Monday, March 25, 2013

Snowstorms and Suspense

Last night we had a big spring snowstorm, something unusual but not unheard of in Western Pennsylvania.  Before the storm even started, we heard about it for days.  We watched the news trying to figure out exactly when it would hit.  We gassed up the snow blower and made sure we had salt.  And we waited, taking little glances out the window all evening, for the storm to hit.

I love the day before a big storm.  It is all about the anticipation, knowing that it is going to come and waiting for it to happen.  I like freak storms, too, those unexpected mornings when you wake up to a winter wonderland, but I enjoy the anticipation more.

Remember that feeling of waiting and watching as you write your novel.  Remember the excitement mixed with just a bit of fear.  Keep your reader interested the way a weather man keeps our eyes glued on the evening news.  Make them care about what is about to happen.  Make them feel they have a vested interest in your plot.  Build the suspense slowly and get your reader to the point where they cannot put your book down.  They know something is going to happen, and must read on to get to the conclusion, to finally see the snow start to fall.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Secrets of the Ladies' Locker Room

The ladies’ locker room might not be the first place you think of when looking for inspiration for your writing.  In fact, it might be the last place.  But it is important to keep your eyes and ears open wherever you go, because you just don’t know where you’ll find that magic combination of character and plot that will fill out your story and make it great.

Yesterday, after I ran on the treadmill at the local YMCA, I walked into the locker room to change.  Right away I noticed a girl there who didn’t quite fit in with the usual crowd.  She had on a long sleeved blouse and skirt.  Her hair was braided and wrapped around her head in a complicated halo that reminded me of the way old Europeans used to wear their hair.  I had an elderly neighbor growing up, Mrs. Demeduk, who had flowing white hair that she always braided in the same style.  I was thinking about Mrs. Demeduk, and admiring the girl’s crown of braids, when she slipped out of her clothes.  I could not have been more surprised.  Underneath her conservative blouse and skirt she wore a black string bikini and had a tattoo of a dragon climbing up her back.  The tail of that dragon was located somewhere under her bikini, and its fire breathing snout hit just above her waist.

I am fairly certain Mrs. Demeduk never wore a string bikini or had a dragon tattoo, but can we ever be completely sure of anything?  It is when our characters surprise us with their inconsistencies that things really get interesting.  Look around you.  Be nosy.  Ask questions.  When you are in line at the post office, try to imagine what the other people are sending and why.  If you are sitting at the airport waiting for a flight, use that time to people watch.  Is the man sitting next to you really a salesman, or is he an international spy?

This kind of activity can get you into trouble sometimes.  I once almost had my husband convinced we were living next door to a ring of tobacco smugglers in rural Kentucky.  I was wrong.  But when I suspected the rice cracker company I worked for was a front for the Japanese mob, it turned out I was right.  That experience is definitely a topic for another day, but the point is, pay attention. You might be wrong, or you might be right, but either way you need to do it.

Writers are observers of human nature.  Good writers can take these observations and use them to create great characters.  Find your girl with the dragon tattoo.  Notice the humor in the most ordinary, mundane things.  Look around you and really see what is going on.  Discover the secrets of your characters and know what is hidden under their clothing.  There is magic in everyday things, and it is up to you to find it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood...

Mr. Rogers would have been 85 years old today.  He was a kind, gentle soul who created television programming for children that was thoughtful and educational.  He was also a local boy, born and raised in the Pittsburgh area.  After becoming an ordained minister, he got his start as a television personality on WQED.  He wanted to change the way television treated children, and he succeeded.

I have to say, as a child I was never a huge fan of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”  Even from an early age, I need more excitement, thrills, and action.  I watched “Zoom” and “The Electric Company,” but preferred “Lost in Space” or “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”  I was a hopeless sci-fi fan even from an early age, and Mr. Rogers didn’t offer laser guns or robots.  What he did create, however, was still magical.

I remember waiting and watching as the trolley disappeared into his wall.  For me, that was the best part of the show.  The track ran through his living room, and the little hole in his wall was a doorway to possibilities.  As soon as I would hear the sound of the trolley’s bell, I would sit up in anticipation.  We had no idea what would happen next; we could only imagine.

Unfortunately, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe never quite lived up to what I imagined.  Lady Elaine Fairchild was creepy.  Henrietta Pussycat annoyed me with her constant meowing.  Daniel Tiger was a wimp.  Even as a small child, I can remember thinking, “I got excited for that?” 

But I still came back for it, for that trolley and that moment of wonder, and that is Mr. Roger’s true gift.  He taught us to create our own Neighborhood of Make-Believe.  Mine was a little different from his, since it was inhabited entirely by aliens, time travelers, and magical beings, but it was the perfect place for me to stretch my imagination as a child. 

I’m sure his program meant different things to different children.  For some his was a soothing voice in a harsh world, for others he was the only father figure they had, and for many his neighborhood may have seemed like a safe haven when reality was very different.  But for me, it's still all about that little red trolley and the door to anywhere.  Thank you, Fred Rogers.



Monday, March 18, 2013

How Not to Start Your Book: Seven Things to Avoid

It was a dark and stormy night….

That sounds like a great, scary opening for a book, doesn’t it?  Or maybe not.  There are certain things that are so cliché, they are almost guaranteed to send your work straight to the slush pile. 

The first few sentences of your book can sometimes make or break your chances of getting it published.  That is a lot of pressure on a few short sentences.  My first bit of advice is to ignore what I just said.  Don’t get stuck writing and rewriting your first sentence, or paragraph or page.  Move forward, and then move forward some more, and by this I mean to keep writing.  Editing is the time when you can go back and fix everything that is wrong with your manuscript.  If you don’t write forward, you won’t have a manuscript to fix.

Once you have completed your manuscript, go back to the beginning and look at that first page with fresh eyes.  Some people like to let the manuscript sit and stew for a week before they go back to edit it.  Other people can jump right in.  Do what works for you.

When editing the beginning of your novel, here are some things I have learned along the way:

1.  Start in the middle of the action.  You want to hook the reader into your story.  Find a place that is exciting, and begin there.  The first book I ever wrote will probably never be published or ever read by another human being.  It was bad, but it was a learning experience.  It taught me that starting in the middle of the action can often mean deleting the first few completely unnecessary pages (or in my case, chapters) in order to get to the point where your book really should start.  Look at your manuscript with objective eyes, and find the true beginning.

2.  Don’t start with piles of backstory.  Let your reader get to know your protagonist slowly.  Seduce and entice them with little snippets of information that make them want more.  Backstory is important, but it doesn’t always need to be shared.  I find it very helpful to answer a long list of questions about each of my characters before I write my books.  I want them to be firmly established in my mind before a word goes on paper.  That doesn’t mean I need to share that entire backstory in my book.  Some of that information has nothing at all to do with my plot.  And some of it is personal – between my character and me.  Not everything has to be shared, and not everything has to be shared at the very beginning.  Keep your audience guessing a little.

3.  Don’t start with a dream, or your character waking up from a dream.  This is an easy way to slip in backstory or foreshadowing, but it is also an easy way to get your manuscript sent straight to the slush pile.  It’s been overdone, so don’t use it.  Also, don’t go through a long, exciting sequence of events, and then later make your character find out that it was just a dream.  Not cool.

4.  Watch for mistakes.  One of my friends in college was trying to get an internship in a very competitive field.  She wrote a wonderful essay, and asked me to look at it after she had already sent it in.  That was a horrible thing to do to me.  I had edited many things for her in the past, and I wished she’d come to me sooner rather than later.  The essay was beautifully written and very well researched, but she had a major grammatical error and a misspelled word in the very first sentence.  She didn’t get the internship, even though she was extremely well qualified.  If you try to send in a manuscript with mistakes in the first sentence, the same thing will happen to you.  You won’t get published.  Typos and small mistakes can be forgiven, but not if they are in your first paragraph (or even your first page).  Be diligent.

5.  Looking in a mirror.  This is kind of the cheater’s way to describe your character physically.  Find a better way to let your reader know she has flowing blonde hair, or he has rock hard abs.  Ducking under the crime scene tape was easier for me than it was for Jack. He was more than a foot taller than me, and I was wearing my highest heels.  I pulled my blonde hair into a pony tail, slipped into a blue hazmat suit that matched my eyes, and pulled on some latex gloves.  “I’m ready to go.”  See?  I just made that up.  It took exactly two minutes and no mirror was required. 

6.  Let them speak.  Make sure you allow your characters to talk.  Dialogue is important.  If you don’t see a lot of white space as you scroll through your manuscript, that might indicate there is too much narrative.  This holds true from the beginning, although be careful about starting your story with dialogue.  This can be tricky.  If your reader doesn’t know your character yet, they might not care about what they have to say.

7.  Introduce your characters, but not formally.  Can you remember some of the writing you did as a child?  My name is Joe.  I have two brothers and one sister.  I have a dog.  My best friend is Tommy.  He is nice.  When you are introducing your characters to your readers, don’t slip into third grade writing mode.  You will not get a gold star. 

I’ll stop at seven, since that is a lucky number, and today is the day after St. Patrick’s Day.  And a little luck wouldn’t hurt, especially if it was a dark and stormy morning, with an icy rain so thick it covered the windows with a frosty glaze….

That is a much better beginning than “a dark and stormy night,” and it also happens to be true (from where I sit in Pennsylvania, at least).  Good luck and happy writing!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beware the Ides of March!

After extensive research (aka two minutes on Wikipedia), I learned something new about the Ides of March.  March isn’t the only month with an Ides, in fact, every month has an Ides.  It is the midpoint of the month, according to the Roman calendar.  During March, May, July and October it falls on the 15th, but it is on the 13th for every other month of the year. 

The Ides of March holds special significance because that is when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE.  It is also the day when our Canadian friends celebrate this event by drinking something called a “Bloody Caesar,” a mix of vodka, tomato juice, hot sauce, and clam juice (which sounds bloody awful).  I will have to confer with my Canadian friends to see if this is actually true.  I have a feeling they just drink beer.

The Ides of March is also the birthday of my Aunt Alvida, who is turning 83 today. Happy Birthday, Aunt Alvie!  It is the perfect birthday for a wonderful Italian lady, and I love the twinkle she gets in her eyes when she says, “My birthday in on the Ides of March.”

The Ides of March feels mysterious and dangerous and ancient.  That has as much to do with Caesar’s death as it does with the prophesy surrounding his death.  Primitive people relied on omens and prophesy in order to feel more secure about a world they could barely understand.  So why does the Ides of March still affect us today?

Deep in our hearts, we are just like those old Romans.  In spite of science and technology and all we have learned, we are still a little afraid of the dark.  Some of us are more superstitious than others, but many people are uncomfortable at the idea of a black cat crossing their path or a broken mirror.  There might not be any logic to it, but these things are somehow ingrained in our nature.   

The Ides are really just the "over the hump day" of the month.  That should be something we look forward to and celebrate, unless of course we are talking about the Ides of February, especially if it falls on a Friday.

Beware the Ides of Friday the 13th!    Now that does sound kind of scary.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Aliens Have Feelings, Too

I’ve often heard people say that writers should write what they know, but I’m not sure if that is always true.  If you are writing science fiction, for example, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if you stuck to simply what you know.  Not many of us have been into space, or met an alien, or been shot at by a laser gun.  Writing what you know would not get you very far.

I’d rather say, write what you love.  Write what you dream about.  Write about the fantasies that captured your mind as a child and stayed with you as an adult.  But keep your dreams and fantasies grounded with character elements and emotions that you know. 

I’ll give an example.  Once I saw a woman and her daughter waiting in the school parking lot.  They were an unusual looking pair.  The woman was very short and extremely voluptuous.  She had stocky legs, and quite a bit of “junk in the trunk,” as well as large breasts.   But instead of fighting her shape, or trying to disguise it, she seemed to embrace it.  She wore a tiny skirt and a tight tank top in bright colors.  She’d gathered her mass of curly, dark hair into a series of ponytails that stuck out of her head at odd angles.  She wore sexy sandals, and her brightly painted toes stuck out of the top.  Her daughter looked and dressed just like her, and, as I watched, them, I could tell they felt confident and beautiful about how they looked.  It was obvious from their body language that they were completely comfortable in their skin. 

As I watched these ladies, trying to imagine their backstory in my head, another girl joined them.  She had straight, shoulder length brown hair pulled back with a navy blue headband.  She was wearing a plain white t-shirt and navy blue shorts.  She had on navy blue sneakers.  She was of medium height, medium weight and medium size.  She was very, very normal looking.

When I saw her get into the car with the mother and daughter, I had to wonder if she was part of their family.  And that is when it began, the “what ifs.”  What if the average looking girl was the daughter of the flamboyant woman?  What if she hated having a mother who was so different looking?  What if her sister was just like her mother?  What if they were actually aliens?

“What ifs” are the beginning, middle and end of every great story, and the basis of every great character struggle.  Begin with what you know, with an idea that inspires you, and built on it until you reach something completely different.  The “what ifs” propel your story, but writing what you know keeps it real, even if you are writing a complete work of fantasy. 

Mixing what you know with what you dream about is the key to creating great fiction. Adding bits of your own experiences and observations can add depth and breadth to your characters that make them feel more realistic to your readers.  I might not know any aliens, but I know what it is like to be part of a family, and to have a mother and sisters I care deeply about.  Adding those elements can keep your story grounded, and will make your readers feel more connected, even if the story you are writing is about aliens you met while waiting in a parking lot.      

Monday, March 11, 2013

Stupid Daylight Savings Time

Daylight Savings Time.  How can one little hour throw my life into such a tailspin? 

First, I must explain.  I’m chronically and annoyingly early for everything.  My children have learned that arriving ten minutes before we are supposed to is the norm, mostly because being late makes me crazy.  They sigh, they wait, and they accept it.  But yesterday, the first awful Sunday of DST, I was running late for everything. 

I woke up feeling foolishly refreshed since I thought I’d slept until 8 (and I never, never, ever am able to sleep until 8).  I decided to bake, imagining the joy on my children’s faces when they awoke to the tantalizing scent of banana muffins.  My youngest was delighted about the muffins, but worried about me.  He looked at the clock and said, “Don’t you have to take me to Rock Academy?”  Somehow it went from being 8am to noon in an hour.  I threw on some sweats, yelled for my son to get in the car, and sped off to Rock Academy.  We arrived exactly on time – a first for me. 

After dropping off Rocker Child, I returned to my previously mellow state.  I felt like I had all the time in the world, until I remembered I was supposed to be at a tennis class for rusty (aka old) players at 2.  I couldn’t understand how the time changed from 12:30 to 1:30 in seven minutes.  I rushed home, asked my husband to drive child number two (aka Tennis Boy) to his lessons, and reminded him to also pick up the little girl in our carpool (aka the Girl My Husband Always Forgets to Pick Up).  I grabbed my racquet and headed off to tennis, arriving exactly on time. Very strange.

I felt vaguely unsettled all day, in spite of not actually being late for anything, which led to a restless night’s sleep.  It was that way for everyone in my family.  My husband couldn’t fall asleep.  Tennis Boy visited us several times to say goodnight.  Once, he came after we’d turned the lights off and scared the crap out of me.  When I woke up at 6am, which was actually a cleverly disguised 5am, Rocker Child was already in my room.  “I didn’t sleep all night,” he wailed.  “Yes, you did,” I said.  “I checked on you.  You were sleeping.”  “Nooo,” he said as he threw himself face down on my bed.  “I was pretending.” 

It appears, after a bleary look at Facebook this morning that everyone was in the same boat.  How can one little hour so disrupt the entire space time continuum?  Yesterday went faster, and last night went slower.  People were posting at all hours.  They were up at 4am cleaning.  They were watching reruns of really bad sitcoms.  Why couldn’t we sleep?

I understand the concept of DST, but is it really necessary?  As Rocker Child munched on his breakfast of olive and garlic focaccia this morning (we were out of banana muffins, he really likes focaccia, and I was too groggy to protest), he looked at me over his glasses and muttered, “Stupid farmers.” 
I don’t blame the farmers, and I like the time change in the fall.  I just hate it in the spring.  But I was too tired to argue.  I just poured another cup of coffee, grabbed a bite of his focaccia, and yawned.  “Stupid Daylight Savings Time."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How To Find An Agent

It was nearly a year ago that I signed with my agent, Marlene Stringer of The Stringer Literary Agency,  She is a fantastic, hardworking, dedicated advocate for my books, and I realize how fortunate I am to have her on my team. Since last year, many people have asked me how I found Marlene, and I have to admit it was a combination of preparedness, research, and pure, dumb luck.  I can’t help you with the dumb luck part, but I can share with you what I have learned about the process.

For me, this journey began in September of 2011, when I began looking for an agent to represent my first book, AMAZONS.  I wanted an agent, because I had learned very early on that publishers are far more likely to look at a book represented by an agent than a random unsolicited manuscript rotting away in their slush pile.  It’s very simple.  If an agent sees something in that manuscript worthy of representation, the publisher is more willing to give it their attention.  Also, agents work very hard to cultivate long term relationships with publishers.  They know what different publishers are looking for, and try to provide it.  Someone once told me it is harder to get an agent than it is to get published.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but I was sure I didn’t want to go through the complicated and overwhelming publishing process on my own.  I needed help.  I needed an agent.  And so my search began. 

I knew nothing at all about finding an agent, so I read everything I could on the subject.  I bought books and magazines.  I listened to what more experienced authors told me.  Finally, I felt I was ready, and I began sending out my book.  In the course of a few months, ten agents asked to see my full manuscript for AMAZONS, but I had not signed with anyone yet.  During this time, I finished my second book, SO PRETTY, and began sending out queries for that book as well.  Ten days after I started, I signed with Marlene.

My story is not typical.  For some writers it takes a lot more time and effort to get to where I am today.  I still have a great deal to learn, but there are some things I would like to pass on to those people just starting out.

1.         Don’t send out a manuscript until it has been edited, revised, reread, and made into the best possible version of your story that you can create.  Have others take a look at it, too.  I have a trusted friend, Andrea, who has painstakingly gone through each page of my books for typos and inconsistencies.  I have rewarded her occasionally with lunch, flowers, or chocolate, which is far, far less than she deserves.  Find a friend like Andrea.  I also use my children (shamelessly) to judge if a story line I am playing with is really working on not.  If I catch their interest, I have a chance of catching the reader’s interest.  If my twelve year old sees holes in my plot, then my manuscript is definitely not ready for submission.

2.         Learn how to write a query letter.  This is really, really (can I stress it one more time?), REALLY important.  If your query letter sucks (excuse my French), then there is a very good chance the agent will not even look at your story.  I bought books on writing good query letters.  I researched it online.  I looked for examples of winning query letters so that I could see what worked and what didn’t.  Your manuscript must be as good as you can possibly make it, but your query letter must be perfect - no typos, no spelling errors, and no grammar mistakes. Don’t misspell the agent’s name.  Don’t send out mass emails and expect a personal reply.  Don’t brag about how great your book is, show how wonderful it is by writing a fantastic, and yet concise, description of it.  Imagine you are writing the paragraph that will be used on the back of your book to entice readers.  This is what you should put in your query letter.  Write about your book, let the agent know if you’ve been published before, and, perhaps, list any professional affiliations you might have.  The query letter is not about you, it is about your book.  Don’t lose sight of that.

3.         Research agents carefully.  You can buy books with information about agents, but these are usually not up to date, and you have to buy new editions every year.  Instead, I used a site called  This was extremely useful and also free for basic service.  You can be very specific with this site, and the more specific you are, the better chance you will have of finding the agent who is right for you.  For SO PRETTY, I looked for agents currently representing Young Adult (YA) and Science Fiction, and that is how I found Marlene.

4.         Research the agency as well.  Once you find an agent, don’t stop there.  Go online and look into the agency.  Each agency has different submission guidelines.  Follow them exactly.  Some agencies want to see the first ten pages of your manuscript, others want the first chapter.  Take the time to give them what they ask for, and be certain you are sending a query to the right agent inside the right agency. You will be happy that you did, and so will they.  Rejection is not fun.

5.         Get used to rejection.  This is the central truth to being a writer.  Don’t take it personally.  Not every story is a match for every agent, or every publisher.  It might have nothing at all to do with your story, or your talent as a writer, or your worth as a human being in general.  Finding the right person for your book is as much as matter of luck as it is skill, but if you don’t have the skills to back it up, you don’t have a chance at being lucky. 

6.         If the agent likes your query, the agent will ask to see a full manuscript.  This is the reason for suggestion number one on my list (aka make sure your full manuscript is ready).  If an agent likes the first chapter of your manuscript, and wants to see a full manuscript, they will not be happy to hear that is all you have written so far.  Just to give you an idea about how hard it is to get to this point, I was so excited about the first request I had for a full manuscript that I immediately Googled the agent to see what else I could learn about him.  I found an interview in which he said he got about 400 query letters each month.  Out of those, he sent out about 3 or 4 requests for a full manuscript.  From those, he signed with about 5 or 6 new writers a year.  Those are not good numbers, but I tried to see it in a positive light.  I was one of those lucky 4 out of 400 writers who sent in query letters that month, and that is pretty amazing.  The good news is, if I could do it, so can you.
7.         If the agent likes your manuscript, they may ask to represent you.  Oh, glorious day!  But before you sign on that dotted line, make sure you are a good fit for your agent, and that your agent is a good fit for you.  Once you sign with them, your agent will represent your full body of work (not just the book you are currently submitting, but your other books, as well).  Make sure that person is someone you want to be working with for the long haul.

The most important advice I can give you as a writer, is to keep writing, keep learning, and keep trying.  It isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either.  I’ve encountered so much negativity from other writers, many of whom told me with definitive authority that I would never get to where I am today.  I think this is the same mentality that makes some women tell expectant mothers horror stories about their own childbirth experiences.  Just because it was bad for them, doesn’t mean it will be bad for everyone (although going through the publishing process can feel like giving birth to a ten pound baby over and over and over again, trust me, I know).  But just like childbirth, the rewards are well worth the time and effort you put into it.  Yes, you are sending your newborn off to be judged, criticized and probably rejected right after it is born, but there is a chance you might be sending it off to be cherished, nurtured, and maybe even loved.  You’ll never know, unless you try.  And Andrea, please let me know if there are any typos in this.  I’ll owe you some chocolate.




Monday, March 4, 2013

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!
Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904.  My oldest son was born on the very same day, exactly ninety years later.  Now my son is all grown up, a college student with a hairy face and a busy schedule, but every year on his birthday, I think of Dr. Seuss, too.  I remember the days of holding a warm, little body next to mine and reading about wockets in pockets and fox in socks.  The colorful pictures, the silly prose, the rhyming nonsense words are something universally appealing to young children, but there is more to it than that.  It doesn’t matter how old the books are, children still worry about what problems the Cat in the Hat will cause, and if Horton will hear the Who, and how the Grinch will be able to save Christmas. 
I read those books over and over again to my first son, and then my second, and finally to my third.  I enjoyed the rhythm and cadence to the words, and by the time my youngest child was born, I had several of the books memorized and we owned a complete collection.  I loved watching my children’s faces light up when we’d get to their favorite parts, the anticipation and the excitement.  I would pause, just for a second, to enjoy the expressions on their little faces a bit longer.  Soon, during those pauses, they were filling in the words for me.  Before long, they were reading the books on their own.
It was a sad day for me when my youngest son grew too big for the sweet silliness of Dr. Seuss.  I moved the books from his room, to a bookshelf in our family room (hoping that one of my nephews or nieces or a random stranger would ask me to read them), and then to another in our basement.  Finally, I packed them up in a box labeled, “Books To Keep,” and put them in our storage room.  I try to donate most of our old books to family and friends, but there are certain ones that are simply too precious to part with.  Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Graeme Base, and Chris Van Allsburg are a few of the authors featured in that box, along with every book we have ever owned, no matter how battered or worn, by the incomparable, irreplaceable and completely magical Dr. Seuss.