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The Manuscript Cometh

You know that feeling you get when your teacher is posting grades for papers or tests? How you brace yourself, take a deep breath and hold it like you’re doing the Ice Bucket Challenge?

It’s the same thing with books.  Imagine getting your corrected test or term paper back, only it’s 400 pages long.

My edits still come on paper. The UPS man (or woman) knocks on my door and hands me a big, fat package. There’s no mistaking it for anything else. It’s manuscript shaped.

MSS1

I bring it in and set it on the kitchen counter with a mixture of reverence and terror. What is my editor going to say? How much am I going to have to rewrite? How many stupid mistakes did I make?  The only way to know is to open it and find out.

MSS2

That’s a lot of paper. On top is a letter that summarizes all the things that are wrong with the book. Sometimes this is a long letter.

I usually read it standing right there by the counter. Then I hyperventilate. And then I go for a walk, or a coffee, or a something, and I don’t come back until I stop feeling like a loser for not writing a Perfect First Draft. (No one writes a perfect first draft, no matter what they tell you. There are always things that can be better. I have been tempted to go through Barnes and Noble with a pen and tweak the phrasing here and there in my books on the shelf.)

That big pile of paper sits on the kitchen counter—maybe a few hours, maybe a day, maybe a weekend—while I cogitate on how I’m going to fix what I need to fix. (Sometimes it’s something big like “This entire part in the museum here doesn’t make sense.” Sometimes it’s small but pervasive, like adding more explanation of how magic works or description of settings.)

Finally, the manuscript gets to move to the workspace. (In this case, the sofa.)

MSS3

I’m not quite ready to open the document on the computer and start haphazardly making changes. First I go through my editors’ (and agent’s) notes, page by page, wincing at the things I think I should have caught myself, or the things I thought I could get away with but didn’t, scribbling my own ideas, getting up every now and then to freak out. Like, “How I’m going to cut 25 pages out of the middle without losing any of my brilliant scenes?!” Or, my favorite: “OMG I have to come up with a logical reason for that to happen?” Or it’s close cousin,”It doesn’t seem like they know what’s going on there because I don’t know what’s going on.”

From there on… I won’t say it’s easy, but the analytical part of your brain kicks in and you flinch less. Two things safe my sanity right now: (1) I know I’m my own worst critic while working on a book, but (2) I can still fix things. I try and enjoy that while it lasts.


PS It’s not a Goodnight book.

PPS  It doesn’t come out for more than a year. But it’s going to be EPIC when it does.

Week in Rewind

I spent most of last week in rehearsal for a reunion show at my creative arts school in Arlington. We performed two shows this past weekend, to sold out houses.

It was like a class reunion with just the people I like. Only it was also more than that, because there were thirty-five years of alumni participating, so I got to meet new people as well as see with the people who were basically my family for three years.

My friends!

My friends!

See that lady in turquoise to my right? She was my musical theater teacher, and one of the first people (other than my mom) to tell me I was talented and I could do whatever I wanted. She led by example–she wrote plays and lyrics, she directed shows, plus she was a great actress herself. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

That blond guy to my left? He used to send me hand drawn valentines. Now he’s an award winning director who was knighted by the king of Belgium for the documentary he made about the Belgian resistance during WWII.  (He has a lovely wife and parter and adorable children. I’m sure his valentines are better now.)

That guy in the middle, with the goofy smile? He was MY junior high crush. (Well, he was everyone’s crush.) He just (a) had a baby, (b) released his first album with his band and (c) his wife just sold her first book.

That guy with the glasses? Does the documentary shorts that go on the DVD extras. Yeah, so he hangs out and chats with Christopher Nolan and stuff.

That girl on the box, hovering above me?   She (a) got most of the roles I wanted and (b) dated Junior High Crush.  So did the redhead on the end. Everyone dated my Junior High Crush but me. But we were friends anyway.

That chick in black in the middle?  She’s all in black because she lives in NYC doing fancy NYC stuff.  She hosted the halloween party where we played spin the bottle and seven minutes in heaven. You know. Like we would have known what to do with seven minutes.

That’s ancient history. I only attended the school for three years. I loved being on stage (I still do) but it takes a special kind of fortitude to be a career actor. However, my favorite part was the storytelling and becoming a character, and that led me to the realization that I wanted to write books. (It was kind of weird that I ended up working in a theater while I worked at that goal. Or… maybe not.)

Still, the particular chemistry of that environment established the basis for everythingNot just theater school, but that theater school with those people and those teachers. They had an idea for a creative arts school and they made it happen. They created their own shows and stories, they made things out of nothing into something. And they instilled that in the students.

When I was teaching drama, I used to tell the parents that chances were, their kid wasn’t going to end up acting as a career (or be on Saturday Night Live or anything), but that the things they learned in the theater–confidence and creativity and teamwork–would help them in whatever they chose to do. I think that’s definitely been true for my students, as it was for my class.

Enjoy what you do, and do it one hundred percent for as long as you love it. It doesn’t matter if it’s what you’re going to do forever. (Does every student on the football team end up in the NFL? Of course not.) Nothing you learn is ever wasted. It will show up somewhere, some way you don’t even expect.

P.S.  Any Glee fans read this blog?  You know what? Warbler Nick is even better looking in person. (And not really in high school, so it’s not gross that I said that.)

Spirit and Dust Countdown

The local cops kept staring at me. I couldn’t decide if it was the plaid miniskirt in subarctic temperatures, or the fact that they’d never seen anyone talk to the dead before.

Here’s something weird about me. I almost always start writing with the first line of the book. Image

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound that weird. Where else would you start other than the beginning?

Only it’s not that simple. You have to know where the story ACTUALLY starts. Backstory and characterization are good things for the author to know, but we don’t need to put it in up front. We want to start as close to The Thing That Sets Stuff In Motion as possible.  (Imagine if you had to sit through ten minutes of Luke Skywalker fixing moisture vaporators and whining to his aunt and uncle before the droids showed up. No. Just, no. Instead we start his part of the story with the droids arriving, shorthand in a few lines of characterization, and then, boom, we’ve got a Princess in Peril and off we go.)

I’m not talking about that part. I’m saying that I LITERALLY write the first line of my book first. In my head. Sometimes before I even know what the plot of the book is going to be. Prom Dates From Hell was like that.  And so was Spirit and Dust.  I knew from the moment I finished writing Texas Gothic (where Daisy is a minor character) what would be the opening line of her book. I didn’t know if or when I would get to write it, but I knew how it would start.

(By the way, you do NOT have to read Texas Gothic or Spirit and Dust in any order. The only thing that connects them is the characters come from the same family. Their stories are independent and don’t have spoilers for each other.)

Anyway. That’s the first line of Spirit and Dust. More teasers to come.

 

Better Than Chocolate and Hot FBI Agents

This morning I retweeted something from one of my favorite paranormal romance authors* (and awesome person) Alyssa Day:

RT @Alyssa_DayDear Readers: You know that part where you tell us you like our books? We love that part like chocolate.

First off, I would amend that to say we love that part better than the chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs that I have stashed in a secret place in my office where my mother can’t find them.**

The thing is, it’s not just that we (as authors) are looking for the ego stroke. At least, I’m not.  Or mostly not.  But hearing from readers who have enjoyed my books is honestly my favorite part about being a published writer, and here’s why:

A book is a collaborative process in more than just the writer/editor/cover-designer/publisher/marketer way.  It’s a collaboration between the author and the reader. See, when I write a scene, or I describe a character or setting, I have a picture in my mind. Literally, for me, because I tend to see my scenes as multi-sensory movies in my head.  That picture is drawn based on my own experiences: places I’ve been, people I’ve met, plus a whole lot of my own dreams, emotions and neurosis.

When you read a book—MY book, for the sake of this blog post, though it’s possible you’ve wandered to this site by accident, or because you Googled Alyssa Day or chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter eggs—then my words, if I’ve done my job right, make a picture in your mind, and that picture is drawn by YOUR experiences.

So if I write this***:

“Hey, Agent Tasty,” I’d said, when I saw Agent Taylor waiting beside the car. I liked Taylor, and not just because he was young and really hot for a buttoned-up guy with a G-man haircut and a newly minted FBI badge. I sort of like liked him, but we worked together and I was still three months shy of legal age, so it stayed with they boundaries of “sort of.” None of which kept me from noticing that he did not skimp on the FBI physical training program.

I might be picturing this (I’m not, btw):

FBI Dean

You could be picturing this:

FBI Sam

Someone else might be picturing this:

Booth-seeley-booth-5095680-1024-768

Or going old school: 
agent_mulder

Or REALLY old school:

FBI2

None of these, by the way, are models for Agent Taylor, who is fresh out of the academy as well as my imagination.

I do draw on real people and places for inspiration sometimes, but rarely just one. It’s this model’s hair, but this dancer’s height, and this actress’s cheeky grin, etc.  I rarely, if ever, tell anyone what/who I have in mind because I want you to form your own picture.

Even my editor and I have different ideas. She said, “I picture Daisy looking sort of like a red-haired Taylor Swift, only with a lot more eyeliner and black nail polish.”  (Which got me thinking, would Taylor Swift even BE Taylor Swift with red hair and a lot more eyeliner and black nail polish?)  However, Swift is quite tall (or she looks that way) with really long legs, and so body-type-wise, that’s exactly what I’d described in both Texas Gothic and the new book, so I considered this a success.****

ANYWAY. This brings me to reader tweets/comments/email.  The fun thing for me is to find out what stuck with you from the story. I have my favorite parts, so I love hearing yours. I know what *I* think Ben McCullough looks like, but I love to hear what reader’s imagine. I think that the shared universe of a book is something kind of magical. When I see fans of a wildly popular book/series sharing ideas, fan art, world-building theories, character analysis, that book becomes almost like a virtual reality.

That’s why I love reading, and that’s why I love writing. PLUS, I got to spend my morning looking up pictures of hot FBI agents. It really is better than chocolate.

FBI Castiel



* No, really. Day really gets it RIGHT. You can tell that she loves the Fantasy part as much as the Romance part, and it’s not just an excuse to have the couple to have Magical Soulmate Sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I suspect Alyssa might be a bit of a SFF fangirl at heart.

** This is not an exaggeration. I bought a ridiculous number of packages when they went on sale, and if I don’t want Mom to eat them ALL AT ONCE, I have to hide them. When did I become my parent’s parent?

*** Why, yes, that IS pulled from SPIRIT AND DUST! So glad you asked.

**** Dear Ms. Swift. If you’re looking for a starring vehicle, the option on Spirit and Dust is available. Ha ha.*****

**** No, really. Call me. We’ll do lunch.

Into the Cave

It’s time. I’m going into my writing cave.cave_eyes_fire_md_wht

I’ve blogged before about a peculiarity of my “process” which is that sooner or later I just have to become a hermit, dive into the book and write without distractions until it’s done. And by “distractions” I mean “showers, exercise or balanced meals.”

I’ve been pretending to go there for awhile, but I’ll still accept invitations… or rather, accept social invitations and then flake out because I feel guilty that I’m supposed to be writing and then feel guilty for flaking so that I don’t get any writing done, either. (I know guilt is an important emotion to keep us from being, like, sociopaths or whatever, but I could use a little more logic associated with mine.)

So rather than even pretend I’m going to be a decent friend/blogger/Tweeter for the next few weeks, I’m just letting everyone know that I’m morphing into that cranky old hermit in the woods for awhile, and I’ll see you all when I’m my sunny self again.

The BRIGHT side of this is that when the book is done, I’ll be less superstitious, and be able to tell you stuff about it. :D

P.S. Which is not to say I won’t Tweet or reply to emails or comments. I get the Internet in my cave. Let’s not be ridiculous. It’s the 21st century, after all.

This entry was posted on February 18, 2013, in Writing.

Eat (All) the Ice Cream

When I was at YAKfest the other weekend, one of the student’s asked, “Do you ever take on characteristics of your characters while you’re writing?” Specifically, I think she said, if your character’s a crabby person, do you become more crabby, and so on.grumpy-cat-entertained

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the larger problem that if your character is so unpleasant that your friends don’t want to be around you while you’re writing him/her, is anyone going to want to be around that character for a whole book.

The deal is (as I expounded in my Wise Mentor way) that it might not be the character making you crabby. It’s easy to fall into the stereotype of the reclusive, absentminded, cranky and iconoclastic writer.

Why?

  1. Aren’t writers and artists supposed to be eccentric?
  2. A lot of people who like to write do so because they like their own company best, anyway.
  3. It’s annoying to have to come out of your fantasy world and interact with real people, people who often want you to Do Things, when you’d rather be slaying Orcs with your Dashing Hero in your head.
  4. Your friends and family don’t always understand that just because you’re up and walking around the kitchen physically doesn’t mean you’re not still in Orc-land trying to solve The Riddle of Eternal Riddleness in your head. So when they talk to you and you don’t answer, or worse, you answer in Orcish, or worse, you snap at them for distracting you when you almost had the answer… it can lead to hurt feelings.
  5. If your writing style is to fully immerse yourself in your book, where you basically go in your cave for three weeks and don’t emerge until the thing is done, then the people on the outside–the ones you turn down for dates or parties, or ignore when they want to go out for ice cream–might not be there when you come out of your writing hibernation.

I speak from experience. I have been guilty off all these things. (Except number two, which is more of being most comfortable with myself more than liking myself best.)

My advice to the student with the question was this:

First, if your character is a douche, that’s not an excuse for you to be one, too.

Second, take time to eat the ice cream so that you will still have friends when you’re done with your book. Writing is a lonely endeavor, but don’t make your life more lonely by forgetting there are real people in the world as well as imaginary ones.

Wise Mentors are sometimes good at giving advice that we need to give ourselves most of all.

The Scariest Part

In case you missed it, I announced Wednesday that I’d sold two new books to Delacorte. (Yay!)

The announcement came complete with pie charts.  I really love charts. They can express all kinds of ideas. Brilliant things. The world is a better place with graphs, charts and grids, and I’ll tell you why: It keeps my right brain self and left brain self from killing each other.

It’s not this simple, but it makes a pretty picture.

Every test I’ve ever taken (Which is a lot, because you know who gets to be early test subjects for graduate students in communication and behavioral science? Other grad students in communication and behavioral science.) puts me in a dead split between right/left brain dominance.

According to popular theory (two words that pretty much negate all credibility), I can use both types of intelligence–logical and intuitive–equally well.  But what it mostly seems to mean is that someday they will find my comatose body in a department store dressing room because my brain has imploded trying to decide whether to purchase a dress that I love vs. the one that is practical.

So I make pro/con lists for just about everything. (And I do mean everything.) I keep notebooks with my ideas. I write down everything so I can sort it and find it when I need it.

This is where the white board comes in. When I rough in my book plot, my beloved white board chart gives me a visual, spacial framework that I can then fill in with my right-brained creative genius.

Except here I am. Staring at this:

In blank space, no one can hear you scream.

 

Most intimidating thing ever.

Here’s what I don’t get.  I’ve written seven books.  My left brain KNOWS I can write a book. I have empirical evidence of the fact that I can write a book. And they’re not even BAD books. They’ve gotten starred reviews and awards and stuff.

So how come every time I sit down to “Chapter One” and a blank page, I’m convinced I have no CLUE what I’m doing.  I’ve just been faking it all this time.

Call it the inner editor, call it the Id vs the Superego, call it cognitive dissonance, call it whatever…. Staring at a blank anything can make a task seem so overwhelming that just about anyone can get this kind of standing-on-the-high-dive paralysis that threatens to defeat you before you even get started.

The only thing to do–and trust me, I know–is to start filling in the blanks. Make a chart. Make a list. Make a mind map. Make a Pinterest Board full of inspiring images. Start filling in the empty spaces with nonsense, and sooner or later, it’s not so empty and intimidating any more.

“Make it so.” — Captain Jean Luc Picard