Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My New Year's Resolution: Don't Be Mrs. X

Many years ago, Jimmy Carter was President and I lived in a small town in upstate New York where various people worked for less than they might have, because otherwise the things they did would not have been done at all. The village doctor saw minor cases for $1, more serious ones for $5. The piano teacher, Mrs. Hull, taught lessons for $1.

The system was this. You came into her house, at the appointed hour, without knocking. If another kid was in there having a lesson, you entertained yourself by examining Mrs. Hull’s collection of ceramic miniatures (among other things, a tiny sliced loaf and a tiny dish of butter). When it was your turn, you placed a dollar on the piano and sat down next to Mrs. Hull on the bench. You played your pieces, and sometimes she would interrupt and say gently, “If you hit an F sharp there, it might sound a little bit better for you, Sage.” Or she would lean over and gently pry your finger away from a note it was holding too long. 

If she was satisfied with your performance, you got new pieces, which she would play once through for you (she knew them all!) And off you went.

I loved these lessons. I walked to them on stilts sometimes. (You never see stilts anymore.) I practiced 2 or 3 hours a day. (My poor family.) I went through lesson books and sheet music pretty fast, and since Mrs. Hull always insisted on giving the music to me, and wouldn’t let me pay for it, my mother decided to pay $2 a lesson. (She would have paid more but we didn’t have more.) 

Mrs. Hull was not a young woman. She had graduated from college with degrees in German and music sometime in the Depression. She was quiet and kind and never suggested I had a scrap of musical talent, which indeed I did not.

And then I got big and went away to college. The music professor, Mr. X, had a wife who gave piano lessons for $6. Well, I could make $6 by leading a two-hour nature hike, so I signed up for 12 weeks of lessons. Twelve nature hikes.

Mrs. X was about Mrs. Hull’s age, and also soft-spoken. But she was not Mrs. Hull.

What I remember about those twelve weeks is failing, continually and resoundingly, to live up to Mrs. X’s expectations. She asked me to tell her the direction that sound moved. (I couldn’t.) She asked me to compose variations based on simple nursery songs. (I couldn’t.) She asked me to sit down on the piano bench as hard as I was hitting the piano keys. (I refused.) She sternly informed me that she had been deceived by my sight-reading into thinking I had talent. She assured me with finality that I did not.

Gradually I stopped practicing much, and at last the 12 weeks came to an end. I shut the piano lid with relief and stepped away. 

And 30 years went by.

This winter I find myself staying in a house that has a piano in it.  A very shiny piano, the kind that gleams at you from across the room and says, “Come on. You know you want to.”

So one day, a month ago, I opened the lid. And I sat down. And I played it. And played it some more. And some more. And you know what?

I don’t have any talent. 

Not an iota. 

But I like playing the piano. It’s pleasant and relaxing and fun.

And it’s okay to play the piano, or to practice any art form, for those reasons.

Mrs. Hull knew that.

My Mrs. X story isn’t at all unusual. I’ve heard similar stories from many people. It might be music, or dance, or drawing. Someone who enjoyed doing something was informed by someone knowledgeable that they had no talent and should stop.  The world has too few Mrs. Hulls, who understand that a thing can be worth doing for its own sake and not for any glory or remuneration.

Sometimes friends and acquaintances show me their writing, and they want me to tell them if it’s any good, or good enough.

And of course no professional writer ever thinks anything is good enough, so I try to share the joys of my insecurity with them. And they gently remonstrate. “Well, this is just something I’m doing for fun, you know. Something I thought my grandchildren might like.”

Ouch. Point taken. They want to write the way I want to play the piano, for a bit of joy.

My New Year’s resolution is to remember Mrs. X and Mrs. Hull, and remember that all of the art forms are for everyone, and not just for a chosen few.

If you like doing it, it’s good enough.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mystery of the Rusty Keys

These rusty keys look like they've been sitting on this log a long time...

... beside this broken sign-post... the edge of this cliff...

...beside the lighthouse... the sea... Rhode Island.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy by the police.

This morning, a 12-year-old boy died in Cleveland of injuries he received yesterday when he was shot by a police officer.

The first news I saw of this was a tweet in which the twitterer expressed sympathy for the family and worried that "things could get ugly".

Those four words complete the circle. They explain what killed this American child. (These are our children, America.)

Faced with an appalling incident of white-on-black violence, the twitterer was afraid of what black people might do. The only white-majority nation ever to elect a black head of state is still terrified of black people.

The electorate is still capable of hearing about the violent death of a black child and worrying that... that... that someone might get hurt?

That the response might be anger?

It is.

If you've ever lost someone close to you, you know that anger is always part of the response, even if the cause was an incurable disease. (Why didn't someone cure it?!) Now imagine how angry you might be if someone killed your child because they were afraid of him.

(These are our children, America.)

The black community will be expected (by America) to grieve in a way that unnaturally suppresses anger. Any expression of anger that occurs will be magnified in the media, and the fear will be fed, and the cycle will continue.

And don't expect the media to forego the traditional demonization of the victim just because he was


So far what we've heard is that the assailant was a rookie cop. This is the second fatal shooting of an unarmed black person by a "rookie cop" in two days. We'll be asked to sympathize with his fear and inexperience.

Against the fear and inexperience of a child.

A mature media would ask the following questions. Since we don't have such a media, let's ask them of ourselves:

  • Is something being said, officially or sub rosa, to trainee police officers that is making them afraid of black people?
  • If trainees are already afraid of black people before their training, shouldn't someone else be recruited, someone who's not afraid of black people?
  • Can prospective trainees be tested for a fear of black people? (Tests exist.)
  • If "rookie cops" have an increased tendency to shoot unarmed people (something that may or may not be true, but that we're being tacitly asked to accept), should "rookie cops" perhaps go unarmed?

I don't know much about how police officers are selected, but I know how teachers are. And there is a winnowing that goes on at all phases of the process. Any discomfort with people of other races, religions, or nationalities is (ideally) identified, and addressed. When all else fails, it's addressed by taking the aspirant gently by the arm and leading him or her to the door marked EXIT.

It's time the same standard was applied to police officers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A few tips on writing believable disabled characters.

So if you read my rant on the portrayal of disabled characters in middle grade fiction last week, you may have been left with the impression that it was safest not to write a disabled character at all. Sorry about that! Of course you should write MG characters with real believable disabilities who kick A and take names. We need more of those!

I realize that some of the tropes I described last week come, originally, from a place of compassion. An author thinks about the disability that s/he's given the character. And maybe as soon as s/he thinks about it, s/he wants to solve the problem for the character. And the easiest ways to do that are to deliver a miracle cure (trope #4) or a superpower (trope #5) or to pretend that the disability doesn't really matter (trope #6).

But a writer's job is to dig deeper.

Acknowledge that the disability is part of your character's life, probably a permanent part, and that it presents challenges which the character lives with every day. Show us that the character's life is good and meaningful.

Here are a few ideas.

Ask yourself how the character's disability affects the story
If your disabled character is the protagonist, what is different for him/her because of the disability? How does it change the challenges s/he faces? How does it change the ways s/he deals with the challenges? If the disability were removed, would the story change at all? (If the answer is "no", consider scrapping the disability.... or working on it some more.)

If the disabled character is not the protagonist, make sure s/he has a story arc of his/her own. S/he shouldn't be there just to teach the protagonist compassion, or to make the protagonist feel grateful not to be disabled.

Remember the "able" in "disabled"
What can your character do? What's s/he good at? The character needs the same complexities as a non-disabled character-- flaws, good qualities, the works. Hopes, dreams, things that annoy the hell out of her. And like the rest of us, s/he should have a special talent or two... one not related to the disability, please. She might be ace at manipulating a wheelchair in tight spaces, but consider making her ace at factoring quadrinomials as well. Or make him a train buff with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the US freight-rail system which proves useful when push comes to shove. Whatever suits the story.

Research your character's disability
The external manifestation of a character's disability usually occurs to us fairly quickly. The character has a visual or hearing impairment, or wears a leg brace, or has one arm, or uses a wheelchair. But what caused the disability? A genetic syndrome, a disease, an accident?

Is the disability you've given the character one that actually exists? (It's surprising how often this comes up!)

What are the less-visible aspects of the genetic syndrome, disease, accident, etc? What treatment was required, is required now, will be required? Is this going to get better in the future? Or worse?

When you're researching the disability, you may discover things that you wish weren't true. Resist the urge to change the facts. You don't have to use all the facts in your story... but don't rewrite science.

Once you've done your research, of course, you should treat it like any other research you do for fiction, ie apply it with a very light touch. After all, if your readers wanted to read a treatise on osteogenesis imperfecta (or the Battle of Agincourt, or gemstone cutting) they'd go do the same research you did. Remember, the story is king.

Research is a vassal.

Try it yourself
Avoid the common authorly tendency to have characters scale Mount Everest in a wheelchair. (That's only a slight exaggeration.) To give yourself a sense of what your character will and won't be doing, try it yourself. When an author has experimented with wearing a blindfold or earplugs, or using crutches or a wheelchair, or avoiding using his/her hands, the details come through much more clearly and realistically in the book.

Experiment with due regard for your own safety and that of others! Don't walk around upstairs with your eyes closed, or try to cross streets in a wheelchair if you're not a skilled operator of same.

When you use this experience in your writing, be sure to think about whether your character's disability is new or old. If new, the character is likely to have the same difficulties and reactions that you had. But if it's old, the character will be used to some things and may not give them much thought. S/he may be skilled at tasks you found difficult (like carrying a cup of hot tea while on crutches) but stymied by others (like taking said cup of hot tea up a spiral staircase).

Consider the Mechanics
Humans make many things, and the things humans make are generally imperfect. Leg braces chafe, break and malfunction. They also weigh several pounds. Prostheses can cause sores and ulcers. Wheelchairs are as subject to breakdowns and damage as are other conveyances.

Figure out which aids your character uses, and research them. Make sure you consider the aid in the context of your story's setting. Will your character move easily on a ship, a sandy beach, a steep cliff, an icy lake? If your setting is historic, what aids would your character have used during your novel's time period?

Sensitive Language
Whether you're writing a disabled character or not, be aware of words and terms that are outdated and/or offensive. Such words and terms should be avoided in the authorial voice. If they're used in dialogue, they should be dealt with as an issue.

These include:
- cripple, crippled, and crippling (including figurative use, eg "A crippling blow" or "The crippled ship limped into port")
- retard, retarded (including figurative use, eg "A retarded idea")
- former medical terms that have become insults, eg mongoloid and spastic (also avoid "spaz")
- slang nicknames, eg "Pegleg"
- Disabilities used in a figurative sense. ("What a lame excuse," "He's blind to her faults." )
- "confined to a wheelchair" (a wheelchair is not a cell)

Consider the social aspects of the disability
Your character's interactions with others will be affected by the disability. The ways in which people-- children and adults-- react to disabilities are myriad, many-faceted, and bizarre. You may have seen and experienced this in your own life. If not, watch for it.

I started out to write a long list of examples here, but I've gone on long enough, and it will be more useful to you as a writer to make your own observations.

(In R.J. Palacio's Wonder, the social aspects of the protagonist's disability are the main focus of the novel. And kids love it.)

Anyway. I hope the above will prove useful to writers who want to write stories with well-rounded, multi-faceted characters with disabilities. Please do! We need more of them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's this disabled character doing in this MG novel? Probably about what they were doing in 1910.

Hello. I want to share a few thoughts about the portrayal of characters with disabilities in middle grade novels. There's the good:

  • Mary in the Little House books. While there's usually little for diversity advocates to cheer about in this series, Mary's blindness is very matter-of-fact and realistic. It affects her life and her family's lives. And it doesn't ruin them.
  • Wonder by RJ Palacio. What can I say that hasn't been said already?
  • Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. A MG fantasy – yes, a fantasy!-- in which a protagonist with a disability goes on a journey of discovery without encountering a miracle cure.

And then there's the not-so-good. Below are six tropes that encompass many of the portrayals of disabled characters in MG fiction. Each of them can be found in recent work as well as older books, though I'm only going to name older books.

I've given each trope a cute name even though they're not really very cute.

1. Paging Dr. Strangelove
In these books, the disabled character is a villain. His/her mind is as twisted as his/her body, get it? In case you don't, sometimes it's spelled out. Blech. In one MG book I read, there was an attempt to soften this (I think?) by having the villain turn out to be faking his disability. The image remains.

A venerable example of disability-conflated-with-badness is The Secret Garden (1910). When Mary arrives from India, she's sickly and unlikable. As she becomes more physically able, she turns into a better person. Then she arranges the same transformation for her bedridden cousin Colin. The message is clear.

2. God Bless Us, Every One
Like Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, the disabled character in some MG books is only there to gauge the protagonist's moral growth.

3. Exit Little Eva
In the 19th century, one of the primary tasks of children in books was to die, preferably after a long illness and some edifying moral reflections. Although a few of these kids' books are still in print, like The Birds' Christmas Carol (1887), this one has mostly, er, died out.

Zombie-like, though, this trope rises again in the form of the character-too-badly-injured-to-survive. He tends to show up in action, pursuit, and battle scenes. He gets one injury, and then another, and things proceed to the point where he would be disabled were he to survive. So instead he's provided with yet another injury that enables him to die heroically. Sigh. As soon as the disabling injury was delivered, you knew this character was toast.

4. It's A Miracle!
The protagonist has a disability, but it's cured by the end of the book, often as a reward for something the protagonist has accomplished. While this is essentially what happens in The Secret Garden, and appears in rather bizarre form at the end of Johnny Tremain, it's also very common in fantasy novels.

5. He's Blind, But He Sees So Much More Than We Do
In these books, the character's disability is an undisguised blessing. It gives him/her powers that the abled characters can only dream of. If the protagonist in one of these books had a brain injury, it would be more likely to result in telepathy than in seizures.

This sort of book is satirized in the play Butterflies Are Free as "Little Donny Dark". In the Little Donny Dark books written by the protagonist's mother, the blind boy has no trouble flying a plane, because his other senses are so highly developed.

6. You'll Find My Disability on Page 16
These are books in which the protagonist has a disability which does not affect his/her life in any way. It might be a disability that, in real life, would take some serious managing (new skills to learn, trips to specialists, hospital stays, etc). The book, however, will mention the disability only once. Neither the protagonist nor the reader ever has to think about it again.
Oh dear. I hope my rant hasn't scared writers off from including disabled characters in their MG novels. Because we need more, not fewer. We need fully developed, complex characters whose disability is one aspect of their lives, one that matters but doesn't mean there's less for us to know and find out about the character. In a future post, I'll talk about some approaches for writers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

About those million words.

There is a saying, and it is mostly true, that you have to write a million words before you're ready to be published.

A million words is between three and four thousand double-spaced pages.

Most of the authors I know sold their fourth or fifth attempt at a novel. Me too. That means we had three or four trunk novels before we sold. Of course, we didn't write them to be trunk novels. We wrote them to be bestsellers. But we were learning. We're still learning, and we still sometimes produce trunk novels.

Recently I ran into a writer who said he knew he had to write a million words before he'd be publishable, and he figured it would take him 18 months at 2000 words a day. This reminds me of my approach to a PhD. See, I was once in this PhD program for some reason. And I kept calculating how quickly I could get out of it. And people who had been through it looked at me in dismay and said, "You're missing the point."

I didn't get the point till I ran into that writer.

The point, in any learning we do, is the process. Not the product.

I think we learn more from revision than we do from the initial writing. If we merely crank out a million words without stopping to look at them, analyze, recognize where we've gone wrong and what we need to do to fix it, we'll end up not much better off than when we started.

The million words are incidental. A means of trying to quantify just how much there is to learn. Unless we're present in the moment, fully focused on the process, on recognizing our errors and learning from them, we're not going to learn at all.

If you're new to writing and are planning to do NaNoWriMo, go for it! You'll be 50,000 words on your way. And once you've spent a year revising and re-rewriting your NaNoWriMo project, you may well be 250,000 words on your way.

(By which I mean not that you should write a 250,000 word novel-- you shouldn't!-- but that the writing done in revision is part of the million words.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

For Authors, About Reviews

Every now and then an author reacts online to a bad review. And I wish I could give him or her the best piece of advice I ever received about reviews. It was from science fiction author James Gunn.

It was this.

"Read the last line first".

Simple and effective.

The last line tells you whether the reviewer liked the book or not. Then you know. Whether you actually read the review after that is up to you. I know several authors who don't read their reviews at all. Not even the glowing ones.

If you do choose to read a bad review, then read it, shrug and move on. If the reviewer goes in for an ad hominem attack, you can smile while you shrug. That's not a reviewer to take seriously.

Don't respond. You'll be seen as "hitting down". This always sounds bizarre to authors, many of whom reside well below the poverty line, but there it is. There's a widespread perception that we all have castles in Scotland.

Bad reviews are not fatal, to you or your book.

Just remember to read the last line first.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How to Plan for NaNoWriMo, part 4: Index Cards

Hi! Over the last couple weeks I've shared some of my favorite tricks for planning a story, bubble-mapping and drawing. Both of those are strategies I use for brainstorming and planning a story. This next strategy focuses on organizing your ideas so that you're ready to write.

Equipment required: Colored pens, index cards*, and tape.

It's likely that as you've thought about your story, some of the story's moments have become very clear in your head. Examples: Your hero meets her mentor. Your hero steals a golden apple. Your villain hacks into the NORAD computers, and thinks he's undetected.

Write each of these idea-moments on a separate index card.

Notice that I've used two colors on this card. Each major character has his or her own color. That way, when I organize the cards, I'll be able to follow each of their storylines and see any gaps. (When a major character is offstage, as, for example, the wizard Simon is in parts of the Jinx books, you still need to know where s/he is and what s/he's doing.)

Now look at your bubble-maps. (See last week's post.) Read through them carefully. Identify anything in your maps that looks like it should be a scene or a story-moment.

Make a separate index card for each of these story moments.

Keep making index cards till you run out of scenes and story moments.

(Note: If I have a lot I want to write on a card, I sometimes start out with a Sharpie, but finish with a ballpoint pen.)

Now, it's time to play with your cards.

Sort through them. You'll notice that some of the scenes clearly belong at the beginning of the story, others near the end. Lay them out on a flat surface, in the order in which you think they might occur. The beginning of the story goes at the top, the end of the story at the bottom. If two or more ideas seem like they should happen at the same time, put them side-by-side.

Keep moving them around till you think you've got them where you want them.

You'll probably find some of your cards don't fit in anywhere. That's okay. It may be that those scenes don't actually belong in the story, or it may be that you'll figure out a place for them later.

You may also find gaps. Don't worry about that right now either.

When you think you have all the cards in the right order, tape them to the wall.

In the picture above, I have the scenes taped to the wall in order, top to bottom, but there are things missing. There are some thin spaces at the top. At the bottom, just before the closing scene, there's a gap that goes right across... I've got nothing. It's possible you'll have similar gaps in your own story. (Example: your hero is captured by the evil villain, and then she is welcomed home. But you're missing the escape scene.) 
Now it's time to fill in those gaps.

Take some more blank index cards. Think about what scenes you might use to fill in the gaps. Jot them on the cards, and add them to the wall.

Read through what you've got.

Now look at the storyline for each of your main characters. (Just follow his or her color-code down the wall.) Do any individual characters have gaps? It's okay, for now, if they do. They may end up having gaps in the story. Just remember that you've always got to know where the major characters are, and, if they leave the story in the middle, you have to know what became of them. If a major character is left hanging, fill in an index card to show what he's doing.

When your wall of cards is finished, you're ready to write.

You can start writing your novel directly from what's on the wall.

Or you can divide your wall into chapters, hanging a slip of paper with the chapter number on it next to each section on the wall. (I've done that in the last picture above.)

Or you can use your wall display as a basis for a traditional written outline.

I've tried all of these, and they all work.

And there you have 'em, as Casey Kasem used to say. My three main strategies for pre-writing a novel. I hope you find them useful for planning your own.

Good luck!

*Some writers use sticky notes instead of index cards. I like the index cards because they're sturdier, easier to rearrange, and cheaper.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Plan for NaNoWriMo, part 3: Bubble Maps

Hi! Last week I shared one of my favorite tricks for planning a story, drawing. I'm happy to have heard from several people that they've tried this and found it useful.

This next strategy, like the drawing, should enable you to plan your story without your internal editor getting in the way. It has various names; I call it bubble-mapping. Over the course of a novel I'll usually make about 100 bubble maps-- about 25 of them at the planning stage.

Here's what one looks like:

This is one of about 20 bubblemaps I did about the Bonemaster (an evil wizard in the Jinx trilogy) over the course of writing the three books. There was a lot I had to find out about the Bonemaster, so I kept asking myself questions about him. (The different colors are color codes I assigned to different characters or aspects of the plot. This is optional. More about colors next week.)

Let's build a bubble map from the ground up. Start out with the central idea of your story... the thing you want to write about. Ask yourself 4 questions about it:

These questions are just examples. You can make up different questions if you like. Answer each question with whatever pops into your head:

Don't think too hard! Just let it flow.

For every answer, try to expand with more information or more questions as they occur to you:

Keep going till you run out of space on the paper. By that time you should have discovered some interesting points that you want to explore further.

Pick one of these points, take another piece of paper, and start a new bubble map:

The new bubble-map in this example is based on a question from the old bubble-map. ("Constitution?")

Note the question "When?" in the new bubble-map. I'm already wondering whether this story takes place before the election, and is about Silvia's run (scamper?) for the White House, or whether it takes place after the election, when Silvia's won in a landslide and the Secret Service has to outwit enemy cats and owls. Is this a story about an election, about a constitutional crisis, about one mouse's struggle to change the world, or about an alternative USA in which a mouse is president?

This was something I didn't think about till I started bubbling. I can make more bubble-maps to explore it, but I won't really worry about it till the next step of the process, which we'll look at next week.

Watch this space!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How to Plan for NaNoWriMo, part 2: Drawing to Write

Hi! In my last post I promised to share a few tricks I use to help me get ready to write. I call them tricks because they all do the same thing-- they fool me into disconnecting my internal editor. None of them involve writing words that will actually appear in my book.

I use all these tricks in the pre-writing planning process, before I begin a manuscript. They enable me (and hopefully will enable you) to forget about writing and focus on story.

Tonight's trick is drawing.

Doodling, sketching, scribbling, coloring. This is the very first thing I do to help a story come toward me. I draw pictures. I start out drawing the main character. Then I draw the other characters. I sketch in their surroundings, give them something to stand on, something to hold. Every single sketch tells me something new about the story.

Usually when I share this technique with other writers, they say "But I can't draw."

Well, really, as you'll see below, I can't either. But that's okay! Nobody has to see your picture but you. And you're a writer, not an artist, so it doesn't matter if the picture's not of professional quality.

If it will help, just draw stick figures. But do try it. Give it 15 minutes. If the 15 minutes go okay, give it another 15 minutes. You'll be surprised at what you learn about your story.

When I first started planning to write Jinx, I thought the main character would be Elfwyn. I drew pictures of her, of Dame Glammer, of Simon and Sophie... pictures of scenes that never occur in the book. Then I drew this:


As you can see, I wrote in a few descriptive sentences that occurred to me as I drew. These sentences didn't end up in the manuscript. Neither did the drawing, of course. But the scene it depicted ended up in the first chapter of the finished book.

In each picture, as I drew, the trees were becoming larger and larger. I began to realize the trees were going to play a very important part in the story, that they were a constant presence and had their own opinions. They even had laws.

Here's a picture for a story that's been kicking around in my head. I don't know if it'll ever get written.

And here's a character who has yet to find a story to be a part of, although I'm hoping her day will come:

Eh, so I have a little trouble with feet. Anyway, as you can see, the point here is not to produce great art but to completely free your mind from the need to Write Something. Draw to explore the world of your characters.

Think about the story you're planning to write for NaNoWriMo. Imagine the main character. Draw him or her. Add some more characters to the scene. Draw their surroundings.

Have fun with it!

In my next post, I'll share another pre-writing trick that I find even more useful than this one... and hopefully you will too. Watch this space!

Friday, September 5, 2014

How to Plan for NaNoWriMo, part 1. Watch This Space!

So, NaNoWriMo is coming up. NaNoWriMo is a challenge to draft a novel (or rather, to write 50,000 words) during the month of November. I took this challenge in November of 2009 and drafted JINX, which was published by HarperCollins in January of 2013 as the first book of a middle grade fantasy trilogy.

NaNoWriMo is a good way to motivate yourself to write if you're having a hard time getting off the dime. But many folks who start out on November 1st just don't make it to 50k, and it usually seems to boil down to two reasons, both having to do with planning.

The first is simply time. Writers do the math: 30 days hath November, which means that if you write 1667 words a day, you're good. The problem is few people can really write every day. You run into Thanksgiving (in the US), emergencies, and days of just plain not being able to fit it in. It's better to plan on 2000 words a day. That gives you five floating days off to cope with life's exigencies. (Of course, if a really serious emergency crops up, one has to throw in the towel.)

The other thing that stops people from getting to 50k is that they hit a point – often around the 25k word mark-- where they run out of story. And I think this usually happens because they haven't done enough planning prior to November 1st. I have heard that writers are equally divided between planners and those who write by the seat of their pants, but I don't think it's true. I think pure pantsers are extremely rare, and that most writers need to plan to at least some degree. We may not necessarily want or need an outline of the kind we learned in school. But we need something.

So if you're going to go for the gold this November, it would be a good idea to start planning now. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be sharing some of my favorite planning methods. Hopefully you'll find something useful that you can incorporate.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ducks and Stars

Last night, or rather at 1:10 this morning, it was too hot to sleep. So I lay in bed worrying about things, and worrying about other things, and worrying about some more things.

When I was a kid, on nights like this, my cousin and I used to slip out of the house and walk barefoot down to the swimming hole in the creek (about a mile away) and go swimming in the dark.

Too bad I can't do that now, I thought, tossing and turning.

Anyway, it's September, I added. You don't swim in September in upstate New York.

And then I worried some more about other things, including being too old and sensible to go swimming at one o'clock in the morning, which basically means never doing anything fun ever again, and then...

...And then I stopped tossing and turning. I got up, and got dressed, and went down to the park by the lake. Some ducks quacked a sleepy protest, but no one else was around. I stepped into the lake. The water was cold, but only just. I swam like a kid, not for exercise, but just for the glorious feeling of being afloat, of moving through a foreign element, of almost-flying.

The Milky Way arched overhead. A satellite crept across the sky. The lake was silent and still except for the ducks. I was far enough from shore now that the world was only the lake, and stars, and ducks. I trod water for a while.

When I turned and swam back to shore, I sat on the edge of the water for a bit, not wanting to leave. (As a concession to being an adult, I had kept my clothes on.)

But the ducks were annoyed, and the night didn't feel so warm anymore, and so I went home, and went back to bed...

...and didn't worry at all.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fear and Ferguson

Many, many years from now, toward the end of this century, three days will slip quietly past on the calendar. They will be the days that Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride might have died. After all, they were citizens of a country where most people live to be old. They weren't meant to die before age 20.

They weren't meant to die of other people's fear.

We need to talk about the fear that killed them.

We need to talk about it so we can stop nurturing it.

Each of these young Americans was shot and killed by an adult who had bought into a narrative that says that black teenagers are dangerous. Each of these teenagers was deemed a threat by an armed adult despite being unarmed themselves. We haven't heard from the killer of Michael Brown yet, but when and if we do, I won't be surprised if we hear, in one form or another, that he was scared. It's what we heard from the killers of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. In one case, a jury rejected this nonsense. In another, it apparently found it plausible.


Because nearly everything in our popular culture and nearly everything in our news media presents African-Americans as "scary." And when one person or a small number of people are doing something out-of-line, if they're white it's spoken of as the act of individuals but if they're black it's often widely perceived and tacitly presented as an example of what "they" do. There's been a lot of this dichotomy in the discussion of what's going on in Ferguson.

For example, take a look at this brief and understated article in the Washington Post. Notice how the neighbors seem afraid of "thugs" (their word, not mine) invading their neighborhood, but absolutely unafraid of ...well, their own neighbor. The guy that shot Michael Brown. Six times.

Look at the news. Notice how those in authority, bizarrely, have focused on the people of Ferguson as if they were a problem to be solved, rather than focusing on-- or, at least, publicly saying anything about-- the investigation into the death of Michael Brown.

And, of course, in this case as in the others, there's been the business of pointing out flaws in the victim... in comparison, I suppose, to the stellar perfection of all other teenagers.

And the showering of the perpetrator with monetary gifts.

All of these are different expressions of fear, a societal fear that is killing black teenagers.

We bookish people tend to feel that the answer to this problem lies in better books, but we're only partly right. Books are such a small portion of the cultural message that most people consume. The answer lies in insisting on more sensitive, nuanced discussion across all media. The news media needs to talk about racism as if we were grownups. It needs to use the same language to talk about the actions of black people as it uses to talk about those of white people. (I could say a lot more about this!) Television and movies need to stop using blackness as a visual code for badness.

Some years ago I had a curious conversation in a remote village on the Bering Sea coast. I was in the office I shared with another teacher, a local woman. I forget what we were talking about, but she made the surprising remark that she had never met a black person.

"And I'm worried that when I do, I might react wrongly," she said. "I might act as though I expect them to be violent and angry. Because that's what I always see on tv. And I know they probably aren't really like that."

Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to deconstruct the media message as my friend was. Many people don't demand this level of thinking from themselves. So we need to change the message.

This problem can be solved. This is America, and we've solved lots of problems. Many things that were commonplace a generation ago are unthinkable now. We can make this lethal fear of black teenagers unthinkable, as well. 
We can insist that our media and popular culture stop feeding it.

Let's do it now. Lives depend on it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Rule of Law

It's five days since a Ferguson, Missouri police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, and we don't know who that officer was. This is pretty strange in the information age. Usually, when someone stands accused of killing someone, we know their name. In fact, usually the police are the ones to reveal it.

Now in this case we don't have a name, apparently because of concerns about repercussions against the officer and his family. That almost sounds logical till you poke at it a little.

We live in a society that enjoys the Rule of Law. And the essence of the Rule of Law is that it prevents repercussions by ensuring justice. It's safe to name the accused in our society because instead of an ancient system of blood feud, we have criminal charges and courts and juries.

The Rule of Law, like magic, only works if we believe in it. And thus far events in Missouri have given us very little reason to believe in it. By not revealing the name of the accused, the authorities in Ferguson, Missouri are giving us a strong indication that they don't believe in it.

A police force that doesn't believe in the Rule of Law is a frightening thing. It's a police force that might do anything.

In fact, it's a police force that already has. Last Saturday.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Middle Grade: Time to Lose the C-word

In the past two months, I've been blasted out of five (5) recent children's books by the C-word.

There I was, reading along, having a grand time, when all of a sudden...BAM. C-word. I'm knocked out of the story and cast adrift, the words on the page sifting meaninglessly past a brain now completely preoccupied with wondering why the author –with whom I'd been getting along swimmingly up till then-- suddenly decided to descend into hate speech.

But don't picture me reading these books. Picture a child in a wheelchair. A little boy with a leg-brace. A girl on crutches. Picture them reading the books. All of a sudden they're smacked right in the eyes with a line something like this:

He was a cripple.

I hadn't known she was crippled.

Why would anyone hurt a cripple?

Why indeed? But the child reader has been called this name on the school playground. And yes, of course it hurt.

(By the way, the above-- and below-- are not direct quotes from the books. I'm not naming and shaming. Just hoping for change.)

Does it matter how the word is presented? Whether it's in quotes or not? Marginally. Only marginally. Remember, the target readers are children, with a child's level of discernment.

Anyway, in four of the five books, the word occurred at least once without quotes.

In two of them, it was used in the authorial voice to describe a person with a physical disability.

In two, it was used to describe hypothetical people, "cripples" in the abstract.

In three, it was used as a figure of speech.

A crippling blow.
The ship was crippled.

(If you're thinking that adds up to seven: Yeah. Three of the five books used the word repeatedly.)

I think most people would probably be okay with the figurative use. I'm not. For those people to whom a word has fangs, it has fangs even when it's used figuratively. If you think about other hate speech in this context, you'll see what I mean.

It would also probably be okay with most people (including me) if the word was discussed, if the fact that it's hateful and hurtful, and/or how a character is affected by the word, was the author's point.

It's never discussed.

We didn't use the C-word for years, because we understood that it was insulting and hateful. Now apparently we think it's edgy.

The C-word, by the way, does not have fangs for all people with mobility-related disabilities. Those who react most negatively to it, I think, are those who were already physically disabled in elementary school.

But these are middle grade books. They're for people in elementary school.

So please, can we stop calling them names?

update 8/12/14: Two days I've read the word in six (6) recent middle grade books.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to Get An Agent (or anyway, how to look for one without going nuts)

So how do you go about getting a literary agent?

Well, the first step is to write an excellent manuscript, of course. But let's assume you've already done that.

Here's my recipe, based on experience gathered over the course of several agent hunts.

1. Define what you're looking for

This is really important! Don't tell yourself that “any agent will do.” It's not true. An agent will end up having the final say in whether and where you submit your work. You want to find someone you can trust with that decision.

Make a list of the qualifications you're looking for in an agent. Here's what my list eventually became:

  • Agent has a good sales record with middle grade fantasy
  • Agent has been an editor at a major publisher
  • Agent works in New York City
  • Agent does not have a significant online presence

There are, of course, many excellent agents who don't meet these qualifications. You'll want to make your own list of what you feel comfortable with. I just offer mine as an example.

2. Make a list of agents

You'll find agents listed on and Search for agents who represent your genre. The information on these sites may be outdated, so double-check everything. Make a list of every agent who reps your genre.

3. Annotate your list

Check your list of agents (step 2 above) against your list of qualifications you want in an agent (step 1 above). Google each agent on your list. Look for interviews and reported sales. Be sure to read the agent's webpage if s/he's got one. Take copious notes. The purpose of this is not to find connections you can mention in your query, but to help you make the right choice.

That's right. You're choosing them. They make a choice too, of course. But it's important to give full, non-starstruck attention to your own part in the choosing.

4. Divide your list

Now it's time to select the agents you feel you'd like to work with. Divide your now-annotated list into three categories:

= I should be so lucky.
= S/he would do nicely.
X = Alas, I fear we should not suit.

For the ♫ and X agents, make a note of why you put them in that category.

In my case, the ♫ agents were those who met all four of my desired qualifications. (Note that I don't call them “dream agents”. All I knew about them was what I'd found online... insufficient data for dreaming.) The ♪ agents met two or three of the qualifications. The X agents in most cases had no reported sales.

Take the X agents off the list and put them in a separate file. Later you may wonder why you didn't query them, so this will serve as a reminder.

5. Write your query

There are plenty of sites with good advice on how to do this, and alas, some sites with not-so-good advice. Janet Reid's Query Shark blog offers good advice, as does Absolute Write.

Polish your query to the nines. But not to the tens. Spend a couple weeks on it, but not three years. Ultimately, it's only a query.

6. Send your query

If this is your first time querying, or if you've never gotten a request in the past, pick just six agents off your list to query. If you know the ropes pretty well, pick ten. Check each agent's submission guidelines and tailor the query to the agent. Hit “send.” Note the date you sent the query in your records.

Bite your nails. Try to think about something else. Give it a month.

Increasingly, agents have a “no response means no” policy. There's not much we can do about this. Back in the day, you could avoid querying such agents, but that's probably no longer possible... there are too many of them.

Keep careful records of any replies you received, including dates of form receipts or form rejections.

At the end of the month, if you've heard nothing, don't nudge. Instead, get ready to send your next batch.

7. Send your next batch.

If all you got were form rejections or no response, there are two possibilities:

  1. There's something wrong with your query.
  2. You've written something that the agents (or their interns) don't think is marketable. A common reason for this is that a trend has suddenly become a glut.

Hard to tell which. But take another look at your query anyway, revise if necessary, and go on to the next six (or ten) agents.

By the way, I'd divide these batches between your ♫ and ♪ agents. You don't want to use up your whole ♫ list while you're still refining your query.

8. Reacting to requests

At some point, if you've gotten your query right and if you haven't written something for which there's no market, you will get a real live personal response.

If it's a rejection, read it over carefully. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Save it. If it's a partial or full request, make sure you have your manuscript ready to go. If that gets a rejection that's not a form rejection... same thing. Read the rejection carefully. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Save it. This is valuable data, especially if a consensus develops among several agents.

Never, ever say anything in response to a non-form rejection except, possibly, “thank you.”

9. The Offer of Representation

An offer of representation does not come via email. What comes via email is an invitation to talk on the phone. You may want to have a list of questions ready. (“What changes do you think my manuscript needs?” and “Where do you think you would submit it?” are two I would ask.) However, these conversations often seem to center on favorite books-- yours, his/hers. It's really a get-to-know you conversation.

After some talk in which you get to know each other, the agent will usually offer representation.

What should you do?

Now here's my advice, which differs from that of others:


If the conversation went well, that is, and if you have the impression that this is someone you would like to work with. Just accept.

Especially if s/he's one of your ♫ agents.

Contact the agent's references, sure. But you don't need to contact other agents so that they can move your query to the top of their pile and consider whether they want to make an offer. You don't need multiple offers, since the terms are the same industrywide (the agent gets 15% of your domestic sales, 20% of foreign). You just need one good agent.

If the offer is from one of your ♪ agents, and one of your ♫ agents is also considering the manuscript, you might want to contact the latter to see if s/he's interested. On the other hand, you're already talking to someone who's enthusiastic enough about your manuscript that s/he read it quickly and responded quickly. It's up to you.

But you want to write, not to spend your whole life looking for an agent.