Saturday, September 24, 2011

Scott Westerfeld & Plot Knots

I got to hear author Scott Westerfeld speak at The Wild Rumpus bookstore today, and it was wonderful. I go to YA author events as often as I can and Westerfeld was definitely among the top speakers I've ever heard. He has an easy style, had a really interesting talk (and pictures!) prepared about how pictures stopped being popular (in anything other than young children's books) these days when they used to be so prominent, and the Q&A time was killer.

Things he said that stood out to me:
- someone asked him basically what kind of reaction he got when he came up with this complicated "weird" story idea for the Leviathan series. His response was awesome--that complicated stories are a lot easier to write than simpler ones--there's so much to explain, so many places you are freed to go with it. He gave the example of trying to summarize Season 3 of Buffy--and how hard that is to do quickly because there are so many intricate things going on with so many characters and interweaving storylines. And Westerfeld does do some seriously complicated storylines. I loved the Uglies series, but it was really his Midnighter's series that impressed me with some f'ing SMART, intricate, kick-ass storytelling. Really, Leviathan too. So intricate, so smart, love it.

-which leads to the next thing he said that totally surprised me: he says he's not a plotter! Doesn't do outlines. He just goes with it, and said he'd rather just try things out and write it several different ways if he has to. And when he comes to a plot knot that may arise, between research and his extensive worldbuilding, he always finds a solution. For example, if you've read Leviathan and Behemoth: he didn't know what kind of creature was in the eggs for a long time!!! Then it turned out to be the awesome perspicacious loris!

I am a big Plotter. But I'm learning you can only take it so far: you outline, you write, then you step back and see the story has a giant lump sticking out the side that's going to have to be lopped off (aka, I think I'm gonna have to kill this one scene). But once you do that, the whole shape is now wonky, and you have to re-think what it's going to look like. Plotting and outlining shouldn't be taken to the point where you forget to allow the story to grow organically--you are not some supreme god able to control every element of the book you are writing and the world you are creating in it. It should surprise you.

Art imitating the Big Things I'm learning about life: trying to hold onto it with a clenched fist of control isn't the way to go. Things will be a lot more exciting and spontaneously creative if you learn to let go.

So, I'm looking at this mass of words that will eventually be a book, a cohesive and hopefully moving thing. And I'm teasing out thoughts and playing around with the shape (without trying to be so immediately controlling), just digging my fingers in the clay and seeing where it goes. Some question tools I'm using as I explore:
  • What's the emotional core of this book?
  • What's the climax (and how does that connect to the emotional core)? 
  • How are all these chapters driving towards that climax?
  • What's necessary, what's not?
  • How do I bring these characters to life?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Giveaway of Gabrielle Zevin's ALL THESE THINGS I'VE DONE

Enter to win ALL THESE THINGS I'VE DONE by Gabrielle Zevin!!  I've loved Gabrielle Zevin ever since I came across her freaking AMAZING book Elsewhere, and she was actually the first YA author I heard speak and do a reading (for the debut of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac) after I'd begun writing seriously.

So I have warm feelings in my heart for Zevin, and I was worried about over-anticipating this book. But I need not have worried! I devoured this book over the weekend and am reminded of why I loved Zevin's writing in the first place. The narrator's voice is just spot on, authentic, and all of Zevin's characters feel so very real. And dang, some DRAMA goes down in this book, you gotta check it out!

To enter, please COMMENT with your name, email address, and add up any extra points.
+1 for New Followers
+2 for Old Followers
+1 for Tweeting about the Giveaway
+1 for Blogging about the Giveaway

How To Save Your Own Life

My insecurities can run away with me if I don’t watch it. I’ve felt like I’ve been walking around for a few weeks now frantic and absolutely bewildered. Time moves too fast, then too slow. I feel no control over my life or the hours as they slip by. I thought of the perfect image to encapsulate how I feel today—being caught in an riptide, being swept further away from the shore by forces stronger than oneself and not able to get control or break the surface.
There’s this lyric from Adele’s “Turning Tables”:
Next time I’ll be braver, I’ll be my own savior.

Makes me think of the title of Erica Jong’s book: How To Save Your Own Life. I hated the book, but the title is still one that’s stuck rattling around my head years later.

There are some admittedly crappy things going on in my life. Things I wanted to go one way, and the opposite happens. My health junking out on me again. There are also some very wonderful things.

It's NOT that I need to adjust my expectations, or ‘let go’ of expectations, or even pull myself up by my own emotional bootstraps—I think really it’s one of those things where I need a different paradigm. I’m asking the wrong questions about how life should be lived, and about what constitutes a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ life.

I felt the frantic and the awkward self-consciousness bubbling up before my writing class tonight, so I sat out in the car in the parking lot beforehand for awhile. I turned on some quiet music. I sat still. I concentrated to my connection and relationship to all the things around me—my fingers on the steering wheel, the air blowing on my face, the trees gently moving outside my windshield. If I am connected to the things, much less the people, surrounding me, all my self-involved concerns of awkwardness fade from the foreground.

And I suspect that control (or at least, peace) comes when I abandon my clenching fist, trying so desperately to control outcomes (which tend not to obey anyway).

How to save my own life might in this instance mean: number one, that change is possible--it is possible to stop drowning, but beating at the water more frantically isn't the way to do it. Instead, stop thinking about the self in such isolated individualistic terms and learn to exist, present, in each moment, connected to the things and people around you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Interview with Elizabeth Richards

Today I'm interviewing the fabulous Elizabeth Richards about her novel BLACK CITY, debuting from Putnam in Fall 2012!

Summary of Black City:
Deep in the heartland of the United Sentry States are the burning ruins of the Black City, a melting pot simmering with hostility as humans and Darklings struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a brutal and bloody war. A wall now divides the city separating the two races. Trapped on the wrong side of the wall is sixteen-year-old hustler Ash Fisher, a half-blood Darkling who’ll do whatever it takes to survive, including selling his addictive venom ‘Haze’ to help support his dying mother.

Then there’s Natalie Buchanan, the daughter of the Sentry Emissary, who feels imprisoned by her life of privilege and fame. When their paths cross, they instantly detest each other but Ash is shocked when his once still heart starts to beat. Bonded by a mysterious connection, Ash and Natalie first deny and then struggle to fight their forbidden feelings for each other, knowing if they’re caught, they’ll be executed. Then Haze users start dying all over the city and Ash discovers the terrible truth behind his and Natalie’s mystical connection. Suddenly, city walls and the threat of execution become the least of their problems.

You said on your website you used to review video games. Has that experience, or video games in general, influenced your writing and/or storytelling methods?

Ah, the good ol’ days. That was a fun job! Writing for videogame magazines taught me how to work to tight deadlines and not to stress about opening paragraphs. I quickly learnt that if you obsess about your opening you'll never get the rest of the article written, so I always wrote that last - and funnily, this is what I do with my books too!

It also taught me how to write for a specific age group, and I have followed that through to my novel writing. Regarding storytelling, a lot of videogames use the traditional 3-act structure, so you can learn a lot from them regarding creating an exciting adventure with plenty of twists and turns, lots of peril, and a big crescendo, all within this classic structure.

Do you do a lot of outlining, or do you prefer to just write and see where it takes you (in other words, are you a Plotter or a Panster?) Why?

I’m a plotter, thanks to my training as a scriptwriter (I studied Scriptwriting for TV and Film at university). I like to do detailed outlines, 3-act structures with all the key turning points mapped out, character biographies, scene-by-scene breakdowns, that sort of thing. Then I throw it all out the window after 50 pages and let my characters tell me the story. But I do this prep-work more for my peace of mind, so I know if I get really stuck I’ve got a solid story to fall back on. It also makes sure that I don’t write scenes that don’t drive the plot forward or reveal something about the character.

One of my favourite plotting tasks is to get my 3-act structure together. I usually do this process with my good writer friend Tracy Buchanan ( – who incidentally is the girl I named my protagonist Natalie Buchanan after! What we do is write up all the key scenes on post-it notes, then move them around my dining room table to decide the best order for things to happen, making sure all the key turning points are on target. It’s a very quick way to see where there are gaps in your story and where you need to add some more conflict.

What has your path to publication been like?

Well, my path to publication certainly isn’t the awe-inspiring story like fellow Apocalypsie, Gennifer Albin (, that’s for sure! But I think it’s inspirational in its own way, mainly because despite many rejections and set-backs I ended up with a 3-book deal with Putnam, Penguin!

Black City is actually the second book I queried. My first attempt several years ago was…well, a learning curve. We’ll gloss over this, because it was a dark, dark period in my life, filled with much rejection and humiliation (including accidentally inviting an agent along to my sister’s bachelorette party.)

However, I did learn a lot from that experience, including making sure your book is easily definable so agents and publishers know how to sell it; how to write an eye-catching query and to make sure you use a separate email account to query agents. ;-p

Black City itself wasn’t an easy journey either. I sent it out for a first round of queries, and while it received a lot of positive feedback, and plenty of requests to read the full, agents were concerned that it would struggle to find a place in the saturated paranormal romance market. So I took it back to the drawing board, and spent nine months completely redrafting the story, turning it into the dystopian fantasy it is now. And I’m so glad I did!

The second round of queries went a lot better, although funnily enough my agent – the truly amazing Ayesha Pande - originally rejected Black City. Her intern read the query and while she loved the premise and the writing, she had concerns about the supernatural element of the book. We had some enthusiastic email conversations, where I tried to persuade her that she really did want to read the full MS, but sadly she said she wasn’t sure they could take it on.

Then two weeks later, out of the blue, I got an email from her saying that she and Ayesha had been thinking about it a lot and they were very intrigued by the idea, and would I be willing to submit the full MS afterall? Of course, I emailed it over in about a nanosecond, and two weeks after that I got an offer of representation.

While it wasn’t the easiest journey to getting an agent, I’m so glad it happened the way it did because I couldn’t have asked for a better, more supportive agent. She really is the best! I’m thrilled. :)

After doing two months’ worth of revisions, we got Black City out on submission to the publishing houses and a few weeks later I got my amazing offer in from Putnam – 2 days after I got married, no less.

So it was a real rollercoaster ride, but it was totally worth it, and I hope other authors out there take encouragement from it, and realise that it can happen, as long as they keep believing in themselves.

What’s been the most surprising part of this whole crazy publishing process for you?

I think for me, I’m surprised at how quickly it’s all happening now I have a deal. I’m currently working on my editorial revisions, which are due at the end of this week (Eeeps!), the Art Team are working on my cover and I’ve got to get the next book in the trilogy written by March.

I was always told publishing took a long time, but really if it’s anything like my experience things happen very quickly!

Luckily, I’m so blessed to have a really communicative and supportive editor, Stacey Barney, who likes to keep me involved in every step of the process. She’s so enthusiastic about Black City (she calls Ash and Natalie ‘Nash’. I love it!), that it gives me so much encouragement. And my awesome agent, Ayesha, just inspires a lot of confidence; she always keeps me calm and well informed, so I feel incredibly supported by them both - which is good, because I’m a bit of a neurotic mess at times.

I think the main thing I’ve learnt is you need is stamina, and crazy amounts of it. The hours are long, the deadlines are short, and you just need to make sure you find the time, energy and enthusiasm to keep going. But it’s so worth it! I’m loving every second.

What book has influenced you, either personally, or in your writing? Why?
Stephen Fry’s The Liar had a very profound effect on me as a teenager. I was in sixth form (the UK equivalent of your Senior Year, I think?) when I read it, and his humour and masterful use of language really inspired me. I wrote a film script immediately after reading that book, and that script secured me a place on my university course. The rest, they say, is history. So I think for that reason that book has been a great influence on me.

Other books that have inspired me have been the Harry Potter series, Twilight, Shiver, and The Hunger Games, just because they have enriched my life in so many ways. I come back to these books time and time again, and they remind me why I want to be an author.

The two main characters in Black City seem to come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. What was writing that clash of cultures like?

Challenging! But it also opened up so much scope for the narrative, allowing me to tell the story through the eyes of two very different people from opposite sides of the track.

Ash and Natalie’s different backgrounds force them to question things about themselves, to challenge beliefs they’d been brought up to believe, and to find a common ground where they can learn to love and respect one another.

It was fun too, as I basically spent the whole book arguing with myself as Ash and Natalie struggle to overcome their differences, despite their love for one another.

You’ve written that your favorite book is Harry Potter (specifically Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince *that one’s my favorite too!*). Why do you think this series was such a game-changer for young adult literature?

In all honesty, it just comes down to Harry. He’s simply an amazing character. He is everything you want a hero to be: brave, kind, loyal, trusting, funny, dark, complex, dangerous.

You could drop him in any scenario, and it would still be a thrilling adventure! And I think that’s the key to his success. A lot of characters are confined to their own universe, and outside the realms of the story you’re telling for them, they simply won’t work. However, Harry feels as real to me as any living, breathing person.

Plus JK Rowling is a master at universe building. I loved learning about the wizarding world (I’m still dreaming about the day they manage to genetically engineer a Pygmy Puff), and everything is so well thought out and developed that it doesn’t require much effort on the reader’s behalf to get engrossed in Harry's world. Which I suppose is why it’s so accessible to so many people.

She’s a genius, there’s no other word for it!

Advice for would be writers?

Get some writing credentials under your belt. I can’t stress how much it helps your chances of getting an agent if you’re able to prove to them that you’re serious about writing. So start blogging, write columns for newspapers / magazines, enter writing competitions and just get out there. Like any business they need proof that you have knowledge of the industry and that you’ve got writing experience. Think of querying like applying for a job – if your CV is blank, then it’s going to hinder your chances.

Also start following other author blogs, and keep an eye out for any competitions they’re running, especially ones they're doing with agents. It’s a great way to get your name out there and there’s also a good chance you’ll be able to by-pass the query process and get your MS directly into the hands of an agent, who can give you feedback and maybe even offer to represent you. I won a Twitter Pitch contest shortly before getting my agent, and it was just the boost I needed. So keep an eye out for any opportunity to get ahead of the pack.

It's a lot of hard work, but if you want to do this for your career, you have to start taking yourself seriously and then agents will too.
Elizabeth Richards
(Putnam, Fall 2012)
Twitter: @theredpenofdoom

Monday, September 19, 2011

Revision Vs. Rewrites

It's funny how much of the plotting process is about sitting and staring into space. I spent several hours today staring into space and trying to unravel a plot knot I'd worked myself into. I knew I wanted my character to get to Point B, but after getting notes back from my editor, I realized she has to get there a different way than how I'd written it.

Which means, you guessed it: Rewrites. Completely rewriting scenes makes me grouchy. I far prefer revision, just editing and tweaking what's already on the page. Rewrites mean throwing out old pages and writing new ones. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not grouchy that things need to change, but that I didn't take the time to fully think the situations through in the first place. I look at the lovely pages that will just have to be completely sacked. I think about how much time it took to write those pages. I make a grouchy face.

Then, I sit and stare into space, trying to figure exactly HOW I'm going to unravel this mess with the new angle on the scene (i.e., remove all adults, have our plucky teenage heroes do it on their own). And how to do it logically so that the suspension of disbelief can be achieved as seamlessly as possible.

So today, instead of piling up word count as I like to do, or editing through and then satisfyingly marking a chapter off my mental map, I scribbled on notebook page after notebook page trying out ideas and solutions before I commit to them. Answering questions like:
  • Can I get BOTH characters to point B logistically, or does it work better if one stays behind?
  • If only my main character goes, should she do it one way, or another way?
  • Is it too much of a coincidence if this other thing happens while she's there, or is there a way I can make it feel natural? Maybe if I drop a foreshadow-y feeder hint ahead of time, it won't seem so oddly coincidental. In fact, I need to make it part of the cause-and-effect cycle (A causes B which causes C, and then it's not so odd when A comes back around again and surprises everyone), and it will feel even more logical.
Some things, you just can't see ahead of time until your Very Smart Editor points them out , even if you're big on outlining like me. Rewrites (unfortunately!!!) are part of the game. But still, I'm going to make sure I spend extra time sitting and staring into space to REALLY think out scenes for the next book before I write them, especially ones that are kind of iffy (yes, I'm looking at you, opening scenes of next book, I can smell from here I haven't fully thought you out yet).

Friday, September 16, 2011


Check out my interview over at Elizabeth Richard's blog where I talk Twilight, being in a wheelchair, and my writing process :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


So, confidence is something I've been thinking about lately. Because mine's lacking. For serious. Being a stranger in a strange land = being transitioned back to Jr. High feeling all awkward and like, um,  how do I make friends and make people like me?

I'm 29 years old. Haven't I outgrown this yet? Usually (well at least for the past few years), I've kicked ass confidence-wise. At least on the outside. I have blue hair! I have tattoos! I am exuberant and friendly! But wanna know a secret? Inside, I'm still that suuuuuper awkward jr. high girl. Oh dear, I feel an awkward picture coming on:

Ooooo, there we are. Hello super awkward jr. high Heather. Aw hon, you really need to cut your hair where it's still fried from the perm two years ago. And I'm so sorry you're buying into that whole 90's grunge thing with the over-sized flannel shirt. You've got a great figure, even though it feels all awkward-sauce right now because all the other girls are so tiny and you're grown-up sized already in 8th grade.

Back then, I let it drive my life--my uber-self-consciousness, my need to be liked. What I know now (at least, I know it most the time) is that confidence is something you fake until you make. Few of us are naturally confident, and certainly not all the time. Hopefully, being grown up also means caring more about the people around you and being engaged in life so that you don't concentrate so much on your awkward self stumbling through it. When compassion grows and you begin to see the world (and the people in it) for the large, complex entities they are, personal self-consciousness seems to shrink into perspective.

But dear god, I so, so understand how difficult it can be sometimes.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Body In Motion

So, for the first time in a decade, I can exercise. It's kind of a big deal.
I've had this crappy illness for the past ten years, and exercise only made it worse. I got sick at 19 during my first year of college. Right when everyone else was just beginning their lives, mine suddenly ground to a halt. Working out would put me in bed for a week. Then there was the infamous year (2003, I think?) when it got so bad I couldn't walk at all. I had to use a wheelchair.

Yes, my hair is the same color as the sign, I think that's actually why we stopped to snap the picture ;)

But being in a wheelchair? Seriously. Not. Awesome. Dang, even that picture pains me to look at! And it got worse afterwards. After I birthed my beautiful son, I was bed-bound for six months. That was also just as bad as you might imagine.

But this past summer, I started a med that randomly helps the CFS. I'd tried everything and then some for years before this and given up on finding relief. Then of course, when I'm not looking, I randomly stumble on something that helps. Then I cut out gluten as well, and all the sudden I'm fucking superwoman, i.e., I can take 20-30 minute walks every day with no repercussions. And be on my feet at say the grocery store or somewhere else for an hour too. In the same day.

This is a completely insane development for me. I still can't push it too far. I still have to stop and head home from my walks when I start getting dizzy and light-headed. I still get low-grade fevers every few days. There was a day last week when I pushed it even though I knew I shouldn't and was totally stumbling and had to stop and sit on the sidewalk several times before finally making my way slowly home. But then, I rested just ONE day and was back out walking the next. And I was fine!

I've been at it for a month now, with the exercise walking (and four months since I started having more energy with the new med). The CFS isn't cured. But damn if the boundary lines on my life aren't so much larger now!!!

I walk down the walking/jogging/biking path that goes by the river each evening, breathing in the air on the sun-dappled path and I feel... young. I'm out there with all the other healthy people doing their healthy-people things. I feel my own legs pumping solidly under me, the smooth bounce of every step, all of my muscles taut under my skin. It's quite alien, and it's absolutely fucking wonderful.

Also, if you're intrested, read about fellow CFS sufferer and bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand (she wrote Seabiscuit and the recently released Unbroken) talk about life with CFS.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Writing Tips from Recent Releases: Conflict is King!

So part of a writer is about plunking down as many conflicts and competing character motivations as possible into one space, then letting the sh** fly! If there’s something that can go wrong, it should go wrong. Several books I’ve read lately have reminded me of this, and I’ve been treating them as master classes in good writing. 

Bloodlines by Richelle Mead. Tip learned: conflict keeps you turning pages! Just finished this one last night, and damn, Mead has still got it! This book begins steeped in conflict with the main character put in a bad position from the get-go. A VERY dislikable and horrible person is put in charge as her superior. It’s immediately tense reading, even to the point of making it uncomfortable at times. But then, the best writers make failure seem like the only logical solution. Then, if there is triumph or success, it feels that much more emotionally powerful and satisfying. I remember first reading Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule and how every chapter ends with some dire development in which the characters are headed forward while being certain they will most assuredly die.

Andrea Cremer’s Wolfsbane
. Tip learned: NO SAFETY, ANYWHERE. The entire book is this wild adrenaline rush from one intense, life-threatening situation to the next. Even the places you think should be safe and secure may not be. This is a biggie for me. In real life, I like to have places that are safe strongholds, as do most of us. It’s healthy. But it’s a problem when it bleeds over into my fiction. No great story was ever safe!

Possess by Gretchen McNeil. Tip learned: dump the reader right into the conflict, and then make them laugh. Chapter 1, and we’re already seeing our plucky exorcist at work! This is a theme common to all three of these books I mention here (first chapter, straight to the action and conflict), but McNeil’s Possess always keeps an engaging humor at the forefront along with the action. Sometimes super-conflicty books can feel like TOO MUCH, like, hell, we need some banter to break this up and let the reader breathe! This book has great tension, but it’s also just plain fun.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In Which Nietzsche Makes Me Lol

Nietzsche always seemed like one of those big intimidating writers. The impressions I gained growing up and in school was that he was horrible and godless, not to mention that his ideas about the "will to power" had been wedded with Nazi's and genocide.

This preconception lasted longer than others I've had simply because I really didn't have much occasion or care to investigate any of his stuff first hand. Really, I didn't read much non-fiction or theory or philosophy texts until grad school when it was required reading--and when I DID finally read primary source stuff, I found them shockingly delightful and exciting and challenging. But still, I hadn't read Nietzsche until my Form &Theory class last semester. We read a snippet of Nietzsche about art and aesthetics.

I did a double take. Nietzsche and art? Even more startling to my ignorant self--what he wrote was absolutely fucking beautiful. Finally, after friends talked about him, and in reading Camus recently, he's often mentioned. So I finally went by the big indie bookstore here and picked up a Nietzsche reader.

And then the first page I read from it made me literally laugh out loud in delight. And made me feel that sense of a resounding yes, I can tell I'm gonna have kinship with this dude's writing. He writes:

[The artist] appears to be fighting on behalf of the greater dignity and significance of man; in reality he refuses to give up the presuppositions which are most efficacious for his art, that is to say, the fantastic, mythical, uncertain, extreme, the sense for the symbolical, the overestimation of the person, the belief in something miraculous in genius.

Made me Laugh. Out. Loud. I was like, way to call it like it is, dude! He's probably right, or at least it's an interesting way of looking at it - writers and artists, while we are supposedly dealing with giant questions of truth, of discovering and understanding reality, of investigating questions about the meaning of life... um, in the end we go with what works, what's "efficacious for [our] art." We aren't scientists trying to discover and communicate fact. We aren't even philosophers in our fiction, trying to discover truth no matter what. We may think we are. Maybe something inside us is the lofty FIGHTING FOR TRUTH motivation. But really, let's be honest: what we're doing is trying to make art! That's our inconvertable drive--to make art! And we'll utilize tools that are useful and effective in making art. We want to make art that allows us to continue making art because we love it.

Now why that is, that's a much larger and more mind-bending question. As well as: what the hell is art?

After a lot of thought about these things, I think I have an inkling of why, or at least why art works the way it does for me. But that'll be for another day, another blog ;)