Wednesday, July 30, 2008

As Young as You Feel

  1. Too Many Clients

by Rex Stout

Bantam Books, 1960

Yesterday evening, while perusing the website of a successful literary agent, I noticed most of the clients pictured on the photo page are far younger than I. Maybe my upcoming 51st birthday has made me overly sensitive to age. I went down to the basement and brought up a paperback copy of Too Many Clients by Rex Stout. I'm celebrating being old enough to remember when phone numbers started with a word.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Note on My Footnote

The other day I wrote that I didn't know of other kid lit bloggers who say what is happening in their works in progress. Let me clarify. Lots of bloggers talk about what is happening WITH their works in progress. I read progress reports, solutions to problems, revision techniques, etc. No one (I've read) writes about what is happening IN their work in progress.

Plot summaries tend to sound silly. Also it feels odd to say too much about unpublished work. Still, writing about my WIP, without being specific about the plot, seems confusing.

Overheard #19

"I'll never catch him. He's the Gingerbread Man."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Thoughts on Draft 5

1. The read through took longer than anticipated. Too many people have designs on my time.

2. The pacing seems faster. Probably an improvement.

3. Removing Ryan was a good thing.

Since my last retreat, I have indulged in a long harangue about removing a character named Ryan. He unconsciously provided conflict between my protagonist, Lia, and her romantic interest, Tom. In the absence of Ryan, I needed to find a different source of tension because everyone knows The course of true love ne'er did run smooth.” I believe the new sources of conflict are more integrated to the main plot. In addition, I can include Lia’s social insecurity and exploit the teenage maleness of Tom.

These vague posts about my WIP always seem awkward to me. On the other hand, I don't know of any other kid lit bloggers who say what is happening in their works in progress.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Overheard #18

"It's a bit iffy to convince someone that they're wrong and you're right."

Perseverance vs. Stubbornness

Lately, I’ve been considering my previous WIP, the manuscript I am currently submitting.

The field of children’s literature is full of stories about people who overcame overwhelming odds to find success. I’ve heard an equal number of tales of mountainous slush piles created by hopeful writers who refuse to accept rejection, improve their craft or refine manuscripts.

How do I know if I’m persevering or being stubborn? When should I stow a manuscript in the basement, say Kaddish for it, and focus on the next one? How can I tell if another round of revisions will push it over the top or suck the life out of it?

People tell me to trust my gut. But the gut is close to the heart, and the heart is a fickle judge. One moment, I remember a scene or something a character said, and I know it is right and true; the next moment I envision my stack of rejected queries, and decide to put the manuscript away. Perhaps the only answer is in the final result. If a manuscript gets published, then its author persevered. If the manuscript fails, its author was stubborn.


Photo by Z.F. Burton

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The First Rule of a Read-Through

Don't Stop And Fix It.

It's all about the big picture.

I dislike rules, even my own, so I use the highlighter function in Word to mark blunders, snafus and typos.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Fifth Draft

I finally finished the 5th draft. My WIP has lost one character, one subplot, one chapter and 8,000 words. Whew!

The next step is reading the entire manuscript from start to finish. I have a sneaking suspicion it will feel like a bad haircut.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Overheard #17

"Excuses are like bellybuttons. Everybody has one."


Saturday, July 19, 2008


by Mary Jane Beaufrand

Little, Brown and Co., 2008

Primavera is a fast-paced exciting book, set in Florence in the 1480s. Flora, the protagonist, grows from a day-dreaming girl to a brave, forceful woman. The Medicis are delightfully ruthless, the setting is lush, and the characters live and breathe.

I admire novels that include “plots within plots.” Each character has a plan and a counter-plan in opposition to every other character’s plans and counter-plans. In Dune, Shōgun and Fly by Night, the plots within plots are expressed through multiple points of view. Beaufrand succeeds in communicating complex intrigue through the eyes of one young girl who cannot know all that goes on in the scheming world of the Medicis. Kudos.

But, I do have a small bone to pick. Whenever a poisoning occurs, Flora smells almonds, and arsenic is named as the poison. Arsenic is odorless unless it is heated and oxidized to form arsenic trioxide which smells of garlic. The poison that smells of almonds is cyanide. I found several references to arsenic poisoning during the Italian Renaissance, but my brief computer search did not inform me if cyanide was known as a poison at that time.

I did find other interesting information about Medici poisons, though. For me, the most notable concerned a character mentioned in Primavera. Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici
was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de' Medici, the man who was assassinated in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Giulio later became Pope Clement VII and died after eating Amanita phalloides (death cap mushrooms). The toxin in these mushrooms (α-amanitin) inhibits RNA Polymerase II, the enzyme that catalyses the synthesis of messenger RNA. My last job as a scientist involved researching the molecular mechanism of RNA Polymerase II.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Another Retreat

In two weeks, The World's Greatest Critique Group is going on a writing retreat. I hope to finish the long and arduous draft #5 before we go. Then I'll be ready to leap into Darcy Pattison's book, Novel Metamorphosis.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Grand Opportunity

This evening as I sat reading at my sons' Tae Kwon Do class, Sabum Nim, the master instructor, sat down beside me. He asked how many hours a day I spend writing. I told him since my mother moved to Michigan, only 1 or 2. He asked me if the time I spend reading was equal to my writing time. I said my time was probably 60% reading, 40% writing. He asked what I read. I explained I read a few books for adults, but mostly I read books for preteens or teens. Sabum Nim asked if the books I read are similar to the ones I write. I told him no, I read in all genres.

And then, I had the opportunity to turn to this man who is a 6th degree black belt and once trained with the US Olympic team and say, "A famous writer named Philip Pullman said, 'Read like a butterfly. Write like a bee.'"

Overheard #16

"That's a mistake you'll only make once."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Coining Another Revision Term

I have a new term for scenes that once had conflict and pushed the plot forward, until revisions ground them into pablum.

Dead Air

What do you think? Does anybody have other suggestions?

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Sense of Place

The Underneath

by Kathi Appelt

with drawings by David Small

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008

At a recent SCBWI-MI conference, Patricia Gauch asked us if the settings we’d chosen were essential to our stories. I suggest The Underneath as a wonderful example of an essential setting.

The Underneath could only take place in the piney woods of east Texas. The characters are products of their environment, and the plot is inexorably linked to the bayou. The rhythm of the words and the pacing of the novel reflect the fluvial* ecosystem. The language is rich with local expressions. Here’s a quote from page 118. (Choosing just one passage was difficult.)

"Night after night, he pushed his old pirogue up and down the Bayou Tartine, his kerosene lantern threw a circle of yellow light atop the muddy water. It was impossible to see more than a foot below the surface of the whisky-colored drink; the murkiness made a silty curtain that hid the inhabitants below."

I recommend The Underneath as a beautifully written, engaging book. It also has much to teach.

*I’ve been aching to use that word.

Cool Science Slide Show

The New York Times Science page has an interesting slide show called Fossil Feathers, Moon Water and Crystals of Ebola. I adore feather fossils, and these are particularly interesting because they retain the variegated color patterns of the original dinosaur feathers.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Photo by Z.F. Burton

This week, I have more than one flower, a real bouquet.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Overheard #15

"If I ever get rich, I'm going to hire someone to be pretentious for me."

Friday, July 11, 2008

What to Call Those Revision-Induced Problems

Adding or subtracting a subplot or character can have far-reaching effects on other parts of the manuscript. My friend, April Jo Young, calls this the ripple effect. Isn't that lovely? I usually refer to these revision-induced problems as fallout. My husband calls them collateral damage.

Chapter 23 of my WIP makes me feel like I'm wading through a shrapnel field.


Thursday, July 10, 2008


I need to refocus on this image and what I said about it. Don't change the scene. Cut the scene.

This morning I read Darcy Pattison's blog on events not worthy of a full scene. I had half-decided to cut the last scene in Chapter 22, and after reading her post, I was positive the scene had to go.

Then I scanned the entire chapter. Where is the conflict? More importantly, how could this chapter have survived 4 previous drafts without it? What's wrong with me?

Then I realized that when Ryan was in the novel, the chapter did have sufficient and necessary conflict. Ryan didn't appear in the chapter, but he and his subplot provided conflict nonetheless. The chapter also had an argument between the protagonist and her best friend that I moved to another chapter for reasons of logic. Now there's nothing left worth keeping.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Two Teens Before the Wheel

My younger son just got his learner's permit. My older son still has his. While the older one is perfecting the skills of parallel parking and is close to taking his driver's test, the younger one is still driving at the white-knuckle stage. This is hardly surprising as he has spent all of 2 hours and 27 minutes behind the wheel.

I strive to remain calm.

Teaching a teen to drive will teach you a lot about yourself.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Photo by Z.F. Burton

Why Do Revisions Stall?

Usually my revisions stall because the demands of family and life absorb my time and creative energy. I think of those as physical stalls. Revisions can also stall for intellectual reasons. Good ideas are replaced by a plague of contrived schemes. Intellectual stalls are something I can control. I start by asking questions.

What is happening? Often the story founders because the characters aren’t doing anything.

Who is there? Have unnecessary characters been introduced on a whim? Are too few characters involved in the scene?

How does this scene push the plot forward?

Why is the scene/subplot/idea essential for the chain reaction of the plot arc?

When the scene unfolds, how will the characters change?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July

Photos by Z.F. Burton

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Quote from Peeled

"If it ever gets easy, do something else."

Peeled by Joan Bauer

Why I Love Joan Bauer's Books


by Joan Bauer

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008

Joan Bauer's characters are passionate about what they do, whether it is selling shoes, being a waitress or reporting for a school newspaper. Their passion makes them interesting. Some teenagers may feel their lives are little more than Brownian motion. But as a reader, I care most about characters who care deeply.

Self Analysis: Are the characters I create passionate?

Luke is the protagonist of G&G, the novel I am currently submitting. While Luke is foundering in school and alienating his family, he is determined to preserve the memory of his best friend, even if he needs to sacrifice other things to do so. Yes, Luke is passionate.

Lia is the protagonist of CBL, my work-in-progress. She is passionate about cooking and chemistry (which are really the same thing). She loves her friend and her family, but when it comes to boys, Lia is out to sea.

Assignment: Find five additional places to demonstrate Lia's passion.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Voice Lessons

My Name is Red
translated from Turkish by Erdağ Göknar
Vintage International (a division of Random House) 2001
I recommend this book as a lesson in writing differing voices. Chapters are told by different characters. One is written by a gold coin, that turns out to be counterfeit, while another is written by a painting of a dog. Still another is told by a corpse. Each is believable in content and detail.