Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hotdogs & Spiders: creations of the muse or reality?

When I’m writing and come up with something that makes a scene shine and feels unique, I like to think it came from thin air, from a muse or some magical well of inspiration. But often--much like with dreams--I discover the real source of the inspiration is something much closer to home.

Last week, I wrote a scene where the only thing left in the fridge for breakfast was hotdogs. Personally, I hate hotdogs and the thought of chopping uncooked hotdogs into a bowl, covering them with milk and eating them like cereal is disgusting.

However when I finished the scene I was hungry, so I headed downstairs to make my breakfast. And, to my disgust and surprise, there was my husband standing by the fridge with a raw hotdog hanging out of his mouth like a cigar. I’d probably seen him do this a million times and shoved the image to the back of my mind—until my main character opened that nearly empty fridge and reached for her breakfast.

Then came the spiders.  

I have a scene in my WIP where a not so human character is laying on her four-poster bed watching spiders spin a canopy over it. Creepy and perfect, I thought as I turned off my computer and headed for my four-poster bed . . . Yeah, you guessed it.  

Last winter, I had a spider invasion that I had totally forgotten about. Every night when I went to bed, I’d look up and there’d be a couple of them glaring down at me from the ceiling. And it seemed last winter’s invasion had started again. While I was writing, my mind had registered a new web stretching from my headboard to the ceiling.

What about you? How often do you discover that your creative ideas have a basis in reality, even if you’ve temporarily blocked it from your mind?

For extra credit or if you’re simply curious about why spiders are inside your house, check this out.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This is Not an Introduction

I promised by fellow blog writers that I would post an introduction consisting of insightful questions (from them) and witty answers (from me) no later than Friday, July 22nd.

This is not Friday. And this is not that post.

In my defense, I wrote several witty answers while on a plane Thursday. Unfortunately, they are frozen in my documents folder and refuse to budge from there. And I do not have the brain power to work it out just now. Or transcribe it. Hence, my Non-Introduction Post.

Also in my defense, my week in review:

Saturday (eight days ago), a For Sale sign went up in front of our house in Utah.

Monday--after several hours spent removing all sign of actual humans living in our house, a photographer took photos and video for the realtor.

Tuesday I had minor outpatient surgery.

Wednesday we celebrated my youngest's 10th birthday (which is actually today--but keep reading my week) and had the first showing of our house.

Thursday morning my husband and I flew to Boston for a week-long house hunting trip in advance of our cross-country move IN LESS THEN THREE WEEKS!

Friday we toured ten houses in seven hours on the hottest Boston day in eighty-five years. (Serious rant here--if you're asking more than 800,000 dollars for your house, maybe invest 10,000 in air conditioning.)

Yesterday we went back to our top three houses and tried to decide between the "small/needs work/good bones" house, the "isolated but great kitchen and floors" house, and the "expensive, fabulous family room/wooded backyard" house.

And we sold our Utah house. Over the phone. For more than asking price.

Today we made an offer on the wooded backyard house. We were countered. We have countered back. We are waiting for the phone to ring again. And eating room service pizza.

So as much as I would like to tell you why I have a white garden in one of my novels and why I love to make corsets and what five websites I can't live without, it will have to wait.

However, I finally have the confidence to announce the following: I am a writer of historical fiction.

And I have the contract in hand to prove it.

I sold a trilogy at auction to Ballantine on June 2nd and tonight I finally put pen to paper and signed the deal.

What might have happened if Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had had a son--but their daughter Elizabeth still became queen? Watch for The Boleyn King in the fall of 2012 for book one of my answer.

And I promise that my next post will be an insightful/witty/long-delayed introduction.

Also, I love my fellow bloggers--Patty, Suzanne, Ginger, and Becca, thank you for your inordinate patience and kindness this summer. I promise that once I move to Boston in a few weeks, I will be pouring out words. (I also promise my agent and editor the same.)

And maybe I'll be (slightly) less flaky.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Because Pacing Isn't Just for Runners

I recently got feedback on my novel, 13 Demon Days, from an editor judge of a local writing contest. Given that 13DD is out on submission and that I have more than one agent reading a full, I snatched up the scoring sheet and read it with anxious interest.

But it wasn't good news.

My numeric scores were okay--she actually rated me fairly high for marketability. But in the comments section she wrote:

"This is a gripping beginning. While I like the clash of everyday with the magical, it seems a bit too fast-paced and jarring. I struggled to understand what was happening and how I was meant to feel about it all."

I confess, I did that most cliche of all character behaviors--I bit my lip. My story does start pretty fast, and it isn't just the beginning that's on caffeine. It rips along at a good clip throughout. And what good does it do to have a fascinating story if the reader can't keep up, and feels left in the dust? Now, to be fair, the editor in question is with a small press that specializes in quiet, lyrical books. But she brings up a good question. How fast is too fast? How does a writer know when the pacing is right?

Well, I'm obviously no expert, but I think it depends on the story. Some stories will unfold slowly, like a rose coming into bloom. Others are more like the flight of a hummingbird, darting here and there. Story pacing should be a reflection of the characters, as it's their story being told. If your character is given to introspection and takes time to savor the sunsets, the story should reflect that. Otoh, if the character is maybe just a tad hyperactive and can't walk through a room without setting something off, the plot of the story will need to keep up with this very active protagonist.

And what about the reader? I suspect pacing is a matter of taste, but I know it's my goal to write books that will reach as wide an audience as possible. In the case of the contest editor, I missed my reader. The story didn't do enough leisurely showing, and maybe could have used a bit more setting and pov contemplation. I feel the pace reflects the characters well and is about the pace my audience--young teens--would like...but I confess that I'm not one hundred percent sure. In fact, in my next novel, I plan to make an effort to slow down just a bit. Because as the story's narrator, I want my reader to feel emotionally grounded in my characters and fascinated by the unfolding story, and that might mean going slower. Spending more time establishing setting. Stopping to watch the rose as it blooms, and maybe plucking it off to take home as well.

What makes for good pacing, in your mind? How fast is too fast, and what would you consider too slow?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Five Things I Learned at Tanglewood's Author Retreat

I just returned from a retreat put on by my publisher where a handful of us authors--well, a handful and a thumb--learned about the business, hiked in the woods and got a glimpse of the great books Tanglewood is publishing soon. Here are five of my personal highlights.

1.  Great school presentations can be made by telling stories about your stories. And don't forget the props! If you've stumbled upon dinosaur poop in your ramblings, by all means, stick it in a backpack and take it on tour. Thank you, my newest hero, Audrey Penn.

2. Mushrooms are actually flowers of a usually unseen fungus. Oyster mushrooms grow on wood, smell like anise and taste delicious. Destroying Angel mushrooms grow on dirt, smell like anise and taste delicious--right before they dissolve your liver. I have been sternly forbidden by a mushroom specialist to ever pick and eat my own mushrooms, although he picked a few for us. I still didn't dare taste one after the whole liver thing...maybe if there had been butter involved. I think death might be better with butter.

3. My new guru of social media, Mike Mullin, isn't sure if all his tweeting is of value in selling books because he's just having a great time. Personally, I think he should get a clue of how well it's working from the 1500 ARCs of the debut novel ASHFALL he signed at ALA. The interesting part is that the book's premise (a super volcano erupts in Yellowstone) might be getting him those fans all by itself. Still, you should check out Mike's great blog "How I earned 8600 Twitter Followers in 8 Months" because all those contacts certainly aren't hurting. You can also link up with Mike on Facebook, Goodreads and pretty much anywhere else authors are found on the web.

4. Fireflies are the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. Better than aerial fireworks in my cul-de-sac on the fourth of July. AND I HELD ONE! Sometimes there are things on your bucket list you don't  realize are there until they're sitting in front of you, flashing.

5. Katie McKy does a whole heap of school presentations each year that include leaf blowers, putting teachers in time out and picking a fight with the school bully. If you have a chance to see her in action, VIDEO IT FOR ME! She says great presenters keep the kids off balance, get them riled up and pull them back into focus all while re-booting their brains with physical action every fifteen minutes. I'm not sure anyone does it like Katie, but it sure sounds fun to try.

Well, for the rest of what I learned you'll have to visit these amazing authors' sites (Ashlee Fletcher, Carmen Fereiro-Esteban) and check out the best publicist ever: Rebecca Grose (you know you're my favorite, right?)

6. Ah, heck. Let's make it six of the coolest things I learned. You're an author. Sure you're in a collaborative business, but in the end it's your business. Expect to do a lot yourself while being supported by your fellow authors, your publisher and your wonderful fans. But publicity doesn't just happen to you. You make your own luck.

Thanks all, and thanks to Peggy at Tanglewood for the adventures, education and weenie roast.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Discovering New Settings

I love exploring new places. Not only does it give me a chance to study people and eavesdrop on their conversations, it also allows me to experience possible new story settings first hand. And interesting settings can take a scene or story from mundane to fresh and exciting.
This week I visited two such places.
This was actually my second trip to The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts .

The bridge and its gardens are amazing. It was built in the early 1900’s as a trolley bridge. About twenty years later, the trolley line was discontinued and the bridge transformed into a suspended garden.  As a setting for a story it could be used in many different ways.
 It’s easy to imagine the bridge as a setting in a historical novel. What would it have felt like to walk across the bridge when the trolleys first stopped running and then as it transformed into an amazing garden with wisteria curling up lampposts, and fragrant roses arching over stone benches? As a setting, the transforming bridge could be used to mirror the main character’s inner journey.
Whether the story is set in the past or contemporary, I’m left wondering: what would it be like to live overlooking the water or in the bridge’s shadow, to always see the bridge’s stark metal lines, its flowers so full of life and color--but also so exposed to the elements.

Romance. Murder. Loss or love. The Bridge of Flowers seethes with possibilities.  What would it feel like to stand on the bridge and watch as the seasons move toward winter? What does it feel like to run barefoot across it—or to lie on the path at midnight looking up at the stars or with the rain pounding down?  What emotions could this setting make the reader feel?

The second place I visited was Magic Wings in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. 
It’s mainly a live butterfly conservatory. But it also has loads of other cool and freaky, living things:  walkingsticks of all kinds, lizards, tropical birds, a display of hatching chrysalises, giant cockroaches…tropical plants, blooming and in all shades of green.  

Unlike the bridge, Magic Wings feels tight and secret, small hidden things, flashes of movement, glimpses of color, layers of undergrowth hiding living treasures and all held captive within a secure building. It’s an environment filled with natural wonder, but at the same time an environment controlled by man and machines.  As a setting it would have a very different feel than the bridge.
It’s easy to think of a story where the characters are trapped in the conservatory. But what about using it in a more subtle way? What about a woman who is struggling to find freedom in her own life? Wouldn’t this be a great setting to put her story in, at least for a scene or two? What if she worked with the butterflies or in the conservatory’s restaurant?   What if she was a new immigrant to America? What about setting a futuristic story in a butterfly conservatory?

Okay. You get the idea. And I’m not going to give away all the ideas I got.
How about you? Where have you explored lately—and how could you use those settings in a story?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Linking It All Together

I love the internet! In fact, I don't even pretend to be able to function without it. I mean, sure I could technically go without it for awhile...but I could also theoretically go without food for a couple weeks. Why would I want to?

So in honor of the Fourth and because I'm personally celebrating the internet today, here are a few links from our cabinet (i.e., Favorites bar) to yours. First the writerly ones, 'cause we're all pretending to be back to work today. Here's a link to John Brown's truly excellent discussion of suspense and what makes a story compelling. First Page Panda has some great examples of how to pull that off in the first page, not to mention plenty of teasers to give you the must-go-spend-on-Amazon itch. And while we're on the writing kick, here's a youtube of an informative chat where Martha Alderson of Blockbuster Plots talks about the importance of setting. Most of these links were new to me, but they've got some great stuff for writers!

Another cool link, because this is the Cabinet after all, is this one to Archaeology in Europe. Go check it out, and see if you don't finally click away hours later with your head full of ideas!

Lastly but certainly not leastly, I'm including this youtube of a backyard firework show that's truly stupendous. Can you believe this was put on by 'amateurs?' And all from one fuse! Thanks to my bro-in-law Dave for the fireworks link, and to Pat Esden for the rest, and happy internet surfing, erm, I mean, working Wednesday, everyone!