Monday, February 23, 2009

Is a Debut Novel always the First Novel?

My guess would be—NO. Sure the fantasy of writing that first book and having it take off, sell to an amazing house, then top the NYT bestseller list has got to dog most of us writers at some time or another. Of course 8 years into my writing career, I've kind of figured a few things out. And yes, it is my career, even if my work hasn't rolled off a shiny press yet. 

Writing rarely just "happens" like that well-worn fantasy, even for those so-called overnight successes. It is an art and art requires inspiration, sacrifice, attention to craft, and a mountain of patience, not to mention an intense personal commitment and a small dose of luck.  If you look at the files of many of your favorite writers, you will most likely find a stash of manuscripts, some half-finished, some abandoned after a flurry of rejections, some no more than a scrap of paper with an idea scrawled across it. It's all part of the process. 

I teach my students that writing is a process.  The "final product" is just where we decide to stop working that process.  Every draft, every note scribbled in the margins, every hour of racing thoughts about plot and character that keep you awake at night, it's all part of the process.  Every draft of that first book was like vocal scales, stretching and developing my voice, getting it ready for that amazing aria. Okay, that might be a little over the top, but you get the picture. 

I've been thinking about that first book, the YA that is still awaiting judgement at a small house.  Even with it under consideration, the farther I get away from that first novel, the more I realize there is a lot I could do to make it better. To be honest, I'm not sure where I want it to go.  It's kind of like your mother showing those ridiculous baby pictures to your boyfriend.  I don't look like that anymore, but the same person is inside that goofy grin with the cat's eye glasses.  I love my first book, and I still think it's a good book that kids will enjoy, but not nearly as solid as my second, which is making the rounds to editors now.  

My current YA is sort of my coming of age in terms of writing and will soon be my debut novel (I hope).  I'm ready for the big "coming out" party and then on to my next, which will be even better.  What will happen to #1?  I don't know.  But it's all part of the process.  

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Need a Moment?

With all the disheartening news over at HarperCollins and all around the publishing world, as well as the maddening economic nightmare we're all facing, it may be hard to be inspired by the little things. I'm lucky. I have two beautiful little things that fill my days with wonder and hope and inspiration. As a writer, I'm always trying to capture a moment, a ripple of transcendence. Kids can do that for you...oh, so easily...

So here's one of those moments.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Place Matters

As the Pocono Mountain Retreat draws near, I thought I would spend a little time on some of the topics our fabulous workshopping editors, agent, and authors will be sharing with us.  Molly O'Neill from Bowen Press will be taking us through a character Boot Camp at the retreat, so my last post took a quick look at character.  This time around, I thought we would peek at her second topic—setting.

I write historical fiction, often infused with an element of the fantastic, so establishing a firm sense of "when" and "where" we are is critical to drawing my reader in and keeping her along for the ride.  I have often suggested to my students that they should treat setting as another character, develop it, give it a personality and a firm physical presence.  Inevitably someone asks, "Why?"  Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, gives the perfect answer in a recent article in The Smithsonian, "Place matters, as does a sense of history and a feeling of connection to the land."  She was actually talking about why there is such an uproar about urban expansion in Lexington, KY, but she connected this notion to the draw that a place like Lexington has on writers.  And for that matter, readers.

Setting is much more than a cardboard backdrop against which a number of players perform (the song Paper Moon keeps running through my brain).  It should have as much substance as your main characters.  Afterall, they live there.  If you want to get a little more clinical about it, we are very much a product of our environment.   It stands to reason that our characters should be as well.  Certainly a well-built setting can lend depth, authenticity, and validity to your characters.  They breath in the air, whether it be thick with industrial soot or perfumed with honeysuckle and myrtle.  Their feet have been toughened by pavement or by gravel roads or even softened by the lush carpet of bluegrass that rolls on for miles.  The sense of community and culture informs their decisions and even dictates their actions or explains their reactions.  

I've talked before about the reciprocal relationship between a story and the reader.  There are really 3 stories been told:  The one the writer writes, the one the story tells, and the one the reader lives.  Think about where your readers will live.  Think about how long you want them to stay.  Kim Edwards also explains that "your understanding of a place changes the longer you stay; you discover more, and your own life gets woven into the fabric of the community."  I think it often works like that with a book as well.  Invite your readers to come stay a while, to really live in this place, to become part of it.

Now how do you do that?  I'll save that for Molly's workshop!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cynthia Leitich Smith's ETERNAL Release Contest

Check this out:

Eternal Grand Prize Giveaway Package: in celebration of the Feb. 10 release of Eternal (Candlewick), author Cynthia Leitich Smith is giving away several prize packages, some including signed copies of the novel, tie-in T-shirts, finger puppets, stickers, guardian-angel tokens, and more! See details here.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Psychology of Character

Everyone loves a good plot, but a book is nothing without its characters. You can have the most exciting premise in all of literature, but if your characters are stock cardboard cut-outs, that book will never get off the ground. So what makes a character worth knowing? Human complexity.

My friends over at The Bookshelf Muse give us tons of valuable information and interesting descriptions to help you create the emotional depth that breathes life into a character. Lots of great phrases that portray the characters' feelings in those subtle ways that speak to our subconscious. And that is the key, isn't it? The character must speak to us. Not in his words. Well, not only in his words. But through his actions. It's that whole "show-don't-tell" thing that gets pounded into you at every critique and workshop. As writers, we have to go beyond the obvious and even play amateur psychologists.

Here's the real question: How do you build that complexity without simply slapping together some basic cause/effect descriptions? Sure, if a hot girl talks to a shy boy, there are certain physical signs that give away his true emotions (including the stereotypical sweaty palms and stuttering). But what about when there is no hot girl? We are who we are even when we are not asked to respond to a specific question or statement. So shouldn't our characters be all that? And how do you show that? This is tough, especially when you have a small space to work in and an audience with a sometimes limited attention span. Quite simply, it's all in the details. The clothes a character chooses, the way he ties his shoes, how he keeps some emotions captive, only to unleash them later in the most inappropriate situation.

I've been watching my kids a lot lately. They are dealing with some really crappy stuff, and I see it all over the place. For my daughter, things are much murkier. She knows we are moving, but who knows when... She misses her daddy, but can she trust Mama to take care of things while he's gone... She talks to Daddy every day, but when will he be able to tuck her into bed again? (When the damn house finally sells...but that's for another time).

At almost 8 years old, she isn't always willing to talk about things as specifically as we would like, but that doesn't mean she bottles it all up. No, her anxieties usually show up at school, with the least provocation, or at home when she is asked to break away from her fantasy play to go to the bathroom or pick up her room. Add into all this a genuine developmental issue like dyspraxia and you get even more fire to play with. My son just gets weepy at times, or he starts to mumble, as if his lower lip just doesn't have the motivation to form the words. I guess what I'm getting at is that like us, our characters express their complex personalities all the time, even in the way they carry a box or close a door. The actual cause/effect is not always immediate or discernible. But your readers will get it. If nothing else, they'll be asking questions: "why does he talk like that? what made him act that way...".

There has been some discussion on the blue boards about ODD and I've seen other chat about a variety of diagnoses that writers might include in their stories. But they don't need to make it the obvious focus of the story to use it effectively. I have often thought about including a character with dyspraxia or ADD or OCD, but it doesn't have to be a labeled condition to make a character real to the reader. It simply has to be genuine.

I am still working on these things in my writing. As I revise old manuscripts and dive into my current WIP, I have an eye turned towards these kinds of details. Even in a plot-driven novel, the characters need to seem real to the reader. We have to care what happens to them. We have to feel as if we've met them already.

Just a little psychology.