Thursday, March 20, 2008

I Love Copy Editors

I've been carrying around my JEMMA HARTMAN manuscript for the last four days, pulling it out of its padded envelope and working on it in very odd places including a doctor's waiting room, the library, my daughter's basketball game, my son's volleyball game, and even while getting a pedicure. I could never do that if I was writing or revising. That takes way too much brain power and--for me anyway--silence. But I'm working on the copy editing, and that is fun, fun, fun!

You see, copy editing is really done by the copy editor. All I have to do is go through all the changes and ok them or alter them. That's easy work. But there are those pesky little questions the copy editor asks. For example: Why do the girls go to breakfast in their pajamas? (Answer: I don't know. They just do.) And...Is it really possible for Jemma to wake up to birds in late summer when birdsong is rarer? (Answer: Um, good question. Let me look that up on the web.) And... Wouldn't the girls come watch their friends in the sailing race? (Answer: Not if that means I have to rewrite an entire scene!)

But seriously, the copy editor is an amazing creature. She catches everything! Like calling a girl Tracey on one page and Tracy (no E) about a hundred pages later. Or in JULIA'S KITCHEN, the copy editor noticed I had Thunder the kitten eating from a can of tuna on one page and out of a bowl on another. Little mistakes like these are really hard for me to find because I am way too close to the story. If a copy editor hadn't called them to my attention, they'd be in my book forever. Ack!

Have you had a copy editor save you from making a dumb mistake? Or did something get by the editing process, and now you have to look at that glaring misstep every time you open your book? If so, leave me a comment. I'd love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cheating on my Novel

One of the things Richard Peck said at the best ever writing retreat was that you shouldn't jump to another project if you are having trouble with your current project. That makes a ton of sense, because that other project will always look easier from a distance. You think you can write a quick picture book or short story and you'll come back to the novel. You swear you'll come back! But it is NEVER quick or easy to write a picture book or short story. And now you've lost momentum on your novel. Bad idea!

Another thing he said (after hearing me read from my current work-in-progress and after I confessed to him why I was worried about actually writing it) was this:
"You will finish this book and it will be a whole new chapter in your life."

Wow! When Richard Peck says something like that, it makes an impact. And so I made a commitment to this new baby of mine. I came up with a title that fits, and I figured out how it will end (in a broad sort of sense), and I even wrote a sketchy synopsis to help guide me on my way.

But then I got a call from an editor who happens to also be an author whom I really admire. She asked me if I might want to write a short story for her magazine. With Richard's voice in my head, I told her I'd love to write the story, but I'd have to first finish the draft of my new novel. So far, so good. Tempted, but I didn't stray.

Then she sent me a bunch of her magazines so I could get a feel for the stories they publish. I waited a whole day until I broke down and read them. Then I happened to take a shower, and everyone knows the best ideas come to you in the shower. So there I was, washing my hair, when an idea for a short story popped into my head. I told myself it would wait. I would write the story after the novel. After the novel! But first I would jot down a few sentences... just so I wouldn't forget.

Two pages later, I realized I was totally cheating on my novel with this new short story. I'm a children's lit adulterer! Ack!

What to do? What to do? Richard Peck said something else at the workshop. He told us how his book A Long Way from Chicago started with a request from an editor for a short story. Hmmm... Maybe it's okay to write this short story now. I swear I'll come back to my novel! I swear!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Deconstructing a Picture Book

I believe the best way to learn to write is to read like a writer. So when I find a book to love, I analyze it to see how the author crafted it. The Illinois chapter of SCBWI has a fabulous on-line newsletter called The Prairie Wind. It comes out four times a year, and I write a column for it called Book Look: Books That Make You Go "Oh!" (That "oh" is supposed to be both a light bulb moment, excitement, and awe all rolled into one.)

For this issue, I analyzed the structure of Fancy Nancy, by Jane O'Connor. If you are an aspiring picture book author, you might find my column helpful.

There are many terrific articles in the Prairie Wind. Be sure to read them all! And if you've read a book that made you go oh, please tell me about it in the comments. Thanks!

Monday, March 03, 2008

A Weekend with Richard Peck

Richard Peck is a treasure. I hadn't realized that until this weekend. Sure, I respected him as an author, and I admired his work. Who wouldn't respect a man who created the hilarious character of Grandma Dowdel and won both a Newbery Honor and Medal for her? But the reason I signed up for SCBWI-Illinois' weekend writing retreat facilitated by Richard Peck was not because of Grandma Dowdel. It was because of one of my critique partners, Carol Grannick. Carol is a Richard Peck uber-fan. She reads and re-reads his books all the time. She thinks of Richard the way I think of Judy Blume. And so I had to go. Our whole critique group had to go. And what a weekend we had! Here are just a few of the gems Richard gave us:

On craft...

  • If you see an adverb, shoot.

  • Delete 'There was' at the beginning of your sentences.

  • Remove 'as if' from your manuscript.

  • The middle of the novel is either rising of falling. There are no plateaus. Make it high - like a circus tent pole.

  • The first page of your book is its table of contents. All the clues and plot elements should be there.
On process...

  • Stand up and act out your scenes.

  • When you're stuck, go back and retype a page from before. Edit it. Remove the adverbs. Cut twenty more words. Whatever you do, don't leave the desk.

  • At the end, throw away the first chapter. Rewrite it.

  • Finally, examine your opening line. Is it the best you can do?

On being a writer...

  • Writing fiction is the struggle to give life a shape.

  • Childhood is a jungle, not a garden.

  • We're writers. We can inhabit other people's space.

  • Nobody a writer loves is ever dead.

Richard also surprised and honored us by reading a chapter from his work-in-progress, and believe it or not, it is a new book featuring Grandma Dowdel! What a treat!

I will forevermore hear Richard's encouraging, yet discerning, voice in my head as I write. (I can hear him now, but I keep telling myself this is just a blog, it doesn't have to be perfect!)

Here is Carol presenting Richard with a Grandma Dowdel for President campaign button!

And here's our critique group at dinner Saturday night.

Jenny Meyerhoff, Carol Grannick

Me, and Ellen Reagan

Pictures from Prairie Junior High

The reason I couldn't load my pictures from my school visit last week at Prairie Junior High? When I plugged my camera into my computer, I unplugged this little thing that was in the usb port next to it. Turns out, that little thing made the wireless mouse work. :-)

So, without further ado...

This is the display near the entrance to the library.

This is a closeup of the nice offer the kids had...

And here I am with the mastermind behind it all... Camille Hogan, Media Specialist!