Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Killington, Vermont

I've scheduled this post in advance, so I'm not at Killington while writing this -- but I'll be there when you're reading it. Hopefully having an awesome time skiing -- and brainstorming -- because that was one of my goals for this week.

My family has a little bit of history with Killington. I thought I'd share some old pictures with you.

Bob and I went to Killington for our honeymoon in December 1994.

And I came home looking like this.

Yeah, imagine the jokes I had to put up with from my co-workers, returning from my honeymoon in a hip-to-ankle leg brace.

In 2008, we took the girls to Killington for the first time. I can't get over how little they are!

OMG, Gabbey still wears that coat! Only now it fits her like a fashionable mini-jacket. Okay, that's it. We need to go shopping.

Monday, March 25, 2013

This Is Me

Last week kicked my butt.  It was parent conference week (which followed not only end-of-trimester grading and report card data entry, but also the first round of state tests). I worked 12 hours on Monday, with about an hour off for dinner, and also had to work Wednesday night. We had 2 hours comp time on both Thursday and Friday, but somehow that didn’t help.

So, if you didn’t see me around, that was why.

If you happen to read/write MG fiction, you might want to leave here and hop over to Project Mayhem to read about my little experiment with my class. I set up some group discussions on what gets MG readers interested in a book. You might be surprised by the answers.

If MG isn’t your thing, stay here a bit and help me out. I need some books to read on my Killington trip later this week and could use some recommendations. I’m in the mood for a thriller. Adult or YA. I’d love something like Gretchen McNeil’s TEN or Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. I’m not adverse to a good dystopian or apocalyptic book, either, as long as it’s out of the ordinary.

Somewhere in the blur of the last couple weeks, I also got a sneak peek at the Kirkus review for THE CAGED GRAVES. The whole review is not available for public viewing yet, but I can share this bit with you:

When an inquisitive teen returns to her birthplace to meet her fiancé, she uncovers a bizarre mystery surrounding her mother's grave, unleashing disturbing buried secrets. Salerni grounds her story in local Revolutionary War lore, creates a spirited heroine with enough self-reflection to feel convincing, and crafts a suspenseful plot that skirts sensationalism. This unusual romantic mystery stands out."

Yay! Now I just have to wait for some of the other big name reviews to come in – School Library Journal, Booklist, VOYA, etc. Heart-in-mouth time …

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Progress and Projects

Lately it feels like I have a lot going on in the writing part of my life. But since I’m happiest when drafting or revising a novel, I feel a little sad and discontent at the moment. Because I’ve got a lot to do, but I’m not actually creating something new.

Last week, I got edits for a short story that will appear in this year’s Month9Books anthology, VERY SUPERSTITIOUS. Finishing the edits didn’t keep me busy long enough. It was over way too soon!

I’m starting to have promotional assignments for THE CAGED GRAVES, which releases in two months. They’re fun to write, but not like a novel. I have a launch party to plan, but writing out invitations isn’t exactly a novel either.

I’ve got a post to do for Project Mayhem, this blog to keep up, and I’m sure my agent would always welcome a submission for her blog. But again, blog posts aren’t the same as a novel.

I also heard from my new editor at HarperCollins. (The editor who acquired THE EIGHTH DAY retired in January.) It looks like I’ll have some more revision notes coming my way soon. That ought to keep me busy and make me happy.

But it won’t solve my current problem, which is trying to become a plotter.

I’m using Scrivener as a storage place for all my ideas about THE EIGHTH DAY #3 and the series in general – and I continue to love how I can file information in this program so that it’s all at my fingertips – and moveable – and ready to be transformed into a 30 page synopsis, if need be.

But that still doesn’t magically turn me into a plotter.

Right now, I have some basic plot points for the book. Normally, that would be the time I’d jump into the first chapter and figure out the story as I wrote it. But the problem is, I don’t have time to write this book right now. I just need to know what’s in it so I can make everything in the first two books align with it.

Part of my problem is impatience. I want it all worked out NOW, even though I know I need to give myself time to mull things over.

Skiing this weekend helped. You’d be surprised how many plot problems I work out on the chair lift. Long car rides help, too. So I guess it’s a good thing the Salerni family is driving to Killington, Vermont for one final ski trip at the end of this month. Let’s hope my muse is coming with us!

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Teacher Gets Tested and POISON

Last week, I read about POISON by Bridget Zinn, on Lydia Kang’s blog. And I promptly bought it – not just because I was touched by the story of how Hyperion managed to get this book to publication after the author’s untimely death and how the writing community has stepped up to promote it on Bridget’s behalf, but because it truly looked like a story my students would enjoy.  “Princesses, poisoners, perfumers, and pigs.” What’s not to like?

I was right, as it turns out. POISON is already in demand among my students, with more than one reader lining up for it.

In other events last week, I was required to take a test to see if I’m qualified to administer the same standardized test I’ve been giving for the last dozen years. (More than a dozen, actually. I’ve lost count.) The state of Pennsylvania has produced an online tutorial on Test Security, and I was required to pass the tutorial before giving the Reading and Math PSSA tests next month.

(I know what you’re thinking, and no … If teachers fail the test, they don’t get to go have coffee in the teacher’s lounge during the PSSAs. They have to re-take the tutorial on their own time.)

I won't even discuss how ridiculous it is that testing elementary students has practically become a matter of Homeland Security. But as a taxpayer in a state that has already slashed the education budget to the bone, I wonder how much money it took to produce this tutorial. I am especially angry because the tutorial didn’t contain any information not already printed in the Teacher’s Test Manual. I suppose the assumption is teachers can’t read? Or that we're too dumb to absorb the information unless it's presented in a visual and auditory format?

Anyway, I passed. Phew.

I don’t teach to the PSSA, although I do have to teach students how to take it. Testing the teacher on the administration of the test seems like going over the top to me. Supposedly, the testing frenzy of No Child Left Behind is on its way out, but I have yet to see any indication of that. As far as I can tell, Obama has been just as bad as Bush when it comes to education.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Persistence and Determination: Cal Gets it Right

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” ~ Calvin Coolidge

Last Saturday, while we were out on our semi-regular date night, my husband and I discussed this quote as it pertained to both writing and bicycling.

Bob talked about reaching a plateau with his bike speed – about making steady, satisfying progress and then hitting a barrier he couldn’t seem to break. He follows blogs about biking just as I follow blogs about writing, and he said that people always want to know what they can do to break that barrier. They are looking for an exercise or a regimen that will get them the result they want (increased speed) in a designated amount of time. But the advice given is always the same:

Ride your bike a lot.

How long? How long until I see results?

The answer: It’s different for every person.

And this is true of writing, too.  Through blogging, I know many writers feel like they’ve hit a barrier they can’t break through, whether it’s finishing a complete manuscript, querying for representation, promoting a self-published book, or selling a book on submission. Even after you break through one of those barriers, it doesn’t mean your progress is steady from that point on. A sudden spurt of “increased speed” might very well be followed by another plateau.

A lot of people outside the writing world don’t know this. They think that once you publish a book your success is guaranteed. And if it doesn’t happen right away, then you must not be a good writer.

We ought to know better, although sometimes we forget. Yes, it does seem cosmically unfair when a 20-year old writer gets a choice of 10 competing agents and two weeks later lands a 6-figure deal based on a partial manuscript of a first book … to everyone except that writer. But there’s no point feeling envious or discouraged or – worst of all – giving up.

You just have to keep riding. Er … writing.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Learning to Plot with Scrivener

Based on recommendations from people who’ve tried Scrivener, I went ahead and bought it – especially after I realized it was only $40.  At that price, I thought, why not?

So far, I’m loving it – but only for plotting and planning. I have no intentions of drafting a manuscript with Scrivener. The word processing part of it feels clunky, and I can’t imagine writing a book that’s chopped into little bits and has to be put together after I’m finished. One of the reviewers on Amazon said, The thing to understand about Scrivener is that it's a chunk-based writing system. It's for people who write in chunks, or scenes, which is, actually, most people.” 

Well, speak for yourself, buddy. I write my first drafts in a linear fashion – from the beginning to the end.  It's the only way I can find the story and understand my characters (no matter how much planning and outlining I do beforehand). And thanks to Matt McNish introducing me to the Document Map function of Word, I have no trouble navigating my manuscripts.

However, as a method to organize my scattered thoughts during the planning stages, Scrivener rules!  Sure, I could keep all my notes in Word files. That’s what I’ve done up to now – and they’re a mess. I recently opened up all my saved files for THE EIGHTH DAY and was surprised to see how many documents were labeled Brainstorming, Ideas, Outline for Chapter 7, Problems I Need to Fix, Character Motivations, etc. I’m pretty sure most of them had only been opened once, and every time I needed to brainstorm, I started a new document rather than look at the ones I had.

For THE EIGHTH DAY #2, I kept a paper notebook of ideas. I won’t even go into what a mess that was. Plus, I kept losing it. (Dianne rampages around the house: “Anybody seen a blue notebook?!”)

Scrivener is all about chunks, and that’s not how I write, but it IS how I plan. I’ve never been good at outlining, and if you’ve ever heard anybody talk about planning DOT TO DOT, that’s the best description of how I do it. Scrivener holds all my DOTS in one location, where I can see them all, rearrange them, expand them and collapse them.  I love that any file can be both a document and a folder.

Maybe it’s just a cool new toy. I’ll have to report back and let you know if I actually produce a book plan with it!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

First Impressions: DIE TO LIVE ANOTHER DAY

Our third First Impression post for March is DIE TO LIVE ANOTHER DAY, a MG fantasy by Joy Dawn Johnson.

The shadow slid under the door and across the Berber carpet. That was where it usually appeared. Sometimes it drifted from behind the lamp, or snuck in through the window, but only on occasion.
The bedroom door whipped open. Her tiny feet scurried across the carpet and the shadow returned as her companion. A sniffling nose, a quick tug of covers, a soft plea.
There would be no sleep for Parker Ward tonight. Bonny was running from monsters.
“They’re not real.” Parker stroked his little sister’s hair as she curled up beside him.
She answered with tears. They dripped onto his arm, where she’d laid her head.
Parker tilted her chin up and wiped her cheeks with the soft edge of his blanket. “Let’s look under your bed. You’ll see there’s nothing there.”
She burrowed closer to him. They weren’t going anywhere.
Her nightmares began a few years ago, around the time he’d seen the first bruise. Welts on her arms and legs, deep scratches on her shoulder—he’d begged, bribed, but she never told who was hurting her. He couldn’t force her. So he kept a spare blanket draped over his footboard—the one thing he could do for her. Their mother pretended the problem didn’t exist, something that came naturally since that was also her disposition toward Parker. She could never accept anyone hurting her precious Bonny, so she didn’t see it.
He tucked her head under his chin. Another moment of looking into her teary eyes would break him. He would have taken her place. Why wouldn’t she talk to him?
Bonny seemed perfectly fine during the day. Perfectly fine, not perfectly normal. Unusual, eccentric, one cookie short of a full box—all reasonable descriptions for his little sister, especially when she wasn’t running from monsters. Parker never understood how anyone could be scared of things that didn’t exist.

The first thing I wondered was whether the opening paragraph in italics was actually from Bonny’s viewpoint, or at least outside of Parker’s POV. If so, I wanted it not only in italics, but separated from the rest of the text by a couple spaces.

Next, the phrase and the shadow returned as her companion  gave me some trouble because I wasn’t sure whose viewpoint that was from either, and I especially questioned the word returned.  Where is it returning from, and who is watching it? Parker doesn’t see the shadows tormenting Bonny, right?

I really like Parker’s dialogue (and Bonny’s wordless response) when she climbs into bed with him. It’s simple and touching. But the paragraph describing how this all started confused me. Bruises and welts -- and the mother won’t investigate? It might be better to replace this paragraph with one where Parker actually examines a bruise or a welt on his sister. And it’s okay to mention their mother is no help without trying to explain why right now. The explanation given seems a little unbelievable without background knowledge about the mother we don’t have.

I really like the tenderness Parker shows toward his sister, especially the non-verbal manifestation of it. It is very sensory – her head under his chin, her tears on his arm. Joy has made us like Parker immediately – and we also feel protective of Bonny. The line He would have taken her place confuses me though. Does he think she’s being hurt by a bully? And Parker would rather the bully hurt him? Wouldn’t Parker do something about the bully instead if he knew who it was? This sentence only makes sense to me if he thought it was their mother hurting Bonny, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

Likewise, the final line of this page puzzled me. Parker never understood how anyone could be scared of things that didn’t exist. Lots of people are afraid of things that don’t exist. I almost expected this sentence to be followed by the phrase because there were so many real things to be afraid of instead. Is their life so tough that monsters and nightmares are the least of their worries?

To sum up, I like that opening paragraph, but I want a little more clue about the POV. I love the scene between Parker and Bonny – and the sensory images in it – but the narration in between needs a little paring down, clarification – and maybe some of it would just be better if introduced later on. Readers, what do you think?

Joy, thanks so much for sharing your first page with us! Please visit Joy’s website to learn more about her books, and don’t forget to check out Marcy’s feedback on the same page at Mainewords.

Monday, March 4, 2013

First Impressions: NOT ME

Our second submission for First Impressions is a YA Thriller, titled NOT ME by Taffy Lovell.

I glance out my dirty bedroom window. The sky promises another beautiful day. If my days were normal, I might hang out at the pool, pretending not to watch the lifeguards. If my life were normal, I might sit under the shade of the trees and daydream. If I were normal, I might gossip with friends late into the night. We would sit on someone’s bed, eating popcorn and talking about everything and nothing. But I left normal behind ages ago--in quiet cemeteries.
My computer desk is unorganized chaos. I hide the scissors and yesterdays newspaper under my bed. The obituaries can wait.
A worn-out and yellowed clipping flutters to the floor. I pick it up and study it. John Birch’s trench coat is thrown over my little sister and me. He’s trying to shield us from the snooping cameras. The caption reads “Lost Memories or Fake Amnesia?”
I tuck the old news story into the red shoebox and place it in the closet shelf. Time for reality.
My hair is a ratty mess. I flip my head over and try to force my tangled mane into a ponytail. I peek in the mirror. It will work. Easy. That’s how I roll.
The t-shirt I wore to bed reeks like last night’s Chinese takeout. Not how I roll. A black piece of fabric peeks out from beneath my pillow. Pulling my favorite AC/DC vintage t-shirt close I inhale and pretend it smells like the last boy I crushed on. I haven’t lost memories of him.
I trade the shirt with another, cleaner one off the floor and shake it out for good measure. A green frog grins at me with the thought bubble: “It isn’t easy being green!”
Georgie is still in bed, I’m sure. She doesn’t have a morning ritual because she has natural beauty. Everyone says so. She doesn’t even sweat, she glows.
 “Georgie!” I scream from my doorway. “I can’t be late again or I’ll get detention!”

There are several things that really catch my attention on this page. The sentences I left normal behind ages ago--in quiet cemeteries and The obituaries can wait and the bit about the newspaper clipping and the headline are all very intriguing.  The list of “normal” activities in the first paragraph and the descriptions of her t-shirts, less so.

I suggest rearranging the information on this first page to make those intriguing details pop.  For instance, Taffy could start with our MC laying down the scissors and deciding The obituaries can wait. That would be a startling beginning. (The obituaries can wait might even make an excellent opening sentence.)

Next the MC can glance out the window at the beautiful day and (more briefly) think about the ways normal girls might spend the day. Then she can deliver the line But I left normal behind ages ago--in quiet cemeteries.

Finally, while she’s searching the floor for a clean-enough t-shirt, she can come across the clipping that had fallen off the table – and boom, we’re hooked. Or, at least I am. Readers, what do you think?

Taffy, thanks so much for sharing your first page with us today! You can visit Taffy at her blog, Taffy’s Writings, and don’t forget to check out Marcy’s critique of the same page at Mainewords.

Friday, March 1, 2013

First Impressions: PATRIOTS

Our first submission for First Impression in March comes from Salvatore Cuciti. PATRIOTS is an Adult Mystery.

Chapter 1

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil – Psalm 23

The moon over the orchard followed me, lighting my way across the fields, and the last traces of purple sunset stained the sky over the mountains. It was the last full moon before Halloween. A blood moon, or a harvest moon, I wasn't sure. The moon seemed to fly through the gnarled branches of the apple trees as I gunned the old Triumph down the road.  I was flying too, following invisible lines of perfection in the curves and hills. The growl of the exhaust pipes stretched out behind me, and wind noise surrounded me.  I shifted down a gear, gave her some throttle and leaned into the turn. The motorcycle tracked a perfect line, with no correction needed, and screamed out the exit as if to rip the asphalt, lifting the front wheel, singing a like tenor in third gear, trying to tear itself out from under me.  I tightened my grip. In the dim light the landscape rushed past us in a blur.  My thoughts, my rambling chattering conscious brain hushed and paid homage to this moment; a second from destruction and content to be so. There was just the road and the howling motorcycle, the peace and the danger, the red moon and me.

 That moon had gotten to me, it had come in through my windows with promises to light my way.  An hour ago I had been standing in my living room staring up at it.   I found myself a few minutes later lacing up my boots in the garage and looking for my helmet.  The old familiar fear came again, tickling my nervous system and the pit of my stomach with butterflies. I took a deep breath and shook my head and studied the motorcyle.  The faces of friends who have died or been hurt came back to me as I buckled the helmet, tickled the carb and kicked the starter. It’s a feeling of dread which experienced motorcyclists know too well.  But it quickly went away of course.  And so did I, out to race the red moon, to find a friend, for pint of ale and some talk.  I wanted to talk politics, dharma, some Buddhist teachings, football, anything to let out this restlessness inside me.  And drink beer and eat wings.  A spiritual journey does not mean necessarily bread and water. Not for me, Adam Paradise.

There is some beautiful imagery in these passages, and I’d like to say that although I’ve never ridden a motorcycle, Sal has made me FEEL this ride. I am there with Adam. I’m firmly in his head, feeling what he’s feeling, thinking what he’s thinking, and seeing what he’s seeing.

That said, there were a lot of little typos that I actually cleaned up before posting this page – extra commas, transposed letters, small missing words like “a.” I left “singing a like tenor in third gear” although I think it’s supposed to be “singing like a tenor in third gear,” but I wasn’t absolutely sure.  You’ll want to carefully comb through the text for those small, hard to see errors before sending it on to any beta readers, agents, or editors.

I also suggest taking those two large opening paragraphs and breaking them into smaller ones. There are beautiful sentences in there that will get lost in a large block of text.

There are two uses of the word “last” in the first two sentences, so I’d try to rephrase to eliminate one of them. I’d go for “the moon flew” instead of “seemed to fly,” and I would delete “it had come in through my windows with promises to light my way.” The next sentence follows nicely without it.

While reading, I wondered if every motorcyclist knows people who have been killed and injured on their bikes, and if seeing those faces before a ride is typical of every biker’s experience – or just Adam's. I’m content to wonder that, however, since I feel confident I’ll get to know Adam better as I read.

So, in summary, I’d say Sal nailed the voice of this character and the mood of the piece (especially since I know it's going to be a murder mystery). He just needs to work on cleaning up small editing details, and breaking up the text on the page. Space is important for the eye and mind of the reader, and it allows the writer to emphasize key sentences by beginning or ending with them.

Thanks for sharing your page, Sal! You can read Marcy’s critique at Mainewords, and don't forget to come back next week for two more. Marcy and I will be taking a First Impressions hiatus in April so Marcy can participate in the A to Z Challenge. But we have openings for First Impressions in May, so feel free to submit!