Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reading is FUNdamental

Does anyone else remember this slogan from childhood? I recall thinking, well, yeah, duh. I always loved to read; I couldn't fathom anyone needing to be convinced or coerced to do so. Maybe I was the dorky little kid my big brother always told me I was.

Anyway, Carleen Brice and Kristen both tagged me with this meme for book lovers. So, hey, I'll play.

Total number of books? Whew, I can't count that high. I'm not sure if it means books read, book owned, books I still want to read. . . but between being an English major, my husband being a journalism major, then me being an English teacher and now being a writer, can I just say all of our book shelves are jam-packed and we can never have enough. Plus, we still have boxes of them we haven't unpacked yet. Lots and lots and lots.

Last book bought? For my own reading pleasure or for somebody else's? I'm not exactly sure but new ones that have floated around the house lately include Jacqueline Mitchard's Still Summer and Ellen Baker's Keeping the House.

Five Meaningful Books
The first book I remember rereading and waking up early so I could read before school was a book about a girl and a horse titled Taffy's Foal. I think my neighbor had lent it to me. I've never seen it since. I was 8.

Then, To Kill a Mockingbird. I've probably read it more times than I've read anything else. It's what made me want to be an English teacher. It also started my love affair with Southern writers.

The Sound and The Fury. I remember reading it and thinking, sheesh, either this guy is an absolute genius or he's nuts. And I also remember thinking, I'll never understand this. But I read it, read it again, and slowly the pieces started making sense and I realized it was a book about love and loss and beauty and dignity and sadness---everything that matters. Thinking about Caddy can still make me weep. And nobody can draw you into a story like Faulkner.

The Grapes of Wrath
. Man, I love this book. Steinbeck didn't get all those awards for nothing. He weaves a story about simple folks who are caught up in something so much bigger than themselves and he shows how we're all part of it, we all have responsibility, we all can make a difference.

Finally, The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. It's a story about Vietnam, but it's so much more than that. It's about truth. It's a book that will make you look at war differently no matter how you feel about it before you read it. And in the end, it's not about war at all. And the language? My God, it'll blow you away.

Now, I'm supposed to tag five other bloggers--but most of the people I'd tag have already been tagged--so, I'm going to veer away from the rules (there's something I've never done before!)

My friend Melanie Lynne Hauser has issued a challenge to her readers to buy two or three books a month. She thinks we could start a book buying movement and I'm all for that. So, go buy a book (or four or five) and then chat about it on your blog.

Tag . . . everybody's it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

You Gotta Believe

As a kid, I learned the truth of this statement through sports. No matter what, on any given day, any team can win, any player can be a hero or a goat. Last February, my husband and I had a few days in Las Vegas, and true to my optimistic nature, I bet $5 on the 2007 World Series winners and the 2008 Superbowl winners (Yeah, I'm not a real big spender.) The guy at the betting booth chuckled when I told him my teams. I could just hear him thinking, "Yeah, right, Lady. The Cubs and the Packers?" But they're my teams. And while there's no guarantee (and my fingers are firmly crossed which makes it hard to type), the Packers are 3-0 and the Cubs are looking at a magic number of 4. You Gotta Believe.

3 years ago, I had just signed with my agent after writing and querying for 5 years.

Then, 3 months later, she sent it out to editors and within a few weeks we'd gotten a great offer from Random House. (To be honest, she assured me it was a great offer. At that point, I would have signed for a few copies of my book.) There had definitely been moments in the preceding years when I'd been ready to pack it in. Give it up. I was an unknown middle-aged, single mom, school teacher from the Midwest. It really doesn't get more out of the loop than that. But, my agent believed in my book (God bless her) and I had friends who never let me give up (Bless them too). And, deep in my heart, I knew I believed in my story, in my writing. And then other folks did too. The publishing house. Bookstore owners who handsold it. The marketing folks who got it out there.

And finally, the readers who found it, talked about it, and got others to buy it.

I had to believe
. That's one of the mantras of published writers--if you give up, the only thing you know for certain is that you'll never be published. Every published author, even the huge bestselling ones, were at one time unknown debut wannabees.

You don't have to just take my word for it, Therese Fowler writes about this more eloquently (natch) than I can here.

Just when I thought I couldn't be surprised any more, the foreign contracts started to come in. To be honest, it seemed like Monopoly money--Germany? Finland and Sweden? Most recently, the Netherlands and China. No languages I can read, of course, but to think that there are people in countries I've never even set foot in, where as far as I know my mother has no pull, who will stumble across my book and read it--I still can't completely wrap my brain around that. Somebody (or several somebodies) believes in me all across the globe. It's pretty cool.

So whatever it is, a contract, an agent, a spot in the playoffs, an amazing record-setting season for Brett Favre, you gotta believe. It's easy. Just do it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Last Things First

A week or so ago, I sat down all revved up to finish the manuscript I've been working on since January. I'm excited about this story--I'm stretching some writing muscles with it, trying out some new things. And like any new endeavor, it's not without some aches and pains. (I went back to the gym for the first time in two months yesterday too--so I know whereof I speak regarding sore muscles.)

But, I've been enjoying, for the most part, this journey. My first novel came to me with a clearly defined final scene. So in writing it I was filling in the arc from A to B, but I always had that final scene pulling me forward. It was comforting. With Unexpected Grace, that final scene has been much more nebulous. I'm telling the story (or is it stories?) through two narrative lines, one in the present (2002-03) and one in the past (1958-1971). Two very different narrators, but they're connected. But, I'd spent lots of time dinking around at the 50,000+ word mark. I didn't want to admit that I was stuck, so I revised the heck out of the first two-thirds of the book. (Yup. 2/3s. I write on the short side. My goal is always to get to 75,000 words.) I wasn't moving forward, though and was getting frustrated. I talked to one of my agent's readers who acts as an editor (God bless her!). We worked through much of my wanderings. But her final piece of advice hit home the hardest. "Finish it. Get to the end." I knew she was right. I needed to finish the damn book before I could start revising and polishing and rearranging. All I'd been doing for a few weeks was, as my husband would say, rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic. (Not that he'd ever say that to me about my writing.)

So, I told myself, get to the end. I sat down two days after Labor Day to write. I now knew how it was going to end. I was excited about it. I had those final scenes in mind. I just needed to write 20,000 words before I could write the last 5,000. But those 20,000 seemed insurmountable.

That's when I took a flying leap and went right to the end. And it worked. Amazingly well. The ending scenes kept getting longer (that's good) and sharper (even better). I now know what will and what won't work between what came before and what comes last.

So, sometimes, it seems, in writing and in life, it's good to break a few rules, shake things up, get out of the comfort zone. Eat dessert first. Write the end before you've finished the middle.

Now, I need to head back out to the porch (we're having beautiful fall writing weather) and finish things off. I have to kill a character I adore, and I get to help another character figure out some big things about herself.

I love this stuff. All that middle mumbo-jumbo? It doesn't seem so daunting now.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Writers in their own words and GCC

Last Thursday I had one of the best experiences I've ever had as a writer: I was the guest speaker at Ursuline Academy because they'd selected my novel as their whole school summer read. As a former English teacher, this was an honor and a thrill. I talked to the 600 students about writing and dreams and then visited several classrooms. I apologized to them that they'd had to take a test over my book on their second day back, but they didn't seem to be holding it against me. Their questions were thoughtful and smart and made me look at the story I'd written through their younger eyes. Perhaps one of the best comments came from a girl who said she hoped I wouldn't write a sequel (I assured her I have no intention of doing so) because she said the story was perfect just as it was. I wanted to kiss her. I still think that there's nothing cooler as a writer than to meet readers with whom my words have made a powerful connection. It was a day I'll cherish.

And now, here's a writer you might want to connect with-- Toni McGee Causey author of Bobbie Faye's Very (very, very, very) Bad Day.

Here's a short description: Bobbie Faye Sumrall is a dead-broke Cajun living in a broken-down trailer in Lake Charles, Louisiana. When criminals demand Bobbie Faye's Contraband Queen tiara-- the only thing of her mama's she inherited-- in exchange for her good-for-nothing brother, Bobbie Faye has to outwit the police, organized crime, former boyfriends, and a hostage she never intended to take (but who turns out to be damn sexy), in order to rescue her brother, keep custody of her niece, and get back in time to take her place as Queen in the Lake Charles Contraband Festival (think Mardi Gras, with more drinking and pirates). Luckily, she knows how to handle guns, outwit angry mama bears, drive a speedboat, and get herself out of (and into) almost every kind of trouble. If only that pesky state police detective (who also happens to be a pissed off ex-boyfriend) would stay out of her way . . .

And, now in her own words,

1.) How did you come up with the idea for this book? Are you more driven by plot or by character?

The inspiration was wanting to write a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners heroine... a woman who has bad luck, but who rises to the occasion when her brother's life is in jeopardy.

I think character drives plot. Story = a character's choices when under pressure. If you don't have stakes and obstacles, you just end up with a slice of life, which isn't really story. So both.

2.) Who's your favorite character in this book and why?

Bobbie Faye. She's tenacious, bold, independent, irrascible, ascerbic and funny. And she loves her family, in spite of what major screw ups they are, so much so that she'll put her life on the line to save her brother.

3.) What's your writing process/writing environment like?

I have an office (which used to be the formal dining room), and there are wrap-around bookshelves (filled to overflowing). I tend to write in the evenings until very late because there are fewer distractions and interruptions and it's easier to ignore the housework (have to be quiet! people are sleeping! can't clean now! oh, darn!)

4.) What's your favorite part of writing?

The actual, daily exerience of writing. I love the words stringing along, creating a world. I love that I can go back and edit. I've been writing so long, I cannot fathom my life without it.

5.) What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing?

Read everything you can; read widely across genres.