Thursday, January 28, 2010

80th anniversary of Nancy Drew Celebrated on NBC Friday

The penultimate Nancy Drew sleuth, enthusiast, collector, and historian Jennifer Fisher will be on the Today Show tomorrow on NBC with Al Roker.
In honor of the 80th anniversary of Nancy Drew, the Today Show via Al's Book Club for Kids, will be doing a book club segment on the first Nancy Drew book (The Secret of the Old Clock) and the first Hardy Boys book (The Tower Treasure). So tune in if you have a chance. Jennifer will, no doubt, be talking about the legions of children over many generations who were influenced by the independent girl detective. Nancy Drew books have a rich history that reflects the eras in which the various editions were created.
I loved Nancy Drew books as a child and the main characters of Dead Frog on the Porch are inspired by her and learned much about sleuthing from reading Nancy Drew books.
Indeed, my debut novel has been called "Nancy Drew for the ipod generation" by Shenaaz Nanji Governor General Award Finalist 2008. So if you loved Nancy Drew books as a child, chances are your children or grandchildren will love Dead Frog on the Porch.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Empire Biscuits, Robbie Burns Day, and New York

What do Empire Biscuits, Robbie Burns Day, and New York have in common - well, nothing!
That's a pic of some awesome Empire Biscuits that my friend Emily made for her Robbie Burns Day party on the weekend. I had haggis, scotch eggs (which someone has informed me isn't Scottish - who knew?!) and a lovely Empire Biscuit. My favourite characters on Coronation Street would be dead chuffed to have had one!
I'm going to New York this weekend to attend the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) winter conference! I look forward to learning as much as I can from the awesome line up of writers, editors and agents, and networking my asterisk off. I'm pumped about meeting lots of fellow SCBWIers.
I'm also planning on hanging with my niece and nephew. My niece Kate McConaghy is an actor in New York and we plan to check out some experimental theatre or art. I'm excited about seeing my writer friend Jocosa of the Earrings again. Jocossa took a solemn oath not to cut her hair until she is published. So we'll see how closely she is resembling the Sasquatch these days.
Now I'm getting really excited.
I think I need some music to set the mood. If you've read the post about Simon Cowell you know that this song is on a mixed cassette tape I have from the 80s - the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

“My wings are like a shield of steel ….” Batfink, buts, and the inner excusinator

“Your bullets can not harm me, my wings are like a shield of steel.”

The immortal words of Batfink – cartoon superhero circa late 60s who spent his time saving the world from countless evil villians. It was a spoof on Batman. I loved this cartoon as a child, and as an adult I can’t find any of my peers who remember it. So much so, that I was beginning to think it didn’t exist – until I Googled it of course (nothing exists if it isn’t on Google ;-j). Turns out that he got his powers from being born in an abandoned plutonium mine and that he'd lost his natural wings as a child while saving his mother's life after escaped convicts blew up their mountaintop cave – don’t ya hate when that happens?

I was reminded of my super hero and his motto when I read the guest post on Nathan Bransford’s blog yesterday. If you are a writer and haven’t heard of Nathan Bransford then say Hi! to the Sasquatch as you leave your cave, because clearly you are living with the elusive mythical beast in a remote mountain cave and eschewing all human contact.

Nathan is one of my favourite agent bloggers. He has nearly 3000 followers and offers a wealth of information about the publishing industry (no matter what genre you write) and he’s funny.

The guest blog post Is your 'But' too big? was written by Jon Gibbs. It is about writers who have a whole string of ‘buts’ (excuses as to why they aren’t writing) and who suffer from excusitis (I think we all do from time to time).

I prefer to think of it as the inner excusinator and when it pops up you need to bludgeon it the same way Batfink’s sidekick Karate would dispatch with criminals.

If you’re inner excusinator is acting up and you feel your ‘buts’ are getting too big, just remember the other immortal words of Batfink: “My supersonic sonar radar can help me.”

And get back to writng … and do your homework about the publishing industry and learn what agents are looking for by reading Nathan’s blog.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What I learned about voice from Simon Cowell

I’ll admit it. In the cold dark days of January I’ve been know to drag my frostbitten butt home from work, put on my sweat pants, inhale a Mars bar for dinner followed by a chaser of lemon pie filling (not the pie, just the filling), listen to the north wind howling and pray to all the pray guys for a Chinook.

It’s times like this when I lay on the couch covered in a slanket (or snuggie – take your pick) and watch American Idol. Being a writer, I am racked with guilt about actually relaxing and not writing. To salve my guilty writer’s conscious I had to figure out what I was learning from this. I learned a lot about discovering your authentic voice from Simon Cowell.

I don’t know much about singing. Even though my ipod has 642 songs on it, I tend to listen to the same thing over and over. I still have a mixed cassette tape from the 80s of Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park. And I just found out that Amy Winehouse actually does not want to go to rehab – who knew? So when there was someone who I thought was good, inevitably Simon said something like: “you’re imitating, it’s like Karaoke, you have a good voice, you just have to find your own voice.”

What is voice for a writer? Editors and agents say they are looking for writing with a strong voice. But strong voice is like the Sasquatch Man, you hear a lot about it, everyone is looking for it, and when you find it, you’ll know. Narrative voice is the style, tone, pacing, and perspective of the piece. The essence of your characters, all they have experienced and hope to experience, comes through their voices. Voice is what sucks you in from the first line and holds you until the last. It’s what makes your writing unique. The point of view character in my novel Dead Frog on the Porch has a strong voice. That was one thing I heard over and over on my journey to publication. As a writer you need to discover your own voice, and the voices of your characters.

How do you discover your own voice? Develop your voice through writing what feels authentic to you. Strip away the fear that others will read, and read into, your work. Find the voices of your characters and run with them. The more you write, the more the unique voices of your characters will emerge.

Hey, stop hogging the slanket, I'm trying to watch TV here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I never met a comma I didn’t splice …

This is the third in a series of profiles of the members of my writers’ group, the Kensington Writers’ Group (KWG).

I have a fickle relationship with grammar. I’ve been know to storm up and down the hallways at work accusing my bosses of forcing me to defy commonly held rules of grammar. Other times I play fast and loose with punctuation and like to throw a colon in the middle of a sentence: because I feel like it (that was fun). I’ve been known not to use the em dash just because I don’t like how it looks. I’ve also been known to obsess over the en vs. em dash debate – don’t get me started (hmmm maybe that should have been an em dash, but they’re ugly).

I love what Ernessa T. Carter, author of the soon to be released novel 32 Candles and blogger at Fierce and Nerdy says about editing: “I’ve got a crack-cocaine like passion for commas, ellipses and dashes that must be rehabbed by others, and no matter how much I re-read, I can’t ever seem to catch every writing error….”

The one thing I’m consistent with is my comma splices. Hi, my name is Jan and I splice commas (admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery). If there is a comma within a two-kilometer radius I will find a way to splice it. I’ve never met a comma I didn’t splice (I think you get where I’m going with this!)

Now, if you’re stretching to reach for your Stunk and White on the bookshelf let me save you getting out of your computer chair. Here’s what Grammar Girl says about comma splices.

Luckily for me I have Susan Forest in my writers group. Awesome science fiction, fantasy and horror writer by evening, she’s a school principal by day. And she doesn’t let me get away with my comma splices. Apparently, being sick that day in grade five when they covered comma splices isn’t an excuse. Saying ‘ hey, it’s my style’ doesn’t cut gravy with her either.

She also gives great feedback on substantive issues like character, plot, and tension.

Susan’s debut young adult fantasy, The Dragon Prince, was published in 1990, and won the Children's Book Choice Award in that year. She has published a number of short stories in Canada and the United States. Her works have appeared in OnSPEC Magazine (2005, upcoming), Tesseracts Ten (2006), Tesseracts Eleven (2007), In Places Between Anthology (2005), Asimov's Science Fiction (2006, 2007) and Analog Science Fiction and Fact (2008). A nonfiction piece she wrote appeared in the fall 2009 issue of Legacy Magazine.

Susan’s has studied writing with a wide range of luminaries, including Canadian sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer. Susan knows everyone and is very dedicated to developing her craft. Every time I go to a reading I meet someone who knows Susan. The conversation goes something like this:

“How do you know her?” I ask.

“She’s in my writers’ group,” said person invariably answers.

“No, she’s not,” I argue, “she’s in my writers’ group.”

“Yes, she really is in my writers’ group.”

“No, she’s in my writers’ group.”

And so it goes until one of us gets thirsty and heads for the bar or water fountain.

In fact, Susan belongs to three active writers' groups, and is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Susan has appeared as a panelist at the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Conventions in Denver (2008), and Montreal (2009), and at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary (2008). She has also twice judged the Robin Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest (2007, 2009). Her short story, "Back" (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, June, 2008) was a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award. You can check out Susan's website and blog.

Susan's daughter, Heather Osborne, is following in her mother's key strokes and is taking a Masters Degree in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. She has a cool blog.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Slang goes in and out of fashion faster than pink shirts on boys

This is an actual line of feedback I received from my group of young readers while we were discussing my Dead Bird through the Cat Door manuscript – the second in the Megabyte Mystery series due out this fall. We all agreed that it’s not a good idea to use slang in a book because it goes in and out of style so quickly.

They pointed out words that were lame or words that kids wouldn’t use. One of my young readers went through and circled every word and phrase that she felt was lame. Which was very helpful. She said the word lame so many times that, at one point, I asked her if it was lame to use the word lame ;-j

When I asked what words or phrases to use instead, they came up with one word: ‘cool.’ Illustrating how slang goes in and out of fashion faster than pink shirts on boys. Cool isn’t a new word, in fact it’s an old word – dating back to the cool-as-a-cucumber eighteenth century – but apparently it’s withstood the test of time.

Be careful using jargon and slang, by the time your book is published it’s likely to be lame, old school, or out of fashion – just like pink shirts on boys (or still in fashion).

Here’s a picture of one of the main culprits Aviary Finch depicted by my nephew Logan. Aviary Finch is human, but has bird like characteristics. He’s the director of the bird sanctuary and is trying to get rid of the birds. Hmmmm … curious? I think so …

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sushi, Sour Jujubes, and the Sasquatch: Why Writers Need Deadlines

Good (productive) writing day:

Get up early and eat a bowl of steel cut oats with fresh strawberries and organic milk.

Go to an hour and fifteen minute aerobics class - get your sweat on.

Have a quick healthy lunch and a cup of tea when you return home.

Write for three hours.

Read your e-mail and peruse your ‘bookmarked’ agent and editor sites to keep up-to-date on the latest in the publishing industry.

Read a great work of literature for an hour (or a book in the genre in which you are writing) followed by a chapter of Donald Maass’ book Writing the Break out Novel.

Continue thinking about your characters as you prepare some fresh salmon with brown rice for dinner. You add the fresh spinach that your neighbour gave you from her garden and reminisce about the nice chat you had with her. You smile knowing that you’re not one of those writers who eschews human contact.

Go to bed early.

Next day: repeat

Bad (non-productive) writing day:

Turn off the clock radio one minute before it comes on because you’ve convinced yourself that you need more sleep and are too tired for aerobics.

Eat a bowl of steel cut oats with fresh strawberries and organic milk; add a good sized dollop of maple syrup.

You’ve watched the Oprah episode on visioning your dreams. So, you check your e-mail and curse when the four e-mails you have envisioned from editors and/or agents aren’t there.

Curse wasting an hour watching the Oprah episode on visioning your dreams.

Delete all the ‘fwd’ e-mails sent from your middle-aged friends pertaining to fart jokes, jokes about various parts of the male anatomy, or inspirational messages.

Get up to check the mail box because you thought you heard the mail carrier and you should at least have a couple of rejection letters, if not a request for your manuscript, or a contract that someone miraculously mailed to you.

Surf, in detail, the agent and editor blogs you have ‘bookmarked’ to remind yourself of how high a percentage of queries get rejected (90%), and bemoan the fact that they just can’t see your genius.

Click on a You Tube video on one of the blogs to see a hilarious re-enactment of the writer/editor relationship.

Promptly e-mail it to all your writer friends with the note: ‘how true ;-).’

Realize that you’re wasting time and decide you need a snack before you can start writing.

Eat a colossal chocolate brownie and re-fill your mug with tea that is now the colour of coffee because it has been sitting in the pot for two hours.

Realize that you aren’t drinking from your lucky tea-writing-mug and go back to the kitchen to rectify that. By now the tea is stone cold. Spend two minutes watching the mug rotate like a figure skater in the microwave.

Convince yourself that randomly searching You Tube for silly cat videos is ‘marketing research.’

Have a lunch consisting of nothing more than sushi and sour jujubes.

Do a ‘google’ search on ‘massive sugar headache’ looking for a cure.

Was that the sound of the mailbox being closed? Check mail box again; it can’t seriously be empty- not with all the queries you have out there circulating.

Convince yourself that the mail carrier is holding your mail ransom and that he’s had it in for you since you didn’t shovel your walk that one time last winter.

Check again for the e-mails you’ve envisioned and delete the multiple e-mails, from your writer friends, that suggest you are spending waaaay tooooo much time surfing You Tube.

Curse off your writer friends and send that funny video to your regular friends, it will help them understand how frustrating it is to be a writer.

Finally, open the manuscript you are working on, and realize that what you really need is a nap because you can’t concentrate today.

Wake up from your three-hour nap to discover that there are no brownies left and the bag of chocolate covered jujubes is empty.

Put on a ball cap because you have bed-head. Pull on a sweatshirt, even though it is really hot out, because you’ve gone a bit Sasquatch since buckling down with your writing and you can’t remember when you’ve bathed last.

Pull the ball cap lower and avoid meeting the glance of the neighbour who told all the other neighbours that you’re a recluse – what’s her problem?

Go to the grocery store and buy ginger chicken, sour jujubes, sparkling water, and brownies. Forget to buy vegetables. Note to self: steal raspberries over the fence from your neighbour.

Go to video store and rent three movies that everyone else has seen but you never saw because you spend your life writing. Call it ‘plot research’ and watch all three.

Begin to wonder if you are like a character on Gilligan’s Island always trying to achieve an elusive and unattainable goal.

Crack open a bottle of wine because: sometimes you want to feel like a normal person and not a writer; the day’s a wash anyway, might as well enjoy the night; and you need to practice your pose holding a full glass of red wine for when they take your picture at your book launch.

Rehearse your pose by drinking multiple glasses of wine and call it ‘publicity research.’

Stay up too late watching re-runs of Reba and go to bed without brushing your teeth.

Next day: repeat.

This article, originally titled, “Why Writer’s Need Deadlines” ran in West Word Magazine – Writers Guild of Alberta, September-October 2009.

Quatchi Sasquatch Mascot for the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Winter Olympics - one mythical hairy beast promoting world peace, friendship and athletic excellence! Woot! Woot!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jan, your participle is dangling ...

I’m finishing up, what I hope to be, final revisions on Dead Bird through the Cat Door, the second in the Megabyte Mystery series. I thought I’d do a couple of blog posts over the next two weeks and share with my bloggowers some of the feedback I got from my young readers. The group is made up of 6 girls and boys aged 9-13 – five read the manuscript and one drew an illustration of one of the characters.

We were on our way to a Vietnamese restaurant, to share some noodles while discussing the manuscript. This is a conversation I had with E, one of my young readers before she even got all the way into the car and had her seatbelt securely snapped into place.

E: So, this is supposed to be like you’re writing it from like … you’re the kid right?

Me: Right, so everything has to be from the kid’s point of view.

E: Because sometimes she sounds like an adult in a kid’s body.

Me: (ouch) Oh, ... we’ll ... that’s great feedback, I hope you marked the spots where it sounded like an adult in a kid’s body.

It was valuable feedback and she did mark the spots. I also got a few Woot Woots! That is why it’s important to workshop your manuscript with your target audience. They are dead on with what works and what doesn’t. All of them had read and marked up the manuscript, and I got some great feedback which I used in the rewrite.

There is a belief (one of those rules with lots of exceptions to it) that boys won’t read books with female protagonists. So I was happy to have three boys in my young readers group. I asked them if they were bothered that the main characters were girls. They said they didn’t care whether the main characters were boys or girls. In their heads they just substituted the girl characters for boy characters. They also said that they could relate to what the girl characters were going through.

I thought that was interesting. Since then, lots of boys have bought, read, and loved the first book Dead Frog on the Porch. So I guess it appeals to both boys and girls.

Next post: Slang, pink shirts on boys and an illustration of Aviary Finch – crazy or evil?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Three giant metallic frogs sitting on a snow covered bench

This is a picture of three metallic frogs sitting on a snow covered bench in Calgary. It was taken before Christmas when it was much colder, not like the spring like Chinook conditions we're having today. It is an urban art sculpture done by Peter Smith titled "Hanging Out." Believe me when I say that anything 'hanging out' that day would have been frozen! I love the coffee cup beside the one frog.
My friend Amber took this pic when she convinced me to have lunch and go shopping with her and her husband when it was -30 below. Shopping - not in a mall - but from shop to shop walking out on the street. "It's great, no crowds," observed Amber. "That's because normal people are inside with a cup of chai and a good book!"
That's a small bag of Rocky Mountain chai tea, that I'm holding, that she had given me for my birthday, and I'm wearing the requisite frog touque. Here's to warmer weather and not wearing a frog touque!
P.S.: You'll remember Amber and her killer cat from Atticus Catticus and why you should follow submission guidelines ...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Elvis, cats, and why characters need to hurt the ones they love or everything I've learned about writing I've learned from my cat

I like to think that Sprite, my rescue cat (you met her in her You Tube debut video Sprite Doesn't Like Rejection), lived with coyotes before I rescued her from the shelter. That would at least explain her aggressive behaviour. The first six months she calmed down about 600%, but I was constantly covered in scratches. I used to say that I was in an abusive relationship with my cat; she loved me too much. She wasn’t trying to hurt me; one moment I’d be petting her and the next she’d go for my jugular just to get closer to me. Every night at about four a.m. she would attack me. She’d pounce on my hands and scratch and bite me until I woke up. Hiding my hands deep under the covers resulted in a paw, with claws attached, landing on my face. That’s when she’d get kicked out of the bedroom. I can hear what you are thinking: why not just close the door and not let her in? I was trying to socialize her.

Then it finally happened. One night at four a.m. I felt a soft paw touch my cheek. No claws. No attempt to scratch and bite at my shoulders or arms under the covers. She laid across my shoulder and neck, and purred. She’d finally learned to love me without hurting me, I thought in that half conscious state between being awake and dreaming. I also had a dream that I was splitting a jelly donut with Elvis when I ran into him at his favourite coffee shop (he still owes me five bucks but that’s another blog post).

The more cynical among you will think that Sprite was trying to depress my windpipe to the point of me wondering - where was my baptismal certificate that I was supposed to present to St. Peter at the pearly gates?

Still in that half sleep/wake state I thought - while it’s great that my cat has learned to love me without hurting me – you'd better hope that your characters don’t. There needs to be tension and conflict even between characters that like, and love, each other. And if you see Elvis, tell him he owes me five bucks.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A "little bit famous" and the dishwasher ...

Since this blog is about where writing meets life ... or where life meets writing, I thought I'd share my new favourite quote about writing. It's by S.E. Hinton, author of, among many y/a books, The Outsiders. I first heard this quote when she was recently interviewed by Michael Enright of CBC, and found it in an interview with Don Swain from 1987 which may be the original quote.
Don asked S.E. how her life has changed since the success of The Outsiders. Here's the quote:
"People have a funny idea about what a little bit famous does for you ... a little bit famous in the writer's field doesn't come in and empty your dishwasher every morning ... doesn't do much for you really."
To me, that means we need to focus on the writing and continuously improving our craft. Good resolution for the New Year. You can listen to the full 20 minute interview with S.E. Hinton through the link above.
And to celebrate a new year of writing and 2010 as the Year of the Tiger - here's to tigers and their contribution to writing. Every writer needs a supportive cat (or substitute the small domestic animal of your choice) perched on their keyboard.