“To the New Owners of My Childhood Home,” an Excerpt from Weave Magazine

Not the most recent or attractive photo of my house, but the only one currently on hand. You get a glimpse of the colors, though!

I live in a pink and green house in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Our living room is orange. Our kitchen ceiling is pink plaid. Every surface in my mother’s bedroom is purple: the rug, the bedding, the walls; she even painted her antique wood furniture lavender. It wasn’t the first house I lived in, but it’s the one I grew up in. In three years, my sister will graduate from high school and my mom will retire. In three years, my mom will put our rainbow of a house on the market and move down to North Carolina.

Even though I’m moving out of my childhood home later this month and across the border to New Jersey, I’m a little nostalgic at the idea of my mom giving up our house for good. I was half hoping she would abandon the idea, so that in a decade or so I can still come home to the same familiar place for Thanksgiving, and can forever look at the wall marked with my sister and mines growing spurts. But last year she bought a house–the retirement house–in North Carolina and she’s renting it out until she’s ready to move. It’s official.

Now accepting that we’ll really be selling our house, I realized that no matter how much we pack and how carefully we clean, we’re inevitably going to leave a lot behind. You can’t help it. For example, when we first moved in, I remember finding forgotten toy soldiers everywhere: buried in mud puddles, in the sandbox, and even shoved into the crannies between bricks in the fireplace. They were a reminder of the boys who used to live there. I decided to write a friendly, theoretical letter to the future homeowners, to prepare them for unusual things my family will leave scattered about the property.

Isn't this cover amazing?

Weave magazine liked the story enough to publish it and, if you’re not already a subscriber, you can order Issue 7 and read the whole story. I gave Weave first publication rights and I don’t want to be disrespectful and publish the whole story online, but in celebration of its publication and the magazine’s arrival in my mailbox today (so excited to read the rest of the contents!) I thought I’d give you all a little taste.

 

To the New Owners of My Childhood Home

I assure you, it’s in your best interests not to dig in the following places:

  1. The cranny of lawn nestled next to the raised strawberry beds;
  2. Underneath the bleeding hearts in the back yard; and
  3. Among the roots next to the brick walkway.

You will find dead bodies.

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Books Set in NYC: Tried and True, or Tired and Trite?

Have you ever noticed the sheer number of books that are set in New York City? The Princess Diaries series, the Insatiable series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rules of Civility, P. S. I Love You, Sex and the City, The Nanny Diaries, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Out of Time (a Caroline Cooney Time Travelers Quartet book), The History of Love, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Eloise, The Cricket in Times Square, Harriet the Spy, just to name a few, and, let us not forget, according to Marvel comics, NYC is the most superhero-dense city on earth (Spiderman anyone?)

Now, I understand that New York has a lot of people and therefore a lot of stories worth telling in its long history. It has geographical elements that stories are attracted to like magnets: Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building, the Met, the subway, Broadway, Times Square, and the offices of nearly every major publishing house and magazine in American history.

Many of these books have a sense of place so infused in them that they couldn’t properly be set anywhere else. Where else could Spiderman travel with such ease than through the network of tall buildings that is Manhattan? What would the lovely Holly Golightly be without Tiffany’s? And the children from the Mixed-Up Files without the Met? As in many good books, the setting is so important in these plot lines that the city becomes a character in its own right.

There’s nothing wrong about writing a book set in New York, but the overwhelming number of them makes me want to ask: What’s wrong with writing local?

Nothing’s wrong with it, some of you might answer. Maybe you’ve never been tempted to write a story set in New York. In fact, a lot of you probably write stories set in entirely different places. But, if you’re from a small town, a boring state, or a less-than-mainstream and popular country, do you set them there, in those places with which you are most familiar? Or do you try to set them someplace you consider more interesting, more exciting, wholly more appropriate for a good story? Maybe not New York, but perhaps some other metropolitan area: Washington, DC, Savannah, Boston, Paris, London, or Los Angeles. Do you set your stories there because the characters belong there, or because you feel pressured to set it somewhere more populous and well-known?

When I was working on my book, I struggled to find the sense of place. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and in the first draft it was just easier to allow the book–even though I was morally opposed to having it set there–occur in the same place. But when I went back to edit it, I wanted to pack up all the characters and move them. Who wants to read something set in my lame region? I figured. So I struggled. I kept moving them around, jumping them from place to place, but none of them felt right. I tried New York, I tried the New Jersey coast; I considered islands and I considered a more rural location. Nothing worked.

Reluctantly, I let them move back to the Philadelphia suburbs. And it works so much better. The whole read local movement–local authors and regionally-set stories–made me realize that there is a huge amount of readers who are proud of their hometowns and would love to read about them in print. After living in New York this summer, I wasn’t interested in reading more books set in the city. Books set in small towns, far-flung regions, and places I’d never been before were refreshing reading. For a brief moment, New York lost its glamor and the self-conceived idea that all good books are set there–admittedly, there are a lot of them–evaporated. I learned to stop being ashamed of where my book really wants to be set, and embraced writing local.

(Image, No Copyright, Library of Congress)

Does Your Writing Reek Enough to Pass the Five Senses Test?

I’ve been reworking a short fiction story for the past two weeks and though I really liked the idea, and was growing increasingly fond of many of the sentences and some of the full-length scenes, I could tell the story wasn’t really popping off the page. If I were being honest with myself, I knew it was a little flat. I kept adding more and more description, attempting to make the settings and characters come alive through elaborate imagery. But depending so heavily upon sight was leading to some clunky, wordy, never-ending paragraphs. According to “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?,” by Jill McCabe Johnson over on the Brevity blog, my writing didn’t stink enough. The solution to limp prose? Make it stink to high heaven.

Literally.

Smell, according to Johnson, is a powerful writing tool:

Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores . . . Smell . . . has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know.

It’s such a simple thing, but upon reviewing several samples of my writing, I realized that I rarely include scents.

You might not realize it, but most of your favorite books snuck in some distinctive odors. Take Harry Potter, for example. The Amortentia potion wouldn’t mean much if, to Hermoine, it didn’t smell like “freshly mown grass and new parchment and–” something else associated with Ron. Maybe smell is the secret ingredient used by the great and the published?

And though this other fabulous blog post by Sammy, “Writing in Style, or Style in Writing,” over at Stet That returns to the sense of sight, it reminded me how important it is–and how non-verbally descriptive it can be of both the character and the situation–to shine a brief spotlight on their choice of wardrobe. As Sammy wisely puts it, “black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement.”

With both those suggestions in mind, I added the scent of burnt coffee and some cheap foam flip flops and–I know this might sound cliché–my story suddenly had new depth to it. Just by adding a detail about one of my character’s five senses, it led me to write more details about other senses, and even led to some more character motivation:

Original prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car to follow him into the building. In the waiting room, Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

New, invigorated, smelly, and well-dressed prose: Carla stared at the paper. Stunned, she got out of the car. The heat of the summer-soft tar seeped through her foam flip-flops, burning her feet, and she scurried through the parking lot like she was escaping a runway of hot coals. The faint smell of burnt coffee greeted her, and the smell grew stronger when she walked into the waiting room. Carla noticed her mother, jiggling her foot, sitting in the front row of plastic chairs. “Well?” her mother mouthed.

I know that there was a lot more rewriting and development in the second example than the strict insertion of (some of) the five senses, but by integrating touch and smell, the details led to more details and really fleshed out the moment. Personally, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s developing.

Now your turn. Will your writing pass the “Does My Writing Stink?” Test?

Randomly select ten pages of your own writing, and count the number of times you’ve referenced odors. Award yourself one nifty Nose for every reference to odor, then use the scale below to rank yourself among your fellow writers. Note: references in your writing to freshly baked bread, cut grass, flowers, or ground coffee count as only half a Nose. [Click here to find out what your score means.]

Speaking more broadly about all the senses, I think having 3/5 senses (or include the sixth sense, if you prefer) per page is a solid win. In my opinion, though, 5/5 might be a sensory overload for the reader. I say this because, unless your character is a chef, you can’t have them tasting something every scene, your characters can’t constantly be groping things to describe their texture, and you don’t want to overdose on the odors. Do you agree or disagree? What’s the perfect balance?

What are some of your favorite sensory-satisfying scenes? And what do they score?

How Winning a Writing Contest Can Improve a Writer’s Self-Esteem

Wonderful news, folks! You are officially reading the blog of the winner of Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition!* According to their congratulatory email, “competition was fierce,” so I’m super proud! While first and second place comes with fame (publication of their entry in Writer’s Digest) and fortune (they won some prize money), honorable mention certainly isn’t a shabby win!

Benefits from Winning Honorable Mention:

  1. One free copy of the 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market
  2. Mentions/Promotion in the May/June 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest and on www.writersdigest.com
  3. Bragging rights in future cover letters
  4. Bragging rights in future query letters
  5. Total rejuvenation and inspiration to jump back into my NaNoWriMo novel

You see, the short YA story I submitted to the contest was an excerpt of my NaNoWriMo novel, Waterlogged.  I had already written the first three chapters of the novel for my senior undergraduate creative writing seminar last spring and decided to finish the rest of the book during November. It was the best writing I had on hand when the deadline for this contest rolled around so I also decided to submit an excerpt of that already revised/edited/reviewed beginning. And it won! This recognition makes me feel like the entire month of November wasn’t wasted, like my novel has some real potential and merit, and now I am pumped to start the year-long process of rewriting the entire hot mess that is my 56,000-word novel! And I’m even more pumped to have the polished manuscript ready for literary agent submissions so that I can insert this mention-worthy award in the query letter. I already feel like this book has a statistically-better chance of getting an agent!

New Year’s Resolution: Finish the entire manuscript and query it at least once before New Year’s 2012. Everybody hold me to this goal!

*Please excuse me while I jump about in unadulterated joy and excitement.

The Pros and Cons to NaNoWriMo

During the month of November, I pretty much secluded myself away from the writing world.  I didn’t read any blogs and I didn’t submit any new stories.  I was so busy trying to bust out my NaNo word count every day that I actually forgot I was waiting to hear back from several publications.  The month sped by.

This was both a curse and a blessing.

The Curse:  I got two rejection letters during the month which were extremely unhelpful discouragement.  One was from Cicada–FINALLY! I thought they had lost my submission ages ago–and the other was from New South.**  Both were form letters, but one was actually a forwarded rejection which just seemed to increase the impersonal nature of it all  [deep sigh of melodramatic depression]

The Blessing:  The month went by so fast that I didn’t even have time to count the seconds until I hear back about some contests I entered a while back.  I find out about the Tiny Texas House contest as soon as this Friday (cross your fingers!) and about the Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition by December 31st.  Woohoo!

I didn’t know this until I read this article, but apparently the writing world is split into two camps concerning NaNoWriMo: friends and foes.  I think most of the Cons on the Writer’s Relief’s list are rather silly, so I’ve composed my own Pros and Cons list:

Pros:

  1. You get a whole book written–with a beginning, middle, and end, and an entire cast of characters.
  2. You don’t have the luxury to procrastinate and only write and rewrite and then rewrite the beginning again . . .  for years.
  3. You’ll become a better writer, with better writing habits and better discipline.
  4. Every writing project in the future will seem easy and completely achievable in comparison with NaNoWriMo.
  5. You’ll have taken so many wrong turns in your novel and reached so many dead ends that, through the process of elimination, you now know what can’t happen in your novel and, therefore, what can.
  6. Even though your whole book is crap (see below) it’s a lot easier to rewrite and edit when you already have the bare bones of the entire story.

Cons:

  1. Your whole book is crap.  When you go back to reread the draft, the sentences are horrifying, your descriptions are fluffy instead of visionary, and in general you can never show this book to anyone.
  2. You are going to have to rewrite the whole book which, for a moment, will make you question whether or not you wasted thirty days of your life doing something unproductive (you didn’t, I swear).
  3. Because of the attention to word count rather than quality, it is almost certain that your writing won’t improve over the month.

In my opinion, the pros totally outweigh the cons.  In fact, the cons aren’t really even cons.  They’re more like complaints, complaints that every writer will have some day.  Because we all must–and dread–the rewriting stage.

**Personal submission response time for Cicada magazine (see my write up about their submission guidelines etc. here): it ended up being 8 months, 29 days for a rejected poem; in the past, I only had to wait 27 days for a personal rejection to a short story.  Obviously, it ranges . . . What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait to hear back from a publication?

(Image, No Copyright)

The Moral of the Story: What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Even though there was a rehearsal dinner, a wedding, a weekend spent upstate visiting my beloved roommate, Thanksgiving, and, at the very end, a very nasty head cold, I survived and WON NaNoWriMo this year!  Hurray!

I now have a very crappy, embarrassingly awful, but decently plotted 56,000+ word novel (I only wrote 50,000 words this month, but I had 6,000 words previously written for this story).

No Plot?  No Problem!, which I actually found to be quite good company throughout the month of literary abandon, recommended that I celebrate with champagne.  Being that I looked (according to my mother) and felt a bit like death warmed over, I settled for some very delicious and throat-soothing chocolate ice cream instead.  And then I rewarded myself again and had some for breakfast this morning.

NaNoWriMo was quite the experience and I learned a lot about myself and my abilities as a writer.  I went to regional library write-ins and met some great people; some of whom have done NaNo before and actually self-published their previous manuscripts and were working on the sequels this month.  I feel successful and accomplished on one hand, and completely terrified about how much I might hate the whole book when I go to edit it in a few weeks on the other.  But nevertheless, even if I have to rewrite the whole book and realize that my writing skill itself hasn’t improved, I think I’m a better writer and now have better writing habits because of NaNo.

Most Important Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2011:

  1. Writing out of order is perfectly acceptable.  I got really stuck half-way through Week Two because I was writing under the unconscious assumption that I needed to write each scene, as much as I dreaded it or could not think of what exactly happened next, as they occurred in chronological order.  So when one of the pep talks encouraged us to write out of order, it was completely liberating.  Being allowed to hop around my manuscript and dump a scene or one thousand words wherever the mood struck me was much more effective and fun.
  2. It’s not that hard to write a whole novel in a month.  Yes, I had to give up blogging, tweeting (for the most part), exercising (which was not ideal considering the fact that it was Thanksgiving), and generally reduce the amount of television I watched.  But I was shocked by how much extra time I had after finishing my daily quota.  I had plenty of time to bake, see my family, read (though, admittedly, most of my reading was reduced to audiobooks during my never-ending commute and while waiting in doctors’ offices), and sleep.  Now that I know I can do it, pushing myself to write a book in two months seems completely reasonable.
  3. Accept that the first draft will be awful and write the whole crappy thing so that there’s a beginning, middle, and end before editing.  I normally do this with short stories, but with past book attempts I kept editing individual chapters before moving onto writing the next chapter.  With my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I figured out that you don’t really know where the plot will end up going; with all the twists and turns, you’re going to have to end up rewriting and reorganizing the first chapters anyway—something that was originally a red herring is not critical, and needs to be fleshed out, for example—so don’t waste your time or use those first three chapters as an excuse of why you haven’t written the rest of the book.\

How was everyone else’s November?  Did you do NaNoWriMo?  Did you write something less lengthy, less messy, but equally fabulous?  Did you get any awesome writing accepted for publication somewhere?

What 1,100 Words Looks Like: Gearing Up for NaNoWriMo 2011

I’m currently plowing through the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, the creator of NaNoWriMo, as I prepare for the incredibly unplanned month of writing ahead of me.  (Being that I’ve gotten SNOWED IN  the weekend before Halloween–strange and unacceptable–I have time to start and finish an entire book.)

Four inches of snow before Halloween; Pennsylvania, 2011

Reading it is actually calming down my nerves quite a bit . . . and leading me to call everyone I know and begging them to be a “NaNoWriMo Nazi and/or slave driver” for the next month.  (Baty recommends that NaNoWriMo participants brag about our aspirational, completed-novel intentions beforehand so that we’re guilted into actually finishing.)

One of the main things the book stresses is pre-planning our writing time by recording what we do on a daily basis, color-coding the essential, important, and non-important activities and committing to replacing the non-important and occasional important activities with writing time.

My average day as it stands now looks a lot like this:

6:30 am:  Wake up, make sure younger sister hasn’t overslept her alarm and is heading out for school; fall back asleep.

7:00 am:  Wake up again.

7:00 am-7:30 am: Shower, dress, eat, pack lunch.

7:30 am-9:00 am: Drive to work while listening to a lovely audiobook.

9:00 am-1:00 pm: Official editing day job.

1:00 pm-2:00 pm: Lunch break.  Sometimes blog, sometimes read, sometimes take a walk in the local park.

2:00 pm-5:00 pm: Official editing day job continued.

5:00 pm-6:15 pm: Drive back home while listening to more of the lovely audiobook.

7:00 pm-8:00 pm: Physical therapy.

8:15 pm-11 pm: Hang out with family and/or boyfriend.  Sometimes this involves writing/blogging while boyfriend is doing homework.  Sometimes this involves watching unnecessary amounts of television.

I’m thinking that if I forfeit that extra half hour of sleep every morning (even as I say this I know it’s unlikely), make my lunch break a power-hour (higher likelihood), write some more in the parking lot before physical therapy (similarly high potential, as long as traffic doesn’t steal away the time), and commit to being in the same room with those I love but generally ignoring their presence (possible, especially on nights when the boyfriend is ignoring me because of his own heavy homework load) while I write should make NaNoWriMo physically possible for the first time ever, for me at least.

If you were reading between the lines, you noticed that I cut out my blogging time for the next month.  Sad, but true.  Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take a working vacation and neglect the blog for awhile (I’m sorry!!).  I’ll still be on Twitter–mostly for the daily bragging (or shamefully pathetic) tweet of my word count–and apparently we can have friends on the NaNoWriMo website this year, so don’t miss me if you don’t want to; be my writing buddy and we can cheer each to the finishing line!  (I’m listed as HannahKarena.)

I tried NaNoWriMo once before, my sophomore year of college, and promised myself I would never put myself through it again until after I graduated.  You don’t have free time in college; you just have time where you can multitask homework with something more social and pleasant.  Like doing homework in a group at Dunkin Donuts at 11:00 pm.  Or watching reruns of Will & Grace on the couch with your roommate while you read your textbooks during the commercials.  There was simply no room to fit more homework-like activity.  Kudo’s to Amanda, a freshman who’s making a go of it despite the odds.  Also kudo’s to Katy and Sammy, who are not freshman but lead busy lives and deserve ample amounts of credit for their pledge.

I did write my first book in college, though.  I invented a “How to Write a Children’s Book” independent study where I wrote my book for credit, so my class schedule actually built-in writing time.  Every two weeks I had 2,000 words due.  As I face NaNoWriMo–where I’m expected to write 1,667 words a day–that deadline of long ago seems laughable, but it was really good practice for me.  By the end of the semester I had a roughly 18,000-word manuscript with a beginning, middle, end, and break-neck-speed pacing.  (That summer I rewrote/edited it and it slowed down into its expanded current size of about 35,000).  The reasons for this less intense productivity were:

  1. I was carefully editing my pages as I went so that my adviser (shout out to Professor Lawrence!) could actually enjoy and potentially be mildly impressed by my prose.  NaNoWriMo, on the other hand, results in 50,000 words of garbled crap worthy of nobody’s eyes but mine own; instead of being born naturally–complete with all ten fingers, plot devises, and toes–NaNoWriMo projects are like a really horrifying Frankenstein experiment.  It’s going to take months of rewriting and hardcore editing before this new book is even reasonably presentable to the general public; and,
  2. It was historical fiction and I was spending hours every week doing extensive research.

To help myself along this time, I’m doing a completely fictional book.  No research.  Everything will be pieced together from my own imagination.  Also, to help I’ve already gotten 6,000 words written.

Now stop right there.  I heard all of you start hissing “cheater.”  I promise, I’m not cheating.  I solemnly promise that I will not include these first 6,000 words toward my 50,000-word goal.  Instead, in the end I shall have a 56,000-word manuscript.  But the benefit of already having a head start is that I have a grasp of my characters, the narrative voice, and a general idea of what I want to happen along the way.  I went into my first NaNoWriMo experience completely blind and started writing a random novel.  When it died after 6,000 words or so, I started a new one.  And when that one died, I gave up.

This year, I’m dedicated to actually finishing.  My motivation?  The 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  They have two categories–general fiction and YA fiction–and the winner of each gets a $15,000 royalty advance and a publishing contract with Penguin.  What’s not to be hopeful about?

Hope to see a bunch of you in the NaNoWriMo chat rooms, lots of you at the finishing line, and everybody else in a month!

Just keep writin’ writin’ writin’ and don’t forget to submit, submit, submit.

*For gauging purposes, this post is an example of 1,100 words.  Can you write that plus a smidgen more every day?