Creative Conversation: Reflections on Revision

March 6th, 2017

This month, I’m honored to be the guest of esteemed author Janet Lee Carey for a Creative Conversation about revision.

Author Portrait of Janet Lee Carey

Janet is the author of numerous YA/MG novels, including The Beast of Noor, Dragon’s Keep, and her latest, In the Time of Dragon Moon.

Check out our conversation here!

Productive Waiting

February 13th, 2017

I jokingly posted on Twitter yesterday that so much of writing is waiting, so someone should teach a class on Productive Waiting. I got enough “likes” that I assume my post touched a chord, so today I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on how to be productive while waiting.

This topic is big for me right now, because I’ve got a novel out on submission. Every time the phone rings or an email pops up in my inbox, my heart goes into overdrive. It would be tempting just to sit all day, staring at my phone, waiting to hear news from my agent, but if I did that, I’d go insane.

The key to enduring an agonizing wait is to find ways to distract yourself. The stock advice once you’ve finished a writing project is to start the next book, but what if you don’t yet have a new book in the pipeline? There are other things you can do to assure that your waiting time is productive.

Here are some things I do while I’m waiting:

1. Take a break. Yes, it’s counter to the traditional wisdom of “butt in chair,” but sometimes after the completion of a major project, your mind – and body- need a rest. This is the time to fill the well: go someplace you’ve never visited, spend time with friends you’ve neglected, indulge in some much-needed self-care.

2. Connect. Write a blog post or comment on other writer’s blogs. Post on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and interact with others on your social media site of choice. Participate in a writing-related online chat.

3. Write for fun. Put “product” aside and focus on process. Find a writing prompt online (I particularly enjoy the daily prompts at WritersDigest.com.) or in a craft book. Let yourself go and see what happens.

4. Brainstorm ideas. If you don’t have your next book mapped out, this is a good time to start collecting ideas. Give your imagination free reign. Use newspaper headlines, overheard conversations, or your responses to writing prompts (see above) to inspire you. Try resurrecting an old idea and combining it with a new idea to create something surprising.

5. Read. Prime your pump by reading. Read craft books, books in your genre, books outside your genre. Read poetry, read newspapers and magazines, read blogs.

6. Research. Pick a topic that interests you and research it. Start online, but move on to the library and then to hands-on experiences. You never know: your research might show up in your next book.

These are just a few of the ways that you can make your wait time productive, even if you’re not ready to start your next book. I’d love to chat longer, but I hear my phone ringing….

What do you do to distract yourself while you wait?

When life gets in the way

January 4th, 2017

Last week I turned a revision in to my agent – hooray! But sadly, I haven’t written a word since. There’s been a big distraction in my life:

Meet Shuping. She’s forty-eight, from China, and speaks almost no English. And for the next four months, she’ll be living with us.

This isn’t the first time my husband and I have taken in an International student. In fact, we’ve been hosting them for several years through an organization called American Homestay Network. All in all, home stay hosting has been a wonderful experience. We’ve met interesting young people from all over the world who have shared meals, laughter, and even tears with us as they learn to navigate their studies in the U.S.

Living with Shuping, though, has been a bit of a challenge so far. She is a lovely person with an easygoing manner and a ready smile. She loves to laugh and is helpful in the kitchen. But the fact that she only knows a few words of English, combined with the fact that we know absolutely no Chinese, has made communication a trick. Yes, we are using translation software, but for true conversation, it’s cumbersome at best. The sentence structures of our respective languages are so different that some of the translations that come out are nothing short of hilarious.

And then there’s food. According to Shuping (or the translation software), American food is bland and hard on her digestion, so she prefers to stick with her traditional Chinese diet. In the week she’s been with us, this has involved numerous trips to the store for items she wants, lots of bottlenecks in the kitchen with she and I trying to prepare meals at the same time – and some delicious Chinese dishes which she generously shares with everyone in the household.

In short, there’s been a lot of need for adjustment on both sides. The time I would ordinarily spend writing has been taken up with ferrying Shuping to the grocery store, getting her acquainted with the neighborhood and bus routes, and – I’ll admit it – enjoying her exquisite cooking. In a way, it’s like having a new baby in the house; until she gets on her feet in this foreign country, we need to be there for her at all times.

I thrive on structure and routine, so having things so topsy-turvy has been a challenge for me. I feel guilty when I use my writing time for something other than writing, but right now I have very little choice. And in the back of my mind, I know that sometimes it’s okay – and even good – to let life get in the way of productivity. I’m trying to allow myself to embrace this new experience, knowing that when I do get back to writing, my work will be all the richer for the time I spent with Shuping.

Have you ever had to let life get in the way of your writing routine? How did you adjust?

5 Steps for adding a new character to your (completed) novel

November 17th, 2016

When my agent told me that I needed to add a new character to my novel – the one I’ve been working on for years and have revised countless times and considered this close to submission-ready – I wanted to make like my butterscotch tabby, Sunny, and curl up under a blanket and shut down.

sunnyblanket_img_0037

But then I remembered that I’d done it before. When I was working with my editor on FLYAWAY, she also suggested that I add a new character – a “decoy boy” to distract readers from the inevitability of the main character, Stevie, getting together with the major love interest, Alan. My character The Professor was born, and he actually became the character who generated the most comments and questions from students in my school visits.

So in my quest to add a new character to my current WIP, I went back to the process I had used before and came up with these five steps:

1. Clarify the new character’s role in your novel. Will this character serve as a decoy, as The Professor did in FLYAWAY, or will they fill another role? Other possible roles might include ally or mentor to the main character or proxy for the antagonist. Being clear on the new character’s role in your novel will help you determine how much weight to give him in terms of page time and backstory.

2. Determine the relative importance of the character. Is your new character a walk-on in one scene, or will she play a major role throughout the book? The new character my agent suggested that I add in this revision only appears in a few scenes and has little direct impact on the plot. Because of his relatively minor importance, I was careful not to flesh him out so fully that he drew undue reader attention.

3. Decide which other characters the new character will connect with. How tightly is this character woven into the weave of the story? Does he interact mostly with the main character, or will he connect to one or more minor characters as well? Will he live in one plot line or be part of several subplots? In order to weave my new character more closely into my story, I gave one of my main character’s friends a secret crush on him.

4. Create a name and a backstory relative to the character’s weight in the plot. This step is tricky. We writers love to create characters. I could have easily written a 10-page biography of my new character in which I explored his childhood and how it has impacted his current hopes, dreams, and fears. But since my character has relatively little importance compared to my major and supporting characters, I fleshed out only the essential elements of his backstory. I made notes on his name and age, his status in the school hierarchy, his interest in music, and why he’s attracted to my main character. That’s all the information I really needed. And because his relative importance to the plot is so minimal, I decided that my main character wouldn’t refer to him by name; she calls him Knit Hat Boy.

5. Choose the scenes in which the character will appear. Now that you’ve determined your character’s role in your novel, decided on her relative importance, and created an appropriate name and backstory, it’s time to “shoehorn” her into your already completed book. To complete this step, I read through my manuscript, and using Comments in Track Changes, noted the location of each scene where my new character would appear. Some of these were scenes I’d written previously that I planned to revise to include him; others were scenes I needed to add.

With your backstory notes and Comments in front of you, the final step, of course, is to write your new character into the novel. Easy? No. Worth it? In my case, yes. Thanks to my agent’s advice, I now have a new character who adds one more subtle layer of depth to my story.

Have you ever had to write a new character into an already completed manuscript? How did it go for you? What were the challenges you encountered?

Funeral for a Flip Phone

October 3rd, 2016

flip-phone

Do you know what this is? It’s called a flip phone or “clamshell,” and was used by our ancestors near the beginning of the digital age. It was also my phone of choice up until this weekend, when I finally purchased my first iPhone.

Don’t laugh. Flip phones have some things to be said for them. They fit neatly into small spaces, and they don’t provide any of the Internet-related distractions that smartphones are so famous for. As a style statement, they’re so retro that they’re almost cool. Almost.

I’ve been putting off getting a smartphone for ages, even though all of my friends and colleagues have them. Even my 80-year-old uncle swears by his iPhone.

There were many reasons that I resisted trading in this baby for a smartphone; some good, some not so good. I’m not a fan of the way so many people seem attached to their smartphones to the point of neurosis. I mean, do you really need to check incoming texts at every red light? So what if the only replies I could text on my clamshell were “yes,” “no,” or “okay?” I feared adding one more distraction to my already cluttered life.

But if I dig a little deeper, I can see that the real reason I resisted trading in (well, okay: trading up) for so long was fear of change. In some ways, I crave the new and different. I’m always looking for ways to add more excitement to my life. How many people, for example, invite a parade of international students into their homes? But when it comes to life’s more mundane routines, I cling to the familiar, even when it no longer serves me. I remember a time, quite a few years ago, when I resisted getting a laptop because it would pull me away from the comfort zone of my home computer.

Now, of course, I swear by my laptop and seldom leave home without it. And once I get used to it, I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my new iPhone 4. (I know, I know, it’s obsolete; there are much more current versions I could buy. What can I tell you? I need to ease into things.) In fact, it has changed my life already. This post represents the first time I’ve used a phone to create an image for this blog.

I guess I’m finally becoming part of the digital age. In my own, tentative way. Small steps, baby. Small steps.