Math for Writers

One year, I set a really stern goal for pitching freelance stories—something like 20 a month. And danged if I didn’t see a huge upsurge in responses (positive ones!) to my queries.

That’s a pretty simple equation:

more queries = more work

After the magazine I edited folded about 18 months ago, I revisited my previous system, which had somehow faded away. (Query writing is, along with dusting, searching for spider eggs, and turning the compost pile, way down at the bottom of my list of Favorite Things To Do.) This time, I upped it to 10 queries a week. And danged if I didn’t see an almost miraculous response to my pitches—breaking into new markets right and left, getting personal notes from major editors of major magazines, and landing the highest-paid assignment ever. So new equation:

way more queries = way more work

But, as I read in one of the positive thinking books (the granddaddy, in fact: The Power of Positive Thinking), “life is just so daily.” Things happen. And so my equation evolved, self-complicating in ways my algebra-challenged mind could scarcely keep up with.

way more queries + angst-making part-time freelance gig = more money + more cranky

angst-making part-time freelance gig + DIY kitchen remodel – any queries at all = some guilt about freelance slackery + a thrill of taking advantage of working at home

angst-making part-time freelance gig + DIY kitchen remodel expenses = ever increasing anxiety + diminishing funds

parent’s heart attack + month-long hospital stay + open-heart surgery + angst-making part-time freelance gig – DIY kitchen remodel = ??!!***!

Parent’s recovery at my house + loss of angst-making freelance gig = groundwork for my own personal heart attack (especially since I may now be genetically predisposed to one. Thanks, Mom!)

return to freelancing + renewed focus on fiction project (revision + attendance at multiple conferences + meetings with critique partner) = more serenity than I’ve experienced in quiiiite a while (even when + college visits with high school senior)

So: back to the basics.

more queries = more work

more writing = more manuscript pages

more focus = more results

Math was never my favorite—but these are equations even I can understand.

Site Meter

Best Things I Heard at the Best-Ever SCBWI Conference

After a year’s hiatus, this weekend I returned to the SCBWI annual conference. Due to a combination of absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder and the evidently frenetic (and fruitful) planning that went into the fortieth anniversary conference, I came away feeling not only refreshed and invigorated, not only newly inspired to continue a current project, revise an existing project, and start a new project that—just last Thursday—had barely been a twinkle in my eye... but I also feel like I am a better person. (Will I behave like a better person? Well, probably for a good chunk of this week, at least.)

Because of the overwhelming spectacularosity of the whole thing, I may have to extend my traditional Best Things I Heard at the SCBWI Summer Conference into multiple posts. Fair warning.

But anyway, here’s the first installment.

“Obssession can be tiring.” –Bruce Coville

I didn’t even note why he said this—I was laughing too hard. As a veteran obsessor, I can assure you that it’s true.

“I enjoy chaos.” –Donna Jo Napoli

I am a big fan of Donna Jo Napoli’s work. Not only is it wonderful to read—it’s exactly the sort of thing I like to write (retellings and re-imaginings of fairy tales). But the real person far exceeded my daydreams about her. In her workshop about amping up tension in a manuscript—a topic where I can use a little amping myself—I found myself nearly in tears, I was laughing so hard. Because she is so soft-spoken and has such a sweet face, it is just hysterical to hear her make remarks like, “Dying, for most of us, sucks.” Of, “If you knew the hurricane was coming, that could be your opportunity [for murder]. What an amazingly wonderful thing.” Or “Okay, good—because I want them to be able to be electrocuted. ... Don’t you?”

“If I’m writing a sexy scene and I’m not turned on, it’s not working.” –Judy Blume. Yes, the Judy Blume.

Fodder for thought for anyone who’s ever felt embarrassed as they struggled to write a love scene. Or any other kind.

“Spend a large part of your time out of context.” –Norton Juster. Yes, the Norton Juster.

Most of my time is spent out of context, trying relentlessly to puzzle things out. (See Bruce Coville re: obssession.)

So I took this comment to heart. It’s easy to get too wrapped up in your plot, or in your worries re: the publishing industry, or your characters’ motivations. This is a business as well as an art—but isn’t it also supposed to be fun? And if we’re not playing, if we don’t at least briefly depart the land of Context to explore new territory, where’s the fun?

Another favorite NJ remark, uttered while caressing the cover of my childhood copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, having just autographed it: “This is an old one!”

“All you have is your taste in publishing.” –Brenda Bowen

A point that can’t be reiterated too often. Each person in the process—agent, editor, reviewer, critique partner—is just one person. The challenge is knowing how much confidence your  work merits. JK Rowling and Stephen King both received many rejection slips before selling their first novels; their confidence endured. Is your manuscript at the level of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone or Carrie?

Hatchet was bounced three times—rejected three times... It must really sting.” –Gary Paulsen

It’s a pity that I was so caught up in Gary Paulsen’s keynote speech that I was unable to take many notes. From a harrowing childhood during which he voluntarily lived in the Minnesota woods in winter rather than risk staying with his parents (his mother once tried to stab him), to the realization that he had to write—which led to quitting his job, divorcing his wife, and moving to Hollywood—to a 20-book contract that brought him no money, to riches that he eventually earned... and then lost, to the Iditarod, the moose that chipped his tooth, and the comparative protein merits of beaver, rabbit, venison, and beef—he was remarkable. (But his talk was about writing, too—I swear!)

Life is complicated, confusing at times. Not everything has a rosy ending. But let there be a ray of hope.” –Beverly Horowitz

Every time I listen to this editor speak—with her combination of professional knowledge and maternal attitude—I yearn to work with her.

Interesting side note: at least three speakers that I heard said that same phrase—“Life is complicated”—at this year’s conference. I guess 2009-10 has been a doozy for more people than little ol’ me.

“If you’re not risking, you’re not writing.”—Bruce Coville

This quote is from a different presentation—plus it’s just so pithy and wonderful, I can’t help but quote Bruce Coville twice.

Along those same lines:

Writing forces you to be alive—and being alive can really, really hurt. To write is to terrorize yourself.” –Laurie Halse Anderson

I was unable to squeeze into my saved seat at Anderson’s workshop because I’d been having a manuscript critique, and by the time I arrived the back of the room was so crammed with sitters and standers that I couldn’t clamber to the empty chair waiting for me. Thank God she had the closing keynote, so I could enjoy some of her insights and experiences firsthand, instead of from davidbeall ’s careful notes!

Site Meter

We're in Trouble Now!

Of course, a protagonist has to get in trouble. He (or she) has to bump up against Big Problems. She (or he) has to face Mind-Crushing Challenges. If the protagonist does not have these experiences, he-she-it is likely to give the reader (or viewer, in the case of my daughter, who chronically fast forwards through scenes of movies that even seem to hint at becoming embarrassing for the protagonist—much less terrifying and/ or disgusting) a pretty dang bland experience.

This I know. This I even believe to be true. And yet it has proven incredibly difficult for me to put into practice.

I never set up a plot problem so big that I can’t immediately see the way out of it (and no doubt, the reader can see just as clearly!). I think at some not-too-deep level, I’m worried I won’t be able to concoct a way out—and neither will my character.

But that all changes today. Today, my heroine loses her mentor. And the man she loves. And she finds herself the quarry of not one, but two hunters. Two hunters that she will have to confront in a decisive fashion, despite being absolutely on her own and in a weakened condition. Plus she still has to figure out what to do next.

And you know what? I think we can handle it.

Site Meter

Here's to You, Laura Ingalls

My clever and crafty husband is building a gated-arbor-and-picket-fence intended not only to delight my eyes, but to keep the surprisingly-Tigger-like dog out of the vegetable beds. As he was connecting the archways to the pressure-treated posts, he discovered that the heavy rains had actually made an impact on the rocky, clay-y, so-called dirt in which the posts had been anchored.

One post had shifted just enough that the arch wouldn’t correctly connect to it... unless it were shifted many inches closer to its partner post. (Each post was already connected to rails that were connected to posts that were bolted into concrete brick walls. It was not a great time to discover a measurement discrepancy.)

“I can lean on it,” I said.

And I did. I leaned on the post—almost enough. I leaned some more—nearly there.

“You know, I can—”

“No, no,” I interrupted. “I can push harder.”

And by God, I did. When we heard the sudden shocking snap, I thought maybe I’d broken the post—but no. Instead, I ripped the bolts OUT OF THE CONCRETE WALL.

The first thought that entered my mind was—not anxiety over my husband’s reaction (he wasn’t even upset, if you can believe that—and he’s since fixed my damage and installed half the pickets for the fence)—but a phrase from Little Town on the Prairie, in the scene where Miss Wilder is being hard on Laura’s little sister, and Laura volunteers to rock a schoolbench on little Carrie’s behalf (it’s a long story). And by God, Laura rocks that bench, ripping out the bolts that had formerly anchored it to the floor.

“Not for nothing did Pa always say she was as strong as a little French horse.” It may not be a verbatim quote, but it’s pretty dang close—and it’s been lurking in my head since I first read the Little House books in fourth grade.

What literary phrases hang around your mind and jump out at you unexpectedly?

Site Meter

The Good, the Bad, and the Cranky

First, the Bad:

This morning I came across a freelancers' message board entry that nearly forced the coffee right out of my mouth. I paraphrase to protect the ignorant:

“Any tips for first-timers? After nearly a decade in a different field, I’ve decided to follow my bliss and write. All I need to do now is figure out how to make some money at it.”

Let’s just sit here for a moment and admire the glow from that little bit of brilliance.

Moving on.

The Good:

In his blog, Ed Yong gives color, life, drama! to the freelance writing process. Take a look and tell me this isn’t darn accurate. (Plus totally hilarious.)

The Cranky.

That’s me. Too much time surfing, too many poorly written, pointless pieces of so-called “commentary," too many self-satisfied voices screeching through the blogosphere. (On the other hand, I’ve perhaps been spoiled by the focus of my LiveJournal friends. Drat you, you thoughtful purveyors of thought, you!)

Site Meter

Diana Wynne Jones

I was just thinking about Diana Wynne Jones the other day. I think about her with some regularity, as she’s one of my favorite writers and a close personal friend (inside my head, anyway).

Sometimes I think about the anecdote I read, about the time she tried to serve her sons galoshes at tea-time, because she’d been working on a story and had absent-mindedly put footwear in the oven instead of chicken fingers or whatnot.

Sometimes I think about which book of hers to re-read: Hexwood, a sort of sci-fi fantasy romance mystery in which King Arthur makes an appearance? One of the hilarious Chrestomanci books (with that character, DWJ practically invented the concept of “metrosexual”)? Archer’s Goon, which starts out as a fantasy and turns into sci-fi and has a charming and completely unexpected romantic twist (that doesn’t even belong to the protagonist)?

And sometimes I think how fabulous it will be when I send her my soon-to-be-published fantasy novel for a back-cover blurb. And how we’ll chat about writing and publishing and which imaginary universe is the most fun, the most dangerous, the most double-takey.

So you can imagine my devastation when I read her obituary earlier today. How could she go and do a silly thing like die before we had a chance to hang out?

When I first joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Joan Aiken was listed in the members directory. With contact information. Joan Aiken. I had big daydreams then, too, of dropping her a line, gradually building a friendship, occasionally hopping across the pond to get together for tea. And then she pulled the same kind of stunt, and quit the stage before I had a chance to act on my fanboy inclination.

Well, that does it. I’m not going to let it happen to me again. Next time I practically worship a writer, I’m just going to come right out and let them know.

How about you? How you written a fan letter lately?  

Site Meter


The Joys of Badness

I often enjoy enjoying the badness of something, when a truly horrible something comes upon me unexpectedly—like when I go to a movie I thought would actually be good, and it’s far, far from it. (For more on this, check out my homage to “The Wicker Man.”)

But when I’m working, I actually far prefer to enjoy enjoying the goodness of stuff. Like sources that are reliable.

Yesterday, in the course of researching Merlin for a project I’m working on, I tripped over a resource that I thought would be good, but which was actually ridiculously dreadful—and I didn’t mind a bit. It was so bad, it was fabulous. It was so asinine, I thought about photocopying a few pages just to keep them around for dreary days when I need a laugh.

It starts off with a kick, when the author declares that he discovered the true identity of the historical Arthur (historians seem to agree that there are several figures who might have been the inspiration for the Arthur of legend)—and then the historical Merlin. (Is the writer a historian? No. Just a genius, he says modestly.)

He gets attitudier and attitudier with every page of the introduction. By the time I hit Chapter 1, I was starting to feel cranky. The author bashes ancient historians and writers like Malory for their flights of fancy (yet, all too soon, he reveals that he's not above taking a few flights himself). He believes that he has made discovers that modern historians have simply ignored. His cleverer-than-thou stance soon made me want to fling a flagon of mead in his face.

But that was before things really got rolling.

While writing of Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow and (according to the author) Merlin’s arch-enemy, the author discusses at some length the legend of Mungo’s virgin birth... and what the author thinks is the truth behind it. He refers to other historical sources to deduce the name of Mungo’s father, and abridges a tale that the man dressed as a woman and then had his way with Mungo’s mother, resulting in the saint’s conception.

“What trick would work in these circumstances?” the author writes. “A literal reading makes no sense. The evidence suggests that Ewen did not dress as a woman to have sex with Taneu; Ewen dressed as a woman and had sex with Taneu. That is, Ewan [sic] dressing as a woman was not a ruse; it was simply something that he did.”

He then launches into a synopsis of historic transvestitism. (Seriously! He does!)
That was when I knew I was in for the long haul—and the author did not disappoint. Later, in a section that dwells at some length on Merlin’s twin sister, a then-famous, now-forgotten queen, he deduces that the queen’s husband, the king, was gay.

“This, I emphasise,” he writes, “is speculative.”

And then he speculates for a page and a half.

“Just as Mungo’s father had possibly been a gay man who was bound to play the part of a prince and marry a neighbouring princess, so too was [the king] bound to marry [the queen] although in a sexual conection this may not have been entirely to his taste. ...
“Obviously,” he goes on, “there is no direct evidence that [the king] was gay.”

But if there’s no evidence, why in the name of all that’s literary is he going on about it?

This book is stunning—not because of its focus on sex. (Despite these stellar examples, the nearly 400-page book doesn’t focus on the sexual habits—real or imagined—of Arthurian figures; but it could have been forgiven if it did. Lancelot and Guinevere? Arthur’s own conception as the result of a deception? The legends are a virtual soap opera.)

It’s stunning because the author, feeling pretty dang proud of himself, has drawn conclusions that have no basis. It’s stunning because it’s like a high school term paper written by a student who hasn’t yet learned how to select quotes to support an argument. It’s stunning because a major house published this piece of tripe (part of a three-book look at Arthuriana), and apparently did not mean it to be a satire.

It’s stunning because I haven’t laughed that hard in a while. And definitely not while I’m working.

Site Meter


The new bookshelves. One of a pair. Joining our six other bookshelves. And now, at long last, the 12 boxes of cold and lonely books that had been shivering in the garage for a year and a half are safely tucked in the house with the rest of the family.

Sigh... this is living.

Site Meter

(no subject)

Last night we went to the House of Blues to enjoy the song stylings of Orange County “lounge legend” Phil Shane—who did not disappoint. (Beatles! Neil Diamond! Tom Jones! And his original—and fabulous—composition “Love on the Internet!”)

It was just the kind of break from real life that I needed. (No taxes. No underemployment. No queries. Just people enjoying enjoyable songs performed by a consummate performer totally enjoying performing.)

Just one little bit of deep thought marred the evening, and it came to me courtesy of Phil’s opening act, The Kid and Nic Show.

The jazzy song was inspired by something Nic’s Louisiana aunt once said. I tried really hard to remember exactly how it went, so naturally I completely forgot the exact words. But here’s the gist.

“Where you are, there you is. The destination—well, it looks like this.”


Thinking, dreaming, and planning for a wonderful future is fine. And the planning part is probably even vital. But it’s easy for me to lose sight of the present—to forget the mountains I already hiked to get to this vantage point—in my eagerness to scale the next peak and have an unencumbered view. Because the destination—well, it looks like this.

Site Meter


The Next Generation

Last week I was a guest speaker in a high school journalism class. Beginning and advanced journalism students in all levels of high school filled the jam, jam packed room (because I don’t wear my glasses when I make presentations [that way the audience is just a giant blur, and much less nerve-wracking], I didn’t even notice there were half-a-dozen students sitting around the meeting table on the far side of the classroom until my presentation was nearly over!).

I’ve spoken to high school groups before, mostly for Career Day—but never have I had such an attentive and articulate audience. The editor-in-chief came up to say hi before I began my talk, and asked me a bit about the newspaper I edit. I thought we were just chatting, but then she introduced me to the class and threw in some of the snippets she’d picked up from me. (Now that’s an interviewer!)

I started out the way I usually do, explaining that even though I’d always planned on an impressive literary career, I never intended to write nonfiction (being, in my younger years, not even a willing reader of nonfiction). I graduated from college having done minimal career planning, and decided to get into substitute teaching while I scrambled for some job options. That’s when my mom saw the ad in the tiny newspaper that had been showing up in our mailbox.

“Writers Wanted.”

It was a free publication that a local woman had started in order to spread the good news about our beleaguered local school district. She couldn’t offer me any pay, but she was willing to give me a chance. And I was pleased at the prospect of (at last) seeing my byline.

Turned out that I got a real thrill out of interviewing people (a reaction beyond unexpected, since I was quite shy), and writing the story was a cinch, since I was so accomplished at pulling quotes from literary works to write research papers. And that no-pay gig gave me clips that got me consistent freelance work from two other local publications; I became the lone writer at one after my editor was promoted; and the other is the publication I now edit.

After this brief background, I moved into some of my better writing and editing tales—like the editor who made me cry, and the writer who refused to interview any sources (for her first draft AND for the re-write).

And then it was on to the Q&A. That’s always the stickiest part of a student presentation—no one wants to be the first one to ask a question. (Sometimes no one wants to be the second, either.) But the editor-in-chief came to my rescue, and then the ball was rolling. And the questions were great.

“How do you pitch to a magazine?”
“How do you get started as an editor?”
“How much do publications pay?”

These are students who are very much aware of the challenges facing newspapers today, and of the changes they’re seeing in the magazines they enjoy reading. And yet they’re invested in the field, invested in the work, and hopeful that they can find a future in journalism.

It was a welcome respite from some of the eye-rolling and downright depressing news I get in the myriad newsletters I receive!

Site Meter