Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some FAQs about Writing, Plus Upcoming Appearance Info

1. My goal is to write a New York Times best seller someday. Do you have any advice?
Well, yes, but I'm guessing it's not the advice you were looking for. My advice is to change your goal. Here's the thing: becoming a NYT best-seller is an achievement that's almost completely outside your control. It depends a lot more on unknowable factors (like the future demands of the market) and on uncontrollable factors (like how many other "big" books are out at the same time as yours or how aggressively your publisher decides to promote your book) than it depends on your ability to write a good book. Many, many good books never become NYT best sellers.

Your question makes me want to ask you a question: Do you actually want to write? Or do you just want to be rich and famous? Being a best-selling author is super nice -- but it does NOT necessarily make you rich and famous. The book biz is NOT the movie biz. Shannon Hale, who is an award-winning and NYT best-selling author, wrote a great post once about the financial realities of being a writer. If you're under the misapprehension that writing a best seller means becoming a millionaire or some such, you might want to check it out.

Also -- I'm not going to sit here and pretend that things like being published or being a best seller are meaningless, or that they don't feel good, or that they don't have the potential to help you a lot and even change your life in a lot of wonderful ways. But they aren't solid, rich, deep identities in and of themselves -- at least, not the way writing is. Being a best-selling author, in particular, is more of a "thing that happens to you" than anything else. Writing is a way of life. It's a kind of life you can choose to have.

Good luck to you. I hope you do get published someday, and that your books take off. It's a whole lot more likely to happen if you focus on the writing, which is within your control, rather than on the post-writing stuff that's pretty much out of your control.

2. I once heard someone say that if you aren't happy as a writer before you get published, you won't be happy after you get published. Is this true?
Well, I don't know. I'm sure it's true for some people and not true for other people. I can say that I was happy as a writer before I got published, and I know that it helped me get through some of the more stressful and even terrifying aspects of becoming published. It gave me a solid base; I could always remind myself that I loved writing, and doing all this scary stuff would help me continue to have time for writing.

On the other hand, there are new kinds of happiness that I've experienced as a published person that I don't think I would have experienced without being published. In particular, I've met SO many great people -- people at my various publishers, fellow writers, agents, people who have become true friends. Did I need to be happy before in order to feel that happiness now?

Happiness can be complicated, you know? Except for when it's simple. I'm not going to comment on other people's feelings or experiences. But if writing makes you happy, simply and for its own sake, then I think you're a lucky person and you're starting from a good place.

3. In the acknowledgments for Graceling, you thank "Liza Ketchum, who taught [you] to think like a novelist." What does it mean to "think like a novelist?" What did she teach you?
Writer Liza Ketchum was my mentor during a creative writing independent study I did while I was getting my M.A. in children's literature at Simmons. We met every few weeks and she gave me feedback on the pages I'd written so far. At the time, I was struggling through my first novel, which was middle grade realistic fiction... and I had a lot of thoughts and feelings, and characters in my mind, but I didn't really have a PLOT. One day, her feedback finally sank in, and I came to our meeting with a page in my notebook to show her -- a page on which I'd created a book plan of sorts -- a possible plot to structure my novel. Liza took a look at it and said, "Now you're thinking like a novelist!" Wow, did it feel great to hear that!

I think the moment I started to think like a novelist was the moment I forced myself to come up with a book plan, a clear story I wanted to convey to the reader -- rather than just waxing poetic and trying to fit everything that had ever happened to me personally, and every feeling I'd ever had, into my book.

(That book, by the way, lives in my closet. I might rewrite it someday, or I might not.)

Some soon-to-happen thingeys:

On Saturday, October 16, I'll be at the (FREE!) Boston Book Festival, along with writers Francisco X. Stork, Kathryn Lasky, and Noni Carter. Our event is at 4pm at the Trinity Church Forum. I plan to bring my messy notebook and yammer a little about my process. I think each writer will have a few minutes to talk, followed by a discussion, Q&A, and signing.

On Tuesday, October 26, I'll be the keynote speaker at the Teen Volume Conference at the Chicago Public Library. The conference is entitled "Putting Passion into Library Books and Services for Teens" and is intended for librarians, teacher-librarians, teachers and reading specialists. I will yammer my heart out and also attend a bunch of the break-out sessions. More info is available here.

On Wednesday, October 27, I'll be doing another event with the library and will post more info about that on my Appearance Schedule page as it becomes available.

On Thursday, October 28, I'll be in South Bend, Indiana, where I'll be doing a reading, Q&A, and signing at Saint Mary's College. The event will take place at 4:30pm [ETA: NOTE THE TIME CHANGE] in Welsh Parlor, Haggar College Center. Yammering will abound.

That's it for now!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Checking in with Some Monday Randutiae

Last week, while stuck in traffic on I-95 in preparation for being extremely late to my trapeze conditioning class, I noticed that the leaves are starting to change. Hooray!

I'm reading a mystery by Ellis Peters called The House of Green Turf. I've been enjoying it from the first sentence: But for a five minute shower of rain, and a spattering of pennystone clay dropped from the tailboard of a lorry, Maggie Tressider would have driven on safely to her destination, that day in August, and there would never have been anything to cause her to look back over her shoulder and out of her ivory tower, nothing to make the mirror crack from side to side, nothing to bring any unforeseen and incomprehensible curse down upon her.

I wouldn't generally recommend a 78-word opening sentence to a book, so why do I like this one? Because somehow, by the end of that first sentence, the setting, the protagonist, and the plot are all intriguing and real to me. The five-minute shower, the spattering of clay, the lorry -- all nice touches that make the scene vivid. A driver with a destination that she knows but we don't; a confident woman who's about to lose all her certainty somehow. Words like "But for" and "would have" create suspense. Something terrible is about to happen, so I've got to keep reading. Yay!

In other news... thank the merciful heavens above, we have entered the Sergio Leone portion of our Western-watching. I've watched A Fistful of Dollars, rewatched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and For a Few Dollars More is on its way to me. (Yes, I know this is the wrong order to be watching them.) If all Westerns were this beautifully lit and shot, this silent and occasionally funny, this well-scored, plus had a young Clint Eastwood marching around in a poncho looking imperturbable, maybe I could bear how racist, sexist, and flat the plots in this genre tend to be.

Nonetheless. I think Clint is supposed to look like a badass in this shot, but IMO only succeeds in looking like one of Santa's helpers.

In more other news, my pal Deborah made me super happy this week when she linked me to this positive review of a new voice recognition product called Dragon Dictate for the Mac. Still not up to Dragon NaturallySpeaking standards, but getting there. I have been fantasizing about throwing MacSpeech Dictate in the garbage all week! (If you're curious about my relationship with my dictation software, I blogged about it once.)

Finally, this blog post in which a writer refutes someone else's list of reasons why it's good to date writers CRACKED ME UP. Thanks, Tui, for linking to this! I especially love number 14.

And that's it for today.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Which the Author Regales Her Readers with Tales of a Maritime Journey (And One Small Rant)

Just for the record, if I were standing on a mountain counting my money and some guy came along, first produced a pistol, then produced a rapier, and said, "Stand and deliver, for you are a bold deceiver! Musha ring dum-a do dum-a da, whack fol the daddy-o, whack fol the daddy-o, there's whiskey in the jar!".... I really would have no idea what he wanted.

So, in case you didn't believe me on Monday when I said I'd been to Prince Edward Island, well, that would be weird of you, but anyway, I just got the pictures from my Mom, and you'll find you can't argue with this photograph.

Now do you believe me?

(It's my toes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.)

(Click any of the pictures to enbiggen.)

At the dunes in Greenwich, no dogs were allowed.

Thank goodness, polar bears were. (Presumably. There were no signs indicating otherwise.)

I crossed the walkway over the dunes.

Then I gestured to the right.

Then my Dad and I took off our shoes.

Isn't this the best photo journal ever?

We also went to the East Point Lighthouse.

Here we are at the top:

This was my third trip to PEI and my parents' thirteenth. My favorite things to do? Sit in the window of the cottage with a book and look at the water and the sky. Also, drive the island and take in the pretty, PRETTY scenery.

Aren't my parents cute? They've been happily married for 38 years. My Mom is a retired middle-school science (and other things!) teacher and my Dad is a retired religion professor.

During one of our drives, my Mom got to talking about the tolerance course she used to teach in her small Catholic grade school. She would divide the class into groups and assign each group the study of a particular religious or societal group that has historically suffered intolerance of one kind or another -- then help them as they investigated further that particular group, its fight for equal rights and tolerance, its status today, and ways the students could contribute to the fight. She assigned one of the groups the issue of gay rights.

Of course, before too long, a parent wrote a letter of complaint to the superintendent of diocesan schools. Complaining about my mother, because she was trying to teach tolerance toward gay people to students in a Catholic school.

So, my mother's principal asked my mother to write a letter to the superintendent. My mother did so, explaining that she took seriously her responsibility to teach children to be like Jesus, who was, in fact, not a bigot. The superintendent wrote back that she wished that what my Mom was teaching was being taught in all the diocesan schools.

I did an interview once with someone who asked me about my parents' work. I told the interviewer that my Dad was a college professor of religion and my Mom a middle-school teacher. When the interview came out, my Dad's work was mentioned, but there was no mention of my Mom. I make no assumptions about when my Mom's professional creds were dropped from the article or who was responsible -- but I cannot tell you how mad it made me, or how crappy I felt handing that article to my Mom. "Mom," I said, "I told them about your work, too." Why do we have so little respect for teachers of young people? And why do we have little so respect for women's jobs when those women are mothers?

Anyway. Back to my photo journal.

I stole a flower from someone's yard because its colors were the colors of someone's eyes in Bitterblue. Then I sat down, put it on my knee, zoomed the camera, and took a lot of pictures that confused my mother later.

In PEI National Park, the parking lot was collapsing onto the beach and I was a little bit cold.

My Dad doesn't pay attention to certain signs.

He kept leaning over the edges of the cliffs. I would look over at him, note that the space *under* the edge he was standing on was nothing but air, and say, "Dad, I don't think you should get that close." He would grab onto a tree and say, "Don't worry, I'm holding onto this tree." I would say, "Dad? What's to stop the tree from falling over the edge? Dad? I don't think you should get that close. Dad? I say this as a person with a trapeze habit." None of this made the slightest impression on him.

If you can't lick 'em, join 'em.

Well, that's my photo journal! PEI is a beautiful, peaceful place. Just what the busy author needs when she's been working too hard. Thanks, Mom, for all the pictures. Thanks, Dad, for not falling to your death. Let's do it again sometime.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Story of My Vacation (In Books and Music)

Here's the story of my vacation: I went to Prince Edward Island. Now I'm back.

la la la la la

Hey, listen, I am not a travel writer, okay?

Actually, I do expect to have some things to say about the trip, but I'm waiting for the pictures from my photographer, also known as my mom. In the meantime -- I read lots of books, listened to lots of music, went to a ceilidh, and *bought* lots of music (all of which tend to happen when I'm in PEI) -- so here's the report.

I Read and Recommend:
  • The Fire-Eaters, by David Almond. YA realism, takes place in 1962 (the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis) in the north of England (in and near Newcastle).
  • How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. Literary fiction, takes place in southern Wales in the 1800s, around the time coal miners unionized, whenever that was. This is a classic you may have read in high school -- or maybe you've seen the movie? I never did either and am loving reading it now. No book about coal mining sets itself up to be happy, but this one manages to be beautiful and funny despite the sadness. I love stories about families of recalcitrant children who are too smart to be obedient.
Ever heard any Celtic and/or folk music from Maritime/Atlantic Canada? This'll give you an idea:

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

I also wanted to share a Natalie MacMaster fiddling track, with Cookie Rankin singing, called "The Drunken Piper," but it wasn't available to add to that playlist. It's beautiful. You can listen to a bit of it here. (Click on the song title at the t0p, not the video -- the sound quality on that video is terrible.)

Another gorgeous one that wasn't available for the playlist: The Cottars' version of "The Briar and the Rose," which you can listen to here. (I think it starts to play automatically.)

If ya' like all that stuff, you might enjoy this album: Atlantic Standards. Available at Amazon and from other online vendors. And at every gift shop in PEI, and probably Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, too. :o)

la la la la la

So, I'm home now, listening to my new music, finishing up How Green Was My Valley, and, of course, working again. More soon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Forever Incomplete

I'm still away, but I set this up to post while I was gone. A friend gave it to me just at the moment when I needed it most. Thanks, Sandra, for sharing these lyrics with me:

I have been running so sweaty my whole life
urgent for a finish line --
and I have been missing the rapture this whole time
of being forever incomplete.

Ever unfolding, ever expanding --
ever adventurous and torturous --
but never done.

They're from the song "Incomplete" by Alanis Morissette. Here she is singing it:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Off I Go in Search of Zing and Pep

A Dunder Mifflin staff meeting, called because Michael Scott, Regional Manager, wants to change things up in the office, create some new excitement:

MICHAEL: So, what we need to do is we need to get things going. We need to get percolating a little bit. Anybody have any ideas of what we could do? Any suggestions? Yes -- Andy?

ANDY: What if we changed our outgoing answering machine message so it just had a little more ZING and a little more PEP?

MICHAEL: Zing and pep! See, those are the kinds of words we're looking for! Who else? Yes -- Jim?

JIM: What if we did an even newer voicemail message that had even more zing and pep?

MICHAEL: Now we're cooking! I like this!

I enjoy the spirit in which Jim enters into the idiocy of his office even though he himself is not an idiot. Maybe, surrounded by all those... unique... people, he would go mad if he didn't.

So, I'm going away to cooler climes for the week, in search of zing and pep -- the zing and pep that come from good food, good company, pretty landscapes, fall weather, no computer, no Work in Progress, no phone, no email, and no internet. In other words, REST. I hope you all get some rest this week, too.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Men, the Guns, and the Stupidity

I've recently been compelled -- not against my will, exactly, because I did say, "Yes, okay," but let's just say that there are other things I would rather be doing -- I've recently been compelled to watch a lot of Westerns in succession.

I reckon Westerns just ain't my thing. I reckon in most cases -- note, there are exceptions -- I was pleasantly surprised by High Noon and True Grit -- whereas even Morgan Freeman wasn't enough incentive ever to watch Unforgiven again -- where was I? I reckon that in most cases, I would rather eat a tumbleweed.

But -- BUT -- I don't hate everything about every one of them, and if you have five minutes today, I strongly recommend that you listen to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's take on Ennio Morricone's famous music from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

(That's some mighty fine whistling!)

Oh! Before I sign off: Happy new year to all those celebrating!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Clarity plzzzzzz

So, here's a small tip for writers out there: you know those moments when you get a great idea and jot it down on the nearest ink-accepting object? Your hand; the pizza box; if it's a good day, a post-it note? Well: WRITE THE IDEA OUT IN COMPLETE WORDS, NOT SHORTHAND. You think you'll remember later what you meant. But you won't, really. YOU WON'T.

I was going through some post-it notes the other day, looking for ideas, and I came across one that said this: an experience that doesn't fit into real life (FW by CV; 12 Monkeys).

The "12 Monkeys" part, I got. Terry Gilliam's (awesome) movie Twelve Monkeys is definitely about an experience that doesn't fit into real life. But... "FW by CV?" What the hell does that mean? And the problem is, it matters. The reason I thought "an experience that doesn't fit into real life" was worth writing down was because of the way it intersected with how Twelve Monkeys and "FW by CV," whatever that means, made me feel. That's my jotting method, so I know that this note is supposed to evoke something based on those things. But until I figure out what "FW by CV" means, I'm not going to get back that feeling "FW by CV" made me feel, and the writerly thing that I meant this note to spark in my mind is not going to be sparked.

I wonder if any of you have figured out what "FW by CV" means?

I did figure it out, after a lot of wasted time, and I'll give you a hint: FW is a book by CV.

More hints: FW is a book with a fantasy feel, by young adult author, CV.

Young adult author, CV?

Last hint: this author won a Newbery, not for this book, but for another (wonderful) book.

Here's your answer :o).


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pieces of Memory. Plus, the World's Longest Version of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"

It's moving season here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today I watched neighbors lower furniture through the window of a third story apartment using a rope and pulley. This reminded me of seeing all the pulley hooks at the top of houses in Amsterdam when I was on tour last spring. Apparently, Amsterdam stairways are narrow!

Of course, it also reminded me of the babies and levers.

And it reminded me of high school physics, which was one of many bad experiences during a difficult stretch of time that I'm happy to have lived through, but that you couldn't pay me enough to live through again. Have I mentioned lately how much I despise adults who think that life is easy for the young?

I just watched (and enjoyed) Almost Famous, which brought me back to high school, too, and a music decision I had to make at one point: should I buy Tommy, performed by The Who, or Tommy, the Broadway cast recording? For those of you who love classic rock, I'm sure it's an obvious decision; for those of you who love Broadway musicals, ditto; but what about for those of you who, like me, love both? At the time, my sister, secret codename: Cordelia, already owned the version performed by The Who, plus, I'd just been to see the show on Broadway (adolescence wasn't all crap)... so I chose the Broadway version. 17 years later, I'm no longer in a position to steal Cordelia's CDs... and this morning I had some very tedious work to do on my computer... so I allowed myself to add The Who version of Tommy to my music collection. Today I worked while listening to both albums.

(In case there are readers on my blog who're too young to know who The Who are -- ever watched an episode of [the following links play music] CSI, CSI: Miami, or CSI: NY? All the theme songs are cut from classic songs by The Who. Kind of painful to listen to in some cases if you know and love the originals, especially the theme of CSI: NY, "Baba O'Riley," but anyway.)

Since I'm talking about memories -- I've been thinking about the excellent game my sisters and I invented when my sister, secret codename: Apocalyptica, was in the hospital in Finland: Sufficient Number of Questions. I blogged about it once, so I won't get into it here. But the reason I've been thinking about it is that recently Cordelia, Apocalyptica, and I sang the longest ever version of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," which reminded me that often, when sisters are involved, necessity leads to epic inventions. This version of "Old MacDonald" began as a means of entertaining two fussy one-year-olds, but I think that by the end, we were mostly amusing ourselves. And possibly driving my upstairs neighbors completely bonkers.

With no further ado, here are just a few suggestions should you ever run out of barnyard animals while singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm":
  • snake (a great hit should one of the babies suddenly discover her ability to make a "ssssss-sssss" sound for the first time ever)
  • laughing hyena (maniacal cackle)
  • Animal the Muppet (AAAAAAAAAA!) (This began a lengthy series of Muppets, which I'll spare you)
  • train (Toot-toot!)
  • conductor (All aboard!)
  • trapeze artist (Hep!)
  • a suffragette ("With a 'Votes for women!' here and a 'Votes for women!' there. Here a 'Votes for women!', there a 'Votes for women!', everywhere a 'Votes for women! Votes for women!'" -- if you think that's a mouthful, keep reading)
  • Mikhail Gorbachev (Glasnost!) (This began a lengthy series of political references)
  • Ronald Reagan (Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!)
  • Bill Clinton (I did not have sexual relations with that woman!)
  • Seinfeld (Hello, Newman!)
  • Hamlet (To be or not to be!) (This began a lengthy series of Shakespeare quotes, which I'll spare you)
  • Stanley Kowalski (Stella!)
  • The Graduate (Elaine!)
  • Captain Von Trapp (Edelweiss!)
  • Compatriots of Spartacus (I'm Spartacus!) (This one involved standing up)
Anyway, the babies seemed to enjoy it.