Thursday, December 06, 2012

Undue Influence

1200 words into my new WIP, I realize I'm doing it again. I'm letting the words of someone else cloud my original focus and doubt my own vision. This person shall remain anonymous, but he is very enthusiastic about my work, which is a good trait. He is sometimes also very enthusiastic about dispensing advice when what I really need is a wall to bounce ideas off of.

That said, I came to that moment when a writer wonders if she is spending too much time on character and neglecting the plot. I voiced that question and got an immediate response from my anonymous donor. While I tried to explain what I intended to create, said donor had disappeared into his brilliant cave of ideas and fished out some advice. It wasn't bad advice. It was just the wrong species.

After beating my head with this new angle for a few weeks, I've come to the conclusion that it is just too much. It's not the right fit. I'm trying to squeeze a 20-inch big-mouth bass into the skin of a 6-inch perch. (My apologies for the lame fish analogy)

So now I find myself in the midst of an existential crisis. Do I slug through what I thought I was going to write or do I heed my donor's suggestion and try to liven things up with a more genre-oriented structure?

This whole adventure is a bit of a departure from my previous novels, so it is truly uncharted territory for me. The issue of the main character also hits very close to home and holds some sacred truths that I'm not ready to divulge yet, but she is the crux of the story. I find that my donor's advice has me worrying far to much about mechanisms and extraneous characters and I've lost my connection to her and the heart of the story. I will still worry whether this is enough "happening" but I think I need to forge ahead. In the meantime, I am drawing out the basic plot structure on a chart to keep myself sane and on track.

When I'm done, my WIP might be missing structure or lacking some definite sense of genre, but maybe that's not a bad thing. At least with any luck it will be a fixable flaw. I love my anonymous donor to death, but his passion sometimes overwhelms me. It's time to check off his influence and set it aside as a reasonable but ill-fitting experiment for this particular WIP.

Now, if I can only remember what the hell I was doing...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cliché VS. Reality: Character Tropes and Life in the YA Novel

Writing characters that ring true in a YA novel is a daunting task considering the very real melodrama that is adolescence. The emotional and intellectual changes a teenager faces in that microscopic decade of development can seem like concentrated evil or helium-stuffed fluff to our grown-up, weathered hearts and minds, but they are very real and potent to the kid going through it. Like it or not, there are certain patterns that repeat themselves no matter what era we look at.

This question has been pounding my brain particularly hard ever since I began to consider my antagonist. Thinking about bullying and teasing and the typical kids my children have been facing at school everyday, I find that it is hard to put them on paper as they are without them bordering on cliché.  Then the issue becomes do I sacrifice authenticity for originality? If the mean girl really exists, shouldn't she be part of my novel? My main character is absolutely fodder for the vicious, self-absorbed teen.

The next problem is the back story. That is where these characters could leave the world of cliché and enter into something richer. Too much back story, however, can get in the way of my main character's story. I don't want to clutter my novel with a million digressions and explanations, but there should be some indication of how these characters are "real" and 3-dimensional rather than just cardboard cut-outs with an addendum. So where do I go?

I can't help but use a certain classmate of my child's as a map for one of these irritating characters. As I begin construction, I am reminded of the conversations that I've had with my girl, wiping away her tears as I explain why some kids are so mean. That need to find a reason haunts most of us. So I have decided to write a "needs" assessment of each character to help me keep them in perspective. Rather than go into a long story about their trouble childhoods, I'll just make a list of what each character truly needs. I can elaborate later, if need be. That doesn't exactly fix the problem, but it might help keep me on track.

But what of the tropes?

The mean girl who is pretty but lonely—come on...we all knew at least one. Wherever that insecurity comes from, it's real and that need to hold power over someone else is the best way to satisfy it. Of course, I have to ask, "why is she so insecure?"  The kid is not a cliché, but the answers to that question might be. That is where I will pick at the details until I have something real.

The friends who decide social elevation is better than victimization—right around 4th grade this shit hits the fan. Kids start to become aware of their appearance and their place in the pecking order. Nobody wants to be pecked in the head every day, so they jump in line and follow instructions from the power-hungry mean girl. These are the "paid assassins" that end up doing the mean girl's bidding. I am watching my own child deal with this. People she thought were friends are turning on her and doing mean things simply to avoid being picked on themselves. When you add in a kid who has some special need or difference, there is even great motivation for distance. Nobody wants to be connected to the "weird kid."

The clueless boy who follows along because he's hoping to score points or avoid being the victim—another wonderful bit of adolescence we can all relate to. Weak minds are everywhere and they probably find roots in childhood. These kids often don't even know what they are saying. Amongst the newly minted teenagers or tweens, they might cast aspersions such as "you have rabis!" while the full-fledged teenagers will embrace their new fascination with their changing bodies and rapidly evolving libidos and play the "slut/skank" card freely.

The lonely genius—nerd or not, smarts can be very isolating unless you have either charisma or a never-ending supply of self-confidence (without the arrogance). The creative minds tend to get the most play from the bullies. What is it about their particular talents that intimidate other kids? Why can't they have faith in their abilities? Like anyone else, they need to feel connected to other human beings, but somehow, they lack the subtlety or the common thinking skills that let them do that.

There are so many more, but these are some of the characters I have to deal with right now. They are all inspired by real-life kids not only from my own childhood, but from my kids' current experience. The bottom line is that adolescence is a crucible where the most complex emotions and intellectual awakenings are set on fire and concentrated into the most potent experience of our lives.

Yes, adulthood can be hard and the decisions we make have significant consequences. When you compare that to the far-reaching effects of the choices we make as teenagers, however, our grown-up lives seem easier somehow. Perhaps it's because we finally have power over our own bodies. Or maybe it's because we have real independence and our brains are finally capable of rational thought and maybe even real empathy. As teenagers, all of this chaos rushes in and consumes us for a few years, yet in this tiny, little window of time, we are expected to learn how to make the decisions that will define us for the next 70 years. How scary is that?

While it seems as though teenagers are constantly blowing things out of proportion or over-dramatizing the minutiae, I must return to the advice that Ghost Hunk always gives me, "Go big or stay home." That kind of sums up the life of a teenager in spades.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Identity Crisis #2

As I wait [impatiently/anxiously] for my agent to pass judgement over the latest revision of book #2, my newest project is struggling to be born. Like Yeats' "rough beast," this one seems both elusive and menacing, but inescapably exciting because is quite the departure from my previous work.

First, it is not historical. This one just needs to happen here and now. But does that mean that I am a fraud? My niche seems to be the historical ghosty fiction, but this particular project is screaming from a different place. Inspired by someone near and dear to me, it is also a rather bold experiment both for me and my potential readers. This MC is not your average clairvoyant. She has a few other exceptionalities that will remain a secret for now.

Second, it is far more character driven than anything I have written before. Of course, now I find myself wondering what the hell is the plot, but I'm pulling on my tall boots and wading in. I have to admit I'm a little scared. How much plotting do I really need to do before I jump in and just start writing? I made a royal mess of my first go round of the last novel, but I think I have ironed out some of its worst faults. But this new project has many, many layers. More complex characters. Delicate issues.

Third, I'm going to attempt a first-person narrative. There is really no other choice. We need to be inside the MC's head for this one and live inside her skin. Can I do it?

In light of all these innovations, I'm wondering if I am in the midst of another identity crisis. My confidence has been shaky many times...well, pretty much always. There is part of me who had sort of branded herself as the historical ghost fiction chick, but can I just be a writer? I'm still swinging the big ghost stick, but it has a very different place and purpose this time around. Is that wrong? Is it doable?

I guess the only way to find out is to take the leap. Let's hope my boots are tall enough and I don't spring a leak...and that this crazy beast won't jump up and bite me in the ass, either...

Monday, November 05, 2012


The last month and half has been full of writing and reading and family. I finished writing the novel, celebrated 2 birthdays, and discovered some scary and amazing things about my kids. Even with all of that, I managed to escape into a book every now and then. And oh, what a lovely book it is.

Full disclosure, I know the author. We've had some long discussions about this work and what led up to it, but I had not read a word of it until the ARC landed in my mailbox a few weeks ago. And here is my honest, un-biased impression:

Kimberly Sabatini’s TOUCHING THE SURFACE asks those hard questions that too often get handed pat answers when it comes to a YA audience. She explores the depths of human connection, of what it means to be adrift in our own suffering and where we go from there. The characters speak of typical teenage experience, but they show us so much more than that. They show us what is possible when we choose our response. They allow us to wallow in angst and disappointment until our own anger slaps us with the reality that even that is a choice. They will not leave us to drown there, however. Lyrical and haunting, TOUCHING THE SURFACE is a beautiful tale of redemption and love and connection. 

It's a short review, because you simply need to read the book. I don't want to give too much away, but if you ever wondered about heaven and hell and what lies between, you simply must read this beautiful novel. 

Congratulations, Kimberly Sabatini, on an amazing debut! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Growing up 9/11"

As we all take time to remember where we were and how we saw this day eleven years ago, I am reminded that we now have a generation coming up who has grown up in the shadow of that world-changing event. My daughter came home today and said that she had just realized that she has "grown up 9/11." She was only 7 months old at the time, but she has felt the impact of that day in so many ways.

Her world will always be different than the one I grew up in. I had Viet Nam and the moon landing, Woodstock, Kent State, the cold war, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events shaped my childhood and young adult vision of our world and gave me a sense of how dark and how light our existence can be. Even through the scariest of those times, even with the threat of nuclear war, there always seemed to be light straining through and a sense of some security. As sense that our country will be here forever and will always be protected.  It is different for my children.

Since the day the twin towers fell...since the day a plane tore a gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon, our seat of military intelligence...since the day a band of brave Americans accepted their fate and changed the fate of the nation by steering a hijacked plane straight into the ground instead of our nation's capital, our children have grown up in the shadow of a new kind of terrorism. A new kind of war. A new kind of nakedness.

The sense of vulnerability that was generated that day may never leave us. Perhaps it shouldn't. Perhaps it is that sense of exposure that reminds us how precious our freedom and our lives really are. It is easy to become complacent when you live in a country that celebrates the individual and promises to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is easy to take for granted the everyday necessities that come so easily to most of us. We might remember that there are still people out there, our brothers and sisters, who might not have enough food or a place to live but always assume they will forever have a right to it.  That day bound us together in grief and in wonder. It reminded us that freedom is not an easy thing to define or to hold on to.

Even though she was an infant when it all came apart, my girl will forever be shaped by what followed. And this is the indelible image she will carry with her and share with her children:

To all those who were lost...we will always remember.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Visual Inspiration

As #wipmadness continues, our fabulous host Kip Wilson Rechea blogged about visual inspiration for this week's reflection. She shared a few snapshots of the visuals that keep her inspired and fill her WIP with authentic setting details.  I have always used visuals to feed my WIP-ping heart and create atmosphere and inspiration as I plow through each draft. Sadly, I spend most of my days in a lab at the university, so I'm not really free to paper my walls with all the cool photos and bits of flotsam that drive my writing. So, I have papered my Scrivener bulletin board with them:

Of course, my Project 365 blog as well as my new adventures in Light and Shadow have helped me fine-tune my senses to those amazing little details of the world around us that bring my story to life. I just hope I am doing it justice when I write. Through these bits of setting or hardware or direction, I'm pushing to create that world, to make it real enough for the reader to embrace. Shapes, textures, light, and shadow—it's all essential.

I suppose if I papered my little corner of the lab with all my scraps and photos, security might think I was a psycho or something, building my little WIP/stalker shrine. Ah well...I suppose it would just keep them guessing...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Guest Blogger~KATIE CARROLL: The Cover Art Process for Elixir Bound (or Why I Love My Cover So Much!)

Please welcome Katie Carroll to the blog as her exciting new YA novel Elixir Bound hits the shelves.  Today, Katie shares her cover journey with us. 

Thanks, Mary Ann, for having me today.  I like to call this post the Cover Art Process for Elixir Bound (or Why I Love My Cover So Much!).

I was lucky enough as a MuseItUp author to have a little input (mostly in the form of an author questionnaire) when it came to the cover of Elixir Bound. That’s not to say that I can take any credit for how gorgeous it is. All that credit goes to my cover artist C.K. Volnek.

The beauty of what she did was to take some of my thoughts on what types of covers I like (I happened to cite the American cover for Melina Marchetta’s Froi of the Exiles as one that caught my eye of late) and a few key elements of the story and integrate them into an engrossing and detailed cover that in no way looks crowded or busy. If I knew how she was specifically able to do this, I would probably quit writing and become a cover artist myself (not really, I would never quit writing).
What I can tell you are some of the details I gave her and how they showed up in the cover. (I’ll be honest, this post is really just an excuse to let me point out all the cool things on the cover!) Elixir Bound is essentially about Katora’s quest to retrieve the main ingredient to her family’s secret healing Elixir so she can take over as guardian.

Let’s start with character. Katora is definitely the central element on the cover. I expected to be asked about how she looks, but what I didn’t expect was to be asked about her personality. The three words I chose to describe her: stubborn, confident, independent. I think the model depicting Katora was a great fit. Her expression and body language were just right. So character: check!

Let’s move onto plot. The subject of the quest is the Elixir, which is prominently represented in the left-hand corner near the title. The objective of the quest is to find the Elixir’s main ingredient, which just happens to come from the tiny white flowers vining their way along the edges. So plot: check!

Next let’s discuss setting. Most of the journey takes places in a forest. The background gives you a sense of the rustic setting with the tree to the right and the mysterious doorway-type thing behind Katora (is it a cave, the entrance to a tomb?). I like how it sets a mood, but doesn’t get too specific because when I read, I like to let my own imagination fill in those details. Have you noticed the mountain range at the bottom of the cover? Did you notice its shape? The mountain range is aptly called The Sleeping Giant and I was so thrilled to see it included on the cover. So setting: double check! 

And finally, my favorite aspect of the cover…my name, of course! It’s been my dream for so many years to see my name on the cover of a book and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.

A little more about Elixir Bound:
Katora Kase is next in line to take over as guardian to a secret and powerful healing Elixir. Now she must journey into the wilds of Faway Forest to find the ingredient that gives the Elixir its potency. Even though she has her sister and brother, an old family friend, and the handsome son of a mapmaker as companions, she feels alone.
For it is her decision alone whether or not to bind herself to the Elixir to serve and protect it until it chooses a new guardian. The forest hosts many dangers, including wicked beings who will stop at nothing to gain power, but the biggest danger Katora may face is whether or not to open up her heart to love.

Elixir Bound is available for pre-order for your Kindle, Nook, PC, or other device from the MuseItUp Publishing website. Look for it after August 31, 2012 on Amazon, the Barnes and Noble e-book store, and other online e-book retailers.
A little about the author:

Katie L. Carroll began writing after her 16-year-old sister unexpectedly passed away. Writing was a way for Katie to help her sister live on in the pages of a story. It also made her realize that she wanted to pursue writing as a career. In addition to penning novels for teens and kids, she edits puzzle magazines, plays soccer, and collects signed copies of books. Katie lives in Connecticut with her husband and son.
To learn more about Katie, to read her blog, or to contact her, visit her website at

Thanks for sharing your journey with us Katie. We look forward to devouring Elixir Bound!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Wild Life Lessons

It happened again! Another month disappeared and my poor little blog has sat here neglected and lonely. At least I have some good reasons. We took our very first family vacation, for one. Then a trip to North Carolina for Ghost Girl and Ghost Son. And a few other obstacles that I'll not mention here. Suffice it to say, the Ghost Clan has had a busy summer.

By the end of July, our little turf war had ended in a draw with a bushel of twigs and pine straw strewn about the porch and no nest upon the gable. Poor little finches. At least they have a feeder full of seed to share. Of course the hummingbirds are relieved to have the peace and quiet now. I have spent the last several weeks photographing (or trying to) those speedy little birds, a feat which has echoed my writing process in a couple of key ways.

Wildlife photography lets my brain go a little sideways so that I can think about my writing when I'm not really thinking about my writing. Does that make sense? I've sat out in the 102º heat or on the porch or ankle deep in pine needles and sand for hours at a time, hoping for that magical shot of some natural beauty. Laser-focused on that shot, hungry for something stunning, and miserable at the same time. It's a lot like writing. (Yes, I hope you laughed at that). So the first writing lesson I've learned from photography is you have to be willing to be uncomfortable.  I've been on the verge of heat stroke, my feet throbbing and my mouth dry, but I would not give up until I captured something, even a tiny, imperfect scrap of something to work with.

Add a new camera, and I have a lot more to learn about settings and light and distance. I'm still a green horn and new equipment is just another hill to conquer (and celebrate). So the second thing I have learned about writing through my foray into photography is that you have to be willing to fail...over and over again. You have to be able to stare at the failure and find something valid in it. Experiment, let the moment take you, but always be willing to accept failure when it presents itself and learn from it. Figure out what didn't work and why and explore new options. I got a good dose of that with my latest WIP...just ask my agent!

The bottom line is, if something moves you, if you really want it badly enough, it will always draw you back. You never know what you are willing to slog through or cope with until you give in to that creative pull.  So let yourself get lost in it. Embrace the pain, physical and mental, and give those natural wonders a chance to show you what you can do. You just might surprise yourself.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Turf Wars

*Poof*  There went another month. How does that happen? Oh yeah...I had my head down in my WIP and the rest of the world just went dark. You know how it is with revisions.

I've been watching a little battle with revisions on my front porch as well. After a triple-decker stack of finch nests grew unwieldy (and kind of nasty), Ghost Hunk finally knocked them down off our porch post to clean out the area a bit. I felt a little guilty considering they had raised at least 20 chicks there, but we figured if they wanted to rebuild, those sweet little finches would rebuild. We had no idea, however, that two couples would be doing battle for the same ratty little poop-stained piece of real estate.

Yes, over the last week, I have watched one little pair of finches hoist load after load of grass and flotsam up to the top of that post, only to have someone or something knock it all down. By my most recent count, we've had 7 starts, give or take. (Kind of like my WIP!) At first I was inspired by what I thought was tenacity again the elements and it seemed a wonderful metaphor for what was happening in my writing. Every time the wind blew down the nest, those little birds just picked right up and started building again. It wasn't until the 3rd start or so that I realized there were darker forces at work than the wind.

A second pair of finches has apparently put in their bid for that property and they are none too happy that someone has started building on their claim. There is another empty nest at the opposite end of the porch (next to the driveway), but apparently the traffic pattern is too busy for a growing family's comfort.  Even in the bird world, it's location, location, location. Everybody wants the lot on the cul-de-sac!

So it looks as if I'll be watching this little turf war while I mull over the ever-changing landscape of my WIP. I've ripped out 6 chapters and added 2 new ones from scratch. I've reseeded and reshaped 5 more and hope to have this thing singing before the summer is gone (not likely, but I can dream). A few new characters have moved in and a couple have decided to stay. In those moments when I want to tear my hair out and bang my head against the keyboard, I'll just think of these little finches. They are building a world of their own out there on my porch post. A real world full of danger and territorial urges and new life. With a little luck, a clutch of tiny fuzz--heads will be ready to take their first flight about the time my precious WIP is ready to step out into the real world again.  Here's to the good fight!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shrinking the Cosmos, a Writer's Guide to the World

That may be a big title for a small idea, but the notion hit me today as I sat munching on my salad and reading Inside Out and Back Again. I realized how differently I see the world now that I am an active writer. Sure, I'm a grown-up too, full of wisdom and introspection (ha!),  but I'm not sure I would take the time to consider the world in the same way if I weren't a writer, no matter what my age.

Of course, I started as a reader. A lover of stories. An explorer of histories. A scientist on a quest. I can't help it. Every day I catch myself examining the smallest bits of the world around me and asking why and why not and what does it all mean? A snippet of conversation overheard at Burger King suddenly becomes a momentous revelation that must be celebrated...somewhere. Out of nowhere, that stupid thing I did in 5th grade makes sense all these years later. As expansive as the universe seems, there is a reason you can find the word microcosm in the dictionary.

I might be taking a little writing break at the café. Some kid walks in dressed like an oompa loompa or a pro wrestler or a Sid Vicious wannabe. Rather than retreat to my comfort zone and chalk it up to drug addiction or mental illness, I ask myself questions like: What did he eat for breakfast? What frightens him the most? What does it feel like to wear that?  What is the last thing his father said to him? Has he ever saved a life? Or lost a life? How many times has he lost his keys in the last month?

The deeper I am buried in a writing project, the more powerful these moments are. The more open I become to the unexpected simply because it is so...human. That is easy to forget. In this time of convenience foods and mass production and social media overload, the truly human has been homogenized and processed out of our curiosity and replaced with a simple like or #epicfail in our minds and then we move on. Life has become so conspicuous. We laugh and watch it go viral, never considering where it came from in the first place. At least it seems that way for many people I've met.

Sure, the whole public persona thing is nothing new, but it has become a much more concerted effort in the modern world. If we really look hard, listen closely, lay our hands on long enough to feel what wriggles beneath the surface, we can know life. Honest to God, painful, joyful, twisted life. As a writer, I always want to know and feel more. I want to understand why and see where that connects to my own experience or what it tells me about the universe.

Marlo Thomas, I hear to be you and me...right on. But what's behind the performance of you and me?  Always more. Much more. The writer in me will keep asking. She will always put it under the microscope and look for what she knows and then look at what she doesn't know.

And wouldn't it be awesome if our kids did that a little more? So often their cruelty comes from fear of the unknown. The unknown is not what lies in the other kid, either.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Starting Over From the Middle

Has it really been nearly a month since I last posted? Egads! In that month, I have spent far too many hours creating two Southparkian videos on plagiarism for work, begun work on the next WIP and received editorial feedback on the one I just finished, which has carved out a whole new summer plan for me. Hence the title of this post.

I knew there were good things about the WIP, but it also never sat quite right with me. I fell into an old trap. An amateur mistake. I tried to start at the beginning.  I had way too many ideas and none of them had reached maturity yet.

The good news is, there is good, salvageable material here. The bad news is, I've already hacked 20k words and started in a completely different place.  The great news is, I like it! I have a better sense of things, a stronger sense of direction.

My agent rocks. She is completely right in her criticism and I am embarrassed that I turned in such schlock. I lost my way and got dug in so deep I had to look up to catch the subway back to reality.  I know it's still in me, that awesome book. I just got bogged down with details and research and too many ideas. She reminded me that I had a very particular audience to think of.  I kept, thinking "go big or stay home," but I forgot to actually do the work. So, I'm jumping into the middle of the story, the juicy, dangerous stuff, and starting over.  With a fresh new look at things, it's time to dig out and kick some YA ass.

I hope all of our #wipmadness pals are hanging in there!

Monday, April 30, 2012

#WIPMADNESS Final April Check-in

As I am sure many of you are doing, I'm scratching my head wondering where in the world did April go? I hope it was productive for all you wipsters, out there.  I just got word that my agent is done reading the WIP I finished in March and is in the process of writing up her notes for me. It looks as if the May Madness will be all about revisions.

April was a good month for pre-writing and I accomplished a lot. I spent time thinking about my characters and the plot while I researched some critical elements of the story. Journaling through it brought me that beautiful "Aha!" moment when I discovered my main character's emotional arc for the story. Now I have something more concrete to shoot for when I start the actual writing.  While I have no word count for the month, I do have a hatful of magic to launch me into the next leg of the journey.

Thank you all for sticking with me through the madness and I look forward to keeping it all going with you over on Angelina's blog throughout the month of May.  Rock on, Wipsters!

Monday, April 23, 2012

#WIPMADNESS April Check-in Week 4

How in the world did week #4 get here so fast? This month has been about balance. With the last WIP done and in the hands of my agent, I have spent the last few weeks journaling through my new WIP and handling a rush of work at the day job. It is the last week of classes here, so I have a pile of students all clamoring for help on their final projects.  It seems that I just start to lose myself in a character exploration when some forlorn undergrad crawls into my lab, gasping for that last-minute miracle. Alas...I won't write the paper for you, kid. I have my own writing to do!

And what do you suppose is the #1 issue with the student writing I saw last week (college freshman, sophomores, and juniors)? PLAGIARISM.  Scratch that. The #1 issue with student writing is that they have no idea how to THINK. I will refrain from my ever-growing tirade about NCLB and the whole teach-to-the-test mentality, but suffice it to say a significant portion of our young people cannot think, which is why so many refuse to learn the difference between researched support and plagiarism. It's devastating!

How many 1st-person narrators in YA books are thinkers?  I have yet to encounter one who isn't. And of course the kids who read YA are the thinkers or they wouldn't be reading independently. So why are so many kids content to coast? Is it the pressure or fear of failure encouraged by a tyrannical system? Do they just want to make sure they have someone else to blame? Or is it just a severe lack of creativity (both in the teachers and the kids)?

It can be very deflating to keep beating the same drum, but I am shocked at how many of our college students cannot think critically or write with any sense of personal stakes. All I can say is thank God for the arts and I pray that they don't get cut from primary and secondary schools anywhere because at least that is one place where students are encouraged to push the boundaries. And thank God for those amazing teachers out there (in all subjects) who refuse to be boxed in by a test. If you teach them how to think, they will nail that test. End of story.

Oops. I guess I did fall into a bit of a mini-tirade. I'll stop there and head back into WIP country.  How has your week been, wipsters? I hope the #wipmadness has been good to you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

#WIPMADNESS April Check-In Week 3

It's another morning-after-insomnia Monday and I'm running character sketches through my brain.  That may be why sleep eluded me last night. Too many ideas that would not take a break. As I'm scurrying about trying to lay out the details and backstory of my main character, one question nags me:  what is this book going to be about?  Seriously. What is its final raison d'être?

Have you ever launched into a project with a wisp of a notion but had no idea where it would end up? I don't know that I would say my current predicament is quite that extreme, but I am wrestling with two different possibilities and finding it hard to reconcile them. It is a ghost story, as mine tend to be, but this one is going to be more than that. This time I really want the character to drive the story in a way I haven't developed before.  How do I do that?

That's what all the research and sketching is for.  I've written about how every story finds its moment. It will be told when it is ready.  The problem is I'm just a little too impatient about this one. So it is back to the journal and the preliminary doodling for now.

How has the madness treated everyone this week?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

#WIPMADNESS April Check-In Week 2

Week 2 took me all over the place, figuratively and literally. I started the week with a few good days in my WIP journal, working out the main character and some logistics of this new project. I think I have a name for her and some deep backstory details. I'm chipping away at the surface and digging deep.

The best and hardest part of my week took me on a journey north. All the way to Pennsylvania! Coming from southwest Georgia, that's quite a haul. But sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.  My not-so-angsty teenage son and my tween daughter really needed a visit to our old home town outside Lancaster, PA. So a 15-hour drive on Thursday (starting at 3:00 am) got us there just in time to start spring break with the best friends who have never been replaced. Watching my kids shine with their old buddies totally made the 30+ hours of driving I've done in the last 4 days worth it. Plus, I got to take in some of my favorite natural sights, like this little gal up here. (I'm pretty sure it's a gal, considering the subsequent photo frames and the mystery dance her partner did with her!)

That's the WIP journey, too. Finding my way through research and soul-searching those characters and ideas will eventually uncover something golden.  

So where has your WIP journey led you this week?

Monday, April 02, 2012

#WIPMADNESS April check-in, Week 1

Happy April, Wipsters! March Madness was truly on fire, and I want say thanks again to all the fabulous people who hosted and who participated. I'll be hosting the April edition right here on Mondays. Let's start by setting some goals for the month.

Goal #1—Since I was so fortunate as to finish my WIP in March, I'm going to spend the next couple of weeks brainstorming my next project. I know the subject, but I don't have a clear idea where it is going yet, so the first step is a shiny new journal. I have journaled through my last few projects, especially in the early planning stages. It helps me to get my head around the idea and explore the problems/research/plot points/characters... So that is where I begin.

Goal #2—READ. I need to catch up on some reading, which will help me decide on point of view and approach for this next book. It will also give my brain a break.  I'm going to start with LIAR by Justine Larbalestier. I just read John Green's amazing The Fault in our Stars, and bawled my head off, so I need something a little different. TFIOS was amazing, beautiful, and so on point, and it made me miss Indy a little bit. I know exactly where 86th and Ditch is and the Art museum and Castleton Mall (aka Hassleton) are. Which brings me to another goal:

Goal #3—Decide when and where the next book will take place.

As I await the edits from my agent, and hope she likes the ms enough to give me edits, I'll be pulling my thoughts together for the next big thing.

Where does everyone else plan to go in their journey this month?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview with New York Times Bestselling author Heather Graham

What a thrilling way to start spring break! This morning, I was truly delighted to talk to best-selling author Heather Graham, whose new paranormal thriller The Unseen hits bookstores this week.  

MA:  After reading and loving The Unseen, I have to ask, have you ever had a ghost encounter?

HG:  I can’t say I’ve walked down a misty street and run into a ghost. My mother was born in Ireland and they believed in everything.  I grew up around her family and my grandmother watched us. If we were misbehaving, she would threaten us with “The banshee will be getting you in the outhouse!” She did such a good job with it. We were teenagers and we didn’t even have an outhouse, but she could threaten us so well.
But a friend of mine in Florida had an experience. He is this big 6’4 cop in Dade County. He was on the scene of a really horrible accident on I-95. There were ten cars involved and a gas spill, so the main objective was to get the humans out of there.  He got a man out of the front seat of one car and the man was hysterical and begged him to go back and get his daughter. My friend hadn’t seen the little girl, but he dropped the man off with the paramedic and went back and found the terrified little girl hiding under the seats in back of the car.  So he got the little girl out and brought her to the paramedic and asked the paramedic how the father was doing. The paramedic looked at him as if he were crazy and said, “What do you mean? The man was dead on impact. His neck was broken.” I knew this guy really well and he would have scoffed at a story like this before, but this experience really shook him tremendously.  
When it comes to ghosts, we don’t know. No one knows what comes after life.There is nobody out there that can prove anything to me, so I love to think of the possibilities. I take it with a grain of salt and have fun with it.

MA:  When you were a teenager, what did you read?

HG: My parents were immigrants and they brought a lot of books with them. That was the main thing they brought.  Most of it was history—history of Ireland, the British Isles, the Norse invasion.  Lots of non-fiction and history. My mom was also an avid reader of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, the gothic writers. That probably influenced me a lot. I love Dickens too.

MA: I think it's safe to say you like research. 

HG: I love it! That's a major perk to being a writer.  Research really is a bonus to writing. For The Unseen, I spent a lot of time looking at Texas Rangers and I went out with a friend of mine who is a US. Marshall. I read everything I could find on the Alamo, too. I remember I had been in Texas for a business meeting a while back. The kids were with me for that trip and the babysitter had a problem so I had to run back to the hotel. It was late. On my way there, I went past the Alamo in the middle of the night, when the moon was out and the place was dead quiet. I just stopped there and I don't know how to say it, but you just feel history.

MA:  I totally get that.  What do you read now?

HG:   EVERYTHING. I think a good book is a good book. Genre doesn't really mean anything to me. 

MA:  I love that you have a band called The Slush Pile. Once you started writing, what was your path to publication like? 

HG:  At the time, I didn't know anyone. I knew nothing about publishing. I bought Writer's Digest and The Writer's Market and just started sending things out there. It took me a couple of years. The first things I sold were short horror stories. I couldn't really make any money on those. Then I sold some category romances. I also joined the Romance Writers of America. For someone just starting out now, it is an invaluable resource because groups have more power than the individual. I think writers are the most generous people in the world. They are so giving and they have so many different contacts that you would never have on your own. 

MA: A few years ago, you organized the Writers for New Orleans Conference. Tell us how that started.

HG:  We had just filmed a ghost trailer there when Katrina hit in Florida and Lousiana that same week. I couldn’t wait to get back. I was terrified of what might have happened to the city. I had friends there who said the American people had been wonderful after the storm—not the government...they really screwed them up—but what they really needed to do was get back to work. So I thought we should have a writers conference. It was really for any kind of writers, not just romance or horror. We just wanted people to come and support New Orleans and her writers. I have friends who host parties and we do dinner theatre on Saturday night. It has been a labor of love and it’s really tremendous fun too. We had to change our dates this year, so it might be a little tough since it is in December. But it would make a great Christmas present! 

MA:  Aside from joining organizations like RWA, HWA, and MWA, what advice do you have for writers?

HG: READ, read, read. Of all the people I know who are writing, whether they have degrees out the kazoo or just made it through high school, the one thing they have is that they love to read.  Even as writers, they never forgot to read. So many people will say, "Oh, I'm too busy. I don't have time to read anymore." But if you don't read anymore, you forget why you love writing so much.

Thank you so much, Heather, for taking the time to chat. I am absolutely looking into the Writers for New Orleans Conference and may even bring Ghost Hunk along if we can swing it. In the meantime, I have quite a to-be-read list building.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gray Matter

Adolescence is a time when what should be and what is come crashing together in a world flooded with swirling hormones and shifting perceptions. That is the challenge of writing books for teenagers. As I look at my characters, I am constantly asking questions like:

  • What does she expect?
  • Why does she expect that?
  • Is it fair?
  • What does that mean?
  • How does she rationalize that?
  • How does it affect her?
  • How does it affect other characters?
  • Why is it different?
  • How would she change it?
  • What difference can she make?
  • Where is the justice?
  • Why is it important?

If the answers are too easy, then I'm not sure I'm doing it right.

I finally figured out that the hardest part of being a teenager for me was the barrage of grayness that came the minute my hormones were launched. No longer were the big questions a simple matter of a black or white answer. Suddenly my moral and social landscape had gone all gray.

In my battle for self-discovery, I was an unarmed civilian stumbling through a dusty minefield of choices. There was no map to me. No schematic with neat little dots marking where all the bombs were buried so I could navigate my way safely to adulthood, which to most teenagers means freedom.

(Who am I kidding? After the hormones kick in, there is no safety, ever. Of course, I didn't realize that until I reached about...40.)

As I read some tween and MG novels to my 11-year-old daughter, I see her perception struggling to hold on to the black and white. Allie Finkle isn't always right, but my daughter is outraged when other characters are so clearly wrong. Her sense of justice is still holding out for the clear answer. But I see the color wheels turning and those answers are a little bit harder to find.

My almost-15-year-old son, on the other hand, crossed that valley quite a while ago. He is painting his social consciousness with a much more nuanced brush and is cautiously stepping into the arena of boy-girl relationships. He has no map. Just a vague destination. But he marches onward with amazing determination. He is one of those rare kids who has decided very early that he and no one else is going to choose who he is.

As I revise my latest WIP, I need to remember to pay attention to the gray matter, to leave some things unanswered, to let my characters choose badly sometimes. Adolescence is not devoid of conviction or even lacking in direction (for some, anyway). Teenagers are not the clueless wanderers so many stereotypes try to portray.  They are just our most human.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writer's Intuition — Part I

When it comes to women's intuition, even Ghost Hunk has been converted from a skeptic to a true believer.  He has learned over the years to trust my intuition no matter how wacky it may seem.  And of course, it's almost always right.  But what about writer's intuition?  There are many facets to this wonder of the creative process, but for this post I'm going to tackle the question of the new project and how do you balance your WIP(s) and your inspirations.  When in the process are you thinking of your next book?

I've known writers who juggle a handful of manuscripts in various states of repair all at one time, but I have enough in my life to sort out, so that won't ever be me.  I tend to be a monogamous WIPster, a one-WIP-at-a-time kind of gal (excluding editor/agent revisions, of course).  I have, however, developed a sort of rhythm about these things.  I don't really know when the WIP is almost ready until I've had that ZING of inspiration for the next novel.  But I can't get that zing until the WIP is in the right place either.

I guess that's what I mean by writer's intuition.  The whole process is completely subconscious, lodged somewhere in that mystical land where the heart/gut sends invisible smoke signals to the brain and they figure out who is going to lead the search party and when.  Then you have the wind and the rain and everything else that can get in the way...

My poor WIP has been wheezing along for the last two months, inching its way towards the final hurrah but not quite getting up enough steam to make it over the hill.  Meanwhile, my writer's intuition has been sorting through the odd possibility or two for the next project.  On several occasions, I thought I may have struck gold but it turned out to be nothing more than pyrite and my WIP still lumbered along.

Then last week it happened.  The Zinger. It stuck me right between the eyes and deep in my heart because the subject is so close to home.  Amazingly, the WIP suddenly picked up steam too.  I got clarity and momentum all in one day!  I don't think the Zinger would have found me if I hadn't reached a certain point in my WIP, and I couldn't have cut that lodestone loose and revived my WIP unless I had met my Zinger.  It's all in the timing.

I know...this post wreaks of bad metaphors, but I'm saving the good stuff for the novels!  So how do you balance your WIPs and inspirations?