Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best New Reads of 2016!

2016, man. It's been a year, am I right? Like many of you, 2016 has put me through the ringer in more ways than one. But there's also been some exceptionally good things—chief among them, the number of really fantastic books I've read.

In the last year I've read a total of 87 books, 19 of which were unpublished books I read either as a critique partner or as a Pitch Wars mentor. (I've definitely never had a year with so much beta reading before! And I can't wait until those books are out in the world and I can share them with all of you.) Of the published books I tracked on Goodreads, a whopping 30 were five-star reads. I read very few books this year that I didn't totally love.

Here are my top 14 favorite new reads for 2016, because 14 was as close to 10 as I could make my list go, listed in mostly chronological order. The links in the post aren't affiliate links, because I've never made enough on my affiliate account for Amazon to actually give me the money, so I decided to go the easy route this year. ;)


1. Happiness for Beginners, Katherine Center

Adult fiction. Totally delightful, perfectly-paced, and life-affirming women's fiction that manages to be both sweet and thought-provoking.

2. The War that Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Middle grade fiction. This is one of this year's Newbery Honors, and I just adored it. I particularly loved that while it's a masterfully done historical fiction, the focus is on the character's personal story, not the historical setting. After I got past the really difficult beginning, I loved how hopeful and lovely the story managed to be, despite being about such grim topics.

3. The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin

Middle grade fiction. There were a lot of books that really stuck with me this year, but The Thing About Jellyfish tops that list. Gorgeously written, sweet, and sad, it beautifully tackles a very real experience for middle schoolers. I also loved how it was strongly hinted that the main character was likely on the autistic spectrum, but the focus of the story wasn't on her neurodifference, and the way the story told was very inclusive.

4. Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eager

Middle grade fiction. I was a little bit freaked out when I first saw the cover and synopsis for this book in the spring, because I'd just barely begun querying my own middle grade book about magic bees (which pretty quickly got an agent and sold to HarperCollins, hooray!). Once I read it, though, I was relieved to see it's very different than my own—and fell head over heels for Eager's lovely storytelling and the unique way that she intertwines fables and family history with her contemporary story.

5. Because of Winn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo

Middle grade fiction. No, I have no idea how I went 15 years after its publication without reading this one, but I loved it. Short, sweet, and guaranteed to bring a smile.

6. Goodbye Stranger, Rebecca Stead

Middle grade fiction. Stead is one of my favorite authors of this year, and of the books I read (the other being the equally fantastic Liar and Spy), Goodbye Stranger is the one that's really lingered in my mind. I love how well it tackles some really hard topics in an utterly sensitive and age-appropriate manner. Stead's sparse and straightforward writing, and her compelling and unique characters, are completely hypnotic.

7. Eleven and Holding, Mary Penney

Middle grade fiction. This was an unexpected gem; Penney's debut novel is another that tackles tough subjects with grace and humor.

8. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Adult fiction. I'd heard mixed things about this one, and wasn't sure what to expect going in, but I ended up devouring almost the whole thing in one night and absolutely loving it. The ending was a little abrupt and unexpected, but I loved the rest of the book enough that I was able to get over that. Sweet and life-affirming.

9. The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, Dana Alison Levy

Middle grade fiction. I also read Levy's debut novel, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, but while that was also a five-star read, Rock Island edged it out just a bit for me. I read this the week before Christmas, and the grin-inducing storyline plus the warm, summery setting were just what my tired midwinter heart needed.

10. The Key to Extraordinary, Natalie Lloyd

Middle grade fiction. Lloyd's debut, A Snicker of Magic, was actually the first book I read in 2016, and while I also loved that one, The Key to Extraordinary was even better. I loved everything about this book—the setting, the characters, the theme, the folk music woven through it, and all the references to lavender-peach muffins, which I'm still going to try my hand at making one of these days!

11. Courage for Beginners, Karen Harrington

Middle grade fiction. This was an unexpected gem that I picked up off a library display shelf one day. It was such a unique story, and while some aspects of it were so stressful to read, the plucky, voicey narrator kept me turning pages at top speed. Courage for Beginners manages to be both funny and heartbreaking, which is a pretty winning combination in my book.

12. Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, Shari Green

Middle grade fiction. Green's verse is absolutely luminous, and her subject matter is sweet and sad, in all the best ways. It's also one of the best depictions I've read of a side character with cystic fibrosis!

13. Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton

Adult nonfiction. Let me level with you here. I didn't really expect to love Love Warrior nearly as much as I did. I definitely didn't expect to find it profoundly moving, the kind of book I wanted to buy and reread the second I'd closed the cover. The Momastery blog can be slightly hit-or-miss for me, and while I appreciate a lot of Glennon's insights, I figured this book couldn't live up to the hype. But for me, at least, it totally did. In addition to being an honest and unflinching memoir that avoids stepping too far into navel-gazing or coy I'm-a-disaster-but-I'm-so-cute territory, Love Warrior is also packed with incredibly thought-provoking musings on society's expectations for women and for relationships.

14. The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore

Young adult fiction. McLemore's debut is gorgeously written, evocative, and unique; I can't describe it in words that really do it justice. The magical realism is light and perfect, and the story is so rich with atmosphere you could cut it with a knife.

Runners-up (it was so hard bumping so many favorites into this category):

A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro

Conviction, Kelly Loy Gilbert

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo

The Passion of Dolssa, Julie Berry

Okay For Now, Gary Schmidt

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, Karen Abbott

Southern Charmed, Melanie Jacobson

Saturday, November 5, 2016

And The Winner Is....



Guys. Oh my gosh, guys. This is the first year EVER that I have forgotten to publish the results of the pumpkin contest when I said I would!!!


The only thing I can blame it on is the fact that this has not been a very good week for my fibromyalgia'd-up brain (I have somehow locked my keys in the car twice in the last two weeks, after not doing it since high school?!), and also because honestly Mahon and I knew as soon as we finished carving which pumpkin would win, and it did, and so there was never the usual edge of excited vote-tracking because it was so clear from the start. And thus, it apparently slipped out of my brain entirely.

But now I have remembered, and without further ado I give you this year's contest winner: Pumpkin B! (I usually attach a pic, but this post keeps breaking every time I try to do that, so you will have to go to the original contest post to see them both. Sorry!) If you've been playing along with us for many years, you probably guessed that this was my pumpkin, making this another Cindy victory. Poor Mahon. He's already planning for next year, though, and I gotta tell you... it's gonna be pretty cool!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"you might be glad the Lord made you wait"


One night last year, I sat in our blisteringly hot non-air-conditioned apartment during the hottest summer ever recorded in Portland's history, utterly miserable. I'd started the summer off with the most exciting period in my writing life—after a year and a half of querying agents, the second book I'd queried had gotten a bunch of glowing agent requests right out of the gate. This is it, I thought, the idea thrilling through my veins like gold. This is how it starts. This novel is going places.

But then, only a few months later, every one of those full requests had come back as a rejection, one after another after another. And on that hot, miserable day, I'd gotten two rejections back-to-back, from the two agents for whom I had the highest hopes.

I sat on the couch that night, hooked up to my breathing treatments, staring at my computer, unable to muster the emotional energy even to scroll through Facebook. I felt mired in black fog, filled with an unhappiness that ran bone-deep. I couldn't bring myself to write. I couldn't bring myself to catch up on e-mail, or to read a good book, or any of the other things with which I usually occupy my treatment time. I knew, somewhere deep in that depressed fog, that what I most needed was a hint of Godly reassurance, a small bit of direction: Go on, or give up? And yet I knew, also, that I was way too dispirited to try to muddle through the lovely but complex words of a Bible passage.

I opened a browser and said a prayer that was a little stubborn, a little brazen. Lord, please help me to find the message that You have for me tonight, and please let it be on the main page of LDS.Org  (*the website for my church, which often has inspiring messages & videos on its main page) because I don't have the mental energy to hunt tonight.

I typed in the domain name, hit enter, and boom. Within ten seconds, my eyes had fallen upon this headline:

You Might Be Glad The Lord Made You Wait

I stared at it, not sure whether I felt more like laughing or crying at this further evidence of my long-held belief that God, up there in his high heaven, has a pronounced sense of humor. I read the article and then closed the computer. It wasn't the message that I had wanted, exactly, but it was restorative, nonetheless.

.   .   .   .   .

The next nine months of my writing life were, in many ways, soul-crushingly difficult. That book went on to make it into Pitch Wars, get a dramatic overhaul, pull in more agent requests, and then, over the next several months, rack up yet more rejections. By February, I knew that I'd reached the end of the road for that manuscript; I'd queried over a hundred agents, finally gotten feedback from a few of them that showed that my book would really never have a chance in its market without another substantial rewrite, and exhausted the list of agents I'd be interested in working with. It was a dark, dark moment: I had another manuscript that was nearly ready to go out, and I and my critique partners all felt like it had great potential, but I couldn't shake the feeling that my efforts really were all going to be doomed, regardless. I will be doing this over and over again for the rest of my life, I thought. Is it really worth continuing?

I reflected often on the tongue-in-cheek you might be glad the Lord made you wait message from the previous summer. When, I thought, would I finally get to the "glad" part, instead of just the endless "waiting?"

After much agonizing and soul-searching through February, I finally decided not to give up writing, for one simple reason—I'd given up before, and I'd learned that even if I put my fiction aside for years at a time, I'd always eventually come back to it. It seemed best to just plod ahead and avoid wasting my own time, if I knew that would be the case again. With fingers crossed, I finished revising the book I was working on—a middle grade novel called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—and started querying it, including entering it into a brand-new Twitter contest called #DVPit, for marginalized writers with diverse stories. (I am disabled/chronically ill, and WATERMELONS is about schizophrenia.) Within four days of #DVPit, I had my first agent offer, and over the next 10 days I had a dizzying string of further offers.

You might be glad, I thought as I deliberated and finally accepted one of the offers. You might be glad.

A few weeks later, after a round of revisions with my new agent, we sent my book out on submission. And within two or three weeks, we had our first offer. By about the one-month mark, I'd accepted an offer from HarperCollins Children's publishing, for a two-book deal from an editor who gushed about my book in a way that felt utterly surreal.

And suddenly, in that whirlwind summer week exactly a year after the miserable night where I begged for a message from God, I felt it. The gladness. The joy. The gratitude. My previous book, I knew somewhere deep in my gut, would not have done nearly so well, and would not have been as strong a debut novel, even if it had been picked up (which was highly unlikely). And suddenly, I was deeply, utterly grateful for the road I'd been traveling for the past few years, and the place it had brought me.

You might be glad the Lord made you wait.

And oh, my friends. I really, truly am.


Friday, October 28, 2016

Cast Your Vote In The Tenth Annual Pumpkin Carving Contest!

Long ago, in a land far far away, my now-husband and I were young college students flirting with the idea of taking our casual friendship a step further. It was October, and he invited me to his parents' house one weekend just before Halloween. "I bet I can carve a better pumpkin than you," he boasted, in the true spirit of our very competitive flirtation.

And thus, a contest was born. Nine years later, we still celebrate Halloween with a carving contest; these days, we have a theme that we both have to carve to. And each year, we allow all and sundry to cast their votes via my blog. (Previous years can be found at my old blog, here!)

I'm going to warn you, folks: This year was, um, not our best year. We tried some new things, including a dremel (long story, but we're not big fans, actually!), and neither of our pumpkins quite lived up to our visions for them. They definitely don't hold a candle—pun intended—to some of our truly great years. And this year, I think we're both starting to feel the potential for a change in the breeze, the inkling of a time when this pumpkin carving contest will have run its natural course, as it were, and be consigned to past tradition instead of present.

But for this year? It's still on, baby. And this year's theme is Harry Potter! 

As always, all descriptions are written by me, and all photos are a joint effort between us both. This years rules, as in previous years, are:

1. Just ONE vote per person... no cheating! If you don't have a Google or OpenID account and so you're voting anonymously, make sure to sign your vote. Unsigned anonymous votes may be deleted.

2. DO NOT reveal who carved which pumpkin! If you suspect that you may know which pumpkin was carved by whom, DO NOT share that information in the comments. Any comment that tries to spill the carver's identities will be quickly deleted. (Also, we really DON'T recommend attempting to guess whose pumpkin is whose. In the past, guessers have tried to swing the vote for one person or another, and guessed wrong, with disastrous [but hilarious] results. So really, just vote for which pumpkin you actually like better and leave it at that, okay???)

3. Get all your friends and family to cast their votes too! Share on social media! Bug your co-workers!

And now, for the pumpkins.

This year's Pumpkin A is a spooktastic take on one of cinema's most horrible (and marvelously Halloween-ish) scenes, as far as I'm concerned: Harry's and Ron's run-in in the Forbidden Forest with Aragog, the massive and horrible Acromantula and former pet of Hagrid's, who might bear Hagrid himself love but holds no compunction about eating Hagrid's friends. Carver A truly broke the bounds of pumpkin carving this year, creatively using two pumpkins to create a 3D masterpiece. The jagged skyline recalls the trees of the Forbidden Forest that hem Harry and Ron in as they prepare to do battle with Aragog, and Carver A even used specialized tools to suggest the branches of the trees above them (visible in the daylight pictures). Harry and Ron stand back to back, wands raised and aglow, as Aragog crashes toward them. Especially noteworthy in this year's Pumpkin A is the expert level of detail on Aragog: minute pincers that grasp for the beleaguered boys as they try to make their escape, the texture along his back suggesting bristly hairs. What it lacks in traditional pumpkin glow, this work makes up for with innovation and emotion; without doubt, this year's Pumpkin A is a unique masterpiece.




This year's Pumpkin B, not to be outdone, takes a different tack: this expertly-rendered and traditionally carved tableau depicts Harry's climactic battle with Salazar Slytherin's pet basilisk, deep within the Chamber of Secrets. Using simple-looking but fiendishly difficult outlining techniques to dramatic effect, Carver B has shown us Harry in his final, heart-stopping moment, as the basilisk rears above him to take deadly aim and deliver the killing stroke. Gryffindor's Sword glows with purpose as Fawkes the Phoenix swoops down from the top right corner, and Harry, nearly defeated by still undaunted, prepares for his last stand. Especially of note in this year's Pumpkin B is the lifelike reality of the basilisk, complete with minute fangs, ready to pierce Harry's upraised arm and very nearly turn the Wizarding World over to Voldemort once and for all.



All right—it's time to head to the polls!
Leave your vote in the comments. 
Voting will remain open until Wednesday, November 2nd, at around 8pm Pacific time.
(Unless Kate is having a fit at that moment, in which case it might be a little later. But you know, pretty close.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

Interview: Shari Green, Author of ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES

Today I have the incredible privilege of sharing a chat with Shari Green, author of the debut middle grade novel-in-verse ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES. Thanks to an Amazon goof, I had the chance to read this a little bit early, and it was so good. Definitely one of my favorite reads of 2016! The verse is light and lovely, the setting is perfect, and the plot deals with major issues in a sensitive, gentle, and ultimately hopeful way. If you're a fan of Sharon Creech, you should definitely give ROOT BEER CANDY a try!

Here's Shari's summary of the book:

It will come to pass
that a stranger from the sea
will change
everything.

The locals in Felicity Bay shake their heads at the ice cream man’s prophecy. “Crazy old Jasper,” they say. But Bailey isn’t so sure. She’s found something special down at the beach: a driftwood mermaid, a gift washed up from a storm. Could she be the stranger from the sea who has come to change everything? Bailey hopes so. Because this summer, she could sure use a miracle.

Where did you get the inspiration for ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES?

I’d been thinking a lot about the extraordinary in the ordinary—Frederick Buechner said “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace”, and that quote had been tumbling around in my thoughts. Meanwhile, I knew I wanted to write a “beachy book” someday—something in which I could really indulge my love of the sea. And then a driftwood mermaid showed up in my imagination, and the pieces started coming together.

I'm a big fan of verse novels in general, and especially for a middle grade audience—somehow they seem to work so well with the struggles of that age group. What made you decide to write ROOT BEER CANDY in verse? Is this your first verse novel?
Yes, it’s my first verse novel…but it didn’t start out in verse. At first, I struggled to find Bailey’s voice—after a few false starts I finally tried it in verse, and there was Bailey! As I wrote, I realized other reasons to keep going in verse: I felt complete freedom to use imagery to weave the setting throughout the story, and the format allowed me to use white space to give readers room to ponder ambiguities and unanswered (unanswerable?) questions. Above all, verse just felt right for me and for Bailey’s story.

One of the things that really drew me to ROOT BEER CANDY was the inclusion of a side character who has cystic fibrosis, like I do. CF isn't something that comes up a lot in fiction; what made you want to write a character with CF?
I’m not really sure why Daniel appeared in my imagination the way he did. I haven’t met many people with CF. And yet, there was Daniel with his chest physio and his eleven-year-old version of a seize the day attitude, and I loved him. It meant I had a lot of research to do, though! I knew I wanted him to have an important role in the story, because, like all kids, children with chronic illness need to see themselves in books. They need characters they can connect with, that maybe help them feel not so alone in what they’re dealing with. I hoped Daniel might be that character for a child somewhere, someday.

I also appreciated how authentically and sensitively you handled the issue of Daniel's life expectancy as a result of his CF, something that is definitely the elephant in the room for most of us. I love that it's not a focus of the story, and that Daniel is allowed to be a regular kid, but that it's clear that it's something Daniel thinks about. What made you want to include this, specifically, in Daniel's storyline?
I think one thing I love about a lot of children’s literature is that it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. So often kids are impacted by the hard truths of life, but adults whisper, censor, try to ignore those realities. This comes from a good heart, I think—from wanting to protect kids. But kids are smart and so very observant. They’re aware of the tough stuff, and they’re developing compassion for others and coping skills for themselves as they deal with it. Including the bit about Daniel’s life expectancy was a way of validating his experience, a way of saying your reality matters, your worries matter, the tough stuff you think about matters.

In your dayjob you work as a nurse (right?)—do you feel like that background helped you in writing authentically about CF and childhood illness?
Yes, I’m an LPN. My background probably helped somewhat by allowing me to be comfortable tackling the subject of chronic illness (and maybe especially the life-and-death aspect). However, most of my experience as a nurse has been on the surgical ward—not at all the place for childhood illness! Ultimately, I had to rely on research.

Since the beach is my #1 happy place (mine is the Outer Banks!), I love the setting for ROOT BEER CANDY. I know that you live near the coast and visit often. Is Felicity Bay based on a real beach town you love, or is it straight from your imagination?
Felicity Bay is completely fictional, but the island—Arbutus Island—was inspired by a real place: Gabriola Island, which is between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. I spent childhood summer holidays there, and have wonderful memories and a serious case of nostalgia.

I love the thoughtful but not heavy-handed exploration of religion and faith in ROOT BEER CANDY; I think you hit a perfect note and have a story that really will appeal to children of all (or no) faith traditions. What made you decide to include faith as such an integral part of the storyline?
I wanted to include faith partly because it felt like the most honest way for me to tell this particular story, and partly because it isn’t often addressed in books. Kids think about this stuff, just as adults do, so let’s talk about it! To get more personal for a moment, I’ll add that including a spiritual element was also very true to who I am—and maybe who we all are. Don’t we all hope for miracles sometimes? Don’t we long for things that help us keep hoping, keep believing that we’ll be okay, that life will turn out all right? For me, ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES felt like the right place to explore these ideas.

Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog, Cindy. And thanks for the great questions! Wishing you and your readers an abundance of everyday miracles…

Check out ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES on Amazon here

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Overcoming A Fixed Mindset In Editing


Every time I get ready to dive back into a draft of a book a round of edits after feedback, I feel slightly paralyzed. Maybe you've forgotten how to do this, an insidious little voice whispers inside me. Maybe you're not up to the challenge.

Maybe you just wrote a bad book, and you're not good enough to fix it.

It feels a little bit like sitting at the top of a roller coaster: You know that once it gets going, it'll be fun. You know that you won't regret buying your ticket, and you know that when you get off you'll feel charged with adrenaline. And, in the case of a book, you know that you'll emerge with a stronger and more vibrant manuscript, a book more closely aligned with your vision for that story. You know that rewriting is the heart of writing and that you've successfully edited books in the past, taking them from crappy first drafts to solid—maybe even moving—final ones.

But still, right up there at the top of the coaster? It's kind of a stomach-flipping, scary, actually-I-don't-want-this-ride-to-start place to be.

Since I'm currently stuck at the top of this roller coaster—I've gotten some initial CP feedback back on my latest manuscript, and while I'm excited about diving back in and making it stronger, I'm having a hard time shaking off that naysaying little voice trying to convince me I don't have a prayer—I've been thinking a lot about this the last few days. The epiphany I landed on tonight was this: Really, all of this boils down to one issue.

A fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.

These two terms have become pretty commonplace in the last decade, so I won't define them at length, but suffice to say they're exactly like they sound—seeing skills as things that are either innate (fixed) and stop at a certain threshold, or as things that are flexible and can be learned (growth). Research has shown that not only are people who have a growth mindset better at learning skills and adapting to new situations, they're also happier and more likely to take on challenges with excitement instead of being paralyzed by fear of failure.

If you're old enough to be reading this blog, it's very likely that you, like me, grew up in a fixed-mindset culture. We praise prodigiousness and overnight sensations (ignoring the fact that prodigies are really just kids who manage to put in the roughly ten thousand hours required to become an expert in something very young, and that nearly all overnight sensations only become so after a years- or decades-long slog behind the scenes) and make a big deal out of things that come easily. We reward and sensationalize "natural talent" and focus much less on hard work and effort, to the point that many of us have the innate and often unrecognized feeling that if something doesn't come quickly to us, we'll never attain mastery.

What I realized tonight is that each time I get ready to plunge into a round of edits, that fixed-mindset upbringing is what's responsible for that little voice whispering in my ear, the conviction that maybe I just wrote a bad book and I'm not good enough to fix it. Fixed-mindset culture assures me that this is true—that I don't have the skills to take my book from crappy first draft to polished finished draft, and that I'll never be able to learn them. My own fixed mindset keeps me mired in fear, unable and unwilling to step into the revision trenches and do the work that needs to be done.

In essence, every time I hit this point, I find myself needing to pep talk my way back into a growth mindset. I remind myself that I've revised successfully before, and that I can do it again. I remind myself of how many finished manuscripts I've got behind me now. I tell myself that it's okay if I don't get it right the first time, because it always takes multiple rounds of revision before things are as strong as they can be.

That last idea—that it's okay if I don't get it the first time, that struggling with something isn't the same as failing, and that it's just fine if it takes me several tries to get it "right"—is an especially important one for me to hold on to when I'm at the top of the revision coaster. Other things that are important for me to remind myself are:

—I'm always learning. Just because something seems like a daunting fix doesn't mean I won't be able to adapt and learn the skill I need to fix it.

—Challenges are fun! As much as part of me would love to be able to write perfect books with minimal effort, I also know from experience that diving in to a challenging round of edits and then seeing how much stronger the book has become is a thrilling experience.

—I can take as long as I need.

—It doesn't have to be (and never will be) perfect; it just needs to be strong, dynamic, and hitting the right emotional notes.

—I'm surrounded by friends and critique partners who can help me identify my book's weak spots and give me a pep talk when I'm feeling down.

—It's okay to be scared. As I'm constantly telling my three-year-old, being brave means doing hard things even when you're scared.

What are some of the ways you overcome a fixed mindset when you're writing or revising?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

I love sharing your friendship. I don't want to share your germs.

How I dress for church in the fall/winter
months to try to stay cold-free

For many years, I've shared a post about the importance of staying home when you're sick as soon as the first autumn colds start to circulate. As a cystic fibrosis patient, my immune system is compromised, and I have a tendency to pick up any viruses within a hundred-mile radius—at least, that's what it often feels like! Not only am I more likely to get colds and other illnesses in the first place, but those illnesses are nearly always much, much worse for me than for a regular person. What may be a case of the sniffles for you typically turns into a lung infection for me, nearly always requiring antibiotics and frequently requiring a hospitalization or course of home IV antibiotic therapy.

And don't even get me started on more serious viruses, like influenza, which can be a literal death sentence for CF patients. In 2007, while I was engaged, I caught the flu; I was almost immediately hospitalized, and ended up going into the hospital something like 7 times over the next 18 months. It took me at least that long, if not longer, to feel like I was back on my feet health-wise.

Every winter, I personally know far too many peop

le with CF who die—and quite often, the infection that leads to their decline is caused by a cold, influenza, or other virus. And death is only the most dramatic result. Every winter, I also see far too many friends spending months in the hospital, enduring cycle after cycle of body-destroying extra-strength antibiotics, and, like me, finding themselves unable to engage with life at all because their strength is so totally zapped by dealing with persistent infections.

CF patients aren't the only population at risk, either. Cancer patients, transplant recipients, and medically fragile children and adults all can have life-threatening reactions to a virus that, for you, manifests as an annoying case of sniffles.

Every year when I blog about this, I get push back in two primary ways: from people with kids who are sick all the time, and from people who don't have the option of taking sick leave from work. I get that, I really do. I've been that parent before - there have been times where Kate was sick over and over for months in a row. And I understand, also, that there are lots of jobs where a worker is penalized or let go for missing work, regardless of the excuse.

In light of those issues, here are some things that you can do to mitigate the effect of your illnesses.


1. If you can stay home, do so. Postpone the shopping trip. Get takeout instead of eating at a restaurant. Stay home from church—truly. Church is one of the big danger zones for me, because people have a tendency to come regardless of how they feel. Really truly, you can nearly always find someone to fill in if you have something to do, and those of us with compromised immune systems will thank you. If you really cannot get out of a responsibility and must go sick, see #2 and #3.

2. Be honest. If you're going to a gathering where you know that someone with a compromised immune system (or a baby) will be, let them know how you're feeling. Describe your symptoms and let them tell you what they feel comfortable with. Work out a plan you both feel okay with.

3. Wear a cheap mask. You can get inexpensive disposable surgical masks at any drug store. Did you know that wearing a standard paper mask won't actually protect the wearer from viruses? That's why I don't wear one when I'm out during cold and flu season (I actually just purchased a pricey fitted mask in the hopes that it can help me stay safe this winter, but that's not an option everyone has). However, what those paper masks do very well is protecting the people around you from your germs while you're wearing it. If you have to go out while you're still symptomatic, consider wearing one. Also, use hand sanitizer, wash hands frequently, try not to sit close to anyone else, and make sure to cover a cough.

4. Learn to tell the difference between allergies and a cold. If you or your kid has a stuffy or runny nose that isn't going away after several weeks but has never been accompanied by a fever, body aches, or a cough, it's probably allergies... But if that runny nose just started, give it at least a few days before deciding it isn't a cold. Contrary to popular wisdom, a clear runny nose is no safer than a green one, and it actually usually comes at the point when a cold is most contagious (ie the beginning).

Remember how Smoky the Bear said "only you can prevent forest fires"? The same might be said in this case: only you have the power to help make public spaces a safe place for those of us with compromised immune systems to be!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Adding Sensory Details (Plus a Postscript)


Here we are, writers, in our final post in this descriptive writing 101 series! And I've saved one of the most important—but also, in many ways, the easiest—techniques for last.

We all of us experience life through our senses, and some senses in particular have the particular power to evoke memories and emotions—both in real life and as we read. Few things can ground a reader more deeply in a character's POV, and in a setting, than the author's use of well-rounded sensory details, especially if those details are combined with some of the other techniques we've discussed, like metaphor and relationship-based description.

As writers, it's easy to fall back to using only one or two senses; often, we rely heavily on sight as we're describing what a reader should see in his mind's eye. One of the things that I like to do as I'm revising is keep an eye out for how often I'm bringing in descriptors that call on all five senses. Not every scene will need to have all of the senses invoked, but being mindful as I revise of how often I'm using them is very helpful.

This passage from Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races is an excellent example:
My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the war horse with a red cloth. I lick my teeth—they taste like salt—and watch my father tie the matching armband around his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.
I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we never tire. 
In these two paragraphs, Stiefvater has given us so much sensory detail: The color of the cloth and the armband, the salty taste on Sean's teeth, the clumsiness as Sean's father ties the armband, the physical sensations as Sean remembers riding the stallion (wind, jarring ground, sea spray, the energy implied in "we never tire"). Right there, we have three different senses involved, each one of them pulling us deeper into the scene and helping us to feel it, the way the very best writing does.

It's also helpful to me to think about what kinds of sensory experiences I have in my own life: What times and places do I tend to notice scents? What about sounds? Colors? Textures? Sensations in or outside of my body? What emotions tend to be associated with different senses? (Scent, for example, is tied in pretty heavily with memory and nostalgia for me.) As I think about these questions, it helps me to hone in on which senses are going to be the most evocative in any given scene.

And just as certain people tend to pay more attention to certain senses, your characters will behave the same way! An artist might see things as textures and light, while a musician might notice the tones and resonance all around her and a baker might be more likely to fixate on scents. In Sarah Addison Allen's The Sugar Queen, the sweets-obsessed protagonist imagines that she can taste the winter weather:
If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
This is an excellent example of sensory detail being combined with other descriptive techniques (in this case, metaphor) to produce a paragraph that is as delectable as it is immersive!

Your assignment for today's post, if you choose to accept it, is simple: Write a brief scene, trying to incorporate all five senses.

And this, my friends, brings us to the end of our series on descriptive writing! I hope that these posts have been helpful and given you some ideas for new things to try to bring your descriptive writing to the next level.

As a little postscript, I will add one thing that I didn't write a post on because there's not a ton to say about it, but which is also important in good description: I know I began this series ragging on adjectives, but they're (obviously) still an important fundamental when it comes to descriptive writing.

However, not all adjectives are created equal. As with other descriptive techniques, adjectives are stronger the more unique and specific they are. Just like picking metaphors, it's a good rule of thumb to use in selecting the right adjective for your descriptions is that the first idea is almost never the best one. Let things percolate. Use a thesaurus. Try writing the scene from a different angle and see what you come up with.

And most of all? Have fun!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives


Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a little bit intimidated by addressing this particular topic, only because my brilliant friend (and former Pitch Wars mentor!) Rosalyn Eves has done it so well and thoroughly in her own wonderful post on objective correlatives. Check it out here! Rosalyn explains and breaks down the objective correlative in a terrific and easy-to-follow way, and you'll understand my take much better if you've read hers first.

That said, I couldn't in good conscience do a blog series on the things that are crucial to me in descriptive writing without addressing objective correlatives—a tricky, cerebral concept that can be hard to grasp but adds so much power into a narrative when used well. The use of objective correlatives is a way to communicate emotion (and induce emotion in the reader) without ever actually naming that emotion, or describing it in more traditional ways like physical reactions. As such, objective correlatives may at first glance seem to have not that much to do with descriptive writing—but as far as I'm concerned, they've got everything to do with each other. The goal of immersive descriptive writing, in my opinion, is to emotionally invest your reader in your narrative to such a point that they feel like they are there, living it, breathing your POV character's breath; objective correlatives can be a great way to do this. And, depending on what sort of objective correlative you use, it can also reinforce your setting, strengthening it until it's a character in its own right.

I was first introduced to the topic of objective correlatives at the 2015 LDStorymakers conference, in a presentation by author Martine Leavitt (the same presentation Rosalyn mentions in her post). An objective correlative is, essentially, kind of a grand-scale metaphor: rather than being a sentence-level structure where you implicitly inform the reader that one thing is standing in for another (for example, "he was a rock, the kind of man who would move for nothing"), an objective correlative is something that is usually woven into the text in such a way that the relationship is implied rather than stated—though, as with any rule, there are exceptions, as (confusingly enough) regular metaphors can be a type of objective correlative in certain situations. (Rosalyn goes into more detail about this in her post above!)

Often, though not always, an objective correlative is carried throughout all or part of a story, like a sort of extended metaphor. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Harry's phoenix-feather wand functions as an objective correlative, symbolizing his sense of belonging to the wizarding world, the first place he's ever felt at home. In the final book, when his wand breaks during a confrontation with one of Voldemort's creatures, we feel Harry's shock and grief—not only because the wand itself was so beloved to him, but because it carried a deeper meaning in the narrative, and its shattering represents the breakdown both of Harry's innocence and of his beloved and safe wizarding world. And at the end, when Harry has vanquished Voldemort and gained the most powerful wand in the world—a wand that could earn him glory for the rest of his life—instead of choosing to keep it, he uses the Elder Wand only to repair his old phoenix-feather wand before breaking the Elder Wand and tossing it off a cliff, showing that the sense of belonging he's found in wizarding culture is far more important to him than fame or glory.

Think of all the things that little objective correlative, which is a relatively tiny plot in the overarching Harry Potter series, has described to us: We've learned about wizarding culture and its quirks ("the wand chooses the wizard!"); we've learned about Harry's deepest motivations and desires (belonging, acceptance, a safe place to call home), we've viscerally felt Harry's emotion at the peak of his distress in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Without ever telling us "Harry was sad because of what the breakage of his wand represented to him," Rowling has pulled us deeper into her story, her character, and her setting through this objective correlative.

Last year at the Storymakers conference, I was really intrigued by Martine's brief explanation of objective correlatives, and since I was at that very moment outlining a new WIP, I decided that I was going to pick an objective correlative to use throughout my novel as a way to show my protagonist's sense of overwhelm with the situation that she was in. That book takes place on a farm, and an important subplot revolves around the fact that the area is in an unprecedented drought that's placing great stress on its rural inhabitants. As such, the weather—the heat and crush of an unusually rainless North Carolina summer—seemed like the perfect thing to use as an extended metaphor. As I drafted the book, whenever I found myself wanting to describe my main character's emotions, I would describe the weather instead, specifically choosing descriptors that evoked the sense of heavy oppression that fit not only the actual temperature but also Della's sense of hopelessness at trying to care for her mentally ill mother. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said over and over again, but Mama didn’t act like she’d heard me at all. She just kept on crying, not making any noise, her eyes puffing up and turning as red as her hands. I clumsily unscrewed the spray bottle and dumped everything inside it down the sink, my own eyes watering—it smelled like straight-up bleach, not thinned out with anything at all. 
“You gotta wash your hands, Mama,” I said, remembering what Mrs. Gregory had said last year in science lab about touching bleach, but Mama didn’t answer. I reached into the sink and grabbed a washcloth off the faucet, running it under water till it was as cold as the sink could get it, and then crouched down and wiped Mama’s hands off one at a time. It might not be enough to stop her hurting, but it was all I could do while still holding crying Mylie on my hip. 
The heat of the kitchen pressed down hard on me, warming up that washcloth till holding it felt just like being wrapped up in the humid air. Mylie rubbed her face into my shoulder, her arms holding tight onto my neck like she was afraid of what might happen if she let go, and whimpered. 
“Stowy?” she whispered. 
“Not now, Mylie.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to tell another Bee Story again. Instead I just held Mylie and looked out the window over the sink and wished, more than ever, that the sky would just open up and cry all the tears I couldn’t.
That book—called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—ended up being the book that earned ten agent offers, and without fail, to this day every single person who has read it has commented on how vivid the heat was, how they felt hot reading it, and how the extended metaphor of the drought helped to pull them deeply into the story and really feel what Della felt as they read. My hope (which, based on that reaction, seems to have succeeded!) was to ground a reader both in Della's emotional overwhelm and immerse them in the setting in such a way that they seemed to be right there, experiencing all that heat and frustration along with Della.

An objective correlative can also be used on a smaller scale, though, in just one (or just a few) scenes, to illustrate a certain concept or emotion. In my last WIP, one of my favorite objective correlatives was one that was mostly confined to a single scene:

“You know, Annie Lee,” said Mama, and I jumped a little. Her voice was strange and floaty. “I knew a girl once, back when I was in high school, who got herself stung by a Portuguese Man’o’war while she was swimming out in Wilmington.”
A Man’o’war was a jellyfish, a horrible kind with lacy tentacles that could be thirty feet or longer, and if it caught you it would wrap those tentacles around your arms and legs, tangling you up in it and stinging over and over again. I stuck my hand into my pocket, the warm familiar smoothness of George Washington’s faces calm and comforting.
“They had to cut it off her, there on the sand,” Mama went on, “and she spent the next five years getting plastic surgery over and over again to get rid of all those hard red scars. But you know the thing that’s never made sense to me?” 
I waited, but she didn’t go on. “What?”
“She kept swimming after that day.” Mama shook her head. “Her family went to the beach a few weeks every summer, and she said she still kept swimming.” She paused. “I don’t think I could’ve done that.” 
I turned the quarter over in my fingers. Daddy had been able to make it pass over and under every finger of his hand before disappearing it, poof, into the air.
“Losing your daddy,” Mama said, her face tired and grey-blue in the light of the computer screen, “it was like being wrapped up in those tentacles, Annie Lee.” She looked back at the screen, at whatever she’d seen there.
“Sometimes, it still is.” 
If you're feeling a) confused and or b) overwhelmed by this whole concept at this point, don't despair. It's a tricky idea, and one that can seem hard to wrap your brain around! If you'd like a practice exercise today, I'm totally stealing from Rosalyn's (fantastic) class on objective correlatives at LDStorymakers 2016. The assignment is simple: Pick an emotion and then pick an object or image (anything will do!). Write a paragraph, or more, using that image or object to try to make your reader feel that emotion. The above jellyfish excerpt was actually based on what came out of that class exercise for me—if I remember right, my image was a picture of a jellyfish and my emotion was sadness. Now it's one of my favorite passages in that book!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Building Strong Metaphors


Any lover of lush prose will tell you: There is no more valuable tool in a descriptive writer's box than a well-placed metaphor. Good metaphors are like a book's salt—they can draw out all of the other flavors of the narrative, adding punch and depth in just the right places, turning fairly run-of-the-mill descriptions into things worth pausing over and savoring. (Want proof? I'm still, weeks after reading it, in awe over Julie Berry's fabulous grape-crushing metaphor from the excerpt I quoted in yesterday's post!)

Few things can bring a description to life the way a metaphor can... at least, that is, as long as it's a good one. Weak metaphors, like weak adjectives, serve at best as merely-adequate sentences, the kind of prose a reader skims but doesn't become immersed in. At worst, weak metaphors (also like weak adjectives!) can pull a reader right out of the story. Metaphors that are too out of left field, or that attempt to combine too many different ideas, or that are simply over-used, definitely don't earn you any extra reader investment.

So how do you make sure that you're writing the good kind of metaphors, and not the bad? Here are my own personal rules for writing metaphors (of which I'm quite fond—as you've probably noticed from the fact that I've used several in this post already!):

Rule #1: The first idea is almost never the best one.

This applies to a lot of things in writing, and metaphors are no exception! For me, at least, I've found that when I'm trying to describe something, the first metaphor that I reach for is usually one that's clich├ęd and common. You know what I'm talking about—her eyes were like stars, his jaw was set like stone, it was as soft as a pillow, etc. etc. etc. While these metaphors are a step up from just using a weak adjective like "bright," "hard," or "soft," they're so embedded in our cultural consciousness that they become invisible, entirely lacking the power to make a reader see things with that pop and fizzle you'd like to evoke.

Both while drafting and in revision, I try to keep an eye open for these overused metaphors when they pop up. I've been paying attention to them for long enough now that I often catch them as I'm drafting, but inevitably a few sneak through to be caught later—and that's okay. This kind of thinking takes practice, and it's 100% all right if your descriptions begin fairly simple and unevocative and build over time during revisions.

When I do find that I'm about to use, or have already used, a weak metaphor, I pause for a bit of brainstorming. This is actually a game I love to play while I'm falling asleep at night: I pick an image from my WIP that I know I'll be describing the next day, and then I try to think of as many metaphors as I can to describe it until I hit on one that feels right! I do something similar when I'm mid-writing-session.

In my just-completed WIP, for instance, I knew that I'd need to describe early on one of the characters, an elderly homeless man. Initially, in thinking about the sorts of metaphors I'd use to show what he looked like, I hit on two: his skin like paper, and his bones thin and birdlike. Both of those were unsatisfying, though, because both of them are metaphors that are used relatively often to describe people who are old with weathered skin. So instead, I spent one of those before-sleep brainstorming sessions trying to come up with other things that worked well. What I ended up with was this:

He was old, with a mostly-grey beard and skin like the bark on the birch tree by my apartment, as thin and saggy as if it had seen a hundred years of sun and wind. 
It's still a first draft, and it's entirely possible that in the future I may punch that metaphor up further or take it out entirely. But for right now, it's a much better option than paper-thin skin or birdlike bones!

Rule #2: The best metaphors fit well with the overall story and its setting.

In high school, I spent a semester building my own creative writing course (the perks of being a homeschooler!) that was comprised largely of reading and underlining my favorite books to try to figure out what made them tick, and writing lots of short stories to use the tools I'd learned. This is an approach I both recommend and don't recommend—had I been a little less clueless I would've thrown some good craft books in there, too, but at the time I was kind of snobby about craft books—but that's beside the point. One of the big epiphanies from that class was the day that I was reading Shannon Hales' THE GOOSE GIRL and realized, with a minor thunderclap, how much power Hale's metaphors had because they were tied in so well to her story and its setting. For a character who could speak the language of birds, Hale used bird metaphors. For scenes that took place in a stable, she used stable metaphors.

Often, the most powerful metaphors are ones that evoke and strengthen an aspect of the story itself—the setting, a specific relationship, a character's feelings. Early in THE GOOSE GIRL, for instance, Hale describes her main character, Ani, coming into her horse's stable like this:

Ani entered the first stable. The familiar smells of warm bodies and clean hay greeted her like a friendly touch.
At this point in the book, Ani is a princess, the daughter of a permanently-disapproving mother; Ani feels caged and awkward in her life, unable to ever do anything that makes others proud of her. Her one refuge, which she mostly isn't allowed, is her connection to animals, and the metaphor that Hale chooses to describe the smells of the stable—like a friendly touch—immediately brings home to us just how much of a relief it is for Ani to be away from the perpetual stress of the palace and into the one place she feels peace and friendliness.

This rule isn't hard and fast, of course; there will definitely be times when the metaphor best-suited to a specific description doesn't have much, or anything at all, to do with your overall story. (Birch trees, for instance, aren't ever mentioned by name again in my WIP that I know of, though there are scenes in a forest.) But it's often worth pondering, as you're sitting down to describe something, whether or not your choice of metaphor can tie in to a larger theme.

Rule #3: Good metaphors are unique without being strange.

Every now and then if I'm having a hard time finding a unique way to describe something, I'll say something about it to my husband (my best brainstorming buddy). Inevitably, he comes up with something super whacky, like "The food was so bad I felt like a dinosaur choking on a planet", which is the real true example he just spouted off when I told him to give me a weird metaphor. And, while that sort of over-the-top silly description can be perfect for a madcap adventure or a zany, voicey satire (which goes right back to rule #2!), usually this isn't the kind of metaphor that's going to work best for most books.

The strongest metaphors manage to strike a balance: They're unique, but they don't cross the line into strange. You want something that is fresh and new enough to make your reader pause, but not so far out of left field that she's left scratching her head about it. In general, you want to make sure that your metaphors match your story's tone—you wouldn't, for example, have a bunch of violence-centric metaphors in a quiet MG, unless violence was important to and consistent with your story's plot and tone. Metaphors should build and enrich your writer's voice throughout the book, not detract or distract from it.

Unofficial Rule #4: It's okay if it takes time.

For me, at least, learning to write with metaphors this way has been a long work-in-progress, a process of years of teaching my brain to recognize when my description is weak and figure out how to brainstorm my way into a solution. If you're feeling overwhelmed at this point in our Descriptive Writing 101 series, that's okay. Good descriptive writing takes time—time to absorb and practice techniques from book-to-book, and time to add layers and depth to your description from draft to draft.

On that note, who's up for a challenge? If you'd like to practice the techniques I talked about in this post, here's your assignment: do a little metaphor brainstorming of your own! Think of a character, setting, or object that you'd like to describe, and then make a list of as many potential metaphors for that thing as you can. Look at your list to see if any of them have particular resonance with any of the characters, plotlines, themes, or settings in your story—or if any of them just seem to fit with the thing you're trying to describe, whether or not they echo your overall story. Give yourself permission to take some time and let your brain marinate over the assignment a little bit. There's no rush!


Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Relationship-Based Description

One of the fundamental building blocks in good descriptive writing is what I think of as "relationship-based" description (or, sometimes, "reaction-based" description). This piece from our descriptive writer's toolbox packs a double punch, because not only does it allow us to show our world to the reader in a more vivid way, but it also allows us to take our characterizations much deeper—and, ultimately, characters who feel deep and with whom readers connect on a deep level are the heart of any impactful book.

So what, you ask, is relationship-based description?

Pull up a chair, friends, and let's explore this concept.

In every scene, you'll have a point-of-view character, whether that's your book's protagonist or somebody else. You'll have a point-of-view character even if you're writing in third person—and in general, the more dialed-in to that POV character you are, the more invested your reader will be in the scene, too. (This is true for everything except 3rd-person omniscient narratives, but I'll make a sweeping generalization and say that in most genres, close 3rd-person is much, much more effective.)

In the best descriptive writing, all of the observation and description in the scene is filtered through the POV character's worldview. This means that what they notice at any given moment will be influenced by everything from their background, lifestyle, and childhood experiences, to their current occupation, current mood, and current goal.

Everyone in a scene will react to stimuli differently, just as we do in real life; for example, as a musician, I notice very different things when I'm sitting through an amateur musical performance than one of my friends, who doesn't have musical training, does. Likewise, as a mom, when I'm out with my daughter I notice things differently than I did before she came along—I'm much more attuned to how situations could become dangerous (don't run out into the road! Don't touch the hot stove!) and also tend to notice things that are at waist-level and below much more than I used to. And I could go on; for all the different aspects of who I am (writer, disabled person, etc.), there are ways that that identity affects the way I process things around me.

Keeping these character-specific filters in mind boosts both the punch of your descriptions and the depth of your characterizations, making it doubly awesome.

Recently I read Julie Berry's THE PASSION OF DOLSSA (which I highly recommend), and couldn't help but mark this beautiful passage, which is an excellent example of what I'm talking about:

Harvest frolics were known for this. All those tozets with their lusty eyes upon her, her buoyant chest bouncing practically into her eyeballs, and her skirts tucked up and pinned over her bottom... Of course she would feel herself in a mood to pick one of these young men, like a grape off the vine, and crush him against the roof of her mouth.

In these few lines, we're given insight into so many things: how the narrator feels about the girl she's describing, how the girl treats her suitors (isn't that line about crushing them on the roof of her mouth absolutely perfect?), what role the grape-harvest/winemaking plays in the culture of their village. Berry could have just written something like this:

Astruga was a good-looking but shameless hussy who moved from boy to boy and then left them, flaunting her attractive body to reel them in one after another.
We'd still have had all the pertinent information about the character in question. But the way it's presented now, we have so much more than that—we're pulled deeper into the world, deeper into the head of the POV character, and deeper into the author's lush and beautiful voice, all at once.

In my original draft of this post, I had two original examples written out to show how this sort of relationship-based description can be used to convey a character's mood and backstory. Unfortunately, my computer rudely ate it, and I was never able to remember what those examples said well enough to rewrite them (doggone it! I was really mad!). For more examples, though, I highly recommend checking out this post by the inimitable Maggie Stiefvater, in which she talks about using literary devices to tweak reader emotions and breaks down some great examples of relationship-based description from The Dream Thieves.

So, lovely readers, here's your challenge for today, if you choose to accept it! Choose a character, a setting, or an object that you'd like to describe, and also choose a relationship (between two characters, between a character and himself, between a character and an object or setting) that you'd like to highlight. If needed, make a brief list of ways that that relationship might affect the way your POV character sees the thing/person/place you're trying to describe. Then get out your pen and write a paragraph (or more!), choosing your descriptive words carefully, putting yourself as deeply as you can into the viewpoint of your POV character.

Alternatively, if you'd like to practice but you're having trouble coming up with something to use, here's a prompt: Pick one setting and one relationship from the following lists, put them together in some descriptive writing, and see what you can come up with!

Setting:
A moss-covered forest
A crowded suburban Super Target
A mountain trail
A high school hallway
A kitchen
An urban backyard patio
A farm

Relationship:
A character who's about to break up with his/her significant other
A character who's about to propose
A character who resents his/her mother
A character who's obsessed with a specific possession
A character who's got PTSD after a bad car accident
A character who feels inadequate at everything he/she tries

Friday, September 16, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: It's Way More Than Adjectives, Baby

This forest is lush and green, with trees that are towering and stately
as they preside over the sinuous stillness of the river!
#WhatNotToDo

This summer, while preparing feedback for authors who subbed to me for Pitch Wars but weren't chosen, I started noticing that I was saying the same things to many of them:

"Use fewer adjectives."

This, I admit, gave me pause. I'm a descriptive writer. Lyrical, immersive, setting-as-character writing is what I love, and do, best. I love to read and write prose that sings off the page, so vivid that I'm not just visualizing the scene, I'm there.

And aren't adjectives synonymous with "description"?

The answer, as you've probably guessed, is "Yes, but no." Adjectives can be great. Think about adjectives like sizzle or protruberant or hushed. Each of those words packs a punch in just a few syllables, conjuring up just the right image or feeling in your mind as you read them. Strong adjectives (and it's important that they're strong!) are, without a doubt, a vital tool in a descriptive writer's toolbox.

Still, when you're striving for immersively descriptive prose, adjectives are merely the tip of the iceberg. Much of the time, adjectives function only at the surface layer: they do an adequate job of telling the reader what to picture, but they don't grip him by the lapels and drag them right into your book. And often, having too many adjectives—especially if they're clustered all together in one sentence or paragraph—can actually pull the reader out of your story instead of taking her deeper.

Descriptive writing is made up of many things: adjectives and adverbs, of course, but also sensory awareness, metaphor and objective correlative (sort of an extended metaphor), and a character's reactions to and relationships with the world around her. Ideally, your descriptions should be a balance of all of these things. The best descriptive writing is also unique: It's putting words together on the sentence level so that instead of skimming over the page, your reader shivers and is pulled further in to the story. You want her to see the comet fall, to feel the frisson of tension across his skin, instead of just noting that those things happened and then moving on.

In talking about this recently on Twitter, I used this example:

"The mood in the room was tense."

This tells us, obviously, what the atmosphere of the room was, but it doesn't give us a lot more than that. We're already reading on to the next line.

Adding another adjective doesn't do much for it, either; if told "The mood in the room was tense and edgy," we still aren't necessarily feeling that tension curling into our own bones.

On the other hand, if we read: "The room held its breath, the walls themselves pulled as tight as strings"—which of those examples did you feel the most? Which resonated most deeply inside of you, and made your breath catch in your throat, just the way the protagonist's breath ought to be catching right about now?

In that instance, I was able to pull in metaphor to describe the mood of that room in a way that was just different enough to (hopefully) make you feel it much more deeply than you did when I simply said that the room was "tense" or "edgy." This sort of example becomes even more powerful when paired with other tools of descriptive writing—and, in my opinion, it's one of the crucial sentence-level things that takes a good story and makes it a transformative one. Many current award-winning novelists, like Maggie Stiefvater and Shannon Hale, are true masters of this, and reading their books and others can be a great way to pick apart techniques for use in your own writing.

Over the next couple of posts, I'm going to be breaking these ideas down into more digestible chunks and sharing blogs on metaphor, objective correlative, relationship-based description, and sensory awareness. I'll try to pull in lots of examples and writing exercises as well, since I know that's how I personally learn best. So pick up that pen (or keyboard) and join me for the ride!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors
Part 3: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives
Part 4: Adding Sensory Details

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

the holy midnight work

Canning peaches with Kate

It's hot here in the darkness; damp hair clings to the back of my neck, my clothes feel oppressive and close. The baby pressed against me is warm, a tiny sun who heats the room as we pace the floorboards, bouncing without pause. He arches his back and whimpers, miserable and restless, his nose stuffy and his hands twitchy.

He's not mine, of course. His mama sleeps a few rooms away, and I am only the fill-in, the relief effort. Still, the deep parts of my body remember this, the feel of a baby held just so, pulled tight against me to soothe the restive kicking, the way his arms keep jerking a few minutes after he's finally fallen asleep, his body fighting even after the battle is lost.

It's still in the house: only the two of us are up and moving, locked into our little dance. Iron & Wine plays quietly in the background. My thoughts are slow and centered. I am present in this midnight moment in a way I'm so often not in the sunlit busy ones.

Sometimes it sneaks up on me, this unexpected holiness. Sometimes, in the in and out sandwich-making shoe-finding swing-pushing minutiae of mothering, I forget what mothering really means: Holding another soul in my arms, being the buffer between her and the world as she learns to navigate everything from the proper use of a toilet to the complex and overwhelming universe of her own emotions.

Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed myself that I can't feel the holiness at all—but still, it's there, creeping up on quiet baby-bouncing nights to remind me that oh, this work is deep and wide and sanctifying.

There is much to mothering: to mother is to teach, to discipline, to do strings of endless physical laundrydishescleaning tasks that extend into eternity. But I think, in these quiet hallowed moments where morning is closer than midnight, that really mothering comes down to this: being there open-armed, ready to hold space for the sick baby who can't sleep, the panicked preschooler who can't stop sobbing. Holding them here in the darkness, the warmth of their skin on ours. Whispering over and over: It will be okay. It will be okay.

Finally, as Elizabeth Mitchell croons to the gentle hum and wail of a harmonica, the baby in my arms falls into sleep, his mouth soft and slack, his breathing loud and congested. I sink into the couch, let my own eyes close.

I don't often feel the holiness in this work that is motherhood, I think as the stillness enfolds me. I don't always see it.

Still, it's always there.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Your Beginning Is A Promise—So Don't Break It!



I have the privilege of being a middle grade mentor for Brenda Drake's incredible Pitch Wars contest this year. The revision period has only just begun (and I'm so excited for both of my mentees!), but already being on this end of the contest has been really illuminating—getting to read so many wonderful queries and first pages, as well as several partials and fulls, was something of a master class in identifying common issues that were very helpful to see both in terms of being able to guide other writers through making their books stronger, and to keep in mind as I revise my own books!

One thing that I noticed in several of the partials and fulls that I read was a disconnect between the beginning (in this case, usually the first 1/4-1/3) and the rest of the book. I saw a lot of books in which the first section of the book had a very different feel, and often a completely different setting or even a fairly unrelated plot, than the rest of the book. To an extent, this is normal and even necessary—the first quarter of your book helps to establish your character's "normal world," and is all about presenting your character before they've experienced the life-changing plot turn that happens about 25% into your book.

Still, as a reader and as a potential mentor, I found myself several times falling in love with a book's beginning—only to, a few chapters later, have the book change so much that many of the things that had attracted me to it in the first place were no longer present. What I realized as I read was this:

The beginning of your book is a promise to your reader. In it, you promise them specific things, and if you deviate too far away from those things, it will feel like a broken promise and result in an almost-always unsatisfying book. (Sometimes, writers do this intentionally, and that's a whole different kettle of fish—but know that if you choose to make promises and then break them, your reader will probably feel unsatisfied. Which is a fine emotion, as long as that's what your goal is.)

So what kinds of things, in my opinion, need to stay consistent throughout a book in order for your reader not to feel betrayed by the promises made in the beginning?

1. The type of book you're writing. This one's pretty obvious—and, again, sometimes this rule is broken—but it's a big one. If a book reads like a rom-com for the first half and then turns into a slasher horror halfway through, your reader probably isn't going to be super happy with the transition. That's an extreme example, but it's true on a small scale, too; if your book begins as a quirky exploration of humanity's foibles a la Gilmore Girls but later shifts to be a serious emotional story with nary a laugh in sight, your readers are going to close the book thinking "Now, how exactly did I end up here?"

2. What kind of character your reader's going to be identifying with. You don't have to give away the character's whole arc in the beginning, but you should make sure that we have hints. Give us glimpses that show us where your character is right now vs. where they're going to end up. In a typical growth-oriented character arc, this means that you need to start out by showing us your character's false beliefs about themselves and the world around them, and also give us hints about the kind of person your character could be if they were willing to let go of those false beliefs. These hints can come through comments from secondary characters, through secondary characters who act as foils, through media your POV character consumes, even through literary devices. However you do it, though, we need to feel grounded in both who the character is now and who they have the potential to become, so that as his or her character arc unfolds throughout the story, we're satisfied rather than unmoored by his or her transformation.

3. What kind of literary devices you'll be employing in your writing. This is a big one, but not necessarily something I'd have thought of before reading through my Pitch Wars slush. There were several partials and fulls I read whose beginnings were filled with beautiful sensory detail, vivid settings, and characters who jumped off the page—but then, at that 1/4-1/3 mark as the plot took off, much of that immersive and engaging writing dropped away. While it's very common to have a dramatic setting change around this point in the book (anything from a move to a literal quest), make sure that you're still employing the literary devices you used to make the first section of the book come alive, even once your setting has changed.

If your character loves to sing, and you used his passion for singing to help readers connect with him in the first quarter, make sure that that's carried through later on as well. If losing his voice (literally or figuratively) is part of the plot, make sure that you still give equal weight to that passion anyway—even if he can't sing, he can think about singing, wish to sing, see the world through a musical lens, cringe every time the radio comes on because it reminds him of the thing that was taken away from him. If your setting in the first quarter was filled with sensory detail and a strong sense of place, but then your character moves somewhere else very different, make sure that you're still employing a similar descriptive style to immerse us in the new setting.

4. What the basic goal of the plot is. As mentioned earlier, many plots actually require making some big changes to setting, characters, or goals after that 25% mark. However, it's important to make sure that you're still telling the same story. In several of the fulls I read for Pitch Wars, the character's actions and goals throughout the first quarter were really only very loosely related to the goals of the plot as a whole; instead of setting us up for the coming plot arc, the first quarter, instead, told a mostly-different story that centered on different things. In every case, this left me feeling a little bit let down after finishing the whole book. But wait, I'd find myself thinking. I really liked that beginning section—whatever happened to that story? Even as you're pulling your main character out of their "normal world" and starting them on their quest to become the best version of themselves, it's important to keep control of your overall plot arc and make sure that your first quarter is still setting things up for the story you're going to tell, not for a side story that won't have bearing on the final outcome of the book.

A related, and very important, piece of advice is to make sure that you're beginning your book in the right place. I often find it helpful, after I've finished drafting a book, to take a hard look at my first chapter and make sure it's really living up to its potential. Typically? It's not, and I have to revise it at least some of the way, if not scrap it altogether. With my last book, I had an opening paragraph that I absolutely adored, and all my critique partners did too... But in the course of revising, I had to face up to the cold hard truth that it wasn't pulling it's weight. That beloved opener got scrapped and replaced, and the first chapter was much stronger as a result. (Maybe in the future I'll do a blog post specifically tackling first chapters...)

Now it's your turn! Tell me: What do YOU think a beginning needs to do in order to make promises you'll be able to keep?