Holy Terrifying, Batman

I got an email from my publisher today. Which is great–every email I’ve gotten from them has been from a super friendly and helpful person and has only gotten me more excited about the day my book hits the shelves. But the topic of today’s email?

Marketing.

There was talk of launch parties and book signings and readings and bookstore managers and oh my word you want me to talk to how many complete strangers?!

Okay, understand: I know that most people out there are generally nice people. But I was that kid in class who would only answer a question if called on, and sometimes not even then, if the stage fright got to me before the answer did.

Then again, I guess I’ve spoken in front of crowds before. And I suppose this comes with the territory. Here’s to learning how not to tremble uncontrollably at the very thought of public speaking.

Any of you other author types out there have advice for surviving those kinds of events?

Mrs. Grosk

I just finished two very different books with one thing in common: each protagonist had that amazing teacher, the one out of dozens that you will never forget.

In Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Matthew Dicks), Budo, Max’s imaginary friend, must help Max learn to take care of himself during one of the scariest times of Max’s life. Budo’s interactions with other characters, both real and imaginary, are intriguing and insightful; but the person Budo loves the most, outside of Max of course, is Mrs. Grosk.

Budo knows that Mrs. Grosk doesn’t “play teacher” like some of the other teachers. Mrs. Grosk is a teacher through and through. She puts on a gruff front, but there’s no hiding the fact that she loves every one of her kids, from the star student to the troublemaker. When she reads aloud, the entire class falls silent to listen to the truths her voice carries to their hearts.

My Mrs. Grosk came around in fifth grade. Her name was Ms. Stevens, and there was something about her short-cropped gray hair and her sharp eyes that told you she was not to be crossed. The first day of school, she told us that she would string us up by the toes in her closet if we gave her any trouble. She reigned over her classroom with a quick wit and a firm hand, and I’m pretty sure everyone was a little afraid of her; but somehow, we all loved her far more than we feared her. She was frank and funny and talked about things other teachers skirted around.

Ms. Stevens was determined to see that her students left her class more cultured than we had come, and that is how I was introduced to the Kingston Trio and Tom Dooley. I couldn’t believe that a teacher was letting us listen to a song about a man who was going to be hanged! But she wasn’t satisfied to just listen to the music. We had a discussion about Tom Dooley and ethics and justice. Granted, not all the songs we listened to had that much meaning. I’m still not sure about the one with the lime and coconut.

She would read to us just before the lunch break. I’m sure we did several books, but the only one I can remember is Because of Winn-Dixie, probably because I was obsessed with dogs at that point in my life. The entire class was silent, hanging on every word; when the bell rang for lunch, we begged her to read just one more chapter. She would just laugh and send us out to lunch.

Have you had a Mrs. Grosk in your life?

Peoples is Peoples

Books hooked me young. One of my favorite childhood hobbies was pretending to be asleep until my parents went to bed, then reading under the covers with a flashlight until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I can’t tell you how many pictures there are of me fast asleep in bed, still holding a book in front of my nose.

I never really imagined meeting the authors of my favorite books. There was one point in my life where I thought all authors of published books were dead. (It’s a dangerous career!) Even once I realized that having a book published did not mean instantaneous termination, meeting someone brilliant enough to have written a book seemed about as likely as meeting Buzz Aldrin.

Then along came Writing Excuses.

The three of them (this was pre-Mary) were supposed to come visit my class at BYU, but Brandon couldn’t make it, so we got the Dan and Howard Show. After a ten-minute discussion about Dan and bacon, a string of good-natured jibes at the absent Brandon, and Howard spilling water all down his pants accidentally-on-purpose, I realized:

Authors are people too!

Granted, many of them still hold celebrity status in my eyes. I’m still pretty giddy that I have a personalized autographed copy of The False Prince. But the more authors I meet and become friends with, the more I realize that authors eat and sleep and read. Authors worry about their kids and go out to dinner with friends. Authors write things that are truly awful sometimes, and it’s okay, because they’re not actually perfect brilliant geniuses who spill forth fountains of pure eloquence from their pens (or printers) on the very first try. They just keep hammering away until they get it right.

I’ve connected with many authors in the short time I’ve had this blog, and they are all delightful people whom I wish I could meet for lunch sometime. And I feel incredibly lucky that I get to officially join their ranks when my book hits the shelves on December 9th!

An Entertaining Librito

Up until recently, Disney had me pretty well trained to believe that all Siamese cats were baby killers. But when I went to the library today in search of new bedtime stories, I remembered my sister reading her kids a book about a little Siamese kitten who thought he was a chihuahua. So I checked out Skippyjon Jones: Class Action, and I wish I’d checked out all the rest, too! It’s got a great rhythm, a delightfully goofy storyline, and an adorable little Skippito chi-wa-la. It’s also a treasure trove of Spanish vocabulary without ramming it down little throats Dora-style.

So if you’re looking for a good librito for your little Skippito, give Skippyjon a try!

Let’s Talk Register

A few days ago, I ran across “How the Grinch Stole Grammar.” I laughed through the entire thing, and laughed for about a day afterward. More laughter than warranted? Probably. But I’m a nerd like that.

Granted, I appreciate a properly placed apostrophe as much as the next person, and it makes me cringe when I’m forced to leave out my beloved Oxford comma. And yes, I’ve made it my life’s ambition to explain the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash to the world. Editing is one of my greatest pleasures in life, and I love it when someone hands me a paper and says, “Edit this.”

But if I’m going along in the day and someone says, “That’s something I just won’t put up with,” never ever ever would I pull out my grammar stick and shout, “No! That is something up with which you will not put!” Why not? Well, first of all, I want people to like me. Correcting other people’s spoken grammar is one of the quickest ways to get people to stop talking to you. But second of all, I would sound like a total twit. Seriously, who goes around saying “up with which I will not put”?

Take a look at your characters. Does your poor, uneducated peasant go around speaking like a lawyer? Is your cast of modern-day high schoolers using Victorian English? If they are, you’d better darn well have a reason for it. One of the best aspects of character development is a unique voice, which can often come from figuring out exactly how a character breaks the rules of the language. Do they use slang? Do they use words that “don’t exist,” like “ain’t” or “irregardless”? Is their speech full of hysterical malaprops, like good old Dogberry?

Of course, abusing prescriptive grammar should never come at the cost of readability. And you may well have a character who never forgets a “whom” or splits an infinitive. But if your nineteenth-century American dockworker is strutting around speaking the Queen’s English, you may have a problem. Listen to the world around you, how people (and not your English teacher) really talk. You just might be surprised at how much it changes your dialogue.

How the Grinch Stole Grammar!

Possibly the most brilliant commentary on prescriptivists that I’ve ever read.

Stroppy Editor

(With apologies to Dr Seuss)

Every Who down in Who-ville liked English a lot
But the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville, did NOT!
Whenever he thought of the language, he’d languish
In horrified anger and furious anguish!
But the funny thing was that beneath all this hate
He somehow believed, well, that English was great.
But it wasn’t the English the Whos wrote and spoke –
No! THAT made him scowl! Made him fume! Made him choke!
Made him choke!
Made him choke!
Made him CHOKE! CHOKE! CHOKE! CHOKE!

So what on earth was it the innocent Whos
Were doing so wrong with the language they’d use?
If you were to walk into Who-ville one day
You’d see lots of people with fine things to say.
They’d joke and exclaim and they’d promise and sing,
They’d chat and debate – yes, they’d do anything
That this wonderfully versatile…

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Critique Groups

I was a closet writer for years and years and years. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in college and taking a creative writing class that the idea occurred to me that I should ask someone else what they thought of my writing. It took another three years after that before I steeled my nerves and approached two friends about forming a critique group. Before long, we had named ourselves after the Norse goddesses of fate and were picking happily at each others’ work.

I was truly fortunate in falling into a superb writing group on my first try, and from my dear friends and fellow writers I learned a lot about what it takes to have a successful critique group:

1. Start with the good things. It gives the meeting a good feel from the start and makes the criticism go down a lot more smoothly.

2. Understand that you don’t have to take your group’s suggestions. That’s all they are: suggestions! You know your book better than they do, and there’s no way you can make everybody perfectly happy anyway. That being said, don’t be the pompous snob of the group who refuses to believe that there’s anything wrong with your work. You’ve got to strike a balance between being true to your work and learning from others’ responses.

3. On the flip side, don’t get your knickers in a twist when others don’t do as you suggest. It’s their work, and they have the right to do as they like with it. You’re there to offer feedback, not to write their books for them.

4. Don’t try to defend your work from others’ suggestions or explain why so. The beauty of a critique group is that you’re getting feedback from people who don’t have every aspect of your world living inside their head. If you explain everything you know, that spoils the untainted reader factor.

5. Have fun. Be friends. Don’t worry about wringing the greatest use out of every last second, or even every last minute. Take time to find out what’s new with your fellow writers. Get off-topic. Enjoy a rousing but ultimately useless discussion of how humans came to drink cow milk. Celebrate successes. Celebrate rejection.
Make the group as much about support as it is about criticism.

What are your experiences with writing groups? Anything you’ve learned that makes them work?

Pitching a Perfect Strike

The first time I pitched my manuscript to an editor was one of those fall-flat-on-your-face, hide-in-your-closet-for-a-week, utterly mortifying disasters.

I was taking a class on children’s publishing from the esteemed Rick Walton, and an editor from a local publishing company was coming to guest lecture. We had been forewarned that this particular editor had in past classes asked students to pitch their manuscripts to him at the end of the class, so, of course, I had been spending my nights carefully crafting, crossing out, and rewriting the perfect pitch. This obsessive writing, on top of my two internships, homework, and capstone madness, meant that I didn’t exactly sleep for a couple of nights.

But the day came, I had worked out a beautiful hook, and I was going to blow them all away with my brilliance. Granted, lack of sleep had brought on a decent headache and exhaustion, but I could sleep after my novel had been accepted for publication on the spot.

As the day wore on, the headache turned into a low fever, the exhaustion turned into chills, and by the time the class rolled around at 5:30, it was pretty obvious that I was coming down with the flu. But there was no time to be sick! An editor was coming! A living, breathing editor! I could make it a couple more hours, right?

I didn’t hear most of the lecture. What little brainpower was left over from being wretchedly tired and ill was too busy stressing out about the pitch. And so, when the editor finished his spiel and opened up for pitches, I raised a trembling hand, desperate to just get it over with.

And realized I couldn’t remember a lick of my carefully-planned pitch.

And so, with the few remaining sparks left in my brain, I stumbled through a truly lame outline of my plot, petering out about halfway through because I had no energy left to dig myself in any deeper. This poor editor stared at me for about thirty seconds, no doubt trying to figure out how to be somewhat polite in his response. Finally, he said simply, “That sounds like every other fantasy novel I’ve ever read,” and called on somebody else.

Lessons learned:

1. Don’t try to impress an editor when you have the flu. It just won’t happen.

2. Practice. I had written and rewritten, but never once did I practice actually saying my pitch. And so, when the time came, it escaped me completely. I’ve learned since then to say it over and over so that when the time comes, giving your pitch is as much muscle memory as anything else.

3. Learn from rejection. I realized while walking home that night that there really was absolutely nothing unique about my novel. It was really depressing, but I went back to the drawing board and changed, added, twisted, and reorganized until my story was something new and exciting. Trying to pitch my book really opened my eyes to its biggest weaknesses. It was terribly tempting to just throw it away at that point; but instead, I cut it down to the roots and made it grow into something worth reading. (At least, I think it’s worth reading.)

Anybody else have wonderfully embarrassing pitch stories or advice on how to not have a wonderfully embarrassing pitch story?

Aller Anfang ist schwer

During my first semester in college, I finished my second novel. (My first was frankly too embarrassing to even be considered a true novel.) I read it, reread it, tweaked it, got feedback from my family, and then realized—I had no idea what to do next.

Several years, many classes, and three editing internships later, I still don’t have any golden rules of how to go about getting published. But I have learned an awful lot about the publishing industry, and I still hope to one day jump in it on the writer’s side, rather than the editor’s. Hence the blog: a place for me to gather and share what I’ve learned and am learning on my writing adventure, and hopefully a place where I can learn from others’ experiences.

And as for the name of the blog? Well, one thing I’ve learned for certain is that there are a lot of knocks when you’re trying to get published. You pour blood sweat and tears into every word on hundreds of pages, labor through the criticism of your writing group, and watch the rejection letters pile up. It’s easy to feel like you’re getting thrown off a cliff—but as we all know, “Bumbles bounce!”