Monday, July 27, 2009

Color Me Confused

Do you like the new color scheme of my blog? I changed it a few days ago. See, I'm red-green color blind--or as an eye doctor I went to corrected me, "color deficient". I guess true color blindness is only seeing shades of black and white.

I told my husband last week that the pink background I had looked dingy to me. He said, "That's not pink. It's gray."

That explains a lot.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Eureka, I Found "It"!

So remember all that new project brainstorming I was doing? I kept coming up with great details to flesh out my two main characters, but I was missing what people in the literary world call, um, the plot. (Yeah, just that.) I had tons of ideas, but they weren't developed enough to stream them together, or they didn't feel exactly right for this book. I mentioned what I had come up with to the fabulous Elsa, and she threw out gems that helped me see my book better. After a couple days of spending a good amount of time concentrating on my future project, I moved it out of my focus and thought of it only now and again while I worked on other stuff.

I'm thrilled to be able to say I found "it", the missing magic! I now have a protagonist, an antagonist, secondary characters, inner and outer problems, images of my first and final scenes... I have my basic outline. And I'm in love. That's not me bragging. Not really. I'm just so excited. I can't wait to start getting it onto paper. You know that feeling? Of course you do.

I shared the basics with my critique group leader
Sheila Roberts yesterday. Sheila's incredible. One of the seven gazillion things she has taught me (give or take a gazillion) is to have a new project that I'm on fire about waiting in the wings. At some point, I'll have to post the reasons why this is great advice. For now I'll just say that when I told her my new idea, she got chills! Frisson! I can't wait to meet with my whole critique group and discuss!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meet Martha Schoemaker

Holy schmoley, I'm posting two days in a row! I hope this doesn't startle any of my six followers into a state of shock. Breathe easy, guys, and I'll try not to make any sudden movements.

Today's post is on Martha Schoemaker, fabulous friend and critique partner extraordinaire. She, too, is an aspiring author, but her genre is women's fiction. Martha has a Master's degree in Counseling and Student Services from the University of North Texas, and she is a former elementary school teacher and school counselor. In addition to being a writer, she is currently a tutor for people with dyslexia. She and I met in 2002 while taking The Art of Fiction, a Field's End class taught by David Guterson.

When Martha writes, she paints a scene so beautifully, you feel like you're right there. She selects strong verbs and has a killer Southern voice. Her characters are colorful, and her descriptions are vivid. All five senses are woven into her writing. I learn when I edit Martha's work, and I look forward to reading her pages.

Some favorite Martha moments:

*Laughing so hard we cry. This happens on a regular basis.

*Trying to write in each other's voice.

*Brainstorming book ideas together. She rocks at brainstorming.

Martha, thank you for being my first victim--I mean, featured writer.

What authors or books have inspired you the most?

It's not a unique choice, but my favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. I love the way Harper Lee told two stories that dove-tailed so beautifully. And the theme of racial intolerance touched me because I'm old enough to remember separate "colored" waiting rooms in my doctor's office when I was really young. Even at the age of six I knew that was just wrong. I read it every ten years or so, and I read a different book each time. (Those of you who read a lot will understand exactly what that means!)

A more current choice is Richard Russo's Empire Falls. I read it twice, and other than To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, I haven't read a book more than once since I read Charlotte's Web eight times in the third grade. I've also read Bridge of Sighs and Nobody's Fool and enjoyed both of them. Russo is a master at using language and creating memorable, fully realized characters. He's made me laugh so hard my bed shook, and then cry on the next page. If I could do that, I would die happy!

You've been writing and working on craft for years, just as I have. We've seen each other grow so much as writers. If you were to meet a brand-spanking-new writer today who wanted a couple tips, what advice would you give?

I would say to be prepared for a long haul, and, to quote Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never give up." However, that is easier said than done. I'm working on a second novel, and I have really struggled with thoughts of 'why bother' when the publishing industry is so hard to break into. I'll keep at it, though!

Also, write every day, or at least as often as possible. I've had some interruptions due to travel and family issues, and it's really hard to get back into a project.

It's essential to find a good critique group. Writing is so isolating, and my critique group keeps me going. And every once in a while, magic happens when we least expect it while we are batting around ideas!

I'm also motivated by taking classes. I've taken classes in literary and popular fiction through the University of Washington's extension program, through a local writers' organization called Field's End, and more recently, I finally got to take a class at Hugo House in Seattle. I love to learn, and classes really help me hone my craft and motivate me to keep going.

What else keeps you motivated?

I simply love to read. Seeing someone buy my book or check it out of the library would be the thrill of a lifetime.

Being very familiar with your work, Martha, I'm certain that it's just a matter of time. I believe in you.

Thanks again for taking time to answer my questions!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Query Letter Workshop

Joni Sensel

I went to a fabulous workshop on Saturday called "Hooks, Lines, & Stinkers". It was a query letter workshop that was taught by Joni Sensel at Hugo House in Seattle. Joni is not only one of SCBWI-WWA's fearless leaders (she and Laurie Thompson are our Co-Regional Advisors and Conference Directors), but she's also a children's book author who knows a ton about query letters. Her latest book, THE FARWALKER'S QUEST, is now available from Bloomsbury.

I already knew quite a bit about query letters, but I wanted to take this class because I wanted a fresh set of eyes--ideally, a fresh set of eyes that are attached to a children's book author who is an expert on query letters--to peek at my letter and give me feedback. And that's what I got!

Joni has the same belief that I do: the first draft of the query should be written as soon as you finish the first draft of the book. (I mentioned this in
Query Tips. Don't you love having your own theories confirmed? Hee!) As we all know, time can bring clarity.

The biggest thing I learned was how to make the synopsis section (of the query letter--I'm not talking about
the synopsis) more exciting. Since my book is a humorous YA novel, I'd already inserted a bit of humor into the synopsis paragraph so it would match the tone of my book. What Joni did for me was identify areas where I could give specifics to make the letter more interesting. My new and improved query letter synopsis touches on more events from the story, allowing me to show instead of tell. I liked my query synopsis before, but when I took home what I learned and worked on my query letter last night, I saw it transform before my eyes. The key is to boil our books down to a paragraph or two without overcooking and diluting the flavor.

Joni brought up how some people hire others to write their query letters since the skills to write a query letter are so different from the ones to write a novel. She discourages hiring out, and so do I. We
need to be able to do both. I've heard agents and authors say if you can write a good novel, you're capable of writing a good query. I agree. There is nothing wrong with getting help--I encourage it--but both skill sets need to be worked on and mastered. We are writers, aren't we?

Joni also helped me improve my bio. As an
aspiring author, my bio isn't lengthy. Still, Joni pointed out that my qualifications were listed in reverse order. When I later told my friend Elsa Watson (who already knew this--she's the author of MAID MARIAN, a novel I love) about my order reversal, she added that query letter bios are when we can't think like novelists, starting with the smaller stuff and ending with a bang. That cracked me up because it was exactly what I was doing. It seems so obvious now: the bio paragraph should not arc like a novel (insert eye roll). Start big, with awards. Next, name publications, if you have any. I don't know if this order holds true if you've had books published, but in my case, where I've had two poems published in magazines, this is what Joni suggests. I do know that if you have a book published, Nathan Bransford says to be sure to include the publisher and the year. Then list your memberships in writers' organizations.

I recommend a class like this to any aspiring author, whether you'll be querying soon or not, because querying
is definitely in your future. If you're in the Seattle area and have the opportunity to take a query workshop with Joni Sensel, do it! There were about ten of us there--two YA writers, one women's fiction writer (that's you, Martha Schoemaker), a thriller writer, a picture book writer, someone with an art book, and people submitting to magazines and newspapers--and she had the ability to advise all of us.

Way to be, Joni. And thanks.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Plot Snags and Man's Best Friend

I hit a plot snag a few months ago that made me feel like this:

I'm pretty sure my dogs, Thistle and Pepper, noticed.

To give you some background information, whenever I'd tell Thistle and Pepper it was time to write before Said Unfortunate Plot Snag (S.U.P.S.), they would race upstairs to the den and lie in their bed behind my chair. They would stay there while I wrote, every day. Then came S.U.P.S., and the traitors--er, sweet little guys--decided to spend each day on the couch downstairs.

Here are Thistle and Pepper on the couch.
I'm thinking my dogs picked up on the stress that was rolling off me even though I wasn't screaming, crying, or banging my head on my desk. I may have whined a little more than usual. And I paced. I guess that means it wasn't their doggy-sixth-super-sense--the one that alerts animals to earthquakes that are about to occur and meteorites before they hit--that made my pooches rethink their writing careers.

But still. Aren't dogs supposed to be faithful? Man's best friend and all that?

I can't hold a grudge, of course. They're too cute and cuddly, and I love them. Besides, Thistle is behind my chair right now. Pepper...well, not everyone is cut out to be a writer.

Note: To see another adorable dog, go to
Ben's blog and read about Linus and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Brainstorming days are so different from regular writing days. Not bad different, just different. The extra freedom and lack of boundaries feel liberating and scary at the same time. I spend brainstorming days dreaming, jumping from one "what if" to another, knowing nothing is too outlandish to consider.

In my desk, I keep a plastic zipper bag full of little scraps of paper. They're ideas I've jotted down over the last few months--the ideas that hit me whenever, wherever. They are the "maybe I'll use this someday" thoughts that I scrawled on anything handy. I have observations, funny lines, descriptions of outfits--all sorts of things. Brainstorming is the perfect time to pull them out and see if they spark anything.

The uncomfortable part of brainstorming is that it produces nothing tangible. No pages are being written and there is no chapter for my critique group. Still, I look forward to meeting with my group--and it isn't just because of the tea and baked goods. I'm eager to discuss what I've come up with. There's something about just saying the words out loud to my own little team of people that helps me sort the good ideas from the bad. Then comes the very straightforward feedback, and certain ideas float to the top as we all brainstorm together. It's critique group magic: the back and forth, the outpouring of ideas
, the energy in the room--especially when it all leads to something that snags both my heart and mind, turning on that inner light.

When I play with what hooked me, tweaking it and shaping it, and it begins to feel alive and like it is my very special story to tell--a story that
must be told--I know I've struck gold.

Do you have any favorite brainstorming techniques?

Friday, July 3, 2009

What I'm Reading

My kids and I talk about books on a regular basis. This is how my son knew exactly which book I wanted to read next: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. My son bought it for me for my birthday, and I'm dying to read it (pun intended).

I have some Mocha Frappuccinos in the fridge... Elizabeth Bennet, zombies, Mocha Frappuccinos, and the Fourth of July. Can life get any sweeter? I think not.

What are you reading?