Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sun VS Snow

So here's something I have read about but haven't tried yet: the query contest.

Winners of the contest will have an opportunity to have their queries and first pages critiqued by agents and mentor writers.

The one I'm eyeing: Sun VS Snow. It's a great concept: enter to win, and you get a solid critique without burning a submission, plus, (obviously!) you get the feedback you so often DON'T get with all those (sigh) rejections.

How To Enter:

Amy Trueblood is the "Sun" half of the authors who are hosting this contest. She's a freelance author "chasing the crazy" (amen!) dream of getting published. She lives in Arizona. (Like me!)


The other half of the contest - snow - is Michelle Hauck, whose epic fantasy KINDAR'S CURE is published by Divertir Publishing, and who also co-hosts these query contests:  Query Kombat and Nightmare on Query Street.

Good luck everyone!!

Sunday, December 8, 2013


 "There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."
- Nelson Mandela

     This - what Mandela said - is what we talked a lot about in the Africa Days. When we felt Big. We were (almost) fearless, we were on an adventure, and we were doing Good Work. 
 It was an amazing feeling, this post-college freedom, this sense of being more alive than ever before.  We were young and full-to-the-brim of a very sincere desire to help. 
Everything felt intense: the sunsets and sunrises, the sweetness of a mango on a warm afternoon, the shock of bathing in cold water, the sharpsour smells of goats and the cooking fire that clung to all the women's skirts.

  We were a small group of American expats living in Kenya, teaching English in small harambee schools in remote parts of the country. "Harambee" is a Swahili word that means, essentially, "working together". Harambee schools are community supported, operating from student fees and village donations. Unlike the bigger city schools, they get no aid from government funds Our school, in Kimilili, was actually a hybrid: we got a little bit of government money, but mostly we needed those school fees. 

    Harambee and hybrid  schools are poor. They don't have enough teachers, books, or even classrooms. Their budgets are uncertain because students periodically drop out to help the family by working on the farm. Sometimes the girls are pulled so their brothers can go to school, although this happens less and less often these days, thankfully.

When we were there, Nelson Mandela was in prison on Robbin Island. We paid close attention from Kenya, because there, like everywhere, he was the face of Black Pride. Of freedom and justice. Of the fight for equality. We felt as though our students' futures were tied to his - if he could defeat apartheid, perhaps our students too would defeat poverty, endemic illness, corrupt politicians, apathy, and helplessness. Like I said, we were young and sincere. Magic was possible. Mandela seemed magic.

We believed that helping educate these children was fighting for equality. Even though Daniel arap Moi was a democratically elected president (rigged elections notwithstanding), social justice in Kenya was still just a nice idea that only worked in other countries. There was no middle class. You were either very wealthy or very poor, and there was little opportunity to change the circumstances of your birth. Our students were the very poor. Most of them didn't stand a chance at going to college. But if we worked hard and tried to inspire, maybe 1 - or even 2 - would go further than his peers or his parents.  Maybe they would have a shot at a better life, and would help contribute to a generation that refuted tribal nepotism and corruption.

This was our passion. This was how we didn't settle for a smaller life -- we insisted on the possibility of a bigger life for our students. We encouraged expressive writing and reading beyond the required list and creativity. They were never optimistic about their futures - they'd seen too much -- but we tried to be hopeful anyway - without being unrealistic.

We left before our students graduated. We tried to keep in touch with them, but as so often happens, after a few years, the threads broke. I know that most of my students led the life we knew they would, which isn't bad, but it's not as big as they were capable of.

One or two got lost in Nairobi. One killed himself. 

But a few went to technical college, and that is a big deal. They were taught trades which gave them a better chance at eking out a living that wasn't dependent on the land. 

I don't know how they fared in the years of political unrest or the riots after the last election a few years ago. Malaria, TB, dysentery, malnutrition, and a wide scope of commonly misdiagnosed or ignored diseases (AIDS, STD's, diabetes) have surely claimed some of them.

In the years after we left, Mandela was released from prison, elected president, and worked with de Klerk to foster a culture of working together rather than retribution. He worked magic.

As we all know, it was a pragmatic magic, the kind you have to use in a land that will break you if you don't accept its cruelty and perverseness along with its beauty. 

And while its scope was limited in that it couldn't reach my students in any practical way, it was still magic in its ability to inspire, to infuse my children and me with the feeling that we were worthy, that we mattered in this world, that we could be bigger and better

And so I honor Nelson Mandela, for all the reasons you've read about this week, and for the magic that urged us all to be big.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Trying Too Hard

I really truly do not want to sound like an old fart. But Miley? On last night's American Music Awards?
 Trying WAY too hard. Way too hard.
I get the imagery, symbolism, all the other attempts at artistic representation. The other words for "cat", the fact that it sticks out its tongue, the message she's trying to send to the "establishment", all of it.

Seriously. If you have to go to such extreme lengths to make a point or get attention, isn't something off?  
I know, I've already Tweeted and Facebooked this, but I figured I'd make the trifecta with a post since I've neglected the blog so long.

What I was thinking as I watched the winking Universe kitty was, first of all, the song itself (Wrecking Ball) is decent and fun, sort of anthem-y, and Miley's voice is so strong, why did she want to distract from that power she held all by herself?

And I was also thinking, this is exactly the problem I am having with the first line of my WIP.

I am trying too hard.

But I feel driven, because my first line is really humdrum. I mean, REALLY. The definition of "meh".
And I just haven't been able to come up with anything better.
And I want to send out a new query.
So last week, I took a terrific query writing Webinar (WD : Beyond the Query, with Jennifer Laughran, whose blog is linked on my sidebar) and got some great advice for query writing. So THIS week, armed with a freshly edited query letter and some new (good, I think) edits on the first 10 pages, I am back in the first line trenches.
But it's still just dogging me, and I write a new one a day, which a little crazy. (!!!).
Maybe I just need to let it sit, marinate, and stop trying to wink at the universe.  
Yah, right.
I'm too hyper to meditate on it for long, but Miley does give me pause (paws) .....  (sorry, couldn't help it)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What's the Dog's Name?

When I was a reporter, I often felt frustrated with viewers who seemed to focus on what I felt were inane details: what I was wearing, whether my hair was blowing in my face during a live shot, whether my lipstick was flattering. I kid you not.
And privately I would fume about all that inanity,waving my hands wildly and soap-boxing about how could they just gloss over the fact that I was talking about taxes. Or death. Or war. I mean, really.

At one point, a wise reporter told me that whether I liked it or not, the Golden Rule of Reporting was: Always Answer This Question:

What is the dog's name?

Simple. And so, so true.
Meaning, don't forget the details viewers care about.
Kinda like Elmore Leonard saying, cut the parts readers skip.

Because on tv, the viewers WILL care about your clothes and your look, and if you interview a guy about the fact that his property taxes just went up and there happens to be a dog with the guy, the viewers will email, NOT about the details of the taxes, but to ask WHAT IS THE DOG's NAME?
And I know this because it has happened to me, and thus  I do, I do believe in the Golden Rule.

So imagine my surprise when I became that dreaded viewer myself. The other day I was listening to a terrific interview on NPR. Steve Inskeep, who is brilliant, was talking to SECDEF Chuck Hagel about the future of training women for combat. This interview followed Secretary Hagel's lunch with some non-commissioned officers, one of whom was antsy during the visit because his wife was in labor.
And this detail was the LAST detail in the piece before Inskeep signed off.
And when he closed out the piece live on the air, I was waiting. But he never said it.
I wanted to hear the baby's name and gender!! That's how you end it!! You can't close with that cute little detail and then NOT say, in your live tag, "By the way, Corporal So-and-so and his wife had a baby boy/girl." You just can't. Golden Rule. (Ok, so adjust accordingly because probably Corporal So-and-so doesn't want his brand new baby's name broadcast.) 
But you can still tell us BOY or GIRL and thus tell us what the listeners want to know. Besides how we're planning to train women for combat.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Kudos and salutations to all you brave people doing #NaNoWriMo right now.

I'm writing about it today because I'm new to this concept, as I am to most other things in this writerly world. So to learn more about it, I've been following Twitter to see what people are doing and what they are saying about what they are doing.

(For those who are where I was a few weeks ago: it means National Novel Writing Month. The deal is, you sign up, you agree to write at least 50K words toward a novel, and you get to "track" your word count every day plus chat online with everyone else doing it, plus take advantage of lots of encouraging advice and online help, plus weed through a lot of vendors who want to "help".)

And what I have learned is that I envy anyone who can take the time to set and work toward those amazing goals. Whether it's because they have no kids or no spouse or perhaps an amazingly helpful/understanding spouse who will care for the kids, or grown kids or flexible work hours or no work hours at all or whatever. Because that's what it takes to be able to set and live up to those goals, and again, I say, HOW GREAT!!

I mean that - I am not being snarky. Those who know me know that I am not a snarky person, for the most part. I mean, I do have my moments... but mostly I am kind of Polyanna (don't judge) about the whole thing and I say, let everyone who can, do. And bravo to them for doing.

But I am also just going to say, as an example of another way of doing things, that I set very fluid goals. My goals are based on completing scenes and certain developments within a certain time frame, rather than word count. Because let's be real, if I set specific word count goals, I will:
1) stress too much about the word count and then forget to hug my kids,
2) stress too much about the word count and then forget to feed my family,
3) stress too much about the word count and then be too stressed.

So #NaNoWriMo just doesn't work for me, practically or conceptually.

I'm the first to admit, I'm lucky. I don't do this for a living, I do this because I simply can't get through the day without telling more of the story. My actual ability to sleep at night is dependent on whether I got it out of my head onto paper. (OK, well, onto the computer. Showing my age here.) My WIP is a set of stories I can't keep inside anymore, and so I write. 
And I care for my children all day.
And I manage my home.
And I work on course design, etc. whenever I need to for my paying gig. (Graduate School USA)
And, I really want to be a writer. I mean a real one. You know, the kind with an agent and a pub date and cover art.

(No, I am not a privileged, moneyed Mommy who doesn't have to work and so I while away the long empty hours piddling away at a book. (NO MOMMY WARS ALLOWED HERE)
I am an at-home Mommy by choice who left a lucrative career in tv news where I had the same affliction -- I simply couldn't get through the day without telling the story as best I could.)

But I digress.

For those of you who can't or have chosen not to do NaNoWriMo, please do not stress. Do not use it as the litmus test for how real an author you are or how dedicated you are to your WIP.
If you're so moved, be glad for the success of those who are in the throes and enjoying the camaraderie right now, but PLEASE do not worry that you do not have the chops to be a good writer or won't ever finish your novel just because you can't find the GIANT BLOCK OF TIME you need to do this thing.

Push yourself, to be sure. I mean, REALLY push yourself to write. (And edit, edit, edit, revise, revise, revise) You can't do it if you don't have the fire in the belly, even on the days when you don't. 
But also: write what you can when you can, set the kind of goals you can live with, and - 
Be brilliant.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Writerly Tip #6: Prune Them and They Will Grow

Too true.
At the very beginning of my querying process, an agent told me my ms was too long. I had to cut at least 40-thousand words. 
It hurt, hurt, hurt, but the truth was, (And I secretly knew this) the cutting was a healthy, good thing. 
What she told me was, cut the first 50 pages. You probably don't need them. Actually, what she said was, you the author needed to write those first 50 pages because they helped you get to know your characters and their backstory. But the book itself, the story itself, really doesn't need them.
And of course she was right.
I cut the first 50 pages, bleeding profusely as I did, and discovered a better book within.
I love what Whedon says because it reminds me of the wisdom of the First 50 Pages rule. Plus, he's right.
I've done that before too - when I found myself looped endlessly in a scene trying to make it make sense, I finally cut it and tried something different.
For those of you who garden, this analogy may work: prune them and they will grow.
Thanks to Buzzfeed for the list of 24 quotes from famous writers from whence this quote (and the inspiration for this post) comes.'

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Writerly Tip #5: People Can Be Petty

A friend called today to vent about not-so-professional warfare going on at work. It's the old One Colleague Out To Get Another story. It goes something like this:

Colleague #1 is a decent person, cares about quality - and here's the rub - is better at the job than #2. BUT - Colleague #2 outranks #1, and thus is able to subject #1 to humiliating and professionally damaging experiences.  Most seem to agree #2 is the bully, but no one can - or will - do anything about it.

Didja follow all that? No worries. The synopsis: Insecure, bad people in the work place.

Anyone lived this story before? I know you have. Cause I've seen it.

My reaction when I hear a story like this is why in the world can't people learn how to do their jobs better rather than try to take down the competition? Isn't that a smarter way to compete than to kill everyone off? Then, in the end, you're ACTUALLY GOOD AT YOUR WORK.


And because I am so painfully logical, I often struggle to allow my characters to be illogical. I don't want them to be mean/quixotic/spiteful/stupid/irrational/insecure!!! Because I don't want people in general to be that way.

But the thing is, no one wants to read about perfect people.

And, ahem, I guess in spite of my high flying ideals, I am still a work in progress myself. And so I listen to my friend, let him vent, and remember the lesson: people can be petty. And I can't clean it up, even for fiction, if I want them to be believable characters.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Giver

Talking about THE GIVER today. Even though it was published in 1993, it's in the news a lot these days because it's being made into a movie. 
And because this young woman has been cast in said movie:

She's been cast in a role that has more emotional than actual presence in the book, so it will be interesting to see what they've done to expand that role.

AT ANY RATE, because this is mostly a blog about writing, I decided that instead of discussing the entire book and its many attributes, I will just note one particular thing about the way Lois Lowry crafted her story, a thing that has become a writerly tip for me and (I hope) for others:
 I aspire to her ability to reveal.


It isn't until page 94 (of a 179-page book) that we learn our main character Jonas and all his friends and family do not see colors. The Giver tells Jonas that the fleeting glimpse of a "mysterious quality" he has seen in an apple and in his friend's hair is the color red.
And wow again.
Under less skilled hands, we would have learned that fact much earlier in the book. But Lowry deftly, patiently grows her world of "Sameness" for us, establishing the concept of a one-note society in which you are assigned your family, your profession, your home. And even though, as you read about this world where there are no real animals or cars, and you slowly become horrified by the lack of choice and personality and individuality, it never occurs to you (or it didn't to me) that these poor sods can't even see the color of each other's hair, much less the sky, grass, and trees around them. And there's a brief mention of an Aryan Empire-style attempt to breed away skin color as well so that everyone is the same.
Bu they can't see color. All they can comprehend is that some people - like Jonas - have light eyes. But those people are considered "different", and thus are shamed by that quality and no one talks about it for fear of embarrassment.

So I aim to reveal as well as Lowry, and I look forward to seeing the fun they will have putting this moment on film.

And as I have done before, I encourage all the writers out there to use this talent for revealing to make your own work better.

Be brilliant! (And colorful)


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tip #4: Update

So Simon and Schuster has just launched a new imprint- dedicated to Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror.  According to Publishers Weekly, it's not even named yet, but it's got an executive staff: Jon Anderson from S & S Children's, Justin Chanda also of S & S, and Joe Monti, most recently from Barry Goldblatt Literary.

Which means, as I said in my last post, you have to take trends with a grain of salt. And maybe vampires won't completely go gently into the good night. Well, maybe they will. We'll see. It would be ok with me if they did, just for a little while, although I do love a good vampire romance.

Anyway, what this furthermore means is that while it is true (for prospective YA authors) that agents are thirsting for "real, contemporary fiction", they're also going to pay attention (and perhaps dance a small jig) when one of the Big Five publishers launches a new imprint.

So once again, the take-home is: If you're writing that real, contemporary YA book, may the gods of trend hipness and breathtaking prose be ever at your side.

And if you're not, fret not. The gods of breathtaking prose have not forsaken you -- and neither have the publishers. 

Be optimistic, be brilliant, and work hard.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Writerly Tip #4: Write it Anyway

For a while, it was vampires, werewolves, angels, and zombies. And dystopia and paranormal. And dystopia. And vampires. Have I said vampires and dystopia yet?

But as always happens, literary agents for YA fiction began to sense a weariness in the publishers. So now, much is being made lately of the new trend in agent wishlists: contemporary YA fiction. Like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, reviewed on this blog.

Where does that leave those of us would-be YA authors who do not have a contemporary novel burning in our imaginations or evolving on our computers?

Exactly where we are now.

The fact that agents are looking for fresh contemporary does not mean you should shelve your project. If it's good, they'll buy it. If it's good, and it catches their attention, which is a whole other subject, as you all well know. (Sweat pours off the brows of those of you thick in the querying process)

Listen, I'm not an agent, so I can't say I'm speaking from the horse's mouth or anything. But - like you - I read a lot of agent blogs and articles about what they want and what I am seeing is, they still just mostly want good writing. That's all any of us really want, right?
I mean, of course, they sense the trends and they are staying on top of those trends because that's their job, and we're grateful for the fact that they have their fingers in the wind.

But does this new trend mean you must now change your novel midstream? Should you shelve a great idea that burned in your soul for months before you finally decided to turn it into a book? 

No, I honestly don't think so. What I think is, Write the Book. And as I said before and of course it's a no-brainer (but not easy to accomplish), MAKE IT GOOD.
And they will come. I think.

Please note, I'm not encouraging you to buck the trend. Trends are important to pay attention to if you want to get published. But I am saying, if you're already writing, don't give up. It's not like the appetite for all the other stuff has completely disappeared.

(Well, maybe vampires really are played out. Except for the fact the The Vampire Diaries is like, the number one show on CW)

So there's that.

Anyway, I say, just finish writing the thing. If it's good, (sometimes even if it's not) people will read/watch it.  They just do - the genre never really seems to disappear completely.  Especially if there's a romance angle. (Again - Vampire Diaries. And Walking Dead, although the latter isn't YA)

 Anyone out there struggling with the fear that your ms is out of step with the current trends?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Writerly Tip #3: Foil the Freeze

This is what came up when I googled images of brain freeze. This and a whole bunch of icee- and slurpee-related things, but well, this was just so much better. 

I get brain freeze sometimes when I'm trying to find the right word. Or phrase something exactly, or describe a thing. I'll be happily trundling along, my story unfolding before me as I wish it to, and BAM. 

I can no longer articulate.

I spend some time on the Thesaurus; it helps a little but still, not quite. Because you know what? My brain sometimes protests. 
"What, you want me to come up with the perfect word/phrase/feeling all the time, exactly when you want it? In spite of the fact that you have a million things on your mind all the time and you're almost always very, very tired? "
 Well, yes.

But, as I said, my brain doesn't always cooperate in spite of how reasonably I talk to it.

Here's what I do then: put the word/phrase/concept in (parentheses) or italics and come back to it later.
Because otherwise the flow, the groove is interrupted by the search for the word/phrase/concept and I almost never actually find it at that moment.

So here's my tip: Foil the brain freeze. Just move on, keep writing, and come back to it later. Don't let it derail you. This is not the time to check Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, shop Zulily,  and then get a snack and then, whatever. Keep writing. Finish the section you planned to finish.

Then take that break.
And then come back to it.

*Cue Angels Singing* 

In spite of its protestations, your brain actually will keep secretly ruminating,and when you come back to it, the word/phrase/concept is usually right there, like there was never a problem in the first place. Along with a few more ideas for how to make that section perfect.

And let's face it, you're going to be editing a million times more anyway, so the idea really is just to get it down on paper as a place to start, right?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Writerly Tip #2: Since Feeling is First

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

e. e. cummings

So, as I said on my Twitter page (#cuewritingmuse), I use this poem as an example of what TO do and also what to be careful of.
Cummings, of course, is brilliant, and uses syntax perfectly to make his point, every time.
But we're not all as brilliant as he, or at least not yet. And so we must be careful not to try so hard to be clever and different , and the current favorite, ironic, that we blow through some very smart rules.
It took me a long time to remember the rules of grammar. When you write for TV, it only matters how something SOUNDS. And so I forgot the lessons of my early visual writing life in in favor of learning the lessons of auditory flow.
And let me just digress a moment to note that sound is truly important - we should all definitely care about how words "hear" when strung together. Do you mean to be dissonant or interrupt the flow with lots of hard consonants? That's a deliberate decision.
But when you're writing for the EYES as well as the ear, you have to pay attention to those commas and those conventions, because if you don't, you obscure your own brilliant creativity.
And I know you're all brilliant, or almost there. We all are.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Writerly Tip #1: No Sledgehammers, Please

I am obsessed with clarity (perhaps a relic from the TV news days) - and thus sometimes I over share, over explain, overdo. 
Reveal, I must remind myself.
Too many facts all at once equals sledgehammer, not story telling.
I have to remember, and I think it bears consideration for others as well, that in real life we don't learn it all, all at once, right?
We reason step by step through problems - and don't always think of the right answers right away, or even come up with the right answers at all. We discover things about other people a little at a time.
Our lives happen one moment at a time, and while sometimes we reflect on past moments that brought  us here, most of us don't live in constant recap mode.
So, I say to myself and suggest to other writers, hold back a detail here and there - save it for later. Let characters and plots build block by block rather than laying it all out at once.

I love these writing rules from Elmore Leonard:

  1.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  2.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  3.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

#writingtips, #cuewritingmuse

Thursday, October 17, 2013


So I think I'm probably the last person in the country to read THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

And to be honest, that was on purpose because I knew it was going to hurt. 

I was right.

Excruciating. And because I have children, beyond that, even. And rife with the fear that just reading it might give the wrong idea to the gods of health and that one day I might be the parents in the book.

I hope I don't sound shallow when I say that. I'm especially sensitive to sounding shallow right now because Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are the least shallow people you might ever meet. And the smartest. They inspire a lot of adjectives they themselves would hate: brave, inspiring, resilient. They meet in a support group in the Literal Heart of Jesus, fall in love, and use Gus's dying Wish to travel to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten, who wrote a book they love (another cancer story). They're determined to get answers from Van Houten, who ends his only book with too many loose ends. Van Houten disappoints them terribly, but they rally because they're in love and together and alive. But of course we know because they're both terminally ill that this won't always be the case.

Which is why I mostly tried to remind myself as I read that my purpose here was to read good books and be a better writer. And learn more about things I know little about. Because make no mistake, I am LUCKY that my personal experience with cancer is limited. So far. (Still trying not to piss off the gods of health)

I don't think I can heap any more praise on John Green's head than has already been heaped, and I don't think it's necessary. But I do think I need to acknowledge, to myself and whoever else is still on the haven't-read-it-yet precipice, that it's really, really worth reading. It's a lesson in creating characters you can't get off your mind, show-don't-tell, and voice.


The one criticism I had was that after Augustus dies, I didn't want to keep reading. I almost wanted the book to end mid sentence the way their book, Van Houten's IMPERIAL AFFLICTION, did. Of course, that would have been predictable, but still.

We know Hazel is going to die, and when we discover that Augustus is also going to be "taken out of the rotation", it's just a countdown to the end of this sad, beautiful love.

Perhaps there was something insightful I missed here, but I couldn't appreciate the reappearance of Peter Van Houten, especially at Gus's funeral. I didn't think it added anything to Hazel's process of coping with her loss or her ongoing life as a Professional Sick Person - even the knowledge that she reminded the alcoholic Van Houten of his dead-from-cancer daughter.

Anyone else have issues with the final Van Houten scenes?