Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My fingernails are history ... might have to start working on my toes next

Remember that contest I entered? Well, I finally got feedback on my second "page," and I got cleared to send in a third!  In the interest of full disclosure, here's what I sent:
     Bobby earned extra money each summer by selling the snapping turtles he caught in a nearby swamp to a restaurant in town, where they were used to make snapper soup. Today, Bobby had tried to show off by making the turtle bite twigs and sticks in half over and over again. Eventually the turtle had snapped, too, and it went after Bobby instead of the stick. He would be lucky to get away with only his pride wounded – I’d heard a turtle of that size could easily bite off a finger or two.
     Mr. St. Clair – father of Barbie and Bobby – poked his head outside. Shaking his head, he calmly walked up behind the turtle, picked it up, and returned it to the cardboard box Bobby had used as a cage.
     “I don’t object to you catching turtles for the restaurant, Robert, but I do not want to see you mistreating them. It’s bad enough that its home in the swamp is going to be turned into a housing development soon. You don’t have to torture it, too. Either take it to town, or release it. Your choice.” He shot an irritated look at Bobby and went back inside, screen door banging shut behind him.
     “Oooooh! Bet you’re embarrassed that Dad had to save you from that horrible beast,” Barbie said, rolling her eyes. Bobby narrowed his eyes and glared at her as he stooped to pick up the box.

And here's the comment I received back:
the backstory feels a bit jammed in and we wondered if this was set in the past or current day time, given what the character is doing

I'm going to overlook the comment on the year, because while that is clearly stated at the beginning of the chapter, she just doesn't go back and review the first page(s) you sent when she reads the current submission.  If you were reading the two submissions right in a row, it should be pretty obvious that it's all happening in the past.

And I appreciate the feedback on the backstory.  I'm going to think of some ways I could bring it in via conversation, rather than internal monologue, to make the scene move along a little faster.  Always interesting to get other people's perspectives on things I've stared at for WAY too long myself.

So, moving forward, here's submission three:
     “I wouldn’t expect you to understand how dangerous snapping turtles are, since you don’t have the guts to go in the swamp and catch one yourself.”
     “I’ve got plenty of guts! I just can’t go through the poison ivy to get there, you know that,” she said.
     Barbie and I had spent most of the summer exploring the wild areas around our little community – poking around in the fields and ditches, wandering through the woods, collecting rocks and shells on the beach. But we had never explored the swamp, which was surrounded by a forest that was dripping in poison ivy. Bobby was able to push through it because he didn’t react to the stuff, but Barbie was violently allergic. Like the caring brother he was, Bobby had been taunting her with stories of how awesome the swamp was, knowing it was impossible for her to get back there without a hospital visit afterwards. And my parents said I was too young to go in the swamp – I think my mother was convinced I would get bitten by a snake, lose a toe to a snapping turtle, and then drown in a pool of quicksand, all on the same visit.
     Barbie’s inability to explore the swamp was a sore point for her, and I wanted to avoid watching another shouting match. “Let’s go to my house. We’ve got better things to do than sit here and listen to Bobby’s ‘Reasons the Swamp is Awesome’ lecture again,” I said, jumping down from the picnic table.

I've got the next few submissions edited and ready to send (assuming I get the green light!).  Gotta plan ahead when you're trying to compete in something like this and have to leave in the middle of it on spring break!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fine, hand me the Pine-Sol

Wednesday is my day for heavy-duty writing.  Mondays I pay bills and run errands, Tuesday and Thursday I work, Fridays I clean the house and teach a class in the afternoon.  I get as much done during the bits of time I have available on those days, but Wednesday is the big day.  Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, fingers to the bone ... you name a work-related aphorism, I'm probably living it out on Wednesday.

Except ... today is a snow day.  Coming the day after a sunny-50-degree break in the otherwise relentless winter, this one is particularly unwelcome.  It is the tenth day my daughter has stayed home from school due to snow or extreme cold conditions; other than the chance to sleep in, both of us are totally over it.  She's holed up in my bedroom watching endless Mythbusters episodes on my iPad, and I'm telling myself I should use the quiet time to get something done.  I should sit down and work on my writing, or do research on agents, or revisit my cover letters and synopses.

But the wind is making the house creak, and the tiny chunks of ice flying into the siding are so loud I can't even drown them out with my earbuds and white noise.  The birds at the feeder outside my office are going nuts - my feeder is in a sheltered location, which makes it a nice break from the one the neighbors installed, which is closer to the woods but has been canted at a 45-degree angle in the wind all day.  I love to watch the sparrows and junkos, and I have been doing so often enough that I've developed a crick in my neck from craning around to see them, but do they have to be so loud when they argue about whose turn it is at the feeder?  How can I be expected to get anything done under these conditions?

So ... procrastination.  I have finished listening to my latest audiobook, worked on my spinning, done some knitting.  I ran the dishes so the dishwasher repair guy could see the problem we're having, only to have him call halfway through the cycle and tell me he wouldn't be coming because of the storm.  I have endlessly checked the weather report to see exactly how awful my husband's 4 pm flight into town is going to be (answer: worse every time I check; I doubt he's even going to make it onto the plane until hours after his scheduled arrival).  I have endlessly refreshed the contest page to see if the judge has started posting the results from the round in which my second page is entered (she hasn't and won't until tonight at the earliest, and yet I still keep checking).  I have looked at my list of chores I'd like to get done this week, and then conveniently discovered reasons why it is not the right time to hang 14,000 pictures in the basement or wash the grease off of the kitchen cabinets.

I stared at the rough draft of the newest story I've been working on, then decided I needed to do some research on a minor plot point.  Looking up things on the internet - actual things related to the story, not Facebook links and blog posts, mind you - was good for half an hour of "work," but it also made me realize that I may have to completely scrap my rough draft and rewrite the whole thing to be satisfied.  And THAT makes me think that maybe de-greasing the kitchen cabinets doesn't sound so bad, after all.  If only I hadn't finished my audiobook already ...

Monday, March 10, 2014

My fingernails are suffering tonight

I heard about a writing contest last week, and it struck me as something that might be good for me to do. You know, willingly participate in something where a complete stranger reads your writing and judges it and some people win and most people lose. The idea of it made me simultaneously excited and nauseated, so I went ahead and entered.

This one is a little weird, in that it is very specific: you send in the first 125 words of your book, and if the judge likes it, you get the green light to send in the next 200 words of the same book. Every time the judge likes what she sees, you can send in another page. If the judge at any point decides they don't like the book so far, you get sent back to square one and can begin submitting a new work. This goes on until somebody - actually, eight somebodies - submits eight pages or has sent in their whole book (picture books have a lot fewer words than other categories).

The theory is that those first eight pages are what most editors and agents (or their assistants) use to decide which manuscripts they want to read, and which are headed for the incinerator. So if you have a great first chapter, you're more likely to get a deeper read when you submit your work, and are therefore more likely to sell that work. Sure, the rest of the manuscript is important, too, but this format gives the judge the chance to slog through a much larger pool of entrants than she would be able to handle if we all sent in thousands and thousands of words.

I entered the second wave of the contest yesterday, and I received my code number today at the same time the first of this round's results came out. And the verdict is ... That the chart only goes up to entries numbered 10 less than my number, so I have to wait until tomorrow to see whether I get a red light or a green light. I can't decide whether to be grumpy (I really want to know how I did!) or relieved (Now I don't have to try to sleep after a rejection!). Mostly, I think, I'm just excited to have gotten involved in the process at all. I feel like I'm joining a group, a cohort of other aspiring writers who share my hopes and processes. We'll see if I feel so comradely once I actually get judged ...

In the interest of full disclosure, here's the 125 words I submitted for the first round. They come from the first manuscript I ever finished, and it will be interesting to see what other people think of them:

August, 1985

             “You better run faster, Bobby, or that turtle’s gonna bite your toes off!” I yelled.  Bobby dodged and weaved, trying to capture the snapping turtle without putting his fingers in danger.  But his bare feet slid on the dried-up grass, making it hard for him to circle around behind the surprisingly fast animal.

            “Shut up, Susannah, and scoot over!”  Bobby tried to climb on top of the picnic table where his sister and I were watching the show.  The turtle lunged forward, jaws snapping a whisper away from his toes.  “Aiee!” he yelled as Barbie pushed him off the table.

            “It serves you right for taunting that poor thing!  Sheesh!  You didn’t have to keep poking at it with sticks.” Barbie said.

            I, too, was rooting for the turtle.  


Working on synopses and query letters today ... sigh ...

So, do you want to read this book?
     Susannah Bohl has explored virtually every inch of the river, trails, and fields that surround her rural Maryland community.  Only the nearby swamp is off-limits – her parents say it’s too dangerous for a 10-year-old, even if it is full of fascinating animals and ecosystems.  But now a builder is planning to drain the land, sacrificing the wetlands so he can build a bunch of expensive houses in its place.  Susannah’s neighbors are doing their best to preserve the swamp, but it’s starting to look like a lost cause.
     When an unusually low tide uncovers an easier way to reach the swamp, Susannah convinces Barbie, her friend and babysitter, that this could be their last chance to explore it before the bulldozers move in.  And there, ankle-deep in smelly mud, Susannah makes a discovery that just might be enough to save the swamp.  

How about this one?
     Ten-year-old Topher Smith is crazy about history and archaeology, so he isn't terribly surprised when he starts having vivid dreams about a Native American hunter.  But things start to get strange when he uncovers some artifacts while digging in his yard – items he saw in his dreams before he found them.  Topher knows the artifacts could important and should be excavated by a professional.  Unfortunately, his parents are more concerned about getting their new garden ready than they are in preserving any arrowheads or pot shards that might be buried in the way.  The strange dreams continue to tell the story of the hunter, and Topher’s friends are half-convinced his yard – and dreams – are being haunted.   He isn't convinced … until he makes the next big find, right where his dreams told him it would be.   His only hope of ever getting a good night’s sleep again is convincing his parents to shut off the tiller for good. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Earth to Liza; come in, Liza

I'm sitting here next to my first, best, and most beloved test reader: my daughter Liza.  She's eight years old ("Almost nine!" she would say, if she weren't concentrating on my manuscript), and she is both my intended audience and the reason I got into writing in the first place.

Right now, she's gobbling up my latest manuscript, which is in its last revision and was sent out today to my tribe of test readers.  She's read it twice before, and it hasn't changed substantially since the last version she read, so it's not like there's anything especially surprising in the draft she's reading today.  And yet when I tried to get her to put the pages down at the end of each chapter to ask for her feedback, I had to basically wrestle them away from her to get her attention.  I eventually gave up, figuring I'd just go through the whole thing once she was done with it all.

Of course I am pleased that she's so caught up in it that I have to drag her back to reality in order to get any sort of information from her about the book.  That's what I always hope for, and what every revision tries to make better and better.  I've been slashing and cutting, tightening and describing, ramping up the speed of the action and trying to make the dialogue a little snappier, all at the same time.  Apparently, it's working.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

If it ain't broke...

I've been thinking a lot this week about routine, how it can either work for you or bring you down. Case in point: the soundtrack for my life while writing.

Before we get into that, though, a few details about me. I tend to have problems sorting through auditory input. It's not a hearing difficulty as much as it is a brain problem: I hear everything fine, I just have a hard time ignoring the unwanted parts and focusing on the parts I need. I'm an expert at eavesdropping, but it makes having a conversation in a crowded room a real treat, let me tell you. At least after 16 years of marriage my husband has finally worked out that I am incapable of conversing intelligently when the television is on, so when he mutes it I know we're about to capital-T-Talk.

I also tend to imitate the cadences and rhythms of the speech I read in books. It's entirely unconscious on my part, but it happens so frequently that I can't ignore the effect. It's especially bad with some series - my husband groans every time I pull out an Elizabeth Peters book because he knows I'll be talking like Amelia Peabody for days.

Given these two facts, I decided early on that I would have to be careful what I was reading and listening to during the time periods I was writing. Not just while actually writing - that's a white noise situation, no question about it - but also during the rest of the day when I didn't actually have a pen in my hand. I didn't catch on at first, of course, which is why some of my early children's writing had to be HEAVILY edited. Apparently, listening to R-rated Paranormal Romance audiobooks in between writing a kid's book isn't a good idea, at least not for me. All of my 10-yr-old protagonists ended up sounding world-weary, if you can imagine that. Not quite what I was going for.

Since then I have learned to either sequester myself from other books ("to give my characters room to think for themselves," as I pretentiously describe it) or be VERY careful what I listen to. Classic literature is okay - Great Expectations and Red Badge of Courage, while not terribly exciting to hear, at least didn't influence my muse. But I have to take a vacation from Sookie and her vampire buddies while I'm writing , lest my tiny protagonists end up with fangs and ennui.

When I got the spark of inspiration for my latest story and started writing last month, I listened to the classics while I ran errands and did the laundry. About the time things started to go really well with my writing, I pulled up The Fault in Our Stars, and things really took off. Apparently my brain can admire John Green's prose without trying to imitate it, which is a relief because I was getting really sick of Dickens. But then Gus and Hazel's story ended before mine was complete, and I had to make a choice. Should I start a new book and risk ruining the good mojo I had going with my manuscript? Should I go back to Dickens and his boring brethren? Or should I give up and just maintain radio silence until the draft was complete? What if Gus and Hazel were giving me the mojo - should I start listening to that book over again? Or would that be like declaring these my lucky socks and not washing them until I was finished? How superstitious was I willing to become?

Fairly superstitious, as it turns out. I shut the radio off and wrote like a mad woman for two days, nearly crippling my wrist in an effort to finish before I lost my mojo.

And then I threw down my pen, bought the next Kim Harrison audiobook to celebrate, and dug out the magazines I had hidden for the previous few weeks. I let myself listen to Welcome to Night Vale again, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Next time I start a book, I'll probably try crying along with Mr. Green again. Because why change something that seems to be working for me? That would be silly, kind of like shaving during a winning streak or not wearing my lucky hat to an Indians game. And that's just crazytalk, my friend.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Writing Exercise: "But Knot for Me"

Exercise: Pull up a random song on your music player and use the title of the song as the title of your next story.  My song: "But Not for Me," from the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack.
But Knot for Me

     Why, why, why?  Why did I ever think that this class was a good idea?  I could be sitting somewhere with an adult beverage and a pattern that doesn't make me want to tear out my hair, but instead I'm here on the verge of tears.  Happy birthday to me.
     I look around the room to see if there's anyone I can commiserate with, but the other students seem to be taking the new technique in stride.  Well, that, or they haven't gotten to the hard part yet - since I work so fast, it's hard to tell who's caught up with me and who is still blissfully ignorant of the horrors yet to come.
     The tangle of yarn in my lap mocks me.  I have tried this section so many times that I didn't even bother winding the yarn back onto the ball, I just ripped out the bad section and let the strands stay wherever they fall.  The next time I try to knit with it, I know, the yarn will stick to itself in clumps, making an already difficult pattern even more of a pain to execute.  But right now, I'm more likely to set the whole mess on fire in the parking lot than I am to patiently wind it into a tidy ball, so I keep my hands to myself.
     The pattern isn't that complicated-looking, at least once it's complete.  It's made from string manipulated with two pointy sticks, the same as any other knitted object.  How hard can that be?  I take a peek at the student to my left, and see that she's gotten to the part that has stymied me.  Her brow is furrowed in concentration, and she's not jabbering away with her friend like she was earlier in the day, but she doesn't seem to be as frustrated with it as I am.
     What is it that is tripping me up?  It's two sticks and some string, nothing to get myself in a tizzy over.  And yet ... knitting is supposed to be easy for me.  Ever since I progressed from that first scarf - the one where my stitches were so tight, they were practically impossible to work - knitting has come easily to me.  If I wanted to learn a new technique, I'd look at it in a book or online, try it a couple times, and boom, it was there.  My style might not be the most traditional - one knitting teacher who looked at how I formed my stitches basically said, "Huh.  Haven't seen that before," - but it's fast, and it gets the job done.  I can whip out a hat in a few hours, a scarf in a weekend, a sweater in a week if I don't have much else going on.
     But this ... this sucks.  "P2tog tbl" - the official abbreviation for the stitch I was failing to make - is evil.  Purl two together through the back loop, indeed.  Whoever came up with that little gem deserved a good thrashing.  This was it.  This was the thing that I would never learn, that would make me a failure in knitting, just like I was in everything else.
     I took a deep breath and looked out the window at the lake.  The water was calm, still except for the ripples left behind the ducks paddling around on its surface.  I felt like those ducks - outwardly calm, but paddling like mad where no one could see.  There were so many commitments, so many things pulling me in different directions.  Just keeping up with the house and my family commitments was taking everything I had - and knitting was supposed to be my escape.  It was the one thing I could count on, the one thing I knew I had down pat.  I could sit and knit and turn off my brain and not worry about everything else that was going on in my life.  I had planned for months to come on this retreat, to take this class from a famous teacher, and now here I was, paddling like crazy to keep up in the class.  It just wasn't right.
     I picked up my needles and steeled myself. This time, it would work.  This time, I would do it.
     I followed the pattern for several stitches, stitches that were nothing new, stitches I had done thousands of times before.  So far, so good.  Then I got to the symbol on the chart for "P2tog tbl" and I winced.  Now or never.  With a deep breath, I rolled my left wrist toward me so I could see what I was doing.  Counted two stitches over, then torqued my right wrist to insert the needle tip into the stitches ... carefully, so that they didn't slide off of my left needle ... and inched the needle further along.  I manipulated the yarn around the needle, wrapping it the proper direction this time, and drew it tight.  Now, for the moment of truth.  Slowly, carefully, I moved my painfully contorted wrists to pull the right needle out of the stitches, catching the new loop of yarn as I did so.  New loop securely held on the right needle, I popped the two old stitches - and ONLY those two stitches get back on there you miserable little cretins - off of the left needle and finally let out my breath.  It was done.  One P2tog tbl complete in under five minutes ... only ten more to go on that row.
     I worked carefully along the row, a stitch at a time, my normally blazing pace slowed to a crawl.  Knit. Purl.  Yarn over.  And then ... P2tog tbl.  I thought of revenge on the people who had invented that stitch, designed the pattern to use the stitch, and decided to teach a class based on that horrible, horrible pattern.  Fire.  Fire would be a good and reasonable response to the terrors they had inflicted upon an innocent knitting public.
     Only a few minutes later, I looked down, and I had reached the end of the row.  I counted my stitches with trembling fingers, hoping against hope that my number would match the one in the pattern.  It did!  I breathed a sigh of relief, then went on to the next row, which was blissfully absent of those evil, evil new stitches.  But only moments later, I was done with that row and ready to do the return row, which once again featured my friend, P2tog tbl.  Yay.
     I glanced around the room again while I rolled my shoulders to loosen the tension that had settled there.  I was getting a headache, and a backache, and I couldn't actually turn my head to the right without rotating my whole torso - that's how tense I had been.  Around me, the other students were falling silent, their own shoulders hunched and eyes squinted at the patterns in front of them.  Various oaths were muttered sotto voce, and more than one person was ripping back their work, one stitch at a time: tink, tink, tink.  Oh, thank god - it wasn't just me having problems with it.
     With a slightly gladdened heart I attacked the next row methodically: stitch, stitch, torque, insert, pray pray pray, slip, celebrate, repeat.  This time the row took incrementally less time than it had the last time, and once again I had the proper number of stitches when I was done.  Score!  Maybe I was getting the hang of this.
     Another easy row, and moments later I was back at the beginning of another row of horrors. Stitch, stitch, torque, insert, pray pray pray slip oh god oh god oh god no no noo get back on there you little piece of shit god damn it ...
     I slammed my needles down on the table.  The stitch had slipped off and run down the work, ruining a whole column of knitting that had been perfect only moments before.  Tears came to my eyes as I thought of taking out all that work to fix the mistake I had made - again.  I couldn't do it.  I couldn't force myself to go through that again.  I pulled out my needles and started to unravel the swatch.  Some people would leave the class with a beautiful sample of lace, but I wasn't one of them.  I looked at the hopeless tangle of yarn in my lap and sighed again.  For the other students there would be triumph, and a feeling of accomplishment, and something they could show off to their knitting friends.  But knots for me.