Tuesday, June 28, 2011

out of my computer...and into the world!

So last week I got my copyedits.  I actually got them in the mail the day before we left on our little trip, and I was a bit worried that they wouldn't arrive before we left, and I'd have this mess of dealing with getting them back from the post office or whatever, but then  HURRAY! they came right on time, looking only slightly...battered.  :)

The outsides were intriguing enough!  (I love getting mail, real mail, in my mailbox...brown paper packages tied up with string, you know!)

But then!  Inside!  My manuscript!  With pencil marks and a post-it from Michelle Andreani at Marshall Cavendish, who READ MY BOOK! (and, at one point...I'm not going to spoil it for you because that's how nice I am, she MAY have written the word Lovely.  LOVELY!)  Read my book super carefully, too, like...did you know I have a character named "Norman Whatshisface"?  Did I know I had a character named "Norman Whatshisface"?  Well, Michelle does.  She also knows that, despite the fact that I had it written BOTH as one and two words in various places in my manuscript, earlobe is one word.  And bandanna has TWO N's.  And so many words either have hyphens that I did not use, or don't need the hyphens I did use...and also she kept careful track of when I capitalize the word "god" and when I do not (it was confusing!)

You know what else was awesome?  Michelle (my new bff) used a colored pencil to mark all the changes and suggestions and questions and typesetting marks.  And do you know what color she used?  My favorite, of course.  (This would be purple.)  So my mistakes were even aesthetically pleasing!

All these little excitements, though, were really nothing in comparison with the thrill of marking changes on the physical paper, thinking--this is it.  From here on, my story exists outside of my computer file.  (No, I did not go through my computer file and make the changes.)  At my editor's suggestion, I read through the entire manuscript out loud, and as I read through each sheet and made neat, upside-down pile next to my desk (I feel like I should have Michelle look this over--does upside-down have a hyphen???), the words were getting closer and closer to being an actual book.

An actual dream come true.  :)

Friday, June 24, 2011

The road ahead...

My family has been a bit obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder lately.  That's not the point of this post.  But seriously, we seem to be experiencing some Laura-immersion lately, as we read aloud from The Long Winter, look at our photos from the museum in Walnut Grove, and now, we've begun watching the first season of the Little House TV show.  The boys are transfixed.

In the episode we just watched, Pa had to walk a hundred miles to find work, along with many other farmers in the area, after a catastrophic hail storm ruined the wheat crop. On his way, he meets up with another farmer--a man we have just seen in an emotional parting shot with his wife and his son.  The wife begged him not to go; she says he's going to get himself killed.  The parting with the young son is poignant, with the whole, You're the man while I'm gone, so take care of the farm and take care of your mother thing going on.  He's a "powder monkey", we later find out, the guy who sets off the dynamite inside the holes that Pa and another farmer are going to drill in the rocks of the quarry.

I'm sorry to spoil the episode for you, but the thing is, from the moment we see this goofy tough guy with the heart of gold dancing around in mock fisticuffs with his little guy, who declares his father the best powder monkey in the whole country...the moment you see the love in his wife's eyes--her desperation nearly hidden by her playful teasing--you know the dude is going to blow himself up.

Or anyway, you know once you've seen this strategy used a few times.  Just like Keek says in the book I'm currently devouring reading, And Then Things Fall Apart, by Arlaina Tibensky (this quote is from the ARC, so it may differ from the final book), "In movies when there is a dog, I always kind of brace myself for the moment when the dog will eat poison, get shot, get run over, drown, etc.  And then when the dog dies (they always do; that is their function in the film, to die), I weep...."

We start to recognize the signs of impending narrative tragedy: a dog, a cute kid told he has to take care of his mother, a stoic but heartbroken wife, a warning gone unheeded.  We prepare ourselves, emotionally.  And then, even though we know it's coming, still we weep.  We feel sadness, but we aren't completely shocked and horrified by the awful event.  It doesn't actually traumatize us because we knew it was coming.

Laura's writing desk, Walnut Grove, MN
Unless you're a little kid, still learning how to recognize these cues, like Monkey, who was paying attention to the television the way he pays attention to everything--by seeming like he is completely ignoring it.  Suddenly, he's on my lap, weeping, his little bottom lip all stuck out and his eyes gigantic and terrified, watching the smoke from the deadly explosion rise up into the blue television sky.  It's my job, then, to keep him from being traumatized, to hold him and explain about how it's not real life and help him see how brave the little boy is in the end and how Pa promises to check on him and his mother in the future.

This is a confession, though not a secret:  when a book really has me hooked, when I am completely wrapped up in the characters and their lives and their conflicts, when I truly believe in them...when the foreshadowing is subtle but deep, and the suspense builds in the book so that I can't stop turning pages even though I fear to turn another page...

...usually at about the halfway point, when it becomes too much to bear, and I feel myself on the edge of being traumatized, I'll flip quickly to the end of the book and glance at the pages--not to read, but just to sort of reassure myself that life goes on, in the end.  And after that moment, when I get my little reminder that yes, the story will go on, and probably it will be resolved (I don't need a happy ending, but I guess I'm looking to make sure that the rest of the pages aren't empty and blood-stained or something?), then I can keep reading.  And weeping.

And those books stick with me, much more than the ones that I can continue straight through without ever needing to flip ahead to check and make sure my heart won't explode in a few pages.  So...how do I write a book like this, that makes a reader so incredibly invested that they think they might be traumatized if something catastrophic happens in the next fifty pages?

One way, of course, is to write characters that are so three-dimensional and real that I actually can't bear to see their hopes and dreams crushed.  I have to care about them deeply in order for any of this to matter.  But it shouldn't be easy to see what will happen (for example, the "powder monkey" saying good-bye to his wife and child, recklessly he's stuffing those dynamite sticks into his pockets, that moment when everyone seems truly happy and like it all is going to turn out fine...that's too easy.  But that's also a short television show from many years ago and a minor character!).

I can compare it to something else that makes me anxious--driving.  When we were on our trip last week, we climbed up into the Black Hills, to a campground near Deerfield Lake.  The roads there were all steep and winding, breath-takingly beautiful and horribly dangerous.  Snaking around the curves, headed into the setting sun, both David and I leaned forward, squinting through the bug-splattered windshield, trying to figure out which way the road was going to veer next--and sometimes completely surprised at the direction it takes!

But what a satisfying thing, to finally pull into that campsite in one piece...to smile at each other and say, wow, that was a beautiful ride, and we made it to the end!  And how thankful we are that we get to drive back down with the sun at our backs. :)

So how do you build suspense in your writing? What suspense methods do you think work really well?  What authors do it best? What books make you want to flip ahead and make sure the world doesn't end?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Road Trippin'

Our campsite at Sage Creek Campground in June, 2000
Very early in our relationship, David and I took a road trip to Kansas to visit my dad.  Later road trips have included a summer-long ramble out West with no firm destination, spending all our time either in the car or the tent, a mad dash from Oregon to Minnesota and back, without stopping for anything but gas and fast food, a road trip with friends up to Vancouver, British Columbia, and various shorter trips all over the place.

We made a lot of discoveries along the way.  We discovered, for instance, that I make a good navigator: ("Okay, so according to these three maps I'm consulting at once, you are going to want to make your way over to the left lane for a left exit in one mile.  There will be two exits off to the left before the one you are looking for.  Once you take the exit, you will take another left, followed by an immediate right.  Not this exit, but it's coming up next. And turn! Now, remember left, followed by immediate right.  YES!  And we're set for the next hundred miles, unless you'd like to stop for something to eat, which can be done in twelve miles, forty-six miles, or possibly seventy-two miles, although information on that tiny town is a bit sketchy"), and that he is not a good navigator ("Yeah! TURN RIGHT THERE!  No, I mean, LEFT, but...yeah...back there.  Um.  Let me figure out how we turn around.")

He is a calm pilot ("No problem, honey, I don't mind being boxed in by giant trucks on a winding mountain road while the rain lashes against the windshield and the lightning makes the world seem like a strobe light disco party.  It's okay that I haven't slept in twenty-two hours and I've had to pee since we were in South Dakota and the whole world looks fuzzy.  You go ahead and take a nap"), and I am not a calm pilot ("HOW THE HELL WAS I SUPPOSED TO GET OVER TO THAT EXIT WITH NO WARNING OMG THERE ARE CARS EVERYWHERE WHY IS EVERYONE GOING SO FAST THEY'RE CROWDING ME WE'RE GOING TO DIE AAAHHHHHH!  *sob sob sob*").

But most of our experiences with road trips ended when we had kids.  Not because we didn't feel confident in our abilities to take kids on a road trip, and not because we were trying to deprive them of the experience of travel but rather because kids are expensive and travel is a luxury, and also because, as a grown-up, vacation time frequently gets used up with things like painting the house or catching up on all the laundry. 

But we finally did it--we put the kids to the test to discover if they were good road trippers, too.  And they are! D. drove the whole way, and while I had additional tools at my fingertips as navigator (GPS...so shiny! and wi-fi capable kindle...so connected!), we still adopted our usual, figure-it-out-as-we-go attitude.  There were a few things we really wanted to see.  One was the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Walnut Grove, MN.  We've been reading the Little House series out loud for the last year, and both boys are pretty fascinated by the prairie life.  The museum was excellent, and the hands-on exhibits kept the boys enthralled.

Sage Creek June 2011--a Kiss the Morning Star scene come true!
We also wanted to make a stop at the Sage Creek Campground in the Badlands--or maybe I need to say that I wanted this.  This was a place where D. and I camped a million years ago, and I think we had one photo of it from that trip.  But it became more important to me when I was writing Kiss the Morning Star and wrote an important scene that takes place at that campground.  I wanted to see it again, but this time thinking of it as the site of Anna and Kat's adventures.  It wasn't so much that it needed to be perfectly accurate (there are definitely some details that are...maybe we'll call it romanticized!), but I wanted to just...envision them there.  It was really cool, though, to find the perfect precipitous cliff for a key moment where Anna and Kat almost step off the edge of the prairie and fall into a chasm in the dark.  I didn't know if there would be such a place, but then we found this awesome spot.  I had to run over and take pictures, so of course D. took pictures of me taking pictures because we are picture-taking crazy.

Speaking of picture-taking crazy, if you want a closer look at our road tripping experience, I spent like all day yesterday uploading and writing notes on photos, so here's our flickr set from the trip

And now...must get busy on these copyedits!

(And, happy summer! I will try to get back into blogging and reading mode!)