. My critique group was probably ready to kick me out on the streets if I showed up with another new beginning, the poor dears. Revisiting the beginning was more satisfying than I thought it would be. I still like it - though I know it needs more work.

Luckily, the muses love caffeine. While I rifled through my pages in a favorite coffee shop in Union Square, an idea sprung in my head. This idea would fix a problem my critique group kindly pointed out in our last session. Then, as I ordered another green tea lemonade, the idea grew into another idea.  And on my way to the restroom, the perfect solution popped into my head.

Now that I'm on draft three, it's like I have a pretty nice looking puzzle, but important pieces are missing. Those are the pieces that will connect things together, or clear up the image painted on top of it.  My writing excursion this week found a few of those pieces, and I couldn't be more delighted.

My only other writing accomplishment this week was editing my niece's college admissions essay. Remember those days?!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reading in the Ancient World

A friend suggested I pick up Cleopatra: A Life for vacation reading while I was in Italy. I was waiting for it to come out in paperback, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

She threw in some fun factoids anyway about the difficulty of reading scrolls that sent me straight to the bookstore after work to procure my copy. Here’s the scoop:

“A twenty-sheet long scroll of papyrus was both unwieldy and fragile. Reading was very much a two-handed operation: you balanced the scroll in your right hand and rolled the used portion with your left.”

And I complain that I can't eat pistachios when I read! That type of labor makes me wonder if scroll readers would bemoan a Kindle out of sentimentality, or jump straight into the digital age. After being convinced an e-book isn't evil witchcraft, of course.

The book also has neat tidbits about the library in Alexandria, which had 500,000 scrolls arranged meticulously in bins, divided by subject alphabetically. It was the largest, most prolific library in the ancient world, until Julius Caesar burned half of it down. Whoops!

The sections of the book covering this nerdy stuff - Cleopatra's rigid education, or making a mortal enemy of Cicero when she snubbed his request of a scroll from her famous library - bring vivid context to a completely foreign time and place... especially since the borders, cities, and texts largely don't exist today.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Weekend at Blanco's

Every week I go to the MET. And then I eat a cupcake. This week in Cupcakes and Art:
Writing is something I try to squeeze in whenever possible, so I’ve ended up working on my story in some weird places – subways and laundromats and airplanes included. But the most fun place I’ve sat down to write? A reconstructed Spanish courtyard from the 1500s – or what I like to call the BEST OFFICE EVER!

For a change of scenery, I took printed pages of my WIP along with me to the MET and searched for a cozy corner to mark it up. I knew there were a couple marble benches in this particular room – the Patio from the Castle of Velez Blanco.  It’s a pretty big space, but it's as quiet as a library, and isn’t distracting or overcrowded. It's not ideal for working on a laptop, but was perfect for revising on paper. I got a lot of work done, and when I needed a break, I stared out at the marble wonders around me.

After I finished marking up my pages, I took in some sculptures (almost done with the purple section!), then headed to the trusty Cake and Shake truck.  This time I got the Hot Tottie, which the gal at the register said was her favorite.

It sounds terrific - almond cake with butterscotch mousse inside, then covered in toffee frosting . But not all cupcakes are winners. The frosting was amazing, but the almond extract flavoring was too strong, so the cake just tasted fake and chemical-y. Finally, I met a Cake and Shake cupcake I didn't like...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Row80 Goals Check In

Howdy partners! This week ended up being productive in small but significant ways. After declaring my goals on Tuesday, I still had a bit of housecleaning to do. Here's what my writing week looked like:
  • Sent notes to critique group on each writer's pages
  • Printed out first 50 pages of my manuscript
  • Organized my revising goals into weekly chunks
  • Organized revision notes, both from my critique group, and my own "changes needed" doc
So no mountains have been moved, but I'm moving along just the same. How did your writing week pan out?

Though it's not in my goals, I also ended  up completing a task I've put off for nearly two months - writing my blog bio. I've been thoroughly allergic to it, but in the spirit of getting stuff done, I deleted that annoying "Coming soon!" placeholder and slapped something up.

As for those weekly revising goals, I'll give you all something to hold me to:

Week 2   pages 1-25
Week 3   pages 25-50
Week 4   pages 50-80
Week 5   pages 80-110
Week 6   pages 110-145
Week 7   pages 145-184 

Instant accountability! Happy Rowing!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Baby Got Back Story

Another gem from Stephen King's On Writing - this time on research, and not letting it take over your time/story. While writing a book that heavily referenced the Pennsylvania State Police, King first wrote the novel, and intends to put in legwork doing ride-alongs and shadowing officers when the opportunity arises. This might seem backwards, but his thinking was that the story should never be driven by the details he needs to flush it out - the main course is made up of much more:

"Research is back story, and the key word in back story is back. The tale I have to tell in Buick Eight has to do with monsters and secrets. It is not a story about police procedure in western Pennsylvania. What I'm looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off."

I can get lost for weeks in research, so this is a nice reminder in the form of a food metaphor. And there's no better way to my brain than through my stomach.

Now that I'm done with On Writing, I'm considering a new craft book. Maybe Cheryl Klein's Second Sight.   Here's a great list of recommendations from the Mixed Up Files crew on their favorite reads. What are your favorite books on craft?

Wednesday is a ROW80 update day, but there's not much to report here, other than that I'm still stirring the main ingredients into my good spaghetti sauce.  Hopefully I'll have more to say on Sunday. Maybe even a pie chart ;)

Teen Author Reading Night

Hey New Yorkers! Tonight is going to be such a crisp, lovely evening - perfect for visiting a library!  Here's the line up for Teen Author Reading Night:

October 5
Jocelyn Davies, A Beautiful Dark
Anna Godbersen, Beautiful Days
Anne Heltzel, Circle Nine
Michelle Hodkin, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
Kody Keplinger, Shut Out
Micol Ostow, What Would My Cell Phone Do?
Leila Sales, Past Perfect
Cecily von Ziegesar, Gossip Girl Psycho Killer

More info here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

King of All Wild Things Doesn't Hold Back

Did you check out the pretty darn entertaining Guardian interview with Maurice Sendak? There's some strong hateration in there, for everything from e-books ("I hate them. It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book! A book is a book is a book") to Gwyneth Paltrow ("I can't stand her.").

Between all the the money quotes, there's some interesting background on Sendak's life. Who knew he was such a saucy character?

Jumping on the ROW80 Train

Since revising my second draft, I have been in a funny little rut. There are about 80 bagillion tweaks I need to make, notes from my critique group to incorporate, and characters who need rounding out. I love making lists and tackling goals, but instead of tackling, I'm floundering. Flip flopping. Eating pistachios.

Sometimes timing can't be more perfect. Just two days after I got back from Europe, my writer pals Ghenet and Gabi signed up for A Round of Words in 80 Days. Their goals inspired me to get organized and start karate-chopping my way back into it. So here are my goals for ROW80 - which I outlined dark and early this morning (the sun does not shine at 6am, apparently).
Oct 3-Nov 19 (weeks 1-7)
      Organize revision notes (personal and from critique group)
      Read story in 50-page chunks
      Pull out dialogue and revise
      Incorporate revisions

Nov 20-Dec 3 (weeks 8-9)
     Read through complete manuscript
     Send to two Beta readers
     Revise query letter / synopsis
     Outline new project

Dec 4-Dec 22 (10-12)
     Contact agents who requested pages from 2011 conferences and queries
     Write 10k words of new project

To encourage accountability and build community, ROW80 goal updates are twice a week. I'll be checking in more than usual on my progress. Hopefully it will be fantastically positive, and not at all dismal. This girl loves a deadline. Here's to baby steps, Dr. Leo Marvin!!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Italy by the Numbers

I'm back! And still glowing from a wonderful trip to Italia!!  Or is that just relief from not trudging around with a suitcase any longer?

Some sums from my vacation:

days in italy: 16
flavors of gelato tasted: 25
most miles walked in a single day: 12
major cities visited: 8
books read: 1 (hey, it was DENSE non-fiction!)
pictures taken: 500
miles driven: 495 (or 825 kilometers)
hotels: 4 (one was a farm that had 55 beehives and 7,000 olive trees)
train rides: 16
meals cooked: 3
trips to laundromat: 1
deceased writers' homes visited: 2
number of Galileo's fingers seen: 2 (plus one tooth)
visits to Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples: 2
Will post some highlights and writer-ly things of interest once I recover from jetlag, unpack, and sort through those 800+ work emails waiting for me ;)

The Old Man and the Sweater

This totally random, totally awesome post from Buzzfeed has Ernest Hemingway rocking Etsy sweaters. Because why not?