Wednesday, April 30, 2008

PPW conference part 3: write what you love?

Write what you love.

If there was one theme I took away from the conference, it was this. Published authors, editors, and agents alike kept exhorting attendees to write the books that are in them regardless of trends. Yet almost as often, I heard comments about market trends such as: pirates are overdone; YA is the hottest segment of the market--except when compared to graphic novels; multicultural is still in; and dogs that slobber and pass gas are a dime a dozen. And of course, if the first page doesn't hook the reader, the 300 other pages that follow will not be read.

So which is it? To pay attention to market realities or not? What if I want to write a pirate book that features a slobbering dog that takes more than one page to set up? Should I go with "the book that is in me" or should I kill the dog, or at least its slobber, and change the pirates to Karate teachers? Or maybe I should just write a multicultural YA graphic novel with no dogs in sight.

After I got past my initial indignant responses, I realized these wise people might not have been talking out of both sides of their mouths. If an agent has read 120 pirate stories that start with a prologue about maps and hidden treasures, the 121st will make her sick.If no editor wants to buy YA set between WWII and present day (WWII and before is considered historical but not post,) then the agent is going to be wary of a YA story set in 1969. If the public clamors for more graphic novels, editors are going to perk up when one such manuscript appears on their desk. If any one us: authors, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers, want to get our book out there, we'd better pay attention to what the public wants.

On the other hand, if we keep jumping on hot trends , we're forever going to be too late. I met a published author who was writing YA fantasy twenty years ago and was told repeatedly that YA fantasy wouldn't sell. Yet she persisted, and when Harry Potter burst into the scene, showing well-written YA fantasy would indeed sell, her books became much more valuable. She wasn't chasing a trend. She wrote what she had to write and trends caught up with her.

Writers have to constantly balance our physical needs and spiritual/emotional/mental needs. We need to pay for coffee and computers as much as we need to express whatever it is that needs to be heard, to be understood, to be shared. If I want to write only what I want, then I shouldn't be surprised if no one else wants to read it. I have to pay attention to what people read and what agents and editors want. But that awareness mustn't overshadow the original impulse to write.

Common sense, all of this. Nothing new. But the real reason I have to write what I love is this: getting published is so incredibly difficult that if I choose to invest myself, the motivation had better be able to sustain the efforts. At least that way if I don't get published, the actual work I will have written will not mock me when I'm on my death bed.

So I will try to tighten my first page, I will kill my darlings, I will listen to the people in the know about what sells and what doesn't. But the actual books I write will come from those restless, unformed ideas in my soul and the sparkles that go off in my head. Otherwise, writing goes from being impossibly hard to just plain impossible.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

PPW Conference part 2: party time

The second session I attended was a traditional read-and-critique with Laurie McLean, the agent I wanted to pitch to. I wanted to see what she was like. The feeling in this room was a lot less wired, maybe because everyone had a chance to read three pages instead of just one. Laurie's responses were direct and honest, never condescending. After everyone had finished reading, she gave the rest of us observers a chance to read. I only had my copy of the one-page opening I'd just read in the Xtreme session but Laurie was kind enough to listen. Since the page had already been judged once, I felt there was less riding on it. She didn't say she wouldn't read on, and that was enough for me.

The other good thing that happened at this session was meeting Cheryl, the writer who'd won first place in the category in which I'd placed second. As we left the room together, someone said to her in a low voice, "417, pass it on." The person just kept on walking, without looking back. I'd just overheard an important bit of information about where a heist would take place! Cool! Who would've thought that these things happened in a writers' conference!

But then Cheryl turned to me and said, "417, you got that, right?" My stunned expression must have prompted her to explain further, "There's a party for children's authors tonight after dinner at room 417. You should come!"

The truth was not as outlandish, but sounded exciting nonetheless, so that night after dinner, I went. The party turned out to be a blast. It was the most fun I'd had in a long time. We talked about CO2 poisoning, cardboard violins, the relative merits of chocolate/orange Milano cookies and sauvignon blanc/chardonnay, limericks, and yes, the pain of rejection and the craziness of having to impress a power-to-be with 14 lines of writing. I also met someone who offered to make an introduction to his agent. Nothing may come of it if my writing doesn't impress, but still. An introduction is an introduction.

The party could have gone on a lot longer if management hadn't called up to the room to say we were too loud. I don't know what the mystery or romance or sci-fi writers were doing, but we children's writers rocked!

Monday, April 28, 2008

PPW conference part 1: Read and Critique Xtreme

At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference this past weekend, I put my work in front of agents and editors three times. At the first session, a Read and Critique Xtreme, each participant got to read a first page of a book in front of an editor. The rationale behind the Xtreme part of the R&C: editors and agents often decide on a manuscript based on a first page. If they aren't compelled to read on, they will pass.

I thought the session had more value than merely having my work critiqued by an industry professional; I would hear other works and see how close my reaction came to the editor's and maybe learn how to craft a better beginning.

Who was I kidding. I couldn't concentrate on what the others read because I kept worrying about how mine would go. Isolated sentences struck me as being good in between thoughts of how I could escape and whether I would fumble and how I would hold my head up high if I were to crash and burn.

When my name was finally called, I stood up to deliver my first page. And then: silence. Not a good sign. It was time to put into action my plan to escape, but I couldn't move. Finally the response came. It was not horrible, but basically she said she wouldn't read on. I mumbled a thank you, allowed my head to hang, and wondered if the hotel would give me a refund since I'd only checked in less than an hour ago.

When the session ended, I took off my name tag, which listed me as a winner in the contest sponsored by the parent organization of the conference. I could imagine everyone in the room who'd heard me read thinking, "She is a winner? With that lousy writing?" Instead of going to the next session, I went back to my room. I wondered why I came. Worse, I wondered how I was going to keep writing. This was the first time I'd shown my work to someone besides other authors and my critique group, to someone who knew what was publishable, and I'd failed.

All right, I hear you. Quit the pity party already! I did, because even when I was feeling sorry for myself I could tell how pathetic I sounded. So I picked myself up, put my name tag on, and proceeded to my second session, which I will write about later.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Mom's first conference

I am getting ready to go to a 3-day writers' conference tomorrow. This will be the first time I will be gone overnight. My children are 7 and 5 and I am sure will enjoy their time with Dad. In fact, when I did a trial run a few weeks ago and went to a one-day workshop, they had a blast. So why am I nervous at all? For one, my daughter isn't feeling well. Second, a fun-filled Saturday may be a novelty but a Friday-Saturday-Sunday may stretch the novelty factor a bit too thin. And third, did I say I've never left them overnight before? Well, actually, I did have to leave for a week when my son was almost one. It was during my previous life as a musician. I had a conducting gig in a different town. I talked the organizers into flying my 2-and-a-half year old daughter with me and hiring a babysitter for her while I rehearsed and performed. And while I was gone, grandma and grandpa flew over to dote over the baby.

Fast forward five years and only now am I brave enough to attempt another time away. They are so much older now, I have nothing to worry about. What's the worst? They mope around all weekend? Nah, not likely. They watch too much TV? Probably. My husband getting exhausted and become super appreciative of what I do? Hmmmm...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Two books

This sure has been a nasty bug. It's been almost a week and my mind still feels foggy. But at least I am able to read again.

I started on two YA books: Laura Resau's Red Glass and Jordan Sonnenblick's Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pies. On the surface, these two books couldn't be more different. One aims at the higher end of the age range and a "girl" story, the other straddles the high MG/low YA age range and definitely a "boy" story. Resau's language is evocative, sensual, and it invites the reader to linger. Sonnenblick's language is witty and smart, and it invites the reader along for a fun ride. As I got deeper into both books, however, I am struck by how similar they are.

In each book, the narrator's life is changed by the plight of a little boy in their life. Sophie undergoes these changes in a road trip to two foreign countries while Steven stays right where he is: going to school and playing the drums. But when they describe their reactions and thoughts, they show equal perception and vulnerability. Both books include tender moments that startled and moved me.

This just goes to show that there are many ways to get into a reader's heart.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Writing what you feel

Woke up this morning with aching bones that I momentarily thought had come from yesterday's exericising (yay crunches!). But the familiar scratch at the bottom of my throat convinced me I'd caught whatever it was that had plagued my husband for the past few days.

Since we're supposed to write what we know, I figured I could also write what I feel. I had kicked myself so many times for not seizing moments of bad feelings from being scorned or mocked or misunderstood or ignored, that I'd made a mental note to capture those thoughts the next time I felt bad or depressed. No point just stewing and letting all those bad feelings go to waste.

So I sat at my computer with a cup of soothing white pear tea and started re-writing a passage in a short story about my protagonist's struggle with a major decision. You know how some decisions are so difficult and feelings associated with them so strong that you feel it physically? You don't? Lucky you. Mine hits me in the stomach and occasionally in my chest (Oh no! I'm having a heart attack! It's the number 1 killer of women!)

Anyway, in my un-ibuprofened state (the sacrifices I make for art!) I paid attention to my fogged mind, congested sinuses, aching bones, and started writing.

All I can say is: I think I will take a couple of advils and lie down.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What's in a name?

Each of my sibling's names is based on a Chinese proverb. My older sister and I share a four-character proverb that means being wholehearted and single minded. My sister's name, Yat-Sum literally means "one heart." My name is the "single minded" bit, but the literal translation is less straightforward. Yat-Yee means "one intention/mind/desire." The "Yee" part of Yat-Yee is a character that doesn't have a firm meaning but takes on different shades of meaning depending on context. Many characters in Chinese are like that, it makes the language so much more fluid and rich but also ambiguous at times. I secretly believe (not so secretly anymore) that the fluidity and ambiguity of the language has affected how Chinese people relate and talk to one another, but that's the topic for another day.

My parents probably had high hopes that we would grow into our names, and my sister is indeed a passionate person who pursues her dreams wholeheartedly. Good ol' One Intention over here, however, er, can't decide which one of her passions to focus on. So far, the solution has been to pursue one thing at a time. Although I've always loved books and art as much as music, it was music that hooked me first. I threw myself into music beginning in my teens and went to college and grad school as a musician. In the early part of my career, I was one of those fortunate people who loved what they did for a living (although financial wise, it wasn't much of a living.)

Twenty years and a child later, the itch to write began to intensify. I had been writing all along, of course, but always on the side. With a fussy sleeper in a house built in a open floor plan (read: whatever sound you make in one room is heard in the entire house), I couldn't practice much. The timing was perfect.

These days, my work is done on a different keyboard, but it is the same slogging over mechanics and technique, nurturing the creative mind, judging the results as an objective third party, booing the failures, cheering the progress, second guessing the choices, walking the fine line between control and freedom, all in glorious solitude.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Beginning

Got a free coffee at Starbucks today--barista said it was because I had to wait two minutes for the new pot to finish brewing--so I figured this was as good a day as any to start my writing-journey blog.


What does free coffee have to do with blogging? Nothing, really. But if I can use any excuse to not go to the gym/clean up my desk/write, I can certainly use any excuse to do something productive. (Yes, even as I write the word "productive" I am aware of the possibility that blogging can become yet another procrastination device, but at least I'll be writing.)

Last night I got a phone call from a contest coordinator telling me my middle-grade novel is a finalist. I was thrilled. I did have to remind myself, however, that I should not get disappointed if I don't place first. I know, I know, it sounds so obnoxious and prideful, to want to win, but after the initial high that comes from knowing your work is a finalist, hearing "you've won second!" just doesn't carry as much excitement. This I know from experience. About a month ago, I found out the same novel had made it into the final round of a different contest. It was a completely unexpected and very pleasant surprise. But when I got the phone call a few weeks later that told me I'd won second place, my daughter squealed in delight, my son jumped around, my husband beamed, but
I felt...disappointed.

I wish I could feel happier but what I feel is perhaps not that far from happiness: gratitude. I am grateful for the validation, the feedback from fresh eyes, and the chance to have my work read by editors. "Winning second place" sounds more cluttered than "winning" in a query letter, but I"ll take it and be thankful that I get to put anything down at all.

After all, I could win this next one. Or even better, get a request for the complete manuscript! (I have to say, though, crossed fingers are not conducive to any kind of normal living.)

Back to the reason I decided this would be the day to start blogging: I just remembered Starbucks does have its literary ties, so it's not as far off as it seems after all.