Saturday, October 29, 2011

If You Are a Dreamer, Come In...

Dreams. 

They're feisty, elusive little things, aren't they? Anne Shirley once said, "It wouldn't do to have all our dreams fulfilled. We would be as good as dead if we had nothing left to dream about." And yet, it can also be detrimental to our poor little souls to have our dreams constantly denied. The book of Proverbs says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true, there is life and joy."


I don't know how you feel about the subject, but I tend to keep my dreams pretty close to the chest. For one thing, I know how vulnerable they are: some of the more fragile ones can be slayed by a single skeptical glance. For another thing, I tend to feel (erroneously, perhaps) that revealing them makes me seem weak, or even more seriously, that admitting I want them shows what a selfish prat I really am.

But I begin to wonder if I shouldn't hold them so close. I wonder if perhaps I ought to let them try their little wings from time to time. Because when it comes to other people, I find that I consider dreams to be among the most precious, sacred things the heart contains. Nothing connects me to another person faster than learning about their most cherished desire, even if that desire seems outwardly ridiculous. Almost always, I find myself saying, "Oh, you should!" Why? Because I believe it is important to dream. I believe it is imperative that we frail, ephemeral humans run headlong after the things tugging at our souls. How could we live full lives if we didn't?

So. Here are some of my dreams:

 
A wee cottage in the country...

 
with one of these,

 
and one of these,

 
and some of these,

 
where I could spend every morning doing this

 
and every afternoon doing this.

But of course, the dream that haunts me most looks like this:


Others I have cannot be captured so easily in images, but they linger just the same, whispering in my ear when I catch a glimpse of a sunrise, settling over my shoulders when I sit around a table with my family, brushing past my ear with the sudden strain of a violin.

Why do I bring all this up? Because I have begun to be convicted in the belief that it is of the utmost importance to encourage one another in our dreams. It's awful to see your dreams "deferred" (see this poem by Langston Hughes), but it is infinitely worse to have them scorned, discouraged, or even simply doubted. (Anyone who has ever had to explain their writing "habit" to a dubious acquaintance or extended family member understands the torment of that experience.) Conversely, the experience of being wholly and unflaggingly believed in is almost as wonderful as achieving the dream itself. When someone you love is willing to stand at your side in the face of grueling hard work and opposition, and say, "I know you can do this," you find, miraculously, that you can.

So I say to you now, do not be a doubter of dreams. Do not look into the soul of another human creature and say, "You can't." Because while it may only cause that dreamer to toughen her skin and overcome another battle against doubt, it might also break her. And this world is broken enough to be getting on with.

What say you? If you feel so inspired, share your own dreams on your blog and post a link here. I would love to come by and say, "You can."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Revelation

Every once and a while I have one of those epiphanies that stops me dead in my tracks no matter where I am or what I'm doing, and makes me turn to whomever is closest (even if it's just my dog) and say, "OH MY GOSH. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I JUST REALIZED???"

Usually this turns out badly for me. Not only because you can never tell what poor, innocent bystander will fall victim to this verbal assault, but also because my revelations tend to be a little, er, shall we say, behind the times.

For example: When I was in college (college, mind you) I realized that the phrase "Take it with a grain of salt" was not in fact, as I had so long assumed, "Take it with the grand assault." This one rocked my world for at least a week.

A few years before this, I was made to understand that the large quantities of fizz produced in the quick pouring of a glass of soda did not result in the irrevocable loss of said soda, but merely indicated some kind of chemical transformation best known by mathematicians and NASA employees. (I had long been indignant at the idea that Coca Cola would sell a product which, if it were not poured slowly enough, would vanish in vast amounts and leave the purchaser with less than half of what they paid for.)

I recently had another revelation, and I hope this one is less embarrassing. It goes like this:

ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
SHOW INSTEAD OF TELL


If I were the sort of person who said OMG, I might say it now. For me, this is the best kind of epiphany. It takes something I've been hearing my whole life and links it with something I've been telling myself as long as I've been a writer. And the result is that both ideas are illuminated.

"Actions speak louder than words" is a phrase so overused by elementary school teachers that it draws eye-rolls from anyone over the age of fifteen any time someone so much as thinks it. But consider it in these terms: The reason we must SHOW our readers instead of TELLING them is that actions speak louder than words. Ha! Do you see it? New meaning altogether!

Writing a character's actions conveys your point so much better (so much LOUDER, you might say) than describing that character's feelings or mental progression, doesn't it? Ludwig's shoulders sagged and he dropped into the nearest armchair with a whimper is ever so much more effective than Ludwig was disappointed and tired and he didn't know what he was going to do, as we all know.

But holy mackerel! That's because actions speak louder than words! If I had really understood the depth of that phrase when my first grade teacher droned it to the class so many years ago, maybe I'd be a better writer today! (Are you sick of the exclamation points yet?)

Excuse me. I have to go gaze starry-eyed into space for a while. And then I have to go do some revising.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Publication is a Moot Point

I don't think I'm alone when I say I've been feeling the pressure of the un/pre-published life lately. Bills are stacking up. Unfulfilled dreams are starting to get cranky. Unmet goals are rubbing saddle sores into my sides. I've not achieved what I hoped I would have by now.

Indeed, I'm not getting paid to write. I'm not published. I'm not agented. And sometimes these rankling facts infect me with an apathy that makes even writing a chore. Do you know what I mean? It looks something like this:


But here's the thing. It's the main thing. And somehow, in the middle of all my striving and longing and journeying and bleeding and trudging, it manages to be the thing I forget most.

NONE OF THAT MATTERS.

No, I'm not crazy. Let me say it again. None of that matters! Not a bit! Not a whit! Not a Dr. Seussian Snit!

Sure, it'd be great to get paid to write. I'd love to have my books published. And I would be enthralled to work with an agent who liked my writing enough to champion it. But none of those things are the reason I write. None of them are why I started writing in the first place. See where I'm headed yet?

I just finished reading Emily of New Moon, a book by L.M. Montgomery (you know, the wonderful woman who gave us Anne Shirley?), and in it I found a certain amount of refreshment as a writer. As it happens, Emily Starr, the protagonist of the book, also longs to write for a living. But when her teacher demands to know why she wants this, he leads Emily to the heart of the matter--for her, and for all of us. He says:

"Tell me this--if you knew you would be poor as a church mouse all your life--if you knew you'd never have a line published--would you still go on writing--would you?"
"Of course I would," said Emily disdainfully. "Why, I have to write--I can't help it at times--I've just got to."


For me this conversation was like a knock over the head. Never mind that I've said this very thing many times before (I have to write! I'll go on doing it forever whether I get paid for it or not!); somewhere in the wild scramble for the prize of publication, I'd temporarily lost sight of it.

But I didn't start writing because I wanted to be published, or because I thought it would make me rich and famous, or because writing somehow impresses people. I didn't even start because I loved it--although that certainly plays a helpful role. It was because the stories in my head were all but leaking out of me, suffocating me with their need to be told. It was because I HAD TO.

And I think that's what we have to remember. Because that's the only thing that will keep you happy in your work. Doing it because you must--and because you love it. And if publication happens along the way, well... that's a lovely bonus.

What do you think? Why did you start writing? Do you find yourself getting distracted and consumed by dreams of agents and editors and publishing contracts so that your writing takes the back seat? Please share!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Why What We Do Is Hard

You know it. I know it. And very often, we start to let the difficulty of writing give birth to insecurities that plague our whole existence. It isn't bad enough, apparently, to consider giving up on writing; we must also degrade ourselves into believing we are bad at life in general.

The funny thing is, this problem seems to extend well beyond the glorious milestones of representation and publication. Beth Revis, author of Across the Universe, admits to her insecurities on her blog, here. Jody Hedlund, award winning author, shares many of hers here. And the Authoress of Miss Snark's First Victim confesses her own fears here.


I recently read a Slate article by Michael Agger which shed some light on this widespread issue of self-doubt in writers. In it, Agger explains what should be a very simple and obvious fact to those of us who write: writing is hard. Here are some highlights from that article:


"Writing extended texts for publication is a major cognitive challenge, even for professionals who compose for a living... Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task." (Ronald Kellogg, Professional Writing Expertise)


It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance... Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as "knowledge-crafting." In that state, the writer's brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what's being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience. (Link)


I don't know about you, but I find these passages to be both comforting and liberating. Writing is a highly solitary craft, and when you hold yourself to a high standard, it is quite easy to become discouraged; you rarely have someone next to you all the time to pat you on the back and say, "Hey, you're doing just fine! This is hard stuff, you know!" And the moment you indulge the whiny little voice in your head complaining about how difficult writing is, you start to feel like a wimp.

But isn't it nice to hear someone else verify that, yes, this is in fact a complicated thing you're trying to do?



It's easy to start feeling like a dunce when your work isn't measuring up to what you want it to be, but sometimes you have to remind yourself that it's okay to be where you are right now

That doesn't mean we should cut ourselves any slack in what we expect from our (slightly overtaxed) brains. It just means we shouldn't start allowing ourselves to feel inadequate just because it takes us awhile to get to where we want to be. Because if we continue to work at it, we will continue to make progress. And despite the insecurities, despite the difficulty of it all, writing is in fact very rewarding work. Otherwise, why in blazes would we be doing it?

Take this advice from Lois Peterson: "The more you write, the easier it gets; the more you write, the better it gets. So just write the damn thing!"



What about you? Regardless of where you are in your writing journey, do you feel plagued by insecurities from time to time? How do you cope with them? And what do you do when you discover that writing is indeed very hard?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Manuscripts Are Like Children

Happy Thursday to you!

I am pleased to say that last week's begging and pleading worked out very well. The readers who volunteered to take SUNCHILD to their bosoms and thump all the hiccups and burps from her tender little frame were more plentiful and talented than I could have ever hoped. It delights me to know that she is in such capable hands.

Of course, she is only in those hands because I have at long last relinquished her from my own. Which brings me to the point I'd like to discuss (on the metaphor I've already started, because it works pretty well): What do you do with yourself when your baby goes into the world for the first time?

Now, I've never given birth to a human child before. I haven't given birth to an animal child either, although I've found myself in the position of mothering two different baby-beasts in my adult life.  But I have now conceived, carried, birthed, and nursed five full novels into maturity, two of which (and now three) have left me to go striding out across the wide world to seek their fortunes.



I confess this loss to have a strange effect on me.

The first thing that happens once I tie up all the fragmented ends of a young manuscript--brush its hair, you know, and tidy its outfit and wash its face--and send it off into someone else's care is that I feel a miraculous sense of relief. The thing is done! I think to myself, breathing my first deep breath of freedom and standing up from my computer to see if my numb limbs still function properly. I can do anything I want! I can watch a movie! I can eat a sandwich! I can change out of my ratty t-shirt and go out on the town!

But the moment this sense of possibility breaks over me with all its brilliant rays, I remember the list that has been accumulating for months as I have inched, slothlike, toward this stage of manuscript near-completion. The list includes things like, "Pay rent" and "Buy dog food" and "Wash your hair," and it goes on for pages and pages--which are of course scattered over my entire apartment, on various scraps of trash or folded post-its, and which could not all be located even if I had the motivation to try. So my raptures are extinguished as quickly as they ignited, and I merely replace one ratty t-shirt with another and set to finding and carrying out the list.


By the time the list has been reasonably reduced, though, I find that something strange has happened to me. I no longer have the urge to watch a movie or make a sandwich. My desire to wear something socially acceptable and go out in public has vanished. I can think of only one thing I truly want to do: Write.

This stage of the process is called MANUSCRIPT WITHDRAWAL. During this stage, a writer experiences selective memory loss with regard to the manuscript they have released into the wild: they can no longer recall the feeling of murderous frustration they experienced when gazing upon that stubborn section that refused to comply to their wishes; they have no memory whatsoever of the grueling headache that plagued them during their last week of revisions; most remarkably of all, they cannot imagine what would have possessed them to daydream of time spent away from the project, when the only thing worth doing in the world was--and IS--spending time on that manuscript!

I have felt symptoms of this illness coming on in the last few days, usually manifested in periods spent staring listlessly at my desk, wondering if I should do something, but not knowing what that something might be. And I know how it goes. Before long, I'll delude myself into thinking I want that annoying, time-devouring child back.

Which of course I do. 

But I still had better not waste this precious time I have now. So. What do YOU do while you take breaks from manuscripts? Start another project? Take some intentional time away from writing? Fuel yourself into productivity by means of bribery, threats, or coercion?

And if you have no manuscript, but you have other kinds of babies (humans, animals, chia-pets, etc.), how do you get some healthy distance from them, and refresh yourself while you are apart?


I want to know.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Call for Betas

Well, well, well!  Look who it is!

Yep.  It's me.

Nothing like a lengthy, unplanned hiatus to make you forget you have a blog, eh?  But I've remembered, and what's more, I've decided to keep on remembering.  In other words, I think it's time to get back in the proverbial blog saddle and start posting again.  Because I'm inches away from finishing my first revision of SUNCHILD, and that means more time for other types of writing.

Which brings me to the main purpose of this post.

I need beta readers.  

(If you don't have the foggiest idea what a beta reader is, click this link and have a look at what Casey McCormick has to say on the subject.)

What I'll be asking you to do, essentially, is to read the manuscript from beginning to end, while keeping a shrewd eye out for things that slow you down, things that don't make sense, and things that make you want to stop reading and go vomit instead (although I hope there will be very few of those instances).  Your assistance in this vital step of the revision process will help me iron out kinks in plot, pacing, and flow, and will demonstrate to me what more needs to happen before SUNCHILD will be ready for querying.  But please be advised, should you decide to offer your help, that the manuscript is still in rough draft form.  It will at times be very like slogging through a swamp.


The book, in case you are wondering, is YA fantasy, and it is currently floating at a little over 100,000 words.  Essentially, it's about a girl with a magical connection to the sun who lives in a land that's cursed by darkness, facing this question: how can a sunchild be who she's meant to be--and save her kingdom to boot--when she has never even seen the sun?  (For more, please click here.)

If you are interested in being a beta reader for SUNCHILD, please email me at hanna.c.howard(at)gmail.com, and I will add you to the list of people whom I will love and adore forever and ever, amen, and send you a very fat attachment on Friday, July 29, which is my self-inflicted deadline.

If you are not interested, then this post is largely irrelevant to you, and I must therefore beg you to stay tuned for my next missive, because I promise I'll return soon.  No more shlepping along silently.  I'm back, now, and I'm determined to stay.  Let's talk writing, folks, and let's talk life.

Let's be e-friends, shall we?




Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some (Cool) Annoucements

I'm afraid to say that this is one of those "pimp yourself" posts that I hate so much.  I've been putting it off for several weeks, but the time for its relevance will soon have passed, and I feel it must be done.  Writers, after all, must do their own PR, no matter how much they loathe the task.

So.

I wanted to give you all, my dear friends on the World Wide Web, a few quick announcements pertaining to the book I recently decided to shove into the proverbial Drawer, titled BEAUTIFUL MONSTER.  The first, and most important one is this:

As if determined to spite me for banishing it to the Drawer, the novel has recently advanced to the semi-finals of Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Contest.  You can visit its page by clicking this link, and if you're really feeling generous, you can read the excerpt and leave me a wee review.

Second, Ana Mardoll, a dear reviewer who unearthed my book in this same contest last year, interviewed me a few weeks ago about BEAUTIFUL on her blog.  You can read that interview by clicking here.

And third, I have recently made BEAUTIFUL available for online download if anyone should wish to read it in full.  You can investigate that possibility here.

Whoosh.  Okay, now I'm done with that stuff.  Time to pimp someone else. 

My dear friends at YARN (The Young Adult Review Network) received some exciting news yesterday.  They have been selected as recipients of the Innovations in Reading Prize, given by the National Book Foundation (yes, the same people who give the National Book Awards), which is a TRULY big deal, and so awesome for a publication as wonderful as they are.  If you've never visited their website, please go now and check out all the great things they're doing.  I can assure you that they are on the brink of a remarkable career.  (Here is their post about winning the award.)


And finally, a question for you that is totally irrelevant: Since April showers bring May flowers (and pilgrims, yeah), and we are at last into May, what is your favorite May flower?  If you could have a bouquet or a pot of one flower right now, what would it be?

This one's mine:

Friday, April 29, 2011

Have I Mentioned How Much I Like Quotes?

"The research is the easiest.  The outline is the most fun.  The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out.  The rewrite is very satisfying."  -Ken Follett

I'm with you, Ken.  I'm with you.

Anyone else with him?

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Typing THE END.

You might have noticed that I've been rather scarce around here for the last few months.  Here's one reason:



This means that I work at a plant nursery, and spring is our equivalent to the Christmas season. 
But here is the the main reason:


This is Siria Nightingale.  She's the protagonist in my WIP, and she's done a fairly good job of keeping me singularly occupied since December.  Turns out, her story was one of those utterly consuming ones that doesn't let you rest until you've sat your little self down and told it in full.  But here's the good news: Today I typed the words, THE END at the bottom of Siria's word document.  This means I can relax a little bit, because revisions are not quite as consuming as first drafts tend to be.

But that brings me to the main point of this post.  I have a few questions for you all.  

If you are a writer, here's your question:

When you type THE END, what does your next step tend to be?  How do you personally approach the massive undertaking of revising, editing, and polishing your manuscript?  Do you use beta readers?  And if so, how do you find them, and what do you ask them to do?

And if you are a reader, here's yours:

What do you expect out of the ends of books?  What has made you feel most satisfied when you close the back cover of a book, and what makes you want to open the front cover right away and read it all over again?  How do you feel about cliffhanger endings?  In a series, what kind of ending makes you ache with satisfaction, even knowing that you have more books to read before you know the whole story?

Please share!  I have loved hearing your responses to previous questions, and I find the variety of opinions fascinating.  Happy Monday to you all!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

If You Have an Opinion, I Want to Hear It...

And it's a quick question:

If you were ordering a YA Fantasy novel, how would you like your romance?

Subtle and quiet, and not a primary focus?

One of the secondary plot points?

One of the primary plot points?

Or outstripping all other details?  (Actually, I think we just call that genre "Romance.")

As I plug away on my WIP, I find myself wondering idly what readers want most.  Even if it doesn't change the way you write, it's still interesting to know.  So put on your reader hats, all you writers, and tell me what you like best in your YA Fantasy.







And extra points if you can identify all the books these couples come from... Happy Wednesday!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Raise a Glass to Turnings of the Season

[ATTENTION: This post has almost nothing at all to do with writing. I know. It's weird. I sometimes forget I have ordinary human things in my life, too. But hang in there, and don't judge me too fiercely. I'll go back to being strictly writerly in my next post.]

Oklahoma doesn't get blizzards. Ever.

Except lately.


The last week and a half have felt remarkably like living in the Arctic tundra, or in Narnia, or maybe on a wintry frontier. We had eighteen inches of snow with the first bout last Monday, then an additional four or five inches a few days later, and then today, about four more. This would not be a big deal if we were (like so many other places who had blizzards) a city who knew what to do with snow, but as it happens, Oklahoma is decidedly unprepared for any accumulation beyond two inches. The consequence? Most everyone I know has spent the last eight days caved up in their houses like bears, or hiking cross-country in full Eskimo gear, desperate for some social contact--or just bread and milk.

I've spent the larger part of those eight days working on my WIP (50,000 words! There's an allusion to writing, guys!) or exploring the frontier with my canine friend Ophelia, who turns into an arctic wolf in the snow. Here's proof:


Even if you hate cold weather with all the molecules of your being (like me), it's hard to resist a dog who has this much fun outside. But I'll be one glad little sparrow when Spring arrives.

And speaking of Spring...

I went to see the Decemberists play in Kansas City on Monday. It was unequivocally brilliant (of course), and their new album, The King is Dead--rather more subtle than some of their others--comes at an appropriate time, as one of its primary themes is the changing of the seasons. The first song on the album makes me itch for spring so badly I am tempted to march out into the waist-deep snow on my balcony and start planting petunias.

The lyrics are as follows:

Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
A neighbor's blessed burden within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all and one

And nobody, nobody knows
Let the yolk fall from our shoulders
Don't carry it all, don't carry it all
We are all our hands and holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun
And this I swear to all


A monument to build beneath the arbors
Upon a plinth that towers t'wards the trees
Let every vessel pitching hard to starboard
Lay its head on summer's freckled knees*

And nobody, nobody knows
Let the yolk fall from our shoulders
Don't carry it all, don't carry it all
We are all our hands and holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun
And this I swear to all


A there a wreath of trillium and ivy
Laid upon the body of a boy
Lazy will the loam come from its hiding
And return this quiet searcher to the soil

So raise a glass to turnings of the season
And watch it as it arcs towards the sun
And you must bear your neighbor's burden within reason
And your labors will be born when all is done

And nobody, nobody knows
Let the yolk fall from our shoulders
Don't carry it all, don't carry it all
We are all our hands and holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun
And this I swear to all


(*My favorite couplet)


Here you can listen:


I'm going to go ahead and raise my glass to a turning of the seasons. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to move out into the sun again, and watch the world grow. Here's to spring... and to leaves on the trees and blossoms on the Jane Magnolias.

Bonus feature: Here's a video I snagged at the concert. If you're a Decemberists fan, you'll like it. I promise.

video

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Comfort Books

There is something about the month of January that makes me want to curl up into a ball under my blankets and wait for spring.  If you're a warm weather person like me, you probably feel the same way.  Possibly you find yourself sighing more than usual this month, or feeling slightly desperate when you look out your window and see nothing but grey for the eighteenth morning in a row.  Or maybe you start to wonder whether green grass and blue sky ever actually existed at all.



It's times like these I start to crave my comfort books.

Some people solve the January blues with comfort foods, comfort sweat pants, comfort music, or comfort movies.  But personally, I find the best antidote to January to be a supply of well-loved books.  These are more like old friends than they are stacks of bound paper.  For example: 

Last week, I saw one of mine on a shelf at an antique mall (it was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and I had an actual moment of confusion in which I stopped with my mouth open, ready to smile and say hello, before I realized it was a book and not a person.  A second dilemma developed at this point, in which I had to fight the impulse to buy the book on the grounds of it being inhumane to leave my friend-book sitting beside a rusty kettle on the shelf like an ordinary item.  I wanted to march up to the shop owner in outrage, cradling Harry Potter to my bosom and shouting that this was not just any book she had sitting on her shelf like some kind of common antique!  This was my friend!  Thankfully, I recovered my common sense and walked on without causing a scene, but not without experiencing a pang of regret for Harry.

That is what I mean about comfort books.  When you run into them at book stores and thrift stores--and antique malls--you feel a stab of fierce ownership for them, and sometimes feel compelled to buy them even when you own at least one copy already.  This is because, like any dear friend, they loyally offer you comfort every single time you pick them up.  Here are some of mine; some of the books I reach for when the world turns into endless, iron winter and I just need a friend-book:

I suppose Harry Potter goes without saying.

Also, Ella Enchanted

Peter Pan

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Lord of the Rings

Pride & Prejudice

Anne of Green Gables

Heidi

The Princess Academy

Goodnight Moon (before bed, of course)


What about you?  Do you find yourself craving familiarity and comfort books during the long weeks of January?  What are some of yours?