Friday, July 30, 2010

Funk the Junk



My husband and I are teachers and one of the first required classes for newbie educators is Packratting 101. Save everything. Throw away nothing. Since I have inborn magpie tendencies, I got an A+++++ in the class and my classroom, my house—okay… ev-ery-thing reflects my…er… “collector” personality.

But I’ve gotten better over time; in fact, every time I change classrooms at school, I manage to get rid of you know—two or three things. And—hold onto your pants—for the past month I’ve spring-cleaned my entire house and the fam is prepping for—gasp—a yard sale.

And while I’ve succeeded in clearing out a lot of junk, there’s just some stuff I can’t. Get. Rid of. So what do we do at the Miller household? We try to funk up our junk—salvage it, give new life to the clutter that occupies way too much space. Like my husband’s katrillion soccer t-shirts that we’re making into some sort of quilt. Or my kids that just have to save ev-e-ry piece of paper they ever wrote on. Well, we file them in into folders or make collages or shhhh… mom just discards them when they’re not looking.

And me – I loooove GAMES magazine and use the puzzles in my classroom, but, uh… can’t keep five years of subscriptions sitting around on the floor. Two years ago, I spent a laborious four hours ripping out my favorites and stockpiling them in one little tidy binder. Go me.

Most of you know I’m engaged in a junk dump with my book, the novel that was 175,000 words and is currently—YAY!—under 100K.

When I first started writing my novel, I was naïve with a capital stupid. I spilled everything. I have one main character with a cast of five strong supporting roles and wait—can’t forget all the other little guys. And I just felt it was uber-important for my audience to know their life history. You know—all those cutesy little anecdotes that will make my book totally hilarious and interesting and

Uh, bor-ing.

But… but (sniff)… my readers just have to know all about my main character’s second cousin’s aunt on her mother’s side who makes a fleeting appearance in chapter 33. They just have to.

If there’s one thing I learned about writing back story—it’s don’t. Meaning don’t lump it all in the beginning. The reader will learn enough about your characters through cleverly crafted dialogue and sprinkled-in facts that are only on a “need to know” basis.

For example, I originally devoted an entire chapter to one of my major characters, Brent Wilcher (PS—his ego would have looooved that). I rambled about his relationship with the main character, told all these cutesy stories about them growing up, and how he’s changed, blah, blah, blah…

CUT!

Six pages gone. All of it? No. I just did the same thing I did with my beloved magazines. Keep the best—get rid of the rest.

And funk up some of that back story into the following: (hehe—sneak peek of my BOOK)

The next play yielded an eight yard run for the visiting Crusaders and Brent cussed so loud all of North Carolina could hear him. He paced the sidelines twice, cradling his helmet, and then slipped it over his blond spiky hair. Was the entire football team sporting that look these days?

I studied him briefly, then blushed when he caught my stare.

“Hey, Jamie! How ‘bout getting my stats right this time?” Brent guffawed. “You missed a few hundred tackles last week.” He pushed an unsuspecting ball boy to the ground, bounded back to the line of scrimmage. Crouching for the next play, he turned toward me and winked, my half-eaten hotdog from dinner surfacing at the top of my throat.

“Ugh.” I buried my face in my long brown hair. “I cannot believe we used to play Legos with him.”

“So how many tackles does he have?” Mark asked.

I scanned my chicken scratch. “Oh, you know… a couple hundred.”

Mark grabbed my clipboard out of my hands. “It’s only the second quarter.”

“Don’t remind me.”



So—hopefully you get it—Brent and Jamie grew up together, used to be friends, now he’s a jerk. Six pages down to 178 words.

As I attempt to “funk my junk”, another question always looms: how much do you tell the reader and what do you leave up to the imagination?

Rather than me explaining Brent’s life story, hopefully my excerpt left you ruminating? Why aren’t they friends anymore? Why’s he mean to her? Why’s he mean to everyone? And does he really have a couple hundred tackles?! Seriously?

And as I have my yard sale, I hope that my discarded junk will become someone else’s treasure. And some of the “junk” I’ve cut from my book—well, I’m hoping it will be treasured—in a sequel.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Theme Song




Me and Rachel B from Glee—we have loads in common. Show choir freaks, long brown hair, ultimate drama mamas.

Uh-huh. Flamboyance is seriously my middle name. Just ask my kids when I’m trying to get them to eat vegetables or my seniors when I need them to stay in place for graduation line-up. Uh,last year, after delivering a scintillating lecture on derivatives and tangent lines, my Calculus class applauded me. Yes—I really did just say that. Ap-plaud-ed me. Hehe. They’re such nerds (jk wonderfuls – you know I heart you)

And while I don’t wear skirts rivaling the length of Daisy Dukes and I don’t think I’m adopted (or am I?), Rachel Berry and I do both share the belief that every song is about me. That’s right, Rachel. Me. Not you. Me.

Okay—maybe not ev-ery song, but I swear Miley Cyrus wrote The Climb just for me. When work turmoil slapped my face or when I heard “Cut your book in half and query me”, I’d repeat my It’s all about the climb mantra for every obstacle I faced.

Sing it with me, peeps:

The struggles I’m facing
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I’m not breaking


Yeeeaah… so me.

This year’s theme song—Don’t Stop Believin’, uh… the Glee version, of course (Sorry, Journey) I’d sing it on my way to work, blare it through an elliptical burn, or wallow in it when any rejections rolled in.

And go figure—my novels have theme songs too. Considering I billed my superhero novel The Fantastic Four meets The Breakfast Club, guess what movie I watch, like, all. The time.



Yep.

Whenever I’m searching for inspiration or want to lose myself in my 24/7 dreamworld, I just pop in a bud and let Don’t You Forget About Me stream from my iPod to my ears. Shoot. My totally fabulous husband even bought me a Breakfast Club poster which—PS— I stare at every day at work.

My second novel—the one I’m prepping to query—I nicknamed Taylor Swift

a) Because I named my protag after my fav TS fan (uh, not Taylor Lautner)
b) And I deem my project a warped version of You Belong With Me

Just so you know—that song's on my infinite playlist for the entire month of August. (Must. Get. Stuff. Ready. For. Conference)

And my new one… the one I will start in September (Yes, I am. I really am), I’m vacillating between Sting and Pitbull. Hmmm. Figure out that funky conundrum.

Soooo—do you have a daily mantra?

What’s your theme song?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Art of the Query and other Bits of the Biz



Since I’ve crafted a writing blog, a sporadic feature will focus on tricks of the trade—you know—those guru tips I pick up at writer’s conferences, online, or through my fabulous writing partners. And since I’m getting ready to draft a query letter for my most recent novel, I thought I’d enlighten you on the essence of an effective query.

Just what do I know about effective querying? Not everything, but considering my publishing credits can fit on the head of a pin and my query still netted me four fulls and four partials (aka “someone wanted to read my book!” Eek!), I think I can write a pretty good one.

Soooo—what’s a query, you ask?

In a nutshell, your query is your calling card, your business letter that, in roughly 250 words, tells wonderful agent people all about your fantabulous book and any pub credits you may have.

And I can’t take full credit for my query which—PS—I rewrote 139 times (but who’s counting?) My very first writing workshop ev-er featured the illustrious Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary. If you ever get the chance to just meet her—she’s as hilarious as she is informative and her blog Query Shark is a site every writer should check out. She taught me how to write a query letter and more importantly, how to write a log line.

The log line is often the first sentence of your query: your “hook”, your elevator pitch, a pithy snappy sentence conveying the gist of your story.

Wait. You’re telling me I have to boil down my 80,000 word novel to a sentence? What?

Daunting task? Yes.

Do-able? Yes, again.

Actually it has to be done. Especially if you're an "UN" (an unsolicited, unpublished aspiring author), you need to have the "hook" to reel 'em in.

And because my inner teacher can’t resist a game and relevant examples to reinforce that it CAN BE DONE, see if you can name the movie based on their log line (all courtesy of archetypewriting.com and IMDb)

a) When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an evil prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.

b) After a series of grisly shark attacks, a sheriff struggles to protect his small beach community against the bloodthirsty monster, in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce.

c) A psychologist struggles to cure a troubled boy who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.

d) After murdering her lover, an aspiring singer struggles for stardom by using her crime as a stepping-stone to fame and fortune.

And my favorite…

e) Three friends retrace their steps to try and find the groom after a massive bender bachelor party in Las Vegas.

Let’s see how you did…

a) Gladiator
b) Jaws
c) The Sixth Sense
d) Chicago
e) The Hangover

So you see, when elegantly crafted, the log line essentially conveys these three things…

1) the main character (who the story’s about)
2) his goal (what he wants)
3) the antagonistic force (what stands in his way)

Check it out…

An archeologist (main character) is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant (goal) before the Nazis (antagonistic force).

Um... that was, uh... High School Musical, right?

JK. Hopefully you clearly heard John Williams overture and saw Harrison Ford darting away from big scary boulder. (ahem - Raiders of the Lost Ark)

That’s a def biggie for your log line—convey the essence of the story.

Here are two more that describe the same book.

• After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home. (logline by Brian A. Klems, http://blog.writersdigest.com/qq/What+Is+A+Logline.aspx

• Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again. (Log Line by Richard Polito of the Marin Independent Journal, who writes humorously sarcastic briefs for the paper's daily TV listings)

Ah, yes… The Wizard of Oz. And two faboo log lines, but which one does the better job of telling the reader what the story’s really about?

Okay—so there you have it. Writing log lines. Easy-peasy, right?

Hmmm… not so much, but one can do it. In fact, for some writers—that’s their point of origin.

My log line for my first project is simple, yet effective. When I attended the Backspace Writer’s Conference in New York last November and someone next to me asked what a log line was, I just happened to be next on the “read your query” circuit. Upon revealing mine, one of the fabulous agents exclaimed “Now that’s a log line!”

Uh… can we say blush much?

Of course, my two seconds of fame shattered upon revealing my word count, but I guess it still proves I can write one.

And (cue drum roll), here ‘tis:

Jamie Peters hits puberty and discovers that she can turn invisible. And that someone may be trying to kill her because of it.

Yep. I wrote a book about superheroes. And yes—I did just declare my inner dork-ness to the online world (hehe), but who knows—maybe my next super-duper log line will net me the next step in the “road to publishing” excursion—an agent.


PS - in case you need some handy dandy sites on queries and log lines:

I Can Write a 120,000 word novel, but I can't construct a log line (Christopher Lockhart)

Query Shark

Guide to Literary Agents

archtypewriting.com

Nathan Brandsford

Friday, July 23, 2010

Support an Awesome Cause and Win Totally Faboo Prizes!




Candace Ganger, YA author,totally hip SAHM, and member of my online writer's group Shenandoah Writers Online, is hosting an uber-cool contest on her blog The Misadventures in Candyland. The contest is in support of Joy 2 the World, a non-profit organization which generates micro-credit loans for the women of Ghana to encourage independence and empowerment.

There are several ways to help: GIVE a donation, BUY a t-shirt, CREATE graphics to spread the word, LISTEN, or PROMOTE the cause too.

And the best part? You could win these fantabulous prizes:


For Writers:

-(5) winners will be invited to a private webinar + query, synopsis + 5 page critique with superagent Natalie Fischer

-30 minute phone consultation with superagent Michelle Wolfson

-3 chapter tandem critique by authors Tawna Fenske and Cynthia Reese

-Copy edit of 3 chapters by supereditor/superawesome (formerly of Baker's Mark) Gretchen Stelter

-50 page critique by author Sean Ferrell

-Query letter + 3 chapter critique by author Beth Revis

-Skype session and copy of ebook "From the Query to the Call" by Elana Johnson

-Query, synopsis + 5 page critique by author Carrie Harris

-Critique of manuscript by author Dianne Salerni

-Line edit of first 30 pages (YA) by author Valerie Kemp

-(2) Query critiques by author Rose Cooper

-Ten page critique by author T.H. Mafi

-Query critique + winner interview on blog by author Matthew Rush


For Everyone:

-Autographed copy of "The Body Finder" + swag bag donated by author Kimberly Derting

-Autographed set of "Lost Dog," "Chasing Smoke," and "Day One" donated by author Bill Cameron

-A copy of "Numb" donated by author Sean Ferrell

-Special pre-order of "Across the Universe" donated by author Beth Revis

-Autographed New Medicine CD, autographed poster donated by Candyland & Photo Finish Records

-ARC of Yvonne Woon's "Dead Beautiful" donated by Candyland

-"We Hear the Dead" tee donated by author Dianne Salerni

-One of (4) Signed prints + (1) signed original piece of artwork by author Rose Cooper

-One of (3) Amazon gift cards donated by author T.H. Mafi

-Copies of "24 Hours London" + "24 Hours Paris" donated by author Talli Roland


I'm entering. You should too! Do it. Click here. Now! The contest ends July 31!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cuts like a Chainsaw

My absolute arch nemesis—bangs. I hate them and swear on my favorite Eeyore slippers I will never cut them again. Bangs and I have had a love-hate relationship from my middle-school days on. I’d get them, grow them out. Cut them again. Grow them out again. And one time, as a naïve, broke, and impatient college student—I decided to cut them myself.

Cue Pyscho music...











One jagged cut later, I felt the need to trim the left side, then the right. The left side again. Then the right again. Then the left… Okay—you get it. That big “oops” caused me to sport a baseball cap for the next month, trying to hide the indubitable travesty—yep—my bang job had become a botch job.






Heh heh. Good thing I don’t have my own pics of that one.

My not so bangin’ experience is analogous to where I’m at with what I like to call “my baby”, my first official novel with characters I heart to pieces and want the whole world to fall in love with too. The story that consumed my thoughts from the first word to the last. And the one that ended up being—gasp—175,000 words.

And after I finished it, I discovered—“my baby” was too long.

Too long? Seriously? I mean, what did I know? I read Harry Potter. My eleven year old brings home books rivaling the length of Twilight. 175,000 words? I was just happy to complete the bugger. Now you’re telling me I have to cut it? What?

Just to clue you in (because apparently I was not)—a typical debut YA novel contains between 50 to 75 thousand words. One agent informed me she couldn’t send anything off to a publisher over 80,000. And my story that I threw my heart and soul into for four months contained 175,000.

Shoot. Me. Now.

Soooo—instead of shoving my precious baby under the bed, I started cutting. And cutting some more. I got it down to 160 and thought I can’t possibly cut one more thing. Then my editor got a hold of it and a slash job ensued. Whole chapters gone, subsidiary characters killed off, frou-frou adverbs and adjectives—out the computer screen.

140,000. The “that” count went from 20,000 to 200. A little trim here, a snip-snip there. My novel dwindled to 120,000 then 112,000.

Painful much?

Sometimes. And sometimes not.

The other day, I changed the entire beginning—and lost my absolute favorite line of my novel. Scenes I crafted for ours—gone with one little click. Some parts – I felt like I cut my right arm off and others pierced my heart.

That little ditty about the “first cut is the deepest?” Ha.

Bu-ut, I do love re-reading my stories and falling in love with my characters all over again. I enjoy tightening, finding that magical dialogue that tells so much yet says so little. It’s an exciting challenge to make one word say five. And I re-read my manuscript now and beat myself over the head with my son’s lightsaber thinking How could I have sent it off looking like that?

Currently my novel sits at 102… and I’m still chopping. Yet while I mentally pat myself on the back every time I see the thousands digit change, I can’t help but feel like I did when I cut my bangs. I slash away, trim, trying to make my story perfect, when maybe all I’m doing is hacking it to unattractive stubs.

And that’s where the betas come in (PS—have lots of them). People to read my story, to critique it. Not only help me with the cuts, but also now assist me with the holes. The pieces I cut off and need to grow back.

Just FYI—the hair re-grew. And maybe I can be like Stephen King and The Stand. Sell it short. Come back years later and publish the “un-cut” version. Hmmm.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Vampires and Werewolves and... Zombies??? Oh. My.




Just so you know—I am not a horror flick chick. Chuckie’s face sends me cowering under a tower of twenty mattresses and Halloween previews terrorize me with nightmares for weeks. So when I heard The Forest of Hands and Teeth was a book about zombies, my immediate thought was

Zombies?

Zombies?

No. Way.

I mean, zombies aren’t as ghastly as poltergeists, but zombies? Seriously? Images of sixties B movies and Scooby Doo flooded my mind and undead bullying me in my nap-mares permeated my thoughts.

But I picked up the book regardless because

a) I was never a “vampire” girl either but I morphed into a hermit reading House of Night and Twilight

b) I met the author’s agent at a writer’s conference and of course, he and a flock of fans raaaaved about it

c) And well, the author’s brother is one of my friends.

Yeah—that last one had me hitting the book stores mucho quick.

And finally, just the other day, I dusted off the book cover and…

Holy powerful page-turners.

In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, YA author Carrie Ryan depicts a gripping tale of village life survival after an apocalypse. Written with simplistic elegance yet poignant from cover to cover, the story sucked me in from page one, the present-tense narration feeding the urgency of the heroine's (Mary's) daily plight. Here’s a little descripto of the book’s premise and why it “hooked” me.

Mary’s world is a tiny village established after The Return, an apocalyptic plague that wiped out civilization as we know it. Her village is not only bound by the tall fences surrounding it, but also by the ancient traditions of the Sisterhood and the Guardians who are sworn to protect the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. The forest of the Unconsecrated. Who with one bite infect the living and transform them into their ever-growing zombie horde. Fears of fence breaches by the Unconsecrated pervade the archaic community and as for villagers venturing beyond the gates—unthinkable.

But the fears and rules instilled by the Sisters play tug-of-war with Mary’s happiness. She hopes for love in a community where commitment and creating and sustaining human life takes precedence. She dreams of a future outside the fences. Dreams of an ocean. The ocean her mother told her about before she became one of them. And when unforeseen events occur, Mary is forced to make harsh choices. Between the one she loves and the one who loves her. Between a world that is familiar and the unknown she dreams of.


Yeah, the book’s got zombies, but this post-apocalyptic tale isn’t so much about Ryan’s Unconsecrated as it is about love and hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a life beyond the village. Hope for an ocean that only exists in stories passed down by Mary’s ancestors. It’s an exquisitely written tale of the struggle between contentment and dreams and having faith in what you believe despite rigid society rules and naysayers who seek to diminish desires.


As a full-fledged pretentious drama queen, I fully believe that every book, every song, every movie—is about me. (Yes—horoscope manufacturers do take my paycheck) And of course, the same applies to Ryan’s novel. As a writer, hope fuels me, propels me forward on a daily basis. Ryan’s story gives me hope for my own writing. That I can push past the sea of Unconsecrated and strive for my own ocean.

And—get this. As beautiful and powerful a story and as superbly written Carrie Ryan’s tale is, her novel was discovered in the slush pile.

The slush pile.

In the publishing world, a slush pile is basically the toss off of unsolicited manuscripts, the rejects, the ones junior agents and assistants sift through hoping to find a “diamond in the rough”.

Ryan’s own tale to the top gives me renewed hope. That maybe my novels could be undiscovered wonders. And that my glimmering light at the end of my own tunnel is becoming more and more a vast, foreseeable ocean.

PS - the companion novel The Dead-Tossed Waves recently hit the stores. And my nightstand. Guess who's going to be a zombie for the next two days.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Outta Philly

A few weeks ago I caught Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (PS – fabulous). Around midnight, after returning my brother to his roost in Center City, I cranked up the GPS, plugged an address in, hoping for the most direct, shortest route out. My mother and I pulled off of Broad Street, took a few turns, and ended up












in the Hood.

While I’m not some naïve Shrimp Harvest Queen out in the big city for the first time, I do tend to bask in the familiarity of suburb-o-zone. Soooo indubitably my anxiety level soared off the charts. The GPS directed me through every shady aspect of downtown Philadelphia as a gazillion thoughts flooded my brain.

Did that guy really just run out in front of my car?

I’m going to get shot.

Ohmygosh, I just ran a red light—with a cop behind me.

And I wondered—Should I have plotted out my journey step-by-step before hand with a roadmap? Or called someone to guide me through a safer route? And why do I rely so much on this piece-of-crap GPS?

The whole experience got me thinking about the paths we take as writers—specifically in writing a novel. I mean, there’s lots of information out there about the writing process, but does there exist one magic formula to story-plotting? Do you outline every minute detail, storyboard only major events, or forge ahead with no direction whatsoever?

For me, I do a little of everything.

In writing my first novel I outlined my adventure, then dove hands-first into the story. Images played through my head like a movie, sometimes so fast I couldn’t peck it into my computer fast enough. When I finished four months later, I revisited my original outline—nothing like I planned yet I still concluded with the same ending. And I liked what I did so much better. Weird.

My next two stories—the ending was never in my head. Cognizant of several major events, I forged ahead, outlined chapters five at a time, not really sure how things would end up—until I got there. A new story I wish to start on in September—the beginning, end, and most of the major events have calcified themselves into that special place I’ve reserved for it in my mind.

Hmmmm.

Being a math teacher, I strive for that generalized formula that works for ev-ery-thing, but I also know that in teaching students—what works for one, will not produce the same results in the next. Same thing applies to writers. And to our stories. We all have different journeys, various ways to achieve the end result. Sometimes we utilize a specific road map, let our pre-plotted outline transport us the entire way. Sometimes we just close our eyes and allow the mind to wander on its own fantastical voyage.

And sometimes we rely on outside sources—searching for that GPS formula that should carry us to our destination with no troubles whatsoever—many times arriving us unscathed, but sometimes transporting us through rough spots before illuminating the light at the end of the tunnel.

And while there’s no abracadabra road map to writing (and sometimes I wish there was), it is all about the climb (thanks, Miley). Granted I’ve hit the ghetto many times, but I also grew as a writer through any muck my story took me through.

See—the Hood ain’t so bad, yo.

After all, my experience did inspire one funky blog post.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Into the Great Wide Open

Eight things you should know about me before reading this blog:

I’m a

1) mom to an ornery tween and first-grader (a boy – enough said)
2) high-school math teacher (my 24-7 real job)
3) pretentious drama queen

(Gasp) you’re still reading

4) coach’s wife
5) grad school student
6) occasional choreographer and tapping fool
7) facebook addict
And because my life isn’t filled with enough chaotic bliss…

8) I’m a writer.












PS - I’m a young adult fiction writer.

And I love it.

In the past two years, I’ve written three complete novels, two of which I’m editing, and I’m about two-thirds through two more. Did I mention I rarely sleep? And yes—to answer my colleagues’ and students’ burning questions—this is why I looked like a skeleton for four months last year. Why I reluctantly hit the pillow at midnight and sprung out of bed at four AM. Why I swore off every good television show except GLEE.

Why?

Call it my mid-life crisis. Call it my need for teen angst 24-7. Call it whatever you want.

I call it—love.

For those of you pit-stopping at my funky blog who do write, you understand the love thang—being immersed in “the zone”, the ideas and bits of dialogue that zap my brain in the middle of a logarithm lecture. That fantastical rush when an agent requests a full and the tailspin when they reject it. (PS—more on the rollercoaster writing relationship la-ter)




When people say “find your happy place”?



Dude, I have one. All. The. Time.




And now I’m writing a blog. My writing blog where I’ll discuss my experiences, share some guru tips I’ve picked up, review some books, movies, whatever. I’m wide open. I’ll come back every few days and fill you in. And while I may occasionally splatter in tales regaling my other nine lives (I’m sure I’ve got more) like students who break out in random squawking in the middle of Geometry or my six-year old’s insistence on showing off his “man-boobs”, this blog will mostly be about my funky adventures in writing.

Until then….