Monday, August 29, 2011

On self-doubt, bravado, and revision goggles

Happy Monday, everyone! I had a rather interesting weekend. I was thankfully spared the worst of Irene - the wind and rain was pretty intense, but my electricity hung in there the entire time. And in further good news, my very first editorial letter arrived on Friday night!


You guys. It's the best feedback I've ever gotten. You'd think a critique that clocks in around 2,500 words would be at least a little soul-crushing, but this letter pointed out the story's shortcomings in an extremely helpful and constructive way. This is the sort of critique I strive to write for others: one that does not discourage the writer, but makes them excited to press on.

So I jumped to work on my own set of notes. I brainstormed ways to implement the suggestions made, and I made a list of scenes to add and extend, of which there will be quite a few. The best part about these revisions is that I get to explore entirely new facets of the worldbuilding, mythology, and characters, and I'm already having so much fun thinking it all through.

There is, however, one thing I kept putting off all weekend: the first reread of the MS. Finally, I forced myself to look at the first page...

"Oh God. This is terrible."

The revision goggles are a fearsome thing. I know it can't be as bad as I'm making it out to be, but once I put those goggles on, everything seems wrong. It's like one of those sci-fi disaster movies where the grizzled scientist (played by Bill Pullman) looks at the man-made calamity and grits, "We can't stop it. It's self-sustaining now."

This is where the doubt sets in, through no one's fault but my own. At that moment, I felt the disconnect between what I want my work to be and what it is right now. Can I really make it as amazing as it needs to be to succeed?

For a lot of writers, this is the tricky part. We need some of that self-doubt to keep ourselves grounded. But in order to succeed, we also need a little action hero-style bravado. We need to recognize our shortcomings, but truly believe that somehow, we're going to conquer them. As daunting as challenges can be, they can also be pretty exciting, right?

So for the record: my manuscript, as it is, is not as awesome as I want it to be. But I'm going to make it awesome. I'm going to work hard, and I'm going to put in as much time as it takes. And no matter how this works out, I'm going to be better for it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to set my cap at a jaunty angle and charge into battle. 

What challenges are you facing right now?

Friday, August 26, 2011

This is a disaster

This week is a disaster - quite literally! Not only did I get shaken up by my first earthquake on Tuesday, but this weekend, as I live in the DC Metro area, I will be in the path of Hurricane Irene.

My parents live in Florida, where I also went to high school, so this is nothing new. This will actually be my fifth named storm: I've been through Charlie, Frances, Jeanne, and Fay. I ended up losing power for EIGHT DAYS during Frances. And during one of those storms, either Frances or Jeanne, I was leaning against the glass-paneled door to get some light for reading... and then a tree fell on the house right behind me. (The windows didn't break, but damn that scared me!)

Some of my fellow East Coasters here probably haven't been though a hurricane before. I'm sure most of you are reading up on emergency preparations and evacuation routes. Agent extraordinaire Kathleen Ortiz tweeted some great tips, which I recommend you read. But if you're looking for some more tips on how to get through the storm, you've come to the right place!

- Clean out your bathtub and fill it with water. If the power goes out, you're going to need it! This also may provide you with additional hilarity if your cat gets too curious and falls in, like mine did during Fay. 

- Keep an eye on weather updates and such even after the storm is over. Some serious thunderstorms and tornadoes can trail along the outer bands.

- For those of you with gas stoves, stock up on dinners you can cook on the stove top, and buy a lighter if you don't have one yet. Gas stoves can be lit even if the power goes out. If your stove is electric, PB&Js are your best friend. 

- Use up as many perishables as possible tonight and tomorrow morning. It's an excuse to cook yourself a nice meal. Try not to open the fridge once the power goes out.

- Get your activities involving electricity out of the way while you can! Conserve the battery power on your laptop, iPod, phone, etc. Have an electricity-free activity at the ready, like knitting or a huge pile of books. And have a notebook and pen on hand, naturally.

- Have something comforting on hand. Storms are incredibly stressful. I plan to load up on some nice, non-perishable snacks. Also, wine. The wine is very important.

- And most importantly, stay indoors whenever you can. Be careful. And even if the storm only deals you a glancing blow, you will have been prepared.

Stay safe, everyone!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A good dilemma to have, I suppose

Good morning, all!

I have been trying to relax lately - I needed to recharge my brain and just spend some quality time reading other people's awesome writing. But now I'm too fired up to relax. I'm ready to charge ahead. Every time I think about the revisions on the horizon, I get a rush of nervousness and excitement. What new directions will I get to take the MS in? Do I have the talent to pull it off? Can I measure up to this agent's other clients?

It doesn't help that there aren't a lot of places to channel that energy. Work has been a lot of the same lately. I usually would compensate for that by working on another MS, but I don't want to start anything new when I know I'm going to revisit THE HUNGRY GROUND so soon. I like to keep a steady momentum going with my WIPs. Once I start a project, I really throw myself into it.

But I have a confession to make. Even before, when I was querying, I was having a lot of trouble starting a new project. Not because I didn't have any ideas. Because I have too freaking many.

There are a total of five projects I can tackle, all YA. Three are new - one is urban fantasy, one is horror, and one is straight-up fantasy with dark fairy tale undertones - and the other two are reboots of older fantasy projects. No one project really has an edge on the other, because there are things that draw me to each one, and there are parts of each one that I still need to figure out. And this is, of course, assuming that a new project doesn't suddenly appear and sweep me off my feet. Sigh. 

Since my revisions have not quite started in earnest yet, I want to take this time to fill in some of the gaps. I have some exercises I can do, but I'm curious: what would you all advise? Questionnaires? Flow-charts? Some kind of cage-match between all the protagonists? I'm welcome to all suggestions!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The day job

Last week, one of the coworkers I'm closest to left our workplace to pursue her dream job. We had a toast in the Big Boss' office, and everyone talked about how great it was that she was going on to do what she loved, and how great it was that we could be her springboard. I was happy for her - I still am - but also a little envious. If I were to tell them all what my dream is, I'd definitely get some looks.

It came out, though, as it always does. We were talking to one of our departing bosses, who asked me what my next step was. I stammered out my usual half-truths and backup plans, when my now-ex-coworker said, "She's going to be a writer."

I froze. But he just replied, "Hm. I feel like I should have known that," and changed the subject.

I've always been safely ensconced within arts communities until now, but DC is a different animal. Everyone is working to move up: to be a politician, or a diplomat, or to obtain some other shiny, important position in this complicated machine. Of course, since I work in the international field, there's a whole other set of acceptable dreams: study abroad adviser, interpreter, or a director for a cultural center. I could do those things, and I would enjoy them. I was drawn here, after all, through my love for my second language and second home in Tokyo.

I like my job, and I like my bosses, but being an assistant here has an unspoken expiration date. And when it comes to the next step, there's only one thing I really, really want - so much that it's hard to think of anything else.

When people at work find out that I write, they inevitably say something about how stressful or time-consuming it must be. And it can be, to an extent. But there are different kinds of stress. There's 'waiting on an elusive contact,' and there's 'diving into a difficult action scene.' There's 'dealing with an angry caller,' and there's 'writing a query to a top agent.' The former examples are stressful, full stop. But with the latter examples, I get that rush of adrenaline. It keeps me going.

A few weeks ago, I met with the agent who I'd be working with on my MS, and I was pretty sure I was going to die before I reached the office door. But it was the feeling I used to get when I did theater, and the feeling I used to get when I participated in Japanese speech contests. I'm nervous to the point where I start to think my heart will break my ribs, but it's one of the best feelings there is. I wouldn't get that feeling if I wasn't doing something I loved.

So when my coworkers talk about the next step in their careers, I smile. I know I'm chasing my dreams, too - even if they don't.

Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Happy WriteOnCon!

This is a thread for everyone to link me to their queries, synopses, and excerpts. I'd love to see everyone's work, and I will provide as much feedback if I can! Just because I can't participate in the agent free-for-all doesn't mean I can't have any fun. :D

And if you're unaware, there's a FREE WRITERS' CONFERENCE going on this week! What are you waiting for? Come play with us! There are "ninja agents" lurking in the forums, so by posting your queries and excerpts, you might get some valuable feedback... or maybe even catch an agent's eye!

So go forth and share your work. (And once you do, leave me a link in the comments!)

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Narrative "Kinks"

Happy Monday, all! I feel great today. It's amazing what a relaxing weekend (and a lot of sleep) will do for your mental health. And it's a beautiful day! I want go out and get a few minutes of fresh air, but since I'm literally the only assistant at my desk right now, I should probably stick around in case something catches on fire.

I feel like talking about things I love today, so I'm going to discuss my narrative kinks! And no, not those kinds of kinks. A narrative kink, by my definition, is a group of tropes and themes that, when I see them in a story, I will immediately fall for them. If they're done well enough, I will even excuse a lot of weaker points in the story. These are elements that separate like from love: I can objectively recognize a well-crafted story without any of these elements, but I am less likely to fall rabidly in love with it. (Unless, of course, that story gives me something new to obsess over.)

In any case, here are some favorites:

Atmospheric settings: Especially small towns surrounded by mountains, eerie snow-covered landscapes, the Deep South in summertime, Wonderland-esque upside-down worlds, and sprawling cities with a touch of the surreal. And if there's a ghost town or haunted house, I'm there.

Ordinary but otherworldly places: When seemingly ordinary locations are a connection to the fantastical - or maybe even a portal to the fantastical.

Fun with traditional gender roles: This is a big one for me, since I really enjoy writing it, too. I love when authors take expected gender roles and assign them to characters of the opposite sex. There are so many different, interesting ways to take this, but I'm a particular fan of girls who want to be detectives, princes, or knights in shining armor.

Loyalty: Of the undying variety. I'm interested in the darker sides of it as well, so long as the author doesn't pretend it's completely healthy.

Unusual surrogate family dynamics: I'm a sucker for a great group dynamic in general, but especially if they fill this role.

Parallelism and the past's influence on the present: It's so interesting to me how people and events can echo long after they're gone. I especially love a moment or line of dialogue that repeats itself, but changes the meaning ever so slightly in the process.

Themes of power, control, and self-confidence: Why hello there, everything I've ever written. I'm a big fan of power imbalances, battles of wills, and characters whose internal conflicts are mirrored by their external ones.

The point of no return: If there's a place the main character is never supposed to go, I want to go there. I especially love when authors take time to build these places up, so that when the main character finally ventures there, I'm holding my breath waiting to see what happens.

Supernatural mysteries: Especially if the supernatural elements are always a little in doubt, and especially if one of the atmospheric settings above is applied. The creepier the better.

Extremely capable main characters who are, nonetheless, awkward dorks: Bonus points for a lame pun or two.

Original mythology: A new take on a Greek myth or Japanese folklore would not go amiss, either.

Strong same-sex friendships that aren't torn apart by a love triangle at the midpoint of the story: It's sort of sad that I have to specify this. 

And many more I'm sure I'll think of later!

How about you? What are some of your narrative kinks?

Friday, August 12, 2011

An assistant's defense of The Monstrumologist

Simon and Schuster has discontinued The Monstrumologist series. The next book, Isle of Blood, will be the last one.


(I stole this macro from another post on the subject. It was too appropriate.)

Okay, life is still worth living, but! You guys! I love this series so much! I love it so much that the IT guys in my workplace are going to see that I did a Google image search on "big no" to try and find an appropriate picture for this post.

So why do I love this series so much? Because it's creepy as all get out, for one. The series follows Pellinore Warthop, a Monstrumologist (basically a mad scientist crossed with a monster hunter) who supposedly operated in New England about a century and a half ago. The protagonist, however, is his young assistant, Will Henry. His older self narrates the stories - he grew to the ripe old age of 130 and, judging by his writing style, became a big fan of H.P Lovecraft. The voice is rich and dark, beautiful but unflinching in its descriptions of the considerable gore Will sees on the job. The monsters are creatures right out of folklore, the product of many a late night campfire story.

Obviously, I am weak to all of those elements. But why else do I love these books? Because they are the most weirdly accurate depiction of assistant life I've ever read. I joke that they're my YA horror unauthorized biography. I feel like a lot of assistant protagonists fall into Cinderella stereotypes, but I could really relate to Will.

Of course, my bosses are kind and lovely people and not monster-hunting drama queens, so I can feel grateful for that, too. I love my job. I'm glad I don't have to go find any Wendigos.

One thing I'm happy to say is nothing like my life is that central relationship between Will and Pellinore. It is, however, one of my favorite things about the books. It is sometimes hilarious, sometimes weirdly heartwarming, and always really, really messed up. Pellinore in general grew on me hard in the second book, when it is revealed that he can actually be a complete failboat sometimes. The secondary characters are also interesting and well-drawn, even if when you meet some of them, you mutter to yourself, "Oh, you are so doomed."

In short, these are the gore-filled books of my heart. I love them like cake: New York cheesecake, with a caramel swirl. And I don't want that third book to be the end!

So if you want to win a complete set of the books, head over here and enter this contest to support the series. But in the meantime, I am going to head back to work to provide my bosses services of the indispensable kind.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Your writing speed

Good morning, all, and thank you for letting me vent yesterday. Now today, I'd like to hear from you, if you're feeling so inclined!

It's always interested me how some people can write the first draft of their MS in a matter of weeks, while some people take years. I don't think one way is better than the other, I just think it's a difference in the process. I like to sort of write the "first draft" in my head before I type it into the document, for example, so I'm not one of those uber-fast writers.

So I'd love to know: what's your writing speed? What's your record time for completing a story? And why do you think you work at the speed you do?

(And for the record, my quickest time is nine months from first chapter to final draft, and that was mostly because I wrote more than half of it within two months. I could probably go faster if I wrote full-time, but that's not exactly in the cards!)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Writing as catharsis

Hey there, everyone. Sorry to bring sadness to the blog today, but this is a good place to get things off my chest.

My beautiful, lovable, pain-in-the-ass family cat Holly passed away last week. I am doing better than I was, but it still hurts to think about her. I can distract myself for brief periods of time, but Holly is everywhere, in all my important memories. Every time I try to get away just for an hour or two, I always come back to her eventually.

But when it's too hard to confront things head-on, I have somewhere else to go: my fiction. I don't tend to base characters off of my own life, but when I reread my work, the emotions are recognizable as my own. I began Grandmaster Draw when I was living with a host family and forced to suppress who I was around them. I began The Hungry Ground when I was standing on the edge of adulthood and wondering if I was strong enough to do what I really loved. The situations are more thrilling and the stakes are always higher for my characters, but we both always come to a conclusion... even if it's not the same one.

About three or four years ago, I was working on updating one of my first story ideas from when I was younger: a fantasy/political intrigue type story in the vein of Megan Whalen Turner's books. I stopped midway when I realized the story needed another plot overhaul, but the main characters remain some of my favorite to work with ever.

One of the things I still do like a lot is the setting - a fictional country in the years following a bloody coup d'etat - and the effect it has on the characters. There's a constant undercurrent of longing for the things they've lost.

I've been thinking about that story a lot this week, and it's comforted me somewhat. Because when I was working on that story, it wasn't so much the tragic aspects that caught my attention. It was the ways in which the characters struggled to turn that tragedy into strength, and the way that someone's influence could echo long after they were gone.

I probably won't restart that story for a while - there's still a lot of plot to overhaul. But I think this week I'd like to write a few short stories with those characters.  I hope that in writing about it, I can exorcise some of those tangled-up emotions, and my memories can become comforting, not painful.

Thanks for letting me vent, guys. If you have a story about a time you used writing as catharsis, I'd love to hear it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Revision timeline

First of all, thank you all so much for coming to play with me yesterday! I had such a good time getting to talk to everyone. A special thanks to Katrina for the wonderful introduction!

And now, onto today's post...

I like to keep moving. I'm the type who prefers walking to work over sitting on a bus trapped in morning traffic. Sure, the bus might break out of the gridlock and get ahead of me, but it'll still feel like I got there faster.

When I'm not writing, I'm thinking about it. I'm outlining, or plotting, or sometimes I just walk around my neighborhood and let the scenes play out in my head. Revisions are the same way. I can make very big changes very quickly, so my instinct is to charge full speed ahead.

That works out for me sometimes. But as I wait on my revision notes, I know that's not something I want to do this time around. This agent's clients are amazing. I really want to step up my game and make these revisions the best they can possibly be. I want to think through every angle of each suggestion before I go ahead and make the changes.

It's daunting, but I don't think it's impossible. I mean, if I managed to turn myself from an impulse buyer to a frugal shopper, nothing's impossible! But it helps if I give myself steps to follow. Here are mine:

- Don't touch the manuscript until you get the notes! But maybe write up some supplemental material for the mythology and such.

- When you receive the notes, read them over carefully, then reread the MS with those notes in mind.

- Set aside two weeks to just think about the edits, and write up a set of notes of your own. Don't start the changes until this period is over.

- Once this period ends, begin changes, and hope that you didn't tear too much of your hair out in the interim. Give MS a couple more passes on your own, then ship it off to betas for their opinion.

- Do a victory dance. Background music to be determined.

Easy enough, right? In theory, anyway. I think it'll be so worth it in the long run.

What about you guys? What kind of reviser are you? What kind of reviser do you want to be?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Open question day!

Good morning, all! I am le tired, but hopefully the coffee will kick in soon.

I am opening the blog up to questions today! If you'd like to know something about my writing or my stories, awesome. And if you'd like to know my name, my quest, and my favorite color, that is also awesome.

Have at it!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My new "gig" at Afterglow!

Good morning, everyone! I have an awesome update on the Month of Reading All the Books. I have been invited to join the team of fabulous people over at the Afterglow Book Review blog, a recommendation-fest of epic proportions.

My first review, for Jennifer Donnelly's REVOLUTION, is up! I was lucky enough to score this from Ms. Donnelly's agent, and it did not disappoint in the slightest. Check out the review! And then check out the book, because it is the best.