Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Fresh Start

Happy New Year to you all!  The last year has been difficult for many, and brutal to some, but I believe we are all rallying to face what the next year brings and maintaining hope for positive developments and welcome surprises.

Starting a book is like starting a new year.  I’m facing page one of something new—after waffling over it for a few months—so I’m reminding myself of what a first draft requires and making resolutions.

1. Imagination:  Just like with New Year’s resolutions, it’s a good idea to brainstorm before embarking on a book.  You don’t want to make any foolish or impossible promises.  Maybe I won’t Climb Mount Everest.  But maybe I will challenge myself with a new structure and a new audience, investigating themes that feel quite personal.

2. Ambition:  You don’t want to take it too easy on yourself.  Perhaps rather than a vague Walk More, you might resolve to Walk Five Miles a Day.  It’s the same with a book.  I don’t want to write the same book over and over, or write something exactly like someone else’s.

3. Risk:  I would never advocate a dangerous resolution for the new year—so please avoid Try Train Surfing or Build Up Immunity to Arsenic.  Books, however, are different.  Readers want risk.  They want to be challenged, and so do we, as writers.  Stretch.  Have fun.  See what you think your limits are and push the edge of that envelope.

4. Commitment:  All of us have made well-intentioned resolutions that we haven’t quite fulfilled.  (Sort Through All Twenty Boxes of Family Photos comes to mind—for the past three years!)  And many of us have started a book that we’ve never finished.  Finishing can be the hardest part.  It’s frightening.  It’s painful.  Sometimes, it’s even boring.  Do it.  Walk those miles, sort those photographs.  Finish.  That.  Book.

5. Fun:  Every year we load ourselves down with shoulds.  Lose Weight.  Spend Less.  Work Harder.  I’ve long believed that we also need to revitalize with the things that propel us forward.  What have you always wanted to try?  Ride a Unicycle.  Learn to Tap Dance.  Skydive.  Or something simpler, but has the same effect.  Play a Game Once a Week.  Writing is the same.  It’s hard.  It’s painful.  It’s frightening.  But it also has to be fun.  Play with your characters.  Let yourself write a scene that has nothing to do with the plot, but lets your talents shine—dialogue, description, murder.  It may never appear in the book, but something exciting may come out of it—even if it’s “only” a jump start to get you writing again.  I write not for misery, but for joy.  When it happens, allow yourself to experience it.  The perfect sentence.  The cunning plot twist.  The day you surpass your word count goal without even trying.  Those are all the things that keep you going and deserve to be celebrated.

I have two resolutions this year.  I could make many more (those photographs aren’t going to sort themselves), but I found 2016 so overwhelming that I’m willing to let myself off the hook a little.  Here they are:

1. Finish the Book.
2. Celebrate.

Who’s with me?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Making Choices

As authors, we know all about making choices.  Characters, settings, plot points, turning points, dialogue tags.  Every effort—every word—is a choice.  Do I make this character blonde or brunette?  Does she really have an alcoholic father?  Is it an apple tree or a copper beech he can see out the window?

Sometimes, the choices seem overwhelming.  It’s like looking at all the possible paths through the forest and not knowing where any of them leads.  Sometimes, it feels like all you can do is sit and stare at the blank page with all of those possibilities before you and it’s so daunting, you can’t even lift a finger to type Chapter One.

Now is one of those times.  When I look at my world and see all the things that are threatened by recent events—the environment, people of color, refugees, women’s rights, reproductive rights, gender identity, immigrants, gun control—I am overwhelmed by the stands I know I must take.  By the donations I want to give.  By the effort of the choice.  Because I know if I choose one and fight for it with all my heart, the others will not have my full support and they all deserve it.

But as humans, we cannot give all of our effort to everything.

So this is what I must do—what we all must do.  Choose one.  Two.  Five, at the most.  And do what you can.  We will not all choose the same things.  We will not all fight the same way.  But if we all choose and we all fight—with our dollars, with our words, with our friendship and love and support and encouragement and shelter—we will rewrite this story. 

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned as an author, it’s that no matter how you begin or with what expectations or fears or shortcomings or limitations, you can change the outcome.  It’s within your power.  You just have to make the choice and then put in the work.

We write our history as we live it.  Let’s do it well. 

Find some (more) ideas on organizations and causes that can use our support here.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

When Your First Draft is Like a Mountain Road

I originally posted this on the YA Muses blog a couple of years ago, but felt it deserves revisiting.  I am about to start yet another first draft, as I know many of you are with NaNoWriMo.  Best of luck to you all, and enjoy the drive!

I love spending time in the mountains—in a little cabin with no Internet and no cell reception.  Just me and my family and the hard, frosty mornings and the liquid gold light of autumn afternoons.  We work in the garden and try to make pizza on the grill and hike to the river and play Monopoly. 
The view from the deck

Often, we make the hour-long drive down to the nearest “big” town (population approximately 16,000) to stock up, go to the beach, and visit family.  And often, we make the drive in the dark.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it deserves mentioning again.  E.L. Doctorow’s quote. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I love this quote, because I often feel like I’m in a fog when I’m writing a first draft.  More than that, I've begun to see first drafting as more like driving at night on a mountain road.  Specifically, this mountain road.

I’ve driven this road at least a hundred times—in daylight and darkness, at midnight and with the setting sun shining directly into my eyes.  I’ve been a passenger a couple hundred more.  I know this road.

On the way down to town one day, and upon seeing the third or fourth bouquet of faded plastic flowers on the cliff-side barrier, my husband—who didn’t grow up on this drive—said, “A lot of people die on this road.”  The road is steep and the way is winding.  The coastal folk make the drive inland in summer to escape the chilly fog, and drive back after a day of drinking beer in hundred degree heat on the river.  The mountain folk make the trip for groceries and stop on the way home in the casinos and bars.  The use of marijuana in this county is commonplace, and you can sometimes smell it wafting from the open windows of cars as they pass.  It is tragic—but unsurprising—that people die on this road.

When I drive it at night, I take it easy.  I know this road, but in the dark, it’s different.  Because all I can see is what the headlights light up in front of me.  On the mountain curves, that’s not much.  Sometimes, the beams of light disappear into nothingness—the steep drop down to the river swallows them whole—until I follow that double yellow line and illuminate the rock face, the fern bank, the stand of trees that mark the spot where a little waterfall will bloom when the snow melts in March.

At least it wasn't snowing, like it was last Christmas...
In the dark, you don’t know what will be around the next turn, what will show up in your headlights next.  Perhaps the glowing eyes of a startled deer, or the tumble of rocks from a frost-driven slide.  After decades of use, the road itself is slumping in places, marked by signs that read, “Active Sink Area, Reduce Speed.”  (the signs aren’t kidding—there are places where if you’re driving over fifty, the car will catch air over these “active sinks”, delighting the children and startling the sleeping dog).

Driving back to the cabin in the dark, I’m forcefully reminded of the constant, unrelenting ascent.  Up and up and up and up until Lord Ellis Summit is crested and the road dives down to circumnavigate the valley by hugging its contours.

In the dark, I am surprised by the well-remembered markers that tell me how far I’ve gone and how far I have yet to go.  The Vista Point where the wind howls down to the foggy coast.  The tiny pull-off where my car once overheated, but by some miracle I managed to get cell reception.  The stoplight system where the road has slumped away leaving a single lane.  The ribboning band of curves that let me know I’m only a mile from my destination.  And even then, in the dark, I worry that I will miss the turning.

First drafts are like that, no matter how many times you’ve driven them.  There is a long, uphill climb, when the going can be steady and even fun, but is still hard work and takes longer than expected.  There’s the drop down into the circuitous mysteries of the muddly middle, when you know there’s a steep cliff on one side and a sheer rock face on the other and you’d better keep your eyes on the dimly-lit and sometimes-faded double-yellow line.  All along the way, there are sinkholes and rockslides, approaching semi trucks that look set to run you down, headlights in your rearview mirror that blind you to everything else, and the occasional wild animal blinking at you from the side of the road, ready to run.  And just like this mountain road, my first drafts almost always have a stretch of one-way traffic, directed by a signal, and I never know how long I’ll have to wait for green.  And there are places where you can see tragedy—where darlings will be killed eventually.  Fortunately, there are the instinctive markers that let you know where you are and how far you have to go.  And—when you’re lucky—there’s that beautiful, stretch of ribbon you can follow to the end. 

Perhaps the first first draft--the first book you ever write--is a little more frightening.  You don’t even know if the destination is there.  Even now, on my fifth first draft, I worry that something will sidetrack or booby-trap me.  But as the obstacles loom into the sweep of my headlights, I can sometimes recognize them, and visualize them as they are in daylight, and they stop scaring me quite so much.  I am vigilant, I am careful, I move more slowly than I would in bright light.  I feel my way through the dark, and there is beauty in it.  Even comfort.  Because I know that the destination is there—waiting for me.  And because I know that when I’m ready to start revising, the sun will be up, and I will be able to see all of the road at once and that some of it will be beautiful enough to keep me coming back.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Book of My Heart

I've been thinking about this a lot lately--the book of my heart.  A few years ago, a dear friend sent me the link to Beth Revis's blog post on the same subject.  We discussed it at length--do all of us have a book that we were meant to write?  The one.  The writing equivalent of a soulmate.  And if I don't, is there something wrong with me?  Does it make me soul-less?  Because at the time, I didn't have a book of my heart.

I believe that all of my books contain a bit of my heart.  Gilt is full of my own concerns about inaction, and how not doing anything can be as bad as doing the wrong thing.  Tarnish is a hymn to my own adolescent feminism.  And Brazen is testament to heartbreak and loss.  I love them all, and each held its own kind of magic while I wrote.  They are each, in essence, a book of my heart.

Recently, though, I've been digging deeper in my writing.  Because I have no contracts to fulfill, and no publisher asking for anything specific from me, I've had the freedom to choose and play around with and take the time to write stories that come from somewhere else.  Not from history, but from somewhere deeper.  With no guidelines and no restrictions, I can do anything I want.

It's not easy.  In fact, there are times that I wonder what the hell I was thinking.  Why don't I just write that YA about Jane Grey?  Or Joan of Arc?  Or Queen Elizabeth?  Why don't I stick to what I know and do well?

Because as an artist--and we are all artists, my friends--I want to stretch and grow and try new things.  Because if I wanted to do the same thing day after day, I would put on a green apron and a big smile and be your Starbucks barista.  I'm good at that.  I've had lots of practice.

But I want to be a writer, so I dive into deep water.  And I've loved it.  Not every minute (do any of us?  If you do, tell me your secret!)  But I've learned to love writing again.  And I'm learning that writing from the heart takes time and effort and tears, but it is so soul-satisfying.

I've also learned that rejection hurts more if you have more invested.  That when the book of your heart gets picked apart or worse, dispassionately, indifferently put down and abandoned, it feels more personal.  One year on (and yes, it's been a year since I sent that book out, the one that came from some magical place and went nowhere in publishing), I've learned that I'm glad I wrote it, anyway.  More than glad--I'm a different person.  A better person.  That book made me see more and hear more and find a creative place in myself that I wouldn't have otherwise.  Of course, it would have been great if it had sold and I was here telling you a release date or revealing a cover.  But I wrote it.  And I'm proud of it.  And I'll do it again.  Because that's what writing is--digging deep down into your artistic well and bringing up something fresh and life-sustaining.  I try to come to the well every day, with every project, but the Book of My Heart taught me to drink.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Where to Begin?

I've written seven novels ranging in length from 60,000 words to 105,000, and I only know two things for certain:  Every book is different.  And I learn something new every time.  Today, I begin a new blog series all about what I’ve learned (and forgotten, and relearned).  So today, I begin at the beginning.

The logline.

Caught you there, didn’t I?  Personally, I always thought that I write the logline when the book is finished.  I’ve always thought the logline—the elevator pitch—is an odious business.  How do you distill a 105,000-word book into two sentences?  How do you even begin?

That last is the golden question.  I learned recently (after seven books and goodness knows how many thousands of pages) that beginning with the logline helps you distill your idea before you write it.  The logline should include the essence of each crucial element. By giving time and energy to this at the beginning, you know what you’re in for before you even write Chapter One at the top of the page.

It’s still not easy.  In some ways, I still find it odious.  And I certainly resist it, even though I know it’s good for me.  I’m about to start work on a new novel, so I need this reminder, too.  This is the exercise I plan to do:

1. A logline must have the following
-           the protagonist
-           their goal
-           the conflict that could prevent them from achieving that goal

2. Don’t use a character name (unless it’s immediately recognizable—say, Anne Boleyn or Kanye West).  Instead, tell us something about the character—who she is, what she does. 
-           a literary editor
-           a blues guitarist

3. Add an adjective.  This gives us a sense of character, but also gives you, the writer, a hook to hang your characterization on.  Be creative. 
-           a maverick literary editor
-           a train-jumping blues guitarist

4. Give us a goal.  What drives your story—and more importantly, what drives you character?  This is the promise the rest of your 100,000 words delivers.
-           a maverick literary editor wants to travel around the world faster than anyone ever has
-           a train-jumping blues guitarist rides the rails to escape his past

5. What is your conflict?
-           a maverick literary editor races the country’s most famous journalist to set the record for around the world travel
-           a train-jumping blues guitarist confronts the darkness of life beyond the margins in order to escape his past

6. If you have a ticking clock, use it.
-           a maverick literary editor races time, tide, and the country’s most famous journalist to set the record for around-the-world travel

7. A little world-building…
-           in 1889, when women didn’t have the vote or the ability to walk the streets of the city unchaperoned, a maverick literary editor ventures out alone to race time, tide, etc…

No need to reveal the ending—you might not even know exactly what it is yet, and the point is the logline is to entice--even if you're just enticing yourself at this point.  Some people might suggest you add a hint of theme, but I find I don’t always know my theme until I’ve revised at least once.  For this—your beginning—you just want the basics.

Look at what you’ve got here.  Can anything be improved?  Is that adjective really the best choice for that character?  Is that character actually the best and most unique person for that story?  Maybe the literary editor is actually super-heroic.  Maybe the blues guitarist is actually a barista.  Play.  This is your chance to make all the changes you want.  One to three sentences is a lot easier to alter than a hundred and five.

If you want some additional ideas for writing elevator pitches and loglines, check out an old formula I posted on the YA Muses blog, or try Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat logline.

Monday, January 11, 2016

BRAZEN Deleted Scene

Last year, during the YA Scavenger Hunt, I posted a deleted scene from BRAZEN on another site.  It was only up for the few days that the Hunt was going, but I recently received an e-mail from a reader (thank you, Judith!) asking if I might repost it.

This scene occurs before the action of the novel by about six months.  Mary Howard is in the coronation procession for Anne Boleyn and describes all that she sees and who she meets...

All around me is gold and white and crimson, the sky a surprising blue above us.  The queen’s hair, brushed a hundred strokes, hangs down her back like a thick black waterfall.  Anne Boleyn, as beautiful and as stony as a statue.
The men and women of Cheapside dressed in their best, patched and brushed and so out of place amongst the white and gold and velvet and silver tissue that hangs from every house.  But the men still wear their caps and the faces of all alike are sour and insolent.  The cheers of “God Save the Queen!” are few and far between.
My horse shifts beneath me, eager to be moving. The men and women stare, openmouthed at the inaudible pageant performed on the street corner.  I press one hand to the pocket at my side.  My mother’s letter there crinkles, the sound louder to me than the stamping of hooves and shouts of the thousands.
Ungrateful wretch – she began.
You dare to ally yourself with that woman – she continued.
You will hear from me no more – she finished.
If only my mother kept her promises.
The bleating of the sackbut ceases and the procession moves forward again. “HA HA!” One man crows as we depart.
“I hate it when the ignorant learn to read.”
I turn to Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, to my left.  She sits upright in her saddle, the crimson of her gown reflecting pink off of her pale skin, the gold coronet of her hood sparking in a flash of sun.
“What’s he laughing at?” I ask.
“The initials.” Lady Rochford waves a dismissive hand at the white and gold canopy that shades the queen from the sun, embroidered with the Tudor rose, a crowned falcon, and two letters entwined.  H and A – Henry and Anne.  Ha ha.
Lady Rochford scowls, the skin around her eyes stretched by fatigue. She served Queen Katherine for years, but she’s married to the new queen’s brother.  I wonder if she, like my mother, believes all of this pomp is just a sham.  A brave show to try to justify a fabricated marriage.  Like a conjurer’s trick, mother said, to make the people believe.
From the faces of the people around me, it doesn’t seem to be working.
Things are a little more cheerful at Gracechurch Street, where Mount Parnassus looms over an archway where a marble fountain spouts Rhenish wine from four spigots.  One man – his left hand an open sore – lies on his back with his head directly underneath a spout while Apollo and the Muses entertain us, proclaiming all of Queen Anne’s virtues, but especially her ability to bear sons.  Many believe she already carries one, her belly overlarge beneath the white of her gown.
My brother is near the head of the procession, standing in for our father who is away in France.  Never one to stand on ceremony, he Hal turns his horse and comes to me.
“Mary.” We are virtual strangers.  He is better friends with the king’s son – his obligatory childhood companion – than he is with me. 
“Did Mother contact you?” he asks.
I nod.  No need to tell him what she said.
“Did she threaten never to speak to you again?”
I lift my eyes to his.
“She did, didn’t she?” Hal laughs.  “What else did she say?”
“That I should think long and hard about who I am.  And about where my loyalties should lie.”
“In other words, she reminded you of your Stafford descent, that you are royalty in your own right, and that you should not allow yourself to be taken in by a woman who appears to have gained her position by witchcraft and seduction.”
“Mother said that to you?”
He leans closer, his saddle creaking. “Not in so many words.  But it is easy to read between them with our mother, is it not?  Especially for someone who savors them like sweetmeats.”
Hal eyes me steadily.
He remembers.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

YASH Follow-up

Thanks to all of you who stopped by on the YA Scavenger Hunt, and to all of you who just stopped by to read PJ Hoover's exclusive content!

Congratulations to the GOLD team winner, Rena Malik, who won twenty signed books from each member of the team.  And congratulations, as well, to Barbara Gordon, the winner of my giveaway!

I asked for comments as an entry to my giveaway, answering the question: What is your favorite coming-of-age novel and why?  I received over one hundred responses, and I was delighted by how enthusiastic everyone was about their favorite books!  I have definitely added some of them to my own TBR list, and I hope that you might stop by and check out some of the answers, too.

Unsurprisingly, the book that had the greatest number of recommendations was The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.  What did surprise me was that it was tied with Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  Not because Rowell's book isn't as good, but because I would have guessed one of her other books!  I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson was the next leading contemporary novel.

By far the majority of the other books were futuristic and/or fantasy, with Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi leading the pack, followed closely by Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, and, of course, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter.

A few of you especially loved historical novels, including the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer, The Agency by Y.S. Lee and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (which was also one of the only books written for adults that made the list.)

But probably the most surprising answer was "No fav.  I don't really read them."  This made me wonder why this person was on the Scavenger Hunt in the first place!  But perhaps he or she mistook my question.

Thanks again for coming by and recommending books to me.  I'm looking forward to reading them!