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Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday's List: 10 Favorite College Rock Songs

I have my lists of my favorite books coming, I promise. It's easier to find songs because I am obsessive about my iTunes categorization/playlists, and I can easily tell you my favorites. Books are harder for me to narrow down.

I have a playlist of exactly 149 "college rock" songs. Obviously, college rock is something I listened to in college (or high school, because when I was there I wished I was already outta there, foolish, foolish youngster). For some reason, I don't label Dave Matthews as college rock. Probably because he gets his own "Fave Dave" playlist of 100 songs, and this list is for the others. I realize this is completely arbitrary, but, well, it's my iTunes and I can do what I want to.

  1. It's Alright by Big Head Todd & the Monsters. This gets the No. 1 spot because it is one of my favorite songs of all time. 
  2. AFH by Slackjaw. If you went to U.Va. in the mid-90's and drank Natty Light on Rugby Road, you will remember them.
  3. Guinevere by Edwin McCain. That whole album, "Honor Among Thieves," is really good.
  4. Not Even the Trees by Hootie & the Blowfish. This song never hit it big like Let Her Cry and Time, but it is the best.
  5. Bright Lights by Matchbox Twenty.
  6. Three Marlenas by The Wallflowers.
  7. These Are the Days by 10,000 Maniacs. I realize this is the high school graduation anthem of the mid-90's, but that doesn't stop me from liking it.
  8. Down by 311. Tied closely with All Mixed Up.
  9. Please Don't Tell Her by Big Head Todd.
  10. Sample in a Jar by Phish.
I'm sure you have your own opinions ... Feel free to leave your additions in the comments. :)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Post-Its Don't Stick to Grass Cloth (Adventures in Plotting)

So about a year ago I was excited to put up grasscloth wallpaper in our office. I love the way it looks and the office seems, well, more like an office. See? Yeah, sure, there MIGHT be duplo blocks and Lightning McQueen all over the floor, but that's immaterial, right?

But then something unexpected happened. I was working on my children's book (middle grade, that's around grades 3-5 for you non-writerly folks), and well, I couldn't remember things. Around 10,000 words I was going, wait, WHEN did that happen? Hmmm, I mention this character and then I wait four chapters to mention him again? The parental conflict is a central plot point but it doesn't really crop up until Chapter 6. Basically, I couldn't remember squat so I was constantly scrolling up and down my Word document like a crazy fool. That's when it was time to break out the post-it notes.

I decided to do individual notes for each chapter and each major plot point, and stick them up on the wall so I can see them. As I need to find something, I know where it is, and if I want to move a major point to a different chapter I can just flip things around. Except there's a problem. Yep, post-its don't stick to grasscloth. What they LIKE to do is fall off and flutter around on the floor, collecting tufts of dog hair. Luckily, with some extra tape they DO stick to the world map from IKEA. So this is now the main view in my office. The downside is that my geography-loving second grader can't see much of South America and, Africa is quickly going. One day it will all be worth it, right?

There are many different ways of plotting. Some people like a detailed outline of their books. And while I was losing track of some of my plot points, this book isn't so complicated that I need a more in-depth system. At least not right now.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

So You Think You're Ready To Pitch: Do You Have a 'Yes' List? (Picture Book Version)

After I write a manuscript (and by 'write,' I mean finish, fuss with, belabor and destroy-by-editing), I have a series of questions I ask myself before remotely considering if an editor or agent would be interested. Blindly sending out a just-whipped-out story to a slush pile or agency is the quickest way to rejection. I try to give my work the best possible chance, and I have a series of questions I ask myself.

Before I pitch a picture book manuscript, I must answer YES to all of these questions.

1. Would my kids want to read it? 
This may sound like a no-brainer, but there are a lot of books out there (and even more DOA manuscripts) that are mildly interesting to adults but not to kids. I pitch my story ideas to my kids, and if they say "Oooh, can we read that?" then the idea is worth pursuing.

2. Would I want to read it?
If this story were published, and my child loved it and went to grab it from the shelf every night for a week, would I happily read it again? Or would I groan and convince them to pick something else, anything else? (Come on, you know you've done it: "Now, I know you LOVE it when Brother and Sister Bear go back to school AGAIN, but can we try something else tonight? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?")

3. Does every word count?
I finished a manuscript last March that I worked on for several weeks and edited down to a respectable 700 words. I thought it was finished. I just picked it up a few weeks ago and cut it down to 376. I know now, for sure, that every word in that manuscript counts. There is nothing superfluous. 

4. Did my critique partner read it? Does she like it?
I trust my writing partner very, very much, and if she hasn't worked on it, it ain't ready.

5. Does it have a LOT of illustrative moments?
The story cannot get by on the strength of its words. The best picture books being printed today have a unique interplay of story and words. Unfortunately, I cannot draw one iota. So when I write, I have to provide areas that would allow an illustrator's imagination to run wild.

6. Does it have a good narrative arc?
If the story doesn't have an interesting problem, build-up to climax and then resolution, forget it. This is really, really hard to do in a few hundred words. It takes a lot of practice and a LOT of reading. When I read books to my kids that don't have a good narrative arc, it makes me absolutely crazy. No one cares about an interesting character if he doesn't do anything interesting.

7. Does it have a surprise ending?
This isn't a "must" for some writers, but it is for me. I absolutely LOVE the final page turn in a picture book to find one last joke, hook or surprise. A great example is the final page in "Never Babysit the Hippopotamuses!" by Doug Johnson. The last page spread says "So. Never babysit the hippopotamuses. Unless, of course, your only other choice is to babysit their neighbors," ... page turn ... "the MONKEYS." That kind of ending gets kids (and adults) every time.

I have several manuscripts languishing right now because they answered NO to just one of these questions. One story is well-loved by my family and friends, but I know it lacks a narrative arc -- it's just too episodic to be interesting to a publisher. Another is a great story without enough opportunity for illustration. It could potentially be turned into a short story, but it's just not a picture book.

If a story answers a YES to all of these questions, I feel really good about it. If I send it out and it gets rejected a million times over, honestly, I still feel really good about it. That sounds a bit too Pollyanna, but it's true. I know I gave it my absolute, best shot. And then it's time to get back to writing some more.

p.s. I didn't include one thing because it may seem too obvious. But it's a no-brainer. No spelling errors. No grammatical errors. DON'T BE A MORON. The people reading your manuscripts read for a LIVING. If they see an error in a few hundred words, they probably think you are dumb. Don't do it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Friday's List: 10 Great Cover Songs

I'm going to post a list of books, songs, movies, etc. each Friday. Enjoy!

Here are 10 of my favorite cover songs, in no particular order:

1. Everybody Knows, Concrete Blonde
2. Make You Feel My Love, Adele
3. Turn Your Lights Down Low, Lauryn Hill w/ Bob Marley
4. Wild World, Mr. Big
5. Landslide, Dixie Chicks
6. Use Your Love, Katy Perry
7. Bold As Love, John Mayer
8. Southern Cross, Jimmy Buffet
9. All Night Long, Jason Mraz
10. Love Is Blindness, Jack White

Honorable Mention for:

Down Under by Colin Hay, acoustically covering his own Men at Work song

Don't go blowing your budget on iTunes now. :)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Are You Reading Poetry? 4 Reasons You Should Be

I know what you're thinking. "If you think I am going to pick up the 'Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry' -- or the Norton anything for that matter -- you are crazy." We all know I'm a little crazy, but there's a method in the madness. Here's why reading poetry really matters, especially for writers.

1. It's Concise.

Well, duh. With the exception of of certain long-winded poets who just had to keep going (I'm looking at you, T.S. Eliot), poets are incredibly adept at saying a lot with a little. Hmmm, does that sound a lot like picture-book writers?

Consider this from Pablo Neruda in "Ode to a Couple":

If snow falls
upon two heads,
the heart is sweet,
the house is warm.

Can brevity get any better? Sure, it's a poem, but couldn't you see this illustrated in a quiet picture book, a la "Snowy Day?" In poetry every word counts. How many times have you heard that advice for picture book writers?

2. It's Beautiful.

Without coming off as a little bombastic here, there is simply merit, as a writer, in surrounding yourself with beautiful words. They are everywhere: children's books, popular books, music, etc. But if you're not turning to poetry as well, you are missing out.

A volume of poetry sits on my bedside, and I read one or two poems every night before I go to bed. As if my brain can suck in the beauty of the words via osmosis while I sleep. Right now I'm reading Neruda, but I just finished Elizabeth Bishops' complete poems, and my next will be my very favorite: e.e. cummings. To become better at their craft, architects must visit inspiring buildings, musicians must listen to inspiring songs, and it goes without saying: Writers must surround themselves with inspiring words.

3. It's Hysterical.

You don't have to be a children's book writer to pick up Shel Silverstein. It's actually bizarrely morbid and I think I get a lot more out of it reading it as an adult. A poem about your finger being bit off by a monster the further you stick it up your nose is a cautionary tale of sanitation to a kid. To an adult, it's a metaphor for the consequences of pushing the limits too far. But it's all said from a child-like POV, and it's funny and fascinating, and, as often in his poetry, completely heartbreaking.

So for aspiring children's book authors, I say, don't forget your Shel, your Lewis Carroll, your traditional nursery rhymes. (I will do a post on nursery rhymes in the future, which are completely morbid and amazing in their own right.) Inspiration abounds in children's poetry.

4. It Captures the Human Condition.

Isn't that what we are trying to do, really, when we write? Some writers spend 500 words trying to capture a slice of humanity. (See: practically every title on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list. "Ulysses at No. 1?" Really?) Poets can do that in one page. I love this from W.B. Yeats's "All Things Can Tempt Me":

All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman's face, or worse --

Sounds like a 400-page D.H. Lawrence saga full of unnecessary, flowery description to me. Or, in the case of Yeats, you get it all in two lines.

You get my drift.


Fine, I get it. I love words but not everybody else does. But there's something you probably do like:  music. The best songwriters are actually just the most multi-talented people on the planet. They are writers who can sing. I have a ridiculously varied musical taste (a post for a later time), but take a look into your iTunes library and find the truly talented singer/songwriters in there. Listen to John Mayer in "Clarity":

I worry, I weigh three times my body
I worry, I throw my fear around
But this morning, there's a calm I can't explain
The rock candy's melted, only diamonds now remain.

Or my favorite, brilliant, Dave Matthews in "Why I Am":

I grew drunk on water turned into wine
Till I was slave and master at the same damn time.

In summary, after this loooong post (thank you for sticking with me): Listen to the words. Get inspired. There are masters out there; you just have to know where to look.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Name Is Jill, and I'm an OCD Reader

It's true. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a ... problem. I cannot, CANNOT, read just anything that crosses my path. I have a schedule, darn it! I believe there are just too many fabulous books in too many fabulous genres. If left to my own devices, I might **gasp** read chick lit after chick lit with nary a classic in sight! And then I would be missing out on someone like, say Carson McCullers. Blasphemy.

So here it is. I read in "cycles," and read one book from each genre before beginning again. I have methods for choosing which book to read, but that is a trade secret. Plus, if I let you know that, Corey will be so mortified that it is painfully apparent he married a major, total geek.

Cycles go like this: Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Popular Fiction, Classic Fiction, Chick Lit, Children's Fiction.

Lit fiction is the category for my Mark Helprins and John Irvings, T.C. Boyles and Margaret Atwoods. This is when I read the heavy fiction, the Pulitzer winners, etc. That doesn't always mean I like what I choose to read, but most of the time I do.

I generally read in different nonfiction areas, such as memoir, religion, parenting, women's studies, business and writing. I try to mix it up between, say, a book on Buddhism followed by a Malcolm Gladwell.

Popular fiction is for the current thrillers, the "fluffier" stuff, the Dan Browns, etc. Hey, don't I get a break after slogging through the Buddhism book?

Oh, classic fiction, be still my heart. You are my bread and butter, my John Hardy and my Harper Lee. There was a reason I was an English major.

Chick lit: Come on, I just finished a D.H. Lawrence! I deserve it!

Children's: Every children's writer needs to be familiar with the best of their craft, period.

In practice, here is what a recent book cycle looked like:

Lit fiction: Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
Nonfiction: The Parents We Mean to Be, Richard Weissbound
Popular: The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
Classic: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Chick: Twenties Girl, Sophie Kinsella
Children's: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Just because I am OCD doesn't mean I don't break my own rules, because I do. Every so often I will drop everything for a must-read (Gone Girl -- totally worth it), and all bets are off on vacation. But all in all, this is why I don't join book clubs. It doesn't fit with the schedule.

So there you have it. Now, I have to juggle this with my obsession with magazines. And that is a different story.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Here We Are

Welcome to my newest venture -- a blog to share my thoughts on reading and writing, a place to discuss children's literature and a chronicle of my road to children's book author. (You see how I did that? I'm pretending that the endgame is in the bag -- that I will, indeed, one day be published. I figure confidence is key in this business. It will keep me going in the darker days.)

What I've got are characters. And stories. They follow me around, they peek out from grocery store aisles, they nest in my head at night. They beg for release on the page. Sometimes, I end up with something I am really proud of. Other times, I know it's a load of crap. Regardless, I keep going.

To keep going at this stage of my life means so many things. I am a freelance magazine editor for Disclosures, the bimonthly member publication of the Virginia Society of CPAs. Writing and editing articles on taxation, accounting and auditing is a far cry from writing children's stories, but it has some similarities. Good writing, no matter what the genre or medium, is good writing. The same rules of grammar and communication apply.

Couple juggling that gig with the facts of daily life and, well, sometimes creative writing is a crapshoot. I will get on a roll, write a book in my head at the grocery store and race home to pound out a draft in 20 minutes, ice cream melting in the trunk. Or I will spend hours laboring over one page of my middle-grade book manuscript. I have peace for exactly five hours each week (that's when all of my three children are out of the house and at school and/or preschool), so I sometimes find solace then. Other times, I will write with all three of them crowded in my office, playing legos and hide-and-seek, with my two-year-old climbing up my chair and peeing down my back. Yes, that actually happened.

Somewhere in this zoo I am looking for magic. So here's my blog and my journey.