Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spuds (a.k.a. The Beauty of Voice)

I'm going to tell you to do something I've never told you to do before, and it's this:

I want you to read a picture book.  Out loud.  To yourself or to a loved one (or, if you're really lucky, to a child).  Specifically, I want you to read this:

There I was, doing my weekly grocery shopping.  If I hadn't zipped over to the back entrance to grab a coupon from a store flyer, I would have completely missed the "bargain bin" of books.  (I know, right?  Books in a grocery store.)  Of course I had to take a quick peek--especially considering the "80% off" sign.

Right on top sat this luscious-looking book by Karen Hesse.  The cover drew me in immediately (which is saying a lot, because I find many picture book illustrations cloying at best).  I cracked open the book, not expecting too much (again, it's hard to find a superbly written picture book).

And I was transfixed.  In fact, by the end, my eyes were tearing up.  Not because it's a sad book (it isn't, really), but because it was so beautiful that I was moved to tears.

Seriously.  So I bought it. 

That's not the only reason I want you to read it, though.  The beauty of SPUDS is in its voice.  The author's careful word choices and spare language perfectly capture the setting and draw you immediately into the narrator's world.

Here is the opening page:

The night me and Maybelle and Eddie harvested potatoes,
Ma was workin' night shift.
Our ma, she's mighty fine,
but lately it seems like she got nothin' left over,
not even for us kids.

Hold me back, you say.  That first sentence has a pronoun error!

Exactly.  The story is told by Jack, the middle of 3 siblings, and that's the way he talks.  We are completely inside his head on every page.  As such, we feel like we know him--really know him--and care about what happens as the story unfolds.

So Jack and his siblings sneak out at night, after their mother leaves to work the night shift, in order to "harvest" some potatoes from Mr. Kenney's field.  Which brings us to what is probably my favorite page in the entire book:

We three kids headed out Waddell Road in that rattle-bang fashion. 
Maybelle, she goosed us with the meals Ma'd make out'a them spuds.
"You'll see.  Ma's gonna boil 'em, and bake 'em.  She's gonna
slice 'em thin as fingernails and fry 'em up crusty brown with
lots of salt sparklin'."
Man, my mouth juiced up just thinkin' about it.

Luscious!  "Rattle-bang" perfectly describes the kids pulling a wagon along the side of the road.  And how about slices "thin as fingernails"?  Can't you just see them, all crackly good on your plate?  And the "salt sparklin'" says so much more than just "salt" or "salty" could ever say.  (Because salt does sparkle when the light catches it--have you noticed?)

Picture books are HARD to write (as anyone who has tried knows).  Language needs to be spare yet beautiful, conveying a simple tale in simple language in such a way that the story is compelling--and also that it's a pleasure to read out loud (since these books are primarily meant for reading to children, right?).

(Side note:  I read this book out loud to Mr. A, so that he could experience the beauty of the language.  I'm sad to say that it did not resonate with him the way I'd expected it to.  But then, he's not a writer.  Or a child.)

I'm sure you can see by now how this translates to our novel-writing.  We have a lot more words to play with, true.  But we should still take this careful, choose-each-word-like-it's-a-diamond approach, too, because it will make our writing sing.  And voice?  We already know that voice is where it's at.  I believe that it's voice, more than anything else, that ultimately draws us into a tale, whether we're aware of it or not.

You may or may not like Karen Hesse's story, but you must admit that it's got a powerful voice.  The voice might not speak to you--you might totally hate it--but as a writer, you can acknowledge that it's there.

That's what your novel needs.  VOICE.  It's not something that can be taught; it's something that can be CAUGHT.  By reading good stuff, and by continuing to write and write and write (until our voice develops).

I've written exactly one picture book (it's not amazing) and will probably revisit this category at some point.  So I'm always interested to see what's out there.  Here are two others I've recently discovered that are worth taking a look at:


AT THE BOARDWALK by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

Now get thee to your local library or bookstore (or, um, grocery store) and grab SPUDS.  Read it quietly, read it out loud, read it so that the words seep into your soul.  Then, take what you've learned and apply it to your own work.

I am going to do the same!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Three-Page Edits -- Available

I'm caught up on all my 3-page edits, which I weave in between my larger projects.  If you've been wanting to hire me for your opening 3 pages, I'm all yours!

The details:

  • Full line edit of your first 3 pages, plus an editorial letter
  • $18, payable via Paypal
  • 1- to 4-week turnaround, depending on my schedule
Email me at authoress.edits(at)gmail.com to get into the queue!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Fricassee

What a fabulous week of critique!  I'd love to hear your thoughts about the unfolding of this latest First Line Grabber.  Did any of your favorites make it to the final round?  Did the pages live up to the original first sentences?

It's fascinating to read the sometimes completely bipolar responses from agents, too.  A reminder, for sure, of how subjective this business is.  True, there is always not-so-good writing or not-quite-ready writing that comes down the pike (as all agents and editors know), but even among the GOOD writing examples, there are so many shades of yes and no--and it all has to do with personal taste, sense of style, and flat-out opinion.

All that to say--keep writing!  And grand applause to our five winners--not just for winning the critiques, but for being brave enough to throw your work into the public arena for professional scrutiny.  No small thing, that!   Applause, too, for your good work.

As for me, I'm happy to report that I've just become unstuck after over a week of stuckness on a backstory point.  There's nothing quite like going absolutely nowhere for eight or nine days, right?  So now that I think (hope!) I've finally got this thing nailed, I can continue with my rewrite.

I've ramped up my ballet recently by adding a second class to my week.  You've heard me gush about my ballet classes before--but you haven't heard me gush about MY NEW TEACHER.  He (yes! HE!) is absolutely amazing.  I am swimming in major teacher crush.  He's a beautiful dancer and a wonderful teacher.  And on my first day in class, he told me that I had nice feet.

Biggest.  Compliment.  Ever.  If you dance, you know what it means to have "nice feet".  Believe me, my feet are SO not where they need to be, but that little bit of affirmation has made me more determined than ever to work harder and get better.

(On Monday he said that I had "great power" in my legs.  I may have to hire this guy to follow me around and say positive things to me all day.  Though, Mr. A. already knows about my legs, because I kick him when he snores.  Yes, I do.  Don't judge. ;) )

Sad part?  I had an x-ray on my left big toe this week because it's been bothering me (and interfering with my releve and demi-pointe).  Diagnosis?  Teeny-tiny bone spur.  Dr. Toes wants me to wrap it in K-tape for classes, and to get this weird shoe insert thing to keep it immobile during the day so that the inflammation has a chance to go down.

Just...ugh.  Right?

So now I'm seriously looking into essential oils, which I'm learning are extremely beneficial in treating bone spurs.  And yes, popping a couple of Ibuprofen before class, just to give myself an edge.

It's so freeing to lose myself so completely in something I love, without the pressure of having to be really good at it.  (Because I'm not.)  I'm not going to let my dumb toe stop me.

Story of my life, right?  Pressing on through adversity, not giving up when obstacles clog the way.  But you already know all these things--because you're doing the same thing I am.

I love that we're in this thing--and LIFE--together.

Have a joyful weekend!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

First Line Grabbers -- Winning Excerpts

And here they are!  Congratulations to our five winners, whose first 3 pages received the most votes from our agent panel.

May the critiquing begin!  Critique is open to everyone.  Entrants, please critique at least 2 other entries, so that you are "giving back".

Our agent panel will also be leaving their feedback over the next few days, so keep your eye out for that!

Again, here are the seven lovely agents on our panel:

Enjoy, everyone!

First Line Grabber Winners #5

TITLE: Punishment Summer
GENRE: Young Adult/Contemporary

Maybe if I hadn't downed that last shot of tequila, I would've noticed Dad sitting at the desk as I climbed through my bedroom window. Instead, I tumbled over the sill and thumped to the floor with all the grace of a 118-pound bowling ball, my nose landing inches from a brown loafer. Dad's brown loafer. Uh-oh.

I rose to my knees and swayed. My brain scrambled. How could I talk my way out of this one? The frown twisting Dad's mouth didn't help in the inspiration department. But the tequila played a part, too. My stomach lurched. I stumbled to my feet and ran for the bathroom. I managed to lift the toilet lid just as my insides volcanoed out.

When my Mount St. Helens impersonation wound down to dry heaves, Dad spoke from the doorway. "Clean yourself up and get packed." His voice sounded as cold as the tile beneath my knees.

I grabbed the rim of the toilet bowl and looked up at him. "What?"

Dad's face loomed pale in the hall light. He crossed his arms over his broad chest. "You need to pack your stuff. Now."

"Pack for what?"

"You're going to your grandfather's. For the summer. Wash up then grab everything you'll need. It's cold there. Pack your boots, wool socks, that heavy jacket."

Caught somewhere between the tequila fog and reality, I rubbed my face. It sure felt real. "Why am I going to Grandpa's?"

Dad took a noisy breath. "I know you snuck out two weeks ago, Nicole. And then there's tonight."


"Don't. I already saw the pictures Gemma posted of you two.Grounding you isn't getting the job done."

I slumped back on my haunches. "So, you're shipping me off to Grandpa's? I screw up and you send me away? How's that fair?"

"Fair? You want to talk about fair?"

The roar of his voice made me want to puke again.

"In a fair world, I'd have two daughters. In a fair world, you'd have two parents. Life isn't fair. You should know that by now." His strong hand grabbed the door frame as a grimace twisted his face.

In the half-light, he no longer looked like my dad.

"Get packed. You've got fifteen minutes."

I staggered to my feet and leaned against the sink. After rinsing my mouth and face, I tottered back to my room. Inside the closet, I pushed aside the shoes piled on top of my duffle bag. Dad knew I wouldn't dig in my heels. I may have been the queen of the late night sneak-out, but I was no fighter. Dad was the one always ready to rumble. Normally I was pretty good at hiding the kind of stuff that set him off. Not that we spent much time together. I hadn't seen him this mad since-

My stomach lurched again.

No. Thinking about that was a mistake. My insides felt rocky enough.

First Line Grabber Winners #4

TITLE: The Heartsmith
GENRE: YA Steampunk Fantasy

I carry my heavy basket of hearts down the crowded cobblestone road. Business men in top hats look down their noses at me while women in long, muslin dresses pick up their skirts as they pass me by. The warm sunshine shimmers off the brick buildings lining the street like stalwart soldiers and illuminates their colorful doors. I’m looking for the red one.

Red, and all its color variants from crimson to pink, is considered garish, almost rude. It’s their color and the people of Ager City don’t like their type. My pink pinafore is probably what made the women skirt past me. I mean, who do I think I am, wearing pink? It pays to stand out in the business, though. Everyone in Talier Marketplace knows where to get the best hearts- the girl in pink.

I’m not going to the square to hawk my wares quite yet. I need to see the man at the red door, The Heartsmith. Hearts aren’t much good if they are broken and even less good if they aren’t imbued. A regular, old heart is worth only a single gold piece, while one imbued with purity is worth one hundred. The Snatchers always go for the purest heart in the room. It’s helpful to have one on hand at night. Children squeal with laughter as they run by me playing Snatcher and Knight. Until five years ago, Snatchers were thought to be the heart-stealing, soul-sucking monsters of the past. Now, they are all too real.

The red door materializes out of the wave of people rushing home for lunch, perched between a cobalt door and a canary yellow one. It always makes me smile, especially when the nobles wrinkle their noses or turn their heads. They’d most likely form a committee to remove or repaint the door, but heart vendors are untouchable. We’re needed too badly. I make sure to smile at a woman barely containing her disgust at my dress before bouncing up the stairs and knocking on the red door. A few moments later a clatter comes from inside, followed by a loud oomph. The door bangs open.

“Alessa, you’re early.” Bernard’s wiry, gray mustache sparkles like an opal as sun glints off the heart soot gathered in his hair.

“No, I’m on time. You’ve just forgotten to check the clock.”

I barge past him, brushing the shimmering dust off my shoulders. The house is surprisingly sparse for a man of Bernard’s station and age. The parlor is empty with white walls and a set of dark wooden stairs leading up. Heart soot sparkles across the wooden floor, clinging in knots and crevices. Bernard trails behind me muttering under his breath about time as I traipse to the back of the house. At the end of the parlor hall is another red door, this one heavy and made out of metal. I grip the door and give it a big heave. It groans as the hinges give way and the door slowly swings open.

First Line Grabber Winners #3

TITLE: The Day I Ruled the World
GENRE: MG Fantasy

Spying is rude, and I would never, never do it. Not without a good reason anyway, like needing to know if my parents suspected I'd been practicing spells in secret.

For Snooper's Delight, I needed a mirror, some magic, and a little privacy. Good thing I had my own bedroom, so I wouldn’t be interrupted by bossy older sisters or nosy younger brothers.

I settled cross-legged on my bed and tugged on my pajama shorts to de-wedgie them, making the mattress bounce under me. When it was still again, I balanced the mirror on my knee. I hadn’t turned on the lamp when I woke up, so the only light in the room came through my window, reflected from the planet below. We arrived in orbit around Peregrine during the night. Living in a house that was also a spaceship meant that we got to travel across the galaxy and sleep through the disgusting parts.

To focus the magic, I imagined the kitchen where Mom and Dad would be, alone before all the kids got up. I pictured the counter along the back wall and the big dining table. When the mental image was as clear as I could make it, I let it slide into the mirror and replace the reflection. My brain gave a satisfied sigh, and I opened my eyes. The mirror showed my parents at the kitchen table, plates of eggs and toast and glasses of juice set out in front of them. The picture was so perfect, I could almost smell the food.

I had one second to feel proud of my success before the side-effects hit me, the slam of crazy emotions that came with every spell. This time it was a wave of totally-out-of-proportion, what-the-heck-does-this-have-to-do-with-anything sadness. My eyes filled with tears, and I wanted to bury my face in my pillow and sob.

Misery squeezed in until I ordered myself to stop it, just stop. None of this was real, and none of it could hurt me if I didn’t let it. I stomp-stomp-stomped the feeling down and made myself ignore it. Mom was wrong. I was ready to handle magic and everything that went with it. Brushing tears off my cheeks, I picked up the mirror and watched my parents.

Mom scooped up a bite of eggs. The fork clicked against the plate.

While he ate, Dad talked about the inventory he had bought for his business on our last trip. He picked up his napkin and wiped butter off his chin. “I’m a little worried about Teddy.”

At the mention of my name, I leaned forward and held my breath.

“She’s been kind of moody lately,” he continued.

Mom dropped her fork, and it landed with a clatter. “Oh, that little sneak.”

Dad stared at her. “Sneak?”

Mom nodded. “ Sneak. She isn’t just moody. She’s been doing magic.”

My stomach flipped over. They suspected.