Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The First Draft - Lisa Yee


In the third and final installment of my first draft interviews I spoke with literary heroine, Lisa Yee.  I met Lisa almost two years ago and have The Batman to thank for it. That connection will reveal itself in the not too distant future (insert Joker laugh).

If you have been following Lisa's blog you know that she is a very busy writer, traveler, admirer of artistic water closets and keeper of Peepy. Although, I'm sure Peepy feels it is the other way around.  Check out Peeps wall of photos with famous authors - very cool: http://www.lisayee.com/Site/Peeps_%26_Famous_Authors.html

 

Lisa is the author of many wonderful and entertaining books, and if you haven't read them, I suggest you drop everything you are doing right now and go get them, read them and learn from them. Enough of my writer worship, let's get down to business.

The first draft of a book that you wrote - did it become one of your published stories? If so, which one? 

Lisa Yee: None of my first drafts have ever been published as is, or nearly as is. My first drafts are sooooooo bad that if anyone read them they'd want to throw up. 

What was the time from writing that first draft to publication?

LY: For my first novel, MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS, it took six years from first draft to publication. My latest book, BOBBY THE BRAVE (SOMETIMES) (Arthur A. Levine Books, September 2010), took less than a year from first draft to publication. 

You have an idea and now you want to start the writing process. What works best for you? 

LY: Outline. Always. I always outline. I do a lot of grueling upfront work, and the actual writing is the fun part.

Do you work straight through for several days/weeks/months until you get the draft done? What pushes you to get it done? 

LY: I work straight through. If I get blocked I'll write "put stuff here," and keep pressing forward, knowing I can fill in portions later. Since I sell on proposal, I am motivated by fear of breach of contract. 

There are many writers that rewrite as they go. Is this something that you do or suggesting doing? If so, why?
 

LY: Rewriting as I go doesn't work for me. If I did that, I'd never get past the first page and noodle it to death. However, each writer needs to find a process that's comfortable for them.

Do you have a writing ritual that helps you get the creative juices flowing?

LY: I am famous for my inventive procrastination techniques. However, I play sad music to help get me into the writing mode. Chocolate helps, too. Recently, I discovered FREEDOM. It's a Mac program that turns off the internet for set amounts of time. This is great for me since I'm hooked on the web and have no self-control.

For the rest of us with no self control (I'm right there with you Lisa!) Checkout the Freedom link here: http://macfreedom.com/
 
When you wrote your first book of a series, did you know that it would be a series? Did you write the book with the hope that it would be a series?
 


LY: After I finished MILLCENT MIN, I had no clue it would be a series. There was no master plan. But then I wrote STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG-TIME and it was a parallel story and suddenly I had two books, and then POOF! I wrote Emily Eber's story and suddenly there was a trilogy.

I'm currently working on a spin-off of those books. This one takes place when school starts. It features a kid named Marley who was in Stanford's book. 
 
In your opinion what mistake(s) do you think most writers make during their first drafts?
 

LY: They forget that first drafts are meant to just get words on the page--they don't have to be perfect or anywhere near there.

In my process of writing I have found that what works best for me is to vomit it all out, get out all the crud, no matter how bad it stinks the place up. Then go back and rewrite. Do you feel this is a good idea for those struggling with perfection to get that first draft - just right.

LY: For me, I follow Anne Lamott's rule of sh*tty first drafts. If you go in knowing and expecting it to stink, then it takes the edge off and let's you look forward to the revision(s).
 
If you were in a band, what instrument would you play and what would the band name be?
 


LY: I would play the iPod and my band would be called Playlist.

I rock the iPod on a daily basis myself, so I guess I am part of Lisa's band - not bad company at all. To learn more about Lise, visit her website at: http://www.lisayee.com/Site/Home.html 

And be sure to check out her latest release BOBBY VERSUS GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY) with illustrations by DAN SANTAT

You can buy it here: http://www.amazon.com/Bobby-vs-Girls-Accidentally-Lisa/dp/054505592X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267036097&sr=8-1

Lisa, thank you for giving me a few moments of your valuable time. I hope that I can achieve the level of success that you and my other two amazing interviewees, Mary Cunningham and Arthur Slade have reached. Thank you to these authors for being so giving of their time. 

Thank you everyone who took the time to read these interviews. I know I learned a lot and have been given a ginormous shot of inspiration.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The First Draft - Arthur Slade


If you read yesterday's interview with Mary Cunningham, you know that I am talking about writing that first draft. Today's distinguished guest and awesome writer is none other than Arthur Slade.  


If you don't know or have been sleeping in a cave, he is the writer of some amazingly cool books "Monsterology", "Jolted" and his latest release "The Hunchback Assignments," just to name a few. 


Arthur is currently writing the first draft of his new book while staying at a Benedictine Abbey and he was gracious enough to take time to answer a few questions. Let's get to it!

The first draft of a book that you wrote - did it become one of your published stories? If so, which one? 

Arthur Slade: I guess my last fifteen novels have gone from first draft to being published, the last one being The Hunchback Assignments.

What was the time from writing that first draft to publication?

AS: Usually it is about a year. It, of course, varies depending on the length and subject of the book. I had one WWI novel take about three years, but there was so much research for that book.

You have an idea and now you want to start the writing process. What works best for you?

AS: Usually I start with an idea of how the book will begin and a general "sense" of the middle and ending. I may have made a few notes here and there, but mostly I start right at the beginning of the first draft and race to the end. Everything seems to fall into place as I'm writing it.

Do you work straight through for several days/weeks/months until you get the draft done? What pushes you to get it done? 

AS: I see the first draft as the bones of the novel. It  usually takes a month or so. The second to eighth or ninth drafts take the rest of the time. I actually don't enjoy writing the first draft so I try to write it as quickly as possible. I flesh it all out later.

There are many writers that rewrite as they go. Is this something that you do or suggesting doing? If so, why? 

AS: I only do this with the first few chapters. But things change so much throughout the course of the novel that the true rewriting doesn't start until I have everything in place for the first draft.

Do you have a writing ritual that helps you get the creative juices flowing?

AS: Heavy Metal. (Let me interject here for a brief moment. AWESOME! I am a metal head myself and this just warms the ear bleeding, face melting, cockles of my heart)

I mean I listen to it while I write. I also write on a treadmill.

Here's the link: http://blip.tv/file/1734273/ 

It keeps my energy up and my focus strong. After all, I don't want to fall off!

When you wrote your first book of a series, did you know that it would be a series? Did you write the book with the hope that it would be a series? 
 
AS: Yes, my first series is called "Northern Frights" and I knew from the beginning and planned it out as a series.  http://www.arthurslade.com/book_draugr/index.html

In your opinion what mistake(s) do you think most writers make during their first drafts? 

AS: I think worrying too much about how the book will turn out. And whether or not it's a good book. This is a constant question we all face. Just write! Get to the end. Let it breath, then come back and fix it up.

In my process of writing I have found that what works best for me is to vomit it all out, get out all the crud, no matter how bad it stinks the place up. Then go back and rewrite. Do you feel this is a good idea for those struggling with perfection to get that first draft just right.

AS: That vomit style works for me. Everyone is different. I have friends who outline everything then write and rewrite from chapter to chapter. I'm too lazy to do all that!

Can you give us a tease of any current project you are working on that may be in the first draft stage?
AS: I'm working on "The Hunchback Assignments III: Empire of Ruins." In it my secret agent character is exploring Australia in a balloon, searching for a lost Egyptian artifact.  (This sounds super awesome - btw)

If you were in a band, what instrument would you play and what would the band name be? ( I play guitar and would be in a band called Rocket Monkey)
 
AS: Guitar, too! We could do dueling guitar solos. My band would be called The Blasters.

D.M: Look for our bands to tour in the future (just kidding - don't really look for it). If we did tour though, we would melt faces throughout the galaxy. 

Arthur, thank you so much for your time. I've got the radar set for THA III: Empire of Ruins. Your books are wonderful and we wish you continued success!

Tune in tomorrow for one of my favorite ink-welding heroines, Lisa Yee.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The First Draft - Mary Cunningham

As many of you, I am in the midst of writing the first draft of my middle grade book. A daily struggle for me to reach the end of the manuscript without stopping, fixing, rethinking everything I am doing. Okay, maybe not all of you do that.

Since I needed a shot of inspiration, I decided to reach out to three amazing writers, Mary Cunningham, Arthur Slade, and Lisa Yee, to ask them about their process of writing the first draft and what gets them through.

This first interview is with Mary Cunningham, who may be a lost relative of mine through ancient bloodlines. More on that mystery later. If you are not familiar with Mary, she is the author of a wonderful book series Cynthia's Attic.

Check out - Cynthia's Attic Blog - http://cynthiasattic.blogspot.com


Let's dive in!

What was the time from writing that first draft to publication?

Mary Cunningham: From elementary school on I was told by my teachers, "Mary, whatever you do, don't stop writing." I followed that advice. Sure enough, forty some-odd years later, I wrote my first book. "Cynthia's Attic: The Missing Locket" began as a short memoir about playing in the attic of my childhood friend, Cynthia. It soon became a full-length story for ages 9-12. I wrote Book Two, "Cynthia's Attic: The Magic Medallion," simultaneously, and got contracts on both books. The whole process from writing, editing, submission, to contract took about four years.

You have an idea and now you want to start the writing process. What works best for you? 

MC: Many authors have a standard writing process. Guess I'm a little different because my process is all over the map. The best way to describe it is, when I feel it, I write it. I begin with a general idea, and many times, a title. Since my books are a series (Four, so far), I have a cliffhanger at the end of each book, so I know the general direction of the next story.

Did you write the book with the hope that it would be a series?

MC: I hadn't planned other books beyond the second, but, toward the end, a cliffhanger brought another storyline to mind. I jumped right into "Curse of the Bayou," Book Three, which then led to Book Four, "The Magician's Castle."


Do you work straight through for several days/weeks/months until you get the draft done? What pushes you to get it done?

MC: I'm definitely a beginning to end type of writer. Very seldom will I move or insert chapters. I'm a believer in letting the characters tell me where they want to go and what they want to do. One exception was when my editor for "The Missing Locket" told me that the story was too short and I'd need to add another 5,000 words. Impossible, I thought! Until a 10-year-old ghost named Louis popped into my head. He quickly became one of my favorite characters, and the additional storyline completed the book.

Do you have a writing ritual that helps you get the creative juices flowing?

MC: My most productive writing usually happens in the afternoon, after several cups of coffee and cappuccino. The mornings are spent playing catch up; answering e-mails, writing blog posts and doing general marketing. I post on more than a dozen social sites, blogs, and belong to several online chat groups. I also do interviews, like this one!


In your opinion what mistake(s) do you think most writers make during their first drafts?

MC: Many writers make the mistake of failing to thoroughly edit their work before submitting to publishers or agents. First, be sure your story is tight. Take out unnecessary words and try not to use passive verbs. By the time my books reach the editor, I've edited them at least a ten times. It's a tiresome, but necessary evil.

In my process of writing I have found that what works best for me is to vomit it all out, get out all the crud, no matter how bad it stinks the place up. Then go back and rewrite. Do you feel this is a good idea for those struggling with perfection to get that first draft just right?

MC: Although I'm usually writing something each day, I don't feel compelled to work on a manuscript every day. If the words aren't flowing, I usually get up and do something else. I'm not a big fan of rewrites, although I spend a lot of time editing, so I'd rather get the story right the first time, instead of facing the unpleasant task of deleting scenes or characters that go nowhere.

If you were in a band, what instrument would you play and what would the band name be? 

MC: If I were a band? Hmmm. Since I'm a woman over fifty and have, coincidentally, written a book with a similar title, "WOOF: Women Only Over Fifty," my band would be the WOOFers! I'd definitely be the drummer because that's what I played in school. In addition, my dad and son were both great drummers!

Check out the WOOFers here:

WOOFers Club Blog - http://woofersclub.blogspot.com

Mary, thank you so much for talking to me about first drafts. I hope everyone enjoys your books as much as I did.




Learn more about Mary here:
Mary Cunningham Books - http://www.marycunninghambooks.com

Buy her wonderful books here:
Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Cunningham/e/B002BLNEK4/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Join me Tuesday for my interview with Arthur Slade and Wednesday for Lisa Yee.

Have any comments you would like to share or want to tell us about your process of getting through that first draft. I'd love to hear about it. Good luck and battle on!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writer 2 Writer - Michael Reisman & Ben Esch

If you were fortunate enough to make it to the Flintridge Bookstore this past Sunday (yes, Superbowl Sunday) then you were witness to a side-splitting workshop by literary gunslingers Michael Reisman and Ben Esch. For those of you that were not able to join us, I volunteered to take notes.

Let me start by saying that if writing books doesn't pan out for these two (which I highly doubt), they definitely have a future in stand up comedy. Not since Sonny and Cher has there been such chemistry and audience uproar. But I digress.

On to the action, the mystery, the comedy, and the romance... er... maybe not so much. We are talking about boys after all.

I'll start with Michael Reisman, writer of the popular book series Simon Bloom, and his thoughts about writing engaging middle grade books. Check out more about Michael here - http://www.michaelreisman.com/index.php?page=books



Middle Grade for boys. Age range 8-13. That transition period between childhood and puberty. The place where a subtle crack divides a boy being friends with a girl and where he starts to notice that she is a girl (all flowery smelling). At this age range, emotional, sappy love stories with girls are not something that most boys want to read about. Not yet. So what do they want? They want skeletons and boogers. Monsters and aliens. Icky mud and 12ft tall bugs that can eat your entire family (but then burp them up later - because death is too dark of a subject at this age).

The stories are much more plot driven than character driven. Action, adventure, mystery and chills. Michael said that when he wrote Simon Bloom he was writing vicariously. What does that mean? It means that you give your hero that wish fulfillment. The what if factor. What if I could ride a broom and go to magic school. What if I was the long lost relative to Zeus. So he thought, how cool would it be to control gravity. Well at 11 years old, it would be really cool!

Be mindful of the details. Boys may not care about what everyone looks like. They will create the character in their head. Red hair, blue tennis shoes, a single pimple on his back may be too much detail (unless of course that pimple is an alien that will spread across his back and take over the world). They may not care so much about those details unless they are crucial to the plot. However, they do want to know what the monster looks like. What the skeleton looks like that helps them fight evil. Is there three slimy tentacles or a hundred? And do they smell like brussel sprouts? (I certainly hope not - bleck). One example of this is Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy.  Check out - http://www.skulduggerypleasant.com.

Boys have a lot of nervous energy and they like their stories to move along, keep them engaged. Bring in the dinosaurs, the zombies, or even whales on stilts. M.T. Anderson's wonderful book Whales on Stilts is another great example of high octane storytelling with what else? Whales that can shoot laser beams from their eyes. You can learn more about the author M.T. here - http://www.candlewick.com/authill.asp?b=Author&m=bio&id=2150&pix=n

Think about your audience. Boys like to create forts made of couch cushions, pretend that mom's spatula is the beloved Excalibur or that a cardboard box is the Millenium Falcon that can take them to the outer rim. Listen to them talk and observe what they do. Think back to yourself as a boy (if you are a dude) or a boy that you knew growing up (if you are a dudette). What did they say? How did they react to situations? Young boys don't always put their emotions on the table. They don't talk it out, they slug it out. They project their feelings in different ways than girls do. Boys still want to take over the world and blow up ant hills. But if they lend you their baseball glove or favorite Transformer, then there is a good chance they like you.

If you are struggling with dialogue for this age range, watch current television shows and movies with kids of the same age. Listen to the rhythm of the speech. Close your eyes and hear what is said - does it sound different to you?

Another wonderful book that Michael could not stop talking about was Lisa Yee's Standford Wong Flunks Big Time. To learn more about Lisa (if you don't already know!) check out her site at - http://www.lisayee.com/Site/Home.html

Let's switch gears and get to the nitty gritty. The PG-13, the R rated, the world of YA. The lines can blur between MG and YA territory. But what really separates them? Ben Esch, writer of Sophomore Undercover was able to help us in that realm. Check out Ben's hilarious site at - http://www.benjaminesch.com/



YA for boys. Age range 12 and up. Subject matter more adult in tone. For the most part, stories are character driven.

Ben's writing was based on a lot of events and memory from his teenage years. Writing YA was a personal journey and a lot of cultivating from those embarrassing moments that we all want to forget. But why forget them when they make for great writing? In fact, Ben was able to remember word for word conversations that he had in high school. Drawing from those conversations helped him create great characters and story arcs for Sophomore Undercover.

At this age boys are thinking about sex. In fact, they think about it a lot. And with changes in their body and voice there is plenty of space for quirky real moments. Just look at your yearbook and see what the boys wrote compared to what girls wrote. Girls were personal. Boys seemed to write only things on the surface (stay cool, don't be lame). But what you may not realize is that teenage boys are layered with complications much like their female counter parts.

Remember being a teenager? Do you remember how you felt when your body made drastic changes? What about the first kiss? The first French kiss or the time you played seven minutes in the closet? Let them boil up to the surface and write about them.

Ben made a great and hilarious point that maybe girls didn't realize it when they were dancing with a cute boy and he stood far away from them that he wasn't repulsed by them, he was actually turned on and didn't want them to feel how much. That is a PG-13 moment and not something you would find in a middle grade book.

I was a teenage boy and I can tell you that I was bothered if a girl didn't like me. If I put myself out there and was shot down - it stung. Did I sit around and talk to my friends while brushing each others hair? Not likely. No I had other ways of dealing with it. Most boys do. They don't talk face to face. They talk to each other shoulder to shoulder. Side by side. Facing out. They talk in short sentences and get to the point. Boys may seem simple but they do have layers. It's our job as writers to peel them back and give the reader something new and exciting to discover about them.

Ben pointed out a few of his favorite YA books that had strong voices and great stories.  

Girls for Breakfast by David Yoo - http://www.daveyoo.com/html/index.html
King Dork by Frank Portman - http://frankportman.com/index2.html

Both writers pulled from experience. That is what makes the writing real and have a voice. Think about those boys you hung out with. How did they talk and carry themselves? What was it that left a lifelong impression. At some point we have all known or dreamed about the Duckies, John Benders, Holden Caulfields, Harry Potters, Simon Blooms, and Dixie Nguyens. Now it's time to write about them.

Both Michael and Ben shared their # 1 rule. Write the story you want to read. Be passionate about it. Be into the story. Be committed to it. If you land an agent, there will be changes. If you land a publisher, there will be changes. There will be many steps to publication. So you have to love what you are writing because it could take you a long time to get it out to the world. Remember it is a marathon, not a sprint.

Michael and Ben, thank you so much for the laughs and all the wonderful advice. Thank you for giving us a great afternoon of your time. I look forward to reading many more of your books.

I would also like to give a very special thanks to Catherine Linka at the Flintridge Bookstore for coordinating such an awesome event. I have had the pleasure to attend a few of them so far and I am a big fan. To learn more about the bookstore and its events, check out: http://www.flintridgebooks.com/

And last but not least I would like to share a recent favorite of mine that had me rolling on the ground in the bookstore. A great boy book with a strong voice. 


Thank you Josh Lieb for this hilarious book. I will read this one many times. Have any favorites of your own? Books for boys that you couldn't put down? I'd love to hear about them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Embrace the classic storyline

Avatar reached 2 billion smackers and half of my co-workers still have not seen the movie. Is there anyone left on the planet that hasn't seen it yet? Yes, I work with at least ten of them. But what surprises me more than anything is that they were trashing the movie and they haven't even seen it yet.

"The story sounds heavy handed and obvious."

To me it's like saying I know the new U2 album is going to be the same old songs, so why should I bother. Maybe because there is something new to learn from each song and something new to each story. I agree that there are some standard by the numbers beats in Avatar. But we know that there are only so many stories in the world and it really is all about how you tell that story.

Why am I blabbering about this? I'm working away on a middle grade story that is tried and true. Faithful to the classic hero's journey. What makes mine different? The character. His story. His emotional reaction. And most of all, the way he looks at the world and the comedic situations and quirky characters that surround him. This is what I tell my Avatar hating friends. See the movie, maybe (just maybe) you will be surprised. It is a hero's journey, but there are many fun things that go along with it. I thought it was a blast. I went to see a movie. I didn't need Cameron to change my view of the world. I don't think that is his job.

Back in the day I would go and be my snob commercial blockbuster hating film school graduate self. I learned that I really loved these types of movies and stories and so does the rest of the world. Embrace those classic stories. The classic journey and even that happy ending. Why not. The world is filled with plenty of wonderful things. It's too bad we focus so much on the bad.