Adventures In Author Visits!

Last week I traveled to the Northwest for a series of author (and family) visits. I had a wonderfully fun, wonderfully exhausting week–and it only rained every time I happened to be driving 70 miles per hour on the freeway. Yikes! Here are some other highlights:

Powell’s–one of my favorite bookstores ever! I taught a workshop for teens and tweens who like to write with author Anne Osterlund. This is a monthly event–authors mentoring students. Check the schedule!

We had a small, but enthusiastic group. And I got to fulfill my dream of signing my books at Powell’s. Plus, I had lots of fun visiting with my Portland family members and the next day I went bookstore hopping with author friend Rosanne Parry. We visited the big Powell’s and Annie Bloom’s (they have a bookstore cat–I LOVE bookstore cats!). I also added a few more books to my already heavy suitcase.

After a night in Olympia, Washington hanging out with my mom & brother-in-law, I rode the ferry to Lopez Island to do school visits at Lopez High and Lopez Middle School. Much thanks to the lovely folks at Lopez Island Library.

I had so much fun getting to know the fabulous teens of Lopez Island–lots of creative, funny, and nice people! (*waves* to MacKenzie & Kevin.) I showed them how I’ve added real life experiences from my diaries to my novels. And I made fun of one of their favorite teachers–my brother! (My sister-in-law is an amazing teacher too!)

Other Lopez highlights. Eating. Mmm. Galley hamburgers. Vortex burritos. Collecting rocks on Agate Beach, watching the seals at Shark’s Reef. And a post-school visit first: my brother convinced me to allow him to winch me 30 feet up a sailboat mast so that I could string a rope for him. Let’s just say that the thigh master has nothing on a sailboat mast as the wind picks up…

In other adventures, I spent the day with my five-year-old nephew, Quinn, at preschool. We were driving to school, rocking out to Taylor Swift, when I noticed flashing lights behind me. Oops! 35 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. As I’m trying to talk my way out of a ticket, apologizing, explaining, apologizing, my nephew calls out, “My dad got stopped by the cops too!” I started laughing, but I still weaseled out of the ticket. Phew! (My brother hadn’t been so lucky.)

A half hour later I got busted at preschool for suggesting that my stuffed squirrel karate chop Quinn’s stuffed squirrel. Oops! Karate stays at The Dojo, even for stuffed animals, on Lopez Island. But Quinn now thinks his Aunt Syd has some serious street cred!

Next I headed to Seattle–and lunch with my high school friend Amy. After spending a week reading my high school diaries, full of serious boy craziness, I thanked her for putting up with my seventeen-year-old self! We had a great Greek lunch near her office in the shadow of the Space Needle. How cool is that?

The next day I spoke at the WLMA (Washington Library Media Association). Just before my talk, I ran up to my room to brush my teeth, comb my hair, and look over my PowerPoint one last time–only to discover that my computer claimed that my presentation was corrupted (my HS diary isn’t that edgy!). The only presentation accessible was one geared toward 4th grade Girl Scouts. Quickly I scrambled to add a few slides. And the presentation went fine, but not exactly as I’d hoped. Next time I’ll remember to actually use that flash drive I carry with me!

I also had a great time visiting with old Whitman College friends: Margy and Roz are librarians, and Royce Buckingham writes great boy books (we took the same English classes in college–and never imagined this day!). I also loved hearing Sherman Alexie read the first chapter of his sequel to The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part Time Indian (it’s SO good) and listening to Alyson Noel’s publishing journey (she’s so charming!).

Oh, and if you haven’t sang karaoke with eleven librarians at midnight in an airport hotel lounge, well, I’m just saying, all that hush-hush stuff about librarians? Rumors, all rumors. Librarians are a blast!

This Week In Revision: The End

I’m done. I hit send & now the manuscript is with my agent. I thought about writing a post on what I do at the end of revisions–it involves list making and obsessive double-and-triple-checking. And, maybe, I’ll do that someday, but right now I’m still celebrating!

And that’s really my number one End of Revision Tip. Do something nice for yourself. I got a massage.

And then I hosted a cupcake party for my daughters. I’ve been pretty preoccupied for the past several weeks, sneaking away from home on the weekends to work on revisions. So that’s my second tip: do something nice for the people who’ve supported you (or is tolerated the better word?).

Celebrate your accomplishments–even the small stuff–finishing a draft, reaching a nice fat word count, a personal rejection letter… You work hard and deserve a treat!

This Week In Revision: Tapping Into Emotion

Last week I snuck off to a matinee with my husband, enjoyed a laughter-filled dinner with favorite writing pals, and two fun people joined our writing group. Our family went to ice cream day at the State Fair, I got the laundry done (even folded!), and for some miraculous reason my house stayed clean. And I still had long, uninterrupted writing time.

I’m happy.

So how was I going to deepen all the rejection, pain, and sorrow my character experiences in Chapter Sixteen? I sat in my sunny living room trying to channel despair. Yeah–not happening.

To the diaries! I’ve written in my journal almost every day since my early teen years. Sure, I’ve recorded a lot of boring, ordinary days, but when the tough stuff happens, the words flow and flow and flow.

So which volume to read? My sixteen-year-old self’s angst (my character is almost sixteen)? No, I went for recent rejection. Mostly because I knew I could find some deep pain in the pretty yellow journal with flowers and butterflies embossed on the front.

I sat on my front porch in the sunshine, my cat winding around my legs, sipping tea, and jotting down descriptions from a recent painful emotional episode in my life. Chapter Sixteen, here I come!

Writing always makes me feel better (I filled an entire two-hundred page journal during my daughter’s spine surgery). But it’s also a record, not just of events in my life, but of the emotional ups and downs. Reading about the fear I felt before college–will my life finally begin for real?–reads almost the same as the years I spent nurturing young children–will I ever feel like myself again?

Human emotion is fairly consistent. Rejection pretty much feels the same at sixteen as it does decades later (kind of a bummer, but true).

So that’s my revision tip this week–keep a journal. It’s never too late to start! Record your thoughts and emotions so you can tap into that deep stuff later–because sometimes life is as wonderful as eating four scoops of ice cream before dinner at the State Fair.

This Week In Revision: Characters With Baggage

Quick–what first comes to mind when you see:

Popular? Pretty? Mean? Dumb? 

Moody? Morose? Serious? Misunderstood? Deep? Poetic?

Popular? Hot body? Lucky with girls? Dumb? Jerk?
Smart? Unpopular? Ugly? Scrawny? Absolutely unlucky with girls?

Some characters come with a lot of baggage! 

I’m writing a story about a high school girl, so naturally some of these character types people my story. And some of them, unfortunately, read as stereotypes: flat, predictable, boring. This week, I’ve worked on unpacking their luggage and fluffing them up, so to speak.

So how do you transform a stereotype into a realistic character?

1. Avoid using labels. The instant you write short-hand descriptions of your characters–geek, jock, brain–your readers will fixate on the stereotype, not the unique details that (may) follow.

I made the mistake of labeling an Asian character as “good at math.” Right away the stereotype alarm buzzed in my agent’s head. The thing is: that character never does math in the novel; we never see her in math class. I’d written that as a lazy way to describe her ethnicity. So–

2. Choose unique details that give your character complexity. Give them contradictory qualities. I’m really organized–I make lists, file important papers, work efficiently, meet deadlines. But I have a super cluttered, super messy house. And my desk–yikes! 

Think about the kinds of things that are important to your characters. How does he/she see the world? Is your character a musical person? Maybe he notices sounds. Observe things from your character’s eyes (I often use this as an excuse to take a writing field trip). 

Use details that show the effect your characters have on the other characters in your story. Do people think your attractive, yet shy, character is stuck up? 

3. Create backstory for all of your characters. I’m good at thinking about my main character’s past experiences, but I often allow secondary characters to slip into my stories unprepared. That’s when I resort to labels and stereotypes. 

Stop and think about each character’s backstory. How do your characters know each other? What past experiences did they share? What expectations do they bring to their current relationships with each other? 

4. Think about each character’s motivation in each scene you write. Realistic characters have personal agendas–that usually conflict with another character’s plans. Stereotypes just want to hang out, win the big game, fluff their hair… While rewriting, give each character–even the dude moping in the background–a goal. Now let things get messy. And interesting!

If you’d like to read more writing tips from me (as well as other writers), check out Suzanne Morgan Williams’ blog:

Revision Report: Filling Holes

Flashbacks are great, right? Type a few snappy lines and voila–you can move ahead with your story.

Unless, you’ve used those snappy lines to avoid writing a key scene. I do this. In every single manuscript. Every single time I write a manuscript. Why? Key scenes are hard to write, especially when the characters brim with emotion, passion, and tension.
Sometimes writing those scenes makes me crabby.
Today I reached one of those unwritten key scenes. So, I put some towels in the dryer, soaked a few dishes, read a few blog entries, pulled chunks of hair off my shedding dog… And then I turned off the Internet, poured another cup of coffee, turned my music on loud, danced around a bit to Phoenix, pet the cat–and (finally) wrote my main character throwing a big, justifiable fit.
So why did I avoid this powerful scene in the first place? I wish I could say that I’m unfamiliar with the throwing of fits, but that, unfortunately, isn’t true. I think I simply wanted to move on to easier writing.
Key scenes are difficult: you have to dig deep into the character, often looking into the darker, tantrum-throwing parts of yourself. You’re balancing the right tone, character change, growth, opposition, creating and increasing tension… And I usually end up rewriting key scenes numerous times before I get them right.
So what’s my strategy?
1. Make a list of physical sensations your characters might experience.
2. Brainstorm the setting–are there items in the setting that will amp up the tension in the scene? If not, maybe this scene needs a better setting? (Mine did!)
3. Think of a time when you’ve experienced similar emotions. Free write all those emotions, things you said, wish you’d said. Play with a variety of metaphors. Try a few lines in your character’s voice. Don’t judge anything you write, just go and go and go. See if the best bits will fit into your story. If not, at least you’ve gotten to that tension-filled emotional place.
4. Make yourself sit and write. Forget the dishes, the dog, that email that just dinged. It doesn’t have to be a great scene right now. The important thing is to write something, anything…
Because there’s always revision!

My Own Relationship Advice

My husband and I are in San Francisco this weekend celebrating our 18th anniversary. He really wanted to see the Giants play, but knowing that I’m not a huge sports fan, he didn’t want to go on our actual anniversary. I said, please buy the tickets.

After 18 years of marriage, I’ve learned that successful relationships aren’t about manufactured romantic moments (or else all those couples who meet on the Bachelor would stay together). So here’s my advice:
1. Laugh together every day. It’s really hard to remain grouchy after an episode of The Daily Show, or a Snuggie infommercial.
2. Don’t blame your partner for your own personal struggles. We’ve been pretty good about keeping professional stresses, extended family strife, and personal unhappiness out of our marriage. Whether it’s been my husband’s demanding schooling, or my long, discouraging path toward publishing, I’ve treated my marriage as an oasis from my other problems.
3. Expect your partner to change. So many of our personal interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes have changed over the years. But here’s what hasn’t changed: I married an intelligent, kind, compassionate, generous person with a great sense of humor. But the teenager who didn’t understand why I hung Monet prints in my dorm room–and that worried me because it didn’t fit my “ideal guy” list–is now the one insisting we visit all the museums in San Francisco.
So we went to the Giants game–and had a really great time. We sat next to a couple on their first date, and giggled a bit when the girl came back with a hotdog loaded down with onions and sauerkraut. A clear sign that the evening would end in disappointment for that poor guy!

Revision Is A Bear! Or Is It?

As I new writer, I approached revision like this:

The mere thought of all the potential mistakes in my novel made me feel as if I were, well, being eaten alive by a bear. Where do you start when there are SO many problems with a story? I chose to ignore the big, structural problems, choosing instead to focus on small, safe things like word choice, punctuation…

And it wasn’t too effective. My manuscripts gathered a stacks of rejection form letters from publishers. Eventually, I learned the importance of revision, but I still didn’t have many effective tools for approaching it. I simply read through my manuscripts over and over again, looking for things to fix. And sometimes I couldn’t see the problems through the, um, car windshield.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Darcy Pattison’s novel revision retreat. Aha! Using Darcy’s workbook, Novel Metamorphosis, we learned how to tackle revision issues one at a time. First we created a novel inventory, noting the plot action and emotion in each chapter. So helpful! At a glance, I noticed a potentially weak chapter and places where I could strengthen emotional resonance.

Another incredibly useful revision technique is the shrunken manuscript. Darcy showed us how examining our novel in 6 point font, single spaced, can show us the overall patterns in our stories. One attendee realized that her story lacked conflict for several chapters in a row. That’s exactly the kind of comment I used to ignore (my critique partners just didn’t get it, I’d tell myself). But it’s hard to argue with bright, bold highlighting. To learn more about the shrunken manuscript process, check out Darcy’s blog.

All weekend we worked on small sections of our stories, which made the process seem quite do-able–and not quite so scary or overwhelming. Because revision really isn’t a bear, it’s simply a series of small tasks. Think of them as cuddly little bear cubs!

Happy revising! (We couldn’t resist stopping at Bear World on our way home from the retreat.)

Dear Miss Swoon

Dear Miss Swoon,
My friend told me that another friend has been talking behind my back. She said that SHE would look better in my clothes than I do! And that I don’t know how to do my hair very well. What should I do? I’m not sure I want to stay friends with someone who would do that. –Mad Fashion
Dear Mad,
I’m going to state the obvious: there is no way to stop people from talking about us when we’re not there. We are just too interesting! And most of us give in to the temptation at least now and then to take a little bite out of someone else’s hide. It makes us feel better about ourselves to point out our superiority over other people, even people we like.
Both of your friends have played a part in this scenario. One of them said it and one of them repeated it to you. However, you’ve got to give credit where it’s due. That was a nice bit of snarkiness. She didn’t actually say you looked bad in your clothes, just that she would look even better!
But that was enough to start your own personal doubting voice.
If you will listen carefully, you will detect a rather unpleasant chatter in your mind. It’s negative, pretty extreme, and usually starts with YOU! It’s not true stuff, but an accumulation of put-downs you’ve heard along the way. What I’m talking about is the “Your hair is such a mess; you look awful!” kind of chatter we tell ourselves. That’s you being hard on yourself. It feels bad and IS bad for us. For one thing, your friend doesn’t ever have to say those things again, but you may say them to yourself another thousand times. And feel bad all over again–a thousand times!
The real answer is to stop going off on yourself! And think about why that person said what she said. Is she struggling to feel OK about her own appearance? You could think, “Yeah, my clothes would look cute on her too, because they’re cute clothes!” Or, “I like my hair, and it looks pretty much like everybody else’s.”
That’s how to handle your own feelings. Now about your friends. I say, forgive your friends for being only human. If you can’t do this, you will have to jettison a lot of people from your life, ‘cuz we all have our failings. And if you don’t like to be gossiped and snarked about, let gossip and snarkiness stop with you! Make your life a gossip-free zone (tell it to your diary). I think you will like your friends (and yourself) better if you do. –Miss Swoon
Miss Swoon is a licensed psychologist who has a special affinity for her adolescent clients.

Do you have your own question for Miss Swoon? Leave a comment or send an email here.

Books ARE Judged By Their Covers

You know that old saying about not judging a book by its cover? Well, my shelves are full of books I bought simply because I loved the cover. And I’ve heard from many people who have bought my book, My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters, simply because they loved the cover.

Today I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that the great design team at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has won the Novel Cover award at the Bookbuilders of Boston 53rd Annual New England Book Show for My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters. Yay!!!
Congratulations to Carol Chu, the book’s designer, Diane Varone, production and manufacturing coordinator, Sheila Smallwood, art director, and my editor Julie Tibbott.
Authors don’t have much say when it comes to book covers, but I’ve always been more than happy to put my stories in the hands of the capable design staff at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
So, go ahead, please judge my books by their covers!

Dear Miss Swoon

Dear Miss Swoon:
I’ve always had short hair because I do a lot of sports–and it’s just easier, you know? But now I’m dating this guy who really wants me to grow my hair long. He thinks long hair is sexy and he’s always pointing out cute girls with long hair when we go out together. Should I change my hair for my boyfriend? It’s only hair, right? –Wondering

Dear Wondering:

How do you feel when your boyfriend points out how sexy other girls are with their long, beautiful hair? Deflated? Put down? These are emotions to pay attention to when a guy you like has offered a “helpful” suggestion.

It’s time to pay attention to those little hurts that you would like to ignore. It’s time to think about what is actually going on. Your guy is trying to get you to change your very identity. He’s not just trying to alter an annoying behavior you would be better off without (like slurping your shake). He’s trying to change a decision you made about your life because it works for your love of sports. He’s trying to get you to subordinate your life for his.

Your boyfriend is subtly testing you to see if you are willing to give up a part of yourself to please him. If you do decide to (just for this one thing), he will soon be asking you to skip practice to spend time with him. After all, don’t you love him more than stupid, sweaty sports that aren’t very feminine anyway?

These are the behaviors of a controller and they are huge red flags for a relationship. Control starts so small you hardly realize it and ends with you wondering how you lost yourself. In a good relationship your life is as important as your guy’s and he’ll be in the bleachers cheering you on, thinking, “Short hair is so sexy!” just because YOU have it. So, Wondering, it’s not really your hair, it’s your life. –Miss Swoon

Miss Swoon is a licensed psychologist who has a special affinity for her adolescent clients.

Do you have your own question for Miss Swoon? Leave a comment or send an email here.