Category Archives: Writing – Fiction

Current and ongoing writing projects.

SCBWI-Houston Conference 2017

Well, another great conference has come and gone. I splurged this year, as my schedule has been very hectic and promises to get worse. I took advantage of the special offer and booked myself into the Marriott Hotel where the conference was being held on the night before and stayed till Sunday. Very nice accommodations on Briar Park just off Westheimer.

Per usual, a wonderful group of local SCBWI volunteers helped keep us on track and on task, introducing our guest speakers and directing people to the silent auction, Blue Willow Books booth and the food, which was as plentiful as the information.

Our key note speaker this year was middle-grade author, raconteur, and former teacher Bruce Coville.  Some of his best stories involved lessons he learned from his own students and from those who helped him along the way. It was an entertaining and up beat opening to the events and a foreshadowing of the delightful novel writing workshop he ran on Sunday morning.

There was a panel discussion that included a number of our more successful and prolific Houston authors, from debut novelist Caroline Leach to the very successful Crystal Allen.  We also got tips from Jennifer Hamburg, Chris Mandeleski, Varsha Bajaj, and Pat Miller. Pat represented for the non-fiction contingent and led a workshop on that topic Sunday morning opposite Bruce Coville’s.

Little Brown Books editor, Deirdre Jones spoke on “New Twists on Old Themes” and how to put a new twist on the universal topical themes (think the seasons, holidays, colors, etc.) that make your book marketable year after year. Finding a way to mash up multiple themes in your picture book makes it seem fresh and ever more appealing to tiny would-be readers and their parents.

After a brief break, bidding on the auction items and some networking, the attendees were divided into break-out sessions for writers in general and a special session for published authors. I attended Random House editor, Martha Rago’s workshop, “Speed Dating with a Picture.”

Christa Heschke, agent with McIntosh and Otis spoke on writing an engaging mystery atmosphere that reeks of tension, is properly paced, and has an original premise. She stressed the importance of outlining in writing mystery. Pre-planning can save two or three of those seemingly endless rewrites.

Anna Roberto, editor with Feiwal & Friends, an imprint of MacMillan talked about the ever elusive ‘voice’ and what it is, what it sounds like, and why it is so essential to setting your manuscript apart.

Thao Le, who is an agent with Sandra Djikstra talked about the art of revision: tightening language, being specific, and the use of vivid active verbs.

I had two critique sessions, both informative and helpful, but differing widely in what needed to be fixed and how to do it.  While I was meeting with my critique mentors, I missed part of the presentation by Full Circle Literary agent, Adriana Dominguez, who spoke passionately and informatively about diversity in children’s literature, both in subject matter and in authors.

After a long and eventful day, the pitch sessions began, followed by dinner and dancing. I went to bed early, my brain completely overloaded.  But I woke fresh and ready for the novel writing session with Bruce Coville the next morning (pictured with me above).

Attendance was slightly down this year, partly because of the recent flooding and losses experienced by stalwart SCBWI members.  But overall it was a great experience.

 

The Family You Choose

Last November, in 2016, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge and wrote over 50,000 on a novel.  It was an exercise.  I wanted to see if I could discipline myself to putting out a certain number of words every day.  I also wanted to write a story with more action and complications than I normally write into my first drafts.

With that in mind, and a single image of a young woman unwrapping the contents of a parcel, removing the bubble wrap and tape from a funerary urn, I began.  I did write over 50,000 words, but I did not finish this novel. After many months, I’m picking it up again and taking another look.

I realize that I really like these characters and they each have a unique and somewhat colloquial voice. There are plenty of complications.  I only need an ending.

Having just finished working through my other two novels with my critique groups, I need something else to work on with them.  I took in the first chapter and they are very enthused.  So it looks at though this will be my writing project for the next few months at least.

Wish me luck and send good vibes.

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I came back from two conferences with bags full of books, but this novel was a gift from a friend, and so I moved it to the top of the pile. I’m glad I did. In a year of historic political division and growing national misogyny, on November 16th the National Book Award failed to honor a single nominated woman, but instead focused on divisions along racial lines. So, let me talk about this beguiling and poetic novel written by a woman that deals with race and the position of women in a historical moment defined by rampant violence, tyranny, martial law, huge political and economic differences, government corruption, and the vulnerability of the disenfranchised.

Paulette Jiles lives in Austin, Texas. She is an author who writes lyrically of real events and people fictionalized in a vivid and epic narrative that never loses its sense of the personal and the mundane events of this journey story. The book was one of the worthy nominees for the National Book Award for best novel.

The tale begins in the winter of 1870 in north Texas. The state is still under martial law, the US troops of occupation guard public meetings of any kind. Despite raids from the Indian Territories across the Red River, roving bandits, and sex traffickers, private citizens are prohibited from carrying handguns. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71 year-old veteran of two wars and a survivor of a third, the Civil War, is a former printer plying his trade as a itinerant purveyor of news. He travels from town to town through Reconstruction Texas setting up public events where he reads from Eastern and international newspapers of exotic and romantic places and events, he hopes to broaden his audience’s understanding of the world. He carefully avoids articles about the corrupt and warring political factions in power in Texas.

Into his precarious vagabond life comes a 10-year old girl recently recovered from the Kiowa. Taken when she was six during a raid that killed the rest of her family, her aunt and uncle have offered a $50 gold piece for her return. The negro teamsters transporting her know and trust Kidd and see him as a reliable escort, whereas their conveying a young white girl offers all kinds of complications. Kidd’s sense of honor and the vulnerability of this young wild child persuade him more than the money. From the beginning, the trip is a struggle, fraught with peril and unsavory characters. But the old man’s kindness, the girl’s courage, their shared danger, and their growing interdependency forge a bond between the two.

When at last Kidd delivers her to her remaining family, she has begun to relearn her original language, accepted the necessity of wearing the constrictive white clothing, and begun to feel safe in his company. But the dour German couple he meets are looking for someone to share the labor of their farm, without any consideration for the kindness required to fully reclaim a young girl who will forever consider herself a Kiowa, ripped from her family not once but twice. The ultimate choice of what is right and wrong and what constitutes honor, responsibility, and family is at the heart of this story, brilliantly and mesmerizingly told through the day to day decisions of life and death.

A recurrent theme of the book is evident in the title, News of the World. Kidd began adulthood as a 16-year old courier in the War of 1812. He has continued to bring messages and news of things beyond and outside as a printer and reader. In the epilogue of the story we learn “the Captain asked to be buried with his runner’s badge. He kept it since 1814. He said he had a message to deliver, contents unknown.” How nice it would be to have a Captain Kidd to see us through this current moment in history.

SCBWI Houston Conference – 2016

Another great SCBWI conference for the record books on October 22, 2016. A new venue for SCBWI, the Hess Club (5430 Westheimer) was not difficult to find and the parking was free. I missed ducking out to a coffee shop as we did at the Memorial City Marriott in 2014 and 2015, but the food was good, the company congenial, and the speakers were great.

The proceedings opened with our illustrious Regional Advisor, Vicki Sansum and Charles Trevino. Then we were treated to a keynote address by our own Crystal Allen. If you see her ask her to explain ‘genre’, you’ll get a laugh.

A panel discussion included local success stories Lynne Kelly, Joy Preble, Bruce Foster, Kathy Duval, Sherry Garland, Kim Morris, and Sandra Howatt. Each touched on his/her path and the things they learned along the way, and how much SCBWI contributed to that journey. I’m sorry to say I missed part of this presentation for my first of three critiques.

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Katherine Jacobs

 

Our first guest speaker was Katherine Jacobs, who is a senior editor at Roaring Brook Press. Her talk was entitled “The Body Electric: Creating Characters that Spark With Life.” She spoke effectively about bringing your characters alive using their physical characteristics and mannerisms, and incorporating active verbs to describe them. She suggested, “If your character seems boring or cliché, it’s because you didn’t go deep enough. Listen to your character.” Contrasting Flat and Round characters, she used specific writers and their work to make her point, recommending being willing to take your characters to a ‘dark place.’ Summing it up, she said, “Your characters are the soul of your work.”

Maria Middleton is the Art Director at Random House Children’s Books and is responsible for the overall look and feel of all their Middle Grade books. As you might expect, she talked about visual storytelling, using slides to illustrate her points to great effect. Like many people, I’m in a great hurry to get published, so it hit home when she said, “Give yourself time to be great.”

Kelly Sonnack (one or my critiquers) compared Story to a journey, where the writer is the travel guide. She encouraged us to see the story as a path, where you leave a series of breadcrumbs. But you must trust the reader to understand and follow those directions. You promise them a destination, and you need to deliver. She also spoke about character and making the reader root for yours. Likeability plays a big part, but even unreliable or less than admirable characters must allow the reader to connect on some level to be successful. Some things she recommended:

  • Look at how you introduce the character.
  • Identify their flaws.
  • Is every character necessary to the story?
  • What does the villain ‘offer’ the protagonist?

She also discussed Plot and examining what the character really wants. This rang true for me, because this is how an actor approaches a character and what he/she does. She gave some very specific recommendations on Voice and Dialog, which feed into each other. Both contributing to Pacing, in that the rhythm and length of your sentences can quicken the pace and build to the climax or completely derail the forward movement.

Susan Dobinick is an editor at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. At her previous publishing job she was one of the editors on Lynne Kelly’s Chained.  She tried to help us understand the difference between the ‘moral’ of the story and the broader themes, or the Big Idea. As an exercise, she had each table work together to write a paragraph for a story using three words suggested by the audience: peach, cloud, and robot.  I think our table’s story was very promising!

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Brianne Johnson

 

I missed the beginning of Brianne Johnson’s talk about first pages because I was in my second critique. She is a senior agent with Writer’s House. But I don’t think I missed many minutes because what I heard made perfect sense, was very lively and filled with examples. She suggested introducing a mystery or conflict from page one of your manuscript and planting lots of scraps of mystery and conflict as part of character development, tone, setting, and action. “Little mysteries can hook you.”

Ginger Clark was a delightfully spirited and funny speaker. A senior agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd., she is particularly interested in MG and YA historical or fantasy and its world building. We had several things in common, actually:

  • Her love of historical YA and MG fiction, I’m writing an MG novel set in 1965 during integration.
  • She loves Eleanor of Aquitaine, I played her in Lion in Winter.
  • She was in drama and band when she was younger, as was I (and my heroine is a band nerd)
  • She is looking for a manuscript about Queen Boadicea, which she pronounced correctly but I knew how to spell.

Ginger compared writing a historical to packing the luggage for the characters. You have to do the research and know what fills their day and what are their habits, clothing, and environment. She encouraged us to use primary sources. Road trip! She also cautioned that you don’t do a historical just to avoid technology or on a whim; let the setting suit the story.  She used examples from published texts to show how strategic use of period terms or objects can immediately tell the reader what sort of story he/she is reading and when it occurs. “Give us a place name a kid would know—transportation, clothing, are all world-building. Choose wisely.”

The day was rounded out with a First Look panel discussion of selected first pages and art. I’m happy to say they picked my first page as one of the ones to discuss and it got some very favorable and constructive comments.

Finally, award nominees were announced and everyone found out how many of the silent auction items they’d actually won. I bid on everything! Fortunately, I only won three items, but it was great fun.

Of the two out of three critiques I received (the email one is still outstanding), I was lucky to have generally glowing comments from the lovely Crystal Allen and equally encouraging but constructive criticism from Kelly Sonnack. Yea!

The day concluded with a congenial dinner at Los Cucos. Lots of discussion and impressions from the day and generally good fun.  Congrats to the conference planning committee on a job well done.

Lou Berney’s Award-Winning Novel

I had already purchased and begun reading Lou Berney’s The Long And Faraway Gone when I left for Bouchercon: Death on the Bayou in New Orleans. So I was not surprised when it won the Anthony Award for Best Original Paperback mystery novel for 2016.

Berney has a hauntingly human and almost casual style, centered around a premise that hooks you from the beginning.  What happens to the teenage survivor of a tragedy?  The book intertwines two barely related tragedies from the 1980s in the characters of the lone survivor of a robbery turned massacre and the younger sister of a missing teen who vanished.

Wyatt wonders why the robbers killed all his co-workers at the movie theater, but left him alive?  Julianna is left forever waiting ‘at the fair’ for her sister Genevieve to come back from an errand that was supposed to take ten minutes.  In both cases, there have been no answers for over twenty-five years.

How do you move forward?  How do you build a life?  Can you ever be close to anyone again, when your closest friends were brutally murdered?  How do you stop putting your own life on hold while you pursue every whisper of a lead that will bring you answers?  What happens when there will never be any closure?

Berney is equally adept at interweaving the past and the present and multiple viewpoints that leave you aching over the near-miss, the misunderstood, the unknowable. All these characters are damaged, a few are despicable, but all are engrossing.  I was haunted by this book for the last several weeks, because like the characters we are left with no neat answers.

For me the message was not in the huge violent tragedy, but the everyday tragedies of people left behind, who can never quite get it together or accept that they can never find the real truth. Because we can never really know what is in someone else’s heart. The miracle is finding the courage to choose love and a purposeful life in spite of that.

The Long and Faraway Gone is published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins.

Cultural References as Shorthand

In one of my three critique groups, we came up against a common issue in all our writing—using cultural references that don’t work for everyone in your audience. By cultural references, I mean quotes or plot devices from movies, books, TV shows; popular actors or fictional characters; and popular slang.

A number of writing books suggest that using cultural references can be shorthand for communicating a lot about the character, situation, or place. The caution being that it not be too recent or too faddish. If you use the latest slang for your Middle Grade novel or the latest teen heartthrob in your YA novel, it will be dated by the time you get it to your agent, much less published.

A broad spectrum of people may recognize a reference to Jennifer Aniston in Friends, but a much narrower group will understand a reference to Luke Perry in 90210. My PBS-watching friends all quote Downton Abbey, but only a few would recognize quotes from the equally iconic Upstairs, Downstairs.

Sticking to the classics seems to trump the popular. A quote from Jane Austen or Hemingway is probably going to appeal to a wider audience than a quote from Harlan Coben or Janet Evanovich, no matter how many bestsellers they write. The same goes for classic movies, but be careful about assumed knowledge. One of our group is writing a book heavily steeped in Hollywood history and legend, with both real and fictional characters. We occasionally have to remind him that a quote without attribution either in dialog or POV commentary sails right over our heads and makes us feel ignorant. Not what you want your reader to experience.

I thought I was bulletproof when I likened the office of my heroine’s divorce attorney to Sam Spade’s office in The Maltese Falcon. One of the group, who is British-born of Indian descent innocently asked, “Is Maltese Falcon a song?” It served as a reminder that American popular culture is not globally recognized.

I was mystified when her main character acted on her desire to escape an abusive marriage and a life-threatening situation by going shopping with her husband’s credit cards. I didn’t see how it moved the action forward or solved her problem. She patiently explained that upper class women in Indian society were generally submissive and meek and this was seriously acting out. I immediately flashed to the hotelier mother in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I don’t know if either extreme is commonly true of Indian women these days, but I recognize that I am culturally illiterate when it comes to this part of our society and readership.

Reading Louise Penney’s ‘A Great Reckoning’

As you know, when not writing you need to be reading. I try to read the spectrum of mystery fiction. But I have my favorites. This weekend I got to read the much anticipated twelfth book in Louise Penney’s series about former Chief Inspector Gamache.  It did not disappoint.

On back-order for several months, it arrived as I left for Bouchercon, where I picked up three bags of books to read.  But this one stayed at the top of my pile.

Fans will know that Armand Gamache is the former Chief Inspector of the Homicide division for the Sûreté du Québec.  Having almost died cleaning up the corruption in the famed police force, he has retired to the sleepy village of Three Pines, which figures greatly in most of the books. Seemingly recovered but bearing the scars, both mental and physical, he passes up grandiose positions to become the new Commander of the Sûreté Academy. It is the last bastion of the evil and decay that almost overwhelmed the division. In what seems an act of insanity, he brings two of his fiercest enemies onto the faculty. The struggle for hearts and minds inevitably leads to a murder and the investigation that targets him as a suspect gradually peels away layers of scandal that shock even Gamache.

Penney skillfully intertwines the central story with a historical thread, following a mysterious map through twists and turns worthy of Dan Brown. But, as always, it is the finely, almost poetically-drawn characters and the rich heritage of Québec that holds us riveted, not the tightly structured plot.

If you are a novice to this fabulous Canadian author, sprint to your nearest used bookstore to find the first book of the series, Still Life.  It is not always available at your local box store.  Begin at the beginning and follow the twists and turns of the progressive relationships between the varied and wonderful cast of her books. No one stands still;  they all grow and evolve, and make terribly human mistakes. My only small disappointment in this book was that Clara, the resident artist of Three Pines played so small a role.

Fans of Louise Penney will know that the release of the last two books were somewhat delayed by the onset and increasingly devastating dementia of her husband, Michael.  That she can still write such beautiful prose while coping with this is extraordinary. It is especially poignant since many of Gamache’s most endearing qualities are those she based on her beloved husband.