Archive for December, 2009

Holiday Reading

December 26, 2009

It’s fun to read books set during the various seasons of the year.  This year I reread THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper. It’s set during an unexpectedly rough twelve days of Christmas in England.  If you had the bad fortune to see the film of  the same name and haven’t read the book, read this book.  Harry Potter wasn’t the first young English boy to have mystical powers appear on his eleventh birthday. 

Perhaps my favorite Christmas scene of all time came in Elizabeth Marie Pope’s THE SHERWOOD RING.  Other sections of this ghost story featuring characters from the Revolutionary War take place at other  points in the year.  But this faceoff between British officer Peaceable Sherwood and Barbara Grahame is clever and memorable.  Don’t judge this book by its cover.


Uaou! Che bella!

December 23, 2009

My blog stats showed an unusual search for the Italian phrase in the post’s title.   But it looked like a phrase straight from DEFENDING IRENE, so I’m going to give a short pronunciation guide. Uaou is like “Wow” with a bit more of the “oo” sound on each end.  Che sounds quite a bit like “kay” but cut it much shorter.  There’s only the long A sound.  Leave off the long E at the end.  Bella is quite a bit like “”bell-lah,” but you can almost shift it to “bayl-la”. 

By the way, if any teachers or students would like any help with the pronunciations in DEFENDING IRENE or SAVING THE GRIFFIN, plese send a comment to this post.  I have to okay all comments, so it will pop up on my email.

Buon Natale a tutti!  (Good Christmas to all!)

Research all Finished?

December 20, 2009

I had left open our last day in Egypt just in case I needed to go back and do any additional research, but it looked like it was complete.  I had visited all the places that my characters had: Giza, Abusir, Ma’adi, the Metro, the Khan al-Khalili, and Al Ahzar park.  My husband, the man in charge of handling the digital camera, had taken hundreds of pictures.   So my sister Liz suggested that we go out to visit her friend Margaret, who had a house on the west bank of the Nile not too far from Abusir.  In addition to meeting one of Liz’s best friends, I knew that I’d get a chance to drive by the pyramids again.

I was still wondering just a little about one of my major scenes, so I asked Margaret about some of my travel choices for my characters.  She set me straight on what my three young characters would do.  I was horrifed because this pretty much destroyed my original plan.  Plus, I didn’t have good visuals and wasn’t sure how I could get them.  But Margaret also had a solution, which entailed paying to get into the Saqqara country club and then buying some drinks before we sauntered out to my real destination: the desert.   You can’t just get on it just anywhere–at least not between Giza and Saqqara.  Private property lies between the desert and the public roads. 

This was the first time that I actually beat my characters to a location.  They had been everywhere else first.

A wall of packed sand holds back the Western Desert. A wire fence on top of deters any trespassers.

There's a narrow line separating the the cultivation from the desert. From left to right: Margaret, Liz, Kristin. Neferirkare's 5th dynasty pyramid of Abusir is above Margaret's head.

We walked out through the gate and headed south towards Abusir.  We walked for a little while, but it was really too late in the afternoon to go any farther, especially since Margaret was recovering from surgery. But I had what I needed. 

Kurt and I did take a quick climb up the extremely steep hill shown in the first picture.   And here’s a better view of power lines and pyramids.  I knew that juxtaposition would make it into the book. 

Abusir seen from the South. Pyramids from left to right: Sahure, Nyuserra, Neferikare

While I tweaked a lot of scenes based on my experiences in Egypt and the photographs that Kurt took, I would say that this Friday afternoon triggered the biggest changes.  In fact, I would say that more than six chapters were heavily impacted.  I knew it would take a lot of work to make the changes.  What I had before would have technically worked, but my expat character was a savvy kid who knew how to work his local system.  I might have been able to fool most people, but I wanted to also make the expats in Maadi nod their heads and say, “It could have happened just like that.”  

So here’s a big thanks to Kurt, Liz and Margaret!

Forward Progress

December 17, 2009

Goals are good things.  My editor established one goal when she gave me a due date for the mystery revision: February 15.  But it was pretty clear that she’d like to have it sooner, so I have a private goal of getting it out the door by the end of the third week in January.  I also have a more immediate goal.  I’d like to have finished a rough recasting of the scenes by the week after Christmas.  My college-age daughters will be back for winter break.  It would be good to have them check the voice and word choice.  

As important as it is to push forward, I did wind up going back to the first chapter one more time this morning.  Two of my in-person critique groups have reviewed it in the past week or so.  With their help, I managed to cut a bit of fat out of the first chapter.  Some of the facts and characters will need to be stitched into the book later, but first chapters need to clip along and hold the interest of the readers.  Roughly half of my writer friends felt things really started to clip along at the middle of page five.  The rest had their attention caught earlier.  So I did manage to cut out half a page so that the really high stakes of this novel became apparent by the bottom of page 4. 

Thank goodness for great critique groups.  They let you know exactly what is actually on the page and make solid recommendations for what should be added or taken away.   Here’s how Stephen King recommended handling criticism from ten or so people in the 1990 version of THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK:

“…if a lot of peope are telling you something is wrong with your piece it is.    If seven or eight of them are hitting o that same thing, I’d stll suggest changing it.  But if everyone–or even most everyone–is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.”

In Celebration of Agent Appreciation Day

December 11, 2009

I found out this morning that today is Agent Appreciation Day.  I feel truly blessed to be represented by Erin Murphy, who is kind, frank, thoughtful, accessible and funny.  Below, I’m pasting in the email that I sent out to writer friends after my unexpected pitch session with her:   

So I walked into the SCBWI conference this morning to check in. The woman found me on their list, drew a line through my name and said, “And here’s your agent pitch time.”

“I didn’t get a spot on the agent pitch lottery,” I said.

“Yes, you did,” she assured me.

“I didn’t get an email,” I said with panic and delight rising up like a double helix.

“Really? That’s strange.”

We came to the conclusion then that my spam filter might have eaten it. But I’m beginning to think that I could have deleted it without looking at it if I’d received an email that said “lottery winner” in the subject line.

I had decided to dress down for this conference, nice jeans and a sweater. And I was going to be facing Erin Murphy? How unprofessional. Even worse, I hadn’t prepared a pitch for her because I didn’t think I’d won the lottery. Urghh. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an odd mix of horror and happiness before that moment.

I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot when I talked to her, so I tried to reconstruct my query letter for the mermaid story. She gave the first talk of the day. I learned that she was looking for authors and not just projects. So I quickly pulled together some notes on STAND-IN FOR MURDER and THE DONYA’S REVENGE.

My time came. I introduced myself and apologized for my attire. She was very nice about it. I asked how she liked to go about these things, and she said that it was more like a conversation than an interview.

Well, best foot forward. I hauled out the GRIFFIN, showed him off. We talked a little bit about Peachtree and how much I liked working with Lisa. Then I noted that my other fantasies were probably too far out for Peachtree since they’re not a fantasy house.

“So you’re looking for another publisher then?” Erin asked.

I agreed. From there, I babbled on about the Italian experience, Magari, the Cinque Terre, and read the pitch for the mermaid plot. I also wound up reading what I had for STAND-IN FOR MURDER. I didn’t touch on THE DONYA’S REVENGE other than the fact that I’d written it and gotten the “Impressive writing. Confusing plot,” response.

And what happened? She offered to look at the mermaid story and told me to mention my other work in my letter. She meets a lot of people and probably needs reminders about what she said to whom.

Stand-in for Murder

December 11, 2009

It’s not a 100% certainty, but it looks like my YA mystery will be released in the fall of 2010 with the title of STAND-IN FOR MURDER.  This morning, I finished the preliminary revisions to the first three chapters.  I’m sure that they’ll need some polishing, but I want to wrap up a draft by Christmas vacation so that my girls can take a look and give me some feedback on language.  This is what my husband would call “a stretch goal.”  That means it’s ambitious and tough to achieve.  But I’m feeling some momentum building as I recast some scenes and create others from scratch.

Dreaming of Egypt

December 11, 2009

Today, fifty mile an hour winds whipped the snow past my windows.  But a year ago this week, I was in Egypt to research a possible sequel to SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  The wheels of publishing often turn more slowly than the wheels of justice for many writers like me, so I’m patiently waiting for word from my editor on its fate.  But today, I couldn’t help but click through my CD of photos from my trip. 

Here are two pyramid pictures from Abusir.  The first one is the east face of Neferirkare’s fourth dynasty pyramid. 


Another Abusir Pyramid with those of Giza in the distance on the right. A front swirled through the day before our pyramid trip, so the visibility was fabulous. 

It was possible to see the cliffs rising on the far side of the Nile River valley.

Last year at this time Abusir was closed to the public.  But in Egypt, it is possible to work around that.  I will never forget clambering over a 4300-year-old wall to visit the mastaba of Ptahshepses.

Researching Contemporary Fiction

December 8, 2009

On my instructor’s brochure for the Institute of Children’s Literature,  I have the following quote:

“Don’t just write what you know.  Write what you care about.  Pursue the subjects that fascinate you, and your passion will shine through to the reader.”

Yeah.  This recommendation does sound a bit highflown, but I believe in it completely.   I do write the things that I know about firsthand, of course. My first short story sale to HIGHLIGHTS blended a few events at a junior high track meet, and my first published novel was set in the Italian town where I lived for three and a half years.  But while I knew quite a bit about Merano, I had a lot to learn about soccer.  In order to make the sports action authentic, I talked to players, attended practices and went to games.  I got most of the things right, but did mess up on one thing.  (Oh, the pain!)

Now I’m in the middle of writing another contemporary novel, a YA mystery.  I love having the information of the internet at my fingertips.  In the last few days, I’ve checked out prom tuxedos, fancy St. Louis Restaurants, Victorian porches, white climbing roses, and sunrooms in order to make things as lively and authentic as possible.

Recasting Scenes

December 4, 2009

No, recasting a scene doesn’t mean trying it again with different personnel.  It’s about change the shape of events.  Stories aren’t “cast in stone” until they’re sent to the printers. 

My editor suggested that I recast some of the events of the third chapter of my YA novel with respect to interactions and emotions.  And when I studied her analysis of what was going on, I knew that her emotional response was right on the money.

I also had some work to do on one of the love interests in the book.  I liked him a lot, but some of the publisher’s in-house readers thought he was a bit of a creep.  A creep!  That clearly had to be fixed.  

Darcy Pattison, the author of several picture books and the Novel Metamorphosis revision workbook  has saidsomething along the lines of how you actually have two books when you finish a project: the one on your hard-drive and the one in your head.  Part of the editorial process is to make these two visions for the project line up. 

Chapter 3 will need more tweaking, but I think I’ve put things onto the right glide path now.

Falling into a Classic Writer’s Trap

December 2, 2009

A friend and fellow author gave me some good feedback on the first chapter of my mystery.  Among other things, she noted that I was throwing a lot of character’s names at her, so she was having a tough time keeping track of everyone.  I looked through things.  She was right.  I’d fallen into one of the classic writer’s traps for first chapters: too many characters thrown at the reader in too little time.

And yes, I’m the writing instructor who will preach to her students about carefully introducing characters with scenes so that they’ll be memorable.  In short stories, in fact, I do my best to limit the cast to just a few people so that it’s very easy for everyone to keep track of my characters.  So I’ll have to go back and put people in context a bit better even if I find it necessary to leave them in.  If necessary, I’ll nudge the conversation in slightly different directions.  But I’m also moving forward into Chapter 2.  After all, Chapter 1 will need a re-edit after I’ve gone all the way through my mystery, so there’s no point in sewing things up too tightly.