Almost There

The past few days I have been in Iowa visiting family. I read, I reflected, I edited my nephew’s collection of short stories (he’s 9), and I breathed.

In terms of my writing life, I feel as if I’m teetering on the edge of some precipice, hesitant to fly off. I can’t go back. The back is a dead wasteland where I felt nothing. Sometimes feeling numb is good, necessary even. But there came a point where  the feelings slowly crowded the air, and I couldn’t stay there trying to be impervious.  I’m going to need to embrace the air.

Someday soon, I will lock myself in writing mode, spend hours creating, obsess over submissions, and be flying.


How to Write a Post about Covers without Using that Cliche?

My compatriot, Shoshana Flax, has posed an interesting question over on her blog, Walk the Ridgepole: The recap: cover changes to reflect an upcoming movie has her questioning her previous stances. Instead of commenting many paragraphs, I have a new post idea.

What do we do about covers? Should we take that hackneyed expression literally and not do that? But I can’t help it. I admit to having personal reactions to covers.

  • Stickers: Award or otherwise – I hate it when you obscure the art/title/author name. I really hate it when I can’t remove you. “$3.99” triangle atop the paperback Abundance of Katherines, I’m talking to you.  Counterpoint: award stickers sell more books and bring awareness to the awards and awesomeness. I can’t really argue that. But a price starburst as part of the actual image design. Sorry, I can’t excuse you, no matter how cheap you are.
  • Different images for paperback editions – WHY is this practice done? Most often, the art is less sophisticated or engaging. Like Abundance of Katherines.  HC: The title graphic tells you a little about the storytelling. The rainbow silhouettes of the girls embody the distinct individuals each Katherine is despite having the same name. Here’s the paperback: Yes, I know it’s a Kindle thingy, but that is a real book cover. All of the Katherines are brunettes. Same face. I get nothing about their personality. And, with that triangle, announce to the world I am cheap, if not poor. Counterpoint: I cannot think of one, unless it’s a financial issue.
  • Pretty girl’s face art: Many of you may know about the kerfluffles over publishers putting white girls on the covers of books about girls of different ethnicities. My answer: Stop putting faces on covers. Just stop. It’s not creative; it usually tells me nothing about the book; and according to the awesome Simmons people, “doesn’t ask a question” that readers will want answer by picking up the book.  Counterpoint: By trying to represent the main character, the cover either gives the potential reader someone to immediately identify with or want to be. I’m sorry, but as a young adult, the pretty pore-less skinny girls with the shiny hair were always the mean ones, and I’d deal with them enough in real life; I didn’t want to put up with them in my books. CP2: But forcing you to go into the page gets you to read the book and maybe find killer writing. Sometimes. More often than not, I see such covers, grunt, and move on.
  • Movie Covers: Finally, what inspired this post – If the likelihood is that parents of children saw the movie and heard…”it’s based off that book,” then I think keeping classic covers the same (and still on the shelf for pre-release fans who may want it for their collection) should be the practice. Counterpoint: Broswers will see the movie cover, associate it with the commercial from Tv and more liklely to pick up the awesome book. Yes, but book and movie are two different creations. I don’t care how faithful the adaptation to screen is. When I have a book on my shelf I pick up five years later, I don’t want the images implanted on my brain to be 2010’s flavor-of-the-month actress.

The answer? Well, my answer at least: removable movie cover flaps. Or, rotating publishing schedules. If the book is in print and on the shelf, don’t make this: be the only edition I can buy for at least a year. Bring the other covers back. Counterpoint: It’s too expensive, and if the publisher goes through with your ideas, there’s less money for you to get a contract as a writer. Siiiiiiiiiiiiigh. No one wins. Let’s just go back to plain cloth binding. It’ll give our libraries that old-fashioned feel.

Rory’s Story Cubes

I am a mad plotter. Consequently, I am not a fan of journaling from a character’s point of view, as it takes me away from completing a draft and focusing on something that will not end up in the final cut. But my self-prescribed writing therapy has me taking the whole writing thing veeery veeery slowly. Plus, with 82% of my day spent in front of a screen, a break was welcome.

I grabbed a recent birthday present, the “Create” journal and a new game, Rory’s Story Cubes. At work, all I hear lately is how they’re awesome, and I tell customers they’re awesome. Last night, I used them in my journaling, and ohboy, they’re awesome!

I rolled the nine dice, rattling my roommate who was watching Rory on Gilmore Girls, coincidentally, and got nine different pictures: a tree, a flashlight, a hand, a moon, a flower, a magnet, a tent, scales (as in justice), and a speech bubble. The genius of these cubes is that they force you to think creatively. I had many markers of a camp scene, but a big U magnet and the scales of justice? Once I put pencil to paper, I started answering questions without realizing it. Suddenly, I had the backstory of the beginning of the friendship between my main character and her best friend. And apparently my mc’s crush was there. I had been undecided about whether he turned out to be good in the novel or not, and this little journal entry helped me figure him out.

Sparking my creativity helped me realize that a novel’s present doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These fictional people have a past, and thanks to the cubes, a future.


Write  a scene from your own character’s past or future using the nine cubes listed in bold above.

“I Know it When I See it”

The it does not refer to what the original speaker of the titular quote used it to refer to. Instead, “it” is that pronoun that encompasses any number of sins in literature (or sins of literature for that matter). In my online life, I recently railed against an “it” that led me to question my usually literarially liberal viewpoint.

A Catholic school assigned The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons for summer reading. To sixth graders. Now, we could argue until eternity the distinctions of adult vs. YA vs. children’s literature, and whether or not the classifications need to a velvet rope or to see ID before you can read them. But who wants to visit Purgatory today? That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t think about what it means to command a child to read a book s/he may not be ready for (a determination made in conjunction with parents), a point which I will try to make while willfully ignoring the thematic inappropriateness of the novel’s content in relation to the school’s specific values.

When I was in seventh grade, I picked up A Time to Kill by John Grisham for reading time at the end of the day. What can I say? I had recently seen The Rainmaker on TNT, thought Matt Damon was cute and the writing of the movie as smartly humorous. I checked out the book to bring home. While I was in the midst of the gripping narrative on my pink carpet, my mom came in and told me my teacher had called and said I had picked this book. This book with the rape and the sex and the shooting. “Was I okay with it?” my mom asked in a gently concerned voice. I nodded and got back to the cool lawyer. Mom let me be, but made sure I knew she was around if I wanted to talk to her about it. In the end, I wasn’t traumatized by the book, and since I speed read, I pretty much glossed over the “inappropriate” stuff and felt unaffected.

I share this story to illustrate 1) Neither my teacher nor my mother barred access to this book. 2) I had self-determination in my reading. 3) No one told me I had to read this book, nor told other kids who maybe weren’t slighlty emotionally dead inside that they had to as well.

I normally hate when one parent tells a library to remove a book because s/he doesn’t like the thematic content. I want to join letter writing campaigns to save the banned book. But today, I found myself willing to write a letter to the school that I don’t know to ban these two books – from the reading lists.

I guess I don’t think it’s disingenuous to say once, “Don’t tell me I can’t read that,” and another time “You can’t make me read that.” Because the only person who gets a final say in reading a book is the reader herself.

If It had to be Someone Else, I’m Glad it’s You

Months ago I sent in an entry to the Associates of the Boston Public Library’s Children’s Writer-in-Residence grant. With the generous stipend and office of one’s own, the magnanimous private donor is giving you a part-time job wherein you get a salary. For writing fiction. It’s the dream. It’s what makes saving away at a “real” job and finding scraps of time to write after dinner worth it. If you can get it.

I did not get it.

But Elaine Dimopoulos did! Elaine is a lovely woman I’ve met at Simmons alumni events and a heckuva writer. Here’s her site:

It’s always joyous to see our art supported in such ways, and even more so when it’s someone you know and like!

Congratulations, Elaine! We look forward to reading more of Eco-Chic!

The Doctor Will See You Now

Last year I imagined the next profession in the creative world: writing therapists. Such a qualified professional would hear your writing block woes and counsel you to overcome your neuroses so you can get back to your writerly schizophrenia (hearing voices in your head and writing them down), multiple personality disorder (they’re not imaginary friends; they’re characters), and bipolar disorder (exposing yourself to the entire gamut of human emotional responses so you cry when your character cries).

For those writers facing the dreaded writer’s block, they may at first feel like paranoid hypochondriacs. This is one writing disease the Doc should help you avoid. Patients with this disorder, like me, feel like that if they’re not creating, something is wrong with them. They latch onto a new excuse a week. How do you get over it?

By accepting that nothing is wrong with you. Or your writing.

Stephen J. Cannell said in a bonus feature for the Castle TV show Season 1 DVD: “YOu know what causes writer’s block – the desire to be perfect.” In other words, get over yourself. To me, it makes sense. The pressure to be awesome all the time, the pressure to have the words work, the pressure to be better than that 16-year-old who got on the Today show – it all compounds in your brain and blocks the impulse to get scenes out of your head and through your fingers.

So, I will sit at my laptop and start my self-prescribed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. When I write, I will tell myself: I desire to write. I desire to create. I desire to make a mess and not care. I can always clean it up later. I desire to be imperfect, because it is the “flaws and quirks that are more interesting.” (another Castle DVD quote).

How have you overcome writing blocks?

Can You Hear Me Now – Authenticity of Voice

Many projects sit in their tidy folders waiting for me to pay them attention. All are very different: a picturebook text, a young YA novel, and a full-fledged YA. Yet all are the same in that their respective character/narrative voices echo off the pages. While jotting down what I hear in my imagination is fun and feels true, I sometimes fear an editor, an agent, or gasp! even a reader will say that they are decidedly false.

I try to balance two arguments:

A. Every child is different, and in authors’ attempts to appeal to mythical median, voices either sound the same or fall on deaf ears. Hence my disdain for junior beach reads. As a teen, I was more a Melinda of Speak, less a Gossip Girl. So, I take quick audio files of real kids and teens I know or was and remix them into a unique character signature. Of course, most of these kids are girlish, innocent geeks who are strong enough not to pretend otherwise.

2. Ignoring certain issues or the way 14-year-olds really talk could alienate buyers.And while writing for writing’s sake has its value, for it to have an impact, it has to be read. So I fear being read as that old cat lady who doesn’t get kids today. And instead of the nerds, the “good kids,” or the shy girls getting the shaft, everyone else does.

When I approach revising my works from the voice angle, I need to figure out how to balance creating a unique character and voice, but not so unique as to have anyone think that this book is unrelatable because such a character doesn’t exist.

What do you all think? How authentic should we be? Sacrifice character for market share? Hold out for the one believer?

Success – S-U-C-C-E-S-S – Success

Tonight is the National Spelling Bee finals. Each year, children in elementary and middle schools (at least in public schools that I know of) compete to qualify for the Regional Bee, hosted by either a community organization, a newspaper, or an E.W. Scripps (formerly Howard Scripps from my own short-lived Bee days) company. Once they win their local spelling bee, spellers qualify for the national bee semifinals before the big show, now aired on ESPN. Spelling is a sport, people!

Why I Love the Bee (despite placing 15th in my regional bee in 1996):

– In this day and age of SpellCheck, some children are actually learning how to spell words using the dictionary.

– Spelling reinforces many other academic skills. The practice booklet divvies up words into categories, including words found in classic Literature, science, social studies, and pop culture (had I studied the Oklahoma! page more, I would know opportune has two “o”s, not two “u”s). Exposure to these titles and concepts could spark interest in going beyond memorizing the words.

– Spelling reinforces memory and reasoning skills. Despite being archaic languages, the ancient Greek and Latin roots provide a system to follow if your memory fails you.

– Watching the Bee exposes the public to many new, fun words, like serrefine (2007).

– Words are generally awesome. Everyone has a favorite word: favorite for the way it rolls off their tongue, favorite for what it means; favorite for the connotations. My grandfather’s favorite word was pusillanimous. I have no idea why, for grandpa was the antithesis, with his leathered skin, smoker’s-lung-gruff voice, and rakish face.

Fun Facts about the Bee:

– The first winner: Frank Neuhauser, sponsored by the Louisville Courier-Journal, in 1925 for the word gladiolus.

– 1937’s winning word: promiscuous.

– The most recent winner: Kavya Shivashankar, from the Olathe News in Kansas. Her word: Laodicean. This year, her little sister, Vanya, is the youngest to compete. She’s 8 years old.

Three cheers for the spellers tonight!

Editorial Questions

Have you ever read a book and wondered where the editor was? (You bloated novels know who you are.) The obvious answer is most likely at their desk in a publishing office. Or on a couch. Anywhere with a stack of Post-its and a pen. Metaphysically, well, we writers and readers have to have a discerning eye to tell when and where the editor helped the author perfect the text, or to realize the editor never graced the manuscript with his/her presence and just sent it off to the copy editor and designer.

Is it appropriate for an editor to kowtow to an author’s ego and not make any suggestions or just send the manuscript to press, suggestions ignored [provided the bottom line won’t be adversely affected]? Or are we armchair and T pole critics ignorant of how much worse a text was before it got to its fatty state? One thing that both encourages and terrifies me about being a nascent writer is seeing authors hold up a stack of drafts with editorial notes. And that’s the hacked-apart copy after a contract has been signed and advance paid. I’d always heard you needed a perfect draft just to get a full read by an editor. But obviously not if there’s a potful of ink on the draft. Then again, that just reminds me how much more work I have to do to get the thing marketable!

Finally, can established writers be trusted to be their own editors? Or are we too close to the story? I remember hearing a bootleg copy of the Beatles tinkering with Strawberry Fields Forever in an apartment. I learned two things: 1) don’t ever listen to the same song for 50 times in a row; you will probably have psychosomatic reactions to it years later, and 2) the artists brought raw lyrics and notes to a great song without first submitting to the studio editor, who’d return it with a Post-it note comment on each line.I’d like to believe that if I can distance myself from the story, put on the editorial hat I earned through jobs and schooling, I can fix things myself.

What do you think?

Fill in the Blanks

Play the old-school game MASH for yourself or one of your characters. But don’t just stop once you learn you and Prince William will have 7.2 children, live in a shack in Amsterdam, and drive a purple Lamborghini. Fill in the blanks. How’d you and Will meet? Is it a really big shack? Was the Lamborghini a Spray-and-Wash giveaway and that’s why it’s purple?

Tell me the basic results in the comments!