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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

To File or Not to File

Posted by Fran McDowell

We just remodeled our game room into an office/TV room. Partly because we need to convert the former upstairs “office” space into “crib for first grandchild space”. (Yeah!) And partly because my husband is semi-retired and can work from home occasionally so we can work in the same, bigger, room together now and then (Yeah! . . . I think. I’m pretty sure).    
Anyway, in the process of transferring insurance files, bill folders, financing paperwork, old manuscripts, I’ve forced myself to go through it all, determined not to move things we no longer need. It’s been easy with most of the stuff, fun actually, a real trip down memory lane. 
“Hey, Babe,” I call out. “See if you can remember the street address of the house on Seneca Drive,” or,  “Oh my gosh, I forgot we ever owned this car,” or, “How many gas grills does one family need in a life time for Pete’s sake?”
I've fared pretty well, crumpling and tossing to beat the band. We’re using our old bank statements as campfire kindling since we now get our newspaper on line. I’ve chucked and shredded, feeling lighter by the fistfull, and strangely younger, like our past is now much shorter than before. 
But nothing, good or bad, lasts forever. So, as I knew would eventually happen, all that is left before me are manuscripts, lots and lots of them. Some going back fifty years (well, one actually, that I wrote secretly at my desk during seventh-grade English when I was supposed to be diagramming sentences). But these manuscripts, they pose a real dilemma. I’m finding I can’t toss, shred or burn them, even the laughably bad ones.  Even the ones I read an excerpt out loud from and end with, “Geez, Babe, can you believe I wrote that and actually kept writing?” 
Babe says, “Just file them away. Who cares if they hang in a folder for another twenty years.” 
But I’m pretty sure I know what will happen one day, (it better, or something has gone terribly wrong). Our kids will end up having to go through all our stuff. When they come to these darn manuscripts they won’t know what to do with them, either. They’ll feel guilty as hell throwing them away. I know, since I’ve been slowly relinquishing bits and pieces of my parents' lives over the last three years.
Babe appears at the doorway and looks down at me, an island in a sea of printed pages. “Or maybe,” he says, “you might try to actually sell one of them.”
Gee, that’s a novel idea. But that means I have to put aside the one I’m supposed to be rewriting and the one that’s half finished, and stop thinking about the one I really want to write.
“It’s more complicated than that,” I say. 
“Can’t help you there.” And he leaves me alone with my quandary. 
Maybe I don’t need to make this decision today. Maybe I just need to get on with bigger, more important tasks like pulling the old crib out of the crawlspace and getting it ready for our new little grandson. 
That’s it then. Decision made. I bounce the edges of each stack against the floor, match them up with their corresponding folder, then rest my back against the wall and rejoin Emily and Rudy as the flood waters rise outside their doors.    

Friday, June 22, 2012

An Update on Self-Imposed Goals:


Dave Amaditz

I woke up today and looked at the calendar and realized that over half of June is already gone, which means that we’re nearly halfway through with calendar year 2012. Wow! I can't believe it. My parents, and everyone else who imparted words of wisdom upon me, were right when they said time flies. On a personal note, I find that the older I get the faster it seems to go.

Since were nearly at the halfway point of the year, I thought it would be the perfect time to give an update on a post I wrote earlier this year:

Resolutions. Goals. Quotas. Are they needed? Original post date, Friday, January 20, 2012.

In the post I made it clear I was not one to make a New Year's resolution, however, I also stated I established goals for my writing, one of which was to write for four or more hours a day, every day, and to complete at least one polished chapter, somewhere between 7 to 12 pages a week.

Back in January when I wrote the post I had just completed chapter 6 of the novel I am rewriting. Today, at the time of this post, I've just begun chapter 29. Some quick calculations tell me that exactly 22 weeks have passed and that I have written, believe it or not, exactly 22 chapters. Wow! (See more detailed boring math calculations below.) I'm really quite surprised at the accomplishment, and satisfied as well, since I hadn't even thought of calculating it, or keeping tabs on the goal until I decided to write this post.

Not bad, huh?

Has anyone else kept track of their self-imposed goals? How about a New Year's resolution you may have made?

By the way, I now have a new goal, which is to maintain the pace of writing which allowed me to meet my original goal.

(I've written 173 pages in 154 days. That's 7.86 pages per chapter and 1.12 pages per day... Don't worry I used a calculator for the exciting math.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Coffee Break at the Book View Cafe: Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Pati Nagle, Sherwood Smith


Poe often pauses for refreshment at the Book View Café, where (as of this writing) 38 authors offer a varied, and ever-expanding, menu of e-books they cooperatively edit and publish. You'll find new e-titles as well as e-prints of out-of-print favorites (often served with side dishes: spin-offs, prequels, or additional chapters). Samples are generous, and conveniently offered on-site.

BVC's shelving system doesn't clearly differentiate between MG and teen offerings, and Poe suspects that many more of its offerings (particularly in Sci Fi and Fantasy) could and should include Young Adult tags.

Meanwhile, here's a sampling from BVC's "official" Young Adult page:

By Pati Nagle
Book View Café, 2011
Poe thinks this is YA paranormal

First sentence: He came up to my station at the university library desk, eyes green and earnest, and a bolt of lightning shot through me and settled in my abdomen.

The blurb asks, what do you do if the most gorgeous guy you've ever seen walks up and asks for help? In this case, all Caeran's asking for is admittance to the Rare Books Room. But Lenore-the-librarian finds herself offering so much more: a cup of latte, the use of her cell phone, a drive to a remote New Mexico village where someone may possess the "special skills" needed to heal Caeran's ailing cousin Mirali. And that's only in the sample.

This offering promises to be a well-crafted book in the Twilight mode. (The blurb describes Caeran as an aelven—locked in an ancient struggle with a vampire who's now got his sights on Len.)

NOTE: Though book two, Eternal, appears on BVC's YA list, Poe had to dig around the Café site to locate this title, the series opener.

Rated: If you like paranormals with a long, exquisitely drawn-out unfolding of the romance and the mystery, then you may want to join Team Caeran.

By Sherwood Smith
Harcourt, 1997; reissued by BVC, 2010
Poe thinks this is YA high fantasy

First sentence: The broken shutter in the window creaked a warning.

A countess wearing a horse blanket and a count who hates fighting, leading a war against a wicked king who has the largest army the kingdom has ever known. This is how Branaric and his sister Meliara describe themselves. Poverty, illiteracy, theft, and and an overdue tax bill are just a few of the challenges they must overcome to carry out the last wishes of the father who dies in a touching first scene.

First published by Jane Yolen at Harcourt, and then by Penguin, this novel is now e-bundled with its sequel, Court Duel, a related short story, and six episodes written from another character's POV.

The story is set in Sartorias-delas, an otherworld Smith began to chronicle at the age of 8. The S-d adventures now form a large oeuvre of novels and short stories. Many titles are already available at the Café.

Rated: If you love a long wander through a well-imagined otherworld, then Sartorias-delas might be the perfect vacation destination.

By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Book View Press, 2009
Poe thinks this is YA humorous fantasy

First sentences: Lord E Lordy wanted the Wiz. That’s where the Last Little War got started.

Taco's a teen-aged merlin who stores his fortune-telling runes in an old coffee can, and the fabled tree is called Doug (short for Douglas fir, naturally). Their adventure is set in a fantasy world where Lords and smeagols, and pretty knighties in armor, and Day of the Dead celebrations all jostle in a mashed-up version of San Francisco's Embarcadero district.

Bohnhoff builds this world primarily with vivid, dancing language; sentences skim somewhere between normal and crazy; the wordplay and cultureplay never let up. It's like Terry Pratchett in Spanglish. Underneath the mad surface, the sample suggests a solid quest adventure with a touch of romance.

Rated: If you enjoy Pratchett and Doug Adams, then take a look at Taco Del.

Book View Café offers too much rich fare to sample at once. An upcoming column will browse titles from Linda Nagata, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Judith Tarr.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fun First Lines

by Jenny Ramaley

Poe always loves examining first lines of children/YA books.
Here are some fun ones from my shelves that set the tone for the rest of the book:

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.
   A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning
   by Lemony Snicket

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.
   Holes by Louis Sachar

The day my father got remarried, my mother was up at six a.m. defrosting the refrigerator.
   That Summer by Sarah Dessen

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
   Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Ever wonder what the lives of the chosen ones are really like?
   Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar

Monday, June 11, 2012

NJ SCBWI Conference

by Marcy Collier

Kitty, Andrea and I attended the New Jersey SCBWI conference this weekend. Kitty taught a workshop on Fairytales, Legends & Tall Tales (which, BTW was awesome!) We branched out into different workshops, then were able to share and compare notes on the long journey home to Pittsburgh.

Dan YaccarinoThe Saturday keynote speaker, Dan Yaccarino was amazing. He said, “Challenge yourself. Don’t stand still. Your passion must come through in your work or kids will see through it.” He said he spent the first two years after art school dropping off portfolios to magazine publishers in search of work. The theme of his speech was to say – “YES!” He was presented with opportunities and new situations and said yes each and every time. As writers and illustrators we have to work hard and persevere and say yes to new situations and overcome our fears.

If you find yourself in a challenging situation, don’t back down and run. Have confidence in yourself to say, “yes I can do this.” You have to believe in yourself before others will have confidence in your work.

But as the agents stated in their panel, they expect an author or an illustrator to submit polished work. They have to fall in love with your manuscript or illustrations to make an offer. Do your research. Know your market. Don’t submit to an agent blindly. They can fix plot or pacing problems in a novel but they can’t teach you voice. Hone your craft. On a personal, observatory note, don’t be a pain in the butt. Don’t corner an agent/editor during the cocktail hour and demand an explanation on why they’ve rejected your manuscript six times. Don’t stuff an envelope in their hand and ask them to critique your manuscript. I almost feel like agents/editors should have an emergency air horn they can sound if they are stuck in that awkward situation and then a volunteer will come to their rescue.   

As far as market trends, paranormal, vampire, angels, dystopian, and super powers are all dead. Do not start your story with dreams or car crashes where the main character wakes up and something terrible has happened. Make the stakes high. Create believable characters with realistic problems. Contemporary realism is becoming popular.

We got on the road at lunchtime so we missed both Kate DiCamillo’s closing remarks and the farewell to Kathy Temean as regional advisor. The bits I read on Twitter about Kate’s speech (#NJSCBWI) were both inspirational and heartwarming. And even though we don’t live in the New Jersey region, we are grateful for all of Kathy's hard work, dedication and making us feel so at home and welcome in her region. We will truly miss her as the NJ regional advisor!


But I had to get home in time to read bedtime stories, which of course included Ame Dyckman and Dan Yaccarion’s Boy + Bot.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to Face the Blank Page (another angle)

by Susan Chapek

Like my Route 19 neighbor Cynthia, I hate facing a blank page. Ever since I discovered the late, great Blake Snyder, I don't have to. Because as soon as I get a notion that might possibly become a story, I fill that first, blank page with the Beat Sheet template derived from Blake's masterwork Save The Cat.

My personalized version of Blake's template* looks something like this:

Now all I need to do is fill in the blanks. I don't have to do it in order. I don't have to flounder with voice, tone, or tense. I know I'll probably change some entries later—sometimes after the first draft is complete. But slowly or quickly my first page fills up, the Beat Sheet template helping me build a strong story skeleton with the ankle bone connected to the leg bone, and so on, all in proper order.

Once the page is full, it's easy to start fleshing out the beats.

I know. Save the Cat is a screenwriting method. But I'm not the first writer to notice that the plot structure of commercial feature-length movies is an elegant match for the structure of middle grade novels. (Compare STC's template to Tracey Dils' description of the MG form in You Can Write Children's Books.) Blake's template also works with genre novels (suspense, romance, etc.) for any age group.

There are some writers for whom Blake's method might not work:

1) If you never need an outline, you won't need STC. (I've heard about writers called pantsers, and I believe they exist, just as I believe in fairies; if you're a pantser, you probably won't connect with Blake's conviction that the bones need to be there first. You probably have no fear of the blank page, either.)

2) If you consider your stories character-based, you may feel that Blake's method focuses on plot rather than characters. (I disagree. In fact, the title Save the Cat derives from one of Blake's tools for creating an empathetic MC.)

3) Finally, if you're wrangling the multiple subplots of a long, complex novel, the STC template isn't detailed enough. (Of course, when your masterpiece becomes a feature film, the screenwriter will slash it or wrench it around to fit into the STC template, or something very similar. Just sayin, be prepared.)

So who will benefit from Blake's Beat Sheet? (1) The writer who comes up with a terrific first scene, and then rambles on aimlessly from there (or stalls in place, rewriting Chapter 1 for months). (2) The writer struggling to connect a great Beginning with a great Ending; Blake's method shows you in clear stages just what should happen in the Middle, and when. (3) The writer who finds the standard arc of story structure (goal, obstacle, turning points, climax, resolution) too general to be helpful. (4) The children's writer frustrated by plot methods designed for building complex, adult novels. (5) The writer with a messy first draft who needs a guide to the fix. (6) The writer who wants to analyze existing novels to see what makes them work—but doesn't know how. I've been all of those writers at one time or another.  

The best part of Blake's template is its simplicity. You're required to keep the template on one page. You're forced to hone in on the essentials.

Wait. Changed my mind. The best part of the template is how it won't let you cheat. If I find myself inclined to skip a beat, or unsure what it should be, or unable to express it in one sentence, or repeating an earlier beat, or telling myself that this story doesn't need to fit the mold because it's different from every other story—ruh roh! The sin always turns out to be in my plot, not in the template.

The Save the Cat series is also a great guide to honing your pitch, finding the perfect title, or creating and testing the strength of your hook (in screenwriter's parlance, your "poster").

*Permission is not granted for this image to be duplicated, forwarded, or "pinned" in any manner. This image is not an exact copy of my own template, or of any image from Blake Snyder's books or web site.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fighters Unleashed: YA books by Bryan Cohen, Teddy Jacobs, R.H. Russell


A Novella
By Bryan Cohen
Self-published, June 2011
Poe thinks this is YA paranormal action/romance

First sentence: "I'm tired of you being so damned passive."

High school sophomore Ted is a standard-issue wuss, at least to begin with. His soon-to-be ex is more complex. She "went from butch to semi-hot in high school" and "could still probably punch a guy's face off." And Ted's hopelessly passive existence is due for a change, because the break-up (in a crowded restaurant) leaves him feeling some peculiar bursts of energy, like electrical pulses. As blue sparks flash through Ted, a trio of muggers enter the scene. Are we in for an Incredible Hulk story? The cleverly timed sample leaves us wanting to find out.

Cohen, an improv comic, writing coach, and script writer, originally conceived Ted's adventures as a TV series. This bright, sure-footed novella (about 17,000 words) is based on the pilot, and Cohen plans to offer the sequel soon and to continue the saga "indefinitely."

Poe suggests he find a sterner editor for future numbers. There are a couple of usage wobbles, and Cohen's verb tenses can be inconsistent and confusing. (For example, he'll mix simple past and past perfect while recounting a single event.) Cohen's entertaining characters, hook, and humor deserve to be presented with the highest polish.

Rated Q for Queued to read soon.

By Teddy Jacobs
Self-published, 2012
Poe thinks this is YA action/fantasy

First sentences: You swing a staff until you're ready to swing a sword. Then you go on all kinds of adventures—fighting monsters, casting spells and saving damsels in distress. At least that's how it's supposed to work, but I didn't believe a word of it.

Last month, Poe sampled the author's Wicked Hungry. In the Dragons series, Jacobs pens another adventure of self discovery, but this time the magic happens in a fantasy/alternate world. 16-year-old Anders used to live in a glass castle but now spends most of his time locked up in one room by his parents. Why? What magic was instilled in his body at birth? Will this magic enable him to become more than his father (a paper-pusher; "a poor excuse for a sword fighter, and an even sorrier excuse for a wizard")? And (of equal urgency as the story opens) will Anders ever be able to clear up his pimples?

At the proper moment (immediately after the set-up), Anders meets The Girl, member of a race of teleporters. When she first sees him, he's wearing a bright green clay acne-fighting mask. . . .

If you're looking for interesting fantasy with a male MC, then sample this two-book series.

(The Venture Books, 2)
By R. H. Russell
Self-published in 2012
Poe thinks this is YA combat/adventure fantasy

First sentence: Venture jumped out of the carriage after the other boys from Beamer's Center, onto a square paved in dark stone, which stretched from the road to the main building.

What's appealing about the MC in the Venture series (first sampled last October) is what he's not. Not the Destined Hero. Not even half immortal. Not magically gifted. All he's got is grit, discipline, his two fists, and the determination to overcome his bonded-servant status by becoming the greatest fighter in his world. Fueling his quest is the pursuit of an unattainable girl. The setting is a fight-training school in an imaginary antiquity. Political and personal conflicts are hinted at, but a series of brutal fights, described in detail, is the focus of these early chapters.

Russell has also added two related short stories, Bonded and Boundless, to his Venture series.

If you like blow-by-blow action in the fights ring, then try this series.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to Face the Blank Page

By Cynthia Light Brown

Some writers relish a blank page. They love to write crazy-fast first drafts. I hate those writers. Blank pages are p-a-i-n-f-u-l; give me revision any day.

I even hate blank pages when I’m well into a novel, because what I really hate is first drafts. I give myself permission to write a crappy first draft, but it doesn’t seem to help much; it’s still VERY slow.

So how to get through it? Some people write very detailed outlines of an entire novel before they ever start writing the actual draft. That never appealed to me. I think an outline has a place in my writing process, but more after the first draft, to help analyze the novel and see the weak points.

That said, I’m trying a variation on outlining that is helping. Before I write a chapter, I write a broad outline of what happens; it might be just 2 or 3 plot points. Then I take one of those plot points and further divide it into smaller actions. I’m not writing dialogue or descriptions yet (though if a snappy dialogue line pops into my head, I write it off to the side in a comment), just the action. It’s very much like blocking out a scene. Then I finally get to writing one of these finer plot points. And I’m flexible; sometimes I don’t have to break it down very much at all before I’m ready to write the first, crappy draft. Other times I have to break it down a lot.

This is just one way to Face the Blank. Others I can think of might be meditation, writing a stream of consciousness, or maybe using a voice recognition software like Dragon. Anyone else have luck with a particular method?

Friday, June 1, 2012

How Creativity Works...or doesn't

     I am currently in the midst of a big fat writer's block...I have some things I have been working and working on and not finishing, and some things I am waiting (and waiting!) to learn the fate of...and I am also  hoping for a light bulb to go off because I am in desperate need of a new good idea.  And while I am not-so-busy doing all of that, I am reading Jonah Lehrer's book IMAGINE   How Creativity Works.  It's been a wonderful distraction.  I now know that I must surround myself with walls painted blue, travel,  or move to a big busy city.  In addition I have also been assured that "...the feeling of frustration - the act of being stumped - is an essential part of the creative process..." Thank goodness!
Some of his information is familiar to me; like the benefits of surrounding yourself with a mixture of people and sharing ideas, interrupting your focus by taking a break when you are in a rut, or just letting go (when we  have become guilty of "constraining our own creativity.")  I have skimmed through much of the technical left brain/right brain, alpha wave rhythms and neuroscientific stuff, though I am now saddened as well as terrified to have learned of frontotemporal dementia.  What has intrigued me the most have been the anecdotal gems about the invention of the Swiffer by Procter and Gamble, how Nike came up with their "Just Do It' slogan, where the first Barbie Doll came from, and 3M's emphasis on innovation.  I was particularly surprised with Pixar's innovative office design, placing all of the employee restrooms in such a central location as to necessitate all employees interacting.  "The studio knows that an office in which everyone is interacting is the most effective at generating new ideas, as people chat at the bathroom sink...The secret of Pixar from the start has been its emphasis on teamwork, this belief that you can learn a lot from your coworkers...that's always when the best stuff happens: when someone tells you something you didn't already know..."
Feeling hopeless is one of the most common frustrations of many a creative journey.  Even Bob Dylan at one point told his manager he was done writing songs and had nothing else to say.  In 1965 he planned to move to Woodstock, leaving his guitar behind, to write a novel.  And it was out of his having felt at an end of one phase of his career; after he'd stopped searching, "...an answer arrived...."  Lehrer speaks of such tales of insight following an impasse, of eureka moments, how in that lonely Woodstock cabin Dylan found a way to fully express himself.  From hopelessness "he rewrote the possibilities of music."  "Like a Rolling Stone" was the result. 
So there's hope for all of us. Though in the meantime you can act like a 3M employee.  If they are struggling (with a difficult technical problem) they are actively encouraged to lie down on a couch by a sunny window, play a game of pinball, or daydream.  Sounds creative to me.