Friday, January 28, 2011

What Reviewing Books Can Teach a Writer

I started reviewing books last year for Sacramento Book Review, and it has been one of the more pleasurable experiences in my life for several reasons. Three stand out.

For one thing, I get to discover some of the latest books being released. Don't all the writers, publishers, editors, teachers, etc. advise us to read as much as possible? This makes it possible to both read the latest books and feel virtuous as I indulge myself in what I've come to think of as book feasts.

More importantly, I have to analyze the books I read, and not merely read for entertainment. I have to think in terms of why a book does or does not satisfy, and in terms of plot, character, setting, and theme. I have think of plot structure in terms of tension, arc, and resolution, for scenes, chapters, and the whole book. I have to notice dialogue, imagery, and telling details and how they are rendered. In fact, reading a book with the idea of reviewing it is one of the best writing exercises I know. An added bonus is that the skills you sharpen in a review carry over to reading your own work. Among other things, reviewing books teaches you to read like an editor.

Which brings me to my third reason: Reviewing books has given me real perspective on decisions of editors and agents. As a reviewer, I've read books that are "good", "very good", "wonderful", and "outstanding". I've read books that make me eagerly await the next one by the same author. But, I've also read a few duds. There is good reason reputable agents and editors don't take on submissions riddled with poor grammar, poor spelling, poor punctuation, a rushed ending, etc. And, if you want the best writing future for yourself, you won't want to settle for those who will. It goes beyond mere grammar rules. Writing well takes patience. It's revising and polishing that brings about the kind of story their guidelines ask you to follow.

In my own case, sometimes I get "antsy" and would just like to be done with a WIP. But then I put it away, and when I take it up again, I see where it needs more attention, and I realize: "I don't want to send it out this way." (And I don't want to see it published this way either.) More and more, when revising after critique buddies have given feedback, I find myself asking, "How would an agent see this?" "How would an editor see this?" After all, I won't be at their side, explaining what I'm trying to convey here. And they won't have been through this piece with me three or four times and know where I'm going with it. They have to get it from the first read.

How about you? Have you sometimes been too eager to be published? Are you ever tempted to send work in before it's ready? Do you ever have an "aha" moment when you see your work through an editor's eyes? Please share your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When What to My Wondering Eyes Did Appear....

A couple of days ago, I checked my blog and found I'd been awarded the Stylish Blogger Award by Carrie, whom I discovered at a delightful blog site called Carrie Keeps Typing. And if you want to enjoy some really stylish writing, go have a look: )

Thank you Carrie. That was so nice of you.

In the tradition of these awards, I'm to do the following:

1. Thank and link back to the person who awarded you this award. (See above.)
2. Share 7 things about yourself. (See below.)
3. Award 10 recently discovered great bloggers. (Out of so many! This is hard!)
4. Contact these bloggers and tell them about the award. (If I listed you, you are awarded.)

Okay: 7 things about me:

1. Even though I write for children, I never liked The Wind In the Willows. Yes. I know. Shocking. My mother couldn't understand it either.

2. I was in the high school play one year. The play was, Death Takes a Holiday. I was the maid, and I had one line (uttered while looking out a fake window). "They're here." (In the children's mystery I'm presently writing, I've given the maid much more interesting things to say.)

3. I've been "blessed" by a temple elephant, in Tirichurapali, India, while visiting my husband's family. It was a wonderful moment!

4. I love libraries, bookstores, art galleries, and museums. I can spend hours in any of those places and completely lose track of the time.

5. I have a book addiction. Our bedroom looks like a used book store -- one where all the books haven't been shelved yet. (I have a wonderful, very understanding husband.)

6. Or should that be #6? I have a wonderful, very understanding husband.

7. On my list of New Year's resolutions (which I chose to call "aims" because "aims" sounded more likely to last), seven of them were about writing. ("Find an agent" was one; the others had to do with finishing things, querying, writing synopses, submitting, staying perky in the face of rejection, etc.)

Okay. Enough about me: Here are my nominees: (Unfortunately, I haven't got the hang yet of making it so you can just press on the url on my blog. Maybe someone can tell me how to do it. But it's well worth copying and pasting their urls and visiting their sites.)

Elspeth Antonelli at It's a Mystery:
Kimberly at Meetings with My Muse:
Julie Musil at Julie Musil:
Kenda Turner at Words and Such:
Jayne at A Novice Novelist:
Jody Hedlund at Author, Jody Hedlund:
K. M. Welland at Wordplay:
Rosi Hollinbeck at The Write Stuff:
Ann Best at Long Journey Home -- Blog of Author Ann Carbine Best:
Rhys Bowen at Rhys's Pieces:

And one more award to Lydia Kang at The Word Is My Oyster:

I know, I know, that's eleven, but they are all worth visiting (as well as a few others I couldn't fit into the requirements.) Go have a look and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Way to Use Writer's Block

Once, a few months ago, I was stalled with my middle grade novel. I couldn't get going on it. I was in the middle of a rewrite when I realized that one of my minor characters needed to play a much bigger role than I had realized, which was going to impact the last third of the book. This was a character I hadn't done much back story on, and the back story was going to need some research. Since this was a rewrite, I knew basically what was going to happen, but I didn't have her voice or personality in place enough to write the scenes. So, while I was doing the necessary research, I was at a standstill for the actual writing.

I seldom get writer's block. From time to time a lull does arise, and I turn to doing crosswords or house cleaning projects or weeding the garden. But this time was not a "lull" This time it was prolonged. So I decided to make the time useful. I started making lists. What kinds of lists? Whatever occurred to me.
I described clouds every way I could think of.
I listed names of trees.
I described hairdos and hair color.
I listed every kind of cloth I could think of.
I listed verbs of motion.
I listed sounds -- everything from peeps and tweets to lilts and drawls, honks and buzzes... you get the idea.
I listed smells, and words associated with the sense of smell.
I went through colors of the rainbow, listing every name for red I could think of, red, then red-orange, then orange, then yellow-orange, etc. Then names for brown, black, gray, and white, and descriptions of metals. Here are three samples:
red – alizarin, apple, beet-red, blood red, cadmium, cardinal, carmine, cherry, cochineal, crimson, fire-engine, flame, lobster, madder,port, rubicund, ruby, ruddy, scarlet, strawberry, vermilion,
red-orange – auburn, claret, coral, ginger, peach, rusty, salmon, sandy,
terra-cotta, Titian,
orange – amber, apricot, ginger, cantaloupe, copper, marmalade, peach,
salmon, tangerine, terra cotta
And one day I finally was finished with all that and was able to go back to writing. But not before I typed all these lists and filed them on my computer in a folder I call "Grab Bag". It was a useful venture. From time to time I open that folder to find another way to describe something, and I'm really glad I wasn't just doing crosswords or laundry during that period.

How about you? Do you ever have writer's block? If so, what are some of the things you do to work your way out of it?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Poetry -- Good Training for Picture Books?

Awhile back I found a wonderful book called, Three Genres, The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama, by the novelist and short story writer, Stephen Minot. So far, I'm only partway through the first section on poetry. But right away I was struck by the similar characteristics for good poetry and good picture books.

Minot listed four major characteristics of poetry: length of line; sound devices, rhythmical patterns, and compression of statement.

Length of line, he suggests, is essential to the poetry art form. It may be anything from the visual shape created by how lines are arranged, to simply how a line ending emphasizes a concept or word: Words are arranged for a special effect on the reader that would be lost if the lines were altered in any way. In picture books, too, length of line matters for the above reasons, as well as the fact that lines must telegraph meaning in a form quickly and easily grasped by the listening child. Every word counts in a picture book. It's placed where it is for a reason.

Sound devices in poetry include rhyme (when line ends in the same sound), alliteration (when words begin with the same sound), assonance or consonance (when vowels or consonants within lines echo each other), and onomatopoeia (when a word sounds like what it describes, such as "buzz" or "hiss" -- Minor's examples). All of these sound systems work to advantage in picture books. Familiar examples of rhyme, of course, are found in various editions of Mother Goose Rhymes, but Karma Wilson uses rhyme beautifully, as well as assonance and consonance in The Cow Loves Cookies. In Yannick Murphy's The Cold Water Witch, onomatopoeia is used to great effect when the witch wakes the little girl up by calling, "Wooooooooo!"

Rythmical patterns relate to stressed and unstressed syllables (what readers may think of as "the beat"). Rhythm can also be achieved by repetition of lines. Both the beat and repetition are familiar devices used in picture books, from Bill Martin's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to Nancy White Carlstrom's Jessie Bear, What Will You Wear? (Not surprisingly, rhyme and rhythm often go hand in hand, and often the same text uses repetition.)

Compression of statement is especially characteristic of picture books. If a picture book tells a story, it has the usual beginning, middle, and end, but the tale is told sparingly, with a minimum of text distilled to essentials, leaving the descriptive elements to the illustrator and evoking tone and tension in a minimal usage of words. This is especially true in Lana Button's Willow's Whispers, told sparingly, but capturing Willow's development from a shy whisperer to someone who can speak up for herself through her own invention of a "magic microphone".

Here's an adventure for the new year: Visit your neighborhood library and check out poetry collections and current picture books. I'd be interested in your own discoveries of picture books that illustrate one or another of Minot's four poetry characteristics. Let me know what you find out.