Friday, July 30, 2010

A Train Ride through France

I never understood why Meg Ryan made such a big deal about lactose intolerance in the movie French Kiss. I always thought her moaning and stomach clutching was a bit over the top and a poor substitute for the dinner scene in When Harry Met Sally. I thought that, anyway, until I developed lactose intolerance myself. Now drinking milk, eating cheese or indulging in ice cream has become a practice in torture.

It took me awhile to figure out what was going on. One doctor told me I had gallstones (I didn't), another put me on four different medications (which didn't help), and another told me to eat nothing but chicken broth and rice (not going to happen). After a horrible experience involving tomato soup, a cheese sandwich and a trip to urgent care, I figured out I just needed to cut out the dairy in my diet to live in peace. I switched to soy, stopped buying cheese and cut "cream sauce" from my culinary vocabulary.

The only problem is that I find myself dreaming of chocolate milk, cheesecake and heaping bowls of cream-covered, fresh Louisiana strawberries. What I wouldn't do to be able to take that last little sugary sip after finishing my cereal in the morning without the horrible after-taste of soy beans. I want to go to an Italian and order both the Alfredo dish and a cannoli for desert. And to be able to enjoy an ice cream run with my friends without having to suffer the consequences an hour later? I might just sell my soul for that.

I have no self control. I can't help it that ice cream might not solve any problems, but it sure does make the world look like a better place for a little while. Or that yogurt is the fastest, easiest thing to eat in the morning. Or that I don't want to be an osteoporosis nightmare before I hit menopause. I want dairy, dammit!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mothers and Daughters

I have two house guests this weekend, and while one actually is my mom, the other might as well be my mom, too, which means I will never feel like my house is clean enough for them.

I spent all last night laundering linens and going grocery shopping. (I couldn't let my two moms think I sleep on dirty sheet and eat nothing but take-out.) This morning I woke up early to scour the bathroom before work. And I went home for lunch to clean my floors.

That makes it sound like either my house is a disaster or these two women will think less of me if my house isn't immaculate. Neither one of these scenarios is true, but I think it's programmed into daughters to crave approval from our mothers. We want them to see what perfect women we have turned out to be. That we ourselves are the perfect housekeepers/mothers/hostesses/workers. That we have full lives and accomplish great things all while keeping a perfect house.

My mother will love me, dirty house or clean, empty cupboards or full. But isn't it nice to know that my mom will have a clean bathroom to use while she's here? After all, nothing is too good for the woman who raised me.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lucky Number 13

I've been wanting to create this list for awhile now, probably because 13 was an incredibly transitional reading age for me.

I had a slow start as a reader, but as soon as I turned 13, it was like, BAM!, the magic of reading hit me. All of a sudden I was reading picture books, series fiction, literary classics, science fiction, mysteries, books for kids, books for adults, books for babies. If it had words in it, I was reading it.

But my story goes against the norm. As kids move from middle grade to YA books, we often try to force them into books that are too young for their interests or too "classic" for their taste. In fact, many kids (especially boys) just stop reading altogether.

While this list doesn't contain any picture books or books for adults, it is a list of 13 books I wish had been around when I was 13. (That means all of these books have been published in the last 13 years.) There is a mix of books for boys and girls, fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and realism.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

Airman by Eoin Colfer

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong

Phineas Gage by John Fleischman

Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Imagination Come Alive

Sometimes the best thing to get me excited about writing is the encouragement. Positive re-enforcement is always a good motivator. So if I'm doing so many things wrong, what could I possibly be doing right?

I read extensively on a variety of subjects so I know the market. Stephen Fraser talked about about several books his author's have coming out, and many of them I already have on my to-read list. Even in the generas that I don't have a writing interest in (i.e. paranormal, picture books), I still read and keep current on.
"[A high concept novel is] a story where the premise is bigger than the characters." i.e. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Artemis Fowl by Eion Colfer, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
-Elana Roth
Sometimes the journey to knowledge is more important than the distention itself. Beneath all the research and history and expert opinion should be a mystery that makes kids question the reality of how the world is. But most importantly, every event is caused by something bigger and more global than the small little reaction we see in our own corner of the world.
"We aren't training kids for a Flatland. We're training them for a sphere."
-Marc Aronson
Being able to write for children/teens means knowing about modern teens. The world is changing too quickly for me to be able to rely on my own memory of what it was like to be in elementary school, middle school, high school. I need to be involved with kids--talk to them--and at least try to understand the issues they are dealing with on a daily basis.

"Find out what kids are learning about... What is the next thing that will change kids lives?"
-Margaret Peterson Haddix
Characters need to have strong voices. I need to be able to hear my characters speaking and be able to see where they live. It's not enough to have a good story (a high concept) if I don't have the characters to support it. In contrast, without a solid story, even the strongest of characters cannot survive.
"If you're going to commit to writing a book for two years or more, you darn well better be committed to that story."
-Joyce McDonald
This writing conference was an eye-opening experience for me. So if any of the speakers are wondering if they were able to teach anyone anything, if anyone was listening, know that I was. In these past few posts I have been able to touch on only a very few details that I learned. After two days, I hope I have become a better writer.

(Although I didn't quote her in either this post or the previous post, I'd like to mention Michelle Poploff and her wonderful session with Edie Hemingway about the editor/agent relationship. She helped me see that while making big changes to a manuscript might be scary and intimidating, they are worth the effort. It is better to make changes before a book goes to print than to be disappointed with your work years later.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Leaping in Head First

"You can. You will. Have fun. Isn't is amazing?"
-Margaret Peterson Haddix
I have come to this conclusion: Conferences are great, but they have a way of making you feel like you aren't doing anywhere near enough. At least they should make you feel that way. But they also have a way of getting you excited to try harder.
"What you know so far is always propelling you to what you will know in the future."
-Marc Aronson
For example, I need a way better query letter. Query letters aren't just for an agent or editor, they also make you look at your manuscript and decide what's important, what makes it different, and what makes it marketable.
"Show in your query letter that you can write... Eye-popping visuals show you have an imagination... Authors need to know where their story is."
-Elana Roth (no vampires)
Also, I need to introduce my initiating action sooner. It's like I'm writing my first chapter as a prologue rather than diving right in. So now I'm a hypocrite because I always say how pointless prologues are, but I've been writing them all along.
"Let your reader know what the main conflict is--or at least hint at it--on the first page. The sooner you can engage the reader, the better."
-Joyce McDonald
Another big thing: I need to be taking advantage of children's magazine writing. They are a great way to gain exposure, understand your audience and practice the craft. Why I'm so intimidated by children's magazines, I'll never know, especially when I'm often published in regular newspapers and magazines.
"Less is more. Always."
-Debra Hess
Oh yes, I also need to be tweeting more. I set up a twitter account like...err...a year and a half ago, and I only have 65 posts, and none of them are all that interesting. Why, oh why, am I not a better social mediaer? And my YouTube Channel? Yeah, that hasn't been updated in almost a year.
"If you ever have a whim as an author, follow it. You will never be wrong."
-Stephen Fraser
And I can't forget that I need to develop a better elevator pitch. Or that I need to find the hook that solidifies my current WIP. Or that I need to be sending out way more agent queries.

That's a whole lot of needing. I suppose I should now get to work on the doing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fan Girl

You get to a certain point in your life/career when you stop having those "fan girl" moments. I thought I had gotten to that point. After all, I've worked with some of the best and consider some pretty amazing people friends. But apparently I'm no where near as cool as I thought.

For example...

The very first day of the MD/DE/VA SCBWI Summer Conference I sat down to breakfast next to this woman who was alone at a table. She had this friendly smile and cute pixy face that made her approachable in a room full of people I didn't know. So after about ten minutes of chatting while eating, I looked down at her name tag and saw "Margaret Peterson Haddix" printed in bold black lettering.

That's when it dawned on me--I was sitting and talking to the bestselling author of Shadow Childern Series. And of course the first thing I blurted out was, "Oh! You wrote Among the Hidden! My friend loved that book!"

...virtual crickets chirping...

No, I didn't play that cool at all. I couldn't even say something like, "You're such a wonderful writer," or at least, "I'm really looking forward to hearing your presentation later today." Instead I had to inform her what book she wrote (a fact I am sure she remembers in detail without my help), and I couldn't even keep the conversation personal but had to refer to my friend's passion for her books.

Luckily she is just as nice as she looks and didn't bat an eye. She just smiled and then continued on with the conversation. Of course I was mortified. But she later let me take a picture of her, which I neglected to save on my camera phone because I live in the dark ages where I think phones belong plugged into walls and cameras should contain longs strips of glossy cellulose acetate.

Second example...

Later that same day I was eating lunch with an editor from Random House. We talked about how she got into the business and what industry trends she is witnessing. I even found out about this great meeting room in the Random House building in New York called the Louis L'amour Room that is decorated in a Western theme complete with cowboy boots and lassoes. Things were going swimmingly until I asked her what projects she has enjoyed working on, and she told me she was the editor for Hattie, Big Sky. Of course I got all excited. "Oh, my gosh! I love that book! I mean, it totally blew me away! And you edited it? That is so awesome!"

...virtual crickets chirping...

Good thing we were sitting with an agent who got the conversation back on track and the editor didn't seem to hold it against me. We actually spoke a few more times this weekend, and I managed to refrain from gushing about any other books.

Third example...

I was standing in the hall chatting with some agents, talking about books and movies and plays. When I mentioned that I went to high school with Matt Damon's cousin, an agent (who represents some of the biggest names in YA/children's lit, mind you) went all fan girl on me. This totally unassuming man got really animated and wanted to know all about my good friend Matt. "I just love Matt Damon! Is he tall? Is he as nice in person as he seems on TV? Don't you just love him in The Talented Mr. Ripley?"

...virtual crickets chirping...

At least I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Off to the Races

I need to stop looking at my calendar. Really.

Every time I open it up, I get intimidated by everything I need to get done and all the places I need to be. I look at everything going on and think: When will I have time to sleep? How will I ever get laundry done? Will I be able to get those books back to the library before it closes? Will I even be able to read those books before I return them? Who will miss me if I skip out on that event?

And my calendar doesn't even take into account all the reality TV I want to be watching or the old episodes of Quantum Leap I still haven't finished.

Instead of methodically prioritizing and completing the items on my calendar, I go into hibernation. Instead of getting things like writing and eating done during "normal business hours," I realize I'm hungry at 9 p.m. or wake up at 2 a.m. to change a word in my WIP because my character has the latest Mac desktop in her room, not a television.

No kidding, that's why I'm awake right now. I couldn't go to sleep out of fear I would forget to change that one little detail.

One detail I won't be forgetting this weekend? My very first writing conference for SCBWI. I'm really excited for expert panels, writing workshops, manuscript critiques. But in a way I'm also really nervous. It's like this is me saying, "Here I am world! Judge me!"

Wish me luck, and wish me sleep. And don't be offended if I miss your calls because I'm sleeping at 8 p.m. rather than watching The Bachelorette like a normal human being.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for New England

So I didn't really have a traditional Boston 4th of July with patriotic music and fireworks over the Freedom Trail. But I did have a lot of fun visiting with my little brother. He's one of my biggest supporters. He even asked me to send him a PDF of my bayou book so he could read it during his last tour on the sub. While his stamp of approval won't get me published, it's kind of cool to think of him coming to love my characters at 20,000 leagues under the sea. After all, how many authors can say that about their books?

(This picture's for you, Mom.)

We stayed at the Constitution Inn on the north end of the city. Though the neighborhood is called the Navy Yard, there's no active base there, and hasn't been for more than 50 years.

(The view from our room was interesting at best, but at least we were close to the city and right on the waterfront.)

I also met up with an old college friend whom I haven't seen for more than nine years. We were planning on meeting for a late lunch and ended up hanging out until well after dinner. You have to love those friends who make it feet like you've never been apart. Though it was nearing 100 degrees, we bet the heat by walking through one of Boston's many spray parks and eating cannolis in the shade at Columbus Park.

(We didn't get as wet as these kids, but we still had fun.)

And of course, what would the holidays in New England be with out clams and lobster? My brother's shipmate's girlfriend's mom (got that straight?) made us this totally amazing dinner with steamed clams and lobster, fresh vegetables and the blest fresh blueberry cobble I have ever tasted. It was great to get to meet new people and enjoy a delicious meal. Plus, I'd never had lobster before, but it was pretty easy to get the hang of after how much crawfish I eat while living in Louisiana.

(Don't tell anyone in New Orleans, but I think lobster tastes a lot better.)

Spending time with my brother made the whirlwind trip well worth the effort. With him out in Hawaii and me down in DC, we almost never get to see each other. Meeting up in Boston was more than just a good excuse to eat well and get away for awhile--it was good for my heart.

Friday, July 2, 2010

My bags are packed

It's really only one bag and one personal item, but I can't wait to go to Boston for the long weekend. I'm leaving my computer behind, but as I'm pretty deep into a new novel, I will have a few old fashioned writing accouterments with me. Like a Moleskine notebooks and a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. Just thinking about it makes me excited and nervous all at once. I mean, what will I do without a spell checker or Wikipedia?

Not that I'm planning on getting much writing done (or much reading, for that matter, contrary to what the four books I'm bringing along indicate). I get to see my little brother for the first time in more than a year. With a month of shore leave, he's been visiting the rest of our family in Chicago for a couple of weeks, and because I'm such a great sister, I told him to pick a spot on the East Cost and I'd make sure to be there for the holiday weekend. Lucky me, he picked one of the coolest spots to be for Independence Day.

Maybe "coolest" isn't the best word choice. I just checked out The Weather Channel, and it's supposed to be in the high 80's to low 90's all weekend. Good thing I packed shorts and a bathing suite.