Friday, December 21, 2007

Register bone marrow and save a life

Normally I reserve this blog strictly for writing purposes, but in the interest of reaching as many people as I can, I hope you will not mind a short post on bone marrow. My daughter has a friend in kindergarten (see who has a very rare blood disorder that eventually means her body will stop producing blood cells--unless she can get a blood marrow donation. To make things worse, her little brother has the same condition. The family has searched all over Germany (where we live) and hasn't been able to find a match yet, and now they're looking in the US. I can't imagine how devastating it must be to face the fact that you might lose both your kids, so I'm posting to encourage people to register.

How it works: with just a mouth swab or 5 ml of blood they can type your blood to see what kind you have. has information about this. I believe you can order a kit through the mail, even.

If you are a match for someone (and there's a 1 in 20,000 chance, which is why the more people who register, the better), there are three ways of getting those stem cells:

1. Cord blood donation. Actually, you can donate this without any kind of test beforehand. If you donate it to the public bank, it is free. You just need a collection agency connection with your hospital. Ask about it if you are pregnant. Even if there isn't one now, the more people who ask about it, the more supply and demand can get working. Cord blood is a one-time donation and identified by a specific number for that unit. You and your baby are not on any kind of list. (For those of you who were told it was prohibitively expensive to save your cord blood--if you save it for yourself, it's expensive, but if you release it "into the wild," it is free.)

2. A process much like giving plasma. You sit in a chair, they take your blood out of your arm and filter it through a machine to remove the stem cells, and return the rest of it to you. Your body regrows blood cells quickly, and there is no more danger or pain than giving blood or plasma.

3. The more traditional way, removing bone marrow. You are anesthetized, and with a small needle they remove some bone marrow from the back of your pelvic bone. You are sore for 2-3 days and your body completely replaces your donated marrow in 4-6 weeks. This is a small procedure, and contrary to common belief, has nothing to do with your spine and is not the same as donating an organ.

If you can't donate stem cells at the moment, but still want to help, you can also donate money to the bone marrow organization. I don't know the cost in the US, but the cost to type one sample in Germany is 50 Euro (more than $50 at present exchange rate). So if you're wanting to give a good gift to somebody this holiday season, consider the fact that you might be able to save the life of someone like Luise or Emil.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Plot/structure series part V

I think this will conclude the structure series, although if anything else comes to mind I'll come back and add to it. This section is on tension.

You need tension in your story to keep your reader reading. You've all read books that were too easy to put down and not come back to. Maybe the reasons are different for different people, but too much straying from the main problem, characters with weak desires and little motivation, and not enough conflict are all snooze factors for me. So here are a few ideas of ways to increase tension that I've gathered from a variety of sources (including many critiques of my own mss):

Add a time limit--if the MC can't retrieve the magical glowing turnip by midnight, the world will end in fire and stinky cabbage.

Give your character a plan; don't let them just react. If they're driving the story the tension will naturally rise.

Even as you answer one question for the reader, plant another. Always let there be something to pull the reader through the pages until they get that answer.

Be careful about ending a chapter too restfully or with the character too contented. If they're content, make sure the reader knows something the character doesn't--like, This Is Too Good to Last.

Agent Kristin Nelson once said in a post on conflict that conflict is personal. Who cares if you save the world--what the reader really wants to know is if she can save the relationship with her best friend.

Spill to the reader early on what your MC's worst fears are--and then make them face those very fears.

Put two characters with strong (opposing) desires together and let them strive to get what they want. If the reader knows that they can't both win, yet there is no easy out for either, they'll feel the tension.

Eliminate plot arcs and details that don't lead anywhere. (Here's where working backwards from the climax to what caused it can help you locate those tangents.) Likewise, remove descriptions not strictly needed, especially at the beginning, and in scenes of great conflict/tension.

Use short sentences for action scenes.

Remove the safety nets. Make failure a real possibility, with consequences. Yes, this might mean being mean to your character! Make them go it alone instead of with the help they were counting on.

And finally, make sure you have enough conflicts. Obviously your story is based on a choice your character has to make. But to follow Miss Snark's method, it's much more interesting when both choices hold a promise of something desirable, and a threat. Otherwise, it's a no-brainer. For a satisfying climax, your MC needs to sacrifice a little, and make a real choice. Then your reader can walk away satisfied that the MC has truly overcome.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plot/structure series part IV

Today's topic is the beginning and working in back story. You need to accomplish two things at the beginning: ground the reader in what is "normal" for your story/characters so that they have a sense of meaning when something truly different happens. At the same time, you need to present unsolved problems that suck the reader deeper into the story.

The overwhelming tendency is to put in way too much introductory material in the beginning. No matter how quirky your characters are, if they don't start doing something in the right-now of the story, you are going to lose your readers. We don't need to know about the dog they had when they were six, or how their dad used to make pancakes when they were small, or all the details of the fight that means the family isn't talking any more. We only need to know enough to follow the current action of the story. Give out your information on a need to know basis. Especially in the beginning, you are establishing What This Book is All About, and if you veer too far off with unnecessary background info, you mislead the reader into placing too much importance on something that doesn't bear fruit within the novel itself.

Less common is the problem of too much action, too soon, and we don't get enough of a sense of the character and setting to know how to interpret the action or feel for the character. I still say you need to do this briefly. Agent Rachel Vater has a little bit to say about this here--basically, that whatever action you start out with needs to come through the filter of emotion. So add that emotion to everything--your setting (are the clouds restrictive, chaining the MC with darkness and not letting them see the sun, or are they warm, protective, comforting?) , your character descriptions (snarky introductions, fearful, etc.), and the situation. My husband says that a few piercingly accurate details go a lot further than a lot of bland words.

Going back to only giving what the reader needs to know: this is not only a factor of keeping the beginning from being too slow. It's also an element that's important for drawing the reader through the whole book. If you always leave just one more question in the reader's mind, they'll be compelled to keep reading until they get that answer. This keeps your pacing tight and keeps your reader wanting more. Three excellent books that illustrate this are Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Dairy Queen, by Catherine Murdock, and Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. In Speak, you know something horrible happened, something more than the other classmates know, and you stick with the MC until she's ready to confront that. In Dairy Queen, you know something's not right with the family, but she doesn't tell you what happened until you're already invested in the story enough to make it mean something. If Murdock had just said to start out with that there was a fight, it wouldn't carry the weight it does when all is finally revealed later in the book. And Twilight is a series of questions (why does Edward react so strongly to Bella? Can he balance his conflicting desires? How will they ever work out the huge obstacles between them?)

Assignment: Look at these three books (or any other beginning you feel is particularly effective) and list the unanswered questions that arise in the first chapter. Now look at your own first chapter. Do you have enough unanswered questions? Do you have information in there that doesn't lead on to real-time events in the book, that you could delete?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Plot/structure series--part III

To me, plot is what happens when a bunch of characters are all working to accomplish something, only their desires and actions clash with each other. Only by either fighting through or working out a compromise can the main character win. (I suppose the MC could lose, too, but I don't like to read that kind of book. :)

Therefore (and this is most helpful once you have a draft to work with), you need to check the character arcs/plot lines of all your characters to make sure they are working properly. My checklist for each character includes the following:

1. What does the character want most?
2. What does the character fear most?
3. What is the character willing to sacrifice to get what they want?

It's a good idea if the things the character fears most then actually occur in the story. Those are the obstacles. I'd also hazard a guess that it's most effective when that thing the character fears most occurs at the hands of another character. It ups the tension and also binds the characters together so that your story feels whole and integrated.

With this at the top of the page, I then go through my draft and write a line for each thing that character does in the story, as found in the draft itself, not in the projections of my mind. I find it's very revealing! Characters drop out, motivations change, repetitions show up, and sometimes good things happen, too, like when I can see what really should be going on between two characters. Also, this is a good way to make sure everyone you've written in the story really belongs there. Can you tell the story without that person in it? If you removed that entire character arc, does the story stand alone? Likewise, you may find you're missing a character.

Plot happens because characters create it through their desires and choices.

Assignment: Write a character arc for each character in your draft and analyze how effective they are in the story.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Plot/structure series--part II

Okay, now that you've figured out just what's at stake in your ms and studied other books, it's time to make sure everything in the book feeds to that point. There's a piece of merry-go-round-like playground equipment by my house. It looks rather like a mushroom. It has a strong central pole. Ropes spread out in all directions from the top of the pole to connect a series of concentric rope circles. There are also a few support ropes down below to keep the thing steady. If you're a kid, you then climb on top and get someone to spin it, and around you go. This thing is like your plot. Maybe not every rope touches the central support pole--but every rope is inextricably tied to it. If you removed any one of the ropes, the thing wouldn't work. Think of your plot this way.

The most important part of the plot is that central pole, which is your main character. Remember last time? That central goal your MC has and his/her plan to reach that goal is your central pole. Which means that your MC has to be in the driver's seat. They need to react, true, but most of all, they need to be causing things to happen. When you have a series of events but they aren't causative, you get a sag in the action. When your MC acts, meets the consequences of the action, and reacts by making another choice, you get tension, rising action, and an interesting plot. No, that doesn't mean it has to be car chases. One of the loveliest "quiet" books with plenty of tension based on character choice and the consequences that follow is Cynthia Lord's Rules. Go read this book, it's put together extremely well. (Not to mention the lovely prose, likeable characters, and perfect mix of humor and poignancy.)

Assignment: Pick a few books in your genre and find the climax. Then, working backwards, ask yourself what caused this to happen? (And more importantly, who?) Trace the line of event to initiator all the way back to that first decision. Then do this with your own WIP.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Plot/structure series--part I

In the past year I've done a lot of full-ms critiques and I also spent the summer revising my own book for structural issues, so I've had plot on the brain this year. One thing I've noticed is that there's a lot more schrift given to sentence-level issues (dialogue tags, adverbs, etc.) than to structural issues in writing education. I suspect, however, that it's at the root of agent/editor rejections such as: "I'm not feeling the stakes," or "I like the MC but I'm not sure I'm feeling his struggle," or "The middle sags," or "You have a nice premise and nice writing, but I'm afraid I don't have the time to devote to getting this up to par." I hope if someone else out there is working on this issue they can join in the discussion and exchange ideas. Major resources on this topic include editor Cheryl Klein's many talks on plot, Miss Snark's crapometers, editor Thomas McCormack's book The Fiction Editor, and Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method.

The first point I want to bring out today is the importance of boiling your main plot down into a short sentence (okay, maybe three, max). This is important when you're writing the hook of a query; it's also important for making your whole novel hang together. I found three expert formulas for this:

1. Miss Snark says:

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

In the book itself, I think it needs to be pretty clear who your main character is right up front. The reader doesn't have to know who the bad guy is, but they do need to know that there is one. And--notice the double complication? If your MC has to choose between stealing (and going to jail) and not stealing (and having a happy, carefree life), that's a boring plot. You need compelling reasons to do (or not do) each option.

2. Add to that this important point paraphrased from Elizabeth Bunce (and many other writers/editors): what does your character do to overcome his/her obstacle? (Note: not "what happens" to make the obstacle fall, but what does the MC actually DO?) Draw a straight line between desire, obstacle, and the MC's ultimate act to overcome said obstacle to achieve goal.

3. Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method, which is where you basically start with a single sentence encapsulating the novel, and gradually expand from there.

Assignment: Pick ten books in the genre in which you write and boil each of them down to 1-3 sentences. Then do that for your own manuscript.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Emotional contact points

I recently came across this video of opera singer Paul Potts on a friend's blog, and while I very rarely spend time on YouTube, I've watched this a number of times since then. There's something about it that really hits me, and I think it's the same thing that makes me connect with a book on a deeper level. First, the execution is brilliant. Seriously, I could listen to that voice all day. And while I'm sure most people in that audience were not opera fans, they were unable to stay in their seats when he sang. Whatever their surface preferences, Potts managed to resonate on a level all of us share. Secondly, the story of who he is--a mobile phone salesman who grew up with a lot of bullies and has always struggled for self-confidence--made his victory all the sweeter. It's the underdog element, it's the getting-down-to-the-wire-before-all-is-lost element; in short, it's the things that make a reader unable to shut a book. I want to write things with humor and entertainment value, but at the same time, I want some point of the book to make that point of contact with my reader. I want to say, we're different people, we live totally different lives, and yet--we tap in to a deep, common well. I want to leave something for a reader to carry around and think about. To feel. I'm not entirely sure how to do this, but I think it does need to have a little humor mixed in for balance, and I think it's got to test the character more than they think they can be tested, and I think it's got to be both universal and specific.

Here are a few books that hit me this way:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
, when he walks into the forest in chapter 34.

A Little Princess
, on that extremely cold night in the attic, just before Sara was discovered by the next-door neighbor.

, when Catherine runs through the parking lot with Jason, as well as all the fishtank moments with David.

The House of the Scorpion
in the many moments where the MC struggles with having human feelings, yet believing he isn't a "real" person.

A Wrinkle in Time
, when Meg goes back to get Charles Wallace.

Obviously, most of these points are climactic moments. What makes these climaxes special is that I feel just how much the characters stand to lose if things don't work out.

What about you? What books do you carry around with you and don't want to let go? And what makes an emotional contact point for you?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What does it take to get published?

I think this is my hard questions page, and because of that I'm going to pinpoint some things that I think prevent people from getting published. (Disclaimer: I'm not published yet, so I include myself in the not-there-yets. Also, you are free to disagree with me, especially if you are a published author, an editor, or an agent. But after hanging out with writers and being one for the past many years, these are things I see as barriers.) And yes, I know there are a lot of variables that writers simply can't control, and sometimes timing and taste have more to do with it than the writing. But the variables are only part of it. So these are common problems I've seen and/or experienced:

Not willing to stick with a project and revise deep enough before sending it out. If you only lightly revise, you can send out your book before it's truly ready, and get rejected everywhere. Then if you decide to go back and do that revision after all, there's nowhere left to send it. Put the brakes on! Revise, take a break and work on something else, then come back and see if it's still as glorious as you thought it was the day you wrote "the end." It's hard to tell when it's time to truly pack away a ms. But there are some that get packed away that are almost there, and with a little more polish, might be somebody's favorite book. This is heartbreaking.

Revising one book for years at the expense of new, better books you could write. It's hard to find the line sometimes, but if you've really revised and gotten nowhere, maybe it's good to take a break and write something new. You can always come back to that first book once you've grown a bit and learned from other books.

Assuming you know all you need to already. Learn all you can. Read recent books. Take notes on books you read. Why did this one succeed? Read agent and editor blogs. Go to conferences. Hang out on boards like Verla Kay's. Read books on craft. Don't wait for information to magically drop into your head. It's your writing future; you are responsible for how much you choose to learn.

Discounting the value of critiques, especially the ones you do. It's not all about you. I've said this before, but you can learn more from critiquing others' works than you can from just getting crits of your own stuff.

5. Staying where it's too easy. Swim deep. Seek out opportunities to interact with writers whose skills are slightly above yours. Read books that editors use. If everyone who reads your stuff is only saying good things, maybe you need to find someone to critique your book who will be a little more...critical.

6. Lack of attention to craft. Work on these two things: nouns and verbs, and overall plot structure. The attention to word choice will help with voice, and the large-scale plot structure will make sure your book is a cohesive story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Things no writer wants to hear

Much of the time my writer friends and I spend is in trying to encourage each other and suggest ways to improve something that's already there. But there are those other things that we don't like to think about, that we gloss over and pretend aren't there. Today I'm daring to think about the big, bad things that make writers question their existence, and trying to see if there's any hope to be had. This is not directed at any particular situation; I'm just thinking about things I've felt in the past or been aware of, and since I'm having a fairly good day at the moment, it's probably a good day to confront these issues. But if you are having a bad day, have just gotten a rejection or are questioning why you are even writing at all, DO NOT READ THIS.

1. Your writing is good, there's nothing really "wrong" with your book, and it isn't a clear clone of something else--it just doesn't stick out enough to sell. That is bad news because if enough people say that, there may be something wrong with the core of your book. Like, you might have to just scrap it altogether. RIP. Thinking about this, though, I wonder if a story that "doesn't stick out enough" is another way of saying that "it isn't personal enough." Maybe there's still hope if you dig deep enough and reveal enough of yourself that it starts to hurt? (This is probably tied to the elusive "voice.")

2. You pay big $$ to go to a writing event and an editor raves about how much they love your work. You send in your stuff to them and hope, and a year goes by before you get a [form] rejection. What went wrong? I've heard editors and agents say how incredibly hard it is to reject someone to their face. They want to encourage writers. But encouraging someone to keep on writing until they get there and seeing something that's ready right now are two different things. Again, looking for hope: they may see the kernel of talent in you and want to encourage that, if even you aren't there quite yet.

3. You write a book. You go through critique and revision multiple times. You have major Good Vibes about writing being your thing, and about this book. You get all rejections back. Say you even feel confirmation that Writing is What God Wants You to Do, and yet, things don't work out. Well, now we get into questions of self-worth and maybe even God, and How Could He Let This Happen? Since I hang out with writers/artists as well as religious people (including people who are both), this is something I am well familiar with. The hard fact: yes, your book can be the best thing you have ever written. You can feel inspired as you write. But it can still not be at the level of craft it needs to be. And this is a very hard thing to take. Looking for hope: the market might not match what you're doing right now. True. But also, if you're willing to make the sacrifice, there might be more in it for you than you originally dreamed of. I like to think of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, who got off as much dragon skin as he could in that pool in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But it wasn't enough. And when Aslan came and tore off huge clods, it hurt. But that was the only way he could reach his goal/potential. Maybe you aren't there yet. But I still say to listen to those voices that tell you Writing is For You if you feel them, because the potential you're capable of reaching has got to be even better than what you can imagine right now. So keep working.

Okay. End of depression warning!

On agents

While revising one book and working on a new one, I've been paying a lot of attention to other people's agent searches. Especially to the searches that are for a second agent. One thing I notice is that people who are on a second agent have not necessarily parted ways because the agent couldn't sell their first book. Maybe the agent had a YA romance connection (because they normally sell adult romance), and when the author wanted to do a YA historical mystery, the agent was out of their element. In other words, the range in which the author and agent overlapped was very small. One thing I have heard more than once is that an agent, even a good one at a good agency, needs to have connections in the genre you write in. Which means that you can have an awesome bigname agent in adult lit, but that doesn't mean they can sell a midgrade novel. Or even YA.

I'm willing to allow for first-timers because everyone has a first time. But I still think that even if you're an agent who's decided to branch out into the YA market, you have to know something--and love something--about that kind of book. It HAS to be more than seeing dizzy dollar signs after the words "Harry Potter." An agent has the right to ask how serious an author is about their career and where they see themselves in the publishing world. But I think an author should also find out where that agent's heart is. What their favorite books in your genre are, what their favorite recent books in your genre are, why they like yours, and where they see you and your work fitting into the market. I know that is something important for me as I research agents. Just like the form rejection you see floating around, you can't just like the genre--"in this business, it's gotta be love."

On critiques and critiquers

I've recently done a rather large-scale revision and now it's out with quite a number of guinea pigs--er, critiquers--who I hope don't regret volunteering for the job. Now I'm waiting rather nervously and trying not to think about the reactions I'm going to get. I like getting critiques because I want to improve, but I have a hope that someday I'll pass inspection, at least with an A-. Anyhow, I've been thinking of the kinds of critiquers one could choose, and their usefulness (or not). So here's my evaluation. (And in case you're wondering, I sent my ms to all awesome critiquers!)

The reader who loves you and can't bear to criticize anything. They don't get how critiques work. They can be great ego-boosters if they like it, but if they don't, you are unlikely to ever hear the title of your work ever cross their lips. I had one like that once. If I were to attempt another crit with this person, I'd make a list of question for them to answer so they didn't feel afraid of a personal attack.

The reader who thinks a critique is ONLY a criticism. Again, not so helpful, because if you don't know what you're doing right, you don't know what direction to go in. A good critique lets you know the good stuff, too. I haven't had one of these, but I've known people who have.

The reader who doesn't get the book/genre. This can be a very frustrating experience. The reader wants something that you were never intending to write, and their comments are either critical because you aren't doing that, or suggesting you change the very nature of your story. Again, questions here would be helpful for the reader. Unfortunately you usually don't realize this until you get your critique back.

On the other hand, the reader who doesn't normally read your genre can be a useful kind of critiquer because they will notice things that other minds will skim over out of familiarity with the conventions. They can be very helpful in recognizing how well the story works as a story. So don't discount this critiquer!

The reader whose writing ability/publishing experience is slightly above yours. Awesome. Remember to be this critiquer for someone else as well.

The reader who is an expert on some technical element of your story. Again, awesome. Although, realize that while they might be a trained psychologist, they may not be a trained plot-ologist. But if you have an expert on hand for some element of your story, that's a good thing.

The reader who reads widely in your genre and connects with the main point of what you're trying to do with your book, and who also can articulate themselves well. Awesome. Bingo, bingo, bingo.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Writing education the cheap way

When I was about twelve I got my parents' permission to apply to a distance writing course. I'm sure they had NO IDEA how much it cost. Lucky for them, I was rejected on the grounds of being under 18. (Are you wondering if those writing courses advertised in the back of magazines ever reject anyone? Now you know.) I thought at the time that I'd wait until I was old enough and try again. So I took a look at the ripe age of 32. I was old enough, but the price was impossible.

I also heard about wonderful multi-day conferences with editors in the field, about expensive critiques with professionals (real ones, not people who just take your $$ and pretend to know what they're doing), and MFA programs. Well, I have an MA already, and it isn't in writing, because I didn't know there was such a thing at the time. And it isn't in anything that pays a lot, either. Considering that most of these things, valuable though they may be, are completely out of my price range could be rather depressing.

Or not.

I'm now convinced that you can get a fantastic writers' education if you're willing to pay in effort and not just in hard, cold cash. If you have access to the internet, you have a library card, and you know how to make friends, you can do this, too.

1. Read. Read the kind of books you want to write. You can't be a writer if you don't like to read. Pay attention to what works in the books. Pay attention to the things that throw you out of the story. Write down a sentence describing each scene of a book that works for you to get a sense of how it's all put together. Look at the words. Look especially at the nouns and verbs. Look at the lack of excessive adverbs in published books. Look at the fact that it's the rhyme as much as the rhythm in a successful rhyming picture book. Look at books published recently. Don't rely on something you read twenty years ago.

2. Read books on writing. More specifically, read the ones that relate to what you write. I write children's books (mostly YA). Books by people who like stories about 40-year-old adults who vacation in the Bahamas are less helpful than books by editors of children's books. Books on revising and editing can be extremely helpful because they apply to more than one genre. A highly technical one that is excellent is The Fiction Editor, by Thomas McCormack. You may have to take notes as you read to understand it, like I did. But it's a good one.

3. Write. Discipline yourself to write regularly according to the schedule that works for you. Connections with People in Publishing Power are all well and good, but you still need a saleable work. The writing itself is the first priority.

4. Use the internet. I can't say enough for sites like or They are not only places to find answers to your questions, they are a community that will support you as you support them. Be friendly and helpful. Share. People have shared so much with me this way. I hope to do the same. On the internet you can find resources like, where you can research agents who represent the things you write. You can find editor and agent blogs, as well as author web sites. You can personalize your approach to writing so much more this way than if you just read the one-size-fits-all writing book, copyright 1978, that you found on your library shelf. You may even find conference notes on the internet. So many people are so generous in sharing their thoughts and impressions from conferences. Be generous and share when you have the opportunity to go.

5. Join a critique group, or find a critique partner. This is the single biggest educational step I've made. I don't doubt that it's an amazing experience to get a critique from a top editor in your field. But it's also pretty amazing to exchange a manuscript with someone and be forced to identify and explain just why some things work and others don't. It's especially helpful when you realize that the problem in the book you're critiquing is also one you have--and you've just articulated how to solve it. And, when you see another writer excel in something you're struggling with, that example goes a lot farther than a made-up example in a writing book. One manuscript I read had the most delectable prose I'd ever eaten--er, read--that ever after I've paid particular emphasis to nouns and verbs, hoping to raise the bar a bit on my own writing. In the past month I've done quite a number of critique exchanges, and every one of them has taught me something different.

Writing the cheap way is a time investment, as well as an investment of willpower and attention. But knowing what I do now, do I wish I'd had it easy?

No way. So I guess I'm glad for that rejection when I was twelve.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (no spoilers)

Given my last post on how much there is to learn from Harry Potter, I feel like I need to mention some of the things I particularly loved about Deathly Hallows. (This is largely my post from Verla Kay's board, with the spoilers removed and some more writing-specific commentary added, in case it looks familiar.)

Was it satisyfing? It was very satisfying. Rowling has laid in so many plots and subplots in her books that it's amazing she was able to bring them to a satisfying conclusion. I know that there is always advertising hype like "this book/series is the next Harry Potter!" but I don't think such a thing is possible. (And I hope not, since I'd rather be a great writer of my own, instead of just a next Somebody Else, wouldn't you?) But seriously, this...series, or story, is different. And I don't mean because of hype and advertising. I doubt anyone will achieve such a complicated yet satisfying story for a long, looooong time to come. What I continue to find astounding is that it's all there in book 1. The whole story, sort of in zip form. Even all the way down to the last book, there were so-called background details from the very first book that ended up being very significant to the entire plot. It's more than just keeping a list of what color eyes different characters have, or what houses they're in or whatever; it's keeping track of motivations, backstories, interactions that is something that JKR does extremely well. I love her ability to surprise (and since she's able to pull it off for more than one book, she's rather good at it). She's very good at giving you what you think is the truth--and it is, only it's not the whole truth, and time and again, she's able to surprise the reader by giving more of the truth at the right moment, and suddenly you find yourself restructuring the story into something completely different. She's created so many characters to care about, and she cares about them, too, following up all of their little stories. Millions of people have fallen in love with her characters. Why? I think it's because although she exposes their weaknesses, she's not afraid to show us the characters at their most heroic. So many are so flawed, yet at the same time are able to recognize the challenges that really matter, and give their all to get them right. We feel for the characters because we recognize our own weaknesses in them, and we long to be the heroes they are.

Something else I enjoyed--sometimes the myth or thematic overtones of a one-of-a-kind book can get a little too big. I'm sorry, throw tomatoes at me, but at some point in Lord of the Rings, i couldn't really relate to Frodo anymore. His experiences and ultimate challenge were so exalted and so far removed from me that just couldn't keep the connection. Instead, it was Sam who was Everyman, Sam who I found I could hang out with. All of which made the LOTR reading experience a little strange to me. Despite all the climactic events of HP, though, I never lost touch with Harry. He's heroic in so many ways, yet he's always human and imperfect and vulnerable, and so we can still relate to him.

Themes I loved:
miracles and magic
second chances
gifts, and yet the importance of our choices--such a very big theme

In the days since reading Deathly Hallows, I haven't done very much reading or writing. And that's okay. Sometimes you need to take the time to enjoy the awe.

Cheers to Harry Potter--the Boy Who Lived!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Falling in love (with a character)

As a reader (and a writer), I'd say that probably the single greatest feat to accomplish at the start of a book is to make your reader fall in love with the main character. If a reader can feel what that character feels, can live through his/her dreams and pain and joy, then that reader will be hooked on the rest of the story. As I've been rereading Harry Potter (not unlike the rest of the Muggle world!), I've been taking particular notice of this, and I think there are two main questions that every writer needs to ask him/herself:

Why do I like this character?

Why am I invested in his/her struggle?

I think one thing that makes us fall in love is a mix of heroic qualities and everyday weaknesses. We see both ourselves as we really are, but also as we yearn to be. Take Harry in the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix. He's just lived through the worst experience of any wizard's life, and as a reward, he's gotten to go back to the Dursleys, who treat him like dung. Not only that, but instead of talking to him like an initiated adult, the wizards he trusts are now keeping him in the dark regarding Voldemort's activities. When he and Dudley meet up in the park, it all comes to a boil, and it's all he can do not to stun Dudley into smithereens with magic. We feel his very human temptations, especially since we know how justified he is in wanting Dudley to finally get his due. And yet, he fights it. That's the heroic part. He fights as hard as he can to keep himself from hurting Dudley, even rescues him from the dementors. His positive choice, mixed with the very real and justifiable temptation makes him believable, yet heroic. When he saves Dudley, it isn't because it's a "duty," it's because it's the decent thing to do--and Harry is a decent person.

That fighting against oneself or one's instincts works in other books, too. Take Edward Cullen, trying very hard not to eat his girlfriend Bella in the vampire book Twilight. Or Catherine in Rules, who has that glorious moment running through the parking lot with Jason, yet is too afraid to mention Jason's handicaps to the girl next door, in case the girl won't want to be her friend. The gap between weakness and potential makes our characters vulnerable and likeable.

Another thing that makes us fall in love is how a character consciously works to meet his/her challenges. Take Bobby in Things Not Seen, who wakes up one morning to find he's gone invisible. He's scared, but despite his fear, he forms a plan and goes to work to solve his problem. No reader wants a character who just sits around and wrings their hands. Like Bobby, Gen in The Thief has a plan, too. The other characters treat him rotten, and he plays along with them--but no one that crass would have the beauty of storytelling like Gen does, and with this the author clues us in that Gen acts the way he does on purpose, and even enjoys it.

A third thing that makes us fall in love is seeing what's inside a character, even if no one else has figured it out yet. Levin in Anna Karenina is too shy to talk to Kitty, but when she's not around, we see what a wonderful person he is! We cross our fingers and hold our breath, hoping he'll finally find a way to tell her how he feels. DJ Schwenk in Dairy Queen thinks and feels so much, and yet, true to Schwenk form, can't manage to say any of the things that would raise her above the herd she feels so trapped inside.

Falling in love with the character is a huge part of the book, but not all of it. To keep a reader reading, the tension needs to rise, and the reader needs to stay invested in the character's struggle. This happens as the character's desires grow in tandem with his or her opposition. Going back to Phoenix, we know Harry is telling the truth because we saw what happened to him. Rowling didn't just tell us, she showed us. And just when Harry thinks he'll be getting support, he gets called a liar, instead. The greater his need for support, the less he gets, which makes his case seem more and more just. By the time he gets detention from Umbridge, the reader is burning for justice. If you think of what your character wants most, and then throw the worst thing to prevent that, you've got tension, you've got action--and you've got a reader glued to the pages, wanting to fight for your character.


Write a scene to make the reader feel indignant on your character's behalf. Do this by showing what the character really wants, and prevent them from getting it. Give them a taste of a dream, then rip it away. Show the reader the truth, and then have no one believe what really happened.

Write a scene that makes you feel sympathetic for the character even though he may be making a bad choice or may be doing something that others will look down on.

Write a scene in which your character shows positive attributes in the midst of an otherwise bleak situation. They have a plan, they see the silver lining, they go out of their way to be nice to someone when they could justifiably wallow, instead.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

My illustration

While I am primarily focused on young adult novels, I have also sold illustration in the past. A brief sampling of mostly small children. I love the body language of toddlers, with their full cheeks, heavy heads, and spindly bodies.

All images copyright Rose Green. Please do not use without permission!


Writing and reading:

Verla Kay
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
Editor Cheryl Klein's website and blog
Agent Rachel Vater's blog
Agent Kristin Nelson's blog

Editorial Anonymous, children's editor
the Longstockings
Blue Rose Girls
Fuse #8, blog of a NYC children's librarian (lots of book reviews)
Deliciously Clean Reads (more book reviews)


Castles in Germany
South Carolina plantations

Reading list

A few of my favorite books (grouped by age):

Picture books:

Asimov, Isaac. The Best New Thing
Bang, Molly. The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher
Bulla, Robert Clyde. The Moon Singer
Cole, Joanna, and Bruce Degen. The Magic School Bus books
David Wisniewski, Golem and others
De Bruhoff, Laurent and Jean. The Babar books
Fox, Mem and Helen Oxenbury. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
Glen, Maggie. Ruby
Hamilton, Virginia. The Girl Who Spun Gold
Henkes, Kevin. Weekend with Wendall and all the Lilly books
Ian Falconer, the Olivia books
Ludwig Bemelmans. Madeline
Marla Frazee. Everywhere Babies, Roller Coaster, and others
McCloskey, Robert. Blueberries for Sal
Perkins, Al. Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb
Raven, Margot Theis. Circle Unbroken
Ravensburger (publisher), Wieso, Weshalb, Warum series
Say, Allan. Grandfather's Journey
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup with Rice
Seuss, Dr. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Hop on Pop in particular
Shannon, David. The David books
Sis, Peter. The Three Golden Keys
Smith, Lane. The Happy Hocky Family
Velthjuis, Max. The Frog books
Wiesner, David. Sector 7 and others
Fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang and the Grimm brothers

I also like the following illustrators:

Tasha Tudor
Trina Schart Hyman
David Small
Ted Lewin
E.B. White
N.C. Wyeth
Chris Van Allsburg

Favorite graphic novels:

Hale, Shannon and Dean and Nathan Hale-no-relation, Rapunzel's Revenge
Tan, Shaun, The Arrival

Favorite novels (midgrade and YA):

Alexander, Lloyd. The Chronicles of Prydain
Anderson, M.T. Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware.
Anderson, R.J. Ultraviolet
Barber, Antonia. The Ghosts
Birdsall, Jeanne. The Penderwicks
Bloor, Edward. London Calling
Bowler, Tim. Firmament
Boyce, Frank Cottrell. Cosmic
Bracken, Alexandra. Brightly Woven
Bunce, Elizabeth C. A Curse Dark as Gold, Starcrossed
Burnett, Frances Hodson. A Little Princess
Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Does My Shirts
Clements, Andrew. Things Not Seen
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. Arthur series and especially Gatty's Tale (Crossing to Paradise in the American edition)
Cushman, Karen. Midwife's Apprentice.
Dahl, Roald. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach
Dolamore, Jaclyn. Magic Under Glass
Dixon, Heather. Entwined
Duncan, Lois. A Gift of Magic
Eager, Edward. Half Magic
Fagan, Deva. Circus Galacticus
Farmer, Nancy. House of the Scorpion
George, Jessica Day. Tuesdays at the Castle
Gier, Kerstin. Ruby Red
Hale, Shannon. River Secrets. Also Rapunzel's Revenge
Hoffman, Mary. Stravaganza series.
Ibbotson, Eva. The Star of Kazan and also Journey to the River Sea
Jean Ferris, Love Among the Walnuts
Jones, Diana Wynne. Fire and Hemlock and Howl’s Moving Castle and the Dalemark Quartet
Langton, Jane. The Diamond in the Window
Law, Ingrid. Savvy and its sequel Scumble
Leavitt, Lindsey. Sean Griswold's Head 
L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time.
Levine, Gail Carson. Ella Enchanted
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia
Lord, Cynthia. Rules.
McDonald, George. The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblin
McKinley, Robin. Beauty, The Blue Sword
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight
Montgomery, LM. Anne of Green Gables
Moss, Jenny. Winnie's War
Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Dairy Queen.
Nesbit, E. The House of Arden
Oppel, Kenneth, Airborn
Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard
Rex, Adam. The True Meaning of Smekday
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter
Sachar, Louis. Holes
Sanderson, Brandon. Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians
Schröder, Rainer M. Abby Lynn: Verbannt ans Ende der Welt
Sonnenblick, Jordan. Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie
Speare, Elizabeth George. The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races
Stork, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World.
Temple, Frances.The Ramsey Scallop
Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief
Vande Velde, Vivian. Now You See It
Van Draanen, Wendelin. Flipped.
Webster, Jean. Daddy Long-Legs
White, Robb. The Lion's Paw.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie series
Williams, Sarah DeFord. Palace Beautiful
Wrede, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief

Books for adults:

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre
Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White
Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River
Fforde, Jasper. The Eyre Affair
Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Henderson, Zenna. The People short stories
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables
Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from The Periodic Table of the Elements
Meyer, Stephenie. The Host
Newman, Sharan.
Peters, Elizabeth
Peters, Ellis. Never Pick Up Hitchhikers! and other mysteries (especially the modern ones)
Pratchett, Terry. Discworld series.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night
Tey, Jacqueline. Brat Farrar
Nonfiction by the Leakeys
Thor Heyerdahl
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina
Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog
Winspeare, Jacqueline, Maisie Dobbs

For writers

This is for people who want to write a children's/YA book, or at least find out how the whole process works.

First, a quick word on what children's/YA books are not. They are not

Preachy sermons (Struwwelpeter doesn't fly these days, sorry)
Excuses for giving kids guilt trips (How Tommy Conceded His Mom was Right, and Cleaned Up His Room)
Long, badly-metered rhymes about Timmy Teapot and Patsy Potholder
Condescending, because after all, kids are "dumber" than adults

(If you don't know what's wrong with these examples, you should definitely a) spend more time with actual children, and b) read some books published in the last five years)

So what makes a good book?

That is a subjective question! For me, it's a book that has

interesting, complex characters I can relate to
who DO something
which has a palpable effect on themselves, others, or Life in General
and has a conclusion
(that gives hope).

(It's a given that the book is written in clean, strong prose.)

How do you write a book?

That varies per person. Generally the writer sees or hears something that sparks an idea, and from there the story unfolds. I ask a lot of "what if?" questions about my characters. What if these two people were together in a room? What would they do? What if this happened to my main character? What choices would s/he make? And eventually a storyline starts to emerge. Then you write a first draft.

That's first draft. As in, the first of many. Every book goes through numerous revisions until the prose is just right and the story tells only what needs to be told, and no more. Editor Cheryl Klein has some excellent resources on revision once you have that first draft. Most writers show their writing to trusted friends to help them catch parts they may not have explained well enough, or places that are confusing, or wording that's unclear. It's important to find someone (or some-ones) who will both see where you are trying to take your book and can explain where you're going off course.

After you and your critique buddies have done your best, the book is ready to go out into the world and be seen by editors and/or agents--and once it's acquired, it undergoes the same process all over again, until it's ready to be printed and distributed to bookstores. (Moral: critiques don't go away, so develop that dragon hide!)

How do I get an agent and/or editor?

Check out the links below to find agent/editor listings, or look in the yearly Children's Writers and Illustrators Market. Follow the directions for the house/agency you are interested in. For picture books, you often send the whole text (typed straight through onto a couple pages) and a cover letter. For longer works, you most often send a query letter (see for how to do that) and sometimes sample chapters. If they like it, they'll ask to see more.

When submitting a query and/or manuscript, be sure to follow industry standard formatting. (The Children's Writers and Illustrators Market can help you there.) Trust me, no agent or editor will be impressed by the following:

Handwritten text
A manuscript bound up like a "real book"
Anything in
weird fonts on colorful paper (Times New Roman and Courier are standard)
Anything encased in paper mache sculpture
A submission accompanied by letters from your lawyer or glamour pictures of yourself

So, I can get rich quick if I write some children's books, right?

Uh, no. Publishing works at a glacial pace, and has few monetary returns, especially in children's books. Also, writing children's books is NOT easier than writing for adults.

All the same…

Keep in mind that money flows to the author. If you ever encounter an "agent" or an "editor" who wants you to pay them to do their job, run. They are not legitimate. Yes, an agent gets a commission--on books they've sold. Not before.

Some excellent links for children's writers: (Not just for children's. Check out the forums for researching agents/editors.) and for agent research to see what books have won awards lately (Cheryl Klein's site) (Cheryl Klein's blog) (agent Rachel Vater's blog) (agent Kristin Nelson's blog)

Read every day, write every day, and enjoy the process!

My writing


"Keeping an Eye on Contests," SCBWI Bulletin, Jan/Feb 2008, p. 22.
"Internet Resources Every Children's Writer Should know," SCBWI Michigan News, Nov/Dec 2006, p. 4.