For the Birds…

I recently read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (mentioned it in last week’s Reading Wrap-Up). If you’ve yet to read it, I highly recommend picking it up. Bird by Bird is an excellent craft book–not too technical, not too preachy, full of concise,  snappy chapters, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

As I was perusing Bird by Bird, I got the urge to reread bits of my very first manuscript. As I’ve said before, Novel One is tragically low concept epic teen romance that has lots of sweet little scenes I’ll always love. It also has a forced “plot,” loads of over-writing, and characters that are conveniently clueless. In other words, Novel One is completely unsellable.

Now, I’m sure Novel One’s flaws are run of the mill for first (and second and third) efforts. I made mistakes lots of new writers make, learned as I went, and improved with time. I read tons of YA and piles of craft books, and picked up tips and inspiration and lessons along the way. And, it just so happens that a few of my favorite lessons from Bird by Bird  apply directly to Novel One. I’ll share them as they apply to my own writing and maybe save you some trouble. 🙂

1: BE FLEXIBLE – While writing Novel One, I had a very specific direction for the story. And I took it there, even though at times it felt forced and unnatural.  I also had exact, detailed scenes in mind, scenes I eventually wedged in, whether they fit the overall story arc or not. All this pushing and coercing and throwing around of my writerly weight resulted in a story that reads like this: Say what?!

I failed my characters. I neglected to listen to them. I didn’t let them guide the plot. Instead, I molded them, made them do certain things and act certain ways just for the sake of the storyline (which, honestly, wasn’t even all that strong). What I should have done was let the plot grow and expand and change as I got to know my characters.

2: DO NOT BE AFRAID – The earliest drafts of Novel One are so very vanilla. I followed all the rules. I didn’t let my characters swear. I barely let them kiss. They all drove nice cars and lived in tidy houses in a lovely town. They spoke politely and made good choices. Sure, a few bad things happened to them, but through no fault of their own. These people–their lives–were flawless. The reason for all this vanilla? I was afraid of what people (my parents, my husband, my friends) would think if I really went there.

Over time, I’ve developed courage and an anything-goes attitude. What difference does it make if one of my characters drops an F-bomb? Who cares if she wears a skanky top or drinks a beer once in a while? So what if she thinks about school and friends and family and boys and–gasp!–sex? If she’s in character and the story is moving forward, she can do no wrong. But I never went to any of those places in Novel One because I was too focused on my mental naysayers, watching them shake their heads and wag their fingers, listening to them preach about what’s appropriate. And now the story’s a snoozefest.

3: GET IN THE ZONE – Novel One is choppy and lacking in voice. This is partly to blame on my previous lack of flexibility (and experience), but my failure to get in the zone and stay there is also responsible. By “the zone” I mean that delightfully elusive place where you’re focused and typing and barely thinking. Suddenly you glance at the clock and three hours have passed. You’ve written 5K words without ever looking up from your computer screen.

For me, the zone is a silent room, a comfy chair, and a burning candle. I have critique partners who find their zone while listening to loud music through headphones. Others like to work at a certain table in a specific coffee shop with an iced Chai beside them. I need to be in my the zone in order to listen to the voices in my head. I need to listen to the voices in my head in order to find MY voice. (Is this all making me sound slightly crazy? I’m not alone, right?)

I didn’t know about the zone while writing Novel One. I wrote whenever and wherever, and it always took me ages to find a groove–if I did at all. Now I try hard to give myself the best writing conditions possible because only when I get into the zone does my best writing emerges.

I’d love to hear about your first manuscript. What beginner mistakes did you make? What craft books have you found most helpful?

July’s Book of the Month

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where the ladies at YA Highway post a weekly writing- or reading-related question for participants to respond to on their own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.

This Week’s Topic: What’s the best book you read in July?

July turned out to be one of those rare months where I genuinely enjoyed every book I read, though they were all quite different. Here’s my reading wrap-up:

A Need So Beautiful by Suzanne Young – This book grabbed me from the beginning, thanks mostly to boyfriend Harlin. He was so sweet and loving and attentive and HOT, I flew through the pages wanting to read more scenes with him. The story as a whole was incredible and–dare I say–rather inspiring. And the ending… yowza… I’m still sort of reeling from it, but in the best of ways.

Chime by Franny Billingsley – I raved about Chime in this POST, so I won’t bore you with further accolades. I will simply say: I LOVED it.

The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder – I’m not sure why I continuously shy away from books written in verse. I always end up enjoying them. This one, especially, was lovely. I’m awed by how much story was packed into one day in Amber and Cade’s lives (only about 20K words), and  I’m seriously envious of Lisa Schroeder’s gift for language.

Forever by Maggie Steivfater – If an author can truly sell me the love story in her book, I can overlook many a flaw relating to pacing, plot, and character development. I ADORE Sam and Grace of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy. They’re sweet and romantic and so respectful of each other, plus,they have subtle but undeniably hot chemistry. It’s because of them (and Cole!) that I didn’t mind Forever‘s fairly predictable plot, or the continued weirdness of Grace’s parents, or the complete implausibility of the last quarter of the story. Forever struck me as a fitting end to this trilogy, yet I still wanted more from it.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – It’s been awhile since I read a craft book, and lately I’ve been in need of some writing inspiration. I’d heard great things about Bird and it did not disappoint. It’s succinct, funny, and honest. My favorite take-away lessons? Be authentic, view the world reverently, and do not be afraid to make mistakes. I highly recommend Bird by Bird if you’ve yet to read it.

And July’s Book of the Month is… Room by Emma Donoghue.

From GoodReads: To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world. . . . It’s where he was born, it’s where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in this eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But with Jack’s curiosity building alongside her own desperation, she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer. Room is a tale at once shocking, riveting, exhilarating–a story of unconquerable love in harrowing circumstances, and of the diamond-hard bond between a mother and her child.

Admittedly, I was hesitant to read this book. While I like stories that are bizarre and/or disturbing, books that include sensationalized violence against women do not appeal to me. Also, Room is narrated by a five-year-old boy. As the mother of a precocious almost-four-year-old, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend 300 pages locked in that mindset. Well, I’m glad to report that Room is neither the lurid account of a tortured woman or the juvenile narration of a preschooler. Room, instead, is about the strength of the human spirit and an incredibly unique mother-son bond.

A comment on Jack’s narration: In my opinion, this story couldn’t have been told by anyone else. Jack is an intelligent, thoughtful boy, and his observations about what’s around him (from Room to his Ma’s sometimes erratic behavior) are eye-opening. His simplicity veils the brief scenes of violence, and he is key to all the action that takes place–we’d miss out if we weren’t in Jack’s head. It’s fascinating to view the world through his innocence. Donoghue did an amazing job capturing the mindset of a child.

I don’t want to tell you too much about Room‘s plot; I think its  impact will be stronger if you travel through the pages uninitiated. While I wouldn’t call this book a “thriller,” I certainly found it to be a page-turner. I was desperate to know what would happen to Jack and Ma as their story unfolded. Yes, I know Room isn’t a young adult novel (I think it’s actually my first adult Book of the Month!), but I highly recommend you check it out.

Tell me… what’s the best book you read in July?