Monthly Archives: May 2012

Set the Right Expectations With Back Cover Blurbs, Please

When was the last time you read the copy on the back of a book?

Did the blurb create expectations about the book?

What happens when a book doesn’t meet those expectations?

These two books didn’t match their blurbs. The blurbs were interesting, the books were good. They should have been telling the same stories.

Over the last week, I read two books where the back cover blurb set up inappropriate expectations. I could not enjoy the books as I was reading them because my brain was constantly telling me I had been lied to.

The two books were Buried Fire and The Leap, both by Jonathan Stroud, published by Hyperion. Both are good YA fantasy books, well written with engaging characters, interesting plots, and enjoyable plot twists. Unfortunately, both were marketed as straight-forward hero’s journeys, and neither was. Because I was reading them to understand how other writers are handling YA urban fantasy, I finished the books. But, I am going to question every book from Hyperion in the future.

According to the cover, The Leap is about a girl who follows a dead friend into a parallel universe through her dreams. But, the story as written is not just her story. The chapters alternate between her point of view and her brother’s. The end of the book reveals the value of that structure with a lovely plot twist, but I could not enjoy the journey of reading to the end because I was confused by the expectations created by the cover blurb.

The cover copy for Buried Fire said Michael would wake with dragon powers and would have to choose between freeing the dragon and solidifying his powers or fighting the dragon and saving the people he loved. That was sort of true. In one moment in the climax, he made such a choice, but it was a minor moment. The most important moment involved action by his sister. There is no single protagonist in Buried Fire. The story is told from multiple perspectives and is actually the story of how an entire village reacts to the awakening of the dragon. Michael is a central character, but not the central character.

In retrospect, the books were actually better than the blurbs implied. There was more subtlety in the storytelling: more nuance to the narrative and more complexity in the character development. They should have been more enjoyable to read.

The disconnect between the expectations set-up by the cover and the actual text ruined the reading experience for me.

Is there a book you have read that ended up being very different from what you expected? How did you feel reading it? Let me know in the comments.


On Silence: Or Why I Sometimes Stop Blogging Out of the Blue

There is a great post from Jen Merrill over at An Intense Life today about how she retreats into a very quiet space (so quiet she calls it Quiet) when her emotional intensities are over-stimulated.

I, too, retreat to a Quiet mental space from time to time to regroup, often after a big project has finished and the adrenaline that pushed me through the final stages of the project is no longer literally coursing through my veins.

I wrote a previous post about my irregular output, which applies to this blog as well as to my other writing projects. In that post, I wrote about my need to balance big projects with small projects and about how a big project can expand to take up all my available time, preventing me from engaging in more ongoing projects, like blogging.

And that is part of the truth, but like most truths, it is partial.

The other part of the truth is that big projects take an emotional investment and require a recover period afterwards, a recovery period much like that described by Jen in her post.

I have a few things running around my mind that will turn into blog posts soon. But probably not today.

But, not to worry.

I’ll be back to more regular ramblings soon. I still have plenty to say.

And for those of you paying attention, I got an email a couple of day ago letting me know that I correctly predicted which book would be sent to the big time editor.



When Your Work is in Other People’s Hands


I pitched my novel on Wednesday night. It went well. I got some feedback about some possible improvements to my pitch, but I was one of three people who came across as knowing what they were talking about.

And now we are waiting, waiting to hear which two are being considered for submission to an editor who rarely looks at unagented work.

I hate waiting, so I am doing other things: spring planting, house cleaning, LEGO organizing, and having friends over for dinner.

I am not expecting to be selected to move all the way through the process: one of the novels has a hook that is too juicy to pass up. The marketing potential is huge, and the writing is good – it needs polishing, but it is well on its way. Although that novel will not be the only one to be considered for passing on to the editor, I am sure it will be in the mix, and I think the package is good enough that the marketing hook will get it selected.

But, I do not know. And so, I wait.

Waiting for rejection is part of the writer’s life. We must find ways to handle it, to not pause our life and writing while our babies are out in the world to be judged.

I am drawing on my experience as an actor after auditions, reminding myself that I have done my best and letting go of whatever outcomes may be.

My attitude to auditioning changed completely when I directed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night<
in college. For that show, the lead female and a secondary male must be mistaken for each other. Two women auditioned who could have played the lead. No man auditioned who could be mistaken for one of the women, so I cast the other. And the woman who could have played the lead wasn’t right for any of the other female roles, so I couldn’t cast her. I used weaker actresses who fit the characters better to make the play as a whole work. For this actress, it was the lead or nothing and my choice depended on who else auditioned.

After that, I knew I would’ve never understand all the thoughts any director goes through when casting. All I can do is show up, do my best, and see what happens.

Yes, the waiting sucks.

But, there is no point in wallowing in it.

I have editing, writing, and living to get on with.

Dealing with Nervous Energy

This evening, I will be pitching my unfinished novel to a panel of strangers.

This is part of my novel-writing class and is mostly an exercise. But, it isn’t just an exercise. At the end of this evening, the panel will choose two of the pitches and request the first 20 pages of those manuscripts to share with the owner of the bookstore where our class meets. She will then show one or both of the pitches to the Chief Acquisitions Editor of a major publisher, with whom she has a personal relationship. The last time she did this with one of my instructor’s classes, the editor asked to see the full manuscript.

This is not a drill.

I have not been focusing well for the last three days.

This afternoon, I yielded to the wisdom I have acquired over three decades in theatre. I took a nap. (For those of you worried about the kids you know I homeschool, they were occupied and I was right near them.)

I have been writing this novel for over two years. I have been revising my pitch and synopsis for a month. A few extra hours of revising and prepping were going to make me more nervous, not improve my performance tonight.

And, sure enough, when I woke up, I was calmer.

My nerves will be on fire again later tonight, but I have to trust that I am as well rehearsed as possible and that I know my work. Tonight I will focus on deep breathing, relaxing my eyes, and talking to the panel with energy and enthusiasm. It is all I can do at this point.

I don’t know when I will hear whether or not my work will move on to the next stage of this process, but I will surely have another strong emotional response at that time.

How do you manage your nerves when you have something important at stake?

Finding the Through-line

In a play, the whole stream of individual, minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings and actions of an actor, should converge to carry out the super-objective of the plot.

~Constantin Stanislavski

Every character in a story should have a through-line, the central impulse or desire that connects all of their individual motivations and objectives together. From a very distant perspective, all of a character’s actions can be seen as coming from a single deep-seated, unconscious drive. Although this may seem to negate the possibility of complex characters, it does not.

For example, a character who is struggling to find freedom may be fighting for freedom in relationships, at work, and in some internal sense. But, she may need the support of dysfunctional friendship to obtain freedom at work, and she may define freedom within relationship in a way that constricts her internal freedoms. The struggle to find freedom can then be continuous and still complex and contradictory.

Writers, too, can have through-lines: questions and themes that each piece in their body of work addresses in some form. Often, these themes are elucidated in retrospect – biographers and scholars seeing patterns that the writer was too close to the material to see.

[E]ach life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.

In The Soul’s Code, archetypal psychologist James Hillman proposes that every person is born with a defining image, a specific impulse towards a unique destiny, a personal daimon. This daimon reminds its keeper of that impulse, but not with direct instructions to remember the deep purpose. Rather, the daimon nudges. It shows up in uncompromising resistance to social expectations, and feelings of dissatisfaction and yearning.

In Hillman’s view, a child is like a seed and can only grow into one kind of adult plant. An acorn must become an oak; it may be straight or twisted, but it will never be a maple.

This idea has floated in and around my consciousness off and on for a couple of decades. Some years it resonates with me and some years I cannot figure out how my current life detour relates to last year’s tangent. But, in moments of clarity, I come back to realizing that I do have a question that haunts me.

The question that haunts me is this:

How do human beings bridge the gap between the selfish, internal, body-bound, individual experience of being alive and the social construction of community?

In college, I didn’t have a major. The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University has a small program that replaces all academic content requirements with a required senior project.

My Freshman year College Scholar application was my first attempt to articulate the through-line of my life, to connect the dots that are all my many interests. And it worked. I got into the program and spent the next three years deepening my investigations into what continues to be a lifelong inquiry.

But, I am not truly a scholar. I am a maker, a creator, and artist.

This weekend, it came to my attention that my work in progress is dealing with the same question. On the surface, The Red Oak is a traditional hero’s journey. But, the greatest internal obstacle my protagonist faces is that she has accepted her community’s definition of who she is rather than trusting her own lived experience. But, the community’s understanding destroys the source of her power and she must reject that external definition and claim her own experience if she is to defeat the monster that attacks her community.

Two years ago, when I started this story, it was formulaic, but the more I refine it, creating the story that is demanding to be told through me, the more the unique elements that reflect my life’s themes are enhanced. I have always believed that authors tell unique stories because they have unique perspectives, but I didn’t expect to see it so clearly in my own work while I was still writing.

Teaching Children to Write: Grammar

I have been thinking about how to teach children to write. Especially how to control a sentence when you write creative fiction, and that means grammar and mechanics.

Two of my kids have been homeschoolers this year. They are both reluctant writers, though my eldest has elaborate ideas and stories that he plays with even when he doesn’t write them down. And, he has an intuitive understanding of narrative structure that makes me jealous.

Part of my difficulty in determining how to teach them the myriad of skills involved in writing well is that I have spent much of the past two years training myself out of habits I saw my eldest being encouraged to develop last year at school, especially in his creative writing. He was being taught to add adjectives and adverbs to develop descriptions; I was teaching myself to replace my adjectives and adverbs with more specific nouns and verbs.

I found myself wondering whether there was another way to teach writing that didn’t require so much unlearning – or whether this really was an age appropriate way of learning to write.

Some people believe writing must be taught very formally and others believe that writing well develops naturally from reading good literature. I am conviced there is a third way.

In the fall, I took a course that introduced me to Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction by Edgar H. Schuster. Schuster suggests a wonderful approach to learning grammar, an approach built on the assumption that we absorb grammatical rules as we learn to speak, so grammatical instruction is about refining and articulating an understanding that we already have.  In the book, he lays out both why he thinks this is the best way to teach grammar, but he also provides teaching examples. He also provides examples of how to discuss “rules” of grammar that are frequently broken in published works.

For example, sentence fragments. He encourages teachers to look at sentence fragments in literature with their students and ask how the fragment works, what impact it has on the reader. And then, to look at sentence fragments that confuse a reader or hinder understanding in some way and ask why the language works that way. He aims for a functional understanding of grammar.

This appeals to me. Grammar is the how of linguistic communciation, the structure of language, written and spoken. For most people, the application of grammatical understanding is what matters.

So, I have been teaching grammar in the context of writing. Our early assignments were retelling Aesop’s Fables. We would read them together, discuss the narrative elements of the story and any interesting sentence structures, and then he would write the story in his own words. I would mark up the draft using professional proofreaders’ marks, and we would discuss the revisions. Grammar lessons came up as he needed them, but no more. It is clear to me that his functional understanding of grammar has improved through this approach.

But, there are some formal rules and some vocabulary related to grammatical analysis that I would like him to know. So, we play Mad Libs. We read books about grammar and why it matters, like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I am looking for my copy of Breaking the Rules, which got misplaced in our move, for more analytical activities.

But, my son’s favourite grammar and punctuation activity is proof-reading my work. The satisfastion he gets when he finds an error is worth any momentary embarrassment I may feel.

I have heard a lot of horror stories of how sensitive children stopped writing when a teacher said something critical of their work. I am wondering how we can support children as they learn to wield the magical power of words.

Do you have any stories of things your teachers did right when it came to teaching you to write?

When Something Has to Give

Have you missed me?

I have missed you.

I didn’t mean to disappear, but my priorities have been away from this blog during April and I couldn’t bring myself to post the dreck that I was writing when I did sit down to write for this site.

I did improvise poetry for 24 letters of the alphabet for A More Playful Life during the A to Z blogging challenge. W and X are still waiting for their moments. Putting unpolished work out on the net was odd. I felt extremely conflicted about whether I wanted people to read them poems or not. When I have performed improvised poetry in classes led by poet Alison Luterman, I have frozen. I loosened up somewhat writing these poems. I think it was a good exercise.

I have been busy revising my work in progress for my novel-writing class. We submitted the first 20 pages this past weekend and will be pitching the novels to a panel next week. With the excellent comments on the opening that I received from Charlotte Rains Dixon and feedback from my class on the synopsis, I had some significant changes I wanted to make. I am pleased with the current state of things, but not complacent.

The panel next week is going to choose one package to share with the chief acquisitions editor of a major publisher. I think I stand a reasonable chance of being selected and want my work to show me in the best light possible. The novel had to take priority over the blog.

My other priority has been celebrating my triplets’ fifth birthday. They are old enough to take the birthday adventure seriously and getting things right has been a challenge.

My favourite part of preparing for the birthday celebrations was the evening before their birthday. One at a time, I took each child into my room to wrap presents and sign cards. Each child had a fit of jealousy that their siblings were going to receive these cool gifts, and I had to help them understand that they would also be getting gifts. The moment of understanding was different for each child, but in each case, I got to witness a glow of excitement and anticipation as they realized what their siblings were doing when alone with me.

The actual birthday was fun. The birthday party was more of a relief than anything else. I wrote about getting ready for the party for An Intense Life today. In that piece I describe the intensity of the kids by comparing them to small monkey pumped full of amphetamines. It was wild.

But, I am back.

I pushed myself too hard in March, blogging every day. I needed energy I had already used for getting through April, and there was too much going on at the end of April.

So, I am doing myself a favour – or at least I think it is a favour. I’m not deciding how often I am going to post here in May. Suffice it to say that I plan for it to be more than April and less than March.

There was too much going on in March and April. I need to strike a new balance, a balance that puts my priorities where they need to be – on getting the novel finished.

%d bloggers like this: