Sunday, November 28, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Bullish on Black Friday."

"Hubs, Uncle Ty: When I said "what a load of bull" about your silly costume plan for Black Friday, I didn't think you'd take me literally." (140 characters)

(For non-U.S. readers, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving when consumer society goes into overdrive and we are exhorted to hit the mall and "Spend, spend, spend," therefore putting the merchants in "the black" for the year.)

Have a happy writing week, and thanks so much for all your comments.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Have Yourself a Snowy Little Book Fest

(This is a piece I wrote for my four-year-old's preschool newsletter. I am the bi-monthly book editor).

As I write this, Portland is in one of its snow panics. TV types shiver on the Sylvan Hill, school closures cascade along the bottom of the screen, and the weather guys look like Christmas has come early, for the entire broadcast is essentially about them. Meanwhile, my friends recently transplanted from Alaska laugh their heads off. Ah, Portland winter!

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that my first winter book selection is Axle Annie by Robin Pulver; illustrated by Tedd Arnold (Dial 1999). Axle Annie’s the best school driver in Burskyville. She does magic tricks, tells jokes, and sings silly songs. And whenever winter “packs a wallop,” the superintendent makes his school closure decision on whether Annie can make it up Tiger Hill. Well, “do tow trucks tow?” Of course she can! Burskyville never has a snow day. And even the villainous plot of a disgruntled fellow bus driver can’t slow Annie down. This is a fun read, with lively illustrations. The perfect present for the school superintendent in your life.

Another favorite in our house is Snow Day! by Patricia Lakin; illustrated by Scott Nash (Dial 2002). With a simple, repeating text and colorful pictures, it tells the story of four crocodile friends who love the snow. They get ready to play outside and then remember that they’re school principals. A quick telephone call later, they’ve told Croc-O-News that it’s a snow day. And off they go, sledding. Nicholas gave this his immediate “Read-It-Again” seal of approval.

I presented the kids with a whole stack of holiday books, but it’s like judging “Dancing With the Stars” at my house. Most of the holiday selection was deemed unworthy and, when the dust settled, only two titles remained. The first was Harry and the Dinosaurs make a Christmas Wish by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds (Random House 2003). This probably won votes on the title alone, since anything dinosaur is a smash hit where we live. Harry’s plastic dinosaurs (who come alive whenever Harry’s alone) want a duckling for Christmas. When Christmas morning comes, it looks like there’s no duckling under the tree. But Gran’s piggybank egg holds a surprise: a baby pterodactyl. This is a fun read, with a lot of dinosaur roaring. Grab a glass of egg nog and roar away.

Finally, Elsie Primavera’s Auntie Claus Home for the Holidays (Simon and Schuster 2009), is the latest in the fun Auntie Claus series. Young Sophie Kringle wants to be the Sugar Plum fairy, but she’s never in New York for Christmas. So Auntie Claus decides to bring the North Pole to New York. If you love saying “marvelous” and “rubbish” in an English accent, this book is for you. (It also introduced my kids to the phrase “red is the new black, darling!”) After I explained what that meant, everything has become “the new black.” So I’ll leave you with the words of seven-year-old Kieran: “Books are the new black, darling.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Truly Thankful

I started this blog in February of this year, so this is my first ever Thanksgiving post. I have a lot to be thankful for!

I give thanks for:

My wife, who has given so much of herself so that I can stay home with the kids and write. She herself is a magnificent writer and editor and a blogger extraordinaire (she has three blogs!), as well as a passionate, principled, strong, caring woman. If you'd like to get to know her, her blogs are Every Day is a Miracle, Marie's Book garden, and One Year to an Organized Life.

My children; despite their inability to sleep in on holidays--especially on holidays. (Why is it I have to drag them out of bed on school days, but on Thanksgiving morning they're up with the lark and wanting to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving parade?). They are all founts of enthusiasm and imagination and not a day goes by without them making me laugh and love life because of them.

My family across the miles. My mother (who will be with us next week to celebrate Christmas) and sister in England, and my brother in Australia. (It's bro and sis's birthday today, although they aren't twins. I think he's just about forgiven her for ruining his fourth birthday party.) I also remember my father, who died in 1992. His birthday was on the 20th.

My family in the States; my in-laws who do so much for us, from babysitting to home maintenance and repair. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law in Puyallup and their three boys, "The Cousins," whom my own three boys adore.

Church community, sharing a radical vision of discipleship and proving that God's got the most wicked sense of humour. C'mon, where else do Catholics and Lutherans worship together as one community and see that all this denominational bickering is such a waste of time and talent?

Friends, both virtual and non. This year I have been blessed, through the agency of this blog, to meet a number of wonderful people. Much thanks to Susan at Stony River and her community of microfictioneers. Susan's had some struggles this year but she continues to host Microfiction Monday. Through that meme I have "met" many wonderful writers, chief among them Sylvia K, Suz, Hope, and DanPloy, who are regular commenters on this blog. Their support means so much. I have also "met" Robert Kent, the middle-grade ninja, who has been inspiring.

My critique groups, who give me so much support and valued critique. I am a better writer because of you all.

Health; despite a currently bum knee, I am in the pink. Wealth; I'm not Donald Trump (thankfully!) but I have so many more financial resources than the vast majority of the world's population, and need to remember that. Happiness; if I'm blue, it's usually of the light blue variety and I snap out of it very quickly. I just need to stop and count my blessings for the world to change color.

My imagination, which never stops peopling my dreams, both waking and asleep, with amazing characters and events. I trust one day other people will share in the fruits of my creativity.

Paths not yet crossed, and the belief that the universe has great plans for all of us. (Okay, I appear to be channeling Julia Cameron right now.) I'll stop and let Julia speak for herself: "The universe falls in with worthy plans and most especially with festive and expansive ones." (The Artist's Way.) As we give thanks today and every day, may we remember to open ourselves to the power of "a thousand unseen helping hands."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Well folks, week three never did find its way onto the blog, and now it's week 4 already. So, I've made an executive decision. Seeing as there's much more to write about with this particular book, and seeing all the stuff happening around me (can you say "The Holidays"?) I'm going to extend my appreciation of The First Five Pages into the entire month of December.

Okay, with that out of the way, it's time to discuss what Lukeman calls "The Bigger Picture" in Part 3 of this book. This is where the rubber hits the road, where the advanced writer starts to show her mettle. The first chapter (Chapter 11) is about that hoary old chestnut, "Showing Versus Telling."

This is how Lukeman sums it up:

It is the writer's job to show us what his characters are like, not by what he says about them, or what they say about one another, but by their actions. A writer can spend a page telling us his protagonist is a crook, or he can show us in one sentence, by simply describing his taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone's pocket and letting the reader judge for himself.
By showing us the character's theft, Lukeman points out the advantage of leaving room for some ambiguity in the text and allowing the reader to interpret things.
If a writer tells us his character is a crook, then he is a crook. But if the writer shows the character taking a twenty-dollar bill, it is up to us to decide if he is a crook. Most of us will assume he is, but some of us may consider other possibilities: perhaps he is taking back money that is already his; perhaps he is taking the bill because it is counterfeit and was duplictously planted to entrap him; perhaps there is an ongoing game between the two characters to see who can pick the other's pocket and get away with it, and the money will be returned later.
(My note: I think this only works when a character is being introduced. One of the things a reader does quickly is make a judgement about who a character really is. We don't mind a character behaving a little erratically, or learning something and changing, but it is hard to always be guessing a character's motives. If I fail to "get a grip" on a character I feel unsettled, which is not a good reading feeling.)

There's also a good post about showing versus telling on the Greenhouse Literary Agency blog this week, written by the London agent, Julia Churchill. The link is here.

Next week, I will focus on describing Noah Lukeman's views on successful characterization. Hope to see you then.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Dear Deer Vampire"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

'Twas a wonderful disguise. NosFeratu, initials on jaunty cap, waited for unsuspecting coeds to pass by. A quick vampire bite, and "o deer!" (140 characters)

Feeling a bit punchy in a freezing Pacific Northwest, but had to compose this in honor of my 8th-grader who's just finished a run in "Dracula" in his middle-school play.

Have a great writing week, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Week 3: Delayed

What ever happened to week three, I know you're asking. Admit it, you're on tenterhooks waiting for the next in this crucial craft series.

Well, production is being delayed this week because of a number of things. First, and sadly, my uncle in Canada died on Tuesday and that's set us back a bit. He was a cheerful, gregarious man and he and my aunt were married 50 years.

Next, son #1 is in his middle-school production of "Dracula" and the running around getting ready for the shows is biting (like the pun?) into our time. Right now, I have to go get flowers for the concession stand and drive miles to pick up the donated programs.

So... I will try to get back to Noah Lukeman by the end of the week. Till then, happy writing!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

15 Authors

Robert Browning's Poetry (Norton Critical Editions)Notes from a Small IslandPride & PrejudiceJitterbug Perfume

Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Penguin Classics)I've been tagged on Facebook for the 15 Authors meme. It says: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first 15, or as many as you can recall, in no more than 15 minutes...

Here's mine. My criteria for choosing: I had to have books by them on my current shelves and had to have read more than one book.

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1)
Thomas Hardy, Agatha Christie, John Le Carre, Shakespeare, E.B. White, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Browning, Tom Robbins, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), Bill Bryson.
(I think you can tell I was an English major.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)Charlotte's WebComplete Works of William Shakespeare. 154 Sonnets, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, King ... Cressida, The Winter's Tale & more (mobi)
Middlemarch (Oxford World's Classics)A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1)To the Lighthouse (Oxford World's Classics)
Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient ExpressSmiley's People

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Comment of the Week

I spotted these wise words in the comment box of agent Sarah Davies' blog. They are the words of Blythe Woolston, whose website can be found here.

Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I write to please myself, and it is only a happy accident when it pleases anyone else.

Amen, sister, from all of the writers who write from their hearts.

Microfiction Monday: Divorce, Cactus-Style

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.
Jorge was kicking himself. He never should've badmouthed Marta's cooking. Not when SHE was on the ponkey and they were 90 miles from home. (138 characters)

(Remember the ponkey from Microfiction 6/6/10? He's back!!)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The One Thing A Writer Absolutely Must Do

Okay, who thought I was going to say READING?


That's not to say that reading isn't necessary, important, uplifting, and thoroughly spiffy for a writer's soul. Every single writer interview you read will have the writer attesting to the singular importance of reading. But, for me, the one thing a writer absolutely must do is...


My wife will attest that I am the Michael Phelps of eavesdropping. Apparently, whenever we are within earshot of anyone else in a restaurant, say, a glazed look comes over me and she can just tell that I'm being a shifty-eyed snoop.

The thing is, I'm not being snoopy for snoopy's sake. It's all done in the name of research. For the continual honing of my writerly skills, I must listen to dialogue, how it's paced, the word choices made by everyone--from glamorous socialite picking at her arugula to arrogant tycoon tooting his business-acumen horn. I must understand the topics that exercise the minds of middle-schoolers as well as society matrons. I MUST LISTEN TO EVERYTHING.

I'll finish with a story. The other day I had my youngest in tow at the grocery store. It was near lunchtime, a fatal time to shop, and the wee bairn was eager for a corndog. I acquiesced, as the corndogs are near the sushi counter and I fancied sushi. We took our seats next to a couple of grungy, unshaven types who were deep in conversation. (At least the older one was. The younger one nodded his head in the way of a giddy apprentice whenever the mentor cracked open his lips.)

It soon became apparent that Mentor was retelling the plot of his novel. Genre: Fantasy. He rambled on about "she" who, as far as I could tell, had been captured and taken to the villain ensconced in The Darklands. (I would occasionally lose the thread of things because corndog-boy-who-must-have-father's-attention-at-all-times would tell a joke and expect me to guffaw. And why is it always the Darklands in these fantasy novels? Why can't it be Lollipop Land, where everything seems benign, but lurking beneath the placid and successful exterior is a horror that would turn your bones to a foul brew?)

Mentor rambled on. What did I learn? Well, I had front-row seating on how NOT to pitch your magnum opus. I also noticed how every time Apprentice tried to get in a word, Mentor would shuffle about in a bag and look thoroughly impatient and uninterested. (That is certainly a behavior I might one day give an unsavory and self-absorbed character.)

It wasn't my finest eavesdropping hour, but it did remind me how important it is for a writer to notice everything in his or her surroundings. So, eavesdrop away, dear writers. (And let me know if you hear anything juicy.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What a Great Idea for a Blog!

Now that I've launched myself screaming and flailing into the blogosphere, I find I'm making new friends and visiting interesting sites on a regular basis. One of my recent finds was this great blog, Books Dudes Will Read. A mother--who's a teacher and writer--and her middle-school son review books together.

This is a topic close to my heart. I write middle grade fiction. I have three "dudes" of my own. I want my novel to be read by dudes, and want to find ways to encourage dudes to read more. So, I am giving a high five and some huge thanks to the Dude and his mom for this awesome blog. I'll use it to expand the reading horizons of my own middle-schooler.

Oh, and they're running a contest right now to win a copy of S.A. Bodeen's The Gardener. Head on over, leave a comment, and become a follower. It sounds like a good book to try to win. (And keep fingers crossed for me!)

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Week 2: Dialogue

In my salad days, when I was green in judgement--and anyone who can tell me which Shakespeare play those lines come from earns a gold star--I belonged to a writers' group that had a very interesting modus operandi. Basically, any interested writer could show up at this Chinese restaurant. Newbies were put in groups of 3 or 4 and that was that. Talk about luck of the draw!

In my group that first night were two other young guns and one older woman. We all read a few pages from the manuscripts we were working on. The woman, who was obviously enthralled by her pages, read line after line of terrible dialogue. Of course I can't remember it verbatim but it was along the lines of "I just talked to John, who was best man at our wedding" and "I had lunch with our-daughter-in-law, Janey, who has blessed us with our three grandchildren..." It was awkward indeed giving feedback--I still remember the sensation of squirming in my chair while we tried to point out that people didn't talk like this. End of the story? The writer was disgusted with us and never returned to the group.

If only she had read Noah Lukeman's take on dialogue. Lukeman writes:
Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment. Dialogue is to the writer what the veto is to the president: it gives you great power and authority. If you overuse it, people will have to submit, but they will resent you for it; if you use it wisely, they will applaud your control, your willpower.
Lukeman covers five common ailments in dialogue.
  1. In Between the Lines (Chapter 6), he talks of the use of "he/she said," how often to use it, and where to place it in the sentence.
  2. Commonplace (Chapter 7) warns against using everyday dialogue ("Hello, how are you?") in the mistaken belief that dialogue has to be "realistic."
  3. In chapter 8, Informative, he warns against using dialogue to convey backstory, which was what ailed the writer in my above-mentioned writer's group.
  4. Chapter 9, Melodrama, advises us to use silence or action to convey drama, rather than having a character rant and rave. (His example: "Jane could yell and curse at Frank for twenty lines after he tells her he's been cheating on her, or she can turn and take off her wedding ring and flush it down the toilet.")
  5. Finally, in chapter 10, Hard to Follow, Lukeman warns against overuse of dialect and writing that is cryptic.
Most of these dialogue mistakes, as Lukeman points out, are mistakes a more advanced writer knows how to avoid. So, if your first five pages have made it this far, The Bigger Picture awaits. This is sheep-from-goat-separation time--and what I will focus on during our two remaining Wednesdays.

Have a good week, writing dangerously!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Li'l Pink's Wolf Stew"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

Li'l Pink, I worry about the wolf. Be careful.

I'm not worried, Mama.

Why ever not, dear?

Who do you think was in yesterday's stew?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November's Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

The First Five Pages  is a relatively short book. I knew within the first five pages that I was going to find it very valuable. And sobering.

Lukeman is an agent. In his introduction, he says he has read thousands of manuscripts. In doing so, he discovered that regardless of whether the author came from Texas, California, or Japan (or England, or Oregon) the same exact mistakes were being made. Furthermore, he realized that by scrutinizing just the first few pages, he could make a determination about the whole manuscript. As he says: "if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come." And, in reality, it doesn't take the astute reader five pages to make an evaluation. In fact, Lukeman says, the book should have been titled "The first five sentences."

Harsh, you may be thinking. Lukeman's rationale is this:
Agents and editors don't read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript--and believe me, they'll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.
Gordon Bennett! This is positively Darwinian. But if you think about it, readers make the same evaluations. How often have you browsed in a bookstore (very often, I hope!)? You see a book your friend recommended. She usually has good taste, you think, so you read the flap, open to the first paragraph. Nope, the story didn't grab. You scan another couple of books. Same thing. And then: a book you've never heard of, but it has a prominent display on the shelf. You open it, start to read, and five minutes later you're still reading. Something has resonated with you, sucked you in. You may even hand over hard-earned cash for it.

Agents and editors are doing the same thing with manuscripts, except they can give you specific reasons why they connect or don't connect with a work. In Lukeman's opinion, this is not usually an issue of plot. ("A great writer can produce an amazing piece of writing with virtually no plot at all.") It is an issue of prose, of how you execute your writing. It is an issue of craft.

But first off, Part I talks about preliminary problems. Presentation is key. Don't come off as unprofessional. ("Agents and editors don't view someone who shies from the standards as unique or unusual. they view him as a nuisance...") Devote time to researching agents and editors, and make sure you're not sending your thriller to someone who only represents non-fiction. (Lukeman suggests you send a query via FedEx, but that sounds over-the-top to me. It also shows that the book was written before e-mail queries became almost ubiquitous!)

Lukeman spends a couple of pages talking about proper formatting, and then reveals that certain quirks will also signal an early dismissal: the overuse of question marks and exclamation points. Also, cliches. ("I can't tell you how many manuscripts open with cliches or have one on their first page. This is almost always an indicator of a commonplace sensibility and will thus lead to instant rejection.") Finally, in chapter 2, Lukeman shows how an abundance of adjectives and adverbs marks a writer as a beginner, and someone easy to reject. (The rest of Part I deals the sound of one's writing, the way one uses metaphor or simile, and stylistic errors. The end of each chapter also has a number of exercises. Very useful.)

Next Week: Part II--Dialogue as a revealer of a writer's skill.

Noah Lukeman is an agent. In addition to The First Five Pages, he's the author of The Plot Thickens.