My mother taught me how to sew. We huddled over her 1960s Kenmore sewing machine, up in finished part of the attic, and I learned about bobbins, backstitching, and quarter-inch seams. I picked out patterns and learned how to trace the outlines of those tissue pattern pieces onto fabric. Like magic, I transformed something flat—fabric, rolled off big bolts that thump-thump-thumped on the fabric-store table when I bought my yardage—into a dress or shirt or, most memorably, a tapestry-fabric jumpsuit.
Loved that jumpsuit.
I haven’t sewn since high school, unless you count the slipcover I made for a living room chair. But I’ve been busy creating other things—most notably, stories. Today my mother reminded me of something from sewing that applies to the writing work I’m doing right now. It was something Baba, her grandmother and my great-grandmother, taught her about sewing.
“Nothing is worth making unless you rip it out three times,” she said.
Ripping out is just what it sounds like—you take a sharp, mean little tool and run it along your hard-won seams, ripping stitch by stitch until the two pieces of fabric fall away from each other. I sewed a lot in high school, which means I’m really good at ripping out seams too. You can’t avoid it. You get five steps into a pattern and realize that you messed up step 1B and now everything has to be ripped out, unless you want your shirt to have two and a half sleeves on it. And then you get to the eighth step and it happens all over again.
My beloved jumpsuit? The seams started to fray, in spots, because I had to rip it out so many times.
As for my writing, I’m now ripping out the seams on my story DROUGHT—for the third time. We’re talking some major ripping; shifting the timeline of the story back and cutting out a big BIG chunk of the current draft. It’s like I finished making that jumpsuit and realized I’ve got the right fabric, the right pattern, but I somehow managed to sew it inside out and backwards. Every little stitch has got to come out before I can make it the right way. Sure, I could try wearing that jumpsuit out in public, and forget about fixing it, but there’d be no hiding that it wasn’t the best I could do. There would be way to conceal its flaws.
So I am taking a deep breath and picking up my stitch ripper. I’m not afraid: I have the fabric. I have the pattern. I cut everything into the right shape, and I wound my bobbin. I even have the buttons picked out.
I just have to find the right way to sew it all together.
I’ve been playing with some major plot revisions on my work in progress, after getting feedback from my editor and agent. My story, as it stands today, has a lot going on. It’s full of action and allusions to even more action that happens offstage. Just as things get interesting in one part of the story, we speed off to another. So I’m pondering whether I need to cut things out… slow things down… simplify.
I basically served my editor and agent a big bowl of fiddleheads. And I’m wondering whether this story ought to be a single lovely fern frond, instead.
Haven’t heard of fiddleheads? They are curled-up baby ferns, gathering their fern strength before they pop out into big fronds. Some people like to boil and eat them in the spring. I tried one once. It was sort of like a brussels sprout. I remember that the texture was very dense. That makes sense, given that I was eating an entire fern frond in a single bite. I also remember being a little freaked out by eating baby ferns!
So when’s a novel like a bowl of fiddleheads? When it’s full of densely-packed events, a whole series of them. So much is going on that the story can feel a little jumbled, or intense. But you’d be hard-pressed to get bored—at least, when the author does a good job cooking up those fiddleheads.
On the other end of the spectrum is a novel that takes its time: a single fern frond. The plot lingers over each small detail, each little leaf that makes up one lovely frond. Some readers might find that the story is a little too slow, or that they’re skipping past the quiet details that help to build the plot and establish characters. But even a single fern frond can have lots of little leaves. A well-done “frond” story doesn’t have to be boring.
Either approach can work. Take a look at one perfect contrast in two best sellers: Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS (a big old bowl of fiddleheads) versus J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series (one lovely frond after another). Both tales are a boy’s coming-of-age set at a secret, exclusive academy for budding magicians. What Grossman does in one book takes Rowling seven. Grossman packs interesting details into the stories but sometimes manages to encompass an entire year at the Brakebills academy in a few chapters—while Rowling, of course, takes an entire volume for each year of Harry Potter’s education at Hogwarts. Both authors manage to turn out engrossing stories that have me reading while I’m drying my hair, eating my lunch and putting my shoes on. I wouldn’t want to see either approach changed.
Perhaps market explains part of the contrast between those two stories. THE MAGICIANS is a story sold as adult fiction while HARRY POTTER is of course marketed, first and foremost, as a book for children ages 8-12. Maybe younger readers demand that we slow down and examine each detail, and go with a deliberate and predictable pace. Adults are less jarred by sudden jumps in timeframe, and less patient with detail. The implication for YA writers? Maybe we need to land somewhere in the middle.
I haven’t decided whether my story is a single fern frond, a bowl of fiddleheads, or somewhere in-between. But understanding the difference between the two is a step in the right direction.
I took a grand total of two English courses in college: advanced composition and comparative romantic literature. Nothing against English majors and profs, but I'm proud of my alternative path. I am a proud journalism major (go COM!). For good and for bad, my days of j-school shaped me into the writer I am today. Here are five unique offerings that journalism majors bring to writing YA novels:
1. Every single word counts. No florid descriptions or waffling dialog here. We get to the point!
2. We know headlines and lead grafs. Our first chapters are gonna grab you, because we've been trained to make that reader flip to the jump.
3. Two common and successful elements in YA lit: snark and anxiety about the future. Nobody knows that stuff better than a journalist who's had to face down the newspaper job market in the last ten years.
4. If there's swearing to be done, nobody does it better than us. We were trained by the old salty dogs of the newsroom. I'm not ^&%&^ kidding you. Don't even %^&% try to &*^&* with me, you *&(*()%^!
5. Copyeditors love our stuff: it's ^&*( clean. Unless we're too busy being snarky and anxious to give it a good read.
Fellow j-school grads, got anything to add?
This year I indulged in a daily desk calendar—an indulgence because I know that sometimes it will sit for days, forgotten, stuck on Tuesday while the rest of try to steal some sleep on Sunday morning. An indulgence in another way, too, because it’s billed as being an “inspirational calendar for working women”, which makes me roll my eyes but secretly sounds really nice—if it can really inspire me.
Yesterday’s entry made me glad I bought that chunk of paper and plastic backing. It had a quote from Henry Van Dyke: “Use what talents you possess. The woods soul be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.”
I’ve never heard this particular quote before. I love it—what artist wouldn’t? It gives us permission to keep creating even when we know full well that we’re not at the top of the heap, or even near it. Do your best. It’s enough. Don’t be ashamed to share your best efforts with the world.
I have this lovely vision, now, of writers perched in a strange forest of trees—all different sorts: fruit trees, towering pines, thick-canopied oaks. Everyone is working away, intent, pages fluttering to the forest floor in a light constant rain. Every kind of story is on those pages. Imagine yourself walking through that forest—how the floor would be soft under your feet, cushioned by years of other writers’ efforts. Imagine how you’d be a little taller, on that cushion, and a little closer to the first foothold that waits in your own tree. Pick your tree. Look around at all those other writers, birds of every sort of feather. Then turn your eyes to your own story and write.
You’re not alone---and you are worthy.
When people ask me what kind of book CANDOR is, my first answer is “it’s a novel for ages twelve and up”. But I know they want more. Is it realistic fiction? Well, no, unless brainwashing is a reality (that’s another post for another day!). Is it fantasy? Mmmm, I guess not, since it’s set in our modern everyday world and there’s a distinct lack of magical or supernatural elements. Well then. It must be science fiction, right? Yes, indeed: Wikipedia defines science fiction as “a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations on current or future science or technology”, which definitely fits CANDOR.
But sometimes the label of sci-fi feels like an itchy fit for books like CANDOR--stories that are set in a world with one imagined technology element but otherwise don’t dwell on the mechanics or history of that technology. Maybe it’s because sci-fi makes a lot of people think of only robots and space ships. I worry about readers who don’t regularly delve into science fiction getting turned off. Don’t get me wrong: I am not ashamed to be called a sci-fi writer. I’ve been a sci-fi fan since my father and I spent a summer eating TV dinners in front of Star Trek re-runs (perhaps an unfortunate example, give that ST is replete with both robots and space ships!). And if I spent my entire career being called a sci-fi writer, that’s fine by me. Talk about being in fantastic company.
I wonder if some fantasy authors have a similar issue. A lot of people think the fantasy books all have dragons and dudes wearing long robes, bearing wands. And that is just as narrow a view of the genre as the aforementioned robots and space ships. That’s probably why the sub-genre name “urban fantasy” emerged.
I’d like to propose a new genre name: extra-ordinary.
Extra-ordinary books have at least one element that doesn’t exist in our mundane world. Sure, it could be robots. But it could be a moon that’s moved closer to the earth, as in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. Or it could be a virus that turns New Yorkers into vampires, a la Scott Westerfeld’s PEEPS. Some fantasy books fit in here. So do some sci-fi. But they’re about the normal world, twisted by forces that (supposedly) don’t exist.
Do we really need a new genre name? Shouldn’t we instead hope that readers come to see that sci-fi and fantasy are broad homes for all sorts of cool ideas? Maybe so. But I think this type of book is only going to grow in popularity and hopefully it will attract a broader cut of readers. And darn it, if paranormal romances—which now, I notice, are often just called “paranormals”—can get their own special name, why not extra-ordinary books too?
Everyone’s got their New Year’s resolutions and I won’t bore you with my entire list (does anyone except me care that I’m determined to take a multi-vitamin everyday?). But I think this idea is fun. Or crazy. Or both. So I’m sharing.
I want to start “punching in” to my writing time. It’s real work, and it deserves real devoted time, and I feel like it would help me to mentally recognize it as such. Maybe it would cut down on the Wordtwist/Facebook/Twitter procrastination during my writing hours—but that’s not the big reason for doing it. There are weeks when I beat myself up for not spending enough time on my writing, and then there are weeks when I beat myself up for neglecting the rest of my life for my writing. Punching in, I hope, will help me to push aside the self-hate (and save it for more useful times, like when I eat birthday cake leftovers for lunch!). I set a goal at the start of the week: I will work X hours. I punch in, I punch out. I meet my goal (hopefully). Job done. No more guilt. It’s a variation on the old Butt In Chair (BIC time) concept. I also have visions of looking at my timecards, come next December, and feeling Very Good about how much time I put into my writing work.
Yes, I could use a spreadsheet or just scribble down times on a piece of paper. But why do that when there are fun old-fashioned TIME CLOCKS out there to play with, to be had for relatively cheap on Ebay? I’ve got my eye on the Acroprint125 NR4. It’s a avocado green chunky square, and it even comes with time cards (if I’m going to do this… I might as well DO it). If I end up springing for it, you’ll see a picture of it installed in my writing space. It’s, um, tax deductible right?
What amazing company CANDOR is in--fellow Debutante Sarah Rees Brennan's THE DEMON'S LEXICON, A.S. King's THE DUST OF 100 DOGS, Kristin Cashore's FIRE, Laini Taylor's and Jim Di Bartolo’s LIPS TOUCH, Kathleen Duey's SACRED SCARS, and Antonia Michaelis's TIGER MOON. The winner of each category will be announced on February 14...check out the finalists in all categories and go congratulate your favorites!
Thank you very, very much, Cybils!
- Through devoted practice, was able to explain what ALAN stood for at any time, any place (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents)!
- Met lots of very dedicated teachers, professors and librarians who reminded me that writing for teens is one very cool job
- Spoke on a panel with the talented Matt de la Pena, Maureen Johnson and Paula Jolin. Managed to include talk of pastries. Perhaps incited apple pie hunger in all attendees. Or at least one.
- Signed lots of copies of CANDOR, may they bring joy to all their future readers and owners (pic at left)
- Snuck away for a near-midnight screening of NEW MOON, made doubly fun by my brave companions... learned that apparently it is Philly tradition to talk to the movie without shame (fun! but my relatively staid upstate NY upbringing only allowed me to mutter into my giant bottle of Aquafina)
- Listened to, and was inspired by, lots of authors on panels... I think my favorite was Sharon M. Draper, whose passion and focus blew me away.
- Slept like the dead after my whirlwind ALAN tour!