Monday, April 23, 2012

My Adventures at SCBWI LA Writers Day

This weekend I attended SCBWI LA Writer's Day, which is always a fantastic event. It usually features about 3-4 authors, an agent and an editor, and allows for a more intimate atmosphere than the international conferences to ask questions and meet people. This Writers Day was especially important to me, because an editor who is currently considering my book was present, and it provided me with an otherwise impossible opportunity to connect a face to a name.

As I described to her upon meeting her, she's pretty much a rock star in my world right now. You hold on to a dream an entire lifetime and it finally makes its way to the desk of an editor you admire, and you realize that what it all comes down to is this: Whatever is meant to be will happen. I know, isn't that annoying as hell? But it's true. We can fight, kick, scream, joke to impress, come up with witty one-liners and pat ourselves on the back for making it through the conversation without making all our sentences blur into one out of sheer nervousness, but at the end of the day, it's the work that speaks for us loudest of all.

I also learned via a panel by award-winning author Lee Wardlaw that no matter how many books you publish, there is no guarantee that editors will continue to buy everything you write. She had a seven year lapse in between publication of two of her books, which prompted her now sixteen year old son to joke that he'd forgotten she was a writer. Therefore, it reminds us, as authors, that like any creative endeavor, there are no guarantees, and it is essential to keep producing new stories. We hope to establish long term relationships with editors, but they can change houses or retire or simply not be interested in your book at that time.

We can't fight the universe on any of this stuff. The pool of agents is huge, but the pool of editors is actually quite tiny, and our shot at making it happen is actually terrifyingly smaller than I'd realized. The list of great writers who received representation only to make their first sale with their second, third or even fifth book are quite long. Hopefully, this one will sell, because I do believe in this story, and hope the right editor will connect with it as well. But it underscores the importance of why it is critical to always be working on something new and moving forward.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Finding the Funny

My post today is more of a musing than a real writing post. I've just become increasingly aware from the headlines on Yahoo and the postings of friends on Facebook how it seems as a collective whole we are all going a little crazy. It seems like people are dealing with tragedies and stress in unbelievable numbers - untimely passings of family and friends, home foreclosures, jobs lost, lives being forced to shift and change in unplanned ways. This feeling of personal and literal dystopia seems echoed in the movie and book offerings of the time in record numbers, which on some level offers a bizarre comfort that we are not alone in our personal day-to-day struggles. But wouldn't that mean, more than ever, there is a demand for things that make us feel good, that take us away from our problems and give us hope?

We, as writers, make choices in what we present to our readers. I, personally, feel a sense of responsibility, to remain committed to bringing the light rather than furthering the darkness. After 9/11, I could no longer stomach thrillers and horror movies and stories that didn't offer promise of a better day or the discovery of a safe place. When I choose to disengage from the world, I want to laugh and be entertained, and to forget for the moment what is rattling around in my brain. I remain committed to creating those kinds of stories for an audience that both wants and needs them, regardless of their popularity or current trends.

I started writing a book last year that I got 140 pages deep in to. It was a dark, dramatic story dealing with themes of teen suicide, hopelessness and the main character's journey of self-discovery. While this type of story has a strong foothold in the current market, every time I sat down to write it I would just get . . . depressed. I couldn't exist in the hearts and minds of these characters for very long without needing to take a break from them and find the funny again. It's not to say I won't ultimately return to this story and complete it. I will. But I knew it was not what I needed to write and where I wanted to be the second I sat down and started writing my current novel, which is a light, humorous, romantic road trip novel. It literally did something to the endorphins within me, to laugh and to feel the excitement of a blossoming romance. There is still a story of self-discovery here, but it's a more upbeat one, and that's the haven I want to offer my readers as well.

Don't get me wrong - I admire the incredible imaginations of some of today's authors and the amazing stories they tell, but at the end of the day, I know who I am and what I'm good at and what I want to write. There is plenty of time to experiment later, down the road. When my readers think of me, I want them to conjure up images of stories that make them laugh out loud and give them butterflies in their stomach and capture the essence of what it feels like to be sixteen.

Do you feel committed to anything in particular as you write? Are there certain kinds of stories you feel you are driven to tell? Is there a certain feeling you get when you are writing that lets you know this is "your" story? And if you tend to write darker stories, what makes you feel connected to these stories more than others? Are these also the same types of stories you like to read to escape and entertain?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Writing The Second Novel, Self-Imposed Deadlines and Other Things That Make Me Want To Eat Too Many Baked Goods

Writing a second book is daunting. You've written that first one and you feel solid with it, and if it sells, the reality is that your agent and publishers will likely be expecting something in the same vein. If I launch from writing a snarky romantic comedy into now writing a dark, edgy drama, it raises the dilemma of how to market me as an author. Which book truly defines my writing style? What can readers expect from me? So despite the fact that I spent a good chunk of my year invested in writing a dark, edgy drama, I've recently shifted gears to switch back to the genre in which I feel most comfortable, that does truly echo where I hope to build a career because it's what I know I do really well. As a writer friend recently told me, after I've established myself more as an author and have a few books under my belt, there will be a time down the road when I can bring that dark, edgy drama back and play with it, but for now, I need to work on what readers will have an appetite for if (excuse me, WHEN) this first book sells. :)

So it feels like I'm making up for a lot of lost time right now. I say lost rather than wasted, because even though it was spent in service of a book that I've put on hold for now, any writing time is never wasted. Every sentence, every description, every line of dialogue, is greasing the wheels, so to speak. Everything we write, even if it never sees the light of day, is a chance to improve craft.

There is never a time I feel the time clock ticking to finish up whatever project I'm working on more than early April. With Spring Break behind us, I become acutely aware that there are only a little more than two months left of school, and soon my quiet writing days of solitude will be competing with the strains of Disney Channel sitcoms and kid chatter. Not that I'm complaining - I love my kids and the idea of not waking up at 5:20 a.m. every day to make lunches is always a welcome thing, but it means I have to drastically alter the way I write, when I write, and try to not let go of whatever momentum I've built.

It's a lot of pressure to look at such a tiny window of time and know that there is a lot I wish to accomplish within it writing-wise, but in a way, it might be just the kick in the pants I need. It's easy with month after month of everyone being gone from 8-2:30 to let a writing day slide here or there, but since every one feels precious right now, it's time to batten down the hatches. Even though there is no actual "deadline" for me to finish this book, self-imposing one is a great way to discipline myself to keep my butt in that chair and stop accepting excuses to procrastinate. After all, the more I get done now, the more connected to my story I'll be, and the harder it will be to walk away from. It's like my own NaNoWriMo.

Okay, I'm done procrastinating by writing this blog post. Must. Write.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The "Moral Story" Dilemma

I recently had an interesting request from a family member to recommend some uplifting books for a troubled teen that would help inspire and offer hope and a positive message, and it awakened me to a definitive hole in the literature that is out there for young people today. This is not to say there are not plenty of feel-good stories, or fun and light adventure stories or romance stories, but what about the books with a true message? Why are they not out there?

One of the comments I got on some earlier versions of BAND GEEK was that it felt very "preachy", like the morals I tried to convey within the story were laid on too thick for the reader and gave it too much of a Hallmark-y feeling. Apparently, sending a "message" is a bad thing when it comes to talking to teens, as teens as a rule do not like concepts shoved down their throat and do not like being told what to do or how to think or act. Heck, I know I didn't when I was one.

But what about someone who is looking for hope that life really can get better? Those stories generally seem to come shrink-wrapped in darker tales of suicide, anorexia, loss of best friends or parents to diseases or accidents, and offer the reader a tale of survival and overcoming of obstacles and odds and learning to redefine a new normal. That's great, but what about kids who don't want any more of the darkness because they have enough of that in their own lives, and really just want a road map via a character's positive journey of finding themselves and navigating the tough waters of teenagedom without werewolves, vampires, cutters and cancer? (And I'm not knocking these stories - I've read some brilliantly written, moving ones, believe me!) Many books have messages quietly hidden (Believe in yourself, It's the journey, not the destination, etc.) and it is up to the reader to extract them on their own. This masks the "preachy" factor. But what if they can't relate to the characters or the world they live in so the message they desperately are needing to hear is too buried?

There is truth in saying that life really is filled with these perils and pitfalls, and without some level of drama, there is no conflict, which lends to a boring story. But it seems to me, there must be some happy medium.

The key books that immediately come to mind are the Harry Potter books, but they are also mixed with fantastical elements of darkness which do not exist in that form in the real world. Of course, we could probably all find the Harry, the Ron, the Hermione, the Snape, the Professor Dumbledore and the Voldemort in our lives, but I'm talking about a real-world relateable setting that teens can sink their teeth into and say "This is just like me. How did this character find their happy place?" However, I literally could not think of any contemporary book that fit this mold that I've read recently, and it seems that publishers have shied away from them for all the reasons stated above, yet here is a reader in need. If there's one of her, there must be plenty more like her. To assume every teen reader is looking for the same thing is like assuming everyone loves pizza or Disneyland. Every person is different, and when we read, we are all looking for two things: to escape and to be entertained. So why is there so little for those who "need" that moral story, or in fact, want it, because in those pages they may discover a truth about themselves that makes them realize that maybe they do have what it takes inside of them to move forward and take the next step to being the person they want to be?

Have you read any books that fit this mold? If so, please do share, as I would love to be able to pass this along to this young reader in the hopes that she finds what she is looking for. Teen writers have an important job in the ways we connect to our readers, and it seems to me that this gap, though it may be more of a crack than a chasm, does indeed exist. What are your thoughts?

Chatting With Fellow Sourcebooks Debut Author Kurt Dinan About The Writing Life and DON'T GET CAUGHT!

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