Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Arctic Explorers and normal writer friends

It was tough writing a profile on Frances Hern, a Canadian children’s author and a member of my writing group – the Kensington Writers Group. Problem is - she’s too normal! Unlike the other members of the group, Frances doesn’t create a self-portrait in cookie dough, she doesn’t eat my lunch over my grammar and she probably doesn’t even know where Moose Jaw is! And she admits that she can’t hold an earring to Jocossa of the … well, you know.

Frances was one of the first people I meet her when I moved here and was trying to find a community of writers. She’s been a long time member/friend of CANSCAIP and the Writers Guild of Alberta. She has two non-fiction history books for young adults published, one picture book and loads of poetry.

I’ll let her take it from there …

My first writing success I remember was in Grade 5. Our teacher read the beginning of a story about a seahorse and we had to finish it. I won a small prize because my ending most closely resembled that of the original story – so close in fact that the teacher asked me if I'd read the book before. (I hadn't.)

I also used to read my father's books of poetry and write my own poems and, as I reached my teens I actually enjoyed writing letters and essays. Perhaps I should have realized where my talents lay and realized I wanted to write. I'd been a research technician in genetics and biochemistry labs, a secretary in the oil patch, and a parenting discussion group leader.

I dropped history at school after studying King Henry VIII because I was hopeless at memorizing dates and couldn't keep track of when his six wives were born and done away with so it's ironic that I now write about history.

I've had two easy-read history books published. One is about Norman Bethune (James Lorimer & Company Ltd.) and the other is about Arctic Explorers: In Search of the Northwest Passage, which has just been updated and reprinted by Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., Arctic Explorers spans the more than 400 year search carried out by generations of explorers in treacherous ice-choked waters.

I've also had a picture book published by Scholastic Canada (Aunt Maud's Mittens) and numerous poems published in magazines and anthologies, the most recent one being Home and Away – an anthology of Alberta poets musing on the meaning of home. I'm currently writing a young-adult historical novel. It's taken a long time because it's set in 1838 and although the characters and their personal circumstances are fictional, I wanted the settings and other details to be historically correct.

I admire classy and amazing earrings but have never worn any myself, I think because my mother was always pulling off her clip-ons and complaining they were pinching her ears. She's had her ears pierced for many years now but somehow I never got around to it. Still, Jan already has one friend with wonderful earrings so she doesn't need another.

No, but I always need awesome writing friends and Frances has been that for many years!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Live bird through the cat door, kick butt query letters, and Nancy Drew's Birthday!

The jumping off incident in Dead Bird through the Cat Door the second in the Megabyte Mystery series (due out this fall) was inspired by my cat who caught a baby robin and brought it into the house through the cat door. We already know from her you tube video that Sprite the writer's cat doesn't like rejection.

What I found out tonight is that she likes to bring very large live birds into the house through the cat door! This was like a full sized Robin. The turkey curry I was cooking was abandoned (and ended up a little burnt) while I tried to get the bird out of the house. There were feathers flying, screeching (and that was just from me) and birds doing what birds do when cats scare the crap out of them. I managed to get the bird out the back door and it flew away. That's one for the bird kingdom and none for catdom. Just hope Sprite doesn't come across one of the skunks roaming the neighbourhood.

In other news:

I'm teaching a course through Chinook Learning Services (CBE Continuing Education). I wanted to call it writing kick butt queries but they wouldn't let me use the word 'butt". So the real name of the course is:

Writing Queries that Pop

It is designed for writers who are querying or have a manuscript they are about to submit. You submit your query letter in advance and be prepared to have it discussed in class for the purposes of making it stronger. The bulk of the class will be used to critique the participants' query letters. You've written your fiction manuscript. It's been through your writers' group and has undergone numerous rewrites. You think it's ready to send to publishers. You've done your research about which publishers would be appropriate and you've read their submission guidelines. Now you need to write a query letter that will get your submission pulled out of the slush pile. Check out the course code link below for more information:

course code 63268

May 8th 9:00 am - 4:00 pm

It is also scheduled for the evenings of May 10 & 12th, but for some reason it's not on the site. If you're interested in those dates you can enquire when you register.

So, in totally different news, Nancy Drew is 80 years old this year. Nancy you don't look a year older than your fictional character is supposed to be. Maybe that's the key to life long youth - be a fictional character! I was a voracious reader of Nancy Drew books as a youth and the twin protags in Dead Frog on the Porch are inspired by Nancy as they solve the mystery. As a youth I was inspired by Nancy's her independent nature. Dead Frog on the Porch had been called "Nancy Drew for the ipod generation." High praise indeed.

Have you ever wondered about Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew series. Well, Jennifer Fisher over at Nancy Drew Sleuth wondered and wrote this article about Carolyn Keene.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Inspiration in all the right places ...

I got back from London, England a few weeks before the phrase 'giant-collossal-ginormous-volcanic ash cloud' was part of the lexicon. And before everyone questioned their faith as water-cooler chats centred around the concept of an act of god or nature or mother earth and which god and whose god?! Back in simpler times.

When I was in the hotel before my flight left I saw Alicia Keys perform the song Empire State of Mind. I found it to be inspirational.

I also found inspiration from the school visit I did last week at Bowness High School. I was invited to speak about the life of a writer as part of LitFest (which ended with a birthday party for Shakespeare – I hear he was a no show – typical, playwrights eh!).

Two high school classes listened to me drone on about the life of a writer. My presentation had all the makings of a thriller. There was internal conflict (as I explained how writers have to make a living while pursuing their dream of writing) there was suspense (as I told the story of how I got published) and there was resolution and emotional growth of the character as I talked about how writers have to see rejection in a whole new light (it’s not me – it’s you!).
But most of all there were tons of great, insightful and thoughtful questions from the students, many of whom (or is that who) were writers. I hope I managed to inspire them and hook them up with some writing resources both on the web and in the province.
They certainly inspired me with their enthusiasm and creativity. That gives me the boost I need to start writing the third in the MegaByte Mystery series Dead Bee in the Sarcophagus. Or maybe at least I’ll finish my taxes!
As Alicia Keys sings: "there's nothing you can't do!"

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jocosa of the Earrings takes stalking to a whole new level

Dear Bloggowers: While I state that the three keys to getting published are rewriting, persistence, and stalking (and highlighted those three elements in my 'how I got published story') - the blog "Three Dead Moths..." does not endorse the literary stalking that Jocosa of the Earrings engaged in. Whew, got that out of the way, the blogawyers insisted.

Alright, we pick up Jocosa’s story from the last blog post Fear is no Excuse. She is deep in rewriting hell - a hell so hellacious that it can only be compared to submitting-and-waiting-to-hear-back-from-a publisher/agent hades.

I'll let her pick up her story as she struggles with how to rewrite the start of her manuscript: Alas the opening. What to do? I schlepped on down to the city--NYC in the middle of a torrential downpour--saw a revival of The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley by the Transport Group. A perfect example of in-your-face dialogue. Following a satisfying catharsis, I maneuvered through gusts of rain and soaked my jeans from ankle to knee until I reached 121 West 27th Street. You guessed it the home of The God of Agents. You can see from the outside that there is no pretension, no flash, and no flurry. He's just a simple God. Destiny. I shook off as much water as I could, folded up my umbrella and ventured inside.

The Guardian of the Gate, Steve, was kind and suppressed a smile when I told him I'd come to take a picture of The God of Agents name.

"He's going to be my literary agent."

A nod.

I did my best to soften Steve up so he'd let me upstairs, but alas, he is a formidable Guardian of the Gate. No admittance without an appointment. Then I went all Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca on him:

"No problem, Steve. I'll be back. Maybe not this week, but soon."

And now? Still in a quandary over what happens after the first chapter, but I've been fortified by standing at the threshold of The God of Agents dwelling place. It's only a matter of time before the seeds of my last draft mutate into agent hooking excellence, and I'll pass by the Threshold Guardian and into writer heaven.

Onward and Upward, Jocosa of the Earrings

Sweet Agents of New York: If you've put Jocosa of the Earrings' name on a list of crazy literary stalkers fear not, she is as harmless as the tofu she is so fond of. And she exhibits the three characteristics of a good writer, the ability to endlessly rewrite as needed, persistence, and er, ah, that stalking thing ...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fear is no excuse! Update on Jocosa of the Earrings

It’s been close to six months since Jocosa of the Earrings took a vow to not cut her hair until her book was published.

Recap: at the Surrey International Writers Conference (SiWC) the God Agents asked to see the first 50 pages of the re-write of her manuscript. She took the vow. I said she was crazy and decided to document her demise into hairy sasqutchness (not that I don’t believe in her talent as a writer, it’s just that publishing is slow and hair grows fast).

It’s time for an update.

The manuscript is called The Blonde on the Inside and here’s the blurb: A Louisiana housewife strips her way to independence. Kaitlyn thought nothing could be worse than her husband leaving her for a blonde call girl--But she was wrong. So what were the parameters I asked her? Can you trim the ends? Or shall no sharp object come in contact with your hair?

Here was her answer:

I've actually thought about this a lot.

If I went with the no sharp object until publication--I'm basically saying I'm ready to murder my hair. And no self-respecting Broad--who is on her way to being a NYTimes bestseller-- would ever do that. So there might be a necessary snip of dead ends from time to time to keep things healthy-but no measurable inches. I'm going to reactivate my bangs--other than that the length grows on.

Here’s a reminder of what her hair looked like in October.

Here are a couple of pics from the end of January when I was in NY. The second one reminds us of why she is called Jocosa of the Earrings.

Here’s an update on her progress of re-writing the first 50 pages and submitting them to Donald Maass the God of Agents:

Was I jazzed or what when the God of Agents requested my first 50 pages--following a rewrite of course. Rewrite? No problem. I'd already finished 5 drafts--one more, no biggie. Plus the amazing workshops & presenters at the Surrey International Writers Conference had my creativity revved. On the plane back to the States, I was jotting down all sorts of ideas. So once I handled the laundry, cleaned the house and sifted through my notes I sat down to reread my last draft.
The slashing and cutting began immediately and was followed by the insertion of sharper dialogue and the identification of better chapter openings and closings. Marvelous. Now all I had to do was begin. Again, no problem. The God of Agents had clued me in on what to do with the first chapter. Did it. Done. Brilliant. Chapter Two. (Beat) Chapter Two. (Beat) Chapter Two. Yikes! Nothing. Nada. Brain Fart. Just the idea of honing those first 50 pages immobilized my fingers and squashed my creative juices like a waterlogged elephant. Fortunately fear is no excuse. Words can continue to color the page even when you're in a state of fear. But I needed a jolt of inspiration. So, where did I turn? The God of Agent's Angel, of course, Lisa Rector. I sat in on two of her workshops at SiWC. Marvelous. One of her revision suggestions was to grab chapters at random. Then ask yourself does the opening grab you? How about the end? Can you lift a line out of the middle and discover tension? And so it began. I started jumping around following threads of conflict and plot arcs and polished up the last 2/3 of my manuscript....

What happened next? A catharsis, a rain storm, and taking literary stalking to a whole new level – next blog post.

This video shows that we're not the only ones who think The Donald is a God for writers, and his books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction are must reads.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Coffee shops and Canadian identity eh!?

There was a lot of Canadian pride (go Canada go) during and since the Olympics. Debates abounded about Canadian identity, what it is, who has it, and how awesome we all are. I was torn during the closing ceremonies about the musical number with the giant mounties, lumberjacks in their canoes, and the giant beavers. On the one hand I was like really?! You’re pulling out those old stereotypes? And then on the other hand I was like – yeah, I get parody – it’s kinda funny to make fun of ourselves.

I hate to go all anthropological on you but a society’s cultural identity is usually constructed in counter distinction to another, usually dominant, society. C’est what!? Basically we define ourselves by looking at another society and saying what we’re not. Canadians love to do this with American society. Health care and the lack of guns is what makes us different and is a big part of our Canadian identity … and so it goes. This beer commercial highlights what I mean.

I for one was getting tired of having my identity constructed by beer and coffee shop commercials. I get it already, we play hockey and drink beer, and eat the occasional inside of a donut. Until I saw the new Tim Hortons commercial.

For my bloggowers outside of the country Tim Hortons is more of an institution than the parliament, the supreme court of Canada, and the true north strong and free – oh, did I mention it’s a coffee and donut shop? And they have their own language - you will hear people ordering a 'double-double' (coffee with two cream and two sugar)!

The ad is funny because it examines the classic Canadian stereotypes. What’s interesting is that instead of creating Canadian identity in counter distinction to, let’s say, another coffee shop, it creates Canadian identity in counter distinction to stereotypes about Canadian identity.

Oh, by the way, I received no monetary or product remuneration from the posting of this blog post. But … if Don Schroeder the Pres and CEO of Tim Horton’s is reading this: Extra Large Steeped Tea with three shots of milk … just saying!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Random and Awesome pictures from Bologna

Here are some random and awesome pictures of Bologna, just because and why not.
This blog is about where writing meets life or where life meets writing and let me tell you, there is no place that life hits you like Italy. I'm still dreaming about the amazing tortellini that I had at one restaurant - al 15 Osteria.
Massive tortellini that had recently bathed in butter and frolicked with basil!
Shoes that my friend Emily would drool over. And hams that all my other friends would drool over.
Scooters ...
Flowers ...
And a novel idea I discovered - while waiting for a midnight bus from Stansted Airport to Heathrow Airport that never showed up (another story for another time!) - a vending machine that dispenses novels - a 'novel idea' indeed!
Next post: what a coffee shop has to do with Canadian identity!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Uscita body experiences and gelato at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the largest trade event for the children’s book industry and draws thousands of editors and agents from all over the world who are there to buy and sell foreign rights and film/merchandising rights.

To say the book fair is huge and overwhelming is like saying that book with the boy wizard sold a few copies. There were four conference halls (the size of airplane hangers) and the conference atrium.

After the first day at the fair, when I went to leave, it took me 45 minutes to find the exit (I won’t elaborate on how much of that was due to the fact that I didn’t know the Italian word for exit was Uscita.) At one point I thought I was having an out of body experience that was cured by a slab of pizza followed by a chaser of gelato.

Author Rhiannon Lassiter (author of sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller books for y/a and adults - and generally a fun person to share a bottle of Prosecco with) took lots of pictures and gave a run down of her experience at the fair on her blog.

Here are a couple of shots of the contact wall where writers/illustrators posted their contact information.

Along with all the buying and selling of foreign rights, there was the SCBWI booth where they celebrated their (40th) anniversary, awards for illustrators, and lots of networking. Angela Cerrito took lots of pics of the action at the SCBWI booth and you can see them on her blog.

After attending the fair I look at branding in a whole new way. I have a feeling from the moment the editorial/marketing department gets a hold of your manuscript they are thinking about how it will translate into an international brand that can transcend languages and culture to be truly global. Think the Happy Face icon, think the boy wizard, think Garfield, think Twilight. Hey wait a minute … are you thinking what I’m thinking? Vampire kittens! That could be the next biggest thing in international branding!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rookie mistakes, medieval torture, and first pages

What if, instead of a rejection letter, writers were subjected to medieval torture for the rookie mistakes embedded in their submissions along with that über fancy font that they think will catch the eye of an agent?

My thoughts turned to medieval torture when I was in the medieval city of Bologna, Italy for the SCBWI Symposium sitting in on the agent panel review of first pages.

Kristin Nelson, Steven Chudney, Frances Plumpton, Sarah Davies, Rosemary Stimola, Marcia Wernick and Kendra Marcus made up the panel of esteemed agents who gave on-the-spot feedback to first pages that were submitted by writers at the symposium.

It was the first time the agents had heard the pages and their responses were fresh. Their responses were thoughtful (in fact I think many of them were doing the ‘count to ten’ thing in their head), their words were carefully chosen (unlike the words in my head) and their feedback was helpful and focused on making the story better (I have always maintained that if writers listen to feedback, they can save themselves years of development as a writer).

One universal piece of advice was to grab your reader, throttle them and bring them in. Hmmm ... sounds like torture to me ... just saying!

I’m not an agent or an editor and I am frustrated by the rookie mistakes I see writers make. I don’t understand why writers don’t do their homework?! Especially when there is so much information available from awesome blogs such as Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants, Nathan Bransford's and Janet Reid's blog.

I’ll let you in on my internal dialogue as the first pages were read aloud, and the medieval torture I would have condemned the writer to. I did a google search on medieval torture techniques and they were truly medieval and torturous so I came up with writerly medieval torture techniques.

Crime: Engaging story that turns out to be … yes, you guessed it … A DREAM!

followed by

a story that starts with the character waking up in the morning.

First of all writers - seriously? really? After all we’ve been through?

Punishment: One day in the kneecap crusher … or another eight hours with your butt in a non-ergonomic chair (like the one above) rewriting the opening.

Crime: Fast action story that starts out too high and has no where to go.

Punishment: spend a day addressing self-addressed envelopes, this will help you think about pacing, then spill some more ink and start your story over.

Crime: Super high paced action that drags the character (that only exists to tell the story) through the plot.

Punishment: You drag your butt into a medieval staff meeting and realize that it is full of complex people, brimming with emotions and motivation, who have various conflicts with each other. That’s followed by riding the bus home and listening to the conversations of other passengers and you realize the same thing. Then rewrite starting from a place of character rather than plot. Whew! And a day in the kneecap crusher just for good measure.

Crime: Picture book from the parent’s point of view.

Tortuous Punishment: Poke your eye out with a mechanical pencil and change the pov.

Crime: Über cute fonts that are sure to catch an agent’s eye.

Punishment: Poke your eye out with a mechanical pencil … no, wait, I used that one already. Poke the fleshy part between your thumb and forefinger with a mechanical pencil repeating, ‘less is more, less is more’.

And if all else fails, cut off your connection to that new fangled world wide inter-web thang (it’s not gong to catch on anyway) so that you won’t spend time updating your Electronic Web Log (there’s got to be a shorter name, I know, let’s call it a welog!).

If you are guilty of any of the above (and all of us have been) you are at risk of having your head attached to the authorial wall of shame on the edificio de rejection in the heart of the medieval city of Bologna.

Next time you get a rejection letter, be thankful.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Don't stomp on your character's voice!

Unlike this picture of a clothing store display I took in Bologna, Italy, Ellen Hopkins' books aren’t about conformity or teens who fit in, they are about the teens who don’t fit in.

Ellen Hopkins is the author of seven books for young adults (many of which are New York Times Bestsellers) and she was a presenter at the SCBWI Bologna Symposium. She talked about the Young Adult Renaissance. With titles like Crank, Burned, Impulse, Glass, Identical, Tricks and Fallout, her books deal with edgy, yet realistic, y/a issues. Ellen talked about the experience of having her books banned. She read some of the touching and heartfelt letters from youth who could relate to the subject matter she wrote about, and youth who couldn’t relate directly but appreciated the honesty with which she wrote.

According to Ellen, young adult books deal with the edgier material that is harder to deal with in a tween market. The young adult market has been pushed to age 14 plus. In middle grade or tween books there is more positive interaction between the protag and the family. In y/a the parents are often in the role of the antag.

She believes y/a to be a hungry market. Unlike tween readers who rely on their parents to buy their books, young adult readers buy their own reading material. She believes the middle grade market is more of a library market. A writer for young adults has a responsibility to shed light on old problems and to make a positive difference in a young person’s life. Ellen implored us to not underestimate our readers – keep the characters real.

Y/A novels have a contemporary situation, a protag, an antag, friends, foils and adults.

In terms of the voice of y/a she had some advice:

- this generation is visual, use unusual formatting, verse, journals, letters, text messaging;

- y/a novels are often told from 1st person to put the readers in the character's head and y/a authors often use present tense;

- don’t stomp on your characters’ voices with your voice as storyteller;

- don’t avoid the tough stuff, but be sure of your facts – a nonfiction background comes in handy;

- tell a story that’s close to you, that hurts or makes you squirm;

- beware of authorial intrusion; and

- beware of didacticism and slang which can date your story.

If you are guilty of authorial intrusion and didacticism yee shall be banished to the authorial attic:

Ok, that’s really the view from the bathroom of my nephew’s flat in Bologna. Maybe this would be a better authorial attic…

or this one:

Okay, I like taking pictures of windows, does that make me a bad author?! Off to the authorial attic for me ...

Back at the symposium, I had an opportunity to read, to the group, the first page of my yet, untitled, y/a manuscript. Ellen had some helpful comments that I will keep in mind as I finish writing it. One of which was to write it in first person (but do I want to be that author who writes everything in first person? – do I care?).

Once again I have written a too-long blog post! (but there was so much great stuff!) and won’t be able to get to the agent panel (telling it like it is) in this blog post.

I shouldn’t make promises I can’t keep, but I will promise, next blog post: Rookie mistakes: how to avoid them and stay out of the authorial attic.