Thursday, April 17, 2014

Adventures In Children's Book Writing

My Children's Book Writing course has begun -- and I'm finding it to be way more interesting than I'd thought.

I signed up for the course because it's the closest thing to writing YA that Gotham Writers Workshop offers, at least this semester. I figured I'd just kind of ignore the lectures on crafting picture books and put my energy into writing stuff for older kids and teens. But after learning more about how picture books are constructed, I'm fascinated. It's a lot harder than I thought. It wasn't fair for me to assume this was an "easy" thing to do.

Writing the text for a picture book is almost like putting together a movie script with directionals. For example, the first line might be, "Jim and Joe are friends," and then you'd have a directional, (Jim and Joe hugging each other). These are there so the illustrator has an idea of what to draw ... only you're supposed to keep the drawing suggestions rather vague so the illustrator can have some freedom to interpret the concept. Writing is pretty collaborative, anyway, especially when you're dealing with agents and editors, but this takes it to a whole other level. Picture books are very visual, even for the writers. You might be thinking, "Well, duh!" but it's a challenge for me to think about where the text and picture might go on the page.

Because of this, layout is super important and when writing the text, you have to actually say which page the text should fall on and which pictures should be two-page spreads, etc. Yeah, there are fewer words, but the arrangement is a lot more complex.

And, of course, the story still has to be a good one! There may be fewer than 300 words in a kids' book, but it still has to be a gripping tale that makes sense. Trimming things down to that degree is tough. You have to say what you absolutely mean.

Our homework assignment was to write a character who performs an action that has unexpected consequences -- all said in fewer than 500 words. I came up with a silly idea about my cat that began as a joke ... but ended up with a cute idea for a story. My husband was in hysterics when I read it to him and my friend Amy, who has an 18-month-old son enjoyed it, too. Now I'm wondering if I should actually finish thing thing and submit it somewhere. I have no idea how to go about doing this, at least not yet, but it would be funny if after all this time, I end up selling a story for much younger children.

Meanwhile, I'm still working on my latest YA book, the action/adventure one, and am still doing edits on Novel No. 2. So I have a lot going on! It's all good, though. I like keeping my mind and creativity busy. And props for children's book writers... I have new-found respect for what you do!

Read and review my novel REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD on Amazon.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

R.I.P., My Wonderful Friend

This weekend I lost a very close friend of mine. She was sick her entire life and these past couple of months were especially difficult, so I'm not surprised by her death. Still, I can't quite believe that she's no longer in this world.

She and I met about 15 years ago through a mutual friend. It took us a while to grow close because she was very quiet and often kept to herself, but once I did get to know her, I quickly learned what a strong and brave woman she was.

She suffered from constant pain and endured frequent hospital visits/surgeries, but rarely complained and did as much as she was capable of doing. I was often surprised by just how much she could do -- such as when she joined me for a four-mile walk around Central Park. She was tiny; maybe weighed 80 pounds at most, but she had nerves of steel.

Though she had many problems of her own, she almost never asked for help. The last thing she ever wanted to be was a burden. I used to get annoyed with her because she'd constantly apologize for everything, say, "I'm sorry" all of the time. But she just wanted the people around her to be happy and to be the best friend possible.

When it came to her friends, she went out of her way for us. If you were performing in a concert, she was there. If it was your birthday, she'd celebrate with you. The only times she missed out was when she wasn't feeling well enough. When I broke my leg, I was being a big baby about needing surgery so she schlepped out from Brooklyn to Long Island to be there for at the hospital. When my grandmother was on her death bed, my friend accompanied me to see her and managed to coax a smile and coherent conversation out of my grandma. This was the last time I saw my grandmother, so I think of this as a gift from my friend.

As for my writing, my friend was always very encouraging of my work. She's the one who told me that my style reminded her of Ned Vizzini's. She always cheered me on and I greatly appreciate that.

My friend liked to write, too, but I unfortunately never got a chance to read her work. I was always asking to take a look and offered to help edit it, but she was shy about sharing her words. I wish I'd had the chance, not because I'm nosy, but because it would have allowed me to get inside her head. As close as we were, it was difficult to fully understand what she was dealing with -- though I always tried and was as supportive as possible.

I'm angry that she was taken from me at such a young age, but am grateful that I got to have her in my life for as long as I did. I'm going to miss her, but will always remember her kindness, bravery and loving spirit.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Book Review: The Divergent Series

I tend to go through periods where I read certain types of books. Right now I'm on a memoir kick since I just finished that memoir writing class. For a while, I plowed through a series of sports biographies. Last year, I read a bunch of dystopian novels. I began with The Hunger Games trilogy, then moved on to the Matched series, then the Delirium trilogy, then Pretties, then The Program and then finally Divergent.

By the time I got to Divergent, I was pretty worn down by these action-packed, but -- let's face it -- rather depressing series and I didn't really give the novel the attention it deserved. I read through it quickly, then put it aside, not bothering to finish the trilogy. My friend insisted that the sequel, Insurgent, was even better than the first, but I needed a break from these bleak stories.

Well, I recently saw Divergent: The Movie and enjoyed it -- and decided to give the series another chance. For the most part, I'm glad I did. There are minor spoilers ahead; I'm keeping them pretty vague, but read at your own risk.

The first book is well-written and well-paced. Readers are introduced to this futuristic society, which takes place in what was once Chicago. Almost everyone lives in five "factions," which are Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor. At 16, teens take an aptitude test to determine which faction they'll most likely fit. Those unfortunate souls who don't fit in anywhere or are kicked out of a group are "factionless" and have to survive on the streets. Our narrator, Beatrice "Tris" Prior, is an anomaly because she qualifies for three factions... and is therefore "divergent."

Tris, who was raised an Abnegation, chooses Dauntless, and we follow her as she endures a grueling initiation period (think boot camp on steroids). During this time, she falls for one of her instructors, nicknamed "Four." As she grows stronger and their relationship deepens, she learns of a faction leader's evil plans ... and it's up to Tris to be the hero.

Insurgent picks up in the middle of the conflict and Tris' physical and mental strength are really challenged. And then everything falls apart in the final book, Allegiant.

I really liked Tris in the first two books. She's strong and tough, but isn't perfect. I rooted for her to win her fight, and I loved her relationship with Four. In some cases, it was a little hard to buy that a 16-year-old would react in such mature ways, but I could easily suspend my disbelief because the society was so extreme.

The story itself also moved along nicely in the first two books. The secondary characters were interesting and you really got to know the ins and outs of this particular society. In fact, Future Chicago was a character itself which tied everything together.

Unfortunately, Allegiant did not live up to the other books. For one thing, it's written from Tris and Four's points of view. I usually like when there are different narrators, but they sounded exactly the same! I'm not a huge fan of the Twilight series, but the one positive thing I'll say about those books is that in Jacob's chapters, he sounded very different from Bella.

My second issue with Allegiant is that Chicago is an afterthought. Yes, our heroes finally get to see what's "outside the fence," but there is still a lot going on inside the city -- and we're mostly told about it from second-hand sources. I don't want to hear about major events taking place; I want to SEE them. It's that whole show vs. tell concept... and in this case, there was way too much telling.

The worst thing about Allegiant is that it's dull and the main reveal doesn't make much sense. It took me over a week to finish it, which is long for me, and I really made it to the end out of obligation. There are many new characters introduced whom we just don't have the time to get to know or care about and there is a lot of exposition. I wasn't bothered by the controversial ending, but by the time the Big Event happened, I was just ready for the book to reach its conclusion.

It's a shame that Allegiant was such a disappointment because I think that author Veronica Roth is talented and has a lot of potential. She's only in her 20s, so she's still very young and I'm wondering if the pressure of writing such a popular series got to her? I felt as if this last book were rushed and not very well thought out ... and I can imagine her struggling to reach a particular deadline, especially with the movie coming out. I hope she gets to take a breather and really have time to plot out her next work (if she chooses to write something else) because I'm eager to see what she comes up with. Since I did like 2/3 of her series, I'm definitely going to give Roth another chance.

Do I recommend Divergent? Yes ... with the warning that you might not like the ending. The series was worth reading, though, because I did enjoy the story along the way.

Please check out my YA romance novel REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writing A Novel: Starting From Scratch

My last memoir writing class was this Monday. When it was time for everyone to leave, most of the students thanked my teacher and shook her hand. When I did this, she pulled me into a hug. It means a lot to me that she has so much respect for me as a writer and person. In the 10 weeks of classes, I really do feel I learned so much. I'm excited to see what children's writing will be like. I'll find out this upcoming Monday!

I'm currently editing Novel. No 2, but have also begun a draft for Novel No. 3. I originally planned to revise another old manuscript which I'd written a few years ago, but then got this idea and have decided to try it out. This latest piece is a sci fi story and is written from a boy's point of view. I usually write from the girl's POV and tend to favor realistic fiction, so this is a big departure for me. But it's a fun topic and I welcome the challenge. We'll see where it goes.

My main goal is to have Novel No. 2 "agent ready" by the end of this month. I have a few large sections that need revision and will then go through the book to fix as many typos, other errors, as possible. Then I'll send it out and see what happens. Perhaps the third time is the charm?

I always seem to get a lot of writing done in the spring. I'm not sure why -- maybe because it's a season that feels like a new start? I'm looking forward to seeing how these manuscripts turn out.

Meanwhile, please read and review REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Writing A Novel: Writng Exercises

Lately I've found that the best way to improve my writing is to spend time with other writers. Being in a class has reignited my interest and sparked my creativity. For a while, I felt as if I were in a slump, but I'm once again loving the process.

This weekend, I met with a couple of friends who are also writers. We spent the evening at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village and though we, of course, enjoyed some girl talk, we actually got quite a bit accomplished.

My friend Amy is part of my editing "team" and usually does a read of my drafts. She's also taught writing classes herself, so she had some great ideas for exercises.

First, she suggested we each choose a random object in the coffee shop. I chose a cheesecake; she chose a ceiling fan and Susan chose a pillow. We then had 10 minutes to write a scene in which we somehow included the objects. I misunderstood and only wrote about my object, the cheesecake... but I ended up crafting a romantic comedy scene where the protagonist shoved the cake in the villain's face.

While my scene was silly, Susan put together a very thoughtful piece about how the spinning of the ceiling fan reminded her of the passage of certain moments in her life. I've known Susan for many years, but wasn't that familiar with her writing -- and I was very impressed. She's a busy woman, but I hope she eventually finds time to complete a book or at least a magazine article. I'd definitely read her work!

Next, Amy gave us another 10 minutes to write about an embarrassing childhood memory. This was a little easier for me since we've been doing this in my memoir class. Still, it was a challenge to come up with a complete story in only a few minutes.

I don't do a lot of free writing, but think I need to do it more often. It's a great way to open your mind when you have a block and to get started on a project. I spend so much time worrying about the exact way to phrase something, sometimes it's just nice to let the words flow without limits.

I'm home sick today, but am feeling inspired enough to try a free write with my next novel idea. I have a basic outline for the book, but nothing is fully developed. I want to see what happens if I just write without thinking too much about it. Maybe I'll come up with something I like!

Meantime, please read and review my completed novel REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Writing A Novel: Getting A Literary Agent

I've made a big decision about my latest manuscript: Before self-publishing this book, I'd like to see if I can get an agent -- and get my book published in a traditional venue.

I think I've written about this before, but just to recap, I've been through this process twice. In 2003, I received offers from two agents who were interested in representing BAND GEEK (at the time, I was calling the book WHO'S ON FIRST? because of the narrator's fight for first chair flute). I signed on with the bigger agent, who was based in New York City and had many connections. She was a wonderful agent; she helped me fix some major problems in my book and stuck with me for a couple of years. Two publishing houses came close to buying my book, but no dice, so my agents and I parted ways. Yes, I was basically dumped -- but I have absolutely no hard feelings. Business is business and she really took a chance on me. How can I be angry about that?

A few years later, my husband and I came up with an idea for a quirky travel guide. Again, we managed to get an agent and she sent our outline to about 20 publishing houses. The editors loved our work and were ready to buy it. I really got my hopes up and thought that there might even be a bidding war... but this time, it was the marketing people who canned our idea. They couldn't figure out where our guide would be placed in the bookstore because it combined several genres.

It was at this point that I became very jaded about the publishing industry. Then I broke my leg and got into making jewelry ... but that's a whole other story! Anyway, by 2012 -- 10 years after I'd written BAND GEEK -- I just wanted to put my writing out there and chose to self publish. I'm so happy I did so, too. I have all the respect in the world for independent authors. There are many talented writers whose work "doesn't fit" in the traditional publishing world, for whatever reason; sites like Amazon and Smashwords are giving them the opportunity to share their writing. Completing a book is difficult enough, but I've found that it's even harder to have to market your own work. I'm still learning how to do that.

I've always dreamed of seeing my book in a book store, though. I realize that the publishing industry is changing, but I'd still like to take a shot at having someone like my work enough that they actually want to pay me an advance (even if said advance is only three figures) and help me sell my book. This is why I'm going to see if I can get an agent for my latest ms. Third time's the charm, right? I have nothing to lose; if I don't find an agent or my book isn't sold to a publishing house, all I have to do is publish it on my own. Either way, I win.

Right now, I'm editing my work and hope to send it out to agents some time next month. Meantime, please read and review REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writing Class: Shot Of Confidence

A second piece of mine was critiqued during my memoir writing class. Again, it went very well. My classmates and teacher had a lot of positive things to say about my work; a couple of people even thought that I should fictionalize the incident and use my scene in a novel.

I was especially pleased when one of the older women walked with me on the way out of class and said to me quietly, "You're a fine writer. So far, I've enjoyed your piece the most." This woman is well-known in the journalism world and has had a lot of experience in writing herself so her compliment means the world to me. She's written for newspapers and magazines all over the world and has had quite the career -- so she knows what she's talking about!

Even though I published a novel, I still have many doubts about my writing abilities. My novel hasn't become a best seller and I never rose as high in the ranks in the magazine world as I would've wanted. Getting laid off certainly hurt. So there are times when I wonder if I'm crazy, if I'm a fraud, if I really have any business sharing my work with others. Hearing the feedback from this class has given me a shot of confidence that I really needed.

I realize that when it comes to judging an author, everyone is going to have different opinions. Rejection and criticism come with the territory. Still, it's nice to have a diverse group enjoy your work for different reasons. Though this class isn't a professional venture for me, it's still giving me an opportunity to put myself out there.

When I began the class, I freaked out. I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle the deadlines or even handle the idea of sharing so many personal details about my life. I'm really glad that I stuck it out and forced myself to do something I'm not entirely comfortable with. I feel like I've learned a lot in these past few weeks and am happy I gave this class -- and myself -- a chance.

Please read and review my YA novel REVENGE OF A BAND GEEK GONE BAD.