Friday, February 26, 2010

In Which a NYT Bestseller Agrees with Me

Best selling YA author Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver, Lament) writes about Plot Bunnies in her blog here.

Plot Bunnies are the ideas that hop along while you're in the middle of your novel and beguile you away, like fluffy sirens, from the your current work-in-progress.

Beware the Bunnies of Plot! Note my earlier post about staying on target. It's easy to follow these seemingly innocent creatures in their waistcoats muttering about how they're late for a very important date. But then you fall down a rabbit hole. You just might never get back to your work-in-progress. Now that you're in the middle of the darn thing, it doesn't look quite as soft and sweet and adorable as the Plot Bunny. It doesn't tempt you with all its promise of being the Best Idea Ever any more. Now, it's work.

Well, you have to do the work if it's ever gonna grow up and be a Real Novel.

So, write down your Plot Bunnies, then put them away. They'll stay in your drawer, grousing slightly but quiescent. Once you're done with your WIP, then you can pull them out, dust them off, and follow one off your next adventure.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapter of Confusion

I think I just finished the second to last chapter of my current novel. Well, the first draft of it anyway.

Problem is, the damned chapter is 17 manuscript pages (double-spaced) long. I think that's too long for a YA novel.

Initially I ended the chapter at a suspenseful spot that made it 13 pages long. Not too bad. Then I wrote another four pages and came to a spot and thought "THIS should end the chapter!"

Now what the heck do I do?

Well, first thing is to write the next chapter and finish the first draft. When in doubt, finish the damned thing first, then worry about the details. When in doubt, leave it for the rewrite. All answers will be revealed (or fudged) then.

The real question is - how do you know when to end a chapter?

First, know your genre. In YA, the chapters don't tend to be very long. In literary novels they tend to be longer.

Second, to keep your readers interested, try to end the chapter at a moment that begs a question. Sometimes it's an obvious question: will the protagonist survive that ten-story fall into a damp dishrag? Sometimes it's subtle: Will your heroine be able to put aside the pain of her breakup? They key is to create some sort of suspense that will compell the reader to keep reading.

Third, OR, end the chapter when you've reached a point in the story that is very final. This is the case with my latest dilemma. At 17 pages, this chapter is long, but it now ends in a supremely logical place, at the end of a long bit of climactic action that resolves a ton of issues. The only remaining chapter will be the denouement, tying up a few loose ends, lending some emotional weight to the events we just saw, and so on. I wouldn't recommend doing this too often with chapter endings - it won't drive your reader forward as much as my second point, above. But near the end of a book, it makes a lot of sense and gives your reader a feeling of satisfaction and finality.

So I think I answered my own question. Damn the length of the chapter. Just end it when it's supposed to end. Heck, I'll probably cut a ton of stuff during the rewrite anyway.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Something I Hope to Need One Day

YA/MG author Lisa Schroeder (Chasing Brooklyn) has an excellent post on her blog called Timeline and Checklist for YA and MG Book Release that will (I hope) be very useful to me one day.

LOOK at all the stuff authors should do to support their books! DREAM of doing it for your own book one day! That's what I'm doing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Stay on Target

Great advice from Doyce Testerman on his blog here about how not to get distracted from your goal when writing.

Or when in a relationship, baking cake, or giving someone a parking ticket.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Egypt Geek Moment

So they finally did a thorough check up not only of Tutankamun, but of 10 of his relatives. Egyptologists and DNA experts did the whole schmegeggy - and what they found is fricking fascinating.

So as an Egypt geek, I'm taking a moment on this blog about writing to say - told ya!

1. For years conspiracy theorists have thrown around the idea that Tut was murdered. I get why - his reign happened during a turbulent time in Egyptian history. His predecessor, Akhenaten, tried to convert the whole country to monotheism. He had a thing for the god Aten, and for making himself the only conduit to that god. It was a brilliant but short-lived power play to undercut the other cults and their powerful priests. After Akhenaten's death, Tut restored Egypt to its traditional polytheistic roots, much to the happiness of the powerful priests of Amun-Ra.

But the evidence now shows for certain that Tut was not murdered. He died of a combination of factors, including malaria in his brain, a genetic disorder that weakened his bones (and gave him a club foot, which explains the canes found in his tomb!) and complications from a broken leg.

I have to say that I knew the evidence for murder was always weak - a fantasy dreamed up by folks who liked a good tale better than facts.

2. Egyptologists were never sure whether Tut was the son of Akhanaten or Akh's dad Amenhotep III. DNA tells us for sure - Tut was the son of Akhenaten and a woman who was Akh's sister or half sister. In fact, two generations of inbreeding probably contributed to Tut's genetic illnesses.

This is big news for Egyptologists, people! At last we know who begat who! Okay, I'll calm down.

3. Most interesting to me, neither Tut, nor Akh, nor Tut's mom, in fact none of the mummies studied showed signs of Marfan's syndrome or gynecomastia.

Why is that important? Because for years Egyptologists have scratched their heads over the strange depictions of Akhenaten and his relatives. Check out Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and some of their daughters in this typical example:

Note the pendulous bellies, the warped skulls, the emphasis on wrinkles in the faces of the adults, the general feminization of all the bodies. This is a huge departure in the depiction of a pharoah. Before and after this time, Egyptian art was remarkably consistent in idealizing pharoahs. For example, check out this statue of Akhenaten's father, Amenhotep III:

Check out those shoulders and compare them with his son's! It's jock vs. geek, big time.

For hundreds of years, Egyptologists have wondered why this drastic change in style took place. So different was it that some thought that Akhenaten must've had some sort of physical deformity or condition that he (for some reason) insisted on not only depicting on himself, but on his entire family. Marfan's syndrome and gynecomastia fit that bill.

Personally, I always thought the change in style was an attempt to break from the past and put Akhenaten's stamp on everything. The feminization of all the human bodies could be a way to depict the family's fertility.

And now we know that no one in the family had any physical reason to be depicted this way. The Amarna style was very likely a deliberate choice by the pharoah to make a break with the style of the past.

Exciting times in Egyptolgy! Okay, back to writing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rewrite (just a bit) as you go

Most advice for first drafts is - just spill it out of your gut, don't rewrite, don't look back, just go go go as if the devil herself were after you.

I do this. Well, mostly.

What really happens when I sit down to write is this:
  1. Computer on
  2. Scroll down to spot in WIP (work in progress) where I first started writing yesterday.
  3. Go over what I wrote yesterday, editing slightly as I go.
  4. Come to the blank part of the page and pick up where I left off.

So I'm doing minor rewrites every time I sit down to write.

Confession: sometimes I do major rewrites. Like this weekend. I had, well, not an epiphany exactly, but a sort of "aha!" about a minor thread/theme/thingie in my novel. I could see how much better things would work if I incorporated it, but that would involve going back to earlier scenes and changing them to fit my aha! moment.

No, I didn't make a note of the aha! and keep moving forward, as some would suggest. I fricking went back to those earlier scenes and made the necessary changes to fit the aha! I made all the changes in about an hour, so it didn't hold me up hugely, and it relieved my mind to know that the aha! was now where it should be. Then I finished the chapter.

I think the key to rewriting while you're still finishing your first draft is moderation. If you spend more than 20 percent (yes, I picked that number out of the air) of your time rewriting your first draft then this may not be for you. You might need to be one of those forward motion maniacs who allows nothing and no one to get in the way of their first draft. You folks tend to be the all-or-nothing types, the ones with a switch that's off or on, but never in between.

Me, I'm betweeny. I'm good at moderation. I'm almost too good at it. My patience is, yes, almost too well developed. How? Well, mostly in my personal life, so I won't go into it here. But it is possible to be too tolerant, to allow too much time or give too much leeway to things/people/yourself. Every now and then, kicking your own butt, telling someone to leap off a cliff, or yelling at your landlady for not fixing the @#$ing stove after it's been on the fritz for a year is a good thing.

So if you can handle moderation, then a bit of rewriting as you go can work for you. If I'd waited, even with notes I might not have quite grokked the rewrite the way I did yesterday.

Side daydreamy thought: how different would my book be if I'd written it at slightly different times on different days over the past year? How much does nature the day's work depend on the time/place/mood in which its written?

For Wireheads and Dialogue Fiends

A very interesting discussion going on over at Chuck Wendig's blog TerribleMinds about dialogue. The latest post uses a scene from my fave TV show The Wire as a starting point. Opinions on it differ, and it's great to see writers pondering the ins and outs of dialogue.

Chuck's earlier post on dialogue is an excellent clarification of what a lot of writers sort of "know" about dialogue murkily waaay back in their subconscious. They know when they read or hear great dialogue, but they haven't put their fingers on why it's so great. Chuck pretty much nails it down in this post.

And because I love The Wire, I can't wait for next week's Wire University.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just Don't

People ask me how I do it - how do I have a full time job and write stuff on the side?

Well, I just do it. I make the time, I fricking sit down when I'm tired and want to watch "The Good Wife" and I type stuff until I can't see straight.

And then sometimes I don't.

The truth is that it's really really really hard. Yes, that's three "reallys." So you have to want it really x 4 bad. And some days I don't want it bad enough.

Like last night. Work is heinously busy. In the long run, this is a good thing, and I'm grateful for my job and it's interesting and I learn things and... I could go on, but why? But all day I multi-task. From 9am - 7 or 8pm, I'm doing three to eight things at once. It's a tad insane.

So when I got home last night, my brain just shut off. I tried to do some yoga, and I kept bumping into stuff. Probably because I was doing laundry, fending off cats, and solving work problems in my head at the same time. Multi tasking again.

So after the fourth whack, bruising some bony spot on my body, I decided to just sit the hell down and do one thing at a time. And since I needed to do laundry, eat, and shower more than I needed to write, I did those things. I didn't write a word.

I got all frustrated about it at first. I raged about how there isn't enough time to do everything I need to do (like, uh, clean my apartment. Just ignore the dust hippos in the corners, thanks.) I'm really impatient with myself sometimes. I want to just finish this fricking book and be published and HURRY UP AND MAKE MY DREAMS COME TRUE!

Generally I'm a patient, non-angry type. Then it burbles up. Whatareyagonnado? I'm human. After a bit I calmed down, did laundry, showered, and ate, in sequence, not all at once, and felt at least slightly sane. And went to bed.

Earning money, eating, sleeping, these things do have to come first. And if you can't do them AND write, then give yourself a break and write tomorrow. Yeah yeah, you're supposed to write every single day to stay in practice, and Butt In Chair = A Real Writer, and all that crap. But it's not worth losing your sanity over. Sometimes you just have to sit still and do one thing at a time. Eventually you'll find the time to write.

For me, this three-day weekend is a huge blessing. I'll have time to chill, write, and see friends. All are necessary to feel halfway okay in life. But it doesn't have to happen all at once every day. One thing at a time.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Reading Scripts

I'm reading a lot of scripts these days - for work and to learn for myself. We're staffing writers on three new series (can you say busy?) and so everyone's reading their sample scripts and debating who's best at what and so on.

Right now I'm reading a sample TV script for a detective show that has very high ratings. And the script is really good, written by a young, new writer. But it's hard to get through because it's so damned familiar. I'd much rather read something original that the writer made up themselves. Yes, that is much harder than writing a sample of an existing series. And yes, a sample of an existing series tells us the writer can imitate a series' "voice" (a very important trait in a TV writer). Lots of contests and workshops require you to write an existing show as well, so this sample is quite good for those purposes.

But it's so much more fun to read something new and different, and not to know exactly where the story will go or what the characters will do. You can't really surprise your reader if you write an existing show. And you can't really show off your own voice and writing chops in the same way as if you wrote something original. Even at the baby writer level, execs want to staff someone with a bit of a vision, a strong voice, and the sophistication to write their own pilot. It's a lot to ask, but it's also one of the most competitive jobs in the world.

So, when in doubt, write an original pilot spec script for TV. Your reader will thank you.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Leaking Pages

I'm only managing about two pages a day. It's frustrating. My day job has gotten so busy that my brain is pretty fried by the time I face my manuscript.

On the other hand, two pages a day is ten pages a week, which is about a chapter in YA. Should be about two or three chapters left in this story, so that means the first draft should be done by the end of the month, right?

Assuming nothing else happens to interfere!

And it's a rainy weekend ahead, so maybe I'll get ahead of that schedule soon.

Juggle juggle juggle.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Goal Time

Since I started setting goals, I've met lots of them!

I haven't met them all because certain goals require the universe to go along with you. But the success I've had with the goals I have met just makes me all the more determined to keep setting them.

So, without further ado, this year's writing goals:

Finish YA novel #2 and submit to agents. (Hopefully by early March! Fingers crossed.)
Get a book agent for YA novel(s).
Make at least half the books I read YA novels.
Rewrite spec TV pilot.
Read at least two TV spec scripts a week.
Write a second, more commercial TV pilot.
Outline and begin YA novel #3.
Network more with fellow writers, online and at retreats/conferences/classes.
Read at least two more books on craft of writing.
Continue to get critiques from Elisa and to critique her work.

I may think of more, but that seems like plenty for now. Whew. I better get to writing.

Sex in YA

Fantastic post by writer Gayle Forman on her blog here about characters in YA novels having sex.

It beautifully lays out many of the thoughts I've had myself about characters in teen novels having sex. Yes, I think girls should wait until they care about and trust their partners, that they should be educated about sex, that they shouldn't be pressured, etc. I'm all for waiting as long as possible, really giving it some thought before you plunge and so on.

But having sex doesn't necessarily mean you're a slut, or a mean girl, or horribly damaged. The consequences of having sex can be huge (hello! pregnancy, STD's) but they don't have to be. Too much tiptoeing around nice, normal, fabulous sex makes it seem forbidden or horrific or dangerous. Nonsense. Many teens have sex eventually with their partners and they have no bad consequences and plenty of good ones.

Seems to me that depicting sex in a positive, normal light is just as important (if not more!) than showing the bad things that can happen. Teens will relate to the characters who eventually sleep together, the way real teens do. And perhaps the modeling of caring, careful sexual relations between teens will help young people navigate their way to adulthood in a way that works for them.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

You Better Learn

Freelance Penmonkey Chuck Wendig has a genius post on his blog here, called "Writers Don't Do That." It lists a lot of the things people who think they're writers claim that writers don't do.

His answer - you better fricking learn. And he's right.

Best of the Best Screenplay Nominees

So the Oscar nominations are out today. This is a blog about writing, so I'll concentrate on the nominees for Best Screenplay, both Original and Adapted.

However, as a quick aside, I'll opine that this new rule of allowing ten nominees for Best Picture is a shameless attempt at ratings for the telecast. However, it has allowed in a few nominees that might never otherwise have made it and that probably deserve it - like District 9. Genre movies are usually dissed by the Academy, but not this year! Also, I hope Kathryn Bigelow wins for Best Director on The Hurt Locker.

But on to screenplays! Here are the nominees:

Best screenplay (original)
The Hurt Locker, written by Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds, written by Quentin Tarantino
The Messenger, written by Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman
A Serious Man, written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Up, screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter; story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy

Best screenplay (adapted)
District 9, written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
An Education, screenplay by Nick Hornby
In the Loop, screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air, screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

One thing you'll notice - there's not a bad apple in the barrel. Avatar, nominated by both the Golden Globes and the WGA (!) did not get nominated by the Academy for Best Original. Thank goodness. That movie was a visual feast, but the writing was simply terrible.

I haven't seen all the nominees, so I'll have to skip talking in detail until I do, but I'll make fearless predictions now and wait to be proved wrong.

For Best Original - I think Quentin Tarantino's best writing days are behind him, that Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man) are brilliant but not very well liked in Hollywood, and that The Messenger is too obscure to win. The contest then comes down to two fabulous nominees: Up and The Hurt Locker. I think this is The Hurt Locker's year, so I'll pick it, but I'd be delighted if Up won.

For Best Adapted: An Education and In the Loop suffer from being smaller movies that are a bit too obscure for the Academy. District 9 is sci fi and will ultimately be punished for that. Which leaves Precious (I refuse to type out that entire title again, it's just silly) and Up in the Air. I liked Up in the Air, but it's not the be-all end-all that some reviewers have led us to believe. However, I think it will win. Precious is a close second, but it's been over-hyped even more than Up in the Air and may suffer for that. I also think its pretentious too-long title is reason enough to vote against it. Part of writing is knowing when to stop.

So I'm stopping now.