Monday, June 30, 2008

In Which I Change

ALA was a transformative experience.

How can I even explain it?

I went to dinner with seventeen lovely people, professionals in the children's lit field, all of whom have read my book. As we ate, all around me, people were talking about the book. They were excited about the book. They loved the book. Is there any way to explain what this was like? How much do I love Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for throwing a dinner and inviting all the people who love my book and no one who hates it? I am so lucky to have had the experience of this dinner. I will never forget it. And I hope I'll get the chance to meet everyone again and talk more -- what an awesome, funny, interesting group of people (and no, I'm not just saying that because they like my dumb book)! Thank you, everyone who was there!

And then, next morning, the signing. Oh my goodness! I kept reminding myself of the examples of the Dalai Lama and my father (who reminds me a little of the Dalai Lama, except he doesn't have a muppet voice or wear orange robes), to slow myself down and be more attentive and focus on the moment and not become overwhelmed. I mean, it's not like there was a mile-long line, or anything, or even a twenty-foot line, but the fact is, as it turns out, any sort of line is a little overwhelming. A line of two is overwhelming, because one of the people is patiently waiting, and you feel some responsibility for their wait. My editor, Kathy, sat with me the whole time, collected people's names for me, and kept my head from spinning off. We were both wearing Graceling tattoos, hee hee. Mine didn't fare well on the plane, but it still shows a little.

I know I'm just telling you the stuff that happened, and the stuff might not sound all that interesting. I don't know how to get across what this weekend was like for me. Maybe it'd help if I explained that there was one moment when the promised tears were shed. It was right after I checked into my hotel and before any of the events. I decided to go for a walk and enjoy the sights of palm tree-lined streets and roller coasters (Anaheim, in case you forgot ^_^). As I walked, I kept noticing people carrying big orange bags. I followed the big orange bag people, suspecting that they were ALA participants, and suddenly found myself standing outside the Anaheim Convention Center, which is this year's ALA site. The building was gargantuan. Inside were rows and rows of booths, for every publisher you can imagine; piles and piles of books; and a gazillion excited people wandering around. I went to take a look at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt booths. An enormous banner with pictures of all the HMH book covers hung above the booths; there was mine, right up there where everyone could see.

I went back outside and sat on a bench and stared at the conference center and all the people, just sat there staring, for a really long time, feeling what it felt like to know that I've been to many book conferences, but this time, for the first time, I'm here as one of the writers. I'm really here. I did it. I did it.

I'm proud. And I'm not so scared anymore.

That was my weekend. :o)

Confidential to the Delta Airlines lady who yelled at me: Yes, I acknowledge that a backpack, a purse, a collapsible rolly-cart, a neck pillow, a sandwich, and a poster of Alan Rickman reading The Catcher in the Rye technically add up to one carry-on and five personal items. But honesty, come on. All of it fit under the stupid seat in front of me and I know you were just looking for an excuse to confiscate my Alan Rickman poster. Didn't work, though, did it? Yeah, just try to get between me and my poster of Colonel Brandon.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Turtle

Folks, I'm really sorry, but I've got nothing today. I'm all tapped out; I'm beyond overwhelmed. Instead of trying to come up with something clever and interesting to say, I'm going to shut my blinds and turn off my phone and turn off my computer and stick in some earplugs and take a little nap in my armchair.

I'll be back on Monday with a report from the adventure of ALA, which begins tomorrow.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing. :o)

Monday, June 23, 2008

In Support of a 26-Hour Day

I have a complaint about Earth: it rotates too fast.

Normally, I'm all for Earth. I get all weepy when I see pictures of Earth from above and I adore lunar eclipses and I hate people who kill sea turtles and all that. Earth is my home.

However, the fact is that at bedtime I don't ever want to go to bed; there are too many fun things I want to do; I could easily stay up for another two hours, then get my 8 hours of sleep, and wake up to another day of the same schedule. Why can't I have 18 hours to be awake and then 8 for sleeping? Earth rotates just a bit too fast. Am I the only one who feels this way? Don't the days seem too short? What are we to do?

If I had two extra hours a day, I would use one hour to read Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and one hour to eat ice cream and listen to music I've never heard before. What would you do?

Incidentally, are all of you acquainted with Lord Peter Wimsey? In case you're not, I will now take it upon myself to acquaint you. Lord Peter is the creation of mystery guru Dorothy L. Sayers. He's exceedingly rich and intelligent and also slightly funny-looking and lives in post World War I England, and he's always solving crimes. He can't help himself, it's the way he's built. His adventures are forever interesting and funny, and the later ones especially (say, from the novel Strong Poison on) can be incredibly rich, beautiful, and satisfying.

Here, if you have a few minutes to enjoy it, is an excerpt from the short story The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach:

"[Wimsey] had great fun at the [antique book] sale next day. He found a ring of dealers in possession, happily engaged in conducting a knockout. Having lain low for an hour in a retired position behind a large piece of statuary, he emerged, just as the hammer was falling upon the Catullus for a price representing the tenth part of its value, with an overbid so large, prompt, and sonorous that the ring gasped with a sense of outrage. Skrymes -- a dealer who had sworn an internal enmity to Wimsey on account of a previous little encounter over a Justinian -- pulled himself together and offered a fifty-pound advance. Wimsey promptly doubled his bid. Scrymes overbid him fifty again. Wimsey instantly jumped another hundred, in the tone of a man prepared to go on till Doomsday. Scrymes scowled and was silent. Somebody raised it fifty more; Wimsey made it guineas and the hammer fell. Encouraged by this success, Wimsey, feeling that his hand was in, romped happily into the bidding for the next lot, a Hypnerotomachia which he already possessed, and for which he felt no desire whatsoever. Scrymes, annoyed by his defeat, set his teeth, determining that, if Wimsey was in the bidding mood, he should pay through the nose for his rashness. Wimsey, entering into the spirit of the thing, skied the bidding with enthusiasm. The dealers, knowing his reputation as a collector, and fancying that there must be some special excellence about the book that they had failed to observe, joined in whole-heartedly, and the fun became fast and furious. Eventually they all dropped out again, leaving Scrymes and Wimsey in together. At which point Wimsey, observing a note of hesitation in the dealer's voice, neatly extricated himself and left Mr Scrymes with the baby. After this disaster, the ring became sulky and demoralized and refused to bid at all, and a timid little outsider, suddenly flinging himself into the arena, became the owner of a fine fourteenth-century missal at bargain price. Crimson with excitement and surprise, he paid for his purchase and ran out of the room like a rabbit, hugging the missal as though he expected to have it snatched from him. Wimsey thereupon set himself seriously to acquire a few fine early printed books, and, having accomplished this, retired, covered with laurels and hatred."

(hee hee ho ho hoo)

Finally, closing with some business: if you'd like to receive my semi-weekly posts as emails OR subscribe to my blog OR friend me with your lj account, check out the features I've added on the left. And now, I must run; Earth is spinning and I'm trying to keep up...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

In Which the Author Loses the Plot


So, needless to say, the team of my iMac and me are not about to break out as the next great thing in photography, and I probably could have combed my hair, but I thought I'd post this anyway to give you a sense of what my books look like as I'm writing them. This is from very near the beginning of the first draft of Graceling -- the end of Chap 1 and beginning of Chap 2, to be specific -- and also looks to be my first attempt at a map of the Seven Kingdoms. Writing longhand can get messy, but it's the way I love to do it -- I love to be able to touch what I'm writing. Digging this up was a blast from the past. Pictured is Notebook #2, and the date in the corner of the righthand page is 9.17.04. I'm currently writing in Notebook #11.

The phone call with Famous Movie Studio has not yet occurred, but may instantly occur at any moment. In the meantime, the whole thing has got me thinking about the movies, and all the ways our society constructs and regulates our notions of beauty. It's very important in our society, you know, that we agree on universal standards of (gendered) beauty and all strive to achieve those standards (in a gender-appropriate manner). This is important not only because it keeps us all in agreement, but also because it makes us all feel the same way. Bad.

I will now unveil to the world my own standards of female and male beauty, to give all you imperfect people something to strive for.



The Feminine Ideal



The Masculine Ideal


Ready, set, go! Strive! STRIVE!!!

In other news, the writing is turning out to be really fun this week.

Although I think it might be making me a little punchy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

In Which I Discover My Destiny

So, first, the important news. I have learned from a recently played game of MASH that it is my destiny to marry Jason Bourne. We will have 32 kids and live in a house in Alpha Centauri, and we'll drive a sparkly, polka-dotted duck boat. I will spend my days as a fire eater, and live happily ever after.

Personally, I'm a little surprised about the sparkly, polka-dotted duck boat. It sounds a bit conspicuous for Jason's tastes, not to mention rather unmaneuverable when the inevitable high-speed chase occurs. I can only assume this means that once Jason moves to Alpha Centauri he'll begin to feel like less of a hunted man, and have the chance to lighten up a bit. Good for him. He deserves a break from constant pursuit by politically-motivated and highly-armed head cases. Also, I'm totally psyched about the 32 kids, because, well, have you ever seen a baby goat? They are the cutest animals ever, and I'm sure that as they mature, Jason and I will find good homes for all of them -- keeping a few of the best milkers for ourselves, of course, because nothing is more delicious than fresh goat cheese.


In other news, in about two weeks (June 27-28) I'll be going to ALA in Anaheim, and, um, I'm nervous. There will be a Dinner With Me on Friday night, and on Saturday morning, from 9:30-10:30, I'll be signing Graceling ARCs at the Harcourt booth. If you're there Saturday morning, please stop by! If you're lucky, you just might catch me bursting into tears out of sheer fright! Just kidding. Seriously, this is going to be my first public thing that I do, and I'm half so excited I could squeal, and half scared to death. *breathes* *breathes again*

One more startling piece of news: It seems that one night while I was sleeping, aliens came and transported me to the planet of This Is Not My Real Life. I know this is true, because on Saturday, my agent called to tell me to expect a call on Monday from a person at Famous Movie Studio We've All Heard Of, because they're interested in possibly optioning Graceling and have some questions about the back story of the world I created.

Sure no problem.

By the way, alien captors, are the radiation levels on the planet of This Is Not My Real Life safe for humanoids? Because, don't get me wrong, I'm all for space travel and all that, but when the day comes that you're done with your wacky psychological experiments, I'd sure like to get home safe and sound.

(After all, I have a husband and 32 goats waiting for me in Alpha Centauri.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Woman, a Plan, No Canals: Bitterblue!

A curious Owlet has asked me to say a bit more about my book plan for Book 3, so I thought I'd do that here. Don't worry, no spoilers -- I'm not going to tell you what's in the plan, I'm just going to talk about how the plan works.

(By the way, if you're not interested in process, this is liable to be the most soporific post ever. You might want to skip down to the one about Cordelia in the bathtub.)

I said in my last post that the book plan is 20 typed, single-spaced pages. Actually, it's 17 typed, single-spaced pages and six stapled pages of handwritten notes -- and 50+ grocery receipts, post-its, torn pieces of envelopes, etc. which reside in various parts of the apartment, such as on my desk, on my bedside table, on my coffee table, in books I'm reading, and in the bottoms of about five different purses. This is not an ideal book plan situation, but it seems to be the way it has to be with this book. I have never had such a big book plan before and I have never been so overwhelmed by my book plan!

The REAL plan is the 17 stapled, typed, single-spaced pages (the handwritten pages and all the scattered notes are just addenda that I'll have to incorporate into the typed document at some point), and it does have a fairly clear structure. I start with a list of big and important questions that I need to remember to consider as I'm writing, and under that, a list of big and important themes. Then I get into the real stuff, the plot. My plot plan is divided into sections, a different section for each major plot point. Oh dear. I have just counted, and it seems that there are 47 major plot points. Perhaps this is part of my problem? :o)

Seriously, though, not all of these "major plot points" are actually that major. They are not all things like, "Bitterblue Gets Eaten by a Shark" or "Katsa Accidentally Blows Up the Castle." (THOSE ARE NOT ACTUAL THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THE BOOK.) Some of them are as vague as "Strange Things Happen in Background" or "Some Po Stuff," so that I'm reminded that there need to be strange things happening here and there, or that at some point I need to follow up on what's going on with with my character Po.

Anyhoo. Each plot point heading is listed in boldface type, and underneath each heading is a bulleted list of EVERY SINGLE THOUGHT that has ever popped into my head that bears any relation to that plot point: every possible conversation the characters might have, every single thing I might need to remember about what came before or what comes after in order to write this part well, every single emotion the characters might be feeling at that point -- basically, EVERYTHING, be it a clever turn of phrase, a question to myself, a single word I'd like to use, a funny joke I'd like to add, a description of the landscape, WHATEVER, that I think MIGHT be relevant to my writing at that point in the book. This is why the plan is so long: I have entire scenes of dialogue in it, and I have plot alternatives, and things I'll never use, and also a lot of repetition.

It sounds like a big mess, and that's because it is a big mess, but it's way less of a mess than it would be if I did it any other way. This book has a gazillion details, more details than anything else I've ever written, and until I've written the whole book, I can't be sure which details are the important ones. So I have to make sure I have all of them written down somewhere, so I don't forget them. Because I will forget them. If I don't write my ideas down, even the tiniest, most irrelevant ones, I forget them, every time. That's why I have post-it notes clogging the bottom of all of my purses. My neighbors surely think I'm a lunatic. I go for "athletic walks," all suited up in my workout clothes, carrying post-its and a pen.

Anyway. The other frustrating thing is that the plan is always growing. You'd expect it to get shorter as the book itself gets longer and I cross things off the plan. But no, the book plan just keeps getting longer and longer, because as I write the beginning and middle parts of the book, the middle and ending parts get more fleshed out in my mind and I have to keep adding new things to the plan.

I forgot to mention that there is very little white space in the typed plan, because it is also covered with handwritten notes and additions.

The last thing I'll say about the plan is that on the first page there is a huge, capitalized, boldfaced warning that says: DANGER. THERE IS TOO MUCH IN THIS PLAN. DON'T GET SUCKED IN. This gets to what I was saying in my last post about how what I've written so far of the book feels a little too tight, too controlled. This book is so detail-rich that I'm in danger of losing the feeling of the book and getting too caught up in things: plot points, clues, knowledge. I actually try not to look at the plan too much as I'm writing. I'll glance at the plan to remind myself of what I need to be doing, but I'm trying not to get too attached. I need to give the book space to grow how it wants to grow, and not keep trying to force it into the very confining structure of the book plan I've created.

I guess there is one more thing I'll say about this plan, and every other plan I've worked with: it lists the whole story I'm planning to write, from beginning to end -- but guaranteed, it will change. When I'm starting a book, it's a great comfort to me to know that I have a plot all thought out. It comforts me to know that I have somewhere solid to go. But really it's just a comfort thing. Without fail, the book comes up with better ideas than the ones I had, and we turn away from the plan together.

It takes me about a year and a half of full-time writing to write the first draft of a fantasy novel. (It won't surprise me if this one takes longer. I'm dealing with a lot of interruption these days, and this book is tricky in unique ways.)

Anyway, thank you for your patience reading all of that, and I hope I haven't bored anyone to death. :o) Please let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Most Dangerous Game

This post is brought to you by wise things other people have said.

Here's what Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones: "Right before you are planning to write, a good preparation is to become an animal. Move slowly, stalking your prey, which is whatever you plan to write about, no matter what else you might be doing at the moment -- taking out the garbage, walking to the library, watering the garden. Get all your senses intent."

I'm done with my revisions, and that means it's time to start writing again -- Book 3, the protagonist of which is a 16-year-old girl named Bitterblue. It's hard to shift gears from one project to another. I come back to Bitterblue not entirely remembering what the book is about, forgetting the essence of what I'm trying to do. And looking at the 75-or-so pages I've already written is slightly horrifying, because it's so tight, so over-controlled... it needs some serious loosening. And so, I've been stalking Bitterblue. I've been circling her sneakily, sniffing at her, backing off whenever she starts to get suspicious. I've been trying to think about who she is, how she copes, what she wants, what things she doesn't like about herself, who she's angry with and why. What it's like to be in her situation -- both her larger situation, and the smaller details of her situation. I've been trying to stalk her feelings, because I think it's feelings that will help me loosen the over-tightness of the existing manuscript. I've been too focused on facts with this book, and less focused on feeling.

That's because this book is different from Fire, just as Fire is different from Graceling. When I started Bitterblue, I told myself that it had to be less emotionally difficult to write than Fire was, because two Fires in a row were liable to do me in. But, I still wanted it to be a complex and interesting book, so I intentionally set out to make it a little bit more intellectually difficult than the other books have been. Umm... can I just advise against intentionally trying to write an intellectually difficult book? (Don't worry, I don't mean intellectually difficult for the reader, as in Horrible Hegel or Calamitous Kant. I mean intellectually difficult for me, the creator, to build. It's a little more mystery-like than the other books, so I have to make sure I'm doing things like planting clues in the appropriate places, creating subtle suggestions of this or that thing -- tricky, because I've never done it quite on this scale before, and it's proving to be more complicated than I realized. It keeps coming out stiff and contrived.)

This brings me to the next wise thing someone said, and though I'm sure other people have said this, the wise person who said it to me is my writing friend Sandra McDonald: " Every book you write teaches you how it needs to be written." This is so true! Even my process is different with this book -- I have the most absurdly obnoxious book plan that's about 20 pages long, single spaced in 10 point font. Not my usual operating style, but the book is telling me that it's what I need. Also, this book is telling me that I need to be more patient than ever before, and I need to make a point of moving forward even when I'm not satisfied with what I've written so far, because I can't know how what I've written needs to be written until I've written the next part, too.

I'm completely overwhelmed by my book plan. I'm completely overwhelmed by this absurd project I've taken on, imagining somehow that I'm good enough to figure out how to do it. Which brings me to the next wise thing someone said, and it's something my dear friend Rebecca wrote to me in e-mail: "You are tall enough to ride this ride."

The ride she was referring to is my writing career in general, and I needed to hear what she said, because I'm definitely on a roller coaster right now, and a lot of the time I feel like I'm not big enough to be on it -- I'm going to slip down under the bar and fall out. I'm going to fail. Except I'm not. Because even though I don't always feel like it, I am tall enough to ride this ride.

Here's the way another wise person put it: "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, nothing will be impossible to you." (Matthew, as in, The Book Of.) Of course, he was talking about faith in God, or whatever, but I'm talking about faith in me, and when it comes to me and Bitterblue, a mustard seed just about captures the size of it. But I've got it. I've got that speck of faith. And I believe it's all I need.

Writers are notorious for being insecure, quivering creatures. But give us some credit -- a writer who keeps writing is the frakking epitome of self-confidence. When you're not really sure you can do it, but you keep doing it anyway, because you know that if you believe in yourself, yeah, you might fail, but if you don't believe in yourself, you'll definitely fail -- that's brave! I am brave! (The size of a mustard seed.)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

In Which Cordelia Does Not Drown

My sister Cordelia (all names have been changed to protect the innocent) and I have differing religious philosophies, but we've always agreed on one thing: neither of us has ever wanted to be visited by the Virgin Mary.

When I was little (and actually believed in the Virgin Mary) I was terrified of a visitation, mainly because the last thing on earth I ever wanted to be was a nun, and I just knew the Virgin Mary was going to appear before me and tell me it was my destiny. Cordelia, on the other hand, wasn't worried about anything the Virgin Mary might say to her. Her worry was that the Virgin Mary would visit her while she was naked in the bathtub, which would be embarrassing.

So, this brings us to midnight last Saturday. Here's the scene: Cordelia, sadly, has the flu and is feeling achey and cold. She decides to take a warm bath, staggers into the bathroom, gets the water running, and starts splashing around. In the meantime, I stand at the kitchen counter mesmerized by the latest People magazine, which contains fascinating bits of news such as: Sheryl Crow had nothing to do with the romance between her mutual friends Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer. It was not she who hooked them up. (This is news? That something happened and Sheryl Crow had nothing to do with it? And yet, I'm unable to put this magazine down?)

After some time, my need for shiny-people-gossip satiated, I wander back to my bedroom, passing the bathroom on my way. I don't hear any splashing, so I call out, "You still floating in there?"

There is no response.

"Cordelia?" I say, standing right outside the bathroom door, where it's impossible for her not to hear me. "CORDELIA?"

There is still no response.

What there is is a moment of sheer terror.

"CORDELIA??!" I scream, bursting into the bathroom like a lunatic banshee. Cordelia, who is not drowned, but has, in fact, fallen asleep in the bathtub, wakes up screaming and thrashing about, because, as matters would have it, it is disorienting to regain consciousness and find yourself (1) immersed in water (2) with someone shrieking on the other side of the shower curtain. I, misinterpreting her screams and apparently having internalized our Virgin Mary conversations more than I ever realized, scream back at her with utter sincerity, "Don't worry! I did NOT see you naked!"

Which I'm thinking, in retrospect, probably didn't do much to clarify the situation for poor Cordelia.

Cordelia is feeling much better now.

Nothing like a good scare to revive the immune system.

(Also, a note to those interested: I finished the first revision of Fire and sent it to my editor. Yay!)

Monday, June 2, 2008

My Ideal Home Has Cupcakes

My ideal home is on a hill in a forest that has tall deciduous trees, deer, small black bears rarely seen, and giraffes. There's a cliff nearby that overlooks the ocean, and in the ocean are dolphins and whales, and occasionally nice people in boats and helicopters who are scooting around making sure the dolphins and whales are well protected.

My friends live in various parts of the forest, and it is wonderful to have them near, and they all understand that the "Do Not Disturb" sign I sometimes have on my door is not personal, and also that it is not always there.

There is a grocery store, a drug store, a hardware store, an independent bookstore with a cafe, a library, a few restaurants (maybe a deli, a sushi place, an Italian place, and a cupcake place) in the forest, within walking distance. There are no hunters in the forest and no one keeps mean dogs in their yards on frayed leashes. Perhaps there is the occasional extremely shy and nonthreatening white tiger and/or black leopard. The houses are powered by solar and/or wind energy and my neighbors have interesting habits like greenhouse gardening and sculpting their shrubberies and building whirligigs and hanging festive lights from the trees.

A small train runs from the forest, down the hill, into a vast metropolis with all the excitement and beauty and diverse people and hidden corners and theaters and shops and museums and parks and restaurants and bridges and tunnels and traffic and flashing lights of New York or London. It's one of those cities you fall in love with at first sight, one of those invigorating, breathtaking cities that make you feel like life is exciting and important. In the forest, you cannot hear the noise of the city, but from certain parts of the city, you can glimpse the forest.

There are four seasons, although winter is not too terribly long and dark, and summer is not too terribly hot. Sometimes there are terrific storms, but not the kinds that kill lots of people.

The stars shine clearly in the forest, and there is also an enormous telescope that anyone is allowed to use, with astronomers to explain what you're looking at.

And cupcakes. Did I mention the cupcakes?

What is your ideal home?