A BLOG FOR READERS AND AUTHORS OF MTV BOOKS
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I was drum major of the marching band, obviously. I was editor of the yearbook. I was valedictorian. Unlike the other chicks posting here, I was as good at math and science as I was at English. Partly because my mom had been a math and chemistry double major in college, and this was expected of me. Partly because my older brother was valedictorian and had made a nearly perfect score on the SAT, and I was not going to be shown up.
But if you were to look at my behavioral record, there would be a pattern, starting in the 3rd grade, of me getting called into the principal's office for mouthing off to a teacher. When this happened, I was always outraged at some injustice perpetrated by the teacher, real or imagined, sometimes against me but more often against somebody else, or against ALL OF US. I was a crusader. This continued through grade school, through junior high, through high school, and by my senior year I was visiting the principal's office often and wishing the whole experience could just be OVER. I am 100% certain those folks breathed a sigh of relief when I made that valedictorian speech and they were rid of me.
This makes my high school experience sound like torture, but it wasn't. I had a BLAST because I had the best friends imaginable. My town had population of about 15,000, and it was isolated, set on a beautiful lake in Alabama but lost in the forest between Montgomery and Birmingham. Each grade had about 300 students, which included EVERYBODY, from the children of minimum-wage textile mill workers to the children of the corporate vice presidents who lived on the lake. There was something about people being from such genuinely different worlds that made the more superficial differences--whether you were a geek or a jock or whatever--not matter so much. For the most part people got along. It was a nice place to live. And, as you can imagine, a rich source of material for conflict in a YA novel.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Highly motivated. I loved school, liked all of my teachers—with one glaring exception, and wasn’t satisfied with any grade below an A. My mom and dad expected me to get good grades, but they didn’t micromanage. I can’t recall my parents ever asking me if I’d done my homework, promising me a reward for good grades, or threatening me with punishment if an assignment wasn’t finished on time. I was supposed to do well in school, so I did. End of story.
I loved English, reading, literature, drama, and art—all the girly stuff. History and social studies left me cold, primarily because the texts were dry and boring. Although I did my best to understand math it was a mystery, especially sine, cosine, tangent, and all those other terms that boggled my mind. Never got them; never used them; don’t care about them now. I might have felt that way about science except for my favorite teacher, Mr. Gunderson, who had a brilliant smile and a terrific sense of humor. One summer he taught an enrichment biology class, and we students chased around after insects, collected plants, dipped nets into goopy streams, and generally had a great time. I did, anyway. During junior year—maybe senior—my friend Jill and I reassembled a chicken skeleton over the course of several weeks. The process was smelly, goopy, and gross, but it was better than sitting through study hall.
I tried to limit the number of times I raised my hand in class, but I wasn’t terribly successful. I know my relentless participation annoyed other students and probably some of my teachers. What can I say? I liked answering questions! I loved reading aloud, especially stories and poetry, and entered speech and drama contests.
For the most part I was respectful to my teachers. I wasn’t disruptive, didn’t pass too many notes, and hid my compulsive doodling under my notebook. Although I frequently daydreamed in class, I mastered the art of appearing to listen even when I wasn’t. One of the few ways I rebelled was by wearing short skirts and wild-colored clothes, which were ridiculously tame compared to today’s styles.
That was me: A studious, respectful, teacher-loving daydreamer. No wonder I didn't have any dates!
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
In a word? Indifferent.
It was partially my own fault. Partially the fault of an educational system that I know now, wasn't the best for me. I could have conformed, but didn't really want to. Here's the thing: in elementary school, I was identified as a "gifted" student and as such, was able to attend an alternative educational program two days a week through elementary school and one day a week through junior high. The alternative program absolutely rocked my world. That was the kind of education I responded to—very innovative for the time, very student-driven, very classical in nature. I can easily say that I learned more in those two days a week, than I learned in my "regular" classes. Which had the unfortunate result of boring me silly in my regular classes and also engendered a good deal of resentment in the teachers who were not pleased I was being pulled out of their classes. So when I did have legitimate issues with subject matter, like math (*spits three times and throws holy water*) I'd get a response along the lines of "You're gifted, surely you don't need my help."
So I learned early not to trust the system because the system wasn't helping me.
Now here's the interesting part: I had the opportunity—twice—to forego high school altogether and go to college on an accelerated program, which might not have been a bad idea, since that gifted education was a lot more like a college education than the standard high school education, that was ostensibly preparing us for college, was. So once in seventh grade, I was offered the opportunity to attend a local college, and then again, in ninth grade, I was invited to attend one of the Seven Sisters colleges in the Northeast. But I said no, because I knew it wasn't the right move for me. I wasn't ready and I figured college would always be there.
So off I went to high school.
Now, of course, in high school, there were Honors and AP classes, but after early experiences with those, I kind of threw them over as well for the strangest of reasons—the competitiveness. Which is weird, because as competitive as I am (and I am über-competitive, trust me) the idea of competing for grades, to be deemed some intellectual "best," on what I saw as a false scale, in order to get into the "right" colleges somehow rubbed me so completely wrong. Even then, I knew there were all sorts of intellegences that couldn't possibly be measured simply by grades and test scores (the bane of a gifted education—having learned that a WHOLE lot earlier than most). And to be honest, I actually found more creative teaching and learning going on in the so-called "regular" classes. The Honors and AP were so tightly regimented because of what they had to accomplish in a set amount of time, there was very little room for intellectual exploration. Whereas the "regular" classes were far more freeform. And you know, I had a much bigger range of personality in the regular classes. I had punks, jocks, stoners, metalheads, immigrant kids, poor kids, rich kids, kids in the middle, artistic kids—you name it, we had it. The AP & Honors classes had a very homogeneous feel to them, with the same kids, in the same classes, with the same goals, year after year. There was a shiny uniformity to them that, in short, got on my nerves, especially with the sense of entitlement they seemed to wear, simply because they had been publicly anointed as "the smart kids". Tell you what, some of the smartest, most well-read kids I ever met were in those regular classes, whereas the AP/Honors kids didn't have time to crack a book that wouldn't help them with their grades or the AP tests. Reading for pleasure? Not so much.
I know that my ranting against uniformity must sound weird, given I spent so much of my time in high school involved in band and corps. But the thing about those pursuits is that yeah, we wore our uniforms and rehearsed for hours on end with a common goal, but in the end, beneath the uniforms, there was such a huge range of personalities in the organizations. So many different people with varied interests. It just wasn't something I saw that much of within the AP/Honors kids.
I think in the end, even though I'm not sure I could have articulated it at the time, I wanted to have time to just be and to dedicate myself to that which interested me, rather than put myself on someone's idea of the path that I should be on, in order to Succeed.
I never imagined I was that much of a rebel in high school, but looking back, maybe, just maybe, I was a little. It certainly provides a lot of clues to the person I would ultimately become.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
School: I always loved school so I wasn't someone who dreaded going there.
Subjects: I had subjects I loved, like English, and those I hated, like math. I hate that I was a stereotypical "girl" that way. I wanted so badly to be good at math.
Grades: My parents drilled into me since birth that grades were important, so getting bad grades was unacceptable (and resulted in getting grounded, so not an option - because as much as I loved school, I loved socializing just as much).
Answer Please: I love to talk. So if I knew the answer to a question, my hand was raised. This didn't happen very often in math class.
Awards: I won the Freshman Art award. My parents were convinced I was the artistic child (my brother was the athletic child). I was cured of any fleeting sense of artistic mastery when my parents sent me to the Rhode Island School of Design for my Sophomore summer. I recognized that I just wasn't that good. I also co-won the Sophomore English award. I also would have won the "can't stand to stay home on a Friday or Saturday night" award if they had one.
Thnking Ahead: I couldn't wait to go to college, so early on I was always thinking about what it would take to get into a good college (I remember reading a book in fifth grade where one of the character's brothers went to Dartmouth and so I decided I, too, would go to Dartmouth).
Send Me Away: I always wanted to go to boarding school (also the result of reading a book). My parents wouldn't let me because they figured they had only a few years with their daughter and they wanted to enjoy the time (which I'm sure they regretted when they came home early from a Saturday night out and discovered that the daughter they'd grounded was in her bedroom with her boyfriend).
Monday, September 20, 2010
Hmm, are my parents going to read this--lol?! No, really I was a good student but not a spectacular student. I did well in the subjects that I enjoyed and fine in the others.
Not surprisingly, I loved English and petitioned to take double English my senior year and the department allowed me to do so. Basically I took a regular Engish class and then two specialty English classes. I also took German and Spanish and loved art classes. I wasn't so hot on math and science but I tried, sort of.
Even though I didn't study much for tests, I always did my homework. I got a lot of A's when essays were involved but loathed fill in the blank and short answer questions. Anything creative, I was there! Two of my favorite classes were psychology and Theory of Knowledge. I loved discussions and subjects that really got me thinking. I still think back to those classes today.
Another amazing experience that I had senior year was when we were allowed to submit a proposal for a senior project. I chose to write a novel, or at least half a novel during this time. I was allowed to write half the day and go to school the second half during my last quarter of school. This was the beginning of my first YA novel. I wrote 80 pages and still have the novel in my filing cabinet. Visions of Liberty might never see the light of day, but I loved every minute of being allowed to write from home.
So what was I doing during the school day when I was supposed to be listening? I wrote notes to my friends. I mean, tons of notes. My friend Nell and I used to keep notebooks and write in them back and forth to each other. It was so much fun and we had code words for people in case the notebooks were ever "discovered". We also carried around a friend/not friend list and you couldn't even imagine how quickly people moved from one list to the other!
And thinking back all of this behind the scenes stuff was great material for my books. So without even knowing it, I was getting on the job training!
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
I also have to admit that I started watching Grey's Anatomy because it's set in Seattle, but I kept watching because it has the soapy drama I crave. Usually it is pretty well-written too, though I felt it started to go downhill for about a year or so there. Then the end of last season really picked up and the season finale had my heart pounding and left me crying on the couch, so I have to say that is the season premiere I am most anticipating.
On the soapy drama front, I have to say I was disappointed that the new Melrose Place was canceled as I rather enjoyed it, but now I have a hole in my TV viewing schedule to fill (not that I have that much time to watch TV unfortunately). There are a bunch of shows I really want to see but am afraid I might be too far behind on to tune this season. I might have to catch up over next summer and then get hooked. Those include Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, Glee and Mad Men. All of which sound right up my alley for various reasons, but I didn't have time to watch them when they started so now I'm behind.
Monday, September 13, 2010
I'm being very careful about this. I've loaded the soundtrack onto my iPod, only songs I love. I've found cool names for the hero and heroine. I'm working on their characters, making sure they're people I'd want to hang out with. The setting is a place I'd kill to live. The stuff that happens in this book is stuff I love to read about in other people's books--if I read these hooks in the back cover summary when I'm standing in the bookstore, that book is an automatic buy for me. I am doing my best to make this the Best Book Ever--for me, at least. Tastes differ, but this book is perfect for mine.
But not everybody writes this way. At a writers' conference luncheon recently, I sat at a table with an author who wasn't published yet but was pretty far along, with more than one manuscript completed. She told me she wrote romantic comedy, so of course my ears pricked up. But then she went on and on and on about THE HUNGER GAMES, and when I said dystopian isn't my thing, she said dystopian is her FAVORITE. So I asked her: "If dystopian is your favorite, why in the world are you writing romantic comedy? Don't you write the book you want to read?" Her response is that she'd gotten that advice before, and it was the worst advice she'd ever received. People told her that she did not have a dystopian voice. She has a romantic comedy voice. She wasted a lot of time writing dystopian and now she is writing romantic comedy.
I don't want to mess with anybody's head here, because I do think what's good advice for one person can be terrible advice for another. But, trying to put myself in her place...I cannot imagine someone telling me that I do not have the voice to write YA romantic comedy and romantic drama, but I have a good dystopian voice, and I should write dystopian instead. I mean, I REALLY dislike dystopian. It would be like someone telling me that I was a terrible writer but I had a terrific aptitude for being a mortician. I would not run out and become a mortician. And even if I did give writing dystopian a shot, writing it would be like painting with my eyes closed. I would have no idea whether I'd written a good dystopian novel or not, because I dislike all of them.
Writing is hard, and navigating the publishing world is harder, but I think the most confusing and demoralizing time for writers is that period when they've completed some manuscripts, they've had some encouragement, but they haven't made that first sale. At that point some people beat their heads against the wall for many years and many manuscripts, acting out the definition of stupidity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. (Fifteen years and ten manuscripts before I was published...I am way guilty here.) I have watched people make one change and suddenly their careers take off. But turning your back on the genre you love in favor of one you don't love, just because somebody (who didn't buy your book or offer you representation) suggested it, is not a change I would recommend to anyone.
Weigh in, y'all. Do you write the book you want to read? Are you operating very successfully in a genre you don't prefer? Do you think "voice" is really an immutable part of a writer and is suitable only to certain extant genres? I would love to know what you think.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
We writers love to get feedback on our work and are satisfied with comments ranging from gushing praise to awestruck delight. After we’ve spent hours slaving at our computers, criticism is the last thing we want to hear. But the painful truth is that nobody’s writing is perfect, and one of the ways we improve is by absorbing constructive criticism and applying it to our writing.
Like so many other things that are good for us, being criticized is a pain.
Every writer knows there are two sides to criticism: dishing it out and taking it. To be effective, both must be done with finesse. If you’ve taken part in a critiquing session, you’ve learned—possibly the hard way—that not everyone has mastered the technique. When a writer is reduced to tears, throws her coffee cup, and storms out of the room, those are pretty good signs that something went wrong.
Having been both a disher and a taker, I’ve learned a few strategies that have kept me on the good side of my fellow writers. (I hope!!!)
When you’re dishing it out:
1. Lead with specific positive comments such as, “Your dialogue sounds so natural.” Do not say, “Uh, this is a pretty good story,” and then heap on the negatives.
2. Phrase your constructive criticisms as suggestions or questions. “Do you think this scene might work better if….” rather than, "This scene is boring."
3. Limit your criticisms to two or three points at the most so the author doesn’t feel picked on.
4. If the author gets defensive, stop talking! Arguing your point leads to hard feelings--and slashed tires.
5. Be supportive. Emphasize the positive aspects of the work and encourage the author to keep trying.
When you’re taking it:
1. Listen to all comments with an open mind and resist the urge to defend your writing. If possible, take notes. This keeps your hands occupied so you don’t strangle the critiquer.
2. Respect the critiquer’s views. If one person has these concerns, others may feel the same way.
3. Do not shred or ritually burn your notes. Set them aside for a few days and review them.
4. Reread your manuscript with fresh eyes and revise as necessary.
A few last words:
ü Only ask for feedback from people whose opinions you respect.
ü Give feedback that’s honest but courteous.
ü If you dish out criticism, be able to take it.
Monday, September 6, 2010
Okay, here's my deep dark confession: Series scare the TAR out of me. At least, in terms of writing. I insist that my brain doesn't work that way and as a general rule, the stories that most interest me tend to be stand alone stories, whereas I have many writer friends who come up with ideas in terms of series. Common conversation with some of my friends:
Me: I have a great idea for a story. It's about [insert story idea]
Writer Friends: Wow, you know if you did this and that to it, it would make a great series.
Writer Friends: You know, I just had a great idea for a series.
Me: A series? Another one? You can't just think of one story?
Over and over, I've had these conversations with my friends. They think I'm being a big baby and they may have a point. I do get to frothing at the mouth and snarling like a cornered badger when I think I'm being pushed into a corner and I can't help it—that's exactly how the idea of committing to a series makes me feel. And you know, I understand that it's a feeling that's in all likelihood, akin to shooting myself in the foot. Clearly, publishers love the idea of series. I could probably sell a series idea a lot easier than I could any of my stand alones. Maybe. Possibly.
Thing is, there are no guarantees in this business. And I've seen far too many stories that maybe should have only ever been one book, two at the most, that were stretched into series that went on ad infinitum and it dilutes the power of the original story. Of course, by the same token, some of the most celebrated stories of the last decade were series—especially within the young adult genre. I mean, HUNGER GAMES, much?
I don't know... it's not that I'm totally against the idea of writing series,—after all, I do have an adult story that somehow wound up expanded into three manuscripts (still unsold, but clearly, I can do it). However, it wasn't planned. It just happened. It all flowed, sort of... organically. Maybe I'm just sort of a crunchy granola when it comes to the idea of series—I have to start with a story and write it without stressing out over whether or not it's one that can be sustained over the course of three or more books. I don't want to worry that I'm going to get sick of the characters or the world and feel as if I'm trapped writing about nothing but for the foreseeable future.
I want to continue to stretch my wings as a writer—try different things, explore different worlds, and I worry that committing to a series would be like clipping my wings.
Yet... I've got an idea brewing. Just a stand-alone idea. But even so, in the back of my mind there's a little voice whispering, "You know... this has potential."
When even the voices are saying it...
Who knows? I think I'll take a wait and see attitude and just finish this one story.
What about you guys? Do you think in terms of stand alones or series? As a reader, which do you prefer?