Thursday, October 28, 2010

internal editor

Really, I've been trying to write.

I sit here with my fingers diligently hovering over the keys, and I admit it's not ideal since the LCD screen on my laptop died, and I had to rig up this old monitor from ten years ago so that I can see what I'm doing, and none of it fits on my nice, new desk anymore that I had all set up so that I wouldn't have to go to physical therapy anymore, which was costing a lot of money and also made me feel stupid since my nerves or whatever would never hurt while I was there...

What is your point, and would you get to it, please?

So I thought I'd write about how my sixth grade class is going to participate in the Young Writers' Program for National Novel Writing Month, and how exciting it is and how excited I am and how excited they are and how exciting everything is, but like, really.  So it's exciting. 

Oh brilliant.  Who cares?

And then that kind of fizzled out because how many times can I say the word exciting?

Oh, good, you did it one more time just to be extra stupid.

And so I dredged about in my brain for two hundred and fifty words about a boy and a ghost and a summer camp, which is the absolute minimum I'm going to let myself get away with writing each day--

And where are those words tonight, hm? I mean, you had those two ridiculously awful paragraphs written earlier this evening, but thankfully you understood my significant throat-clearing sound and my exaggerated eye-rolling and deleted them quickly, before they had a chance to ruin the rest of your story, which pretty much sucks anyway, but not as much as it did with those paragraphs...

Look, I'm trying to blog here.  This isn't real writing, okay?  It doesn't have to be perfect.  It doesn't always have to be interesting and creative and funny and thought-provoking or whatever.  Sometimes I can just write about my life and my family and--

--and bore everyone.  

--and it doesn't matter, okay?  It doesn't matter that those last two paragraphs of my ghost story WIP were awful or that I'm not sure how this scene ends or that I keep wanting to write a post inspired by last night's #yalitchat about LGBTQ books and about how I never set out to write a book about a girl who discovers she's a lesbian or bisexual or about how her accidental coming-out might impact her minister father or her dead mother or her best friend, but how I simply wanted to write a book about a journey, and about love--love that is real even though it's precarious and fragile and too soon and too complicated and how the inevitability of separations makes this love more precious than ever.  And I wanted to write about how the girl has to open up to love, even though that means opening up to the possibility of loss, and how that has little to do with sexuality and everything to do with humanity.

But you would mess it up.  You would start off on some weird tangent and end up talking about grizzly bears or that time that Monkey kissed your cheek while you were yelling at him, and it would get all jumbled and distorted and wrong.  So you'd better not write that.  In fact, you shouldn't write at all.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe next week, you'll be smarter, and the words will come out perfect. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Boo! spooky stories...

The boys and I got out the crayons, colored pencils, and markers this morning and drew some Halloween decorations for the front windows.  I love spooky things--movies, costumes, but especially stories.  Ghost stories, unsolved mysteries, Gothic stories, stories of paranormal phenomena--the ones that thrilled and terrified me were always my favorites. 

I never liked my spooky books to be too safe.  I much preferred creepy tales with unexplained, somewhat twisted endings or, better yet, the possibility of it being a true story, to the neat, Scooby Doo endings.  Tucked into my safe bedroom, I savored the fear, the unforseen, the uneasy. 

On the night before we got married, David and I hiked in through the old growth forest, about an hour before midnight, with the full moon up above us.  On Hallowe'en night.  We wore our flower crowns the entire night so that we were in disguise, and we left a candle burning outside our tent, a little dish of wine set out for the spirits while we soaked in the hot springs in the dark. 

Last Halloween, I wrote a flash fiction piece for a contest on Absolute Write.  I never write short fiction.  I'm terrible at it.  I can't stop, and every piece I write wants to be a novel all its very own.  So...I struggled a bit with the five hundred word limit, and eventually, that little story is now in the process of inspiring not only one novel but TWO!  One, currently without a title and  known simply as "My Cassandra WIP", features all three of the characters from the short story and the purple hearse as well, but in a slightly less terrifying story.  The short story also inspired my very first Middle Grade WIP, a ghost story about summer camp on the shore of Arrowhead Lake and the desperate ghost of iron miner Otto Jarvi and his long-drowned daughter Lucia.  In this book, the Ouija board and its frightening messages make another appearance.

I'm very excited about both WIPs, so I thought I'd share the story that started it all.  It's 499 words, including the title.

The License

“Put out the light, and then put out the light…”

“I thought a hearse would be appropriate.”  Kayla slaps the handmade invitation down on my desk and peers into her compact, adding another layer of black eyeliner.  “You’d better come.”

“You’d better pass.”  I pick at my nail polish.  Kayla’s birthday is on Halloween, and tonight will be the first year that one of us can drive.  If she doesn’t screw it up.

“You’d better bring the Ouija board.”

I look at the little hearse.  Perfect.  “Séance in the grocery getter?”  I say.  Kayla’s driving her mom’s old station wagon.

She laughs.  “Drew is going to piss her pants.”  It’s true, but Drew’s like that.  She’ll dress up in a princess costume so she doesn’t scare the crap out of herself.

“Be ready at eight,” Kayla says.  “Plath’s Lookout.”

Last winter a car full of kids skidded off the edge of a hairpin curve driving down from the Lookout.  Six dead.  We’re hoping they’ll talk.

“You’d better be driving,” I say.


Drew squeezes closer to me, and the sharp point of her glittery pink wing stabs me in the neck.  “God, Drew.  I’ll be bleeding for real.  Relax.  It’s a toy.  Look.”  I hold up the little piece of triangular plastic.

“Cassandra, stop!”  Drew snatches the planchette out of my hand and slaps it back on the ouija board.  “We didn’t say goodbye.  The spirit could escape!”

Kayla and I exchange a glance, but we touch our fingers back to the planchette and slide it across the word “Goodbye”.  Halfway through, the little triangle jerks away, and my fingers almost slip off.  “Kayla, stop it.  You’re freaking Drew out.”

“I’m not doing it.”

I look at her face to be sure, but I can tell by her voice she’s not kidding.  The planchette swings in erratic circles around the board, and then it settles on a rapid succession of three letters.

D-I-E!  D-I-E!  D-I-E!

Drew whimpers.  The air in the back of the wagon grows colder; the two candles are flickering.  My eyes are drawn to the little paper hearse Kayla taped to the window.  “Live it up,” says the invitation.

When I’m scared I get reckless.  “You’re not real,” I say.  “You can’t kill us.  You can’t even blow out our candles.”

D-I-E!  The triangle flies across the board.

“Blow out the candles, if you’re so powerful!  Put out the light!  You can’t even do that!”

“Cassandra!”  Drew screams and grabs my arm.  “GOODBYE!”

We wrestle the planchette across the word, and it falls silent and dead.  We stare at it.

“It’s just a toy,” I say.

“Let’s get out of here,” says Kayla.  She climbs up to the driver’s seat and starts the engine, spinning the tires in her haste.

“Be careful,” Drew gasps, reaching for her seatbelt.  “The curve--”

We’re going too fast.  The corner ahead, the abyss beyond--nothingness lit up by our headlights.

“DIE!” screams Drew.

The headlights go out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

one for the list. the awesome list.

Happy book release day!!
to my friend and hardcore beta reader, Rae Mariz, on her debut YA novel,  

Go listen to Rae talk about the book on this podcast, read about The Unidentified  story, and you will not be able to stop yourself from wanting this book NOW!


Sunday, October 3, 2010

confessions of a children's book lover

Illustrations by Sharon Wagner
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators--SCBWI--Minnesota Annual Conference in St. Paul, MN  October 2, 2010

My first writing conference was...well, it was so nice that I fear I will overuse the words "great!" "wonderful!" and "amazing!"  I will try to rein in the exclamation points, but the conference was a fantastic experience, and I came home excited about writing.  Which is always a good thing.

The day before the conference, I did a search on twitter and found a few people who had tweeted about the conference, and then I took a look at Anne Greenwood Brown's website, and read about her Lake Superior mermaid WIP.  I also have a Lake Superior mermaid manuscript, in a way, so I sent her a message.  We sat together, and she is a delightful person.  I have my fingers crossed for excellent publishing news in her future, and I'm so glad I got a chance to meet her!

Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, gave the keynote speech  about how to sell a book in twelve years or less; he very humorously related his entertaining path of a dozen years, from his very first picture book submission in 1994 to the publication of his first YA novel in 2007.  As I listened, I started thinking back to my own first attempt at publication and realized that I, too, have been submitting writing for twelve years. I, too, have tried to submit picture book manuscripts in that time, and yes...I, too, have vowed to quit writing, have found myself with an idea I was not yet ready--for a multitude of reasons, in my writing and in my life--to write.  At the book signing, I talked with him about my book blogging students having an opportunity to interview him about the process of becoming a writer, as many of them are very interested in writing books.  So exciting!

In a later session, Jay also gave us useful advice about injecting suspense in every book, every story.  What he said was clear, helpful, and again--funny as hell.  The guy is  a PowerPoint Performer.  The notes made me excited to take a look at my Cassandra WIP with a new eye for the role of story structure in the creation of suspense.

Next Heather Alexander, editorial assistant with Dial Books for Young Readers, gave a presentation about the tools editors use to convince their editorial board about a book, and the way the same tools are revised to sell an author's book to bookstores.  She read us a story and allowed us a chance to practice using the tool on a picture book.  It was interesting, and I gained a better perspective on some of the discussions that my editor, Melanie Kroupa, and I have had--especially the conversation we had before she offered on the book, before she presented KISS THE MORNING STAR to her board.

Poet Susan Marie Swanson gave an amazing talk about creating metaphors for our writing, about the value of literature and the joy of children's poetry.  She was full of glowing recommendations for amazing children's poetry and beautiful readings of all her favorites.  I spoke with her about my students and bought the book This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort an anthology of poems created for New York City schoolchildren after 9/11 (hers is titled "Trouble, Fly").  I came away with ideas not only for my teaching, but also for my writing.  Almost everything I've written has poetry in it in some measure, and I'm struggling a little with the poetry in my Cassandra WIP, so I was inspired on a lot of levels. 

The next session was pretty fascinating...Anne Ursu, author of The Cronus Chronicles, a middle grade fantasy series that looks terrific (my blogger students are going to freak out to read The Shadow Thieves) and also a teacher at the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University, spoke with her editor, Jordan Brown, who edits with Walden Pond Press and Balzer + Bray at HarperCollins. 

The two of them talked about the whole process...the way they work together, how they first started, the steps they've taken at each stage, their thoughts along the way.  The presentation was entertaining and very enlightening--I thought they did a  terrific job making the panel move seamlessly forward.  I really liked what they said about how readers can only read what's actually on the page, and how difficult it can be, as an author, to understand that we really didn't transfer the story of our head as neatly onto the page as it might seem to us.  I could relate to that.  :)

Also helpful was the First Pages critiques, where Jordan Brown and Heather Alexander gave critiques to a number of first pages that were sent in by conference attendees.  I imagine this is a tough job--to articulate their thoughts on a single page, on the spot and in front of a crowd, one of whom is the author of the page.  The two of them did a fantastic job giving helpful and specific criticisms to the writing we heard.  I didn't put any pages in because the Cassandra WIP isn't ready for that level of scrutiny just yet.  I sort of forgot about A TANGLED WEB because writing a fantasy book isn't my focus right now, but it was interesting anyway to hear their thoughts on the other people's first pages.

Overall, an amazing day for writer elissa!

Friday, October 1, 2010

comfort zone

So tomorrow I'm going to the Minnesota conference for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in St. first ever conference for writing, and I'm nervous!

I'm excited about listening to the speakers and learning about writing craft and the publishing process, and I'm very excited to meet more writers from Minnesota who are on the same path as I am.

But I'm nervous, too--mostly I think because this will be the first time I'm officially going somewhere as a writer.  Like, if I introduce myself to someone, I will be telling them that I write books for young adults--this is what I do.  This is real.  And that's kind of a step outside my comfort zone, to be honest.

Being an aspiring writer is walking a very fine line between being hopeful and being delusional, it seems to me.  So although I may talk about my writing with people who know me and know I write, there's always that measure of uncertainty when talking to new acquaintances.  What does it mean when you tell someone you're a writer?  What are they thinking when they nod and smile?  Is that bemusement in their eyes?  How long will you get into the conversation before they ask what books you've written, where they can buy them, how their uncle wrote a book and self-published and have you thought about going that route instead, since it seems like you've been working at the traditional publication route an awfully long time...

Even after getting an agent, even after selling my book, it still seems like a dream that might disappear if I breathe on it too hard, if I look at it directly.  My friends, my mother maybe, might bring it up to someone they're introducing me to--"Did you know Elissa's a writer?  Did you know she has a book coming out?"--and it still makes me feel shy and uncertain.  What questions will they ask?  How much do they want to hear?  Being a writer, talking about being a writer, is still this sort of half-secret mumble-mumble-blush-smile yeah, wow, it's REAL! kind of moment for me. 

So I'm excited, and I'm nervous.  I hope I'll learn some great things that I can come back here and talk about, and I hope I'll step outside that comfort zone and meet some terrific people, too.  (And also, I'm hoping to buy some good books from awesome Minnesota writers!)