Friday, October 30, 2009

Google Reader Roundup: Friday 10/30/09

Here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

Lots of delicious snacky things for you this week:

  • A word on titles from agent Kristin Nelson...and, interestingly enough, her remark on how a rockin title might make her request pages from a query, even if the query isn't that strong. Oooh! "Pride and Prejudice 2" here we come! (Does anyone remember that old Saturday Night Live skit with Christian Slater in it, and Chris Farley, and they were all sitting in the attic as a band trying to come yup with a name for a band and Chris Farley is all "How about 'PEARL JAM 2!!!'" Oh it was a classic. You Tube has failed me on getting it for you.
  • And finally, my most useful post this week came from Roni at *Fiction Groupie*, who posted one of the most helpful things about characters I have ever seen--a psychological breakdown. I have long thought that having a degree in psychology would be very useful when writing--because it all comes down to understanding human nature, and the best writers do that, right? So well done for a timely and fabrujous post Roni. I didn't comment on it because I was in the airport being accosted by old lady line jumpers at the time.

Oh! And another thing before we go....Marian Keyes' new book hit the stands today, in Britain, Ireland, and Australia. We yanks have to wait until January (except this one, who is going to order her copy from Oh, we have ways.)

Have a happy Halloween my dears. I have some very exciting posts next week for you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Learning by Reading: What Have You Learned?

Writers know that one of the best places to learn about the craft is by reading other books and watching how other writers do it. Taking notice of the story arc, plot conflicts, characterization, and dialogue all helps both give you ideas and also show you how it’s done.

I was recently reading a book by Irish author Cathy Kelly and thinking to myself that in the story, there are some things she might have missed, and that the start of the book was slow and quite unbelievable. But I stuck with it and I’m still reading it and it’s holding my attention—well. I’ve been asking myself constantly what it is that keeps my attention, then, if the beginning of the book wasn’t that good, and I was annoyed with some of the characters and what they did? It’s taken me a while to figure it out and by the time I did, I realized that Kelly had solved a lot of the things that made me suspend disbelief. So what was it that kept me?

Characterization. Her characters are interesting, warm people, and I like them--and they all have depth. Kelly is a master at this—it’s why her plots can almost be secondary. She, like fellow Irish author Maeve Binchy, is a writer who specializes in likable, warm, and deep characters that we want to know and stay with. It was a little thing to realize, but a good one: characters should be deep and readers should like them, and Cathy Kelly has shown me how.

What book are you reading right now, and what is at least one thing you learned from it?

Monday, October 26, 2009


Some of my fellow bloggers have put their bold selves out there and asked their readers to ask questions, which the blogger then answered.

I was shocked, quite frankly. What if I asked for questions and didn't get any! So kudos to those who did that (and, happily, they got lots of questions).

So instead of opening myself up to questions (oh, go on then if you want), I will now answer some of the questions that I get repeatedly in my mailbag.*

*No, not really. I don't have a mailbag and no one writes me. I've totally made these up.

Q. Is the book about Greece your first novel?
A. No, it is not. I wrote a novel that was badly formed and *ahem* quite long (cough cough 210k cough) and meandered and in the end, wasn't remotely salvageable. I loved the characters though and they have stayed with me.

Q. Are you Greek?
A. No, I am not. I lived in Greece for a while. I once told someone at work that I lived in Greece as a kid and he said "Oh, is that your way of trying to tell me that you've lived abroad?" Sheesh. Sheesh. Yes. Sheesh.

Q. Do you think Ricky Gervais is brilliant?
A. I do actually, and I'll tell you why: he unabashedly laughs at things that are funny. Not enough people do that.

Q. Who are some of your favorite authors?
A. I really love Marian Keyes, not because of all the pioneering genre work she's done, but because her stories are genuinely funny and enjoyable. And, instead of letting things in life get her down, she makes them sound funny. I would like to be BFFs with her. But outside of women's fiction I'm a big fan of Ian Rankin, Scottish author of the Rebus detective series. (And not the least of which because Hibs are frequently featured in the books.) Other long time favs: Bill Bryson, Gerald Durrell, Maeve Binchy. For more UK boy authors, I like Nick Hornby and yes, I've made it through several Irvine Welsh books and understood them. Including reading all of Filth.

Q. Yeah?
A. Yeah.

Q. What is the funniest thing your whippersnapper has said recently? And how old is your whippersnapper?
A. Last weekend we went to train museum where there was a smallish steam engine parked inside the museum. Behind it was a tender (the small car used to hold water to fill the steam engine.) When we got home, the whippersnapper said, "I didn't like the steam engine because it wasn't coupled to the tender." Coupled. To the tender. He is three.

Q. Have you played any practical jokes on anyone lately?
A. Why, yes, I have. Funny that you ask. Yesterday, a guy in my company (let's call him Jim) joked to another guy (we'll call him Mustafa) that he was going to park very close to his car, and then get another colleague to park very close on the other side, and the Mustafa wouldn't be able to get in his car. It was just a joke, see. But today I came back from lunch and the space next to Jim's car was open, and Mustafa happened to be parked on the other side. So I parked way close and then called Mustafa to come move his car close. Oh, the laughs we had. Joke was on me, though. Like an ass, I didn't reverse in, so my driver's side door was parked too close to Jim's. So I had to get in and get out of my car through the passenger side. Then I was reminded of how utterly AWESOME it is to get in and out through your window, Dukes of Hazzard style, and was not so embarrassed anymore (even though it was a door, not a window).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Google Reader Roundup: Friday 10/23/09

Here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

  • My most favorite post of last week, and so incredibly helpful and insightful: Fiction groupie posted about building tension appropriately in sex scenes. She is so right on with her thoughts that I have been going back to this post many times.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Six-Word Game

Okay, okay, okay. Okay. I love this. Janice Hardy, author of The Shifter, who gave a fantabuloous-oso interview on THIS VERY BLOG (yes), had a link up in her blog for another interview she gave.

One of the questions posed to Janice was this:

Hemingway reportedly called his six-word story ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn") his best work. What can you tell us about your book in six words? (They don't have to be your best six.)

Janice's answer:

Eek, six words? Hmmm… “My sister’s in trouble, Gotta run.”

Love it!

Now I am a tad wee bit tiny somewhat skeptical of Hemingway's "best work" there (but then, I am not a fan of any of his work), but I like this as a game. I like games. Can you sum up your work in progress/completed novel in six words? Here's a few to get you started:

Twilight: "Love means not running from vampires."

The Godfather: "Sometimes family obligations trump your morals."

Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (his awesome memoir about football): "Football defines all of my life."

You know, I should probably search the tinterweb and see if this has been done already. I bet it has. So what. I had fun making those up above. Now, here is mine for my own novel:

"Santorini heals wounds, but be careful."

What are six words about your work in progress/finished novel? Post them in the comments!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Awesome Author Web sites

Last week or so I posted about what I think author web sites should have, and goodness knows there's lots of other posts around the tinterwebs on this too. But let's skip the discussion and go straight to one of my favorite points: great design. Below are several author web sites (and by "author" I mean "published"). In no particular order, here are some good ones that caught my eye as I traveled around the web--and I'll add to this series as I find them:

  • Miranda July: This one is just great as far as promotion for a book. It's funny, clever, and different--and serves as a great introduction to the author's creativity. Mind that you click down at the very right hand corner.

  • Judy Blume. Just excellent and very appropriate for her and her books.

  • Linda Fairstein has a web site that's a bit heavy on the flash but pretty cool and dark and mysterious all the same. Very nice for a crime novelist.

  • Emily Giffin: I've never actually read anything by her, but her web site is so well done that it makes me want to. Score!

  • The Four Hour Work Week. Now this guy is all about marketing himself, but he does it well. The whole site is less about him, although you wouldn't think so upon first glance, and more about the actual book. It's like a slick infomercial.

  • Michael Hyatt isn't actually an author (actually, he might be), but he's a publishing CEO and this is a blog--one of the best designed out there. It is so slick and well-ticking that even if you're not into what he says, it's worth looking at what he does here.

  • Gayle Foreman's web site is clear, too, what she writes, and does a good job of putting her books front and center.

  • Maureen Johnson. Also well done, and fun, too with flash elements. I haven annoyed my husband by dinging all the dings.

  • Jenn Lancaster has a great section of how she came to write her series of books.

  • Amy Sarigking's site, with its switching channels, is innovative, fun, and different. I was highly amused by clicking on the sections. But that being said, the fun design leaves a little bit to be desired in usability because the small font and scrolling is cumbersome. Still, this one is fantastic.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Google Reader Roundup: Friday 10/16/09

Here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is a collection the best posts (in my opinion) I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

  • And on the same line of thought, romance writer Sally MacKenzie had some interesting things to say about how many agented writers she knows are afraid of their agents!!
  • Horrors. Marks of the Amateur writer! Via Edit Torrent.Great list and note the term "cute-meet" which I'd never heard before (is explained in the comments.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Note on Oatcakes

I must say I love oatcakes very much. I like any brand, but Nairn really does it for me (silly and obligatory FTC “amateur blogger” notice: I have not been paid to eat, nor enjoy, nor choke on, Nairn oatcakes). Oatcakes are dry, cardboard-like cracker-like things, but strangely tasty. They’re Scottish, which adds to my eating pleasure for some strange reason. Not always easy to find, but I found them at my local natural foods market last weekend and bought several boxes in a fit of glee. In particular I love the herb and pumpkin seed one, but then I am partial to anything with pumpkin in it at this time of year. I like plain, too.

However, I have discovered something vastly important about oatcakes. When you have just shoved one in your pie-hole and the phone rings, you cannot chew and swallow the oatcake in time to answer the phone before it goes to voicemail. The oatcake WILL NOT BE HURRIED.

So plan accordingly.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Nick Hornby Said

Last Thursday I got to go with my cousin Adrienne to see Nick Hornby speak at the 826 Valencia Literary Arts series, all proceeds of which benefit the 826 Valencia foundation, which helps kids with creative writing, tutoring, and provides scholarships to highs chool students. It's a great cause and let me just say now how GORGEOUS their program brochure was. Oh, it was a designer's dream: clean, simple, gorgeous font, stark red edging, bleed off the paper. It's a lot like their web site actually.

But first, we had a lovely dinner at Soluna on McAllister, and I had a scrumptious spinach salad with melt in your mouth warm goat cheese encrusted in panko. I love panko, and I love goat cheese, so you can see how this is going. We also split Coca-cola short ribs with goat cheese polenta. I don't know what part of the spare ribs had coke in them but they were tender and divine and Gordon Ramsey would have gone "bloody %$#&@ hell, this is good."

Then, after my pear-lime granita and Adrienne's pumpkin spice creme brulee (both deelish), we went on down the street to see Nick. On the way, a high/drunk/crazy man who was laughing hysterically laughed at me and slapped me hard on the shoulder. Adrienne said "I'm so sorry." I said "I'm not afraid to kick his ass!" which was a terrible lie, as I do not kick asses and in fact go to great lengths to avoid kicking or getting kicked in the ass. Anyway, Nick. Nick is the author of Fever Pitch (his memoir of his love of Arsenal; highly inspiring to me***), About a Boy, High Fidelity, and his new one: Juliet, Naked. Local author and forthcoming movie script co-writer and novelization author (that's quite a credential, isn't it?) Dave Eggers interviewed him in an Inside the Actors Studio style: two chairs on the stage. Nick talked about a lot of things, mostly casually. A few things stuck out in my mind, causing me to think "I'm totally blogging this" which quite possibly is the nerdiest thought ever thunk. Anyway:

He made the following point that I have never seen or heard before. He said that when records where on vinyl, people related differently to them. When music went to CD, that changed because CDs make noise if dropped, they scratch, they're ubiquitous and plentiful and we all have scads of unmarked ones sitting around the office. They mean nothing. Then when music went to MP3 and download, it changed yet again how we relate. Different. (better than CD, but different.) So, like books--we all love books, the way they feel and look. But furthermore, they say something about who you are when you put a book on your shelf. It's part of your home, your decoration. You lose that when you go to ebook format. And Nick didn't think we could afford to lose that distinction.

Well, I agree with him, but I also enjoy reading books on my eReader because I can download books instantly. And I don't have to store books I wouldn't otherwise keep. But I don't know what to do with the ebooks after I've read them, and they lack the tactile experience. All that being said, eBooks are here to stay, and Kristin Nelson recently reported that for the first time, her client royalty checks have featured an even keel of ebooks. It's a sign of the times.

I don't know the answer to it.

Nick also said that he suffers from the same self-loathing and confidence that the rest of us do, published or not, and that he is never sure that he has a full length novel in him when he starts out with a story. I liked knowing that and I thought the rest of you would, too.

That's about it. There--I've shared. You could almost say it's like Nick dropped by this very blog to share thoughts. Oh, can I get you a coffee, Nick? Great, two sugars or one? Lovely. Oh, sure, you can have a hug. Oh, you want to read my novel? Well, ha ha, I suppose so, sure. If you insist!

***As you know I am not an Arsenal fan. In fact the team (Hibs) I follow isn't in the same league. (I know you weren't sure, so I'm just saying.) However, every self-respecting football (soccer) fan has a team in the English Premiership, and that's because it is the most popular league on earth. My team would probably be Tottenham Hotspurs, although I quite like Newcastle as well despite their abysmal performance last season, which got them relegated. Oh the horror! I also harbor a sort of love for Crystal Palace based purely on their name, which is AWESOME.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review of a Review

I opened my venerable New York Times Book Review today—a publication that I have had a gift subscription to from my generous and literature-loving cousin Vic—and found a review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol as the cover review. What? I thought. The NYT Book Review is stooping to review this? But I needn’t have feared that they would take the book seriously, ha ha, no. The review started out caustically, as many seem to do for The Lost Symbol, but it went on in its derision. And on. And on. What reviewer is so angry, I wondered? Oh yes. Maureen Dowd.

My first (and only) exposure to Maureen Dowd was that she’s a bit of a mean-spirited reviewer. I first heard of her through Carrie via GalleyCat, which mentioned how Maureen wrote a very bad-humored article on chick lit, in which she trashes the genre seemingly based on cover art, and which I blogged about.

I’m sure every reviewer has his or her pet peeves, or can find something about most popular commercial novels to pick apart. Maureen lets loose in this vein with The Lost Symbol. Granted, she’s got good reason for three columns of sarcasm: Dan Brown is good at sensational story lines, but not the finer mechanics of character development. We know this. He also seems to have numerous implausible plot devices. We know this, too. We ALL KNOW that he isn't going to be invited to the annual gala dinner of the Society of Brilliant Literary Masterminds. So I don’t want to read another pedantic review pointing all that out. It’s old. I’d like the NYT Book Review, and Maureen Dowd, to have gone a bit deeper than stating the obvious about Dan’s over-use of italics and one-dimensional, clich├ęd villains. How about an essay exploring why Dan’s books are so popular? Because, let’s face it, they are.

I’m not opposed to the principle of a negative book review, but Ms. Dowd failed to do this in any kind of meaningful context. Clearly The DaVinci Code was a huge success. I read it. It was okay. But let’s remember why it was such a hit: because it was controversial, and dealt with a subject that most people hadn’t thought about before: the idea that Jesus Christ could have had a wife, and that she was Mary Magdalene, and that they might have had a child. Wow! Incredible idea! Incredible premise for a novel! Good, go! Go, dog, go!

Now, I haven’t read The Lost Symbol, and what I have surmised is that I don’t need to. The problem for me is that the plot is uninteresting. It didn't hook me. That’s why I wouldn’t read it—and that’s what should have been discussed in the NYT Book Review, rather than spouting horror over how awful Dan Brown is, and what a pussy he is for writing arse-licky bits about the Masons, who, Maureen Dowd presumes, he is now afraid of.

Why am I pointing all this out? Because there have been so many negative reviews and articles written about Dan Brown and his books, starting with the announcement of the unprecedented two million first printing of The Lost Symbol, and continuing with the fawning and unnecessary letter posted on its home page about how they had their inventory of The Lost Symbol under lock and key guarded by two armed men. Puke! But the fact remains that while the book might not be great for many reasons, I think we’re all taking advantage of the opportunity to be MEAN and UPPITY. And this came across loud and clear in Maureen Dowd’s review, which ends with an unclever and mocking What the hell, Dan?! Worse, this is the cover review in a publication that should serve people who want to know about books.

You could say that we're being mean and uppity because we're appalled that such bad writing should get such a massive first printing or marketing push. Yawn. Come on, that outrage is passe. This is how the publishing industry is right now.

A final note: another Maureen, the imminently enjoyable author Maureen Johnson, wrote a hilarious chapter by chapter account of The Lost Symbol on her blog. In that, she was subtle about the bad bits. I didn’t consider it to be negative. Although there might have been a teensy weensy bit of prejudice before starting, it ultimately shows the novel for what it is. Maureen Dowd, on the other hand, who is winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, didn’t even try.

Just saying.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Writers and Blogging

I'm kind of annoyed because I have had this blog post in draft for a while, and last week there were what seemed like a tragillion discussions in the blogosphere about author websites, which pretty much beat me to it. However, I still have a lot to say about author web sites and blogging.

We all know how important it is for writers to have a blog, at all stages in their career. Building a web presence and platform does the following:
  • Shows potential agents and publishers that you're serious about communicating to readers and continuing your online presence
  • Begins early outreach to readers so that once your book comes out, you have some supporters
  • Gives you a way to start building your professional brand
From what I can see, there are some basics that every writer should have on their blog. I'll list them below by unpublished writers and published writers. At the end, I'll offer tips on how you can take things a little further.

Unpublished Writers
Your blog should, at a minimum, include the following elements:

A focus. If you're just blogging about what you ate, it's not terribly interesting and you might not have repeat traffic (always depending on what it was you ate, of course). If you blog about your writing process and publishing, as most of us do, then you're in a good place. Being random (including what you ate) is okay too, as long as you have a focus. You must not be an ass, though.

A short "About Me" space. Let's say there's an agent who reads a blog, and you commented on a post, and it was clever. The agent clicks on your profile and follows it to your blog, which is also clever. The agent likes your style and voice. So tell the agent who you are and what you're doing! Use the sidebars in blogging templates to do this and do it near the top of the page (as you can see, I have this). OK, an agent noticing you on your commenting prowess is unlikely, but I'll tell you: many a time I have stumbled on a writer's blog and wanted to know what genre they write, whether they're published, and where they're located. These are basics. They help you connect.

Labels. You want to build your blog full of relevant topics, and the Labels feature shows that you blog a lot, your topics are varied, and what kind of focus you have.

A link to your web site. Now, I know, a lot of writer bloggers don't yet have web sites, or they use their blogs as web sites (which is perfectly acceptable). But if you have one, your site is your virtual business card and more, so link it, baby.

Your followers. I balked for a long time over making my followers visible, but I relented when I realized that people look at the number of followers you have to help determine your blog traffic. I recently asked a wonderful published author if I could interview her for the blog, and I worried very much after pressing the send button whether she would see that I don't have 1000 followers and decide not to do it. However she is very gracious, as you could see.

What you blog, as an unpublished writer, should NOT include:
  • Nasty posts about agents, publishers, or other writers.
  • Your rejections, and your comments about them.
  • Anything that you would not want your mother, ex-boyfriends, or a prospective agent to see. Because they'll all check. (Hi, guys!)

Published Writers
At a minimum, I want to see this from published writers:
  • Information about your book. A picture, a link to buy, a quick synopsis.
  • Information about your next book. Where are you in the process? When is it expected out?
  • A prominent link to your web site. At your web site, of course, you'll list who you are, what you write, and who you're represented by. (Although sometimes this last is a personal choice).
  • A cohesive design tied to your web site.

Taking it Further
The biggest thing about blogging and web sites is to make them look alive. You need stuff that makes you look alive and dynamic. For unpublished writers, you pretty much have to post often. For published writers, you can get away with posting less often--everyone understand you're terribly busy pounding out your next book--but not too infrequent or you'll lose traffic. I confess that it's hard work ensuring frequent posts throughout the work week, but this is the reality of Platform these days. I totally cheat by writing posts ahead of time and then scheduling them for publication later, which is a nice feature that Blogger has. (I don't know if Wordpress has it.)

Notice my sidebar item over to the right there (just there---->), "Upcoming Posts." Yes! You can see what I'll be posting about next! This blog also has something similar: a blog schedule guide, which lists what theme the blogger will post on. Kind of cool and doesn't require much maintenance.

  • INTERN has a very good roundup of what author web sites (and therefore blogs) should have, and I agree with all of her points.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Google Reader Roundup Friday Oct. 9

Here's my roundup for the week, which is a collection of the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Google Reader.

On a side note, I got to attend an event last night that Nick Hornby spoke at, a sort of Inside the Actor's Studio for authors. Mr. Hornby was engaging and funny and has some very interesting things to say about ebooks vs. traditional books, which I'll post next week. I feel it necessary to say that Nick is dear to my heart for writing Fever Pitch, a most wonderful book about soccer football. (Regrettably, Nick isn't a Hibs fan.)

Now, on with the weekly Roundup.

  • Holy Krakow! This angel has a rage-raising story of being plagiarized. Not good. Happy place. Happy place! Don't do it, people. Be above that. Be better. BE A WRITER, NOT A THIEF! And I ask this question: doesn't "writing" someone else's work take all the fun out of the process? Why bother if you're not going to do it yourself?
  • Little Kettle-head is quite possibly the most bizarre and heinous childrens book ever about a little girl whose head burns off and then she replaces it with a kettle...but wait, there's a happy ending for all. This is by way of Editorial Anonymous, who recommends, quite rightly, that this sort of book is PSYCHO.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Muchas Gracias Time

I am remiss in not saying how very, very kind two bloggers have been to me in giving me the following awards:

*You might be saying "But I've seen other blogs have the Heartfelt one and that burst of black and red there isn't it." You'd be right. Roni rather sensibly suspected that people, especially her male awardees, mightn't like the usual mouse picture, which is admittedly a bit twee. Hence the cool burst of whatever that is. Thanks for changing it, Roni!!

These awards both have similar rules: that you nominate nine (is it nine? Why nine? Can I just say right now that it completely baffles me when people write "nine (9)...." Why the numeral in parens? Why? Did you think I wouldn't get "nine"? How strange is that? I'm not saying Jessica or Roni did that. I'm just saying I see it a lot at work, and not just with nine. It's odd. And it makes me wonder if the writer of such a thing has been lobotomized.) Anyway, you nominate nine (9) or so different bloggers who you like, list them, and then go post on their blog that they've been awarded. It's almost mind-bloggling (a wee pun) in the tactical planning of it. But the bottom line is that you get to be introduced to tons of other awesome bloggers, several of whose blogs I regularly visit now. These are usually fellow writers, all savvy enough to be loudmouths out on the tinterweb. I like that.

I'm supposed to give these awards on, but I need to gather a long blog roll list up first, so until I do I just want to say thank you to the ladies for these. I think it means you like me, and you like what I post, and that is really, really coolio to me. Maybe one day you'll like my novel, too. I think that's the fun thing: you get to know someone's Voice on their blog, especially if they go on at length, and you obviously come back for more. Then when they get a huge big fat publishing contract (or, you know, whatever), you go run out and buy their book and lurve it and blog about it and there you go. The love has been spread, nine (9) times. (Why do people do that?)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Interview with Author Janice Hardy

I'm very excited today. Janice Hardy, author of the YA fantasy book The Shifter, which is released today, was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about breaking into publishing. Janice is represented by Kristin Nelson and maintains two excellent blogs. One, The Other Side of the Story, is a terrific resource for writers, where she talks about the mechanics of writing, querying, and the publishing process. Her other blog is devoted to her books. Links to blogs and web site are below.

Janice has some wonderful insights into what it takes these days--right down to my new favorite phrase: having "that intangible spark." But enough waiting. Let's get to her interview!

What is your process for writing novels? Do you use outlines?

I’m an outliner for sure, but it’s more of a loose outline. I like to have all my big set pieces and turning points mapped out, so I always know where the story is going. But I like to let the character choose how they get there, so the story stays spontaneous and grows organically. I’ve found this helps keep me on track, but keeps things from feeling stale or forced. I’m also not afraid to ignore my outline if the story heads in a new direction. I just update it and keep going.

My writing process is pretty basic. I usually start with a “what if?” problem of some type. I need that person with a problem idea before I can go anywhere with a story. For The Shifter, it was “what if you could shift pain from person to person?” Once I have that, I start asking questions and do my world building so I can understand what kinds of problems and challenge my characters might face. Then I’ll do a rough outline of anything that strikes me. Sometimes a lot of the story is there, other times just a few basics. Next, I’ll ask more questions based on that outline, filling in the gaps. Then I toss in the character and see what mess they can make of their life. At this point, I can usually write a basic summary of the overall story. I write the book from there.

For me, it’s about getting the characters and world fleshed out so I can let them run the show, and giving them enough of a plot framework to explore the story. Details change all the time, but the core story rarely does once I start writing. For The Shifter, it was about a pain shifter who had to use her ability to save her sister, so everything in the story focused on that idea in some way. Made it a lot easier to avoid tangents and extra subplots.

How long did it take you from the start of writing The Shifter to signing your agent? How long did revisions take?

I was actually inspired at the 2006 Surrey International Writers Conference, wrote the book, then pitched it the following year and got my agent, so almost exactly a year between idea and signing with an agent. First, I did about two months of world building, then six months of writing for the first draft. Then another three months for polish and revisions. After I got my agent, we did another few months of revisions. I rewrote the ending twice for her, but most of the edits were basic stuff like tightening the pacing and clarification of ideas and themes. The story itself never changed at all.

What is your outlook on new writers breaking into publishing these days?

They do it every day, so I think anyone who puts in the work can get there. But it is a very competitive business. It’s not enough to just be good, you need to push yourself to be great to stand out. That usually comes down to that intangible spark in your work that’s different in some way, be it the idea, the voice, the theme, the angle, something.

I think it’s also important for new writer to remember it’s not really about the writer, it’s about the book. That’s the product publishers need to sell, so if one book isn’t working, try another. It takes most folks several books before they sell one, so don’t get discouraged if your first book doesn’t go anywhere. Just keep writing, because that’s what writers do.

You met your agent at a conference. Did you go through a lot of rejection before meeting her, or was it a fairly straightforward process?

For The Shifter, very few rejections overall (I think five of my eight queries, including partials and a full), but it was the fourth book I’d written and the third I tried to sell. I have stacks and stacks of rejections from the other two, and they rarely got past the query stage. The last book I knew wasn’t good enough to even try to sell so I didn’t bother. Getting my agent was freakishly straightforward. I sat down, pitched her, she asked for the book and I emailed it to her. Ten days later I signed with her. However, I did have three other agents interested (all slush pile queries), and things wouldn’t have moved so fast had I not had an offer from another agent in my email when I got home from the conference.

What advice would you give new writers looking for an agent?

Do your research. I spent the whole time I was writing The Shifter preparing. I made a list of all the possible agents for me, then started reading one or two of their books to see what they liked and who would be a good fit. I read their blogs (if they had one), looked up their sales, checked them out on Writers Beware and Preditors&Editors. By the time I was ready to submit, I knew exactly who I wanted to send to and why. I always sent queries in batches of 8-10 each, so I could adjust based on response rate, but The Shifter thankfully only took one batch.

On the flip side, make sure you’re ready to submit before you do. It’s easy to finish the book and get excited about it, then send it out too soon. Let it sit and gel for a bit while you polish your query to the best it can be. Then go back and triple check to make sure the book is as good as it can be. You’ve spent a lot of time working on it, so don’t rush the end and waste all that effort. If anything at all is nagging you about the book, keep tweaking until you’re happy. “Good enough” rarely is, and you’ll kick yourself if you think “had I only done XYZ it might have been different.”

You've said you're a fan of critique groups and you've gotten great use out of them. How do you separate out which critiques to take?

By knowing what you want to get out of them going in. If you’re looking for a rough-draft-bang-out-the-kinks-in-the-story group, a bunch of folks who do copyedit-type line edits isn’t going to help you much. (and vice versa). You also want to find folks who have the same goals as you do. If you want to be published one day, find folks working toward that goal. There are some great groups that focus on writing as expression, but publishing isn’t their goal, so the work is judged on different criteria. Also find people around your own skill level, a few a little lower, a few a little higher, so you’re always pushing yourself to improve, and reminding yourself about the basics so your core skills stay strong.

Describe your writing space.

I have two. One is my office, which is on the second floor over the garage. It’s huge, painted in two shades of purple, and has all kinds of colorful things decorating it. One wall has a line of funky patterned lizards running down it. Colorful butterflies and dragonflies hang from the ceiling. There’s a daybed in there (for naps and guests) with a pink, purple, and lime green polka-dot bedspread, and a matching throw rug. Oh, and a lamp and beanbag chair that also matches. Plus one wall is all bookshelves, and my Disney villain and monster figurines are there (I’m a bit of a collector of those). It’s a silly, fun atmosphere of good and evil.

The other place I write is on the living room couch downstairs. That’s just your typical living room, but on the days I really need to focus I grab my laptop and go there because I’m away from email and website temptations. When the weather is nice, I also sometimes write on the back patio. The backyard looks out over the woods, so it’s very peaceful out there.

Do you believe in fate?

Yes and no. I don’t believe that there’s one destiny for us out there, but I do think that opportunities present themselves all the time, and it’s up to us to take advantage of them or not. (For both good and bad things). A lot of what folks would call luck, is seeing an opportunity and going for it. If you never try for your dreams you’ll never get them, but if you do, you stand a much better chance of having them come true.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions, Janice, and congratulations on the publication of The Shifter!

About The Shifter:
Fifteen-year-old Nya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person and storing it inside her own body. But unlike her sister Tali and the other Takers who become Healer’s League apprentices, Nya’s skill is flawed: she can’t push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store person to person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she’d be used as a human weapon against her own people.

Rumors of another war make Nya’s life harder, forcing her to take desperate risks just to find work and food. She pushes her luck too far and exposes her secret to a pain merchant eager to use her shifting ability for his own sinister purpose. At first, Nya refuses, but faced with some difficult choices. As her father used to say, principles are a bargain at any price, but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive?

Monday, October 5, 2009

How to be Professional

One of the single most important tenants of professionalism in any business environment (industry/writing/family politics) can be summed up by that scene from The Godfather when Michael and Fredo go to Las Vegas and Michael later shouts at Fredo to never speak against the family. It's a lesson about loyalty that Fredo never learns. It's also a lesson that should be remembered for conducting yourself professionally.

This means: if you’re in a group, an office, a club—anything where you and other humans interact on a regular, collected basis—you don’t throw your colleagues under the bus in order to avoid taking responsibility. It doesn’t make you look better. It doesn’t shift the blame. And when you do it, the other people around you will think you can no longer be trusted, and they’re right.

In any career, writing included, you don’t badmouth people you work with to others outside the company/group, no matter how much they deserve it! Did Beyonce get up on stage and say “That Kanye is a huge arse, isn’t he!” NO. Instead she was professional.

If you must convey a negative action about someone you work/play with, then be careful about the words you use. Don’t say, “Bob failed on the job. Bob did not do what he was supposed to do.” It takes a big person to talk kindly about your coworkers/boss/agent/whomever when they didn’t do something you want them to do, but that’s what you do in a professional environment.

As writers, you’re navigating a business. YOUR business. Act accordingly—don’t throw people you work with under the bus, no matter how wrong they are. I’ve seen a lot of agents and editors (see #4 here for a reality check) say on their blogs that working with unprofessional writers does not endear them, and that counts when it comes time for a renewal of a publishing contract. You can't be nasty on your blog either, or on Twitter—because people Google you, and that includes agents and editors. For me, this extends to not even wanting to put a bad review of a book on this blog, because I don’t want to be negative about a book, and it’s all subjective.

And guess what else. When you post too much of yourself, the world can see it. You should be quaking like I do every time you hit that "publish" button. Did you post a collection of reactions to rejections? A prospective agent might read it and possibly reject you because of it. Did you blog about your boss or your workplace? Think about your boss reading it. Blogs/twitters/facebooks are not anonymous.

We’re all nasty, people. I’m just saying you need to hide it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Google Reader Roundup Friday Oct. 2

Here's my Google Reader roundup for the week, which is the best posts I read this week for the blogs I subscribe to in my Reader.

Banned Books Week!
at Heim Binas Fiction.

NEVER GIVE UP from BookEnds Literary.

Robert the Publisher's Gem of the Day
from Moonrat

Exploding the "Must Have Connections" Myth from Pubrants

This is technically from last week but I like it so much (and this is the inaugural Friday Google Reader Roundup [TM], so): Is your Main Character YOU or the person you want to be? from Marsha.

OK. Now I'm totally going to pull an ass move and list one of my own posts. But I have a good reason! It's because I have a FREE FREE FREE Plot Diagnostics tool, by way of the awesome author Janice Hardy, who by the by, will be guest interviewing here on THIS BLOG next week! Yes! I know, huh! So, go back and have a wee look at this post and download the diagnostics PDF that I put together. Do it now.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What to Say About Dan Brown

I posted last week about how I was starting to feel sorry for Dan Brown for being made fun of, until I read the excellent and fabuloso Maureen Johnson's*** 3-part (thus far) summary of The Lost Symbol.

I no longer feel the slight trend-push to read the Lost Symbol, which is nice because trend sort of makes me want to puke up my dinner, and I no longer feel sorry for poor wee Mr. Brown, because he has gotten away with what the rest of us cannot get away with: having an implausible plot and silly character arcs. You will see from Ms. Johnson's summary that there is no point pretending that the novel is anything but churned out pap that could have greatly benefited from....oh, cripes. Who cares. It isn't good, so why do we all want to read it?

I'm not sure. All I can say is that last week the husband and I were having a discussion about how John Grisham said (roughly) "Hey Phillip Pullman, Imma let you finish, but crappy writing is cool too, yo." The husband agreed that crap writing is okay. In fact he prefers it. (I think.) And yes, perhaps pap has its place. I'm not above reading Dan Brown. I enjoyed Angels and Demons, and somewhat enjoyed the Da Vinci one. I guess it probably comes down to the story line, or the idea. Sure, it could be executed better. But to be honest, we're not looking for physics text books when we pick up Dan Brown. Oh wait--actually, we were; didn't he set some of Angels and Demons at that awesome European physics institute (excuse the forgetting of the name, I just really can't recall it and don't feel moved enough to go find out, for various reasons that have nothing to do with Dan Brown or physics, but rather a former co-worker...oh, never mind)? Okay. Well, I still don't have the answer. Do you?

**Now, I'm pretty sure I knew a Maureen Johnson in high school (state withheld to protect me), who was nicknamed Mo and who excluded me at first sight for not being Irish and Catholic as most people in Massachusetts seemed to be (damn, I've said the state--but I had to, because then you could understand). No, my last name was not Sully, as in Sullivan, but excuse me, I AM Irish and Catholic (well, now. I wasn't then). Anyway, this is not the same Maureen Johnson, and I feel in my heart that she would not like to be called Mo. Nevertheless, I implore you to buy her books immediately because she is hilarious and smart and witty and you will like that.