Friday, September 30, 2011

Dear Chapter Two

Dear Chapter Two [of the WIP],

So, listen...I'm going to get straight to the point. What is up with you, Chapter Two? There I was, bumbling along through my first draft. I hit you and all seemed fine. Then I hit the middle of you and...that's it. Standstill. Road block. Possibly even dead end?

I don't know if you know this, Chapter Two, but two is a really low number. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a novel that ends on Chapter Two. Much less the middle of Chapter Two. I'm not saying you and I couldn't be post-post-post-modernist pioneers together but, I don't know, let's just go over this rationally, okay?

See, the thing is, there are things that need to happen in Chapters Four, Ten and Twelve. Things that I'm pretty excited about writing. Things that--if you really thought about it--I'm sure you'd be excited to help set up. But there's this whole "all-those-numbers-come-after-two" thing that we need to consider. I don't think an editor or the world at large will really budge on that.

I can guess what you're thinking. Maybe you're tired of being the number two. I mean, everyone loved you on Card Sharks, but was it just an empty, shallow kind of love? Did you feel used? Or maybe you're tired of all the celebrity. Starring in all those songs and the titles of Olsen Twin movies. It's understandable, Two. Anyone would be exhausted.

Let's just do this gently. You help me out this weekend and then I'll leave you alone for a good long while. I'll move on to Chapter Three. I promise not to dwell on making you perfect or, even, good. I will totally settle for simply "finished."


Your friend,

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Top 7 Things I Learned From My Final Proofread [Cue Synth Music]

Yesterday, I sent off the final, final, finalest version of my manuscript for The Mapmaker and the Ghost. Whatever's in there gets printed into a hardcover book and I will never have a chance to change anything about it ever again.

That is totally not freaky. No not at all.

And this is not an image of me peeking out in horror at my manuscript from underneath the covers.

And to prove how not freaky it is, I have made a soothing list!

Here are the top 7 things I learned from my final proofread:

1) Why yes, the epic synth lick from Europe's The Final Countdown can totally play in your head as you read all 245 pages of your manuscript. Sometimes accompanied by visuals of GOB Bluth performing "illusions." Oh, wait. I'm supposed to be concentrating?

2) I really thought I knew when to use commas. It turns out, I don't. I think I'll just own it and from now on will, haphazardly, place them, as I see,,,fit.

3) Which is sure to make me really popular with proofreaders everywhere.

4) Speaking of which, can I say how much I am in awe of them? Not only are they keeping track of all the grammar, comma, m-dash mistakes that I'm making, but they are also checking for continuity, accuracy and--sometimes--even character development. Wow.

5) Regular erasers don't really work on colored pencil. Which is a problem when you have a random freakout, change an entire paragraph thinking it's about a different character than who it's actually about, and then realize your mistake and need to erase all your notes in the margin, finally ending with a hearty: STET, Please ignore my comments [I'm a moron].

6) Wow. So, this story is really, truly going out into the world. It's exciting, thrilling and scary all at the same time. For a long time, it was my story and I physically knew the handful of people reading it. All of that is about to change...

7) No, on earth did I never know that I'm a comma dunce?

Monday, September 26, 2011

When Your Fifth Grade Teacher Turns Out To Be Kinda Psychic

This weekend, I was at my parents' house and I specifically sought out something I know I've wanted to share on my blog for a while. It was this:

...which is my fifth grade yearbook.
Inside, is an inscription from my fifth grade teacher, one that I've never forgotten since the day it was written:

That says:
Dear Sarvenaz,
I expect to read a novel written by you one day. Keep up the good writing. Lots of best wishes.
Mrs. Childs
Pretty neat, huh?

P.S. Today, in trivia you didn't ask for but are getting anyway: a very important character in The Mapmaker and the Ghost is named in honor of my elementary school.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Birthday Bash #28: The Beatles

Originally, the theme for my 28th birthday party was supposed to be something entirely different (don't worry; it was recycled for a later date). But then, Harmonix announced that it would be releasing Beatles Rock Band a couple of weeks before my birthday and that all changed.

You see, I love Rock Band. And I L.O.V.E. The Beatles. They were almost exclusively all I listened to while growing up. Except for some Michael Jackson and that one Goo Goo Dolls album that you probably owned too, admit it.

Anyway, the Beatles Rock Band concept was simple: come dressed as your favorite Beatle or Beatles song character. montage!

I love that they are in black and white. Genius!
They brought their own crosswalk. Naturally.
Maxwell's Silver Hammer (self-constructed and the winner of the costume contest) and some Sgt. Peppers.
Perhaps you can guess who I'm supposed to be?

Top on the list if things I would never have guessed planning this party is that three separate people would show up in mustard costumes. (That's two Mean Mr. Mustards and one very creative Yellow Submarine.) I loved it! It was especially great when I got all three of them to harmonize on Twist & Shout.

A little bit of the Rock Band part of the Beatles Rock Band party.
My friend Bryan made this cake FROM SCRATCH. It tasted as awesome as it looked.

A splendid time was guaranteed for all! Well, I had an amazing time, anyway.

For those of you not present for the bash...what would you have dressed up as?!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hurricane First Draft

I think all writers have a favorite part of writing and all have a least favorite part.

My favorite part is revising. I like stepping back and being able to look at the big picture, find the threads that I didn't even know were there, fit in new puzzle pieces and slide some old pieces around to make a richer, fuller, more satisfying story.

Which stands to reason that I hate first drafts. With a passion. More specifically, I hate outlining first drafts. Because my least favorite part of writing (but the part that I feel like is the skeletal structure of any good story, especially for children) is plot.

Now, I actually am an outliner and not a "pantser" (someone who writes by the seat of their pants). I find I need to spend time just focusing on plot points, what happens where and my story arc. It's the only way I know of to finish the dreaded first draft. But it's like pulling teeth.

Speaking of pulling teeth, cliched metaphors are often innocent bystanders to the disasters that are my first drafts. So are wordy sentences. And the word "really." This is where I have to stop and give thanks to my beta readers, the EMTs to my catastrophes, the ones who can seem to find the solid, sometimes breathing bodies underneath the mess. Also, the ones who love me anyway even after I make them read that drivel.

Writers out there, are there some usual suspects you always find sneaking around your first drafts, begging to be sniffed out and carted away? And what are your favorite and least favorite parts of writing?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hollywood and the Conundrum of Pretty People in Ordinary Situations

Film is a visual medium. People like looking at pretty people. Therefore, most actors and actresses are exceedingly attractive. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, right?

But I have a pet peeve. And it has to do with those actors and actresses who are empirically gorgeous, the ones that seem to have come from a different stratosphere. What happens when they play ordinary people who don't get by on their looks one way or another?

The perfect example of this is Angelina Jolie in Changeling. In this Clint Eastwood movie, she plays a 1920s-era single mother whose son disappears. The movie is actually very good. The cinematography is gorgeous. The acting and directing are great. The clothes and art direction are lovely. But watching the movie, I just felt uneasy. Angelina Jolie, all dolled up 1920s-style, plays a single woman working as a telephone operator. Throughout the movie, she has detectives and bosses and tons of other men interacting with her. Not once do any of them acknowledge her beauty. No one mildly flirts; no one does a double-take; no one treats her like anything but an ordinary working mom.

This takes me out of the story because I just can't believe that someone who looks like Angelina Jolie wouldn't be an actress or a model or, at the very least, highly acknowledged for her looks. I can totally buy her as a spy in Salt or in a stylized action movie like Wanted. Even in Girl, Interrupted, it worked because a) they tried to make her a little less obviously attractive and b) she was in a mental hospital, one example of a situation that superseded her physical allure. But in a straightforward drama like Changeling, it killed my suspension of disbelief, even though her performance was pretty phenomenal.

That's why I think Charlize Theron had to destroy her looks to convincingly be in Monster. Same with Jude Law in Road to Perdition.

What do you think? Has there ever been an actor that has been too attractive for their own good in a specific role?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TV I Love: Torchwood, Season 3

At some point this summer when I got really into Doctor Who (somewhere near the end of Series 1), I decided to take the plunge and watch Torchwood too. All I knew about it was that it was a Doctor Who spinoff, created by Russell T Davies and starring Captain Jack Harkness (a.k.a. John Barrowman).

This is John Barrowman. You should know that he also spends most of the show in suspenders and a 1940s-era long army coat.

My boyfriend once pointed out that he looks like the exact combo of Tom Cruise and Mark Harmon. Which led me to creating this genius mathematical formula: handsome x handsome = HANDSOME

I'm probably going to spend a couple of years in Minsk proving it.

Anyhoo, so. Yes, Torchwood.  I liked it. I will admit that I didn't love it right off the bat. For one thing, Doctor Who is very much a family show and Torchwood is, er, not. So that was a bit jarring. The character of Captain Jack Harkness (which is introduced in Season 1 of Doctor Who) is a little different in this iteration, and that took some getting used to. I also found the first season pretty uneven. There were episodes I liked, but there were also a few I couldn't get into.

But I valiantly carried on. In case you're wondering why, here's another photo of John Barrowman.

Season 2 was better than Season 1. And I thought all the episodes were pretty strong.

And then came Season 3. Holy awesome television, Batman.

Being a BBC series, Seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood had the standard 13 episodes each. But Season 3 was a 5-episode miniseries. And let me tell you, that sort of taut storytelling worked really well for this show.

It's also a great story arc to look at as a writer. The stakes keep getting higher and higher. The plot goes in a lot of unexpected places but it all ultimately makes sense. And there is a lot of beautiful character work with the leads who are within the whole series and also some new characters that are introduced just for Season 3. It's excellent television drama.

I don't have Starz so I haven't yet seen the new season of Torchwood, which is now being co-produced in the U.S. and partially takes place in America (Seasons 1-3 take place in Cardiff, Wales). I have to admit, I have some qualms about moving such a British show to the states but I've hear murmurings of good things. Has anyone seen it?

Oh, and I'll just leave you with this. Because John Barrowman...also sings. (And, hey, suspenders in action!)


Okay, and sometimes he does easy listening.

This video makes me giggle.

Monday, September 12, 2011

MG Author Spotlight & Giveaway: Interview with Stephanie Burgis

I am very excited to present a new monthly feature on my blog: the MG Author Spotlight and Giveaway! Every month, I will be featuring an interview with a Middle Grade author along with a giveaway of the author's book.

And I am extra, ginormously, stupendously excited to present the first author to be a part of this: Stephanie Burgis, author of Kat, Incorrigible. If that title sounds familiar, it may be because you read me raving about it just a couple of weeks ago.

First, a little about Stephanie's wonderful book:

Katherine Ann Stephenson has just discovered that she's inherited her mother's magical talents, and despite Stepmama's stern objections, she's determined to learn how to use them. But with her eldest sister Elissa's intended fiancé, the sinister Sir Neville, showing a dangerous interest in Kat's magical potential; her other sister, Angeline, wreaking romantic havoc with her own witchcraft; and a highwayman lurking in the forest, even Kat's reckless heroism will be tested to the upmost. If she can learn to control her new powers, will Kat be able to rescue her family and win her sisters their true love?

And now for the interview:

To borrow (and modify) a question from James Lipton, what’s your favorite middle-grade appropriate “curse word” or insult?
Stephanie Burgis: Since I'm a Regency author, of course my answer has to be: "Dash it!" ;)

If you could be BFF with any Jane Austen character, who would you pick?

SB: Definitely Elizabeth Bennet! There might be other Austen heroines that are even more admirable, but none that would be more fun to hang out with - and she's loyal to her friends even when they make choices she hates, so that's just one more bonus!

If you had only five minutes with Kat's mother's spellbooks, which spell would you look up and try to master?
SB: Since I'm often wrangling a toddler nowadays, I'd love to be able to make teapots and other practical things move without using my hands!

In your acknowledgments, you mention you have a "writing club" with your brothers. Tell me more about that. Did your relationship with them inform the relationship between the three sisters in the book?
SB: I'm the oldest in my own family, with two younger brothers, both of whom are also writers. (My brother Ben has published several science fiction and fantasy short stories for adults, while my brother David works in film and also writes screenplays.) So of course we had a secret writing club as kids! It was great to have a critique group within my own house as I grew up, and now that we're adults, we still read and critique most of each other's stories.

When it came to writing Kat, I didn't base any of the characters on real people, but the fact that I come from a noisy, loving, close-knit family definitely influenced the way I wrote Kat's noisy, loving, close-knit family! Kat's the youngest of four, with two older sisters, whereas I'm the oldest of three with no sisters at all...but her siblings, just like mine, all bicker, laugh, irritate, enjoy and love each other deeply.

What are two MG books you'd recommend and why?
Maryrose Wood's The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book One: The Mysterious Howling made me laugh out loud several times. It's incredibly funny and just so much fun to read!

And Sheela Chari's Vanished is a wonderful, globe-trotting MG mystery about music and curses that's also a beautifully-written novel about family and growing up. I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much for the interview, Steph! I can't wait for Renegade Magic, the sequel to Kat, Incorrigible, which will be out in April.

The giveaway is now closed. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who entered! I had such a blast reading all your comments.

After the drawing, congratulations to...Heidi Grange! Heidi has won a copy of Kat, Incorrigible and one copy of Sheela Chari's Vanished (Stephanie's MG recommendation).

Stay tuned for next month's MG Author Spotlight and Giveaway. It'll be a good one, I promise!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Most Ironic Poster to Grace My Bedroom Wall

When I was in 5th grade, sticker trading was really big in my school and The Simpsons premiered on television. I mention this because, for a few months, the most coveted stickers were not oilies, or fuzzies or scratch and sniffs. They were a plain sheet of Simpsons stickers that were impossible to find. My mom and I scoured practically every store within a ten-mile radius of our house until, finally, we found them at a big indoor flea market that was a few town overs.

A couple of months later, my mom saw a Simpsons poster and--thinking me a rabid fan (instead of the conformist I was actually being)--bought it for me. It looked like this:

...and it hung in the bedroom I shared with my sister for years.

Years later, it was my sister who pointed out to me the irony of us not only having a poster that said Underachiever on it but one that was given to us by our mother.

The thing is, one of the cardinal rules of being in my family was doing the best you can at everything you can. And excelling academically was a top priority. Really, getting below a 90 on my report card was basically unacceptable.

I know this sounds a bit harsh now but the thing is, my parents knew I was capable of getting over a 90 and they thought it was important that I try to always achieve what I was capable of. To be fair to them, they did not push me that hard in things I was clearly awful at. Like hand-eye coordination. Or not reading during family functions.

Sometimes, it created some pressure. But, mostly, I know raising me with those values gave me a ton of self-discipline and a desire to push myself to excel. Two things that led me to write, to finish a manuscript, to finish another manuscript when that one didn't go anywhere (and repeat), to revise, revise, and revise. To always want to be better than I was before.

Even though that meant I basically got no sick days off from school and grief for getting an 89 in Chemistry one semester...I'm grateful. I don't know who I'd be without that drive that was instilled in me.

So, Bart Simpson. Eat my shorts!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Call

A year ago last week is the day I got "the call"--the one from my agent that said there had been an offer on my manuscript.

It started out as an email first, actually, with just a subject line: "Call me." Right away, I kinda knew something unusual must be happening. My agent didn't usually call to discuss rejections: she just forwarded them to me or kept me posted on the progress report. I was at work (on a particularly busy day) so I snagged a conference room, and with my heart somewhere in my throat,  dialed her number.

I would be lying if I said I hadn't imagined that call (or, really, that email) for a long, long time. I always thought I'd cry. The funny thing was: I didn't. I was too shocked. I called a few key people and told them in a shaky voice. And then I had to go back to work (which was basically completely impossible, by the by). And then I was struck with a sense of, now what? Do I tell people? What if I tell people and it falls through? OMG, what if it does fall through? Even with those thoughts rapidly chasing themselves around in my head, I had a huge dopey grin on my face.

So. What have I learned in the past year? Lots of things. For example, contracts and advance checks take a LOT longer than I ever expected. (Mine came after I had turned in all my edits...and that's pretty normal!) You can absolutely still get rejections and have insecurities and all those other things that were happening before you were getting published. Writing is hard and requires a time commitment and sacrifices and sometimes tearing your hair out in frustration...just like it always did.

But there's something I wrote in my very first post on this blog that is probably the truest thing I've learned from this experience: it's not everyday that a major, lifelong dream comes true. And no matter what little snags or frustrations come along, I've never lost sight of that sense of wonder and gratitude. And I hope I never do. I hope that wherever life takes me, whatever work I'm doing 10 or 20 years from now, or whatever has happened along the way by then, I'll never forget that on August 31, 2010, something truly wonderful happened to me.

I'm humbled. And thankful. And still a little shocked...I know this because, after all this time, I still haven't cried!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Covers I Love: Recent Reads

The expression "You can't judge a book by its cover" makes a lot of sense. I can't imagine that once you read a book, loving or hating it is much influenced by anything other than what's written on its pages.

However, whether you pick up a book in the first place, that can have a lot to do with what sort of artwork is slapped on the front. Especially when you're browsing a bookstore and mesmerized by those tables with 40 books on them that I swear are designed for suckers like me who did NOT mean to buy 20 books when they walked in.

But I digress.

Here are two recent reads that got me to pick them up solely based on their covers. (Of course, I eventually bought and read them based on their jacket copy, too).

It's so deceptively simple, yet so striking, right? The book is a tightly wrought murder mystery (with a few creepy moments) and I think the cover conveys that perfectly.

It's illustrated by Jennifer Wang and designed by Nancy Resnick.

Obviously, a completely different book but striking all the same. Right away I get a sense of a time period, a certain playfulness and even a certain writing style. The book is a very clever (and funny) story of a governess in 19th century England bringing up three kids who were (literally) raised by wolves.

Illustrated by Jon Klassen (who also has wonderful full-page illustrations throughout the book) and typography by Sarah Hoy.

I'm happy to report that neither cover led me astray: I thoroughly enjoyed both books and would recommend them.

What about you? Any recent books you picked up because the cover stood out to you?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

If I Could Squish a Chain Store, This Is the One I Would Pick

I have long had a very soft spot in my heart for Barnes & Noble.

When I was a teen, after Waldenbooks and B. Dalton closed in our local mall, a B&N opened and it definitely became my bookstore. I worked at a Barnes and Noble briefly (in the children's section!). I bought a Nook within a week of its initial release. And it's one of those stores that, if I'm in a strange place or town, I'll seek out for comfort. Green awning, coffee and books everywhere: basically a recipe for calming me down no matter what.

I'm really, super excited to say that The Mapmaker and the Ghost is now available for pre-order from Barnes & Noble! Check it out here.

By the way, if I ever walk into my hometown Barnes & Noble and see my book on the shelf there, I will probably die. You know, in the Rachel Zoe sense of the word.