Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Found: Vocabulary

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day is a good one.

pabulum (noun)

1 : food; especially : a suspension or solution of nutrients in a state suitable for absorption
2 : intellectual sustenance
3 : something (as writing or speech) that is insipid, simplistic, or bland

I could use some pabulum (the #2 definition, not the #3--I have enough of that, thanks).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Found: People Braver Than Me

The coolest people in the world post their naked pictures at Bookworms with Ink. My picture will probably never be posted there because I change my mind too much and I dislike pain. Like a lot.

So here is my question for you: If you were going to get a literary tattoo, what would it be?

Monday, September 28, 2009

From: Feed

"'There's a forest,' said Violet. 'It's called Jefferson Park. We're thinking about going either there, or out to beef country.'

My dad nodded. 'It'll have to be beef country,' he said. 'The forest's gone.'

'Jefferson Park?'

He nodded, then squinted while he like clawed something from the roof of his mouth with his tongue. He told us, 'Yeah. Jefferson Park? Yeah. That was knocked down to make an air factory.'

'You're kidding,' said Violet.

'Yeah, that's what happened,' Dad said, shrugging. 'You got to have air.'

Violet pointed out, 'Trees make air,' which kind of worried me because I knew dad would think it was snotty.

My father stared at her for a long time. Then he said, 'Yeah. Sure. Do you know how inefficient trees are, next to an air factory?'"

Feed, by YA author M.T. Anderson, is like, super good. You need to go read it. Like now. Especially if you miss Kurt Vonnegut.

You digging anything special right now? Tell me what you're reading and loving.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's Virtual Hug-Your-Beta Day!

I used to be anti-beta.

Am I the only one who thought that rather than reading other people's manuscripts, a better use of my time would be going over my own work with a fine-tooth comb?

I can't be the only one. I've traced this seemingly selfish behavior back to my MFA program. Before there was beta-ing, there was workshopping, or weekly in-person beta-ing. Imagine the frustration of repeatedly reading someone's work, offering color-coded comments, and listing suggestions for further reading, only to get my own story back, not even creased because it was never actually opened.


I found my beta readers by accident. Blogger extraordinaire Megan Rebekah was blogging about how she wished she had a writing group. She posted her stats, sort of like a literary eHarmony profile, and the gates were flooded with wannabes. Well, maybe not flooded, but there were quite a few of us. Megan set up a private blog and named us the Word Stringers.

Some word stringers flittered away, and then there were four.

Anyway, we didn't beta at first. We posted pics and useful articles. We dared each other to meet word count goals. And then someone was like, Hey, we should beta. I was like, Great, 'cause I got spare hours lying around for that malarkey.

Then I read this article about writing workshops at Glimmer Train where writing teacher Jeremiah Chamberlin argues that, "Being forced to analyze the effectiveness of other writers' stories and to then provide them with clear, concise, specific suggestions for improvement will do more to develop a writer's craft than almost anything else."

Once I realized beta reading was purely selfish I was all, sign me up!

This week my betas have been helping me out big time, so without further adieu, meet my beta grrrls, along with what I love most about each of them:

Megan is kind of a hard ass. I've never met her, but in my mind she's dressed as a drill sergeant. I don't bug her with excuses. I just get things done when I tell her I will. She writes, she blogs, she works, she reads, she raises little dogs--and I don't think I've ever read a complaint from her. Megan gets the good attitude award. (By the way, that's not Megan in the pic; that's Tish, one of her dogs.)

Nat is a ray of positivity from the West Coast. She's straightforward, and she doesn't waste time with self-doubt, or minor details, or wondering what so-and-so would think about whatever. Like Nikey, she just does it. Clearly it works, as she's just secured representation from formidable literary agent Sara Megibow. Again, that's not Nat in the picture; that's the state of her living room since she's become a represented writer.

Karen is awesome because she's not afraid to lay it all on the line. She's all, here's my writing. How can I make it better? And when I get done critiquing, she's not all, boo hoo, you hurt my feelings. Instead she's all, thank you ma'am can I have another? I admire her tenacity. That really is Karen, btw; isn't she crazy?

I am changed, peeps. I am PRO-beta.
My beta readers point out ridiculocity in my writing, like that you can't move across the country and start school on the same day, or that if two hands are brushing the cymbals, another can't be tightening a bolt on a separate drum. But the best part is how much they teach me, and also the support, my god the support.

What do you get out of beta-ing? Give your betas some love!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mission Accomplished

Tira over at Time is Running Away tagged me in a sort of virtual game of drink-while-you-think except there's no drinking (as far as you know). She wants me to name my seven favorite songs. Now, I won't go into why that's impossible because you already know: too many to choose, changes on an hourly basis, depends on my current levels of insanity and insecurity, can I pick seven per genre?

At 10:57 (Eastern) on Tuesday, September 22, 2009, my seven favorite songs are:

"Say it Ain't So" by Weezer
Dear Daddy, I write you in spite of years of silence...

"Killing in the Name of" by Rage Against the Machine

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me...

"Vienna" by Billy Joel
You can't be everything you want to be before your time...

"Better Get it in your Soul" by Charles Mingus

Oh yeah...

"Creep" by Radiohead
I want a perfect body; I want a perfect soul...

"Sweet Jane" by Velvet Underground
Anyone who ever had a heart, well they wouldn't turn around and break it...

"Birthday Boy" by Ween
I'll be around. I'll be in town if you need a place to stay...

Now, I have to tag seven peeps to keep this game going. So hey, peeps, tell me your seven favorite songs:

Megan Rebekah

Natalie Bahm
Karen Amanda Hooper
Fiction Groupie
Joanne Fritz
Frankie Dianne Mallis
Unpublished Guy

Now that my important work is done for the day, I can get back to writing.

From: After Tupac and D Foster

"'There's millions of people in the world, though. And more getting born every day. And some of them blow up--like Tupac did. I think that's why he's so cool by me, because he didn't come from any rich people like a lot of those celebrities be coming from--with their mamas or their daddies already movie stars.' Neeka leaned her head against the window. 'I mean his parents were out there being Black Panthers and whatnot, but they was struggling too. Didn't always have money. Didn't always have food.'

Neeka looked at me. 'I want to blow up. Have people knowing my name. I want to walk inside a subway car and have white people be giving me big respect instead of looking at me and my family like we some kind of circus act or something.'"

From young adult novel After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Monday, September 21, 2009

Found: Time, glorious free time

"If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his [or her] vision wherever it takes him [or her]."

John F. Kennedy
(Equality added by me)

Friday, September 18, 2009

How to Make your Story High Concept

If you’ve put any research into what kind of book you should be writing, you’ve come across the term high-concept. You probably don’t know what the hell it means exactly, but you’re trying to make your book high-concept anyway.

I’ve been thinking about the definition of high-concept lately—mostly because the other day, one of my betas, who knows quite a bit about all this fiction stuff, asked, “All the agents say they want high concept, but I don’t know if my book is high concept.”

No one does, grasshopper; no one does.

But like obscenity and good writing, agents know it when they see it.

I am going to make a bold, unconfirmed assertion:

Your story is high-concept, because high-concept is all about how you present the idea.

I know. Scandalous. Please, let me explain.

At a writer’s conference I attended, the great YA writer Lara Zeises explained that high-concept means that your book has a big idea, something that is easily summed up in one enticing line. For instance, I’m going to throw out a couple of one-sentence enticing lines that describe current, popular high-concept books:
  • Girl falls in love with teenage vampire.
  • Boy listens to tapes on which a girl he liked explains why she committed suicide.
  • Girl gets to decide whether she will live or die after her parents and brother die in a car accident.
  • To save her sister, girl volunteers to go on a reality show where teenagers fight to the death.
Get it? One sentence excites me enough to want to read more and tells me what the whole book is about. OK, not the whole book. Think of all the major stuff I left out of these descriptions: jealous werewolves, muttations that prey on our worst fears, maps of hometowns, rock-star boyfriends, daddy issues, cello playing, secret societies in Italy, Gale and Peeta, commentary on the lack of empathy in high school, a futuristic North America that would freak out George Orwell.

All that stuff is important to the books, but it wouldn’t mean a damn thing if there wasn’t a central high-concept plot that made those details significant.

In perhaps the greatest description of a query EVER, the great Miss Snark once said, “Give me six sentences of less than ten words that tell me WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM and why I should give a rat's ass.”

I love succinct explanations. It really does warm my little writer heart. And that's most of what people mean by high-concept--that the conflict of your story is clear.

In an interview posted at Word Hustler, YA agent Katie Grimm said, “A one-liner type hook, even if your book isn’t high-concept, helps me determine just exactly what your book is all about.”

The definition of high-concept is that one sentence could theoretically sell the story. That’s how exciting your central plot is. I assert that you can make your one-liner as exciting as a high-concept book even if you're not sure that your book is high concept. Leave out what you must. Keep only those details that are essential to getting people to read further. But still be honest about what your story is about. Tricking your way through an agent’s inbox will only piss them off. Writers have enough worries; they don’t need to be pissing off agents.

If your story can’t be broken down into an enticing line, I offer the same advice I offer for pretty much every problem in life: try harder. Give it a few weeks. Ask your betas for an outsider’s perspective. Your one-liner is basically the view of your story as seen from far away. Focus on the big picture, not the details.

Extra credit: Can you name the books I described in those one-liners above?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From: Catching Fire

"This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind."


Dear Suzanne Collins,

I think I speak for everyone when I say, More Gale. Seriously.

Thank you,

The Booknapper

P.P.S. Why didn't I write The Hunger Games?

P.P.P.S. In my opinion, yes, Catching Fire is just as tense and romantic as The Hunger Games. Readers, do you agree?

Monday, September 14, 2009

From: “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

"And one day we will die,
and our ashes will fly
from the aeroplane over the sea,
but for now we are young:
let us lay in the sun
and count every
beautiful thing we can see."

Neutral Milk Hotel

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From: The New Yorker

The cartoon on my New Yorker flip calendar yesterday cracked me up:

PS: Cartoonist Robert Leighton created this gem and a gajillion others. Check out his work. (BTW, you can always click on my images to see bigger, clearer versions.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writer by Day/Writer by Night: The Good Side of Writing for a Living

We meet again, blog readers.

As promised yesterday, I have some fresh-baked optimism for you today. Ah, writing: the cause and solution of all my problems. I love words so much I write them all day at work and then all night at home while I gaze lovingly at the shiny red cover of Catching Fire on my end table.

If you want to catch up you can read yesterday’s post about the bad side of writing for a living. If you want to skip to the good stuff, here you go: the very best parts of getting paid to write:
  • I get to write off books as research. Other write-offs: felt-tip pens, writing classes, and laptops (basically, my favorite stuff).
  • My co-workers love stationery and coffee and poking fun at the unintended hilarity of bad grammar just as much as I do. An office-mate stumbled into my office early one Wednesday with a freshly printed manuscript and said, “I love the smell of toner in the morning.” Two. Shea.
  • Writer’s block is for amateurs. I can just imagine my boss’s face if I told her that I couldn’t write a thing today. It wouldn’t be a nice face; I’ll tell you that. When I was a waitress, I never had server’s block. As a teacher, I never had instructor’s block. Paid writers learn not to block their writing, not if they want to get paid anyway.
  • Seriously, the best thing? You just learn things when you write, edit, and are edited on a daily basis. We all learned a few things just by listening, and I guarantee that you are harboring some incorrect belief. Maybe it’s the difference between stationery and stationary, or principal and principle. It’s not your fault. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to know everything about the English language, but I also know that you pick up a lot of knowledge about craft when it’s your bread and butter.
So the good side is that my whole world is words. I see punctuation and margins and fonts EVERYWHERE. When you dedicate your whole life to something, when you immerse yourself, you can’t help but remember names. You can’t help but wake up and think, what will I write today? It’s not about work-life balance anymore; it’s about work-life blend. Writing day and night is extreme multi-tasking.

So how many of you write by day and by night? What do you absolutely love about getting paid to write?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Writer by Day/Writer by Night: The Bad Side of Writing for a Living

I am a writer/editor by day and an aspiring novelist by night.

Does it matter what I write by day? I don’t think so. It just matters that I am working with words. I went into this line of work because of Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. This is all their fault.

See, I like biographies of writers. And I notice that a lot of great writers got jobs writing before they were great writers. Capote worked at the New Yorker. Carver edited science textbooks. And I have no idea if this is true, since I read it on Wikipedia, but this tidbit about Vonnegut sounds believable:
In the mid 1950s, Vonnegut worked very briefly for Sports Illustrated magazine, where he was assigned to write a piece on a racehorse that had jumped a fence and attempted to run away. After staring at the blank piece of paper on his typewriter all morning, he typed, "The horse jumped over the fucking fence," and left. On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Hilarious, right?

Does writing for pay make me a better writer? Without a doubt.

Does it occasionally suck? Without a doubt.

So here’s 5 downsides to being a paid writer by day and an unpaid writer by night:
  • We need to come up with a name for the thumb cramp that comes from using a laptop mouse 18 hours a day. It’s not carpal tunnel; it’s more like claw thumb. My right hand goes into the awkward backwards C position it needs to be in to click my laptop mouse all the time. Like this weekend, when I left the couch to spend time with human beings and eat pork barbeque and compare the United States to Panem, I looked down and my hand was resting in my lap in perfect backwards C, mouse-clicking form. The term “writer’s cramp” is already taken. Blogger’s cramp? Post-modern writer’s cramp?
  • When I read a character name, my mind cannot always distinguish between work and home. Everything tends to blend in my head. There are always at least two narratives playing in my mind. Sometimes when reading at night, I think, but what happened to that young boy character? until I remember he is safe and sound in chapter four, on my work computer.
  • My gluteus maximus hurts from sitting all day. My body is all, let’s go to the gym! and my mind is all, but we can’t write there! Might be better for my heart if I spent my day rock-climbing or extreme skateboarding or something.
  • Writing is a lonely business. It’s hard to be in a cocoon all day and come home to a cocoon while friends and family go out to socialize. You have to be quite content with being solitary if you want to be a writer by day and by night.
  • Other people’s ideas are wonderful, but I like my own ideas best. Five days a week, I use eight of my best hours to write flawless copy that gets a product out the door—somebody else’s product. Sometimes my name doesn’t even come close to my work. Writing for pay means getting cash, but not always credit.
Not that I'm complaining. Writing for pay is not all bad; in fact, the upsides outweigh the bad stuff by far. Stop in tomorrow for part two, and I'll tell you about the good stuff.

In the meantime, tell me writers: what do you think sucks about writing by day and by night?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Red, White, and Bleh

I have a secret friend who has secret news that I'm not allowed to share yet, but it's sooooooooooooo exciting!

She knows who she is. Congratulations, honey! I am super proud of you.

In other news, I am writing...

...a government proposal. Boo.

Happy Labor Day!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Another Writerly Use for e-Readers

Reading my manuscript on the Kindle is enlightening. It looks just like Handcuffs or Bloom--which makes me read it differently than when it's in Microsoft Word or even printed on plain old 8.5 x 11 paper. The Kindle version also boasts some weird formatting issues--proof that I’m unsure when to use hard returns and when to use soft returns, and furthermore, to be honest, proof that I don't know what the hell hard and soft returns are.

Since so many agents are reading our manuscripts on e-readers these days, it’s probably a good idea for all of us aspiring authors to learn these formatting rules. You don't want your beautiful manuscript showing up on an agent's e-reader looking sloppy.

The one hassle of reading your manuscript on an e-reader ends up being a good thing. I have a problem with reading my novel the way an outsider (read: not me) would read it. I keep wanting to stop and change "quiet" to "calm," or now that I’ve been reading the editing blog edittorrent, take out all of the PPPs, or just rewrite the page (the book?) altogether because bleh, but I can’t do it on the Kindle. I’m forced to keep reading.

I'm happy to report that while reading, I feel tension and wonder what will happen next, even though I know damn well what will happen. So in that way, I’m more in tune with how a reader receives the story. Totally valuable.

So tell me, how do you get distance from your own writing?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From: Bloom

"I think the way I feel when I look at Evan comes from her. In pictures taken the day she married my dad, she was reckless, laughing, spinning around in circles. She looked like her world was him. She looked a kind of happy I can't even imagine.

I don't want that. I don't want to be like that. I don't want to feel the way she did because I know what happens when you do. You love with your whole heart, with everything, and you wake up one morning and kiss someone good-bye the way you always do except you mean it as good-bye forever."

Elizabeth Scott

P.S. I've been reading books on the Kindle, and I cannot believe the number of typos. Is this the standard for Kindle books? Were these mistakes most likely in the hard copies too?