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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An interview with Sheela Chari

One of the great things about being a member of the Apocalypsies (a group of kidlit authors with 2012 debuts) is the chance to get the inside story on the Elevensies and their 2011 debuts. We each interview an Elevensie around the time of their book release date. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheela Chari, author the middle grade mystery VANISHED (Disney/Hyperion). I also had the pleasure of reading VANISHED before it hit the stores today, and I absolutely loved this book.

Sheela's a great writer, and has lots of wisdom about writing mysteries and writing for kids. My favorite quote: "Writing middle grade is like coming home after a long journey."

Please pop by the Apocalypsies site to check out my interview with Sheela, and join me in wishing her a happy book birthday today!

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

My alter-ego: Grammar Girl

Here's a secret. I'm not just a fiction writer. I also write teaching materials for students who are learning English as a second or other language. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying I write grammar books. Believe me, this confession has killed many conversations at parties. Suddenly self-conscious about their use of standard English, people tend to clam up around me, just like someone with food on her teeth might not smile at the dentist. Or the interested people might venture linguistic questions, ranging from who vs. whom to more complex matters of sentence parsing and the history of the English language. (Of which I am not an expert).

Most often, I get blank stares, polite smiles, so I don't talk about this line of work in public too much, even though it's been my bread-and-butter money for years. Even though a lot of the projects I work on are really fascinating, and have helped my fiction writing. For example, one summer I got to travel to New York almost every week to work with a film production studio on a DVD series accompanying a textbook series I co-authored. I got to help choose actors for an ensemble cast, brainstorm character and plot developments, and even write scripts. That experience taught me so much about managing scenes in fiction -- getting to the action quickly -- and writing concisely. Sentence parsing? Times have changed. These aren't your mother's grammar books.

Anyway, these days, fiction writing has taken over much of my work time. So between phases of edits on my novel, or new chapters on my work in progress, I return to a teacher's guide project I'm contracted for this summer. Sometimes having a day job that involves writing is exhausting. Sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day of writing is write some more, especially when most of America is watching prime time television or Netflix movies. But this one's a relatively straightforward task, and it is also a relief to do something with very clear parameters. It's refreshing to work on problems that have specific answers, which can be listed in an Answer Key and cross-referenced in an index.

There are no answer keys when you write a novel. You might have an outline or Table of Contents, like a textbook, but often you deviate from it. I have a road map for this project, and I find it soothing.

And when it's time to throw the map out the window and switch gears, I'll return to my novel -- the one in progress or the one I'm editing -- refreshed, ready to leave the relative safety of a textbook for the open road again.

Does your day job enhance your writing life or deplete it? What do you think are the best day jobs for writers or other creative types?

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New title!

Finally, some novel-related news to post . . . I have a shiny new title! The novel formerly known as The Frame Game is now called TOKYO HEIST. So different! It will take me a little while to get used to the change. I keep looking at the new title like it's my new sports car sitting in the driveway. (Okay, I don't have a new sports car in the driveway. Or even an old one. I'm just saying).

It's funny how things evolve. I'm sure I would never have sat down, years ago, penned TOKYO HEIST on a title page, and written a novel accordingly. You see, once upon a time, this was a relatively quiet book, full of descriptions of art and contemplative moments. Through years of revision, I gradually learned how to turn up the volume where it needed to be turned up. I found more opportunities for action and excitement, while still being true to the characters and the story's emotional core. And so, in the book's current form, the title feels apt. Still, it is strange to let go of a title I used for nearly six years.

Do you begin projects with a title in mind? Does your title evolve with your story? Do you find it easy or agonizing to come up with a title?

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Do Writers Take Vacations?

Okay, so I have this bad track record of working on vacations. I thought I had reformed after a trip to New Mexico several years ago, when I literally chased a FedEx van to get a delivery from a publisher in a remote mountain village. I started traveling without my computer. I told clients well in advance that I would not be available for freelance writing and editing work on certain dates, due to previously scheduled family vacation time. (I actually had to memorize the words and practice saying them).

But putting up walls around a novel you're revising is not so easy. Especially when you're in the thick of it and trying to ride that narrative wave. Suddenly those carefully constructed walls start to crumble and slide like a sand castle.

I planned to turn in this phase of my novel revision on June 30. It was done, all ready to go. I thought. Then I discovered a plot glitch. A pretty gnarly tangle. When one of my editors said I could take a few extra days to finish it up, I decided to leap at the chance to fix the problem. Even though it meant I'd be looking at the manuscript while on my family vacation. Even though it meant there was a good chance my family would riot.

My family has been more than patient. I get up early and stay up late. While with them, I try very hard to stay in the moment and not let my mind drift to the Novel.

It is a strange sensation to be surrounded by people on vacation and yet not truly on vacation, since I don't feel completely free until this problem is solved to the best of my ability. It kind of feels like being separated from revelers and beach-goers by a thin sheet of glass. I'm relaxed, working in a gorgeous setting. Yet I also feel like a radio channel is always on somewhere, connecting me to the book even when I've turned off the laptop and walked away.

And because I'm always working on something, or scouting for new material, I do wonder if there is always a channel left on somewhere, distant voices jabbering away. I wonder if I have ever managed to fully detach and relax on vacation. (I got the idea for the novel I'm revising now while on my honeymoon!) On some level I'm always observing, noting, collecting. I'm scribbling ideas on napkins. I seem more vulnerable to this affliction while away from home.

How do writers take a "proper" vacation? And should they?

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