New Year’s Resolutions Part 3

I’d like to close 2007 with part of JA Konrath’s New Year’s Resolutions Part 3:

Newbie Writer Resolutions
I will start/finish the damn book

I will always have at least three stories on submission, while working on a fourth

I will attend at least one writer’s conference, and introduce myself to agents, editors, and other writers

I will subscribe to the magazines I submit to

I will join a critique group. If one doesn’t exist, I will start one at the local bookstore or library

I will finish every story I start

I will listen to criticism

I will create/update my website

I will master the query process and find an agent

I’ll quit procrastinating in the form of research, outlines, synopses, taking classes, reading how-to books, talking about writing, and actually write something

I will refuse to get discouraged, because I know JA Konrath wrote 9 novels, received almost 500 rejections, and penned over 1 million words before he sold a thing–and I’m a lot more talented than that guy … Read entire post.

I especially like the last. It gives me hope.

Have a wonderful holiday and I’ll be blogging again in the New Year.

Raleigh Area Women Writers Televised

I am breaking my temporary blogging silence for one exciting post.

Raleigh Area Women Writers (RAWW) will be on television! This is a thrilling first for me.

I am happy to share that three members of my writing group, (including me of course), were interviewed for the Raleigh Television Network about the process and workings of creating and maintaining a writing group. The interview will air on “The Artist’s Craft” segment the first and second weeks in January, on Sunday at 8:30, and on Tuesday and Thursday of both weeks. For those of you local to Raleigh, that is channel 10.

Or, you can watch the interview now on YouTube in 3 parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

When Stacey Cochran first e-mailed me to see if I was interested in being interviewed, I was both flattered and apprehensive. See my post from October. I wondered if anyone would really want to watch a half-hour segment of me talking, so I suggested he interview the members of RAWW and he liked the idea. After watching the interview, I think anyone interested in starting a writing group or writing fiction may actually learn something about the writing process.

I have been making good progress on my YA novel in progress, THE MAGIC QUILT. The daily journal has helped me focus. I think I may just finish by year end.

As therapy for my father’s recent passing, I allowed myself to take a break from THE MAGIC QUILT to write a short story this week titled Good Game, about a man who is visited by his dead father every morning. I had planned the story to be titled, Into the third and fourth generations, about the personality disorders inherited by a young girl in a psychiatric hospital. But once I started writing, the young woman turned out to be the sister of the main character. I think it may shape up into a nice piece once I have time to polish it.

Write. Write. Write.

I blogged that I would finish my young adult novel in progress, THE MAGIC QUILT, by December 31st, 2007. Argh. That was before the month of November hit me hard — scroll through the posts here in the “life coming at me fast” category to learn more. I will make an honest effort to get ‘er done, as they say in here in North Carolina. Wish me well as I travel back in time to the colonial world of spying, espionage, and rebellion this holiday season.

This said, I’m cutting myself off from blogging temporarily, until Jan 1st or when I finish THE MAGIC QUILT, whichever comes first, heavy sigh. I estimate I have about 40 hours of editing to go (based on the amount of time I’ve spent on each chapter so far). It is increasingly difficult to get myself started editing THE MAGIC QUILT. I find myself doing anything else: reading my e-mail, surfing writing discussion boards, blogging (like I’m doing now), creating new short stories, revising stories based on my critique group’s edits, and looking for markets for my stories.

So, I’m making a hard editing schedule for myself based on Greg Martin’s writing workshop focused on revision. He suggests that students should keep a daily journal of their writing schedule and goals as follows.

Each day you make seven entries:
1. The date and the time
2. How long you plan to work.
3. What you plan to work on for this day.
4. Time when you stop writing and total amount of time writing.
5. Answer the questions: What did you actually end up doing? How well did it go?
6. What you plan to work on tomorrow
7. When you plan to work tomorrow and for how long.

Sample Entry
1. Sept 15, 2005 8:30 am
2. Work until noon
3. Focus on rising action in Macular Degeneration
4. 12:15 Almost four hours
5. Sluggish until coffee kicked in, then pretty good characterization of Oscar. Didn’t get to turning point.
6. More rising action tomorrow. Must write turning point–as scene, not just a lame sketch.
7. Tomorrow: 5:30 to 9.

• You can’t take three days off in a row.
• If you take two days off in a row, you ought to feel bad, not just about your habits and your lack of discipline, but about yourself as a person.
• You must log 18 hours of writing time a week. This is an average of 3 hours a day six days a week. (You can write more.) Take a day off each week, if you must, but I don’t recommend it. Why would you?.

Hmm — day job, Christmas preparations, husband, dog, friends, family, shopping for food, washing clothes.

You’re supposed to love it. You’ll love it more, the more you do it. Wynton Marsalis didn’t take a day off practicing the trumpet for two years. That’s why he’s Wynton Marsalis.
• Unplug the phone. (Turn off cell, if you feel you must have one of those)
• No email.
• No diary-type notes. Nothing about your cat’s urinary tract infection.

So, I have 22 days. If I write 3 hours a day, the math totals to 66 hours of writing. I could finish even if I take a day or two off. I’m going to give ‘er the old college try. Wish me luck.

Creative cussing

Insert your own cuss word here! I used every one that I knew last night.

Driving home from Burlington from my appointment with my therapist — Yes I Have a Therapist–and I Believe Everyone Should — my car started vibrating and the steering was off. I was in the second from the left lane of the four lanes of highway 40, driving way too fast. Thinking that the timing belt, water pump, something mechanical must be malfunctioning, I swerved over two lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder of the highway with my heart pounding. The acrid smell of burned rubber made me think one of the belts had melted. My heart went in my throat when I realized that I didn’t have my cell phone. I had discovered it missing from my purse when I tried to call Harry yesterday afternoon.

I got out of the car and literally kicked the tire. The front left tire was flat. I was in Chapel Hill, twenty miles from home. The exit sign said 1 1/2 miles to exit 273. What does a person do when they are stranded on the highway with no phone. Having lived in the age of cell phones for nearly a decade, I didn’t know how to function without it. It was 6:30, but it was dark and already getting cold. I could walk the mile and a half to the exit, but then I’d be leaving the car and didn’t know what I’d find at the exit. I could have changed tire myself, but the lug wrench was missing from the trunk. Talk about poor planning on my part.

I spent the next few minutes searching the interior of the car for the phone. Still not sure what to do, I decided to stay with the car thinking that a state trouper would pass by and help. After a few minutes of that, getting impatient I stood by my car waving my hands in the cold. I do not recommend this. It is dangerous. Cars were whizzing by about a foot away from me, at upwards of 70 mph, and the wind from their passing was cold. Still, I swallowed my fear and waved my arms for a half hour, letting passersby know I was in trouble. No one stopped, which didn’t surprise me. I probably wouldn’t have stopped for some mad woman waving her arms by a stalled car. But, I did think one of the drivers would have called 911 and a state trouper would have stopped.

Finally a man who worked for AAA, but was off duty, actually stopped. He didn’t give me his contact information, so I can’t thank him properly, but thank you kind stranger. He called AAA for me. A tow truck came within minutes and ten minutes later I was driving home on the donut.

This morning I discovered that had I left my phone in my coat pocket, which was at home. I could have used both the coat and the phone last night. I will never again drive without my cell phone.

White Fang and the literary Jack London

Owning a dog changes your perspective, even about literature. I first read White Fang and The Call of the Wild twenty years ago when I was twenty-five. The perfect age, BTW, to become acquainted with Jack London’s writing. I was captivated. Jack London took me to “The North” the way no one could. He had lived in Yukon country, and depicts his scenes with the objectivity of a scientist, maybe part of the reason that I love his writing.

After having Alex for a couple of months, I wanted to read both novels again. I drug out The Call of the Wild, but couldn’t find my copy of White Fang. So, when Harry asked me what he could get me for my birthday, I asked him to buy me a copy of White Fang, and read both novels again.

I was once again spellbound, not only by the enormity of the love and worship that both Buck and White Fang display for their masters, but by the way Jack London uses the dogs to represent the facets of human nature.

The Call of the Wild is an easier read, and far more popular, but White Fang is the literary superior of the two. The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a dog taken from his civilized Southland and placed in the primitive North. Of all the dogs that are taken to the Great North, only Buck is able to make the transition in true “survival of the fittest” style.

White Fang is the antithesis, the story of a wolf who must overcome his heredity and upbringing through domestication and the love of his master. The only cub of the five in the litter to survive, White Fang is the coming of age story of a wolf living in a harsh environment. He must kill or be killed, learn the law, or die. Herein lies the problem with categorizing White Fang as young-adult literature. It would seem that a coming of age story should be read by children, and indeed, White Fang is required reading for most middle school students. However, the writing is more appropriate for adults.

In his day, London was considered a popular, not a literary, author. More recently, his novels have most often been classified as young-adult literature.

As a result, literary publications and scholars have had little interest in London and his work. In addition, London’s works featuring animals as main characters have received even less attention than others. The Call of the Wild has garnered some interest for the sheer power of its hold on the reading public and because it is the premier novel of its kind. White Fang, as a later and lesser novel, has largely been ignored.

Critic Maxwell Geismar does mention White Fang in his Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel, 1890—1915 but judges it inferior to The Call of the Wild because of what he views as a sentimental ending:
It was only when White…..
Read entire essay.

White Fang is NOT a lesser novel. Further, I would argue that it is not a book for children or young adults. The quality of writing makes it a literary classic for adults. The writing is too narrative and especially too violent for children. Kill or be killed is realistically portrayed. Not for nothing is White Fang called “the fighting wolf.” And what of the depiction of the American Indian from 100 years ago as inferior to white people? This may not be understood by children without guidance by teachers or parents.

” It was at Fort Yukon that White Fang saw his first white men. As compared with the Indians he had known, they were to him another race of beings, a race of superior gods. They impressed him as possessing superior power, and it is on power that god-head rests. …”

Jack London breaks away from the story to delve into naturalist opinions of life, narrative that would be appreciated more by an adult than a younger reader. An example is the opening paragraph of White Fang:

“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.”

Perfecting the perfect pitch

It may not be perfect, but I think this pitch for my young adult novel THE MAGIC QUILT will hook a sixth grader:

Standing on the Lexington Green in the midst of the battle, twelve-year-old Katharine is oblivious to her own danger of being run through by a bayonet. The metallic smell of blood and gunpowder is heavy in the air. Katharine is a shape shifter who has traveled back in time, to a world where electricity, cell phones and bottled water have yet to be imagined; her new friends are dead or in peril. She must make a choice: She can save her friends and turn the battle toward freedom or destroy the evil shifter, Dr. Ziegawart, in whatever form he might choose— an alligator, a dragon, or a tiny cockroach. As a musket ball whizzes by her head, she decides.

I took advantage of a pitch critiquing opportunity on Book Ends blog. Whether you’re published, unpublished, have a pitch appointment or are pitching through an equery, every author needs to be able to summarize his or her book in as little as five words, but no more than three sentences (or so). In other words, you need to capture an agent’s, editor’s, or reader’s attention quickly.

So I submitted one paragraph from my query letter intended to grab an agent’s attention. Click here to read the post. I had read that one of the best ways to write a pitch was to read the backs of books in your genre — wrong in this case, BTW. So I modeled mine after the back cover of Harry Potter. I was pretty proud of it:

Katharine Taylor has never transmutated into an animal, a dragon or a mountain lion. She has never traveled to the past through her magic quilt, nor faced armies of insects and the evil wizard Dr. Ziegawart. All Katharine knows is an unhappy life with an alcoholic mother, but all that is about to change when she learns that she is a wizard and travels to a turbulent time in Boston just before the Revolutionary War. Caught up in the dramatic events that pit the King’s soldiers against their own people, Katharine finds in her new friends the strength to face her destiny.

This is the response the agent gave:
I like the beginning a lot. I think the first three sentences are terrific. What a great Harry Potter-like book without going straight to telling us that. However, this is another case where the ending lost its fire. I guess I’m not sure I want to read about a wizard who ends up in Boston. Where’s the magic? Where’s the army of insects? The fun of a wizard book, or of any fantasy, is the fantasy. In your description of what’s actually going to happen you neglect to tell us about the fantasy. Since it seems your target is probably a younger audience, my question to you is would a 12-year-old (for example) be interested in reading about the “strength to face her destiny”? or are they more interested in reading about evil wizards and magic quilts? That’s what we want to hear about in the last sentences.

This is a comment from the post, and most other comments took a similar vein:
Harry Potter indeed. That pitch is a word-for-word madlibs of the actual back cover copy of the first Harry Potter novel:

“Harry Potter has never been star of a Quidditch game, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son Dudley—a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches…” (front flap, Arthur A. Levine Books)”

At least the querier knows what works, but I think she loses points for originality.

Shocked and surprised by the reaction, I’ve now got to start over on my pitch — good thing I didn’t send that pitch to an agent. I need to remove the parallels with Harry Potter because THE MAGIC QUILT is more than a fantasy, it is an historical fiction/fantasy, set in 1775 Boston. The Harry Potter series is not historical.

The agent liked the details in the first three sentences, but she wanted a hook that would capture the attention of a twelve year old. So, I thought about what I would want to read if I was twelve. I dug out an old pitch I’d used in a query before I decided Katharine should travel back in time only to 1775 Boston, instead of visiting China past and future America. (I needed to cut the book, and by focusing on the American Revolution I accomplished that). Here’s the old pitch:

Katharine, an unpopular sixth grader, seeks solace by talking to animals and wizards until she discovers a way to escape her unhappy life–through a time portal in a magic quilt. Each square leads to a different period in time and Katherine suddenly finds herself face-to-face with some of the most adventurous and dynamic figures in history, including Marco Polo, Paul Revere, and Pocahontas. Katharine must lead the war against the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, who is one-step behind her throughout the novel.

This young adult novel goes further than fantasy in its accurate portrayal of history, especially 1775 colonial America. In addition, Katharine faces the separation of her parents, and abuse from her alcoholic mother, resulting in the involvement of social services in her family’s life.

This pitch is too long, and I’m sure it will NOT hook a twelve-year-old.

So here’s a first rewrite of my pitch.
Standing on the Lexington Green, twelve-year-old Katharine is oblivious to her own danger of being run through by a bayonet. Having traveled back in time through portals in her magic quilt, to a world where electricity, cell phones and bottled water haven’t even been imagined, her new friends are dead, or dying, the metallic smell of blood and gunpowder heavy in the air. She must make a choice. She can save her friends and turn the battle toward freedom or destroy the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, in whatever form he might choose, whether an alligator, dragon, or a tiny cockroach. As a musket ball whizzes by her head, she decides.

A second:
Twelve-year-old Katharine felt no shame about standing on the Lexington Green crying. Wouldn’t any wizard who transported herself back in time directly into a battle where being run through with a bayonet, or shot with a musket ball are real dangers? Now, with her friends dead, or dying, and the metallic smell of blood and gunpowder heavy in the air, Katharine must lead the war against the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, who is one-step behind her throughout the novel.

A third:
Katharine is twelve years old and a wizard in training, learning how to transmutate into animals, travel forward and back in time, and defend herself against the evil wizard, Dr. Ziegawart, who has promised to kill her before she can destroy him. Leaving her unhappy home behind, Katharine travels back in time to 1775, Boston, where protected by defense sorcerers in the form of black cats, she finds herself caught up in the magical world of spying, espionage, and rebellion that will free her friends from tyranny.

A fourth:
It started as a normal afternoon, Katharine was late getting home to watch her sister, except that Katharine has just heard animals talk and seen time turn back. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? As if in answer to her question a large yellow dog looked through the window at her, and said, “I’d best transmutate.” Several black cats walked around the house, their bright yellow eyes scanning the yard, surrounded by clouds of billowing black.

Of course, if I use the third or fourth pitch, I may be accused of madlibbing Jonathan Stroud or Madeleine L’Engle.

I can’t decide which pitch is best, so I’ve asked my husband, marketing writer Harry Calhoun, to choose and/or write the best pitch for me.

Harry says:
I actually like the first one best. Katherine being in danger in the midst of battle is certainly more interesting than her crying. I think the third one is your second best, and the last one deals too much with what happens in the early part of the book. Also, is it true that her friends are “dead or dying” in the battle? That’s scary!

Yes Harry, it is true that some of Katharine’s friends from 1775 were killed in battle. I couldn’t write the novel any other way and keep it realistic. Such is the reality of war, heavy sigh. In the battle at Lexington, eight Massachusetts men were killed and ten were wounded, with only one British soldier wounded. Here is a scene from the final chapter of THE MAGIC QUILT.

Katharine steeled herself. Joe lay dead, his shirt and the grass he lay on saturated with his blood, the metallic smell of it in the air mingling with the smell of gunpowder. She smoothed his blond hair, closed his eyes and surrendered her childhood. She looked at the battle scene through the eyes of an adult.

She counted seven minutemen lying motionless on the ground— their sightless eyes looking eerily at no one. One wounded man crawled toward a house leaving a trail of blood in his wake. There was too much blood; he wasn’t going to make it. Nine other men lay bleeding, but at least they were moving — they were alive.

I’d love to hear your opinions of which is the best pitch.