Tuesday, December 25, 2012

What Writers Give for Christmas

(Note from Laura: This group post of the books we're giving for Christmas was supposed to go up last week. Does it  make me sound less belated if I say that not posting until today at least preserved some Christmas surprises for our friends and family who read this blog? In any case, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

GINGER:  It's Christmas, David  by David Shannon. My youngest son in particular loves the David books. Cute, funny, to the point--the David books are like children you can stick on a shelf and take down when you have the energy to enjoy them.

Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel by Eoin Colfer. My daughter never quite forgave me for not buying this at Colfer's signing event at our library. I bugged him so badly during his signing of the books we did buy that I'm sure one more second with me would have brought upon us some evil curse. Sorry, Mr. Colfer--I promise to just smile politely and be quiet in future! And for all you who may have a chance to see Mr. Colfer in person, do everything in your power to go. I would pay just to see his presentation again. If he wasn't an author, he could very well be a stand-up comic. Just don't, you know, say stupid things to him while he signs your books.

And unconventional: The Murder of Napoleon by Weider and Hapgood. For the person in your life fascinated with power and crime. Or my teen daughter who recently discovered that history depends on the book you're reading.

PAT:  The first two books I’m giving as Christmas gifts are going to my mother as a pair. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter and Gene Stratton Porter: Novelist and Naturalist by Judith Reick Long.  When my mother was a girl, Gene Stratton-Porter was her favorite author and I know she’ll be delighted to revisit it. She’s also a fan of biographies, so the second book was a natural choice. As a writer, I think Limberlost is a great example of how a story can speak to the heart of the teen experience for generations. And who doesn’t love a book with swamps and moth selling?

The other book I’ve order is for me. My husband and I don’t exchange gifts. Instead we buy our own treats around the holiday time. I’ve preordered The Madman's Daughter. It’s a young adult gothic thriller inspired by H. G. Well’s classic The Island of Dr. Moreau.  The enthusiastic rumbling and fantastic reviews I’ve seen about this book put it at the top of my must read pile. Luckily, it comes out in January.
BECCA:  Olivia and the Fairy Princess by Ian Falconer. One of my favorite picture books of 2012. For those who know me, I live in a household of boys. I am always looking for excuses to buy books for the girls in my life, but be pleasantly warned--this isn't your typical "pink" book.

Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth. I'm impatiently awaiting book three, due out next year. In the meantime, this trilogy will satisfy friends and family who are fans of The Hunger Games and Twilight, for it has a perfect blend of dystopian grit and action, and broiling romance. 

SUZANNE:   First is Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George.  I read the first in the series some time ago, then re-read it again while my daughter devoured it.  She's since bought herself the second and third in the series, foiling my plan to a) Check them out from the library so she couldn't and then b) give her both copies for Christmas.  Instead I've had to settle for sewing a pair of dragon decals on a new pair of slippers.  I hope she likes them!

A second book I'll put on the list cause I always seem to be giving it to someone is The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye.  It's just such a fun read, and I challenge anyone to walk away from it without feeling better about the world and their place in it.

Thirdly (do I get a thirdly?) I have to include The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.  It's such a timeless classic, and while I know kids often read it in school I think it's easy to overlook on the bookshelf.  I love it, and feel it's one of those books that resonate all the way down to my soul and thrum deep in my pinkie toes.

LAURA:  Some of the books given this year are esoteric and (cough, cough) ones I haven't read. Like Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson. That's going to my physics major college son and I although I love him enough to die for him, I see no need to read the philosophy of physics for him.

Redshirts by John Scalzi. I discovered Scalzi through this year's release about a starship on which an unusual number of fatalities occur to low-ranking crew members (the title references the unnamed, redshirt-wearing ensigns that so often died in the first five minutes of Star Trek episodes.) Laugh out loud funny and cleverly constructed. You need not be a Trekkie to enjoy.

Possession by A.S. Byatt went to two friends this year. I give this book sparingly, because it's one of my all-time favorites and it's rather like sending my children into the world for approval. It's an intricate, beautiful story of two literary researchers who fall in love as they trace the history of two Victorian poets through fairytales and epic poetry and personal secrets.

Tell us, readers: What books did you give this year? Even better, what books did you get? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Interview with Kat Ellis: Aliens, Wales, Short stories and Writing Contests

Kat Ellis writes YA sci fi and fantasy and is represented by Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency. I got to know Kat when she hosted the Hook, Line and Sinker agent contest and was thrilled when she agreed to answer a few questions. She’s one of the most energetic and imaginative writers I know. Be sure to check out her blog http://katelliswrites.blogspot.com/   But enough from me--let’s get to the questions.

1. Can you tell a little about yourself?  I’m especially curious to
know if the rumor involving your parents, your birth and aliens is
true. If it is, then has it influenced your writing at all?

Haha! The story about my parents spotting a UFO (http://www.book-brats.com/interview-author-kat-ellis/) is absolutely true, although I have no idea when it actually happened. Probably best left a mystery, unless I suddenly sprout tentacles! 

I grew up in North Wales surrounded by strange stories and local legends, and some of these have definitely inspired my writing. Being immersed in stories about gryphons, witches, dragons, and a whole host of other creatures drew me into reading at a young age, even in the pre-Potter era. 

On a non-writing note, I married my teen sweetheart (we met when I was 16), I'm a fluent Welsh-speaker, and I have an evil cat named Pilot (after Rochester's dog in JANE EYRE.) I play guitar (badly), and poke my tongue out of the corner of my mouth when I'm concentrating.

2. I noticed your short story UNDERGROUND is coming out in the Primed
Anthology in 2013 and that your short story, GLIMMER, received a high
commendation in the 2012 Bristol Short Story Prize. All of us in the
Cabinet have had our battles with writing short stories. What advice
do you have for writing short stories as opposed to novel length?

I will start with a disclaimer: I'm really not an expert, or even halfway to being clever when it comes to short stories. The 3 I've written are all pretty dark, and in terms of process, they start in much the same way as my novel ideas do: just one scene. But whereas with novel ideas they ripple outward to become bigger, overlappy-circly things as the plot develops, my short story ideas stick more to that one scene or image that I had in my head at the start. I explore it from all angles, see if it can stand by itself as a Thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. 

In terms of advice, I will share this one thing: I wrote my 3 short stories for the sole purpose of entering contests and trying to get them published, so then I would have something to add to my query letter to agents in the 'writing experience/credentials' section. Of course there are better reasons to write short stories, but if you're a querying writer with not much to put in that section of your letter, why not try your hand at a few short stories? I found it helpful, and the little bit of success I had with them was a great confidence boost when I was stuck in the query trenches.

3. What advice would you give to someone who has completed a manuscript
and is now looking for representation? Do you feel there is an
advantage to becoming involved in online contests as well as sending
out queries and doing in person pitch sessions. Man, I’m hitting you
with a lot of multifaceted questions, aren’t I?

The one thing I will suggest strongly (I'm raising an eyebrow for emphasis here) is: make sure your work is ready before you send it out. I'm talking polished to a high shine, punchy as hell, and thoroughly proofread. If it isn't, you will have wasted an opportunity to catch an agent's eye, whether it's in a straight query or a contest. Take your time and make it the best you can.

Query contests are an exhilarating, nerve-wracking animal, which I wrote about in a guest post not so long ago (it's here if you'd like to read it: http://www.rachelhorwitz.com/blog/2012/07/20/query-contests-are-you-armed-and-ready/  ) If you've honed your sample pages and query letter to the point where you feel they are ready to go out into the querying world, contests can be hugely successful in matching writers and agents. They can also be a little soul-destroying if your work isn't as polished as you thought when you hit 'send', especially if the contest is open to public critique. 

But that's something that each individual writer will need to decide. Contests may not be your natural groove, and there's nothing wrong with skipping the contest frenzy. I would personally be terrified to pitch in person to an agent or editor, but I know lots of folks would say that's the most effective method. Horses for courses, and all that.

If you want to try your hand at pitching at a conference but aren't sure how to prepare, Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency wrote a really helpful post about that here: http://jennybent.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-seven-habits-of-highly-effective.html

4. As someone who helped organize and host the incredibly successful
Hook, Line and Sinker contest, do you have any advice for people who
might be thinking about hosting a contest?

It was a LOT of work, and incredibly fun and rewarding! If you're thinking of hosting a contest, consider partnering up with someone who can help you with the organizing, especially if they have previous experience. And, in hindsight, it's probably a good idea to plan it so that it doesn't coincide with any major publishing events (as agents will likely be busy), holidays, and other contests. Contest Fatigue Syndrome is a real thing!

The huge plus-side to running a contest is getting to read some absolutely stellar writing and making connections with other writers (like yourself, Pat!) The online writing community in general is an amazing resource and source of support, and I would encourage writers at any stage in their career to get involved in it. 

5. If I were to gaze into my crystal ball, what would I see in your future?

I hope that I will always be writing. If I could get to the point where I could write full-time, I would consider my life made

I'm halfway through a new manuscript called TRANSPARENCIES, which is about a girl who drowns on her sixteenth birthday...then turns up at school three months later as though nothing happened. 

After that, I have a few possibilities simmering - there are 2 old manuscripts I need to rewrite, a possible sequel, and a brand new idea which I'd describe as PITCH BLACK meets THE TIME MACHINE. 

It is possible that I will host or otherwise take part in more query contests at some point, but it won't be for at least a few months while I finish my current WIP. 

Thank you, Pat, for interviewing me! I'm more than happy to answer follow-up questions if there are any. 

Thank you so much, Kat! And I totally agree--one of the best parts of entering and hosting contests is making new writing friends. The online writing community is a wonderful thing when we choose to become actively involved.

Anyone have questions? Kate would love to answer them and as you can see she’s game for pretty much anything. And don’t forget to follow her on Twitter @el_kat .

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Cabinet Member Soars!!!!!!

There is nothing we like better at the Cabinet than bragging on each other. That's the nice thing about being women of a certain age (which is, really, any age above middle school): we don't see success as a limited edition item that, if one of us gets, means the rest of us are out of luck. We have been with each other through the absolute worsts (and I don't just mean writing), we have wept and raged and urged ice cream and chocolate through years of rejections, and we have all had occasion to give thanks for the others when this writing life Just. Seemed. Too. Hard. To. Go. On.

And when something awesome happens--well, here we go . . .

Patty has an agent!!!!!!!!

That is quite possibly my lifetime limit for exclamation points. I'll have to sell my soul to the writing devil to earn more for the next awesome moment, but I don't mind. Because Patty has an agent!

Not one of us in the Cabinet has worked harder for this moment than Patty. To read her own account of her signing with Pooja Menon of Kimberly Cameron and Associates, click here. 

(Just so you know, Pat sounds awfully composed in that blog post. When she sent me the email saying she had an offer, she was so excited I thought her words were actually going to tumble off my computer screen and dance around me in the air. It also happened to be the release day for FINALE. There was some definite Cabinet magic happening on October 23rd.)

(Also, so you know, when Pat says she had tons of requests and rewrites and phone calls along the way, she is using that word very nearly literally. As in two thousand. NO ONE I know has come closer time and time again than Pat.)

So is delayed success sweeter? Quite possibly. Is shared success sweeter? Without question.

Here's what the other members of the Cabinet had to say when asked, "What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Patty as a writer?"

Ginger: Unstoppable, doggedly determined, courageous, unbeatable, humble, continually seeking improvement, knowledgable, hopeful.

Becca: Patty's writing is atmospheric and quirky with eccentric details lovingly woven into the prose--she knows how to give a reader chills.

Suzanne: So, this isn't technically a writer writing thing, but I think it still applies.  My only in-person meeting with Patty was at SCBWI Nationals in NYC two years ago.  It was awesome finally getting to meet her, of course, but it was also reeally nice to have someone I knew and could hang with.  Given how big the conference was, I was inclined at first to pick the safe route and sit near the middle or back of the rooms, etc.  But, when I went to sit with Patty at our first breakout together, she was sitting on the front row.  The. front. row.  It made me super nervous even taking the seat next to her cause it was a smallish room and we were within touching distance of the editor speaking, so I said something about how daring she was.  She laughed, and asked why not?  We had just as much reason to be on the front row as anyone.  I hadn't really thought of it like that, since I was being all apologetic for my existence.  But Patty knew she was putting in the time and stretching as a writer and on the path.  It was only a matter of time, and timing, til she'd be published.  So, why wouldn't she sit on the front row?  The rest of the conference I tried to be like Patty, and just put it all out there.  As a result, I had a question answered by Mo Willems, met and chatted with Jane Yolan, pitched editors and agents, and made some great writing friends I still keep in touch with.  All because I stopped treating certain seats as 'reserved' for a more bona fide writer than me.  I love the enthusiasm and belief Patty brings to her writing, and to her view of herself as a writer.  She's never accepted anyone else's limitations on her talent or potential, or let anything stand in her way, and I really admire that.  Go Patty!

One last word from me, the word that comes to my mind when I think of Patty as both a writer and a woman: Generous. All that work and research she puts in, all the knowledge she has obtained through years of often painful experience--she doesn't hoard it jealously. She freely offers everything she has and everything she is. 

Who wouldn't want to represent a writer like that? 

Here's to Patty!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Guest Post on the FINALE Launch Party!

A guest curiosity?  I think that’s what I am. Also a reader in a writer’s world. I’m Katie and I have been a friend of Laura’s for eleven years.  Because of Laura, I have met and become friends with Ginger, Becca, and Suzanne. I’m a good friend. A very good friend you might say.  The kind of friend who says, “Sure I’ll write a guest post about Becca’s release party”.

When Hush, Hush was released I wasn’t able to go to Colorado with Ginger and Laura for the actual release party.  Nor was I able to race home from Las Vegas to a local signing, despite my desperate attempt.  But I had received an ARC from Simon and Schuster and enjoyed holding off the others while I read it!

For Crescendo, Laura and I drove to Portland to see Becca.  Books + friends+ Voodoo Donuts = joy.

When Silence was released I attended two events.  Provo Library in Utah with Lauren, my daughter, her friends Ashlie and Kelsie, plus my friend Linda and Cabinet Member Ginger.  We all had a great time!  I then flew to Boston and attended the event at Wellesley Library in Massachusetts with Laura and her daughter, Emma.  Sadly, all of my pictures from those events perished with my beloved blackberry.

This year Becca’s touring schedule was shorter, and to my surprise it kicked off in Utah at the Provo Library!  Knowing in my heart that Becca is a rock star, you can rest assured that I was there just after the library opened on ticket day. I tucked the tickets deep into my wallet for safe keeping and anxiously awaited Oct. 27th.  Had I read them more closely I might have figured out the dress code—as it was we all miraculously showed up in white, black and red!

Ashlie had a conflict this year, so I put out a Facebook message stating I had an extra ticket and was able to take my neighbor, Maddie.  I thought she was literally going to collapse with excitement!  The tension only went up when at dinner I mentioned that Drew Doyon, the cover model of Patch, would also be there.  We practiced a lot of “deep breath in, now breathe out” while waiting to enter the ballroom.
So many people dressed up and I got these two cute girls to pose for a picture.

When we entered the ballroom it was beautiful.  They had small drink tables set up through the room and an enormous red glitter chandelier. We each received a book jacket with a poster on the inside as we entered.  We headed for the Barnes and Noble table, where we purchased seven lovely new copies of Finale. We then staked out a corner of the ballroom with a bench and a windowsill for our books.

All of the servers were young men dressed in black with wings.  There was a lot of swooning going on!
This young man had stood in line with us, so I didn’t feel quite so creepy asking to take his picture.

They had a large Finale book cover on one side of the room, minus Nora and Patch.  Ginger and I got our picture taken there.

Then the long anticipated moment arrived and the authors entered the room: Becca along with writers Kresley Cole (Immortals After Dark series and Arcana Chronicles), Tonya Hurley (ghostgirl and The Blessed), and Elizabeth Miles (Fury and Envy).  There was a lot of cheering and screaming!  It wasn’t a seated panel-type event.  The writers stood together at the front of the room and the guests milled about the floor.  Each writer was introduced and then they answered a few questions. 

Surprisingly, most of the questions were aimed at the writing process.  How do you keep your love of writing?  What did you do when you found out you were published?  Do you feel really emotional when writing an emotional scene?  If I were Laura, Ginger, Suzanne or Patty I would doubtless have written down the answers.  I’m Katie and I got caught up in the discussion and forgot to take notes.  Probably the last time they ever ask me to guest post!

Each author had their own signing area around the room.  We got in line to have Becca sign our books and my girls got in line for pictures.  Drew was also posing for pictures in front of the book cover and signing the posters.  (It about killed Lauren to get the picture, but I think I might want it for blackmail.) Maddie thought she had died and gone to well, Earth, with a fallen angel!

Becca was charming and funny and so sweet with everyone. The people behind us in line were so excited that she allowed pictures.  They had been to other book events where that wasn’t the case and were so grateful that she would accommodate that.  Becca takes a moment to listen to each person as she is signing.  If you still have a chance to see her, you should go! 

The Provo Library staff did a fabulous job!  Courtney has been wonderful and will be greatly missed!  This event was her last as she is moving.  She orchestrated a fabulous night.  People were happy and relaxed even while in line.

With that I’ll leave the writing to the writers.  It’s as hard as I’ve always believed.  Go and work your magic! Thank you, Becca, for all the nights I’ve stayed up reading to the wee hours to finish one of your books. I have laughed cried and ignored the pleas of my husband and children while reading your books. I love your dialogue and characters!  I managed to savor Finale; I read it in two sittings.  I loved the journey and the future.   I can hardly wait to read Black Ice

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dear Patch,

I know, pink is not your thing. Probably not cupcakes, either. You're more a brown paper bag and vending machine kind of guy. Too bad. Because today is launch day for FINALE, Becca Fitzpatrick's wrap-up of yours and Nora's story and I'm writing this post in honor of it and I happen to love pink. Deal with it.

I remember the first time I met you, lo these many years ago. (Eight? Nine? Suffice it to say that my age at the time had a 3 in front of it. Becca's age only had a 2 in front of it, but that's neither here nor there.) In any case, we were all younger. Except you, of course. You were the same age the first time you swaggered across a page I read. You were not, however, an angel at that time. You were just a boy with a lot of attitude and a mouth that made me laugh out loud every time you opened it and wish, just for a minute, that I was seventeen again.

In the midst of this busy day, I hope you take a minute to appreciate the writer who launched you. No one could have done you and Nora and Vee justice like Becca. You fought her on it. For years you and the others twisted and turned through every variation possible of your story. The one thing that stayed the same was your dark appeal and Nora's stubborn refusal to let you turn her away. And the dialogue: that crackling, sparking, quotable and fabulous dialogue that marks everything Becca writes.

Through rewrites and complete reversals and no after no after no after no . . . Becca never gave up on you. And look at her now--NYT bestseller, tour dates all over the U.S. and Europe, a book trailer release on USA Today's website . . . Did I mention I knew her when?

So, Patch and Nora, enjoy your day.

And Becca--we love you :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Vermont Retreat Highlights

1. Dinner in Manchester, Vermont at a lovely little Thai restaurant, followed by a rapturous hour at Northshire Bookstore. Check it out. 

2. Stories From Touring, as told by Becca Fitzpatrick. As the only one of us who has toured thus far, her stories didn't have a lot of competition. But even if they had, I'm pretty sure entries re. Toronto and/or St. Louis would have won hands down. ("Do you want a hit?") In a related note, I'm not feeling confident of my chances to avoid humiliation when I'm forced to appear in public with my books.

3. Walking around Emerald Lake while Becca took photos of places to stash dead bodies. Usually I'm the morbid one, so it was a nice change of pace.

4. Bear damage. As in the sign at the entrance to the lake: "If bear damage occurs, call authorities." Seriously? People in Vermont have to be told to report--what? Being mauled by a bear? I know New Englanders are tough and self-reliant, but that's taking it a bit far.

5. Blissful hours of uninterrupted writing, broken only by the occasional question. "Does this make my character sound like a slut?" "If she's seeing ghosts, does she have to be seeing how they died or can they  just stand still and be spooky?" "What do you think of the name Skinny Bill for a bad guy?" "I'm eating ice cream now--anyone want some?"

6. Days with friends who I only rarely see in person. The kind of friends who instinctively understand you so there's no awkward feeling-each-other-out phase or excessive politeness. It was all very cozy and comfortable.

7. Crossing a river without my pants. I'm not sure it's exactly a highlight, but it will be long remembered. Fortunately there is no photographic proof.

8. Fresh apples and Vermont sharp cheddar cheese.

9. Rain on a day when the demands on us were limited to deciding if we wanted to go out to eat.

10. The only downside? It was over too soon, and we weren't all there. (Curse responsibility and chickens! Next year we demand you free Suzanne or we'll just have to kidnap her and hold her to ransom!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Apology, and a Weird List

Yes, I was supposed to continue the theme begun back in July about odd research facts.

Clearly, I didn't.

So it's September. The good news is, four of the five of us from the Cabinet will be gathered together in person later this week. Suzanne--well, I can't even begin to talk about how much we're going to miss you. Because it makes me cry. Be assured that you will be hovering with us every moment and we'll start planning ahead for next year.

One of the items on my agenda for this writers' retreat is getting this blog and us into a workable schedule. Which, let's face it, mostly means Me. Paying. Attention. And Remembering. To. Post.

But while we're in contemplative mode, why don't you share with us what you'd most like to see. Guest posts from other writers? Author interviews? Photos and video links? Our process, our stories, our failures, our workaday lives? We live to serve, in so many ways it's not even funny. But this service is of our choosing, so bring it on.

And just to keep my own conscience from strangling me while I sleep (I hear it whispering at 3:00 a.m.: "You didn't post your research facts. I'm coming for you . . ."), I present what I have researched in just the last three weeks.

1. How to Make Your Own Substitution Cipher.

     Sparked by a comment from my copyeditor in book one, in which a series of coded letters are found after a young woman's unexpected death, I looked up everything from Cardan grilles to Petrarch's Canzoniere. And then in my notebook I wrote out my own cipher for several messages using a keyword from one of Petrarch's sonnets. In Italian. Here's the result:

Plain Text: 'plant this to be widely seen'
Ciphered Text (with keyword farmi): KHBIN NZEM NJ UX QEWXHS MXXI

I think I'm ready for James Bond now. Calling Daniel Craig (I say hopefully(have I mentioned that I'm seriously beginning to see him as my older, non-dead George Boleyn in THE BOLEYN KING?)) . . .

2. Venomous Snakes in England
     There's only one native snake in England that's venomous: the adder. Fortunately for my nightmares, they do not appear to chew on people like the snakes Suzanne researched. (I'm still shuddering over that one.)

3. John Dee and His Star Charts

     John Dee was a mathematician and astronomer (among numerous intellectual interests) who is best known as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. For book two revisions, I needed a clearer idea of what his star charts looked like--in which he would plot the positions of the planets according to the time and place of a person's birth and from there divine their past and future life. I don't claim to understand them, but at least now I know a little better what they looked like. 

4. How Many Children did John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, have and in what order? How many of those children were alive in autumn 1555 and which of them had spouses and/or children themselves? 

     Genealogical research gives me a headache, especially in a time period in which people re-used names and, sometimes, didn't even wait for the first sibling holder of the name to die. It appears that Dudley named two of his sons Henry before the first Henry was dead, and that's only the beginning of my irritation with that family. Honestly, if you're going to have thirteen (twelve?) children and virtually all of them are going to survive infancy, have the decency to keep better records. And come up with more names.

     And all of that for one brief scene near the end of book two set in Dudley Castle. Most of the children present don't speak, and only a couple of them are referred to by name. But if you'd like a complete list of who was there and how old they were (to within a few years or so), just ask. I've got it all :)

5. The Rack in Tudor England. 

     As in torture. Did you know the rack was introduced to England by a man named John Holland, Duke of Exeter, in the mid-15th century? Neither did I. It was a particularly apt piece of trivia, considering that in my twisted world of the Tudors, the first man in a hundred years to hold the title Duke of Exeter is examining the torture device that was sometimes called 'the Duke of Exeter's daughter.' How's that for good fortune?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Revision and The Art of Shaving

One of my favorite parts of writing is doing the research--and not just the kind which involves cracking open a book or Googling. I love research which is hands on, or when it’s like a treasure hunt where you have to contact one person, then another until you get the information you need.

For a novelette I had published in Orson Scott’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, I asked a glassblower if he could create a heart out of glass, then watched while he actually did it.  http://www.zglassblowing.com/glassblowing.htm For a short story, I talked to the Vermont State Archeologist about how clay was harvested and stored by early 18th and 19th century potters, then did some river slogging to remind myself what climbing up a clay bank felt like.

Right now, I’m revising a manuscript—but that doesn’t mean I’m beyond the need for research.

In an attempt to simplify the story's details and make each one have more weight, I decided to replace a jackknife that the main character just happens to have in her suitcase with a straight razor which is important early in the story. The problem was, though I’m quite familiar with handling jackknives, I’m not familiar with straight razors.

Luckily, my husband had several antique straight razors for sale in the shop. And, double lucky, it turned out my husband knew how to hold one. However he wasn’t willing to play the part of the attacker while I attempted to pull out the razor, get a correct grip--then defend myself.  “Razors are not toys,” he said. Sheesh. He's such a party pooper.

 Check out this youtube and you’ll see why I needed to revise after I changed the jackknife into a straight razor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI4ak1lJgY4

So what interesting research have you done lately—or are you just having fun relaxing this summer?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Research (and search, and search, and...)

A few quick facts about me: I love reading, I love writing, and I love learning. Thus, writing research is one of my favorite things in the world.

Even writing picture books leads to quirky fun facts and fascinating ideas. When venturing to write a mid grade novel on a Christmas theme, I became so immersed in the winter solstice, bells, Planet X and the Yule Cat, it took me a good long while to drag myself away from studying to write the actual story.

Here are some favorite research tidbits I've dug up:

1. There really are people in the world who eat scabs. I know, I know...but it's best to be aware, don't you think?

2. The Navajo loom is symbolic of life, the universe and, well, everything.

3. There are no crystal skulls reported to be of ancient date that have actually been proven to be of ancient date. All that have been examined have been debunked as well crafted forgeries. There is one possibility, but in the middle of an investigation to prove the skull's authenticity, the owner snatched back her prize and now refuses to let anyone see it--unless she likes you a lot. She says she previewed the assassination of John Kennedy in it.

4. My favorite holiday legend? The Yule Cat. In Iceland (I think it's Iceland) if boys and girls were hard workers they received clothes for the holidays. Anyone caught without new clothes at the right moment would be promptly eaten by the giant Yule Cat.

Isn't that cool? Nothing like a creepy Christmas. I know this fabulous legend has helped my own children to work hard year round and show proper appreciation for those gifts of socks and underwear.

5. And finally, studying Planet X just raises more questions than it gives answers. Is it real, is it not real, and what does it have to do with Babylon? And Atlantis? And the end of the world? And is it the 11th planet or the 12th planet even though we’re apparently down to only 8 planets?

Yes, Planet X. A whole treasure trove of unending research. OCD research junkies like me should avoid the topic entirely.

But, you know, if you can control it, here's a link to get you started: Planet X.  


Friday, June 1, 2012

Be Careful What You Research...

Here at the cabinet we're collecting a different kind of curiosity--odd information.  Having the freedom to hunt down random facts and call it research is one of the more fun things about being a writer.  That's how I first learned about the art of pumpkin catapulting, how a raven's track in the dust looks diferent from a crow's, and what spices are used in Mediterranian foods.  I've also spent hours finding just the right 1930s mansion and pouring over its rooms, and sketched for myself how a dragon could use a dual stomach and oxygen to breath fire.
Like I said, not exactly a bust job!  The problem comes when the research spills over into real life.  After obsessing over viquariums, frogs, toads and turtles this last month, I found myself irresistably drawn to build a pond in my front yard and invite my aquatic nieghbors to come swim.  I picked up a used pond liner today, and hope to break ground tomorrow.  A little odd, but not so bad a thing, right?  Well, I've also given myself a healthy fear of snakes this last month, and something bordering on phobia where one particular snake is concerned.

The coral snake.  Native to much of the south, and found in some parts of NC.  Did you know that when a coral snake bites, you may not initially react at all?  The wound can look fine, and you don't have any symptoms...at first.  Just when you're likely to conclude that you're safe, the venom really hits you.  Dizzyness, vomiting, confusion and tremors are all possible.  But what's likely to kill you is a loss of neurological control over crucial parts of your body like your lungs.  In other words, your body forgets how to breathe.  Even better, the coral snake seldom bites unless handled, so even though it's a pretty potent snake the antivenom is being carried by fewer and fewer hospitals.  Odds are good that if you make it to a hospital, you'll have to wait while they locate and maybe go fetch the antivenom.  While all of that sounds utterly delightful, the clencher for me was a small detail.  Coral snakes don't have retractable fangs, so they don't come at you with a big toothy smile to leave tiny vampire marks in your skin.  No, when a coral snake bites, it gets a good grip and starts chewing.  It's goal is to get a good jump start on digestion and make sure the venom is worked in nice and deep.

Beginning to see why I'm not so keen on these things?  Of course, the fact that I cast them in the role of the bad guy--or bad lady, in this case--and tied them to a twisted spell, a ritual, and a fifty year feud probably didn't help.  But I still say, be careful what you research--that knowledge might raise its scaly head and come back to bite you.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Revision Links for Inspiration and Fun

When I need to clean out the cobwebs and dust off the brain cells, I do a bit of focused internet cruising. Here are some links to posts and tools designed to rekindle your energy during revision or inspire you to look at your story from a new angle.

A great way to start revising is by cruising through First Page Panda. It’s a fantastic resource packed with a diverse array of first pages: http://www.firstpagepanda.com/  As you read through the posts, think about your manuscript’s first pages. Do your pages highlight your manuscripts genre? Do they show what makes your main character unique? Are they just good and error free--or are they so freaking fantastic that a reader will want to devour your story in one sitting?  

Refining your elevator pitch is code for checking your manuscript’s focus. Seriously. Have you ever had a hard time writing a pitch? It can mean your plot is skewed. David B Coe’s post on writing elevator pitches, synopsis and blurbs offers not only a fantastic technique to create different length pitches, but it also can be used to test if your plot is wobbly. http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/on-writing-and-publishing-refining-your-elevator-pitch/   And while your double checking to see if your manuscript is focused, you’ll be getting the frustrating process of writing a synopsis and pitches out of the way. Talk about a win-win situation!

Do you use a word frequency counter to check your manuscript?  They can point out filler words which you are overusing without realizing it—which is a great revision tool. But they can also point out words which can be used as part of your brand or pitch. Yup, there are evil overused words and beneficial ones. Basically its filler words vs. words which set the tone or another aspect unique to your story (they could even be words which are symbolic). For example, in my current project, I use the filler word ‘back’ more than I should, but the word ‘darkness’ and ‘shadow’ are vital details not only in the story but also the pitch  http://www.writewords.org.uk/word_count.asp

After all the talk about break-out novels, I love this post on writing a break-in novel. Very wise advice and it just may help you decide which project you should be revising. http://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog/write-a-break-in-novel/

If voice is one of your weak points—and even if you think it isn’t—check out this post on voice in non point of view characters http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/03/i-hear-you-character-voices-in-non-pov.html This link comes with a warning. There are 500 fantastic articles on Janice Hardy’s site. If you aren’t careful it might take you hostage.

And just because revising requires some smiles and hugs:

So, do you have any favorite posts or books you like to read before starting revisions?
Have you learned any great new techniques lately?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring Cleaning Old Manuscripts

My life for the last year and a half has been all about this very topic. Indeed, the reason I've put off writing this post is because I'm immersed in trying to clean/organize/wrestle into shape an old manuscript and make it all shiny and new.

It's hard! (said in a my best whiny-teen voice.)

Hard or not, I'm not getting away from it anytime soon. The thing is, Once Upon a Time (2004) I wrote a book. It was my third novel-length manuscript and my first non-mystery novel attempt. Sparked by an idle question while reading an Anne Boleyn novel (What if Anne had not miscarried her son in January 1536?) and stoked by several eerie experiences at Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London later that year, I began writing an alternate-history in which Anne Boleyn's son is born and becomes king of England upon Henry VIII's death.

Writing that book was exhilarating. I adored the puzzle play of fitting real people into a time period that almost but didn't quite exist (What would have become of George Boleyn if he wasn't executed for sleeping with his sister? What of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Tudor in a world where she never comes to the throne? How does Elizabeth walk through a world of security and yet become the wary, intelligent woman who would become queen in her own turn?) and I also loved the freedom of my completely-fictional characters.

In fact, while writing that book, I distinctly remember thinking, "This is the book that's going to sell."

Only it didn't. Didn't even get me an agent, though it did generate the most interest I'd had to date. And when life and teenagers and grave illness intervened, I set it aside and moved on. I wrote a book about a contemporary girl who goes back in time to Napoleon's era and meets a British spy. I love that book. It got me an agent, the fabulous Tamar Rydzinski at Laura Dail Literary. I was giddy with excitement as it went on submission to eighteen editors.

Eighteen editors who all said no. Some of them said lots and lots of nice things, but in the end No was the operative word.

Not wanting to lose my fabulous agent, I sent her my alternate-history Boleyn book. She loved it. She loved it so much she called me up after reading it in less than a week and asked me to . . . wait for it . . .

Turn it into three books.

It took me eight months to create that first repurposed book, using approximately half of the original manuscript (leaving the other half to divide into a proposed books two and three.) That book went on submission one year ago. And on June 1, that book (along with the sort-of written books two and three) sold at auction to Ballantine.

Worth doing? Absolutely. Still hard? Undoubtedly.

Here are the top three difficulties I've encountered in repurposing a previous manuscript:

1. Being willing to add stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I kind of thought I had a great plot line before. But four hundred pages of manuscript does not make three complete novels. So there are new characters, and new conflicts, and a new stand-alone arc for each novel. (At least, I assume there is, I'm still trying to figure out what book two's arc is. Shhhh, don't tell.) Weaving that into a previous story so that it's seamless takes a lot of patience and tinkering.

2. Being willing to cut stuff. This is really hard. I mean, I already have to write a bunch of new stuff, how can I possibly get rid of anything I've already got? But sometimes it has to go. Sometimes that scene with the great dialogue just isn't going to fit in the repurposed story. Sometimes entire pages need to go (like the one to two page interludes before each chapter written in Elizabeth Tudor's first-person POV--I love those pages, but that structure doesn't work anymore. Maybe they can go on my author website. As soon as I get one.)

3. Being fearless. I've heard lots of horror stories about second books. I'm finding them to be true. Middles have always been my weakness in a manuscript--they meander and sag and generally flounder about looking for a purpose. Now I'm writing an entire middle book, culled from the middle (read: weakest) section of my original manuscript and some days I'm convinced it will never come together. Which isn't really an option, considering the contract I signed. So I write awful paragraph after awful paragraph and just now, in this last week, have I had a glimmer here and there of something worth writing. So I fearlessly write crap and trust it will come together.

And hopefully, I'll learn enough that I can repurpose some other manuscripts. I still adore my first two mysteries . . . if I can just figure out how to take my great characters and write a plot worthy of them . . .

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Throwing Out the Kitchen Sink

April's theme is house-keeping the writer's way here on the Cabinet, which some of you may think means no house-keeping at all! lol Thank goodness we're not talking about organizing your closet and decluttering your kitchen--my personal take on that sort of thing is leave it til the next move or the next flood, which I guess is one reason to be thankful I've always moved so much!

No, this theme deals with de-cluttering your writing life and tossing out those old habits that are standing in your way. Here we are in April, the fourth month...how are those New Year's resolutions coming? Are your writing goals on track? If you suspect that your writing habits are hamstringing your progress, maybe we can help!

First up this month is knowing when to toss out old writing habits that aren't working--also known as being willing to write garbage. This is difficult as a beginning writer, but I think is even more challenging once a writer has been around the block a couple of times. You have a reputation to keep up--maybe even a readership that you don't want to disappoint. It might feel kinda like looking at your kitchen, and knowing that the flow from the sink to the cupboards to the table isn't working well, but also knowing that changing it all up will make a big mess and totally disrupt your life. And what if it doesn't work? You will have spent all this time, effort and energy in pursuit of a rapturously efficient and truly transcendent kitchen, only to end up with the same old boxy space where you hit your head on open cupboard doors every time you load the dishes. And that's assuming you can even find your sink.

Well, I can't tell you how to fix your kitchen (we established that I'm no expert there, right?) but I can tell you that being willing to shake up your writing habits may be the only way to progress. Of course, an increase in skill isn't likely to come without some less than graceful stumbles. You may feel like an idiot. Your writing group may think you've been body-snatched by an imposter, and your readers may abandon you. But how will you ever discover the beauty in your voice-driven story if you won't let go of plot and try pantsing it--at least for a few scenes? How will you hear the first-person character who is trying to reach you if you keep shoving him back into third person pov?

This last is my challenge right now--my latest middle grade project is first person pov, something I've never attempted before. It feels really weird sometimes--but other times it sings. And that's the thing--a transcendent kitchen may not be your goal or be worth the effort, but excellence in writing is. Go ahead, pull the dishes out, make a mess. Your writing is worth it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In Which We Pretend it is Still March

Because I didn't quite get this post up in time to complete our "March is Genre Month" theme. Big surprise :)

So one last shot for me to share a genre that I love, a genre I read the most in, a genre I've tried to write in but am stilling trying to get just right.


Want a definition? Ha! Any attempt to define mystery soon descends into squabbling about sub-genres and overlaps and whether terms such as cosy are pejorative and should be dispensed with entirely. So dispense immediately with the notion that I will be giving you the definitive post on mysteries--what I give you will be, like all my posts, only my own opinions heavily dependent on whatever mood I'm in at the moment.

As a senior in college, I took a seminar for my English major requirements called "The Mystery Novel." It is there that I gained the closest things to a lasting definition of mystery: that a crime, usually but not always murder, takes place in a community (be it country house or English village or police district), that the crime damages said community, and that justice acknowledges that truth is important in its own right and also to heal the community.

That is why I love mysteries: because they recognize that truth matters and so do individuals. No one's death is unimportant. Every death diminishes a community and until some sort of justice occurs the community cannot go forward.

Below are my own, incredibly biased and personal definitions of a handful of sub genres (with examples of writers I love).

COSY/TRADITIONAL: Is there anyone in the world who hasn't at least heard of Agatha Christie? She is the quintessential writer of this form, where the murder is usually bloodless and often completely off-stage and is investigated by amateurs (sure, Hercule Poirot was once a detective, but that was in Belgium and he is long-retired). Country houses, locked room puzzles,  and the gathering of suspects while the investigator recounts how the crime was committed are stereotypical aspects. Today's cosy mysteries often include crafts or recipes or some other theme (think Diane Mott Davidson or Carolyn Hart).

RECOMMENDATIONS: Agatha Christie herself (my favorites are AND THEN THERE WERE NONE  and the two that bookended Hercule Poirot's career, MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES & CURTAIN); Josephine Tey (BRAT FARRAR is a great case about identity); and my personal favorite of this era of Golden Age writers, Dorothy L. Sayers (GAUDY NIGHT is my favorite mystery novel ever--and there's not a single murder)

PRIVATE DETECTIVE: a professional who's not with the police. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are often the first writers to come to mind when thinking of the hardboiled detective on the mean streets of a big city. But there are plenty of writers today continuing this American tradition.

RECOMMENDATIONS: take a look at the first female writers to break into the male-dominated private eye world--Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. Also Laura Lippman is a fabulous writer whose Tess Monaghan novels follow a Baltimore private detective.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: perhaps the most popular current sub genre, in which readers follow the members of the police in the investigation of a specific crime. The majority of my favorite current authors fall into this category and the best of these novels combine a good portrait of contemporary policing with great characterizations.

RECOMENDATIONS: Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe; Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley; Louise Penny's Armand Gamache; Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid; Susan Hill's Simon Serailler.

HISTORICAL: after my last post, you knew that was coming, didn't you? My introduction to historical mysteries was in the afore-mentioned Mystery Novels seminar, when we were assigned ONE CORPSE TOO MANY by Ellis Peters. Set in 12th-century England, the detective in this medieval series is Brother Cadfael, a former Crusader who has settled into a Benedictine monastery. When I read that book, I thought, "I didn't know you could do this!" It was a revelation.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael; Ariana Franklin's MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH; C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels; Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels; Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen-as-investigator books; Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs.

I have been asked more than once "What do you see in books about death and misery?" (Okay, maybe it's not phrased quite that way, but that's usually what I hear--along with, "What is wrong with your messed-up mind?") Beyond all the psychological reasons that may or may not explain my penchant for darkness, I think the true reason is this: I believe in redemption. I believe every individual counts. I believe every act of violence diminishes the world as a whole and that striving to understand the motivations behind murder is a worthy goal.

Mystery novels tell me that murder is the aberration, that truth and justice count, and that some things are always worth standing against.