Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Setting the Setting

When I pick up a new book, setting is one of the key ingredients that will keep me reading. It may be a slow story or one in which I haven't yet connected with the characters, but if it has a captivating setting, I'll keep going just to visit that world a little bit longer.

Some of my favorite authors are masters at crafting welcoming settings. L. M. Montgomery instilled in me a sight-unseen love for Prince Edward Island when I first read her books. So much so that fifteen years later my husband surprised me with a honeymoon trip to PEI one autumn. How's that for the far-reaching influence of an author's imagination? And every time I reread an Anne of Green Gables story, I want to skip on over to Canada for another visit.

As a fantasy author, setting is also a crucial component of my world building. It can be difficult to find the right balance between an overload of details and the one or two lines that will sketch the scene for my reader. I often have to tone down my over-enthusiastic descriptions when I'm revising. But when I'm writing a first draft, I let myself go.

My favorite way to get my creative juices flowing is to weed through my hoard of magazine clippings. Whenever I spot an eye-catching setting in a catalog or magazine, I tear it out and file it away. Sometimes, the picture itself is so inspiring that I want to create a scene around it. That's what happened with the dormitory in The Tale of Una Fairchild. In my mind, the students were housed in a wooded area, and I had a vague idea that there were giant trees involved. Then I saw these clippings:

I loved the fairy tale feel of the rooms,

the beds that resembled trees,

and the lodge-like decor.

What do you think, fellow readers? Would you like to wing over on a flight of imagination and visit the rooms above? Have you ever wanted to go and stay awhile in some delightful book world? What are some things you remember about the setting of your favorite books?

**To see more of this fabulous decor, you can find the article on-line from House Beautiful.**

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing with a Middle Grade Voice - Holidays

I’m getting ready to attend yet another Thanksgiving pageant at a kiddo’s school, and the memories of them over the years sparked the idea for this post. I thought it would be interesting to take one important aspect of a middle-grader’s life, holidays, and think about how writers go back in time to capture those moments.

I don’t remember ever participating in a Thanksgiving pageant myself, which is probably a good thing, because I didn’t have the kind of mother who could easily whip up a pilgrim costume. The time spent thinking about costumes seems to be a huge part of the anticipation of these events. Only a few of the children with worry personalities stress over the lack of perfection in a costume. Middle graders’ imaginations allow them to look at a child with a few feathers stuck on a brown shirt and see a turkey.

As an adult, I most love the part where each child has to say what he or she is thankful for. The more thoughtful ones always mention a mother, father or a grandparent, and that’s something so important I try to remember when I’m writing. Even though we come up with convoluted ways to get caregivers out of the picture in middle grade stories, their presence still is such a huge part of a middle grader’s existence and thoughts. When it comes to brothers and sisters, though, most don’t mention them. That always surprised me until we brought a second child to our own home and sibling rivalry hit us in the face. There’s no doubt siblings are of major importance, but the relationships even at that age are complicated and certainly not always smooth.

If siblings don’t get much mention, pets do. Has there ever been a middle grader who thinks they have enough pets, or who isn’t interested in them even if they don’t have one? My daughter knows the names and histories of all her friends’ pets but can’t remember the names of the elderly neighbors who have lived near us since she was a baby.

The kids who don’t spend much time contemplating life and relationships mention food. Pumpkin pie gets high marks, but I’m always astounded at how many kids are thankful for mashed potatoes. Most middle graders don’t have a complicated relationship with food. There’s no concern about cholesterol or calories. It’s either good or bad, or totally inedible and would probably make a person gag.

How the kids present themselves during the pageant is middle grade in a microcosm. Most aren’t yet self-conscious about appearing before their peers in handmade turkey costumes or pilgrim bonnets. They are so happy to have attention focused on them, even for brief moments, that they willingly sing silly songs and make gobble noises. For most, attention is not something to be avoided, as will become the case later on. There are always a few of the extreme shy ones who find it torture to stand up and talk. I agonize with those children as they wring their hands waiting for their turn and then mumble out sentences no one can hear. I think everyone in the audience holds their breaths hoping the child won’t cry. That memory, of trying hard not to cry, has to be one every adult shares, even if they weren’t the crying type.

I find when I’m writing about holidays from a kid point of view I have to strip away all the memories of disastrous family gatherings I remember as an adult. As a child, I didn’t catch every detail of the tensions between various relatives who didn’t like each other. I was unhappy if my parents were unhappy or snappy, but I never realized two of my aunts only spoke to each other on holidays.

I remember holidays as being a strange mix of boredom and freedom, where the adults were too occupied with discussing the health problems of distant relatives to bother making sure the kids were doing anything useful. I also remember how I schemed to avoid being served gravy, something I thought a disgusting invention, but one the rest of my relatives seemed to regard as some elixir of the gods. Then there was always the attempt to see how much whipped cream I could put on my pumpkin pie before someone noticed and disapproved. I guess if someone has asked me back then, I would have said I was thankful for mashed potatoes too.

So what do you remember about Thanksgiving as a child?  ETA: I shouldn't have just asked about Thanksgiving, because I don't want to limit comments to American or Canadian memories. Jump in for any holiday that involves a family gathering and a large amount of food!

~Dee Garretson

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Soon to be a Major Motion Picture

Since becoming a published author -- one who is actively engaged in reaching out to bloggers and book readers on various social networks -- I have made it a rule not to respond to reviews. Good or bad, it is only natural for a writer to feel the impulse to, ehem, discuss certain points of criticism with their reviewer. So for the very first time, I am going to talk about one observation that I can’t help but wonder is influencing the critics of THE FAMILIARS (and by critics, I simply mean those who have reviewed the book, the vast majority of which have been very positive). 

Here is a sampling of a recurring theme in some of the reviews circulating:

“I can’t help but feel it was written with the movie rights or script in mind.”

“The coauthors write for screen and tv so it's no surprise that the book has already been optioned for a movie.”

“I understand that this is soon to be an animated film. If I had to guess, I would say the film rights were sold way before the book was written.”

"’The Familiars’ is the first book in a new series and soon-to-be a major motion picture. Authors Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson are former screenwriters. In keeping with that theme, ‘The Familiars’ is ‘Harry Potter’ meets ‘The Golden Compass’ meets ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’”

“There are plans already to make it into a movie, so reading it is very much like reading a script at times.”

“Screenwriters Epstein and Jacobson's children's book debut is a grand adventure with entertaining characters and magic-induced fun, written in an appropriately cinematic style (Sony Pictures Animation has optioned the story).”

Does anyone see a pattern here?

Should the fact that Adam and I are screenwriters or that THE FAMILIARS has been optioned for film be relevant to any critique of the book? I’ve noticed that certain books, like I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore – whose film was already in production when the book came out late this summer – take a lot of heat in their reviews for having a “blockbuster” feel, which might be great for movies but isn’t always great for books. But more literary friendly tomes like The Help by Kathryn Stockett gets praise heaped on it despite the fact that a finished screenplay had already been written when the manuscript for the book went out to publishers.

I think that an author who writes a book and subsequently has the movie rights picked up – say Lauren Oliver with Before I Fall or Allie Condie with Matched – you’re not going to see reviews tinged with comments about the book's cinematic aspirations. However, get a screenwriter crossing over into the world of books and cynics can’t help but think it is simply a way of reverse engineering a movie deal.

Well, I am here to say that I am platform agnostic. I try to find the best medium to tell a story that I’m passionate about, whether it’s a book, a movie, a graphic novel, or a video game. In some cases – perhaps the best ones – I am fortunate enough to create a piece of intellectual property that can bounce across all of these different platforms and enhance each experience from a new perspective. Think of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Avatar’ or ‘Lord of the Rings.’ These are all immersive worlds that give audiences new ways to enjoy a story they love. 

I can only hope that THE FAMILIARS follows in those same footsteps.

Do book reviewers have a bias against books that are going to become movies? A bias against screenwriters who become authors? Or is the fact that a book has been optioned for film a legitimate point to make in a review? I'd love to hear what you think.

- Andrew Jacobson, co-author of THE FAMILIARS

Friday, November 12, 2010

What do you write?

We'd love to hear from you today.

Yes YOU.

We've got questions for you!

Question 1:

Question 2:

And, for extra credit:

(gotcha, Hil! Possums FTW!)

The last question we can't put into a poll. You'll have to tell us below.

What are you interested in hearing about from us? ... it's up to you. What do you want to know from your Project Mayhem peeps?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Of Editing and Editors

Gratuitous picture of my new puppy,
Noodle.  Isn't he adorable?
 As I prepare to embark upon editing my second novel—I’ll be getting really cozy with Ivy and the Meanstalk over the next couple of months—I thought I’d reflect a bit about working with editors. As a new author, this was the part of the publication process I dreaded the most. Prior to being published, I attended a writers’ conference where a literary agent stated that the changes requested by an editor were typically “mandatory.” As in required. As in non-negotiable. As in what-I-say-goes-and-if-you-don’t-like-it-tough-cookies.

For the longest time, this statement colored my perception of what the editorial process would be like. I pictured it as a horrible, heart-wrenching dictatorship where I’d be obligated to do whatever the editor wanted, even if it meant dismantling much of a story into which I had poured so much of my time and spirit.

Perhaps some of the other authors here can weigh in with their own experiences, but mine wasn’t like that at all. It probably helped that I had a fantastically brilliant editor with an incredible sense of story, but I really ended up enjoying the editorial process. I found I had much more freedom than I had anticipated. I did end up making most of the changes suggested by my editor—because her suggestions were just that fabulous—but I didn’t feel pressured to make a particular change if I felt it just wasn’t quite right for my vision of the book. In the end, Ivy still felt like my own.

That being said, I think it’s very important for an author to at least consider every suggestion an editor makes. Remember—editors edit for a living. They’re very good at it, and if they’ve suggested a change, they’ve done so for a reason. It’s also the respectful thing to do. An editor is someone who has signed on to work on your book because they believe in it. They believe in it so much that they’ve committed themselves to working on it often for a year or more. They’re giving it tons of their time and attention, and they’ll read it over and over and over again. They’re putting a lot of hard work into this endeavor; it’s only respectful to take the time to consider what they have to say.

At another writers’ conference, this time after the first Ivy was released, I worked up the nerve to ask an editor, “How important is it that an author make every change you suggest?” How her answer would have eased my mind if I had heard it before being published. “It’s not that crucial,” she said with a shrug. At the end of the day, she pointed out, it’s the author’s name on the cover of the book, so it’s important that the author be comfortable with what’s inside.

Horrible, heart-wrenching dictatorship? Not even close.

-Dawn Lairamore

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Social Networking Fail or Save Me from Myself!

What do you mean overcapacity??
It doesn't matter what stage of the writing game you're in these days. From newbie writer, just banging out your first query to published author, pretty much everything you read will tell you the same thing. Get out there! Blog, network, and get yourself on every social networking/writing forum known to man or you might as well just throw in the towel right now, because no editor, agent or reader will know you and you're going to be a monumental failure! Who will want to sell your book when you can't even sell yourself? Gah!!@#$%^&*)*&^%$#@!

I accepted your friend request, what more do you want??

 So, the good little soldier that I am, here is my social networking footprint:

1.    Joined Absolutewrite.com (awesome site, btw) just after I finished my first novel and started querying.  This was in January of 2008.
2.    Started my blog in May of 2009, just after I got my agent.
3.    Sold my first book in July of 2009, subsequently went crazy (see below) with worry     about promoting myself or no one would know who I was and therefore never ever  buy my book.
4.     Joined Twitter
5.     Joined Facebook
6.     Subscribed to every writer's blog and/or website on the planet
7.     Joined YALITCHAT
8.     Joined Enchanted Inkpot
9.     Joined SCBWI
10.   Joined SCBWI Listserve
11.   Joined Private Online Writers Group
12.   Joined Goodreads
13.   Joined AuthorsNOW!
14.   Joined JacketFlap
15.   Joined Chicago Writers Association
16.   Joined She Writes
17.   Joined Book Blogs
18.   Joined Shelfari
19.   Joined Mixx
20.   Joined Project Mayhem
21.   Joined numerous off shoots of Twitter, Facebook, Ning groups and the like...

Are you seeing a pattern here?? How is a writer supposed to write, when we are a member of so many networking groups, because it's so important that we promote ourselves?? These are all great groups/sites, etc., many I would highly recommend joining and I've met lots of fantastic writers, but c'mon, what the heck was I thinking? Did I really think I'd be able to come up with thought provoking commentary on all these sites on a daily/weekly basis? I felt a certain responsibility to myself, that if I didn't make time for everything I was letting myself down! I was letting my book down. Heck, I was letting my family down! Really?

Uhhh...You're doing it wrong...
Okay, that was seriously exhausting (scary) to write. I suppose my point is I had to cut down--severely, not to mention quit wigging out that I was tanking my future if I didn't social network constantly. I've had to force myself to realize you can only do so much. I had a talk with my agent a few months back, freaking about how sales were going to go with Nightshade City (before my book was even on sale) and I was so upset! She told me in no uncertain terms I must chill! She said I must stop worrying about all that. She's seen careers ruined, she told me, because of authors being preoccupied with promoting themselves and their work, constantly worried about sales and nothing else and the preoccupation can become paralyzing to a writing career, which she'd seen happen. OMG! Our job is to write--write books!

Long story short, I needed someone to tell me it's okay to be human. That I didn't have to comment on every post on facebook or every tweet on twitter or read/comment on every writing blog in the known universe. We are not super men and super woman--we are just people--people with kids, and jobs, and classes and bills...and dreams--lots of dreams. So, everyone who feels overwhelmed by their blogs, their friends, their followers, their comments or lack thereof, their likes or friend acceptances or ignores, all I can say is don't. STOP NOW! Click out of all those social networking sites, open up that mesmerizing little word doc icon on your desktop and write! PLEASE! You deserve it. ;)

xoxo -- Hilary