Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Writing lessons learned from WHERE IT BEGAN

"Where it Began," by Ann Redisch Stampler is a cool, cleverly written book. Stampler can turn a phrase and make fun comparisons like no other author I've read. Here's the blurb from Amazon:

Gabby Gardiner wakes up in a hospital bed looking like a cautionary ad for drunk driving--and without a single memory of the accident that landed her there. But what she can recall, in frank and sardonic detail, is the year leading up to the crash.

As Gabby describes her transformation from Invisible Girl to Trendy Girl Who Dates Billy Nash (aka Most Desirable Boy Ever), she is left wondering: Why is Billy suddenly distancing himself from her? What do her classmates know that Gabby does not? Who exactly was in the car that night? And why has Gabby been left to take the fall?

As she peels back the layers of her life, Gabby begins to realize that her climb up the status ladder has been as intoxicating as it has been morally complex...and that nothing about her life is what she has imaged it to be.

There were several writing lessons to choose from, but here are my faves:

  • Open with a slew of unanswered questions: Gabby, the main character, has been in an accident. She's in the hospital. She remembers Billy Nash, and something about a crashed Beemer, but not much else. I was interested in figuring it all out with her.
  • Organize flashbacks using clever tags: this story required several flashbacks, but they were entertaining and important. And the author let us know we were entering a flashback by writing tags like "Look:" Gabby entered some flashbacks by saying "Gabriella Gardiner Presents Scenes from Teen Life in the Three B's." 
  • Sneak in another layer: Gabby's accident happens after a night of drinking, and I figured she drank with the cool kids for fun. But her father also drank too much. As the story unfolded, I realized Gabby's drinking might be more than just a result of peer pressure. This connection to her father's drinking was a subtle but effective layer.
  • Hold secrets about The Main Event: the party night, when the accident occurred, is a mystery to Gabby. I knew big things happened during that time, and these missing details kept the story interesting. The author did a great job of dripping in answers without divulging too much too soon.
  • Clueless character: because of her injuries, Gabby is clueless about many story details. Throughout the book, I kept thinking Gabby was the only person not in on something. Others knew more than her, and that upped the tension. The author did a great job of allowing the reader to learn what Gabby learns when she learns it.
  • Friends with tools: one of Gabby's friends is a photographer, and this character detail is established early. His hobby of taking photos of unsuspecting people is what helps Gabby piece it all together.
Have you read "Where it Began?" If so, what was your impression? And what are your thoughts about these writing lessons? Have you seen them in other books, or have you used them before?

One more thing...I goest posted over at PW Creighton's blog, chatting about how research shapes our fiction. Come on by and say hi!

photo credit

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Seize the Mommy Moment

One super busy summer day, I had two hours to work on my manuscript. Two. Whole. Hours. I set up my novel Bible, opened my laptop, and cracked my knuckles. This was the moment when I'd transcribe my chicken scratch notes to my document.

But then...twelve-year-old son tapped me on the shoulder. "Mom, wanna play Mexican Train with me?"

My sons know how seriously I take writing. They tease me about it all the time. And I knew at that moment all I had to say was, "Not now. Maybe later." He would've asked one of his brothers, or he would've found something else to do. I came *this close* to brushing him off.

In that moment, the golden scales of Parenthood teetered in my brain. Which loss would be worse? Not working on my manuscript, or not seizing a moment with my son? We all know the answer.

I closed my laptop, cleared the kitchen table, and played Mexican Train for the next hour. And guess what? My manuscript was still there, waiting for me. The writing world did not come to a complete stop because I played a game with my son.

Writing is important. Super important. But so is parenting--no other responsibility carries more weight. So I'll stop and play Mexican Train whenever my son wants me to. The special people in our lives deserve to know how important they are.

How do you balance relationships with writing? Do you ever feel guilty for paying more attention to one over the other? How do you juggle it all?

If you have a few minutes, take a moment and watch "Don't Blink" by Kenny Chesney. I dare you not to cry.

photo credit

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tweak the opening or re-write it?

Something's off with my opening. My critique partners gave me great notes, and I've revised and revised and revised, but still, something isn't quite right. I'm having a devil of a time figuring it out.

My main question to myself is this: should I scrap the whole opening, or tweak what I've already written?

Before I got Delete Happy, I decided to crack open the awesome craft books in my library and remind myself what an opening should include and what it should accomplish. With that information, I can then figure out if my opening is worthy of living another day.

I'll repeat some advice from my three favorite books. If you don't own these books, I highly recommend them.

In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell reminds us of three important points about beginnings:
  1. "The first task of your beginning is to hook the reader."
  2. "Use great opening lines, action, teasers, attitude, story frames, or prologues (really?) to grab the reader." 
  3. "Watch out for dull exposition at the beginning. Act first, explain later. (love that piece of advice)
In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell suggests we ask ourselves these key questions about the opening:
  • "Do I open with some part of the story engine running? Or am I spending too much time warming up?"
  • "How do my opening pages conform to Hitchcock's axiom ('A good story is life with the dull parts taken out')
  • "What is the story world I'm trying to present? What mood descriptions bring that story world to life for the reader?"
  • "What is the tone of my novel going to be? Are the descriptions consistent with that mood?"
  • "What happens in Act I that's going to compel the reader to keep reading? What danger to the Lead?"
  • "Who is the opposition to the Lead? Is he as strong, or preferably stronger, than the Lead? How do I show this?"
  • "Is there enough conflict in the setup to run through the whole book?"
Most of us have read Hooked, by Les Edgerton, which is packed with great advice about openings. In Chapter 5, under "Putting it all together in your own work," he suggests we figure out our protagonist's story-worthy problem, write a compelling scene that will reveal the surface problem and story-worthy problem, and set up the main character's goal.

No pressure, right?

Published author and blogger extraordinaire Janice Hardy helps us with openings in these great posts:

Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart
In the Beginning: Which Type of Opening Works Best?

There's no shortage of advice on how to create great openings. For instance, when I plugged in "openings" in the Writer's Knowledge Base, a long list of helpful posts popped up. Same thing when I plugged in "beginnings."

The tricky part for me is applying all this information to my existing work in progress. After reading through these reminders, my plan is to marinate on this information for a few days, and then decide what does or doesn't make the cut with my opening.

To tweak or re-write the opening? I still don't have a clue. But at least I have the tools to help me sort it all out.

How about you? Do you struggle with whether to tweak what you've got or ditch the whole opening and start over? How do you decide what stays and what ends up on the cutting room floor? If you've got some helpful advice, I'm all ears!

photo credit

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Passion + Sacrifice = Reward

My family loves water skiing, but last summer our sad little boat had to be towed off the water. My super mechanical hubby fixed it this summer, and we were ready to spend a week at the lake cutting the wake and baking in the sun.

But wait.

Fifteen-year-old-football-playing-uber-dedicated-son said, "Mom, I really want to wakeboard, but I can't spend a week at the lake." *gasp* "I'd miss football practice, and I don't want any of those guys getting better than me."

Um, ok. I tried reminding him that hey, it's "only" high school football, and it's "only" a few missed practices (I know, I know, that's terrible). But no. He's passionate about football, and he's willing to sacrifice a week of wake-boarding for the reward of a starting position on the gridiron.

Just when you think you know it all, a 15-year-old football playing sophomore teaches you a thing or two. I had to take a step back and truly admire his fierce commitment to the game and to his team. It reminded me that if we're dedicated, focused, and passionate about what we love, we'll also reap rewards.


My son not only goes to each practice, but he practices after practice. He shows up early and runs. His asks my hubby to throw the ball for him because he knows "stone hands" is one of his weaknesses.

Just like if we're writing, or thinking about writing, or plotting in our head while we're driving, or setting aside the bank statement to scribble notes about character, we're passionate about what we're doing.


In the Big Thing called Life, giving up lake time isn't such a big deal. But for a 15-year-old, it's huge. Same with missing social events because of practice.

As writers, if we're spending every spare moment writing, if we're sacrificing brain cells, or sanity, or family time, or friend time, or *gasp* TV time, we want that sacrifice to pay off. And it will. 


Before last year, my son had never played football. Ever. By the time the season began, he started every game. The coaches played him on offense and defense. His determination and winning attitude made him valuable.

Some writers receive a quick burst of reward. For others it's slow and steady. Each of our writing milestones, no matter how small, are rewards and worth celebrating. The positive comment on a critique, the acceptance by an online ezine, the requests for fulls and partials, and good golly, representation by an agent or acceptance by an editor, or self-pubbing and having loyal and engaged readers. These are all rewards which make the passion and sacrifice SO worth it.

I'm thankful my son has taught me yet another lesson: Give it all you've got, be willing to sacrifice, and reward will follow.

If you have kids, are they super passionate about something? Does their passion sometimes get in the way of what you want to do? And do you celebrate each writing milestone, knowing your passion and sacrifice paid off? 

Friday, August 17, 2012


The two winners of C. Lee McKenzie's book, Alligators Overhead are Karen Gowen & Loree Huebner! Congratulations, ladies. I'll forward your email addresses to C. Lee. Thanks so much for stopping by and supporting her book release.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Interview With Author C. Lee McKenzie

Today, the lovely C. Lee McKenzie is here to answer a few questions about her writing experience, and to fill us in on her latest book publication, Alligators Overhead.

A hundred years ago the Hadley mansion vanished. Now it's back, and Pete Riley, the town rascal, is in trouble! When his aunt disappears and the Ornofree alligators threaten war, it's up to Pete to save his aunt and stop that war. But how? (Check out the fun trailer at the bottom of this post)

And now, heeeeere's Lee!

1. Lee, from idea to final product, how did Alligators Overhead come to be?

I've been carrying around this title in my head for years. All I needed was a story to go with it, and lucky for me one sought me out. I've been meaning to write something with "magick" and a touch of spookiness that would appeal to kids. So when Pete Riley popped into my awareness along with his sidekick, Weasel, I was ecstatic. All I needed to do was figure out how to fly a few alligators and make readers suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the idea. So with this book I kind of worked backwards. Title first. Characters second. Plot last.

2. Can you give us a brief summary of your writing process? Plotter? Pantser? Somewhere in between?

Mostly I'm an in between, I guess. I start with an idea that's about as solid as Jello before it goes into the fridge, and then I work on creating a single sentence (or two) that gives me a "Through Line." That way I have a guide while I'm writing. I put that sentence in the header and adjust the story or the sentence(s) as needed. Sometimes I write the end first, then work my way to it. Other times I write scenes that I want in the book and connect them up. It's always a surprising process and it's never the same for any book.

3. You independently published Alligators Overhead through Outskirts Press. Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

I've been traditionally published by a small press two times. It was less work, I can tell you, than doing it all by yourself. Of course, Alligators Overhead is my first experience with Indie Publishing, so maybe next time will be easier. I hope so. I like the control I have as an Independent, and I'm scared to death I'm making all kinds of mistakes, so you can see where I am most of the time: elated with success, then miserable with self-doubt.

4. Can you offer us any advice about book promotion? What's working for you and what isn't?

So far I'm totally impressed and quite possibly in love with Mark Coker at Smashwords. I like his approach to do-it-yourself publishing and his Style Guide was a great help. I'm published there as well as on Amazon and B & N, but I have't passed the second phase for Premium Status yet. I'm hoping it won't be long or that I won't have a lot more code issues to resolve.

I like Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads, so I focus on those. Of course, I'm a Moderator at YAlitchat and that group is very supportive of their writers, so I use that as well. The bloggers are wonderful and I think they are excellent at spreading the word about new books. Besides so many have become online friends, so I feel very comfortable "talking" to them about my books. 

I stopped thinking about printing and giving away bookmarks. I know a lot of people prefer paper books, but so many are turning to eBooks that I didn't see the point in spending money on anything involving printing and mailing. Besides, I think my sales will be mostly digital anyway.

5. Is there any writing or publishing advice you'd like to share with us?

Take vitamins and try to get good sleep. This is not a job for those without energy. If you're depressed, take a walk or stand on your head. Those two things seem to help me through slumps. You aren't alone and that's a good thing as well as a bad one. You have all kinds of support out there if you ask, but you have all kinds of competition, too. Be prepared for a long haul and, above all, keep your sense of humor.

Excellent advice, right? Big thanks to C. Lee McKenzie for stopping by and sharing her wisdom with us. She's kindly giving away to copies of Alligators Overhead. Simply leave a comment, and we'll draw two winners at random.

Tell us...how does your writing process compare to Lee's? Have you ever had the title first, characters second, and plot last?

Alligators Overhead is available at...

Barns & Noble

Visit C. Lee McKenzie at...

And her website

C. Lee is a writer who captures the pulse of adolescent confusion in her Young Adult fiction, Sliding on the Edge and The Princess of Las Pulgas. She admits to revealing a lot of her Old Adult confusion while doing that. Alligators Overhead is her first Middle Grade novel. She lives in California with her husband and assorted animals at the edge of a redwood forest.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Shy Writers & Approachable Agents

(Karen Grencik on the left, me on the right)

As most kid lit authors know, last weekend was SCBWI's annual summer conference in Los Angeles. I wasn't registered, but my agent, the lovely Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, was there. She hosted a gathering in her room on Saturday night for Red Fox clients and other kid lit folks. Since I live only 45 minutes away, I drove down to meet her. We've talked on the phone and through emails, but I've never met her in person.

Enter Freak Out Mode. I was totally nervous. Not so much about meeting Karen, because anyone who's met her knows how approachable, kind, warm, and generous she is. I'm never afraid to email her or ask a stupid question. No, I was nervous about the little party.

When my family and close friends read this, they'll spit out their coffee in laughter. Once you know me well, you can't shut me up. Just ask my husband. But put me in a social situation where I don't know a soul, and I'm like matchy matchy curtains that blend into walls. Those awkward teens I write about? I can totally relate to them. (btw, I avoided parties in high school, too)

I managed to speak to some wonderful people, and enjoyed my time with Karen. But I'll share a secret with you: when I left the hotel, I was relieved. Big crowds, strangers, talking on cue--all of that leaves me shaking in my flip flops. Everyone says this conference is wonderful, but to me, it's overwhelming and scary. Maybe someday I'll conquer this pesky fear.

But you know what? Reclusive writers aren't the only people who get butterflies. Remember my amazing agent? She wrote this great post: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED--A Dog-Loving Introverted Homebody Scales Mt. McKinley! Her title alone summed up my own fears. Agents are human. They have their own hopes and dreams. And yes, they get nervous, too.

Thankfully there have been plenty of reclusive writers who've managed to do just fine. And these days, writers have the benefits of social media. We meet behind a screen, where we don't have to fake-smile and say something witty on the fly. We aren't having conversations where one of us looks bored and makes excuses to talk to someone else. These are real social fears, and for me, these fears are erased with blogging, tweeting, and connecting on Facebook.

Do I wish I could walk into a room and command an audience? Sure! Will that ever happen? Um, probably not. But it helps to know I'm not alone in this. Approachable agents--and I'm sure editors and multi-published authors, too--sometimes experience the same fears we feel. I find comfort in that.

Tell me, are you the type who breezes into a social situation and feels no fear? Are you witty in person and on the page? (If so, I'm green with envy) Are you like me, and freak out at the mere thought of standing in a room full of strangers? How do you cope? 

Were you there last weekend, and one of the people I was terrified of? Do tell!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Audition Your Cast of Characters

Pride and Prejudice photo, from Amazon.com
(any excuse to post a picture of Mr. Darcy)

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress, is loaded with great advice about...well, characters, emotion, & viewpoint! One of the cool tips is to assemble the players we've thought of for the next book, and then make them work for their roles.

I learned the main character can't just waltz into a novel, assuming she's the best person to tell the story. What if her older sister captures more passion? (Jane's story instead of Elizabeth's? No!) What about the love interest? Would he be the best person to ignite the author's creativity? (Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy's point of view...deliciously different)

Kress's solution to the "whose line is it anyway" dilemma? Audition these players, and see whose viewpoint would provide the best story. She suggests we ask the following questions when choosing our star:

  • "Am I genuinely interested in this character?"-- If we're constantly thinking about this person, inventing backstory, dialog, and character traits, there's a good chance this person would work well as the lead.
  • "Is this character or situation fresh and interesting in some new way?" -- This is where we can add a twist to a structured mystery, or choose the unlikely hero of our story. If my idea surprises me, I'm hopeful it'll surprise readers.
  • "Can I maintain enough objectivity about this character, combined with enough identification, to practice the triple mind-set--becoming author, character, and reader as I write?" -- This was another great lesson I learned from Kress's book, and I blogged about it here.
  • "Do I want this character to be a stayer or a changer?" -- Kress points out that some of our favorite characters have "stayed," such as James Bond, meaning his basic character is unchanged throughout the story. Other favorite characters have "changed," and by the end of the story, they were completely different people (Mr. Darcy!). If we want our main character to be a "changer," which person in our cast has the greatest capacity for change?
This advice is great for me, because I normally think of plot first, and then character. This taught me to choose my main character wisely, because he or she will determine which story will be told. My next book is formulating in my head now, and the characters best be ready for a casting call.

How about you? How do you choose who will play your main character, and who will play supporting roles? Do you create plot first, or character?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Muse At Play

This summer I've gotten very little actual writing done, but that doesn't mean my mind isn't furiously working. My current wip is still taking shape, and I'm also forming my next book.

You'd think my muse would be stifled, lazy, and indifferent. But no. She's been wild, carefree, and very active. She hasn't abandoned me, despite my neglect. When I least expect it, she shows up...laughing, crying, and chasing the sunset. She consistently taps me on the shoulder, saying, "This can happen. No! THIS can happen. And then this, and then..."

Our muses visit us differently, but mine is most active when I'm:

  • Walking: whether it's in the mountains behind my home, or at the local park, this is when my muse comes out to play. I usually shuffle Taylor Swift songs on my iPhone, and submerge myself in love, heartbreak, angst, and happy endings. The phone then becomes a note-taking device.
  • Cleaning house: I really hate cleaning my house, but it's a job that must be done. While I'm working through mindless tasks, story kinks have a way of working themselves out. I take notes on story fixes, and then move on to the next bathroom :/
  • Watching movies: my muse loves watching movies, no doubt about it. Maybe it's because I'm relaxed and open, or maybe it's because I'm watching how the pros do it. Either way, I usually end up with a slip of notebook paper beside me while I'm watching a good flick.
  • Reading: reading sends my muse into a creative frenzy. While I'm reading someone else's work, I undoubtedly have ideas for my own work. Not the same ideas as the author, but still, ideas come to me when I reading. I've resigned myself to using blank sheets of notebook paper as my bookmark, because I know I'll be taking notes. (One piece of paper for my current wip, and another for my next book,which is percolating now)
The trick for me is to be ready and open to capture ideas. Like most writers, I have paper and pencil ready at all times, and I capture these thoughts. I stack them by project so they're ready for me to weave into both books.

How about you? When does your muse come out to play? How do you capture those ideas?