January 26, 2010

Spellbound's Back Cover

Last night, left to my own devices, I stayed up into the wee hours writing a blurb for Spellbound. I'm taking an editing course this year at the Queensland Writer's Centre, which consists of five day-long classes designed to make me a better editor. It's being taught by author Kim Wilkins, of whom I am an adoring fan. She's written to ask all participants to send her a (very) short synopsis of our stories. So I sat up with my weak iced coffee (Manfriend is better at making those) and worked on my blurb.

I have to say, it was kind of hard. I kept trying to envision the back cover of my published book, what choice words it would contain to lure readers into my story. I've read thousands upon thousands of back cover blurbs, so I didn't think it would be all that hard. The thing is... it was. Condensing this beast that you've spent countless months on into two very short paragraphs is like me trying to squeeze into my Sophomore-in-high-school jeans. Seriously? You want this giant thing to fit into that tiny space? I've written tons of journalism pieces that had to be under 100 words, but those were a cake walk in comparison. Maybe because I have a lot to say about Spellbound. Or maybe I'm just a wordy bastard.

In a class I took with Kim in 2008, she told us that she loves writing her blurbs. She likes to say that it's good preparation: if you can't sum up your story and spool it out in thirty seconds, then how are you ever going to sell it? Writing a blurb means plucking out your story's unique strengths. It means finding those threads that will make a reader turn the book over and open it to Page 1.

So here is my first attempt at writing a blurb for Spellbound:

16- year old Jack Lawson doesn’t believe in magic; he believes in the sad predictability of his ordinary life. That’s before he spies on the Sparrows, the mysterious and beautiful neighbors he’s been obsessed with for years. Jack witnesses a ritual he isn’t meant to see, one that gifts him with frightening powers that turn his ordinary life upside-down. Jack’s unpredictable fire magic plunges him into the secret world of the Sparrow witches, where everything he thought he knew is called into question. To stay sane, Jack must learn to tame his magic- including his ability to hear and see people’s thoughts- but for that, he needs help.

Help comes in the form of the enigmatic Lorna, the girl Jack pines for from afar. As they grow closer, Jack realizes that he’s bound to Lorna in a way that is both dangerous and intoxicating.

Jack’s in with the Sparrows girls ruffles more than a few feathers, so when a boy is found dead at school with Jack and Lorna standing over him, it doesn’t take long for rumors to fly. Whispers turn into accusations and thoughts turn into threats, pushing Jack further away from the friends and family he thought he knew. Jack must fight against this new-found violence to save Lorna, the Sparrows, and himself.

Do you feel like you know what kind of story you're looking at? Would you pick this up for you/a friend/some teenager you know who likes this sort of thing? I feel like there are crucial elements I've left out, so I'll keep working on it until I get it right. Until then, it's time to get back to editing!

January 21, 2010

Good Read to the Rescue!

I was sitting on the train the other day listening to Bill Byson's A Walk In The Woods. As I listened (and laughed, inevitably), I looked out the window at the once-foreign city I currently call home and was reminded of another trip I'd made.

If you've ever travelled alone, then you may have experienced that moment: the moment when you realize that you are disconnected from everything you know and love. No one knows you where you are (I didn't have a phone, so this felt especially true at the time). You could fall into a ditch and expire loudly and dramatically, and no one would know to start looking for you. That moment when you realize that you are completely out of your element. The knowledge slams into you so hard that you are rendered terrified, temporarily helpless.

So it was for me in Vienna. It was the third stop on my first trip abroad, but it was the first time I truly felt panicked by what I was doing. I was in a country where I didn't know the language, where the transit system was so overwhelming that I couldn't even think about trying to use it. I didn't meet anyone at the hostel where I was staying (unless you count the five permanently half-naked Germans with whom I shared a bunk room). In the two stops before, I had made friends or met up with one, so I was never really alone. For the first time, I was forced to fend completely for myself. I felt like the world was going to swallow me up. I spent two days wandering around on foot, not really enjoying myself, fending off tears and my frustration at being such a baby.

These are the moments when you grasp for the familiar. So when I saw an English language bookshop, I stopped and picked up Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There. I marched over to a Starbucks I'd passed earlier, got myself a pumpkin spice latte, and read away the afternoon. That sounds like a horrifically touristy thing to do, and I suppose it was (later, when I was up to it, I did go to some of Vienna's famed coffee houses. They were amazing). I dove into my first Bill Bryson experience with the concentration of a drowning person clinging to a raft. I was hoping that Bill's travels through Europe would help to ease my mind. It did that, and a whole lot more.

Bill Bryson made me laugh out loud, something I hadn't done in days (I'd barely spoken, let alone laughed). His cultural blunders made me realize that my foreigners' awkwardness was normal, even expected. It was OK that I hadn't had a real conversation in over 24 hours! It was normal to eat alone while eavesdropping on strangers! He let me know that these things were just a part of the process. His insights lightened my heart, made me realize that traveling alone wasn't always supposed to be pretty, and that it was as much about discovering your own limitations and strengths as the place in which you're traveling.

That afternoon, Bill Bryson saved me. He allowed me to take a deep breath and think, "OK, then. I'm not really alone." After that, I had a great 'ole time. I threw away my map and let myself get lost. Getting lost in Vienna was how I fell in love with Vienna, and how I captured these:

It wasn't until now, years later, that I realized how much that book saved me. I'll always be grateful to Mr. Bryson, even though he'll never know it. That's the kind of book I'd love to write: the kind in which people see themselves and feel just a little bit less alone.

Has a book ever come to your rescue in a time of need?

January 18, 2010

To Be or Not To Be (a Pirate)?

I've always been kind of obsessed with pirates, before Pirates of the Caribbean made them cool once more. The old school kind who (theoretically) wore bright tights and who (actually) chopped people's fingers off and fed them to the sharks. I've done a lot of pirate recreating in my time, making comments about said tights that will see me mocked until the end of time. Old-school pirates are a fun idea- as long as you don't think about their methods too hard...

... which brings me to the real subject of this post. PiratING. That hot-button, unlawful act that nobody condones, but that almost everybody does at some point. Well, not everybody, but definitely my Manfriend (shh, don't tell the Pirate Police). My male companion has taken pirating to near-professional levels, a state of affairs that has led to several heated discussions about property rights and artistic integrity.

The last of these discussions revolved around Trueblood. I have a deep, abiding love for this series. I dutifully paid full price for the first season and was patiently waiting for the second to come out in Australia. Of course, it wasn't going to come out here until it was done airing in the U.S. (and honestly, of COURSE people are going to pirate when they make us wait... but that's a rant for another post). So I was surprised- even tantalized- when Manfriend told me that we could HAVE the second season at the same time America did. All it would take was the click of his mouse, and there they would be, all in a sexy little row. So of course, I let him do it, vowing to him that I would buy the second season when it came out on DVD.

"Why?" he asked, looking puzzled and slightly exasperated. "We'll already have all the episodes in HD. Why waste money on a series you already have?"

"Because," I said, arms akimbo (GOD I love that word), "Time and money and artistic effort and love went into the making of this program, and because I love the end product so, I want to support it by paying for it."

"You know," he said, in his I'm-humoring-your-absurdity-because-I-love-you tone, "it doesn't cost them nearly as much to produce those DVD's as they charge. It's a rip-off. Besides, they make enough money without your patronage."

"Oh yeah? How do you know?"

He knew because, halfway through this conversation, he'd Googled it and found out exactly how many millions those DVDs had garnered. It was a lot of millions.

This information did soften my resolve. Even so, the whole thing made me feel... icky. This was an artistic product I loved, one that I got ample amounts of enjoyment from. Wasn't it wrong not to pay for it? I imagined selling my first novel ('fantasized' is probably a more accurate descriptor) only to have my profits dwindle because people didn't feel like paying for it. It's hard to compare: I mean, you can't burn a copy of a book (I mean, physically you can, but not over a computer... unless it's an electronic copy. Wait... this is getting confusing). I put tears and sweat and lots of time not eating/exercising/having a social life into that beloved book. Those stolen sales would severely diminish my capacity to write for anything like a living. It isn't fair not to pay for something that someone has worked hard to produce.

I get what Manfriend is saying- CD/DVD prices in Australia are out of this WORLD expensive. Trueblood doesn't need our money: they have enough to keep making the show and to pay all involved a very healthy wage. Still, does it matter how much money they have, or how much you save? It is a piece of art, and art should always be valued.

So, I've put my foot down when it comes to small and emerging artists, people who I want to support so that they can do more, like Alan Boyle and Sarah Blasko. I also draw the line when it comes to artists I'm truly obsessed with, such as Ray Lamontagne and Ani DiFranco. I try to stay strong on TV shows, too, but... I'll admit that there are several easy-to-locate cracks in that resolve. When it comes to big-time movies and albums, sometimes I just can't see the point... I know, I know, try not to judge me. Resolving this issue is a little bit harrrrd (You must have seen that one coming).

My Manfriend has done lots of 'research' on pirating, and generally, he feels no guilt whatsoever about ripping all and sundry. The jury is still out for me, as it makes me feel all slimy inside. So... to be or not to be: what are your thoughts on this question?

January 14, 2010

How to Start Over?

So, in 2008/09, I wrote my first novel. It's a sprawling, rough-around-the-edges first novel, but it's there: thousands of words in what I hope is an interesting sequence. I've proven to myself that I can sit down and do it without driving myself, and my Manfriend, completely insane.

Now that the last of the celebratory brownies are gone and I've gotten over the "Look what I did!", let's-hang-it-on-the-fridge stage, I find my mind whirring with shiny new ideas. One has become particularly sharp. Over Christmas, three main characters materialized in my head, waking me up at weird hours, distracting me from conversations in which I should be participating (that job interview probably wasn't my best...). This is the exciting part, when ideas bloom freely, unimpeded by ability or the strictures of practicality, trembling with promise. I've got a pile of haphazard notes about my setting, plot, and main themes. I think I'm ready to start again.

I find myself staring at the beginnings of an outline and thinking... how did I do this again?

Every writer has a process for getting from idea to completed first draft. You'd think, after writing my first novel (titled Spellbound until further notice), I'd know all about what I need to do. And yet, I find myself wondering if the way I did it last time was actually the best way for me. It took me a year and a half to write Spellbound (in retrospect, about eight months too long). It was a jerky process of stop-and-start, stumbling forward with only a vague idea where the plot was headed. My main character, Jack, morphed from age 13 to 16, the point of view from third to first person. I patchwork-edited as I went, which means that the story sometimes feels like a inexpertly sewn quilt, lumpy and puckered. This is making the editing process much more difficult, which is something I want to avoid in future. But how?

Here's what I think Spellbound taught me about how to write a great first draft:

1. Write every day, preferably at the same time. This seems like a no-brainer, but an important one. One of the reasons SB feels so patchwork is because there were weeks in which I wrote intensely, and some in which I didn't write at all. I allowed my fear-of-suckiness to keep me from pushing through the parts that were hard. Stopping pulled me out of the story, making it that much harder to get back in.

2. Make a relatively coherent outline before starting to write. This also seems like a no-brainer, because who can tell a story without knowing its beginning, middle, and end? Apparently, I thought I could. Other writers do this, I thought. Good writers like to fly by the seats of their badly worn, I've-been-sitting-in-my-office-chair-for-two-weeks-straight pants. I've discovered that winging it IS an important part of my process. That's when characters come alive and start to do things I didn't tell them to (naughty minxes). I've discovered that while I don't need to know how it ends, I need to understand the heart of the story- what the story is REALLY about and what major events are going to drive it forward- in order to get anywhere. There need to be gaps in my outline- but not gaping holes.

3. Know thy characters. I vividly remember writing the first scene in which Jack and Lorna, my main characters in SB, meet for the first time. I knew exactly how Jack was feeling because I was stuck inside his head. His dialogue came out pretty easily, but when I tried to coax words from Lorna's mouth, they came out flat. It took me a week and countless re-writes to figure out where I was going wrong. Lorna was only an idea, not a person: I knew as much about her as Jack did, which was very little. I didn't know what her motivation was, or how she felt about Jack, so I couldn't know how she would react. I had to go back and get to know her (everything past, present, and future) to understand what she should say. I mean, if someone asked you "What would so-and-so say if you told her that?" -and you didn't happen to know this so-and-so- how would you respond? Probably by saying something like "Umm... dunno?". I have to know my characters very, very well before I can write about them with anything like authority.

4. I like pretty pictures. It took me a while to realize this, but I'm a very 'visual' person. Photographs and illustrations that capture the essence of what I'm writing make all the difference when it comes to inspiration. This is especially true when I live in a tropical locale that blurs and generally wilts my mind's picture of my New England setting. I've put up two massive cork boards on my wall and filled them with Novel #2-inspired cut-outs: snow-draped forests, foggy fields, topaz gems. These pictures provide an important creative push on those days when I'm just not feeling it.

5. It's OK to go back- just not too far! I've read a lot of writers who say that, when writing a first draft, you shouldn't look back. Just keep writing and save the editing for when the thing is finished. Even when properly caffeinated, I need a little recap of what I wrote the day before. Reading back just a few pages helps to pull me back into the story and keep me on track. It also reminds me, on those days when every word I type feels like drivel, that there are really good things hiding underneath the crap. Your writing is always better than you thought it was.

The other thing I've learned? You need to stop allowing yourself to procrastinate via Facebook and Gmail and... blogs.

And so, back to the drawing board!

January 13, 2010

Conquering The Pile

Anyone who calls themselves a Reader will know The Pile. Go look at your bookshelf... what do you see? There are the books you've just finished, stuffed lovingly between the ones you read over and over again. If you're like me, you see books from your childhood; books you're saving for friends; monsters that were a big part of your college education that you can't bring yourself to get rid of. Looking good!

OK, but wait... look closely. What about all those books that you bought/were given many moons ago, but you just haven't gotten around to reading? Are those unread titles, neglected and gathering dust amongst your best-loved classics, burning their images into your retinas? Telling you (as does your partner/roommate/family member who is disgusted by your book-buying problem) that "you HAVE books in your bookshelf you haven't read. Why don't you just read one of those?"

You've been trying to avoid them, haven't you? That's why, for me, they're called The Pile. I've stacked these books (not small in number, I'm afraid) and let them teeter precariously in a conspicuous spot. That way, every time I walk out the door and make a bee-line for Avid or Borders, I am reminded that trees died so that I could use these books as window dressing. Heavy, space-stealing, hard-to-take-with-me-overseas-in-large-quantities window dressing. I can almost hear their tiny voices pleading, "Read us. You'll like us. Promise."

It's not that I don't want to read them. I bought them because I wanted to read them (or was given them by someone who I respect and adore). It's just that I don't want to read them right NOW. A book can be ruined if you read it at the wrong time, squandering my potential for ultimate enjoyment. There just never seems to be a great time to give them the attention they deserve. That's why I stopped making New Years resolutions like "I will read every book that I own that I haven't already read." It's a guaranteed failure, every time. Plus, I have a bookstore addiction... but that's a subject for another post.

Still, a girl's got to put her foot down sometime. Some of my now-favorite books have come from The Pile. My Dad gave me The Time Traveller's Wife one year, and it wasn't until maybe two years later that I actually cracked that sucker open. That sucker then proceeded to rock my world.

This is My List, currently harassing me from the corner of my desk:

Song For Night by Chris Abani
If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
The Moviegoer by Percy
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville
Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx
Lie Down In Darkness by William Styron
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Time to get cracking on whittling my List. Who's featuring on yours?

January 6, 2010

You're Welcome.

So, this isn't new, but when my lovely friend showed it to me over the holidays, it was new to me. I needed a pick-me-up today. I'm thinking that maybe you could use one, too.

You're more than welcome.