Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rocket Candy and Rocketing Careers

This weekend I attended the ANWA Conference in Phoenix. Simply put, it was fantastic. So much good information, and so many great opportunities for the writers who attended.

It started off with a workshop given by the dynamic Elana Johnson, a query ninja and former blogger for  She gave us a great tutorial and hands on help with queries and pitches. That girl is a firecracker. AND she has what looks like a killer dystopian YA novel coming out this summer: POSSESSION. I can't wait to get my hands on it. I really liked MATCHED, and Elana's book promises more of the same, but with an "angry-girl" angle. Good times.

Chris Stewart gave the keynote address. The comment I heard most in response to his presentation was, "Isn't he wonderful?" Yep. I'll give that an amen.

This year, the organizers invited two agents (national) and one editor (LDS.) Writers could sign up for a nine minute pitch their work to any of the three. In addition, they and the presenters hung around at the chocolate reception and during the classes and visited with conference attendees.

The other classes were great. I loved the songwriting class by Chava Cannon. Who knew all *that* went into writing a good song? Coool. Plus, a Barnes&Noble exec came and spoke about how YOU TOO can get your novel onto the shelves of your local BN. No, seriously. It's not that tricky.

But it's a different blog post. Later. Maybe tomorrow. I'll also be sharing some of the great info we were given in some of the other workshops.

Probably the most anticipated and dreaded and valuable aspect of the retreat was the PITCH SESSIONS. Covenant Communications editor Kirk Shaw came. What a stand up guy. Seriously. He's a credit to his company. I was just jumping for joy with quite a few of my friends who met with him and got requests for full manuscripts. Good stuff! I could see the doors opening for their writing careers and no doubt, some of those are going to ROCKET.

Speaking of rockets, I have to mention candy. But today, it's not edible. Eep. Not that I didn't eat waaaaay too much candy on this weekend trip, including the breakfast of champions: snack size Twix bars and three handfuls of Hot Tamales. Possibly not the breakfast of champions.

No, today I must mention Rocket Candy! My kids (four of them) have the science fair this week. Do you KNOW how many science projects that is? Naturally, I turned it over to my husband. "You're the scientist, sweetheart." That's kind of how it went.

Anyhow, we dropped eggs and Jell-O from the peak of our roof onto our driveway. We sprouted some pea seeds and bean seeds. We did a comparison between sprouting times of watermelon seeds in a cool room versus those on a heat-mat. (The heat mat seeds sprouted, window seeds didn't.) Gary had to buy a heat mat anyway.

The oldest boy, an aspiring aerospace engineer, built a rocket. His question was what kind of fuel works best for model rockets. He used regular model rocket engines he bought at the store. Then he made a putty-like thing called rocket candy. This consisted of saltpeter (which I had to buy at Safeway. Really.) and Karo syrup. Kind of Pepto pink, it was.

The last fuel was *actual space shuttle fuel.*

No, really.

When I asked Gary jokingly where he planned to get that, he said, "It's okay. I have to get some anyway."


It took a while, but it's now clear to me: YOU CAN GET ANYTHING ONLINE.

Space shuttle fuel can be purchased from Pocatello, Idaho.

Some people's husbands.

The rockets went up. All of them flew. The real space shuttle fuel caught a small area of the stubble in the field on fire. Four or five times. The rocket candy worked pretty well, but boy did it smoke. Just as my genius son predicted, the commercially produced engine flew the highest. Maybe that was a safe guess...But a smart one. I'd hedge my bets against my own ability to make a rocket fuel on my stovetop or in my garage. Smart kid.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Querying Querying

It's time to dust off the old query-writing hat. It's been a while since I donned it. About a decade. And times have changed. Query expectations have changed. Heck, even submission systems have changed. Email queries are the norm for a lot of agencies now? Cool. And bad at the same time. How easy is it for an agency screener to hit the delete key?

So, I have gone over mine a zillion times. It's starting to come together. It has a bit of the flavor of the tone I use in my novel; the voice of the query seems to be a mirror of the book. There's a hint of the conflict, a hook at the beginning, a bit about the character's growth.

Today I ran across this great post by Natalie Whipple. She has a fantastic writing blog. Highly recommend. Here's a link to her post called, "Don't Knock the Query."

She's right. I find myself hating the query. Why can't the agent or the publisher just take the time to read my whole novel and make a judgment? Come on! We writers went to all the trouble to pen these tomes--doesn't the world owe it to us to at least read the things?

Ha. Well, ha. Isn't that a bit egotistical? I regularly put down books that don't catch my interest with a back cover blurb or a good first page. I'm not a last page peeker (I know some people are, and I guess that's your right, even though it's kind of wrong, unwrapping the presents on Christmas Eve and then rewrapping them and acting surprised on Christmas morning.) A lot of books simply don't appeal.

So, in a way, it's kind of merciful that agents only ask for a query initially. How much forestry would be wasted (and I do mean wasted, as agencies just don't recycle. Sorry. That's what I'm told. Not that I'm a big recycler myself. Guilty! Guilty as charged!) if we all just printed out every single word of our 90,000 word novels and sent them off in piddly little mail trucks to the upper West Side of Manhattan? Gasoline alone...think of it. $3.35 a gallon around here this morning, baby.

It preserves resources and time to simply send the query. Either just a single page and a SASE goes, or else a blip of electricity, into their inboxes. I think we can trust these people to know if the concept appeals to them or not after a few minutes, as much as we trust ourselves to know whether a novel in the library or bookstore will *not* be our cup of tea at first glance.

So, with that, I'm going to keep honing the query, make it match the story as well as possible and so it will give my super duper chosen agent a chance to decide based on what's really there. That's the goal, folks. Not to write the best query every, in particular, but the best query for your book. It's gotta match.

Speaking of things needing to match, there's got to be a matching candy somewhere. Probably my favorite way to have a matching candy would be to have two of the same candy. Or three. Just a good candy in multiples.

However, one matchy-matchy treat stands out: the Twin Pop. Sweet, cool, fruity (unless you get a root beer flavored pop) and oh-so-refreshing. I have about 15 of them in my freezers right now. The red kind, which I assume is cherry, isn't quite as good as the blue. Who knows what flavor blue is. Does it really matter? Some days -- days when I don't care if I have what looks like a purple tattoo around the inner level of my lips -- grape is the only flavor that satisfies.

Luckily I live in a warm climate, and be it mid-February or not, a twin pop is almost always in order. One caveat: banana. Not a fave. Luckily, it is the favorite of two of my children, so no pops live in vain! Long live the twin pop! Ooh, once I saw a "How it's Made" episode that showed the life cycle of the Twin Pop. Very interesting. I bet you could youtube that if you really wanted to know. I need to get back to my query, or I'd dig around and post a link for y'all.

Happy querying and popping!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Clean Carpets and Clean Manuscripts

Last week I did what I dread. I pulled out my carpet shampoo-er. It was time. Long past time.

To get the dirty deed done, first I had to move a ton of furniture into the garage and to the side of the room. This involved silk plants and magazine racks and the rocking chair and a couple of lamps and the little bookcase with all the kids' piano books. And the kitchen table and chairs. And tipping the loveseat up on its side and balancing it against the window casing. And shoving the long couch up against the front window where no one walks or drags trikes or sleds or rollerskates so the carpet is still relatively bluish there, as opposed to the brown-grey-blue of the heavy traffic areas.

In this house, with these feet, everywhere is a heavy traffic area.

Then, it was the vacuums. I make that plural because the big one, my Hoover Platinum, vacuums the middle of the floor, and the hand-held with the wand gets the edges of the room. Man, that thing has a loud, high-pitched wail. Good thing I put in earplugs, or I'd be sitting here enjoying the strains of tinnitis instead of Phineas and Ferb being piped in from the other room.

How long does it usually take me to vacuum? Like 15 minutes? More or less. This time, I think I clocked in at three times that long. There was just that much dirt lurking. Ground in cold cereal, thanks to the little girls doll tea parties. Hey, I had a bad year for housework. It happens.

FINALLY, I pulled out Old Reliable. Er, Old Soapy. Or whatever it is I'm going to name that shampoo-carpeter (as my sister calls it.) The Hoover SteamVac. It's pretty heavy. And it's loud. And it requires vacuuming at a snail's pace with something twice as cumbersome as my regular vac.

It took me five (count 'em five) hours of push and pull to get through the living room and hallway. Forget the bedrooms. Every time I emptied that rinse basin, I cringed. How could that black sludge be all around us?


When I finished, I couldn't just stop. The black sludge sickened me. I had to make another pass. Against the better judgment of my impending back-pain, I got up my courage and made another pass.

Guess what. No black sludge! Yes!

Sure, there was brown sludge this time, but it wasn't black this time. A little cleaner! So happy.

After that pass, I realized it could use another rinse. However, I'd been at it for hours, and all I could do was crawl into the passenger seat of our suburban and say, "Sweetie, can you, just, please, uh, drive me through McDonalds. Need. Hamburger. Need. Yogurt. Please?"

My sweetie did. Those yogurt parfaits deserve a place in the candy pantheon. I love them.

So. My point is this. The first time I went through my manuscript to edit it, it made me sick. Pulling out black sludge. Chunks of goo. Bad, bad, murky nasty. It made me want to quit.

But I kept at it. The second time, it was more like brown sludge. Less goo. More clarity. And the third time, even cleaner.

Now, on my umpteenth read-through, it's a lot cleaner. My critique pals are pointing out the typos, rather than the glaring plot errors, for the most part, and it's encouraging.

So, to get a clean draft, it might take a lot of passes to get there. It's worth it! Here at home my carpet is almost blue everywhere again. I walk through and it's spongy fluff, rather than brownish matted ick. What a change! I feel the same way about my manuscript. With every pass it improves.

Of course, like with any analogy, it can be taken too far. The wash cycle can actually start wearing away at the fibers of the carpet, and likewise over-editing can start chipping away at the charm and life of the story. Be gentle and selective and careful.

Now. Enough of that. I have been thinking about that yogurt parfait and how a lot of things ought to be included in the Candy Family. How did that biology chant go? Kingdom, phylum, class...Who knows. Anyhow, it's my firm belief that many cold cereals belong firmly in in the candy family. For sure any that list its first ingredient as sugar just flashes "candy!" at you. Apple Jacks? Candy. Froot Loops? Totally candy. Those taste a lot like Skittles to me. Sugar Smacks...burned candy. What about anything that is half sugar-coated oat flour and half marshmallows? Undeniably candy.

Bill Cosby had a skit about fatherhood where his kids were chanting something about chocolate cake for breakfast. Not a bad idea. But candy/cereal -- just a good substitute for that on days we don't feel like baking before the morning meal.

Bring on the sugar. I'll have mine in honey nut flavor today, please.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pitching the Woo-- and rejoicing in Brown Wednesday

So, it's time for me to take it to the next level. I have to take what I call "my novel" and pitch it to an agent. That's the next step (after my final rewrites, which I'm procrastinating until I get a couple more critiques back and see if there's a consensus about which spots need revamps) after finishing the book.

Another option, of course, would be querying agents. But I'm lucky enough to be attending an upcoming conference at the end of this month, where several agents are taking appointments with writers, and heck yeah, I signed up to meet them. It sounds SUPER DUPER STRESSFUL, but it also sounds like a great way to bypass the slushpile. I mean, it's kind of like getting junk mail versus getting a letter from a friend. Which one are you going to read first -- if at all. If I were an agent and I could (at least vaguely) put a face to a name, I'd be waaaay more inclined to read a submission (especially a requested one) than one from a stranger. Just seems like human nature to me.

That said, I know it's still not a guarantee that my pages will get requested by an agent from this conference. I am okay with that, totally. The topic will be kind of like what Bob said in "What About Bob" when he spoke of Neil Diamond. "There are two types of people in this world...those who love Neil Diamond and those who can't stand him." I'm paraphrasing. But, still, my book's subject is definitely in the realm of "no middle ground" on whether a person/agent/reader will be interested or repulsed.

So, I'm getting all psyched up for the pitch. Trying not to psych out. Trying not to pitch the breakfast I just ate. Or the lunch. Or the entire pan of "brownie edges" I just ate before delivering the heart-shaped brownies to the Kindergarten class this morning. Don't you love the edges? Well, I hope some people don't so there are more for me. Anyhow, the pitch-practice begins. I have to write a pitch that reflects the tone of the book, that has my book's "voice" in it, that is exciting and tantalizing. I hope that can happen. It could turn out pretty lame. And unprofessional, and silly. But...that may be the TONE OF THE BOOK. So, hey.

On the note of Bob, I think I must mention corn. And on the cob. Is this corn hand-shucked? There has been a lot of rumbling about corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup lately and how bad it is for you. In fact, I just sipped (don't tell my husband. If you're blog-stalking me, Gary, forgive me!) a Pepsi-Throwback, the kind that is made with *real* sugar instead of the high fructose corn syrup. I didn't get a caffeine rush, as evidenced by my immediate snooze through the episode of Chuck we watched on Hulu, so it wasn't a LOT of Pepsi Throwback. (Have you heard the recent study about why women fall asleep watching TV? I'm not alone.)

I'll make a true confession. It's all sweet to me. I'll take it. Corn is getting bad rap. I mean, it's all probably bad for us, let's be honest. Whether it's empty calories from sugarcane or sugarbeets or corn or whatever. It's never going to be as healthy for us as spinach or celery or even plums. But those nutritious things will probably never give me that euphoric rush I can get from a nice big handful of cherry jelly hearts (I love Valentine's Day candy.)

With V-Day in mind...I just have to note that I love it when they refer to the day after Valentine's Day as "Brown Wednesday." All the chocolate goes on sale. Big nod to whomever thought of that moniker. BUT the bad news is...I went to my local Mao-Nart (we call it that around this house for various reasons) and found the shelves all but EMPTY. You all bought your chocolate by the crateload early this year, folks, and there's going to be nothing left on the big morning-after sales. Maybe at the grocery store. Safeway is always a good place for Brown Wednesday. I think I'll head over there.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Value Added Writing & SnackPack Eat-a-thon

    A couple of years ago, my sister (a doctor of education) and I were talking about our kids' picture books. She mentioned liking one in particular because she didn't "feel dumber when she finished reading it." I've thought about that a lot since then. There are so many kid-books that way--books where no author is even listed on the spine or cover. Books no one dares take credit for. Books that deplete the brain mass in my head.

    Then, on the other hand, there's the beautiful, mind expanding, soul-lifting book. The book that makes the heart sing. What's the difference? What's the magic?

    If I knew that, I'd be cranking out magical books every day.

    I haven't got it pinpointed, but I do have one idea that keeps cropping up. It's the term "value added." Like the "bonus features" on the menu selections of your DVDs, sometimes a book has something besides the story to recommend itself. It's the thing that makes the reader come away *not* feeling dumber.

    Shakespeare said there's nothing new under the sun. Or, maybe that was Ecclesiastes even longer ago. Fact: plots get recycled--whether the author realizes it or not. Most plots have been done before. The thing that makes a story new or different is the "value added."

    Here are some ideas to add value to our writing.

    1) Take the reader somewhere new. Describe an exotic setting, whether real or imagined, and make it vivid enough that the reader feels like he or she has really been there. It doesn't have to be a fantasy world or a "foreign land." The movie Napoleon Dynamite made tiny Preston, Idaho, my dear homeland, seem alive and exotic.

    2) Introduce the reader to someone new. Describe at least one character with enough precision that the reader feels like s/he would recognize the character on the street. This was the author's gift in Twilight. Readers knew Edward and Jacob well enough they'd buy t-shirts defending one or the other.

    3) Teach the reader something new. Describe a process or a situation in your story well enough that the reader feels like s/he can now educate his or her friends on the topic. Legalese is what makes Grisham fun. Make the reader feel smarter in *some* aspect. It doesn't have to take up five pages. It could just be a tidbit, like how to whip cream perfectly, or how to dispose of used oil after an oil change. It just needs to be there, adding to the brains and not depleting them. (Make sure you know the info well, or you may anger well-informed readers who already like the topic.)

    Being writers inherently means we think we have something to say that someone else ought to want to hear. It's hinting at the edges of what my husband and I call the "superiority complex." And readers are fine with that. They come to be told a story. They come to be educated. They come to be swept away. Take the responsibility seriously and we'll win repeat customers of our blogs, our novels, our newsletters, our memoirs.

Meanwhile, I'm going to think about what kinds of candy add value to my life. That's easy. Pretty much all kinds of candy. And my category for candy is broad. It includes cake. And pudding. And ice cream. And chocolate of all varieties.

Right now the candy in my cupboard that calls to me is the delicious Snack Pack pudding.  Back in the old days, this pudding came in a can. The can had a pop top. If you opened the can just right the lid would bend into a perfect concave to use as a spoon. (I guess that meant the package had added value.) However, if an 11 year old girl was not careful, she could slice open the edges of her mouth with the sharp metal of the pseudo-spoon. Oh, well. Blood just gave the chocolate pudding a salty edge.

I remember sitting at the sixth grade "read-a-thon" where our teacher gave us the whole afternoon to laze about on rugs surrounded by reading materials and treats. Some kids were lucky and brought Snack Pack puddings. Unlucky kids had spongy homemade banana cookies. My mom usually sent red and black licorice for me. The coolest kids got Pringles.

Not a lot of reading got done. More like it should have been called an "eat-a-thon." But that kind of situation is a bit of a fantasy for me still: lying about surrounded by reading materials and foods of my choice. Honestly, tell me: what could be better?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt and Cookies and Fluff Writing

I have a cousin in Egypt.

That matters on a day like today. I can't stop thinking about her and what's going on and how tense things are right now. So many prayers for her safety, and the safety of her loved ones there, and, well, everyone there. Sigh.

It's been over 20 years she has lived there, and I've never felt anything but nervous about the whole thing. But she is married to an Egyptian man, a good man. Her daughter has kept us posted about what's going on with her at this tense time.

This afternoon I got an email that kind of shocked me, and it's relevant to the point I've been trying to make with this blog all along. In it, my cousin's daughter told me that Phyllis spent the day yesterday reading my book, Delicious Conversation, to keep her mind off what's going on in Egypt, and that now she is wanting to make "Grandma's Chocolate Chip Cookies," one of the recipes included in the book.

When I read that, I choked up. It shocked me that such a fluffy, pointless, cotton-candy nothing of a story could be just the medicine someone needed at such a time as this. I wish I could give copies to every woman in stress there.

So you can take all your Pulitzer Prizes. I'll just be thankful to the Lord that my cousin is safe and well and taking comfort in the gauzy sweetness of silly writing. It's a blessing -- so big I can't even count it.