Sunday, November 29, 2009

I Have OCD...Do You?

I've had several good laughs this week, and the funny thing is, they've all come from people who love Sammy Keyes. They laughs have come from the sack of physical fan mail (that I'm finally sorting through and answering), from e-mails at the Exercise the Right to Read mailbox, and from comments made to postings at this blog. They've been good laughs. Really make-my-day laughs. I think my favorite from this week is, "I have OCD!" -- Obsessive Casey (or, I suspect, Cammy) Disorder. How funny is that! When I read it, I actually ran across the house and interrupted my son (who went as "Casey" last Halloween) and his girlfriend (who went as "Sammy" last Halloween) with the news. Yeah, it can be embarrassing having me as a mom... Anyway, I guess the thing about being a productive author is that you spend much of your time alone. Or really, alone with your characters. So what happens is, the characters you create become real to you, and when you discuss them with others you find yourself having to explain to peripheral listeners that no, it wasn't an actual person who cemented a gangster's tush into a wheelbarrow--it was Sammy Keyes. Now, that's what you tell them, but in your head, she really did it. In your head, Casey and Billy and Heather and Grams and Hudson and Marissa and Dot and Holly and Mikey and Officer Borsch and everybody really exists. It all sounds a bit mad, I know, so generally I don't let on about this in public. But when I get mail from readers and they are SO excited about developments in the series, it makes me feel good--like I'm not alone in my madness. The letters are physical proof that I'm not the only one who cares who Sammy's dad is. I'm not the only one who wonders if Billy has a secret crush on Sammy. I'm not the only one who wants Casey to be the prince we think he is...despite Sammy's heart wrenching suspicions that he may not be. And I'm not the only one who'd like to see Heather doused...even though there's still a lot of gasoline left near her fire. I am, though, perhaps the only person who doesn't wonder how it all will end. I know what the last book will be and how it will tie everything together. I can't wait to get to it, because it's going to be unique and surprising and...well, good. But I have to pace myself to it. Sometimes I feel like Sammy Keyes is the dark horse in the Series Races. I see other series gallop ahead, but I just remind myself as they burn brightly and then fade that I'm in this for the long haul. And I have confidence in the long haul because I know that my "fans" are individuals. They're not followers. Sammy Keyes is not the flavor of the month to them. They're in it for the long haul, just like me. I'm thirteen books done--about two-thirds of the way there. And instead of being tired or burned out, I feel like I'm just hitting my stride. That I can do this and that I will finish strong. Part of that is that my love for Sammy continues to grow. Part of that is that I get letters and messages from people who love her too. If you're one of them, know that you're like a tailwind. I feel you at my back, and I'm grateful that you're there.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Camping Pot Incident

There is a huge turnip in a Charles Shaw wine box at the end of my driveway. I have no idea who put it there, or why it's there. Is it a gift? A suggestion for my yardscape? Will someone be returning later, expecting soup? For some reason seeing the turnip in the box reminded me of running over a camping pot and a sorry-looking yucca "tree" with the family car when I was a teenager. The turnip at the end of my driveway rivals the yucca. Really, it does. Bulbous base...not much in the way of greens...lurking in the dark.... Plus the yucca was scrawny, and this turnip is huge. So yeah, I could make the case. Why a wine box reminds me of the camping pot is not exactly clear. They both hold stuff, but my trash can makes regular appearances at the end of the driveway and it has never reminded me of a camping pot. I guess the brain just sometimes yields curious connections. I should, perhaps, explain that I ran over the yucca and camping pot not because I was inebriated or taking the driveway turn too fast, but because I was still new at driving and terrible at backing up. It was a look-over-your-shoulder-turn-wrong-and-panic-with-your-gas-foot maneuver. My parents didn't seem to care too much about the yucca. Perhaps they'd considered taking it out themselves and I'd just saved them some time. And since by some miraculous stroke of luck I hadn't caused any harm to the car, I got off easy with the yucca. It was the camping pot that I caught heat for. It was our big one. Some sort of prized aluminum, no doubt. One that I needed to buy a replacement for. I should have just chucked the pot in the trash with the promise that I would buy a new one. After all, what good is a smashed camping pot? But I took it inside and put it in my closet instead. And every time I opened my closet door, there it was, reminding me. Making me old. I didn't use that phrase at the time. It took me many years to coin it, but the Camping Pot Incident was the event I trace the feeling of a nagging burden back to. It was like the turning point of responsibility, where instead of hoping I'd get out of something I'd been told to do, I was now weighed down by the fact that I hadn't yet done something. It's different than a conscience. It wasn't about having done something wrong. It wasn't even about not having done something to make it right. It was knowing I had to take care of something...and putting it off. I look at my life now--at all the things I've been meaning to do, all the people I've been meaning to contact, all the promises I've yet to fulfill--and I wonder at the unappreciated simplicity of a life where buying a camping pot could free me from the sense that something was "making me old". And I would pontificate on this some more, because I find the whole concept of avoiding things that "make you old" quite compelling, but Mark just walked in with a Charles Shaw box announcing, "Someone left us a present!" Really. So I better go. I think he's planning on making soup.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Guest Blog by Mark Parsons

Hi, guys! Mark here, filling in for Wendelin as she takes care of some pressing writing biz. Since the primary themes here are running and writing, that’s what we’ll discuss. Running first… We’re now three weeks out from the inaugural Santa Barbara International Marathon (where “Team ETRTR” will cheerfully be representing Exercise the Right to Read!) so this morning we did our final ‘long run’ before we start to taper. Today’s run was a 20-miler, but it was relatively civilized, all things considered. Our previous long run, however, was another story. It was a hot day and we’d headed inland. Big mistake. The heat and attendant dehydration took its toll, and it ended up being more of a death-march than the fun little jaunt it should have been. So this morning we stuck near the coast (perfect weather – clear and 60 degrees out), took plenty of hydration breaks, and set a good, moderate pace that we could maintain over the distance. (Correct pacing is everything! Okay, except for a decent training program. And pre-run nutrition. And fueling and hydration during the run. And rest & recovery afterwards. But other than that, trust me, pacing is everything!) SO… all of the above-mentioned factors made today’s trot a much more pleasant experience, and we’re feeling good about the upcoming marathon. We’ll post a short ETRTR video update after event (similar to what we did for the San Francisco Marathon a few months back). And now writing… Wendelin’s been discussing her writing process here lately, and the short story here is that—while not identical—my process is pretty similar. Like her, I’m a huge believer that much of the real creative stuff actually has its beginnings in the subconscious, and the best thing you can do as a writer is to facilitate the delivery. It seems that often, great ideas come bubbling up when you’re otherwise occupied in some semi-mindless task. (Running is great for this. So is driving. And standing in the shower—especially after a long run—is about as good as it gets…) And contrary to some conventional wisdom, I’m also a big believer that talking about writing ideas can do a lot to “unstick” the creative process. My theory on this is that talking uses a different part of your brain, and verbalizing your thoughts allows you to access this otherwise-unused part of the mind. Wendelin and I frequently “talk plot” on long car trips, and it’s helped us both immensely. One area where Wendelin and I differ, however, is that she has learned to really love the rewriting process. I enjoy it somewhat (and certainly recognize its value) but perhaps I’m less evolved than she is (I’m a dude, after all) because I still prefer the “oh yeah!” moment of initial creation over the incremental improvements of repeated revisions. It occurred to me today (probably because I’m in the middle of a revision) that writing—at least, writing for publication—is actually a collaborative process. Which seems strange, because writing is often thought of as a solo creative effort. But between your initial manuscript and that shiny new book on the bookstore shelf stands something very important—an editor. And a good editor does a lot more than acquire projects and do all the admin stuff and schedule the various steps of the process like a corporate Project Manager. Good editors also edit. (Well, they do all that other stuff too, but they’re called editors for a reason.) I used to tell Wendelin she was lucky, because at least she got to see (and revise) the various editings of the various editors who have edited her various works before they went to print. I used to write primarily non-fiction, and frequently in non-fiction you send off the manuscript and don’t see it again until its edited version is on the pages of a book or magazine. So that’s sort of a one-way collaboration (which I guess isn’t really much of a collaboration at all, is it?). But with fiction, you send off your manuscript and get back (at least initially, way before the copy-editing stage) comments as to how the story might be tightened up and improved. And that’s where I am today—trying to incorporate an editor’s suggestions into my manuscript. And if the ideas were contrary to what I was trying to say in the story (or just plain lousy) then I could brush them aside and be done with it, one way or the other. But this editor is a very good one, and I can tell that her comments will make it a stronger book in the long run. But you can’t just tack things on with glue and duct tape, or you’ll end up with a literary version of Frankenstein’s monster. It requires many small additions, subtractions, and “smoothing over” of the transitions so that there are no obvious scars. So in keeping with our monster metaphor, what you want instead is more like perfect plastic surgery, which by definition should be both an improvement and unnoticeable. (Which it rarely is, by the way, which is where the simile falls apart. But you get the idea…) So here I am, hopefully learning to “love the process” as much as my wonderful wife does! And really, I’m only too happy to have the opportunity to make the revisions myself (rather than finding out what the editor’s done only by reading the finished product). So yes, it’s really a back-and-forth collaborative effort, and if done right the final result is better than it could have been any other way. That’s my take on it…

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Happy Milestone

Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher---part mystery, part comedy, part fairy tale (!?). Woot! Done! Well, not actually done done, but that's okay. I'll start the revision process tomorrow, but I took the weekend "off" to celebrate this hard earned (and joyous) milestone. The last 30 pages of a Sammy Keyes book is where all the set up in the previous 250 pages comes together. The last 30 pages are a tumbling together of subplots and punch lines (or both kind) and theme. It's the big, fun payoff for the months and months and months of buildup. My editor once asked me if I ever write the fun scenes of a book first--as in out of order--before it's their turn in the sequence of pages. I was shocked because I'd never even considered it, but apparently some authors do this. To me the fun scenes (and the climactic ones) are the reward for all the work I've put into setting them up. To write them before I've "earned" them? That seems like cheating. Or, you know, like charging something I can't yet afford to my credit card just because I can't wait to have it. Speaking of my editor, she's actually the one who taught me the value of rewriting. I used to dread it. But now it's a process I thoroughly enjoy. It's the part where I get to go back and tweak (or out-and-out fix) places that could be smoother (or just don't work). And now that I'm at this major milestone, I can relax a little. I know Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher going back through it to make it tighter and funnier and more cohesive is actually fun. Everybody has a different way of writing, but I find that what works best for me is to print each chapter after I finish it, rewrite it using a red pencil (and yes, the pages can look quite bloodied at this phase), enter the changes, print again, and add the stapled pages to my growing stack of chapters. Then, when things start to get a little muddied--after 6 or 7 chapters I may have added a character or changed my mind about something--I will take the entire stack of chapters and rewrite through it. Then I enter the changes on my computer, print it again, and go on with the writing of the next chapters, until I stop, take the whole manuscript up to that point and rewrite it again before moving on. There are about thirty chapters in this book, and I have already gone through the majority of the manuscript (the first 25 chapters, or so) at least a dozen times (with the earlier chapters having accumulated more attention at this point than the later ones). By the time I am through the revision process (it'll be a few weeks), I'll have gone through the entire manuscript at least 20 times. Then, when I think it's "perfect", I'll send it off to my editor, who will (usually after many months) get back to me with ideas on how to make it even better. Oy. But I've learned to take an objective look at her notes and appreciate the fact that she's put so much thought into the story, and that she has managed to come up with ideas to improve the story. After I've mulled over her comments, I go through the manuscript another few times, resubmit it, and months later it finds its way back to me with comments and technical corrections made by a copy editor. Double oy. Comma placement can drive me batty. So even when I'm done, I'm not, but I'm ignoring that for now. For now I'm celebrating that Sammy 13 is "done" and that the "Cammy" fans (Casey+Sammy) who have been begging for the next installment will be ecstatic to find out what happens next. Woot!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Writing Process (Part 4) -- Don't Be Afraid to Knock

Based on my tales of materializing pigs and slobbery carrots, you may not believe this, but I'm a big believer in the importance of plot. Earlier I talked about writing as being like a road trip, and to go with that simile, I'm not one of those people who sets out on a journey without a destination in mind. I also always map out places that I intend to visit along the way. In other words, I always have an outline of some sort. I don't just "wing it". I especially always know the ending, or, in the case of Sammy Keyes, who-dun-it. I'm not one of those authors who "discovers along with the reader". Especially in the case of mysteries, I think that's cheating. How are you able to drop fair clues for your reader if you're going to pluck your villain from a cast of red herrings five pages from the end? Anyway, the ending is very important to me, and if I don't have one I really like, I won't start writing until I find one. For me, the most extreme case of this was Runaway. I knew that Holly's teacher was going to give her a journal, I knew that Holly (who lives in bad foster care) would think it was the lamest thing a person could give her--what good was a journal to someone who was being locked up in a laundry closet, and whose head was "Sani-flushed" in the toilet? I also knew that the journal would become Holly's lifeline and most prized possession after she ran away and embarked on a harrowing journey across the country, and that Holly would intersperse poetry throughout the journal which would reflect her growth and ability to finally get down to "the heart of the matter". So I "knew" a lot about this book I wanted to write, but it took me a good, what? seven years to hit on the way to end it. And then, once I did (and got over being all weepy about it--something any teacher will totally get when they read it), I dove in and started writing. So for me, it's imperative to have a strong beginning, a killer ending, and good solid plot posts along the way. But (as you know from the whole pigs and carrots thing) I drive forward not always knowing what I'll run into, and for me that's the fun of embarking on the journey. If I know every little place I'm going to visit, every person I'll meet, everything that's going to happen, why take the trip? I like the surprises. They're what turn the journey from a trip to an adventure. Yeah, it can be a little dicey. It'll make you sweat through passages because you're pretty much in the dark, groping your way along, hoping to be rescued by...well, you don't really know what, but something. You shake your flashlight in an effort to get it to work better, you let out a warbly "Helllooooo? Anyone there???" and you press on. And here's the deal. You have to press on. Even when you're scared that you've lost your way, you have to press on. I've had my characters at the threshold of a doorway and not known what was on the other side more times than I can count. And the interesting things is, every time my character has knocked, someone has answered. Don't be afraid. That's the key. Who answers the door is infinitely variable. You have nothing to lose by knocking. If you don't like who you see, slam the door and try again. But I promise you that whoever answers will be someone of interest; someone you (and your reader) will want to know more about. I think my best example of this is in the second book of my new The Gecko and Sticky series for young readers. In one scene in the book, Dave Sanchez (the hero of the story) is making his way through dark and deadly passages located beneath the "maniacal mansion" where Damian Black (the story's diabolical [and completely mad] villain) resides. My "plot post" was to get Dave inside the mansion via a strange subterranean labyrinth, but how exactly he was going to do this was up in the air. I was just going along with him on this adventure, discovering things as I wrote. It's dark. Dave's scared. And (like me) not at all sure where he's going. Then up ahead, there's a faint glow. A light. Sort of. Dave's not sure what it might be (and neither am I). But as we proceed, the glow gets brighter. Dave imagines that it's the glow of ancient Aztec gold (as Damien is a treacherous treasure hunter who would, for the record, have piles of the stuff hanging around). Then there's a blood-twisting screech. The screech gets louder. And fiercer. (I have no idea what's screeching, and believe me, neither does Dave.) But thoughts of gold persist, and so Dave (and I) press on until we get to a corner--one we must turn to discover what's screeching and glowing around the bend. So here I am, at "the door", and no, I have no idea what's there. But I take a deep breath (and a few trips to the refrigerator) and finally I "knock". And around the corner Dave (and I) discover...oh, good grief, this is going to sound so wacky, but it totally fits with the story so here we go...a (small, moderately cute, but highly intelligent) rhesus monkey inside Damien Black's subterranean espresso cafe. There are cushy couches, recessed lighting, and a full-service coffee bar, and the monkey is trapped inside, not as Damien's pet, but as his coffee boy--Damien,you see, had trained him to brew rare and exotic blends of Himalayan coffee (which Damien enjoyed drinking black, of course). Now, being trapped inside an espresso bar, the monkey had developed a taste for (and an addiction to) coffee and was, in fact, a java-junkie monkey. Dave (being the kind and compassionate hero that he is) frees the monkey only to later learn that the monkey will (in an effort to offset fearsome headaches from caffeine withdrawl) stop at nothing to grab the grounds, jack the joe, make off with the mocha! See? Wacky, I know. But the monkey became one of my very favorite characters, and he will appear (in a pre-planned way) in subsequent titles in the series. But I would never have met him had I been afraid to "get up to the door and knock". So that's my advice for you for this week. Don't be afraid. Go on the adventure. Knock on doors. Turn corners. It's called "organic writing" and some of my very best creative work has come from a willingness to not know exactly how I'm going to get to where I know I'm going. It's like pulling up to a "hole in the wall" diner instead of a Denny's. You don't know what to expect, but open the door anyway and go inside. It's what will turn your trip into an adventure.