Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Mighty Detail

Last month, I decided to read all seven of the Harry Potter books in a row. Partly because I'd run out of reading material, and partly because the first time I read them, it was spaced out over years. I wanted to see how they hung together end-to-end.

Right now, I'm about halfway through Deathly Hallows, so I'll probably be done with the whole thing soon enough. And I'm still picking myself up off the floor every so often because I'm just ridiculously impressed with her plotting and the characterization of Harry himself. It's just amazing ... 4,000 pages, and it's all so tight.

But last night I noticed something that surprised me a great deal. The first time I read them, a particular image stuck in my head. [SPOILER ALERT!]

After Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic, he installs a new statue in the atrium. It depicts a witch and wizard sitting on a throne made of naked human bodies and reads "Magic is Might." I can't tell you how that image stuck with me. I mean, it really cleaved to my head, and every so often I thought about its sheer horror. It struck me as a deliberately symbolic image ... the piled naked bodies, the simple declaration. It brought to mind the horrors of Auschwitz and the old photographs I had seen of Nazi concentration camps. (My theories on Nazi imagery in Harry Potter are another post ...)

Anyway, imagine my surprise last night when I came across this passage for the second time and I realized it's literally TWO SENTENCES.

That's it. Two sentences.

Boy. I stopped reading and I thought for a few minutes. This is how you give good setting, I thought. In a few resonant sentences, a setting is established forevermore. Just one symbolic piece that represents everything we need to know about the place and its inhabitants.

So when I was writing this morning, I caught myself thinking: Am I picking the right detail? Because it turns out, you can cut almost everything else and just leave those few telling details, and if you're lucky, your reader will still be thinking about it years later.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Over the weekend, I did a little more work on the revision. Of course I'm going to do a revision. The thing is, once I've seen areas of possible improvement, I can't really let it go. It hard for me to continue sending out a project after I've identified areas that could be better. And so even if I don't make ALL the changes outlined in this letter (which I won't), there are enough good points in here that I'm going to take another whack at it.

I've now received two sets of detailed rewrite notes from two different editors at two companies on two different books. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but there is a common thread in both letters. In both cases, the editors ended by saying, "What is the theme?" Now, it could just be me, but I think it's more than that. The underlying message to me is that theme is essential to MG and YA literature. In adult thrillers, you might be able to get away with a whiz-bang story about nothing, but when you're writing for kids, it better have something to say about life. Perhaps it's corny, but I feel like it's a special responsibility for those of us who write for kids. It's a trust. Maybe this is why I recoil from the torture books and the sexualization in so much adult literature -- because it's just not in my nature to live in that place. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it if that's what you write, it's just not for me.

So when I start this rewrite, I'm going to start from my theme. This weekend, I tried an exercise: I tried to boil the book down to a single word. And the word is hope.

Then I spent a lot of time thinking about hope and what it means to me. First off, I recognize that struggling as a writer, working to get published, aiming to sell novels ... it's an inherently hopeful exercise. It's optimistic by its very nature. It's like starting a business or drawing up plans for a house or planting a tulip bulb. You hope. It's a positive, forward-looking thing. You want to see the business flourish, fall asleep in your new house, smell the bloom.

But it takes a lot of strength to continue hoping, no? Especially as time wears on and the rejections and defeats pile up, as they inevitably do. The odds are long, you might be surrounded by people who live in a hopeless space, or maybe you just don't believe you have that kind of strength ... it gets hard.

Yet I think that hopelessness is a learned behavior. Ask a kid what she wants to be when she grows up. President. Rock star. Peace Corps volunteer. It's an endless vista, all fueled by this relentless optimism that anything is possible. It's tempting to say this is just the naiv├ęte of youth, but I disagree -- I think these youthful hopes are crushed by the sad, sometimes impotent cruelty of the adult world.

So that's what this book is about. This book is about a kid who has a dream and who starts out with high hopes for himself, and about the kids he meets along the way who have their own hopes and dreams. In each case, they are already struggling against the system, and the system is always adults. It's their own parents, it's their schools, it's the government. These are the forces arrayed against them -- the same ones that turn hopeful little writers into PR flacks and hopeful little presidents into drop-outs.

But at least in my world, in this book, my kids are gonna win.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Is It Cheating If You Love Her?

I'm in need of some writerly advice. Or perhaps I'm just feeling guilty.

Here's the story. We are shopping a new book right now, and good things are happening. The very first editor who read it likes the book rather a lot, and wants to take it under her wing. But here's the catch: she wants non-contractual changes (for anyone who remembers, I went through this once before). That's no big deal. I get how hard it is to break in, and this is another tip-top company. But I got her rewrite letter this week, and I find myself in a weird position ...

Essentially, she wants the same book, but different. There are some fairly major changes outlined in this letter. It's way beyond tinkering with a few plot points or a little character motivation. So over the past week, I've been working on mapping out a revision based on her letter, just to see if it was even possible. I'm pretty close to done with the map, and I can see a way clear. It doesn't make all of her changes, but enough that I feel like it's pretty close.

So here's my issue. It would basically be a different book. But this new book ... well, it's good. I like it. Yes, it's very different than the one I originally wrote, but I can see how it all works and fits together. In many ways, it's leaner and more accessible, and while it does give up some things I liked about the old version, it gains in other ways.

But then part of me feels like I'm ... I dunno, cheating on my original story. Like the original story just walked in and caught me in bed with this new, younger version of itself. It took one look and wailed, "But I thought you LOVED me!"

And suddenly I'm all running around the room, pulling on my shirt, and saying, "Of course I love you, baby! This isn't a replacement, exactly. It's, ah, something different than you. But you know I'll always love you, right? You know that, right?"

Then the old story slumps into the corner and says, "Yeah, but you're going to try to sell the new story. So what, I'm just another stack of papers in your drawer?"

And there really isn't a good answer for that, so I just feel like a cad. I even considered making up all new character names for the new version, like a mirror world, so I could really call it a new book. And then I considered that they could be companion books -- one dark, one light. One blonde. One brunette.

Honestly, I don't know how those polygamist guys do it. But that's neither here nor there, so let's get back on track. If I could wish for anything, it would be for a simple answer ...

p.s. Am I breaking some kind of rule by posting stuff like this? There seems to be a ban on talking about the mechanics of getting published. So in case any, you know, actual publishing police read this, drop me a line and send along the cease and desist order. I promise I'll stop ...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Ham Sandwiches and Revisions

So what do you do when you get revisions in? I've seen a lot of different strategies, from different writers. Erica is a big fan of "being with" revisions for a while. You know, do nothing hasty. Let it percolate, see if it's wise. Overall, that's probably a good strategy. So very Buddhist of her.

Still other writers enjoy the defensive letter. As in, "I can see you didn't understand my book at all, you dope, so here are 100 reasons you're wrong, and you're probably from an inbred family to boot."

Then there's the hopeless types ... "I'll NEVER be able to do that. I should just quit. The whole thing sucks. I knew it all along."

And the personalized, hurt types. "You never supported me! I knew it! Why do you hate me so much! I should just save you the trouble and throw my whole manuscript off a bridge! You'd probably like that!"

Me? I'd like to think I was a "be with it" kind of guy. I mean, I am pretty open to revisions. I'm a fiend for improvement, and I'm not afraid to work hard. And since I'm already a professional writer, I stopped thinking that every word that drops from my fingertips is like dew from angel's wings a long time ago. In my world, words are a commodity like corn, and I'm the fertile field in which they grow (think on that for a second).

In reality, though, I'm more a neurotic type. "Should I? Shouldn't I? What the hell? And what does that mean anyway? I'm not going to do anything about it for a week. Except I'm going to rewrite the whole book tonight, when I can't sleep. Except that I'm not, because that would be rushing it and I want to get it right. And be honest now, does this manuscript make me look fat?"

So how do you sort out which comments are valuable and which are useless distractions? I can always tell if a proposed revision is good if this tiny voice inside my head says, "Yeeesssss." Or, better yet, if new scenes and implications start to flood my head. If I think, "Man! How come I didn't think of that before!" I know I'm in good territory.

But if I just smile and nod, and take no notes, think about nothing except ham sandwiches and dappled sunlight, then it ain't gonna happen.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hopeful Dunces

I've been a bad blogger lately, but I have two good reasons. First, I'm involved in this wicked difficult ghostwriting project that is sucking up every spare second. I'm glad for the work, of course, but I do feel like I'm fighting for Every. Spare. Minute.

And second ...

I didn't really want to end up writing a blog about the book I'm writing. Because who wants to read that? But I did want to write a blog about writing, and when you get down to it, everything in my fiction world right now is pretty much focused on the book I'm currently writing. So to heck with it.

For anybody who's counting (me and my wife, mostly), I'm working on my seventh novel. I've got six completed novels. I'm still unpublished in fiction, which sucks, but I'm really proud of the progress I've made. I don't spend a lot of time agonizing over why I remain unpublished. Right or wrong, I view it as my issue. In other words, I've never sold a book because I wasn't ready yet. I wasn't good enough yet. So I work really hard.

In all fairness to myself, though, I will say that I've come very close, and I've got plenty of good reasons to think that I'm on the right track. Also, I'm aiming really high. I know exactly what I want: a hardcover deal with a major NY publisher, preferably Scholastic, Hyperion, Knopf or one of the other big dogs. I don't think about money or best-seller lists at the moment because I think that comes later. My job now is to land the deal. Then I'll worry about the rest of it.

Anyway, back to the book I'm working on. I hit a snag the other day. I'm just about to move out of the first act into the part when the story begins to reveal itself. It's a three-book series I'm working on here (called The Rose Morphus). Anyway, I realized that I had a problem in book three that meant I had to stop working on chapter 11 of book one. Crazy, huh? But something didn't add up. So I quit drafting and went back into my outline, and I've been changing that around ever since.

I know it sounds crazy to work like that -- and it seems most writers just plow ahead -- but I actually found myself lost. The motivations of a major character suddenly seemed too random for my taste. I couldn't truly answer the question, "Why?" This has been the kiss of death for me in the past.

So I didn't know how to handle chapter 11 unless I knew exactly what was going to happen far in the future. Because, you see, it has to echo all the way back. Let's say I get these things published ... I want a reader to hit the middle of book 3 and be able to flip to page 25 in book 1 and say, "Holy cow. It totally adds up. No wonder she did that! I should've seen it!"

Writers are such hopeful dunces, no? I mean, if I can't sell book 1, then what does it matter what my notebook holds for the next two books? And trust me, I've been there before. But it's really the only way I know how to operate. I just have to assume that these will be published, and that when they are, my story will be equal to the challenge.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Love at First Draft

I'm at about 10,000 words right now on the WIP. And I still feel like I'm at the very, very beginning of the story. So far, the readers have only met a few characters, and it's a challenge for me to keep my yapper shut because I'm so excited about what's coming up. The whole thing is just about to explode.

So, yeah, I'm still officially in first-draft euphoria. I'm at that point when I'm still re-reading the first chapter over and over and loving it. Ha ha. The sad irony is that, of my last three books, the first chapter has survived in exactly none of them. When I do rewrites, more often than not, I start by cutting the first chapter.

But, still, this is the great part. I love this part. I love it when I'm still feeling my way through the story. And I love it when I finally get to a scene I've been imagining for ages, and then even as it's coming out, I pretty much know it'll stay intact because it's exactly what I wanted it to be. Sure, it's rare. Still great. And I'm feeling so protective of these characters -- I'm hoping it's a good sign that I want to make sure I represent them well.

Ah. First draft love. Such a sweet thing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Back in the Moment

Whew. It's been a while since I could update this, but it being spring time, all kinds of stuff is going on. We spent a week in South Carolina, I've been racing against a deadline for a HUGE writing project, and the kids are out of school. Sometimes whole days seem to flash by, and when I look back at the end of it all, it seems like I lived four or five days, all packed into one 24-hour period. Things that were relevant and crucial 48 hours ago are forgotten quickly, and we're already working on the next ten minutes, next 24 hours, next week. 

(As a pleasant aside, though, my freezer is taking on a decidedly wonderful quality. We brought back a cooler full of Low Country shrimp, and I found a killer deal on baby back ribs, so the freezer is already partying like it's July.)

Anyway, in the midst of all this, I'm making steady progress on the new book. I've got about 40 pages of text so far, and it's feeling solid. It's darker than I expected. Closer than I thought it would be. And I'm not sure if it's better or worse or just in process.

But I've spent a lot of time thinking about parallels between the velocity of life and the velocity of this manuscript. This time, I've been forcing myself to go slow. I'm spending a lot of time between scenes thinking about the very next scene and reworking the plot if it doesn't feel right. This is kind of a new thing for me -- I'm usually a pace writer. I can't wait to get to the next part, to the next good bit, so things fly along. I've heard over and over that pacing is a strength of mine. 

I'm beginning to see, though, that there is a natural tension between pacing a book versus developing the emotional lives of characters. For me at least, it's important to slow down and allow my characters time to process what's happening to them. Even if it's just a few paragraphs, they need to reflect on and absorb the events. So instead of moving at lightning speed from one fantastic event to another, I'm dwelling in each moment and taking the time to experience the story in all its fullness.

Now if I could only do that in real life :)