Monday, May 27, 2013

The Writer's Toolbox: First Lines

Hi!  I'd like to introduce a new blog series today: the Writer's Toolbox.  In these posts, I want to talk about (and hear your thoughts on) nitty-gritty writing stuff, the tools and techniques of the craft of writing.

So let's dive right in...  First topic: first lines!

Everyone knows the opening line of a story or novel is important.  Every writer agonizes over it.  Some can't even start until they have it.

Okay, yes.  *raises hand*  That's me.  I have to be in love with my first line before I can write the rest of the book.  Sometimes it comes to me quickly; sometimes I have to write a bajillion openings until I find one that feels right.  But I need to have that sentence (or two or three) before I can proceed.

There are lots of great first lines out there.  And there are lots of different kinds of great first lines.  For me personally, the ones that work best do one of four things:

1. Establish what's normal

"Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife." -- L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

In this one sentence, we know instantly where we are and what kind of people we're with.  This is both an important and appropriate opening for this novel: We have to know what's normal for Dorothy, i.e. what her sepia-toned world is, so that we can appreciate the contrast when we're swept away into technicolor.

"Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen." -- Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

We may not know what a "daemon" is, but we know instantly that Lyra knows.  The simple word "her" does all the work here.  She's with "her daemon."  This establishes right away that what's normal for Lyra isn't normal for us.
2. Set up expectations

"Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood.  If you're reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now.  Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life." -- Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

Setting up the right expectations is crucial.  You can write the best mystery in the world, but if a reader thinks you're going to deliver a romance, then odds are he or she will be disappointed.  This opening sets us up to expect a dangerous, out-of-the-ordinary adventure.  And that's exactly what we get.

"Human girls cry when they're sad and laugh when they're happy.  They have a single fixed shape rather than shifting with their whims like wind-blown smoke.  They have their very own parents, whom they love.  They don't go around stealing other girls' mothers.  At least that's what Kaye thought human girls were like.  She wouldn't really know.  After all, she wasn't human." -- Holly Black, Ironside

With this opening, we expect magic in the real world.  We expect to see it (and us) through the eyes of a nonhuman.  Also, we expect some parent issues.

3. Start the action

"Alanna the Lioness, the King's Champion, could hardly contain her glee.  Baron Piers of Mindelan had written to King Jonathan to say that his daughter wished to be a page." -- Tamora Pierce, First Test (Protector of the Small)

This is a somewhat unusual opening because it isn't from the protagonist's point-of-view.  It's from the pov of the protagonist of Pierce's earlier series, essentially handing the story baton to the new lady-knight-to-be.  But I think it works as an opening because in the space of two sentences, you know the entire core conflict for the next four books: a girl wants to be trained openly as a knight.

"Gordon Edgley's sudden death came as a shock to everyone -- not least himself." -- Derek Landy, Skullduggery Pleasant

Every story has a catalyst -- the event that rocks the status quo and propels the protagonist into the adventure.  Some books establish normal first and shortly after turn it upside down.  Others, like this novel, begin right away with the catalyst.  The death in this first sentence is what leads to all the events in the rest of the book.

"On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn." -- Sarah Beth Durst, Vessel

This novel also begins with the day that changes everything, the day that the protagonist has been anticipating for years, the biggest moment in her life.  I believe a novel really should be about the most meaningful thing to happen to a character -- otherwise, there's no reason to tell the story.  With this sort of opening, we're diving directly in.

4. Set the tone

"There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.  You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her.  The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends' laps? Yes.  Them.  The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood.  The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else.  Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.  Like Kizzy." -- Laini Taylor, Lips Touch Three Times

This beginning does establish a character, but more than that, it sets a tone.  We expect this story to be poetic, like the Goblin Market poem it's based on.

"If Sarah hadn't put the monkey in the bathtub, we might never have had to help the monsters get big.  But she did, so we did, which, given the way things worked out, was probably just as well for everyone on the planet -- especially the dead people." -- Bruce Coville, The Monsters of Morley Manor

This one sets the tone for a madcap adventure.  It works for me because it both makes me smile and makes me ask why.  I think it's my favorite opening line of all-time.

What are some of your favorite opening lines?

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Nebula Awards Weekend 2013

This weekend, I flew to San Jose, California, for Nebula Awards Weekend. Vessel was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, and I was not missing out on the free unicorns. (As everyone knows, all award nominees automatically receive three free unicorns. If you show up, you are given the ones that are housebroken. If you don't, they ship you the leftover unicorns, and believe me, the bill for cleaning rainbows out of carpets is HUGE.)

Seriously though, I was -- and am -- so thrilled and honored that Vessel was nominated, and I was delighted to be able to attend.

I arrived late on Thursday night and woke up on Friday bright, chipper, and ready to say hello, hello, hello to people... at 4am. (Or at least that's the time the crazy west-coast clock said it was.  My east-coast body begged to differ...) I tried again at 6am. And then at 7am. And then 8am... at which point my paranoid side started to whisper maybe I was in the wrong hotel or the wrong state or had the wrong weekend, but then I spotted some people that I knew and all was well with the world, at least until I trotted off in search of registration and walked straight into a dental hygiene seminar. Sadly, they did not have any unicorns.

Anyway, I found my badge eventually, and then I viewed a mummified fish, joined a posse, got pinned, got photographed, got dressed up, and ate a salad while waving at my husband on the other side of the country. In that order.

I didn't see much of San Jose on this trip, but here is the view from my hotel room:

My one big trip out of the hotel was to tour the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. I went with a dozen other attendees in a stretch limo that boasted broken window controls, dusty glass decanters, and a dubious odor. We were fairly certain we were all going to die. Or be taken back in time to a 1980s prom. But we arrived safely at the Egyptian museum...

... where we saw a mummified fish...

... and toured a reproduction of a tomb, which was pretty much one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a museum. Once we were allowed off on our own, I promptly went back in and spent many lovely moments imagining it was real and that I was an ancient Egyptian.

Okay, that's not really true. I totally imagined I was the goddess Isis. She so rocks. Did you know she was one of the first kickass heroines? She quested through Egypt with her pack of awesome giant scorpions in search of the pieces of her slain husband's body. But I digress.

After the fish and the tomb came the posse.

The Friday night of Nebula Awards Weekend has always been my favorite part. It starts with a mass autographing at the hotel and concludes with the Nominee Reception. Not to be missed. This year, the Norton nominees who were there on Friday (Leah Bobet, Alethea Kontis, Eugene Myers, and me) claimed a table and formed the Norton posse. (Jenn Reese joined us on Saturday.) In all seriousness, they were a large part of what made the weekend great, and I adore them.

After a break for dinner with additional fabulous people, I went to the Nominee Reception, which was held in a room lit by green lights and decorated with glowing white roses. It also had exit signs near the floor, which Eugene claimed were there to guide crawling people in case of a fire, but I was convinced were there to guide the rescue hedgehogs in case of any emergency. For the record, Alethea agreed with me.

During the reception, the nominees were all awarded certificates and "Nebula Nominee" pins. Here's my snazzy certificate:

And we were taken into a non-green room for professional photographs of the entire group. The photographers told us to come back later if we wanted additional shots. I don't think they actually expected anyone to take them up on that, but the Norton posse is all about defying expectations. We returned and much fun was had taking all sorts of pictures.

We then returned to the reception for more discussion of hedgehogs, and I performed a maneuver not unlike Cinderella taking the unbroken glass slipper from her pocket and pulled my other two Norton nominee pins (from when Into the Wild and Ice were nominated) out of my purse and put all three on my badge. They make me very happy, and when else do I ever get the chance to wear them?

On Saturday, I again woke early (though thankfully not as insanely early as on Friday), and I did some writing. Appropriately, the artwork in the hotel room featured old typewriters. Here's my desk in the hotel room:

Saturday officially started with a SFWA Business Meeting, which I enjoyed. (I mean that seriously. The first thing I did after signing my first book contract was mail in my membership application to SFWA, and I enjoy being a member and doing memberly things.) Plus this meeting had lots of food.

I had my second interview of the weekend after that, a joint one with Leah Bobet (conducted by Carrie of the fabulous blogs Smart Bitches Read Trashy Books and Geek Girl in Love).  The first interview was for the SFWA website, and I believe it will be posted soon as a podcast.  Both interviews were really fun.

In the afternoon, Leah Bobet, Steven Gould, Eugene Myers, and I did a panel called "Writing for YA," which began with Steven demonstrating his skill with falling and rolling and included my oversharing the fact that as a child, I didn't realize that Bambi's mother died. I thought his parents had simply divorced and it was time for him to go live with his dad for a while.

And then at night... the banquet!

Time for my dress!  I’d actually starting regretting the fact that I’d gone with a cocktail dress rather than a ball gown or a floor-length evening gown for the banquet.  Alethea even kindly offered me a tiara to make me feel better -- thank you, Alethea! -- but I decided to stick with my own jewelry and once I put on my dress, I remembered why I'd picked it. It makes my eyes look totally Fremen blue.

I don't have any photos of the reception or the banquet itself, but there were many glorious dresses and tuxes and sparkles and sequins. Even Barry, Lawrence Schoen's little pet buffalo, was dressed up all dapper. I was seated at a great table filled with fabulous people, one of whom (thank you, Dawn!) was kind enough to discover for me that there was a live stream of the event. I promptly texted my husband back home, and he promptly found it and proceeded to watch all of us eat food for the next hour and a half.

I love that SFWA did the live stream. It made me feel like my husband was right there with me, and that made the whole evening extra special. Like the true professional I am, I of course waved and blew kisses at him via the video camera at every opportunity.

When they announce the awards, it really feels like the Oscars. They project the names of the nominees on a big screen and read the names, and it's all really exhilarating. Steven Gould introduced the Andre Norton Award, and it was a lovely intro. He read the opening lines of a dozen classic MG/YA novels, and those sentences alone said everything. They encapsulate why YA and all of children's literature is important: because it touches that bit of you that is eternally young and full of wonder. I think he's planning to post it online soon, and I dare you to read that list and not be filled with memories.

In the end, I didn't win. The winner of this year's Andre Norton Award was Eugene Myers for Fair Coin from Pyr. But I am really, really thrilled for Eugene! He's a great guy, and it's a great book. (I blurbed it, in fact.) Yay, Eugene!

And I'd like to say congratulations to all the winners:

Kim Stanley Robinson (Nebula for Best Novel)
Nancy Kress (Nebula for Best Novella)
Andy Duncan (Nebula for Best Novellette)
Aliette de Bodard (Nebula for Best Short Story)
Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Abilar (Ray Bradbury Award)
E.C. Myers (Andre Norton Award)
Gene Wolfe (Grand Master Award)
Ginjer Buchanan (Solistice Award)
Carl Sagan (Solistice Award)
Michael H. Payne (Service to SFWA Award)

*cheers, applauds, and does Snoopy Dance*

It was really so much fun to be a part of this event. I had such a big smile on my face through the whole thing that after the ceremony, Robert Silverberg (the MC) said to me, "You should win a Nebula for your smile. It lights up the room," which only served to make me smile all the more.

Thank you to SFWA and to all the organizers and volunteers who made the Nebula Weekend possible. I had a fantastic time! And I love my three unicorns.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

VESSEL is a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Finalist!

Got some wonderful news today!

Vessel has been selected as a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award!!!

I am so very thrilled and honored.  In years past, I've used the list of Mythopoeic finalists to find books to add to my far-too-long-already books-to-read list, and now my book is on that list!  Squeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!

Info about the award and the full list of finalists can be found here, on the Mythopoeic Society website.

In the Children's Literature category, the finalists are:

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, Giants Beware! (First Second)
Sarah Beth Durst, Vessel (Margaret K. McElderry)
Merrie Haskell, The Princess Curse (HarperCollins)
Christopher Healy, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (Walden Pond Press)
Sherwood Smith, The Spy Princess (Viking Juvenile)

I feel so honored to be mentioned in the company of these other great authors.  The winner will be announced at an awards banquet on July 14th.  Fingers crossed!!!

Thank you so very, very much to the Mythopoeic Society, and congratulations to all the other finalists!  Cue the Snoopy dance of joy!!!

(Disclaimer: No exclamation points were harmed in the making of this post.)

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Stuff I've Learned: Don't Wait for Inspiration

In my last post, I touched briefly on inspiration, and that inspired me to devote a whole post to it.  (See what I did there?  It inspired me.  Get it?  Okay.  Moving on...)

Here are two quotes that I like about inspiration:

"Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working." -- Pablo Picasso

"You can't wait for inspiration; you have to go after it with a club." -- Jack London

I'd like to point out that while Jack London probably had an actual club that he used to chase down his muse while riding bareback on a timber wolf, you don't need a club. 

Might help to have a wolf.

I have clear memories of myself as a teenager sitting someplace picturesque with a notebook and pen, waiting for inspiration and not writing a single word.  I remember quitting story after story because I didn't feel inspired to continue.  Or not writing for days and days because the muse wouldn't come, and I wasn't in the mood.

I wish I could borrow a time machine and smack myself on the back of the head.

Yes, there are writers who only write when they feel inspired.  And if that works for them, great.  But the vast majority of people who only write when they feel inspired probably won't finish their novel at all.  Ever.

Don't wait for inspiration.

Inspiration is a slippery minnow in a silt-saturated stream.  You see it once, and then it's gone.  But that's enough to know that this stream has life in it, and you should plop your fishing pole into it and see what comes up.

You don't need to feel inspired in order to write.  Really, you don't.  Your job is to string words together in sentences.  You can do that job whatever your mood.  The words don't care if you're feeling lightning-strike joy or humdrum malaise.

I can practically hear someone out there saying, "But the words won't be any good!  If I don't feel inspired, the story will feel flat."

So what?  Say you write five pages of complete garbage.  Say you know as you write it that you're going to toss the entire scene.  Nothing in it is worth keeping.  Except that one sentence in the middle of page four.  Yeah, that one's not bad.  In fact, if you built a scene around that sentence instead, then the story could really move!  And if that other character said that bit of dialogue...  Hello, inspiration, I didn't see you come in.  I was just here busy working.

In my experience, inspiration is far more likely to hit if you're already writing.

If you show up at your desk to write every day, odds are that the muse will wander by to see what you're doing.  And if you don't... she's going fishing without you.

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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Stuff I've Learned: Write Every Day

I know some writers who are binge writers.  Every few months, they drown themselves in their stories.  Sometimes they check into a hotel or go on an intensive writer's retreat.  More often, they shut themselves in their office or plant themselves in a cafe all day, every day.  For several weeks, they put the rest of their life on hold, and they hammer out a novel.  Then they return to the world, take a few months off from writing, and let their creative well refill until it's time to binge-write again.

That's a perfectly valid writing process, and if it works for you, yay!

It doesn't work for me.  I can't put the rest of my life on hold.  The rest of my life would FREAK OUT.  And besides, if I took a few months off writing, I'd be miserable.  In fact, if I take a few days off, I'm miserable.  So that brings us to one of the biggest things I've learned about my own writing process: I need to write every day.

I need to write in the same way that I need food, sleep, and shelter. 

You may think that sounds all cutesy and artsy.  "I need to write like I need to sleep."  Seriously?  Melodramatic much?

Seriously, yes.  And it's not so much "cutesy" as annoying.  Just ask my husband.  If I skip a night of sleep, I am as grumpy as a raccoon in daytime.  And if I skip a day of writing... exact same thing.  Whether I write or not directly affects my mood and my worldview.  It doesn't even matter if the writing goes well or not.  If I don't write, the world feels out of balance, and the glass looks half empty.

Stupid thing is that I often forget this.  Life will intrude, and I'll miss my chance to write, and there I'll be, feeling out-of-sorts, with no idea why.  My husband will come home from work and within ten minutes he can diagnose my problem.  And sure enough, as soon as I go string a few sentences together, I feel better and the world feels brighter and the birds are singing and tra-la-la-la-la.

So to maintain my own happiness level, I need to write every day.

The act of writing every day -- even if it's just for five minutes -- has several other great benefits:

1. It makes writing less scary.

It's easy to put "write a novel" up on a pedestal as this grand, lofty goal that can only be accomplished when everything is perfect (i.e. you have a lovely stretch of free time, solitude and silence, and lightning-bolt-level feelings of pure inspiration).  Thinking of it this way can lead you to push it off again and again.

But if you write every day, it makes the act of writing not such a big deal.  You don't have to write a novel today.  Really, you don't.  You just have to string a few sentences together.  Just like you did yesterday, and just like you'll do tomorrow. 

2. It decreases the throat-clearing time.

If you write every day, then writing becomes a habit like brushing your teeth.  You don't get nervous when you have to brush your teeth.  You don't wait to be in the right mood.  You don't play mood music or give yourself pep talks or take deep cleansing breaths.  You just walk into the bathroom and brush those pearly whites.

Writing is not so different.  When it becomes a habit, you will find that you need less prep time at the start of a writing session.  You won't need as many rituals to get in the mood.  Plus the story will be fresh in your mind, as will the character's voices, since you just worked on it yesterday.

3. It invites the muse.

If you write every day, instead of waiting for inspiration, you are inviting inspiration to come join you.  I believe that if you show up to your desk (or wherever you write) every day, then the muse will know where to find you.

Happy writing!

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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Cover Art Reveal: THE LOST

I am extremely excited to share with you the cover art for my first novel for adults, THE LOST, coming from Harlequin / Luna on October 29, 2013:

I am so in love with this cover.  In fact, I keep opening the jpeg simply to look at it.  I love the overlay of colors.  I love the watercolor paint effect.  I love the silhouettes at the top, especially the single balloon that always floats over Lost...  Thank you so much to the design team at Luna for giving THE LOST such a magnificent cover!!

From the jacket flap:

Lost your way?

Your dreams?


Welcome to Lost.

It was supposed to be a small escape. A few hours driving before turning around and heading home. But once you arrive in Lost... well, it's a place you really can't leave. Not until you're Found. Only the Missing Man can send you home. And he took one look at Lauren Chase and disappeared.

So Lauren is now trapped in the town where all lost things go -- luggage, keys, dreams, lives -- where nothing is permanent, where the locals go feral and where the only people who don't want to kill her are a handsome wild man called the Finder and a knife-wielding six-year-old girl. The only road out of town is engulfed by an impassable dust storm, and escape is impossible....

Until Lauren decides nothing -- and no one -- is going to keep her here anymore.

So, what do you guys think?!?!?!?!?!?!?

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