Catching Up: A Three-Part Series

In which I cover three book- and/or writing-related things that have been keeping me busy since I last posted.

Part Two: Sara Gruen. My husband gave me tickets to the Denver Pen and Podium series, and Sara Gruen was the author I was most excited to see. I love her book Water for Elephants. She wrote a great article for Writer magazine about the research she did in preparation for writing Water for Elephants. And she’s an animal lover, so I was pretty sure I would enjoy hearing her speak.

She was initially scheduled to speak in November, but had to postpone until February due to illness. At her lecture in February, the person who gave the introduction informed us that Sara Gruen had come down with the flu that morning but was determined to speak that night. Because she was ill though, she wouldn’t be signing books. This was a bit of a bummer, as I’d brought a first edition of Water for Elephants with me and was excited to get it signed, but what can you do, right? And the second she came out and began talking it was clear she was truly ill, and not just staging a diva illness to cut the evening short. (Incidentally, I recently read that she also canceled a March appearance with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation due to illness. Three doozies of a cold or flu in five months’ time is a lot! Wonder if she’s allergic to Colorado? Her next book was scheduled to come out this spring but publication has been postponed, which may or may not have anything to do with this string of illnesses. Kind of makes me worry that she’s seriously ill, but I hope it’s just been a run of bad luck with germs and cooties.)

Her voice was raspy and faint from laryngitis, but she told us many stories about the research involved in Water for Elephants (some of which you can find in that article in Writer magazine—I would provide a link but the website says the article is available to subscribers only. You can find it in your library’s magazine archives or order the back issue from the magazine’s website. I want to say it was February 2007). She told us how, in order to buckle down and finish writing Water for Elephants, her husband set up a desk for her in the closet and she sat in there for hours at a time wearing soundproof headphones and working on an Internet-less computer so she could get completely lost in her fictional world without distractions.

My favorite part was listening to her talk about her latest research with Bonobo apes. Her soon-to-be released book is called Ape House and it’s about Bonobo apes that become part of a reality show. She spoke to us about visiting the Great Ape Trust of Iowa where she befriended two of the Bonobo apes. Apparently there is a bit of a process in order to be allowed to visit the apes, and Ms. Gruen wanted to make sure they would welcome her. So she asked the scientists if she could bring backpacks full of goodies for them, which were a huge hit with the apes. She said when she first arrived, she asked if she would be able to visit with the apes and the scientists—who had previously told the apes about her visit and that she was bringing gifts—said, “Oh, yes. In fact, they are insisting on it!”

It was quite touching and fascinating to hear about how well these apes communicate and understand people. If you’d like to read more about her visit at the Great Ape Trust, there is an article about it here.

One last bit that I thought was funny and sweet: after her visit, Ms. Gruen was worried that the apes might forget her. So as a gift she gave them a subscription to a fruit-of-the-month club so they would get a tasty reminder of her month after month. Wanting to maintain a friendship with apes—that’s my kind of person!

Catching Up: A Three-Part Series

In which I cover three book- and/or writing-related things that have been keeping me busy since I last posted.

Part One: The American Library Association Midwinter Meeting.
This fell at a busy time for me, and I almost didn’t go, but I am so glad I did. You might think this ALA event is just for librarians and a select number of published writers and illustrators (I used to think that, anyway), but it’s not. Anyone can purchase a day pass, which is good for the whole weekend, and browse the publisher’s stalls where they have what seemed like their entire current catalog of books on display. They also hand out advance reading copies (ARCs) of upcoming books from their 2009 lists. Initially, I was most excited about the ARCs, but I soon realized the truly beneficial advantage for a writer (and I would think for an illustrator too) is browsing the publisher’s stalls.

Browsing the publisher’s stalls is an excellent way of doing market research. The book displays give you a visual overview of each publishing house. You can quickly assess if their lists are novel-heavy or picture book-heavy or a fairly even mix; the ratio of fiction to non-fiction; the types of books they seem to be interested in—if mysteries or chick lit or historical fiction dominate a collection, for example. You can also quickly note the authors and illustrators who publish with each house. Imprints are grouped together with their larger publishing house, giving you clarification on which imprints go with which house. Representatives from the publisher staff the booths—sometimes marketing people, sometimes editorial—and everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic and interested in talking about their books. You get a sense of each publisher’s personality and how well your work might fit in with them.

Current trends are also very apparent—this didn’t come as a surprise to me, but many publishers had a paranormal romance (Twilightesque) that was front and center or in its own display. (And remember, it’s often said that if you notice a trend in what is currently being published, then you can assume that acquiring editors and agents have moved past that and are looking for the next thing. Although, in any case I try not to think about trends as far as my writing goes, although I do think it’s important to be aware of what’s currently popular.) In addition to noticing who was promoting paranormal romances, I also paid attention to who wasn’t. This may not be an accurate assessment, but it seemed to me that any publisher could jump on the Twilight bandwagon if they wanted to, so the fact that they didn’t told me something about their publishing interests.

This is all research, of course, that you can accomplish on your own with a little extra legwork or mousework (except perhaps the talking one-on-one with marketing and editorial representatives about their work). But if you have the opportunity to attend an ALA meeting, I think it’s really a worthwhile event for any writer or illustrator. Seeing many of the publishers together in one place is impressive and informative, and if you are a keen observer (or even a so-so one) I think you’ll be amazed at the additional information you are able to pick up.

And now, for your Saint Patrick’s Day viewing pleasure, watch Beaker bring it on home with “O Danny Boy”:

Ace and the Improbable

Yesterday my husband and I took our dog Jack to the vet. (Jack’s okay, just a case of trashcan-itis, as the doc put it. Nothing some antibiotics won’t cure.) While we were waiting for a test result, we took Jack and our other dog, Ace, for a walk. Just a quick one to pass the time and occupy the dogs. We were strolling down the sidewalk, admiring some of the older homes and their yards, when Ace abruptly stopped and squatted on someone’s lawn. Of course we didn’t have any bags for the business on us, and we’d walked about five minutes away from the vet’s office. I handed my husband the leash I was holding and said, “Wait here, I’ll run there and be right back!” I had only made it a couple sidewalk squares away when something registered in my awareness. I stopped and looked back and there, hanging from a tree branch two feet above my husband, was a plastic grocery bag. I kid you not.

My husband didn’t understand why I was dilly-dallying.

“There’s a bag!” I said.

“What?!”

“In the tree!”

And he looked at me like I’d really lost it this time. But then he looked up and sure enough: a white bag rustling in the breeze.

“No way!” he said. (Actually, I think he said “No bleep,” and I pointed at Ace’s business on the ground and said, “Yes bleep,” and then he unhooked the bag from its branch.)

It’s funny how things like this can happen in real life, but if I tried to work something like that into a fictional story chances are it wouldn’t fly. Sure, it’s always possible if the material was handled right it could work, but I think the feedback I’d most likely get would be along the lines of: “They’re in desperate need of a plastic bag and then one just happens to appear in a tree? That they are standing right next to? Way too convenient and improbable.” I suppose this is why we have the saying “the truth is stranger than fiction”.

And speaking of Ace and the improbable, today Ace has finally achieved something he’s been striving to do for years. He’s a role model in perseverance this guy:

High-Five Friday

Five happy things from the week:

1. Small Graces. Author and illustrator Grace Lin is auctioning off an original 5×5 piece of artwork every month with 100% of the proceeds benefiting The Foundation for Children’s Books. (This is the same Grace Lin who co-founded the Robert’s Snow fundraiser.) Over the last year I’ve noticed quite a number of authors and illustrators using their blogs or internet presence to bring attention to and/or raise money to support various causes. I think this is a wonderful and amazing thing.

2. Along the lines of wonderful and amazing things that writers are doing, fAiRy gOdSisTeRs, iNk has announced their 2nd Annual SCBWI Summer Conference Scholarship. The lucky recipient will receive a $1500 scholarship to the LA conference. Click on the link for more details.

3. My previously mentioned breakthrough in my revisions made me happy (see last post), and in general all the writing progress I’ve made this week. The next batch of my proofreading project arrives on Tuesday so I’m hoping I can keep up the writing pace (or some of the pace) while balancing it with work responsibilities.

4. This box of tangerines arrived from my parents yesterday. They also have a lemon tree and an orange tree in their backyard, and I’m hoping I’ll be the recipient of some of that bounty too. Citrus trees are one of the things I miss about California. I’ve been tempted to buy one of those small Meyer lemon trees to keep in our house. We have a lot of windows and a sunny exposure, so I think it would do okay. (Assuming the dogs and the cat leave it alone.) But it definitely wouldn’t be the same as my parent’s giant orange tree, lemon tree, and tangerine tree.

5. Spent the morning snowboarding with my husband at Breckenridge. It was a gorgeous day in the mountains. Wide-open runs, freshly groomed, no lines. We got in about 8-9 runs and then left and were back home by 12:30, where we had very pleasant mid-60 degree weather. Spent the afternoon working on revisions. That’s a pretty perfect day in my world.

Breakthrough

I had a sun-rays-part-the-clouds-to-beam-down-on-me-while-angels-sing-hallalujah writing moment this week. I figured out a solution to a problem with the structure of my novel that had been niggling around in the back of my mind, and which I had been denying was actually a problem. And, as is often the case with a S.R.P.T.C.T.B.D.O.M.W.A.S.H writing moment, once the solution came to me it was so obvious. Obvious as in “I have two eyeballs” obvious, or “the Running Man is a far superior 80s dance to the Roger Rabbit” obvious.

The first part of my book has been worked over roughly 632 times, but it still wasn’t feeling quite right to me. My two main concerns were 1) I was taking too long to get to the inciting incident that launches Part II, and 2) There was not even one iota of the mystery storyline in the two chapters where my main character has her first day at a new school. When these doubts cropped up, I’d just say hush and tell myself things like, “Well, Harry Potter doesn’t find out he’s a wizard until 50 pages into The Sorcerer’s Stone,” or “It makes sense for the mystery storyline not to come up during her first day of school—she’s got a lot of other stuff on her mind.” On the one hand, these things are true, but on the other hand, they’re just excuses to make myself feel better because I didn’t know how to fix the problem. I banged my head against the locker, so to speak, trying to make those first day of school chapters work in Part I, but it just wasn’t happening. Any change I came up with felt forced and like I was trailing more of the same mystery breadcrumbs that had already been laid out. And perhaps most important, no amount of fiddling that I did within those chapters could change the problem of taking too long to get to the inciting incident. So I said screw it and moved on to a different part of the book that was a lot more fun to work on.

And, of course, that is when The Obvious came knocking at my door.

“Why can’t the inciting incident happen before her first day of school?”

“Well, uh,” I stuttered to The Obvious. “Because that’s not how it happens.”

“But why not? Why can’t it be?”

“Because . . . that’s not how I imagined it.”

Ding Ding Ding! That was the key for me there. I imagined it. The whole shebang—the characters and the plotlines and the mystery and the timeline. It’s all stuff I made up. I’ve been working with the ideas for so long that some things start to feel solidified, like that’s the way they have to be. In this case, it was my timeline. But when I really thought about it, there was no reason why the school chapters had to fall where they did. Changing around the timeline solved both of the issues that had been worrying me. Now there is a continuous (hopefully page-turning) build to the climax of Part I, and we get to that point much more quickly because there are two less chapters (actually, three, because I deleted one altogether). There’s also the added bonus of a new layer of tension built into the first day of school scenes, since they now follow the inciting incident instead of precede it.