Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Beware the false beginning. It’s easy to start in the wrong place. A lot of times we authors even need to start in the wrong place. We need to get out some ideas or ground ourselves in the story or think to the tap tap tap of our fingers hitting the keyboard. We need to find out who are characters are and what they’re doing. So we write a lot of back-story in our beginnings.

What we need to do later is look to see if we really began the story where it should begin or are the first few or ten or twenty pages really just a dump of information or a stumble in the dark? Always be a little suspicious of your beginning. Not necessarily the first line or two which might be perfect, but the first ten pages where your story is trying to get started. You want to jump into your real story as quickly as you can. You want to start your story as close to the heart of the story as possible.

For example, you don’t want to tell all about Bubba’s troubling childhood and fights he had and the wins and losses and his fascination with Sumo Wrestling (a sport he has always loved even though no one in Cowtown, West Texas, knew anything about it) for the first fifty pages if your real story is about Bubba opening a flower shop and meeting Wild Wanda, the woman of his dreams, when he turned fifty. Maybe you want to work in the Sumo Wrestling (who wouldn’t?) but the reader should feel momentum in the beginning and confidence that the writer is taking them someplace. Most of the time this means starting the novel as close to the heart of story as possible.

Or so I think today.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Showing Up

I was at the Texas Book Festival this past weekend. I was lucky enough to be on two panels. One of them, in the picture above, was a panel with fantasy writers called Portals to Imagined Worlds. It had Ingrid Law, Cinda Williams Chima, Carolyn Cohagan, myself, and was moderated by another accomplished writer, Greg Leitich Smith.

It was a fun panel. One of the questions was about where we got our inspiration. The others on the panel gave thoughtful, wise answers and I said I bought my inspiration out in a small town in West Texas. I didn't mention that it came in small tins and looked a lot like Altoids but I'll tell you. Very tasty.

I wish.

No, the truth is, in my humble opinion, that while inspiration is very real it seldom just appears out of nowhere. It usually comes to someone who is working every day. That is, you have to be engaged in writing your novel, struggling with each problem, trying to work it out, get the story out, get it right, even on those days you can't actually get to your computer. That's when inspiration comes. It comes because you're in a place where it can come to you. And I believe the way you put yourself in that place is by showing up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Writing Alien

This is a reprint of a post I wrote for Cynsations yesterday. If you've somehow missed this blog, you should check it out. It is full of writerly information and insight.

I’ve written elsewhere that my first short-story, “Santa Claus and the Twenty-seven Bad Boys,” which was written in the first grade, neatly outlined my material for a lifetime of fiction writing: it had a stubborn fascination in the mythological and supernatural creatures that haunt and enliven our culture, an affection for odd and strange characters, and a desire to be both comic and serious. While this is surely true, I don’t think I found the complete expression of it until I wrote ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENINCES.

What I mean is this: though writing quirky novels was nothing new to me, the fantastical elements in those novels were never central to them. The novels were rooted in realism and the fantastical events were appendages added to them in various ways for various purposes. I’d published two of these novels. Both of them had received mostly good reviews and one had won a prestigious award, but neither had sold particularly well.

After those, I’d written my next novel and that novel had been rejected by my editor and several other editors. After those rejections I have to admit, rightly or wrongly, to a feeling that I was doing something wrong. And I have to admit I had no reason to believe there would be a line of publishers interested in my next manuscript if it were like the others. So what I thought at that point was I needed to try writing a more conventional novel. I needed to reel in my quirky characters and mute the fantasy element. I needed to try something different.

With this in mind, I started a novel. It died after twenty or thirty pages. I started another and same thing happened. This went on for a while. I did what writers in a bad place must do, I kept writing. Eventually I started one that began, “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” Okay, I thought. Kind of funny. Kind of weird.

But not more conventional.

Not following the plan.

I was about to erase the line when another came. “That’s pretty disappointing.”

I had a voice. I couldn’t deny it. Every writer loves when they feel they have a voice, a narrator who speaks distinctly. BUT this was still not the novel I had planned. This was definitely not that novel. My finger hovered over the DELETE key.

But, come on, I had a voice.

I remember thinking to myself, “Really? You’re really going to write this novel? This totally unsellable even-weirder-than-usual novel? Really?”

Be reasonable, I thought. A novel takes a year. Maybe more. No on gets that many of those.

But I had a voice. I had a character. What could I do? (Let me interject here that there are many wonderful conventional novels but that for me writing a conventional novel is like trying to write in a strait jacket. I couldn’t do it if I tried. I did try. I couldn’t.)

This novel that I wrote thinking no one would buy is the novel that sold to one of the best publisher’s around, Candlewick. If I’d listened to the voice of reason, I wouldn’t have written it. Sometimes we writers have to be unreasonable. Sometimes, even though there are many good reasons not to, we have to write what we have to write. And, for me, the writing of ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES taught me a lot about what I want to write and how to write it. So that leap in the dark, that to “hell with it,” that unreasonable act, made, as Mr. Frost once said about a certain less-traveled road, all the difference.

Monday, October 11, 2010


So this past weekend I was invited to The Southern Festival of Books In Nashville. Thank you SFB. Nashville’s a wonderful town. I was on a panel with Palo Bacigalupi and I got to have dinner with Louis Sachar (okay, it wasn’t just he and I; there were a few hundred other people there, but we sat at the same table) and it was interesting and fun.

He had a lot to say about writing and bridge. Maybe more about bridge to be honest. The guy is a total bridge fanatic. I am blissfully ignorant when it comes to bridge but he made it interesting. He actually has a new YA novel out that is just about bridge called THE CARDTURNER.

Anyway, he said he always just writes out a rough, rough first draft of his novels and never outlines. That is interesting to me because HOLES is one of those novels whose structure seems perfect. If you’re looking for a novel to study structure, that’s one I would look at.

Not outlined. He found the shape of the novel in rewrites.

I know everyone works differently, but I’m a big believer in writing a quick first draft because so much will change in the novel anyway. As long as I have my first few sentences and feel like I know where I’m going, I’m ready to write fast and just try to get black on white. The “knowing where I’m going” part is an illusion of course. I don’t have a clue. And in the end I will have one big mess, but it will be my mess. It will be my beginning. For a lot of people just getting that first draft down is the hardest part of the process.

Another thing he said was that he always came, in all of his novels, to a point where he thought the whole piece of work sucked (not his words exactly but…) and he felt like throwing it out. I come to that point too and don’t be surprised if you do. You just have to keep going and work through it.

Or so I think today.

In ALIEN news:
I was interviewed here today:

Monday, October 4, 2010

What's it mean?

What does my sheepdog mean when he puts his head in my lap and stares up at me? He might mean he loves me—really, really, really. He might mean he wants me to pet him. Please. Please. Please. He might mean that he’s feeling a little low and he would like to be told how good he is, preferably for the rest of his waking life. Good dog. Good dog. Good dog. Maybe he means something else I haven’t thought about. He could, for all I know, be telling me that he’s sorry for eating my tennis shoe, which by the way wasn’t nearly as good as he thought it would be. Do I always have to buy Converse?

SHOW DON’T TELL. Yes, but. Some gestures aren’t clear. They need context to make showing them add to the story. And sometimes they need more than that. Sometimes it’s more important to tell and violate the rule (this one is definitely made to be broken on numerous occasions) and be more specific. Expressing with precision the experience of the character—how they’re affected by what’s happening or how they affect another and the way it fits with the rest of the story—is vital. The reader has to be in on what’s going on in order to share the character’s experience. Show. Tell. It doesn’t matter how you do that. It just matters that you do.

Or so I think today.