The Internet hosts HEAPS of advice for new writers and new authors. I do not weigh in on those, because publishing is a business where your mileage may vary. I'm doing what works for me!
Today, I have a single piece of advice for new authors: think carefully about your cover art. My publisher and I agreed on the cover for Life Before, and it truly fits the story, but I hadn't realized it would be everywhere. It's on my business cards, all over my website, on posters when I speak at book stores, and on name tags at book events. The cover was perfect for Xander, but I'm not really a dirty Chucks kind of girl.
Next Thursday, we're revealing my new cover. It's beautiful. I'll be buying new business cards and revamping my website as soon as possible!
Photo credits for the above: Mira Thomt, Abra Johnson and Carlos Barradas
Telling someone her writing is private and secured with a password is an agreement. If you have administrator's access to that writing and read it despite the agreement, you have gained illegal access. And lost my trust.
You missed it! The YA Scavenger Hunt runs every autumn and spring, so perhaps you'll catch it in April!
While cleaning up my blog categories, I realized I used to tag many posts "cake." That must have been before the whole author thing got real. (Since it "got real," my life consists of family and book-related stuff, and why-the-hell-am-I-doing-anything-not-related-to-this-book-or-the-next-book? Anxiety reigns.
But this week, there was cake. This Tuesday, I turned in my final edits for Life Before, and I celebrated with coconut cake. I'd tasted this cake at our school auction last weekend, and NEEDED more. . .but I didn't need the coconuts all over the outside. Turns out, the coconut is for show, but cardboard on the lips.
Live and learn. There will be no coconut cake at the launch party. (But there will be cake. From http://www.rosellinisweets.com/ no less. Come for the chitchat, stay for the cake.
This post first appeared Thursday, September 24th on the Hedgebrook blog at http://www.hedgebrook.org/blog/ Hedgebrook is a rural retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island, Washington. I really wanted to pile some pasta on my laptop and take photos, but my tech support said no.
From Soup to Nuts
In my previous life as a management consultant, we mapped processes “from soup to nuts,”* which is a delicious way to explain my writing process.
Soup: Idea Consommé
My novels begin with a single idea, be it theme, bizarre character trait, or what-if scenario. This simmers for months or years among thousands of other ideas while I write other books and live life.
Amuse-Bouche: Unamused Synopsis
Once a single idea takes hold, I force myself write a two-page synopsis of the manuscript (without, you know, the manuscript.) Writing a synopsis before writing a 90,000-word manuscript helps ensure the story won’t fizzle halfway through. When this course is prepared properly, it makes the rest of the meal go down easy.
First Course: Outline, with an Inspiration Reduction
For the next several courses, I use Scrivener writing software to manage the intricacies of my work. My current manuscript, an adult contemporary novel about a group of women in crisis, includes complicated relationships and a series of flashbacks. Scrivener’s corkboard was instrumental in keeping my thoughts together as I outlined, and gave me a path forward.
Second Course: Blanched First Draft
The first is my most linear draft, written from chapter one straight through to the end. I write at least 1000 words a day, every day, for three or four months. To stay productive, I use brackets for unknown elements: the protagonist’s brother is named [BROTHER] and her favorite pastime is [SOMETHING RARE AND EXCITING]. I research and replace the brackets in my free time outside of writing. This helps me immensely; if I didn’t cage my thoughts between brackets, I would spend whole hours researching popular boy names from the 1970s, or going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia. This course is rife with gaps, but the major story arc is in place and characters are taking shape.
Third course: 19 Revisions, with Mint Sauce
Each time I revise the full draft, I focus on a single thing (e.g. establishing consistency of character, expunging my writing tics, or sharpening the language). These drafts solidify story arcs, characters, and dialogue. If I’ve done a good job on the second course, this course takes about two months. If I was sloppy, I’ll spend five months here. When I’m satisfied with the tone and characters, and once no brackets remain, I move the document into MS Word so I can share it.
Fourth Course: Family-style Pappardelle
I serve this course to my computer-scientist husband, and three dear friends:
--Dear Reader, a middle school English teacher turned attorney, often provides suggestions over the phone, frequently in real time as she’s reading.
--Super Reader, a YA librarian who has reviewed hundreds of novels for Booklist, sends back her plate—piled with insightful commentary—within a week.
--Alpha Reader, a YA author, takes a month to review the manuscript (usually twice).
My invaluable early readers come to the table with different perspectives, so they offer vastly different suggestions. They have my manuscript for six weeks, during which time I don’t touch it. Instead, I keep a separate list of notes offline.
Fifth course: Sushi for One
After six weeks of the fourth course, I edit the manuscript with fresh eyes. In a single pass, I edit and incorporate my own notes.
Sixth Course: Michele’s Mole with a Thoughtful Garnish
Using brackets for notes and placeholders, I add all four readers’ suggestions into the manuscript. With more than 300 pairs of brackets, the difficulty of this course lies in making decisions: how shall I proceed when the Alpha Reader loathes my Super Reader’s very favorite part? Now editing is less time consuming but requires far more thought. The sixth course is my favorite, because the manuscript changes rapidly into something much better.
Seventh Course: Filet de Récite
While alone in my house, I read the entire manuscript aloud, changing my dialogue and anything else that sounds improperly seasoned.
Eighth Course: Twice-Baked Edits
I repeat courses four through six, with the same early readers plus a few more. Edits are generally swift, and I sweep through the manuscript two or three times. When I make it 83 percent through the manuscript without finding any major issues, I start anticipating dessert.
Proper Dessert: Final Read Pavlova
This is sweet. I spell check for the first and last time, and read through without making any changes.
Nuts: Cashews, Macadamias, and Book Deals
This part is new to me. This winter, I will forward my new manuscript to my agent and hope she knows an editor who’s eager to buy it. The second I hit send, I will open a new Scrivener project for a new amuse-bouche.
* I’ve eaten dinners around the world, and have yet to start with soup and end with nuts.
The thing is, I'm a yogi at heart so I almost always sit with my legs crossed, as if I'm three years old. You can't do that in a narrow chair. And on a hard chair, forget it. But on a sofa, crossing those legs makes a perfect little nest for my computer, and I'm off to the races.
Everything else feels like procrastination to me, and I write while my toddler naps, so time is at a premium. Finding a view or special lighting would take time. Looking for the right music would suck my brain into iTunes for the entire afternoon.
The fire may be lit or not. Sunny, raining, hailing, I don't care. I don't require a lucky pen or need to start writing at a precise time or wear special writing socks or hold the perfect mug or create mood lighting. I sometimes write in the dark!
All I need is a cushy seat--any cushy seat. A large pot of tea, a small bit of honey, and a throw blanket also are welcome, but not necessary.
Photo credit: My oldest, 2008, took this photo while I was writing. Is that how I look to them when I'm writing? All bug-eyes and no mouth?
It's no secret that I base my novel's scenery on places I've been. While on holiday in Ohio, I took two shots for you. They're both key for Life Before, which is out in spring 2016.
Xander Fife lives in my childhood house. I haven't stepped inside since I turned 18, and it's endured many changes in color since then, but here's his house:
You can imagine a rickety wooden bench to the left of the door, right? Xander' bench includes many layers of peeling paint, but is black during his story.
And, of course, his high school. For a long time, the manuscript included a lengthy description of the camel-colored bricks that had darkened with age. Now it says nothing about the school's drab exterior, but I snapped a pic at my school while I was in Ohio. I didn't get to enter--it was August, after all--but this is the door that Xander and his best friend, Jill, enter on their very last day of high school. A tiny part of my brain expected Tucker to be sitting on the radiator just inside the doorway, waiting for his best buddies.
He wasn't. . .but just being at the school made me VERY excited to share this book with the world.
In Life Before, my YA novel coming out next spring, Xander Fife has a secret, and I built his whole character around it. He also has passions (soccer, Gretchen Taylor, wings from Quaker Steak & Lube) and quirks (a charming inability to wake up on time, a long history of first dates, and a weird relationship with junk food,) but his whole character started with that secret.
At some point, I started thinking of Xander's physical character. Looks are generally the least important aspect of character for me, but they're still important to my writing. For that, I go straight to Google Image Search. For Xander, I googled for "young actors, brown hair."
Googling for characters always makes me feel like a creeper. Seriously, who else Googles "young girls with freckles and long brown hair" or "teen boys with washboard abs?" When I wrote my first novel for adults, I printed photos of heads and body parts and Frankensteined them together before pinning them to my bulletin board. That's what we writers call "procrastinating."
For Xander, I chose the picture of Logan Lerman above. Logan isn't right on the money, but he's pretty close to the Xander in my head, so keeping that photo nearby helped me stay on track while writing. I invented a voice and his manner of moving. I gave him insecurity.
For my current project, I started with a story that needed a character, so I had to work backwards. What kind of woman would throw her whole world into crisis?
Once I have that hook, that one big thing, I'm off to the races.
My very, very favorite way to develop a character is to have someone interview him or her. For an hour or so, I get to be the protagonist while my friend delves into my character and motivations. It's really difficult to find a friend with the patience for this, but it's super helpful and really fun.
And, once I know my character inside and out, I can start writing.
*I was in elementary school with Jerry Green, and though I never uttered that name out loud, I still can't get it out of my head. It's the kind of name you can shed when you switch schools (if you stop picking and eating your dried mucus) but it has to color your life a little, right? I would never actually write about Jerry Green, but someone else with a horrid childhood nickname? Sure.
Photo Credit: That's an uncredited photo of Logan Lerman that I pulled off of IMDB when I needed a face for Xander Fife.
I'm new in Seattle, so I'm wading through the social structure looking for kindred spirits.
This week, when I finished the public draft of my manuscript, I needed to celebrate with someone. I shared the good news with an acquaintance and she was ecstatic.
"Tell me about this book!"
"It's contemporary YA about a guy whose mom is murdered on graduation day."
Her transformation was immediate: blank eyes, fake smile, squared shoulders. "I only read books for grown ups." And then she glanced furtively, as if the book police would arrest her for talking about YA.
I can't befriend a book shamer. I'm not embarrassed of what I write or what I read.* Here's a sample:
That's just one shelf of the 36ish in my house. (I'm not counting the children's shelves.)
I'm not ashamed of the YA or the commercial fiction. I don't need to justicy the Griffen & Sabine trilogy (though really, the letters! The envelopes! I swoon.) I also don't feel compelled to explain the two copies of The Time Traveler's Wife (or the other three copies floating around my house.) Hey, there is American Erotica on the shelf, too. (Also, I hadn't realized how similar the spines are for I Thought My Father Was God and In a Sunburned Country.)
I thought about cropping out the shelf below for aesthetic reasons, but why? It elaborates on the story. Liberating Grammar, written by one of my favorite college professors, is quite good. You probably recognize the Harry Potters (including an English, i.e. Not American version. There's a story behind that one.) What else is down there? More Bill Bryson, The Help, Erich Segal's Love Story. (There's a story behind that, too. Two stories, actually.)
I'm not ashamed of any of that. I didn't remove a single book from that shelf. (In the interest of full disclosure, note that I did remove a chocolate bar from the shelf. When Dove milk chocolate is found in the house, it's a sign. It was delish.)
I'll photograph every shelf in my house if you want. (Hey, that would be fun! Take photos of your closest book shelf and share it!)
Read what you love. Graphic novels ring your chimes? Go for it. You only like 18th century French literature? Bon appetit. Everything by Stephen King and no one else? Go ahead and scare the crap out of yourself again and again.
Being ashamed of what you read is one step removed from lying about who you are. Read what you love. It's the literate equivalent of letting your freak flag fly.
Don't be ashamed of what you loathe, either. I could never get into David Foster Wallace, no matter how hard I tried. Most fantasy is just not for me. Ditto space operas. Most of Shakespeare, even though they might revoke my bachelor's degree for admitting it.
I love lots of different kinds of books. I love adult contemporary. And I love really good science fiction. I love nonfiction. I love reading middle grade books (Is 2008 ready to read The Penderwicks yet?) and I love reading YA.
I love writing YA. In fact, I am happier writing YA than I ever was writing adult contemporary.
We've gone round and round the Internets about books for boys, books for girls, books for grown ups. It's all BS, people.
Books are for readers. Read on.
*I am, however, somewhat ashamed that I haven't organized my books in the eight weeks since we moved in.
I blog rarely, because I'm busy writing books. When I do blog, I focus on writing, friendship, family, and books. Because my family's best nicknames are private, I use their birth years for shorthand: