Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh, That Voice!

I recently finished The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie and I LOVED it. The protagonist is fourteen and has such a strong voice. Awesome. He also is honest and talks about the kinds of things that are on a fourteen year old's mind, which has caused some issues with parents who are concerned about what their kids are reading (more to come on that below.) What I also really loved about it was that it validated my own protagonist of my current work-in-progress, in a way. I tend to write on that line between upper MG and lower YA, sometimes called Transition now, sometimes called Tween (which is not what I think of as tween.) This guy, though, walks that line, too. Of course, his book is marked as YA, but it feels like something my middle schoolers would read and totally get. It's a book to give those guys who say they hate books-- they'd love it. It's funny AND touching AND challenging.

My husband said, "It's funny? It's full of really sad things that happen!" (I made him read it.) And okay, no spoilers, but yes, sad things happen in the book. Normally, I'm all about avoiding sadness in book. I want escapism!! But this one...man, I just loved this protagonist. I loved his voice, this edge of raw honesty, humor and self-reflection. Thumbs up. In the book, too, his character makes a list of his favorite things, so he has a top book list. I'm going to read those books next. :)

Oh, and also? It's been banned or considered being banned a number of times, which is one my life goals as a writer, to have a book that is so true to life, so challenging, that adults freak out and think kids should be sheltered from it. Here's another article about how it was banned in Oregon State. And might I mention that I just discovered the blog linked in the previous link (thanks, Google!) just now and it looks totally great? I'm going to start following that one...has a great list of books to read.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Steampunk Surprise

I love fantasy. I enjoy science fiction. I appreciate alternate histories. I love dystopians. I love all sorts of novels that require using your imagination to build a different world in your mind alongside the author. I had heard of steampunk, of course, and figured I sort of understood what steampunk meant. Then I tried to read Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld. Now, I had read Uglies by him, and loved it. I thought his premise was clever and fascinating. I saw Leviathan on a list of recommended reads by teens, which I'm slowly working through, and checked it out of the library.

I'm glad I used the library.

It didn't help that there are two protagonists, that it is so politcal and war-centered. None of those are things I love. But the scope of weirdness was so far beyond what I had read before that I struggled to pay attention to the plot in my attempts to visualize this alternate WWI setting, with machines and living-genetically altered living creatures mixed together to create a different kind of war machine. Hearing Germany and France just kept jarring me as I was reading about a floating ship consisting of a giant, living whale and an apparently a giant ecosystem that also somehow requires pilots and navy-like Air Force people. I was so baffled that I might be completely wrong about what the ship actually was built out of, but if that's the case, that's just another reason why it's not a book for me.

I think it's clear that it takes a lot of creativity to build this kind of world and I can respect that. I can totally respect the author and how much he has accomplished. What I couldn't do is get past chapter 4 of this particular book. Do you know how rare that is? I actually abandoned a book! Gasp! Now I will try one other steampunk, I suppose, to see if I dislike the genre in general (as I suspect) or if it was just one of those cases when a reader and a book don't match. There are lots of fans for Leviathan--I'm just not one of them. I feel sad about that. Steampunk sounds so COOL! "Yeah, I'm reading this awesome steampunk novel..." Oh well! Too many books to spend time on ones you don't really enjoy! Off to read The Maze Runner, by James Dashner. It was on the same recommended list as Leviathan...we'll see how this one goes!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Recent YA and MG I've read

I have decided to read seriously more YA and MG, both because I think it's good as a writer to see what's out there and see fresh ideas and approaches and because if I end up teaching Reading again, I want to be able to have lots of books to recommend to my middle school students. I'm also forcing myself out of my traditional fantasy/paranormal/romance preferences.

SO!

I got a variety of "Best of" lists and have been working my way through them. THe ones that stand out the most:

The Six Rules of Maybe, by Deb Caletti, YA This book had such great sentences that I wanted to stop now and then and just type one up as my Facebook status in honor of it. I also appreciated that the protagonist is a codependent teen who begins to learn that she is not the one who should be in charge of everyone else's lives. As a codependent in recovery, I, of course, totally identified with the main character.

What I Saw and How I Lied
, by Judy Blundell YA Set right after the end of WWII, this is a mystery and a romance, but mostly a mystery. However, the language is also very beautiful, the kind of writing that makes you stop and go, "Wow!" Nice theme, very much a page-turner. I, in fact, let my kids watch more TV than usual just so I finish the book.

The FarWalker's Quest, by Joni Sensel-- This is MG, not YA, with zero romance (a very clear-cut MG novel), with a very interesting world. I like that the protagnoist is a strong girl and there are questions about who can be trusted and why. It's the author's first fantasy novel and though I felt it started off too slow, it picked up the pace and was definitely worth the read.

So many books, so little time, but I'm slowly working through a list of recommended reads by both teens, the publishing industry and The Book Whisperer.

Not all of the books I've read have been great, but I'd rather focus on the good ones than list ones I didn't enjoy. Others might enjoy them more than I did.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A brilliant idea by someone else

Okay, this is why it is good to read agent and editor blogs. I was reading The Rejectionist, which is really just a funny little vent about how she overuses certain words when she writes and how frustrating it is. I don't often read all the comments, but I was scrolling down through them and found someone who said, "OOh, for those words you overuse and you know you overuse them, Gary Corby posted on how to use autocorrect to self-correct those words in his blog!" And so I clicked and read and went, "HOW COOL!" Whether or not I'll do what he suggests, I don't know, but I think it's hilariously brilliant to have Word autocorrect an overused word to "NO! NO! NO!" Check it out "Autocorrect is your Friend," thanks to a smart commenter on the very smart Rejectionist's blog.

ETA: Another super-awesome cool post by the same dude, who is clearly way more tech savvy than I am. I have tried searching for "was ___ing" (was walking, was talking, etc) so I could make them all stronger, but couldn't figure out how. Gary Corby has the secret in his post, "Advanced Searching in Microsoft Word"! Go! Read! Then write! And then Advanced Search! And Edit!! Whoohoo!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A good laugh

I always enjoy Rachelle Gardner's blog, but a recent post of hers really made me laugh out loud. It's called, "You Thought YOUR Rejections were Rough?" and includes book views and amazon comments about famous literary works. Always good to remember you can't and won't please everyone, so you might as well write what pleases you.

I'm beginning the revision process on a manuscript, so it's always encouraging to remember that even amazing literary giants have gotten harsh reviews.

Enjoy! My favorite is the comment on The Grapes of Wrath, since I remember thinking pretty much the same thing in high school when I had to read it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Editor's Day Conference

This Saturday, I attended our SCBWI chapter's Editor Day with a friend. It had been a while since I spent much time thinking about just writing and I was looking forward to it. Two editors spoke and author Dr. Carmen Tafolla gave an excellent keynote speech. She is quite the storyteller, a very dynamic and charismatic speaker.

I had paid for a critique of a picture book manuscript and Dr. Tafolla was the one who got my passage, so we had a nice 15 minutes where she said some very lovely things about my story. She suggested I try to get an agent. An agent?! I actually think she meant it. Honestly, I've sent out a few letters to agents (a total of five) and when they were not interested, I quit. I know that's not many, not in this business. But we also got these "golden tickets" where we can submit one manuscript to each editor who presented at the conference...which is quite different than submitting to an agent. I will probably try one of the editors first, before trying for more agents, because the golden ticket means my letter won't go in the slush pile-- at least, it's not supposed to. They are supposed to look at each our submissions individually, because we came to this conference.

My brain is telling me it doesn't matter anyway. The chances of anyone ever buying an actual BOOK manuscript from me seems crazy. Yet it helps to remember that I really do get paid to write fiction. So maybe, if I keep trying, one day something will happen and the right person in the publishing industry will see my "personal" work (which is how I distinguish it in my head from my assessment work) and like it.

I'll try to think positive. I'm going to revise my picture book manuscript based on Dr. Tafolla's suggestions and then submit it...to someone who either buys or represents both picture books and MG novels. That's a goal. I'll do it...before the middle of October. There. Now it's in writing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A new look!

I haven't been posting lately because I've been working on my blog and a new homepage! It's easy to remember: www.amybearce.com . Many thanks to my wonderful friend Dawn, over at Dawn by Design for helping me work out a way to have both. :) Dawn, it's just what I was hoping for! Thank you so much!

I'm also celebrating because I completed my first draft of my current work in progress-- my third completed manuscript. I've printed it out and have set it aside for a while so that when I start the revision process, it'll be with more objective eyes.

I've also discovered that while I like having a blog, it takes a lot of time and attention to be a frequent blogger, at least if I want to say anything meaningful. Again, as the last time I began blogging, I'm realizing it takes time that I would otherwise use to work on my current project. With two small kids, time is at a premium and I have to choose the best way to spend it. That's a big reason I asked Dawn to help me create a static homepage. I wanted a place to keep up-to-date information without having to update my blog every other day. I just can't keep up that pace, not right now.

So, I'm happy with this balance. Life's all about balance, isn't it? While I won't be a super-frequent poster, I will continue give updates on my work, my thoughts on writing (I'm currently reading an excellent book on writing-- I'll post on that soon) and will continue to link to other postings that I find valuable. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you like the new look! :)

Monday, July 26, 2010

An excellent article on making a living as a writer

For anyone considering becoming a professional writer, that is, earning all their income from writing, check out the article by John Scalzi, called John Scalzi's Utterly Useless Writing Advice.

The Rejectionist linked to it, and I followed it because I do love The Rejectionist, and I found a plethora of helpful and funny information. Thumbs up. Thought I'd share. Happy reading!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Writing Teacher Who Was...WRONG.

I went to a homeschool conference this Saturday. I'm not homeschooling my first grader this coming year, but I did homeschool this past year and hope to again. My four year old swears she's never going to school, so I thought it would be worthwhile. There were various seminars to choose from throughout the day and the first one was about Classical Writing-- specifically, using the Progymnasmata. Don't know what that is? Don't worry. It doesn't matter.

I used to teach writing to middle school kids and learned about using writing workshops with elementary kids and I was intrigued by her seminar description, "starting early." I won't say reveal her name or what curriculum she sells, because, I don't know, it just seems rude. BUT. As I was listening, she said two specific things that made me decide, "Nope, this woman is just WRONG."

First, she said, "It's getting to where I just can't take my daughter to Barnes and Noble anymore. There are just no good books on the shelf these days."

Her statement practically made the hair rise up on the back of my neck, especially when she added a little smug smile. I wanted to raise my hand and ask if she'd read anything recently from the children's section, from middle grade, from YA... I know she was referring to children's literature, though, because A) we were talking about teaching young children to write and B) she referred to seeing a book series involving a cat whose author apparently studies astrology, which means she must be an Awful Writer, apparently.

After she said that, I started doodling on my page the names of great modern books, in a slightly passive-aggressive manner... The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. Missing May. A Wrinkle in Time. The Outsiders. Ramona the Pest. Percy Jackson. Tuck Everlasting. The Light at Tern Rock. Lots and lots of lots of fabulous children's books, that used to not exist at all. Not moral, preachy lesson-books for kids. Beautiful literature that touches and inspires. Clearly, she doesn't know where to look in the bookstore.

Secondly, she was talking about how this classical approach teaches kids to really THINK about books, to analyze and make proper judgements about them. She scathingly commented about how public schools these days all ask, "How did the book make you feel?" and then said, "It's not about how the book makes you FEEL. It's about what the author was trying to TELL you."

To this, I reply, "BZZZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER!" If you are reading pure non-fiction, okay, sure. You've learned something. But I'm reading fiction, I want an experience. If I'm not moved emotionally, I'm not going to keep reading. We vicariously triumph, suffer and grow along with our favorite characters.

Check out what Randy Ingermanson says on his blog Advanced Fiction Writing about creating a perfect scene:

"Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience." and "If you fail to create these emotions in your reader, then you have failed. If you create these emotions in your reader, then you have succeeded."

So I'm not the only one that thinks it actually IS about how the book makes you feel.

I left that class feeling frustrated that I didn't say something to her, but I knew it wasn't the time or the place. She wasn't going to change her mind. I wasn't going to change my mind. But I was pleased, at least, that I have grown enough as a writer to not believe everything someone tells me about writing wholesale.

In my opinion, she had no idea about how to teach fiction writing. Maybe she will create great essays and arguments, but that's not what she was talking about at the time. Happily, I have the freedom to ignore her advice, since she's clearly coming from a worldview that does not match my own. I can take the one or two things she said that made sense to me and use those, and ignore the rest.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When Publishing Statistics Knock the Breath Out of You (and not in a good way)

This happened to me last night. I was looking through various websites of authors I admire. I was curious about how they set up their websites, how it differed from their blog, etc. Rick Riordan is from my very own town and wrote the very successful Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

I'm enjoying myself, scrolling through various things on the blog, and I see an "Advice for Aspiring Writers" section. Cool, I think. So I click. And he has a post on, "The Odds of Getting Published." I should have known not to read this! I got a bunch of statistics that seriously depressed me. I won't quote them here, in case you are teetering on the brink of despair yourself. In that case, DO NOT click on that link! Seriously.

Now, it's not his fault and I love Rick Riordan. He is only presenting the cold, hard facts about the chances of ever getting published in this world, much less earning any money at it. It's certainly not the first time I've heard facts like this and it's good to remember. In fact, in Take Joy by Jane Yolen, she says we should write what makes US happy, because, "You are-- after all--the very first reader of what you write. Please that reader. You may not have any other." I didn't find that very joyful to consider at the time, but I understand she's trying to get us to think about enjoying the process of writing, not just seeking the end result of being published.

I've read many, many books on writing and few of them suggest that you will be able to give up your day job. Most writers will always need that other income. But still! It's a hard hit to take after you're already feeling guilty about watching Glee instead of writing dutifully! On top of a lousy day, too.

I share this NOT to depress you, too, but to share with you my journey as a writer. This is part of it-- that heavy feeling that I'm kidding myself, that this will never work. I bet lots of writers struggle with it. The question, "Why bother?" has haunted me all day. Some days, everything seems possible. This is not one of those days.

But somehow, even in the face of news like this, I want to keep going. So I will.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Finding Time to Write

I was at a local SCBWI meeting the other day, which was a fabulous meeting. One of the speakers was Kristi Holl, who spoke about organization and finding time for writing. Kristi knows what she's talking about-- she's the author of 35 books! She's also raised four kids while struggling with a chronic pain condition.

According to Kristi, she succeeded in large part by being flexible. She worked her writing into her life as a mom instead of demanding that her young children work around her schedule. This is so much more feasible for me than spending hours in my office writing each day. That just isn't going to happen--I chose to stay home with them to BE with them. But that doesn't mean I can't keep writing! Kristi finished manuscripts while waiting in the stands during the kids' athletic practices. She finished manuscripts while in the waiting room of her daughter's dentist. She made the time to write. Her book, Writer's First Aid, covers many of the practical techniques and tips she used to get so much accomplished while still being present for her kids. She didn't just shut the door and say, "Come back in four hours." She lived everyday life with them and still wrote. What an inspiration! She also gave us an awesome handout with a list of books about time management and organization. You can find a similar list on her blog here.

Thanks, Kristi, for being such an encouragement!

I've not been doing very well with making time for writing, much less being flexible in when and where I write, so this is a good goal for me. I'm going to set a timer for 20-30 minutes each day and write for that period of time, even if it's in between dinner and bathtime for the kids or while I am waiting for them during swim lessons. (Maybe this can be a great excuse to finally buy a laptop so I can take my writing everywhere with me! :) )

If you are struggling with making time to write, perhaps you'd like to set a small goal to help you write more often. I'd also love to hear what works for you, if making time to write each day is not an area you struggle with!

Monday, July 19, 2010

How NOT to be a Helpful Critique Partner

Yesterday after I posted about being a critique partner, I was reading a blog called The Undeveloped Story, by Melissa, a fellow writer on the journey. She has a recent post that illustrates perfectly what a BAD critic can be like. I think anyone who plans on critiquing could really benefit from seeing how it feels to receive such an unhelpful critique-- thanks, Melissa, for sharing.

I thought it went perfectly with yesterday's topic and asked her permission to link to her blogpost.

Critic Boy Strikes Again

Check it out and enjoy the rest of her blog while you are there!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Being a Helpful Critique Partner

I've been a part of two critique groups and am currently a critique buddy of Fabulous Writer Friend. I taught writing in the elementary and middle school grades and worked with hundreds of stories and essays by my students. I write for assessment companies and sometimes they'll send the stories back for revision with comments. I've had helpful comments and some very not helpful comments. I've learned a lot about how to help others from the help others have-- and haven't-- given me as a writer.

How do you give helpful feedback? I think the key is to find the purpose and balance.

1. Purpose-- What stage is your writing partner at? If he/she is drafting, this is not the time to red-line through the whole thing. You need to watch out for things like credible character development, plot construction, point of view and voice. Big things. If they are polishing a final draft, you'll need to keep an eye out for more detailed kinds of things-- are they repeating a sentence structure too often? Are their verbs as precise as they can be? But it doesn't do much good to nit-pick on punctuation if their draft has a huge hole in the plot that you overlook in your fervor to catch every pronoun without a clear antecedent. The best way to know this is to ask them. "What kind of feedback are you looking for?" If they've been writing for very long, they can tell you.

2. Balance-- Any writer needs both encouragement and constructive criticism. Note the word "constructive." Here are some non-constructive criticisms-- real life-- I've received from people I've worked with as a freelance writer.


"This doesn't work."
"Clever title-- needs to be changed."
"This simile falls flat."

Boy, laying all that out there is sort of painful. Luckily, though, I more often receive nice comments (and I keep selling my work, which is the best compliment) and sometimes helpful comments such as, "This dialogue reads too old for the protagonist, probably because of this vocabulary word here. You might consider changing it." Or "This stanza feels like it's repeating the same theme of the previous without adding anything new. The word length is quite long for a poem for this age group, so you could cut this stanza without losing any impact." And she was RIGHT.

Whenever I get constructive criticism, it may sting for a moment, but there's this lovely "AH-HAH! That's IT!" feeling. A writer can recognize the truth in a statement that helps her writing and be grateful to receive it. Insulting feedback only hurts and makes writers feel defensive and want to quit. If you have a partner who is doing that to you, find someone else to critique your work. And if you are critiquing, remember it's really easy to hurt someone when you are leaving remarks on their document. Remember they can't hear your tone or see your smile to soften what you say. Be gentle, even if you have to tell them there's a major problem. Treat others as you would like to be treated.

What I've found to be a helpful tool is to use the Comment tool as I read. Anything that stands out to me as a reader, good or bad, I leave a comment on. I don't usually make suggestions about how to improve problem areas unless it's really clear-- I just note that something confused me. I do not want to tell a writer how to write their story. That is vanity. I've had a few people rewrite so much of a page that it doesn't sound like me anymore. It sounds like them. That wasn't helpful. But I've also had people just be a cheerleader through my work. It feels GREAT. "Awesome line!" "I love this!" Who wouldn't want to read that? But if that's ALL you get, your work isn't going to improve.

And the goal, is, of course, to improve. Even if a writer never gets published, to improve one's craft as a writer is always a worthy goal to pursue.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's...ALIVE?

So, it's been over a year since my last posting. I had no idea. I really did stop writing for a long time, at least my own personal writing. I continued writing passages for assessment companies, as that pays the bills, and that writing took about all the creative juice I had left in me.

Then a friend I will call Fabulous Writer Friend asked me to be her critique buddy and read her current work-in-progress. Reading and commenting on her work stirred up all that exciting stuff about writing...the way words flow together, that magic of creating your own world, watching your characters do things you didn't expect...and I began to think about my own work. I pulled out my old manuscripts. Then I got a notice about an upcoming writing conference held by our local chapter of SCBWI. Critiques were available for members, of which I am one. It gave me the motivation to get involved again. It's not that I've done ZERO writing of my own. I actually did write a picture book manuscript and sent it off to about five agents and got rejected five times and then quit for a long time. And the last time I went to a conference, they suggested the middle of my fantasy MG novel needed a new twist, so I tried to add one and it totally didn't work. I began another MG manuscript, this one contemporary with some poetry in there. I liked it, but it's probably too...blah. No good hook for it. So I put it away, too. Then I decided that I would probably never be successful and I should just use my time on other projects. I watched True Blood and Dexter and LOST and admired their story-telling abilities. I read numerous books. I tried to catch up on my sleep.

The problem? I MISSED WRITING. Not so much the actual butt-in-chair of writing. It's fun once it gets going, but getting started can feel like pulling fingernails out with pliers, one at a time. But reading books on writing? Oh, how I love it. So Fabulous Writing Friend said, "Hey, I'm reading this book called Fire in the Fiction. How about you get it and we can discuss a chapter at a time?" Awesome! So while I was ordering that, I happened across another cool website that recommended another cool book (which I will post later) and I ordered that. And then that website had another book on it that I liked the looks of, so I ordered that. And so now I have three books on writing, well, four, really, and I'll tell you more about them as I get to them. I've also been enjoying reading a lot, even rereading mindless brain-candy type of writing because...well, I enjoy it. But I think I may be ready to jump in again to the world of writing my own stuff. It always calls me back. I'm pretty short-term when it comes to most projects. I am easily distracted and get bored fast. But writing is so complex that it always fascinates. That's just one of it's many lures! So, in that spirit, I will be reviving this blog. Hope you will join me. :)