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Six Degrees of Separation from Me, I Guess

I’ve had a particularly annoying song popping into my head frequently, and by the end of the post, I’m sure you’ll have guessed it.

It started a month or two ago. My mom mentioned something about where her mother and grandmother had grown up, and our neighbor down the street remembered that her husband had family connections in the same location. Five minutes of conversation later, we figured out that my mom and this woman’s husband are second cousins, making me and the children in that family third cousins.

Oh, and one of those kids is in my math class. He now periodically greets me with, “Hey, Cuz!”

Earlier this week, I went to the mall to pick up a few things. A lady helped me at a particular store, answering questions and pointing out products she thought would fit my needs. During checkout, she signed me up for their frequent shopper rewards program, which involved giving my name, address, and such. She got a look on her face and said, “Did you … this probably sounds weird, but do you play the cello?”

I looked at her a little harder. “Tonya?”

Turns out we both played cello in the same junior high orchestra as well as the local youth symphony.

Then yesterday, my mother went in for surgery. (She’s doing well!) In the ICU afterwards (part of the plan, don’t worry!), the nurse and my dad got to small-talking. Dad asked if she’s from the area. She said she was born and raised in El Paso, Texas.

That’s where my mom grew up.

When my dad mentioned that, the nurse asked for her maiden name. Dad gave it.

“You mean Aunt Nelle and Uncle Ivan??” (My grandparents.)

Turns out this woman is my mom’s second cousin (their grandmothers were sisters). My mom even remembers her from way back, I think.

I guess there’s really no point in me being surprised at these things anymore.

Show the Love and Pitch-A-Partner in PAPfest

Let’s get real—pitching our novels is tough. Often beyond tough. Personally, I find it a lot easier to talk about the amazing work of my critique partners MarcyKate Connolly and Mindy McGinnis. In imagining pitching my novel and MarcyKate’s to her students, Mindy had a thought … hey—EVERYONE should practice pitching by pitching other people’s stuff! And so our contest idea was born.

Last month we announced an upcoming agent-judged contest called the PAPfest (Pitch-A-Partner Festival). As always, the PAP is sneaking up on you quicker than you thought. Mindy will be the primary host on Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire, while MarcyKate and I will be co-hosting, because that’s only fitting.

In our model, writers will pitch their critique partner’s project, and our team will decide whose pitching abilities are so strong that we’re interested in seeing their own project.

The blogging team will narrow down the final hopefuls to 30 entries, at which point we’ll ask our participating agents to cruise our blogs to bid on projects that catch their eye.

What Are the Rules?

Are you confused? That’s OK. We believe in multiple learning styles, so we’ll lay this out a few different ways. But first, the nitty-gritty:

What’s the Timeline?

There will be two windows to pitch your CP’s project to PAPfest(at)gmail(dot)com
The first window will open Wednesday, Jan 23 at 8 AM EST
The second window will open Friday, Jan 25 at 8 PM EST
Each window will allow 50 email entries

The PAP team of myself, MarcyKate and Mindy will be reading the entries between Jan 29 – Feb 8. If you are one of the 30 finalists you will be notified by Feb 8 via email. If you are chosen you will provide your query & first 200 words for agent judging. Also if you are chosen, your CP who graciously allowed you to use their project as pitching material will have the option of requesting a query critique from the PAP team.

February 14th from 9 AM EST to 9 PM EST (Hooray! V-DAY!) The agents will be invited to browse the entries and make requests. They will vote for their favorites with a partial or full request. Everyone who receives requests will be able to submit their materials to all the agents who voted for them.

Can Guys Get a PAP?

Why yes, yes they can. In fact, we’d love to see that.

Who are the Agents?

Agents participating in the PAPfest are:

Laura Bradford of Bradford Literary
Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary
Pooja Menon of Kimberley Cameron
Adriann Ranta of Wolf Literary
Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary
Tina Wexler of ICM

Isn’t that spectacular? Aren’t we so glad that we have them? Yes, we are. We commissioned original art from Lynn Phillips to immortalize them. (Click to enlarge the image.)

As if the fabulous portraits you’ve seen aren’t enough, we asked Lynn to reiterate the process for those who learn best through comics. Enjoy!

Cynical Reader or Unconvincing Character?

Allow me, if I may, to put on my reader-hat for a moment. See, there’s this thing that happens sometimes when I’m reading, and I’m not sure if it’s me or the book.

“Sorry, book, it’s not you. It’s me.” Ugh. Good thing books can’t throw their readers across the room.

It’s a little hard to describe. I’m reading along, enjoying the story well enough, even liking the side characters, but there’s something about the protagonist.

I don’t believe her.

(Yes, it pretty much always happens to be a female protagonist. Maybe that’s more for me to ponder.)

Not like I think she’s lying, not directly. But what she’s trying to be or supposed to be doesn’t feel real. Not to me. And that’s where I’m not sure if it’s me or her (or rather, her author).

The verdict might vary by book. Sometimes it might really be me and my cynical side getting in the way. Maybe that keeps me from being open to certain traits coinciding. That wouldn’t surprise me.

Sometimes, though, I think it might be a weakness in how the character’s written. Here’s a fairly common manifestation: Female MC is stubborn and insists on being self-reliant. Hates getting help from anyone.

That’s all well and good, and plenty of YA heroines these days fit that description. It doesn’t always fly believably, though, and I think sometimes it’s because the author shoehorns those traits into the character. The author wants a character like that, because who doesn’t love an independent female who isn’t afraid to butt heads with other people?

Wanting that kind of character and creating one are two different things. It can’t be pasted on top of everything else the character is. Pasting is for flat objects. Who the character is needs to be pervasive, leaking through in moments that seemingly have nothing to do with that aspect of them.

With my writer-hat back on, how does one accomplish that?

That’s a post for another day. If you have ideas, please share.

Kids, Don’t Apologize for Making Me Do My Job

The other day, my ninth graders were working on a review assignment. Mostly independent, or working through with friends, while I circulated to help out.

These were mostly things we’d learned between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was a little tricky to remember some of the concepts. Not a problem. That was the point of reviewing.

In more than one class, a student or two got to the fourth or fifth question they’d asked me and prefaced with this:

“Sorry.”

Sorry to bother me? Sorry I had to weave through rearranged desks to get to them? Sorry they had so many questions?

Well, at least one said it was the last one. “Sorry, I have a lot of questions.”

Mind-boggling, from my perspective.

I guess there are teachers who prefer that their students work in silence while the teacher sits at their desk and does their own thing. And okay, I admit, there are days when I’m exhausted and sitting down sounds really nice.

But like I said to my students … “What are you apologizing for? Why do you think I’m here?”

Helping students is what makes teaching fun. Seeing them piece things together until they understand. It’s certainly not about hearing myself lecture from the front of the room.

If you have kids, make sure they know they should never feel like they have to apologize for asking a teacher to do her job.

Being a Benevolent World-Builder

There are a lot of amazing things about being a novelist—things that make the tough parts worth it. The joy of bringing characters to life, torturing them because we can … in worlds we create.

Talk about power.

Sometimes, though, we get carried away with that power. We name and define enough flora and fauna to cover the planet twice over. We develop a 700-year history of the monarchy. We formulate scientific theories to support complex technology that all runs on algae.

That’s great. Fill reams of paper or gigabytes on your hard drive with every nuanced detail. Go for it.

The problem comes if we throw it at the reader … all of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a fully realized world. And I hate one that doesn’t have enough detail, lacks internal consistency, and just doesn’t feel real. But having that fleshed-out world as a foundation doesn’t mean we have to spell it all out within the manuscript. If we do all the hard labor of working it out behind the scenes, it can seep naturally into the story.

Some details do deserve to make the page and add to the narrative. Personally, there are a couple of situations where I feel it’s worth the word count to detail things in.

It’s News to Me. This is pretty typical in speculative fiction genres. The protagonist enters a new country/society/galaxy/dimension. Everything will be new, so some detailing is only natural. In these situations, I always ask myself what my MC would notice first, and what would get glossed over until they’re in deeper.

It’s a Matter of Life or Death. Okay, maybe not that extreme. But I’m talking about aspects of world-building that are pertinent—even critical—in that particular moment. Make sure the diversion into explanation or description is properly motivated.

I’m Right and You’re Wrong. This can be a fun one. Character #1 says, “Let’s do ____ to accomplish this goal.” Character #2 says, “You’re a moron, that’ll never work!” #1: “Yes it will. If we ____, ____, and ____, then ____ will happen.” #2: “No way. Nuh-uh. The ______ of the ____ will never ____ _____ _____ ….” And so on. Hopefully done more artfully than that, but you get the idea. When there are legitimate differing views on how something in the world operates, that can be a decent time to work in some specifics.

I’m sure there are other situations and a variety of factors that can play into how much is too much and what approach is best. Some genres expect world-building to be handled a particular way. Some readers can drink in pages of geography and political history, while others will skim (if they don’t just give up on the book altogether).

And who says it’s just the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum that world-builds? Historical fiction may call on a setting we have some passing familiarity with, but it has to make it real just the same. Just about any novel has to establish at least a microcosm of a fictional world.

For myself, the sign of great world-building is when I don’t notice it happening. Whether through description, dialogue, or more subtle means, I experience it and live in the world.

Do you have pet-peeves when it comes to world-building? Tips for pulling it off smoothly? I’d love to hear them.

Good News Travels … Slowly Sometimes

You know how when you have some big news, so you tell people in a few ways/places, and then you feel like if you mention it more, it’ll just be obnoxious, and surely word has spread by now to everyone who should know?

You know how that doesn’t always work?

Yeah.

As most of you know, I had pretty big writing-life news a couple of times this year. I posted here and on Facebook, I tweeted, and AgentQuery Connect spontaneously combusted both times. I also told my immediate family (obviously) and the parts of my extended family that I see on a regular basis.

I got to that point where I thought word had spread. Naturally, though, there were gaps.

Some were inevitable, like fellow writers who have too many friends on Facebook to keep up with everything. Occasionally, someone will drop me a line and ask how things are going, so I have to pull out the, “Well, I don’t know if you heard about this, but … uh, yeah.”

With others, I just didn’t do a very good job. Family in particular. I don’t see my mom’s side as often as my dad’s, but I figured my mom would tell her sister, and word would get around.

Well, that didn’t work, judging by my aunt’s announcement and everyone’s surprise at Christmas Eve dinner. I guess my aunt didn’t find out until much more recently, so the cousins and their kids didn’t know until we all got together.

I think there’s a lesson buried in here about self-promotion.

We’ve all seen self-promotion gone wrong. The authors who spam your Twitter feed, who are a constant stream of “Buy my book!” We don’t want to do that.

At the same time, we need to make sure word gets out, so people who want to know will. It’s a balance, like everything else.

With that in mind …

Yes, my debut novel is coming out with Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. It’s even listed on Goodreads now. Feel free to add it to your To-Read shelf if you have an account there.

It’s also on some lists. If you feel like voting for it, awesome. If you don’t, no worries.

But at least I let you know.