Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The PAYA Chronicles: And Then It Hit Me

So, PAYA's Listen and Critique Workshop. NOT.SCARY.AT.ALL. Actually, it was great. After listening to the authors speak, we were broken out into two groups, each with three authors and three/four writers. I'm going to say it again because it can't be said enough: What an incredible opportunity. I feel like I won the writer lottery, because from everything I've heard, you don't usually get this much attention from one author, much less three, and they were awesome.

In my group, the authors were Amy Brecount White, Shannon Delany, and Jon Skovron. I know this is going to sound silly, but woohoo! That's pretty much how I felt. And along with myself and Aine, I was joined by fellow writers Lillie and Ilene, who are very talented.

Lillie and Ilene went first and let me just say...when I get nervous, I play with my pen. At some point, while playing with my pen, I accidentally launched it into the air and hit Ilene. The pen then fell to the ground, and thoroughly mortified, I quickly reached down to get it. And slammed my head on the edge of the table we were all sitting at. Because I have many talents, but apparently hand-eye coordination is not one of them. Now I was beyond mortified, because I had just embarrassed myself in front of Amy Brecount White, Shannon Delany, and Jon Skovron, who are like rock stars as far as I'm concerned, but what can you do, and at least the pen didn't go flying through the air and poke anyone in the eye. That'd be REALLY embarrassing.

Finally, it was my turn. I handed out copies of my lovingly prepared three pages for critique and Amy Brecount White kindly agreed to read for me. Yes, I'm painfully shy, but with her reading, I could take notes and pay attention to people's reactions, so thank you, Amy!

Here's the three pages that Amy read, from my manuscript Knights of Avalon, about the Knights of the Round Table being reincarnated as New Jersey teens, and Mordred is hunting them down and killing them:

Last night, the most extraordinary person I had ever met vanished. She was my best friend Gwen, about the only friend I really had. The call came at three in the morning, one of those calls that I knew would change everything. It was Gwen’s Mom, Mrs. Martinez, asking if I had heard from her daughter that night. It was never the type of call you wanted to get, not when there was a murderer out there, targeting the brightest and most brilliant teens in New Jersey.

I had known Mrs. Martinez for over ten years. The lady was unshakeable. She never raised her voice, never lost her cool. Not even that time Gwen and I had come home covered from head to toe in mud when we were little. She had just stared at us in horror, burst into laughter, and grabbed the garden hose.

Now she was a wreck. According to her, no one had heard from Gwen since 11pm, when she had called her boyfriend after their date and told him her car had broken down in Stone Harbor, right off its main street. Except when the family drove there to pick her up, no one could find Gwen, or the car.

No, I hadn’t heard from her, I said. Not since earlier that day. Mrs. Martinez, ever polite, apologized for waking me up, promised to call back the moment the family had any news, and like that, I was left to fear for my friend in the darkness.

Something had happened to Gwen. Sure, she was sixteen, and us sixteen-year-olds had a habit of staying out late and doing bone-headed things, but Gwen wasn’t like that. We had our adventures, we got into our share of trouble, but Gwen would never scare her parents. Maybe her cell phone had run out of power, maybe it was the other possibility, the possibility I didn’t even want to think about, but she was thoughtful, she was kind, she wouldn’t forget to check in. If she hadn’t called, it was because she couldn’t.

My best friend was the most beautiful person I had ever met, and I wasn’t talking about her looks. I mean, she was pretty enough, slim, with long black hair, dazzling honey-colored brown eyes, and a sublime grace. That’s not what made her beautiful. She had an inner light, a compassion that shone through.

I, on the other hand, was about as huggable as a porcupine. I was a big girl, and I was OK with that. My family was Polish, my last name was Kwiatkowski, but I must have had a great-great-grandmother in my family tree who was a Viking warrior. There wasn’t much else to explain how I had gotten to be 6 foot and built like a linebacker. Well, there was my father, who was 6’2” and built like a linebacker, but I didn’t want to dwell on the thought that I might take after him.

I wasn’t the easiest person to get along with. I was OK with that too. I kind of didn’t care. I had, in fact, given up on caring a long time ago. But Gwen put up with me, which meant maybe I wasn’t as awful as I thought.

When I was five years old, I had found her playing by herself by the creek one day. Gwen always played alone, none of the other kids in the neighborhood seemed to know what to do with her. Not like they knew what to do with me either. Gwen had been trying to catch frogs in a pool that had formed off a sandbar. She was playing in my creek. In my favorite spot. Catching my frogs. I told her that if she wanted to hang out in my spot, that she’d have to prove herself by crossing the creek on a rickety old moss-covered log. Gwen was up for that. She danced across without a moment’s hesitation. Then she dared me to do the same. I wasn’t afraid. But I wasn’t as graceful as she was, and I wasn’t as light. I slipped off into the water, twisting my ankle. Gwen braved the creek to fish me out. Our friendship was instant.

Now, my best friend was missing. My first impulse was to go out and look for her. It was three in the morning and she was two hours away, but part of me wanted to try anyways. What if she had had an accident? What if she had gotten her car going, only to have it break down again in the middle of nowhere? There was a murderer on the loose, searching for his next victim. I couldn’t bear to think of her out there, scared and alone.

I had woken up my mother to talk to her about it. She said I’d have to wait until morning. I didn’t know how she expected me to just go back to bed. I stared across the room, at the Bruce Lee posters on the walls, thinking about Gwen. My room was up on the second floor of our family’s Cape Cod, painted in a tropical blue with a neon purple chair in the corner. Gwen sometimes joked that I must have been color blind, but I just liked it that way. Who said colors needed to coordinate?

I kept my cell phone by my side, hoping Gwen’s parents would call back soon. Better yet, maybe it’d be Gwen on the other end of the line. I know it was stupid, but I tried her number and was taken directly to her voicemail. It felt strange to hear her voice, so breezy and cheerful. I sent a text message next. I really didn’t know what I was expecting. I might’ve tried her boyfriend, talk to him about what had happened, but I had never met him, I didn’t even know his last name, much less his phone number.

Wow, would you look at all that telling and not showing. Way to take a great concept and suck the life right out of it with a bunch of exposition up front. I can see it now. I couldn't see it before. A lot of times when I revise, I have an Ah-ha! moment (as opposed to a "Muhahahaha!" moment), where there's a shift in understanding. That's what I was hoping for with this workshop and that's what I got. As Amy read my manuscript, I could feel the energy just die on the page whenever we got to the exposition, and there's a lot of exposition. So I think I finally get what I've been doing wrong with my opening.

Here's some of the specific feedback I got:

  • Add dialogue, the action is too far removed
  • There's no paranormal here
  • No sense that Justine is heroic
  • Play up the murder mystery

OK, now here's my revised opening. Hopefully it's better. Because my main character, Justine, is a skeptic, I couldn't really figure out how to bring the paranormal into the opening pages, but I could definitely play up the murder mystery.

“Hi, Justine. I’m sorry to be calling so late.” The voice on the other end of the line sounded scared, exhausted. “Gwen’s not with you, is she?”

I fought to get my bearings in the darkness, the cell phone clutched in my hand. I was in my bedroom, the Bruce Lee posters on the walls told me that much. I peered at the alarm clock, the numbers flashed 3:11 back at me. This wasn’t good. This was one of those calls you never wanted to get, certainly not at 3am on a school night. Not when there was a murderer out there, targeting the brightest and most brilliant teens in New Jersey.

“No,” I said, trying to get my brain to work right. “Why would she be?”

“You haven’t heard from her at all?” There was desperation in Mrs. Martinez’s voice, a desperation I had never heard before.

“No, what happened?” I asked, throwing the blankets back and sitting up straight, my heart starting to race. “I mean, we talked earlier this evening. But that was it.”

I was wide awake now. It was three in the morning and the mother of my best friend was calling to find out where her daughter was. Only I had no idea.

Mrs. Martinez took a deep breath, trying to steady her voice. “According to Gwen’s boyfriend…” That last word dripped with something bordering on contempt. “According to him, Gwen headed home from their date around 11pm. He’s saying her car broke down in Stone Harbor, right on its main street, that she called him to pick her up. But Gwen’s not there, and neither’s her car.”

“What?” None of this was making sense. “Did he pick her up or not?” I turned on the light, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. I’d get her myself if I had to. I didn’t care that I was over two hours away.

“He said when he got there, Gwen was gone,” Mrs. Martinez repeated, struggling not to lose her composure. “We went there ourselves, we can’t find her either. It’s like she vanished.”

That’s not what I wanted to hear, because Gwen Martinez wasn’t just my best friend, she was the most extraordinary person I had ever met. A straight ‘A’ student who planned on becoming a heart surgeon and working for Doctors Without Borders one day, she had an inner light, a compassion that shone through. There had always been something different about her, something special. Just like the other victims.

They had vanished too. But it was more than that, they hadn’t just disappeared, it was like the Earth had opened up and swallowed them whole. Then they turned up dead, slashed to death with what investigators guessed was a very long knife. No witnesses, no hint of anything suspicious before they went missing. How could a killer do that? And the lack of evidence meant no suspect.

Twelve kids found dead: A fencing champion destined for the Olympics, a martial arts prodigy, an organizer for Habitat for Humanity. One poor boy had won the Hero of the Year award for rescuing a child from drowning only a month before he was killed. They were like Gwen, they were amazing.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Mrs. Martinez continued, realizing that perhaps she had said too much. “Gwen probably got her car towed to a gas station, and maybe her cell phone ran out of power. I’ll call you back the moment we hear from her.”

“And if she does call me, I’ll let you know right away,” I promised as I walked to my dresser and grabbed some clothes. It might’ve been three in the morning, but I was already coming up with a plan to help search for Gwen. Because something had happened to her. Sure, Gwen and I had had our adventures, we had gotten into our share of trouble, but Gwen would never scare her parents. Maybe her cell phone had run out of power, maybe it was the other possibility, the possibility I didn’t even want to think about, but she was thoughtful, she was kind, she wouldn’t forget to check in. If she hadn’t called, it was because she couldn’t.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Martinez said, ever polite, even in a situation like this. Somehow, I didn’t know why, but what I said had given her some comfort. “I’m so sorry for waking you up. Try to get some rest and we’ll be in touch.” Then she hung up, leaving me to fear for my friend, alone somewhere out there in the darkness.

Like I said, hopefully this is better!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The PAYA Chronicles: The Alligator Duck Stalks at Midnight

I don't know if PAYA will be held in the same location next year, but if it is, all I have to say is this: If you follow the directions and find yourself driving around an industrial park, convinced there's no way you're in the right place, you're in the right place.

PAYA, like many a gem, was hidden away amongst a collection of paint stores, construction firms, and automotive supply centers. Thankfully, there was a sign...

No, not like that. But there was one colorful sign that told us we had made it to our destination.

PAYA was being held at West Chester's Center for Performing and Fine Arts, which meant as we waited for the Listening and Critique Workshop to begin, and as I tried not to freak out, we were able to enjoy the art on display. There were a couple of pieces that stood out to me, but strangely enough, the one I remember most was a drawing that said, "A is for Alligator Duck." Apparently alligator ducks have big, fearsome teeth, so if you run into one in your neighborhood, best to run the other way.

The workshop started right on time with six incredible authors: Amy Brecount White (Forget-Her-Nots), Jon Skovron (Struts and Frets), Josh Berk (The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin), Stephanie Kuehnert (Ballads of Suburbia), Jeri Smith-Ready (Shade), and Shannon Delany (13 to Life). The gathering was intimate, which is my way of saying there were about seven people in attendance, including Aine, who was allowed to tag along, since she had woken up at 5am to get my late-waking butt there on time.

Six talented authors, seven attendees. I don't think I'll ever have such an incredible opportunity again. It started with each author speaking on an aspect of the writing process:

  • Jon Skovron spoke about rough drafts and how they don't have to be perfect. Give yourself permission to have a rough draft that sucks. It's more important to get started writing than to never write at all for fear that what you're putting on the page isn't perfect.
  • Jeri Smith-Ready discussed the revision process. For her, the process includes three steps: 1) The Re-write, where the writer steps back and assesses the entire book, tries to re-imagine it and to really take a look at the work as a whole. 2) Revision, where gaps in the story start to be smoothed out. 3) Polish, where the writer gets into the nitty-gritty and focuses on things like overuse of words and sentence structure.
  • Josh Berk talked about working with an editor and how much his novel, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, was changed and improved in the process. Honestly, this scared the heck out of me, as I'm very open to revisions, but Josh's editor asked him to change tense (I can do that, I've already changed POV at an agent's suggestion), asked him to change the starting point of the story (I could do that too), and asked him to get rid of one character and to include a new one (eeeek!!!). OK, it's that last one that scares me. I get very, very attached to my characters. But I guess I'd deal with it, if and when it came to that.
  • Amy Brecount White gave six tips on originality: 1) Think like a freelancer, always be on the lookout for a great story idea, don't wait for that idea to be handed to you. 2) Write for an audience you care about. 3) Write the novel that only you can write. 4) Figure out what you love and what you want to share with the world. 5) Pay attention to your life - What do you know that is unique to you? 6) Listen to the universe. Sometimes the universe will give you little hints as to what direction to take (or sometimes it'll hit you over the head with a 2x4).
  • Stephanie Kuehnert talked about character development. The way she does it, each of her characters has a notecard with their name and birthdate, then she includes details like nervous habits, physical description, etc. She also writes a scene for each character, from their point of view, on the defining moment of their lives. By doing this, she's basically trying to answer the question: Why is the character the way they are?
  • Finally, Shannon Delany wrapped up by telling us one important truth about being an author: Writing a book is a group effort. To be a good writer, you have to be a good team player. Embrace your support system, from your agent, to your editor, to the marketing team and cover artist on down.

Not bad advice, huh? Next up, the Critique, and how I almost gave myself a concussion in the process (because I'm smooth like that).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Road to PAYA

It started at 6:38am. That's when I was woken up by the insistent buzzing of my cell phone. I peered blearily at the caller ID, it was Aine...who had come to pick me up at 6:30am.

I had overslept. I never oversleep when I'm this excited about an event. Usually I'm up half an hour before the alarm goes off. Not this time.

I screamed, I actually screamed. Not quite the Darth Vader, "Nooooooo!" More like an "AHHHHHH!" of sheer panic. Luckily, I had packed and laid out my clothes the night before. After scrambling about like a mad woman, I had the dogs walked and was out the door in a little under a half an hour. Aine pointed out, probably quite rightly, that maybe next time I should spend more time getting to bed early and less time tweeting and blogging till 2 in the morning. Just an idea.

We got on the road, and it was a beautiful drive up to West Chester, PA. We crossed over picturesque stone bridges that spanned rushing creeks, drove through lush forest, and finally passed some lovely parks. At one point, I suggested that maybe we pull over and frolic in one particularly inviting green meadow, but Aine said there would be no frolicking (no frolicking!), as we had to get to my Listen and Critique Workshop on time.

Oh yeah, the Listen and Critique Workshop. As we entered West Chester, I started to panic all over again. Would I make a fool of myself? (most definitely) Would I get the feedback I needed? (heck yeah) And most importantly, how had we ended up in this industrial park and where was PAYA?

One of many parks in West Chester. I could frolic here! Frolic!

Friday, August 20, 2010

It's a Mango, It's a Pineapple, No, It's Paya!


No, PAYA! AKA, Bringing YA to PA, a coalition of authors, bloggers, librarians and readers dedicated to promoting YA literature in Pennsylvania. PAYA is having their first annual event...oh, TOMORROW, and my BFF Aine and I are going. There'll be over eighteen YA authors there, signing books, along with a used book sale, a listen and critique workshop, and a bake sale.

How excited am I? Probably a little too excited. It's like Christmas in August as far as I'm concerned. I even packed and prepped ahead of time. I never do that. Here's what I'm bringing to the Festival:
  • My backpack, with stylish Mockingjay pin attached (Team Katniss!)
  • Ten copies of the first three pages of my manuscript, Knights of Avalon, for the listen and critique workshop
  • Five pens, in case four of the pens run out of ink
  • Two notebooks, one is small and pink and covered in smiling kitty cats. I usually bring a larger, more practical notebook as well, but I just discovered they're all filled up, so I'll bring my leather-bound journal instead, aka "The Noodle Book," because I noodle around with ideas on its pages
  • Cash, for books and baked goodies

Though my latest manuscript, Knights of Avalon, is finished, revised, and currently running amuck in Query-land, I decided to do the workshop because I've never done one before and it promised to be an incredible learning opportunity.

Plus, I'm still having issues with the beginning of my book. I like to think that I'm getting a lot better at 'diagnosing' weaknesses in my work and fixing them, but in this case, my instincts are horribly off. What I think works doesn't work and vice versa. I've revised and revised and sometimes only made the problems worse, not better, so maybe I need to step back and get some perspective. Maybe if I can see what works for other writers, I'll be able to apply those lessons learned to my own story. That's the idea, anyways.

I know the draw of the listen and critique workshop is that there'll be several YA authors there to give feedback, but the reality just hit me, and oh my gods, THERE'LL BE PUBLISHED YA AUTHORS THERE TO GIVE ME FEEDBACK. La-la-la-la, I can't hear you! Not curling into a ball and freaking out.

Somehow I had convinced myself it'd just be me and some fellow writers. I think I could handle that. We'd be like The League of Not Yet Extraordinary Aspiring Authors, there'd be some comraderie and it wouldn't be at all scary. But now...there are going to be real, live, actual authors there. Yikes!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Green Men, King Arthur, People Singing to My Camera!

Somewhere, long lost to the mists of time, I promised to regale you all with my adventures at RenCon 2010. So let's go back, back to April 2010, when you could buy pop for a nickel and children always listened to their parents, and I shall tell you a tale of myth and legend and retail therapy.

This was the first ever RenCon, and as such, I didn't really know what to expect. I was thinking 'Indoor RenFaire,' and it was definitely some of that, but along the way, the convention got some Steampunk in their Renaissance and some Renaissance in their Steampunk. Not that that was necessarily bad. I can't hide it anymore, this Steampunk thing is growing on me. Which means by the time I've fully embraced it, it'll be out of style.

But besides the Steampunk and inordinate quantity of fairies, there was this scholarly vibe to the con which I really liked. There were panels on Renaissance food and dress, on the Green Man, and yes, on King Arthur. Because how can you have something called RenCon and not mention King Arthur?

I think as most of my readers know, my YA Urban Fantasy, Knights of Avalon, is about the Knights of the Round Table being reincarnated as New Jersey teens, so I especially wanted to attend those King Arthur panels.

Unfortunately, I missed the one on the Holy Grail, due to my bothersome need to have a job, and to keep a roof over my head and to eat, but I was able to attend the Arthurian Love Triangle panel led by Caitlin Matthews. Yes, THAT Caitlin Matthews, legendary author, artist, and scholar. OK, she's a legend to me, and she's insanely cool, and she sang to my camera, but more on that later.

I've heard her speak before and not only does she know her stuff, but she's a riot to listen to. She actually spent a lot of time discussing Welsh love triangles (for example, the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Blodeuwedd, and Gronw Pebr), before tying them into the Arthurian ones and discussing the concept of the Flower Bride as it pertained to Queen Guinevere. What's a Flower Bride? It's basically an archetype, a woman who represents the strength and life of the land, who is intimately tied to the kingdom itself, and who men constantly fight over, because to have her as a wife is a symbol of right of rulership.

Which is why poor Guinevere is always getting kidnapped, because she's a symbol of legitimate authority.

Towards the end, Caitlin Matthews somehow got onto the subject of how Lancelot became known as Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake). As the story goes, his father was a powerful king caught in the midst of a bloody war. As his castle was being stormed, Lancelot's mother took her infant son and fled. During all the confusion, she set her son down for a moment and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, stole him away. Only Caitlin Matthews acted it all out to hilarious effect. She ran around in a panic, pretending to be Lancelot's mother, then did her best impression of Viviane, sneaking up to the baby and grabbing him when Mom wasn't looking. I guess you had to be there, but it was pretty awesome.

After the panel was over, I went up to Caitlin to ask her a couple of questions and to take her picture...and my camera died. Caitlin was unfazed. She told me she had a trick to getting electronic devices to power up: She sang to them. In her lovely, rich voice, she bade my camera to turn on, and you know what, it did.

Before I left the convention, I did some shopping. Not much, due to the aforementioned need to eat and have someplace to sleep, but I did get myself two pendants: One of Brigid, Celtic Goddess of Fire and Inspiration, and one of the Lady of the Lake.

Monday, August 2, 2010

If I Had a Pen Name

Hanging out with my Dad a couple of weeks ago, he asked me out of the blue what my pen name was going to be. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Um, pen name? I was thinking of using, you know, my actual name.

Dad: But you could have a pen name. Don't you want a pen name?

Me: Nah, I think I'm good. I know my name's not the most exciting or catchy, but it works for me.

Dad: Or you could write under your beagle's name, since anytime anyone asks for a picture of you, you just give them a picture of your beagle. Then you could write stuff like, "Marley & Me," but from the viewpoint of the dog (this is admittedly true, if you ask for a photo of me for a blog interview, for example, you're going to get a lovely, photogenic picture of Lucy the beagle).

Me: So my pen name could be Lucy T. Beagle then? There is a famous author called Peter Beagle, I guess it could work.

Dad: What's the T. stand for?

Me: The, as in Lucy The Beagle.

While I do want to use my real name, I admit I've been toying with the idea a little, and I think I'd like to add a middle name at some point. You see, I don't have a middle name in real life, so part of the fun would be in choosing one. I have a couple of ideas, but all I know is that it has to start with the letter 'A'.

Why that letter? Because at my work, everyone is required to have a middle initial, it's just how the computer system works, and by committee, it was pretty much decided that my middle initial would be 'A', because that'd be cool. No really, the CFO declared that having my initials be 'MAB' would be 'cool'. It was either that or 'MOB', but he said he didn't want to be mean.

Shortly afterwards, on some paperwork completely unrelated to my job, I saw that my middle initial was listed as 'A'. I figure it's a sign from the universe, so I'll go with it.