Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cranky the Crane

Had to catch up on my Thomas and Friends this past week for a project at work and realized I am a bit like Cranky the Crane these days, except less useful. Heavy lifting makes for a cranky crane. And apparently, a cranky me.

There are a variety of things getting me down. The weather. My job. And not feeling motivated to write. So I've decided to reserve this Sunday afternoon for reading, relaxing, baking and trying to get some words out. I know that once they hit the page, I will feel better. I always feel better with a new story to keep my company.

I've also decided to intermittently unplug this week (when I'm not at work of course). I have a lot of things to figure out. And, I have a 4 day trip planned to visit Tyler's family down South. Of course, because I'm Cranky the Crane, the only thing I can think about right now is that it won't be warm enough to wear flip flops. Imagine that.'s very clear to me that I need a week to regroup. To calm down. To take things a little easier. Sometimes the glow of the computer screen, the e-mails, the articles, the blogs, the endless information feels strangely overwhelming. And it shouldn't be. So it's time to free myself from that feeling.

But I'll have a few pre-planned posts. Photo Friendly Week for Cranky Cranes ;-) Because there are all kinds of pretty things in the world that cranky cranes need to see.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Feeling a bit down about the novel lately. My work is in the hands of others and I am so appreciative people are willing to read it. But I am growing impatient waiting for feedback. I know people aren't critique factories...they can't just churn out valuable feedback in minutes. This is not a passive aggressive plea to them either. I'm just reiterating that patience is a problem for me, but I'm trying so, so hard. It's near impossible not to dive into another edit without hearing from people who can look at my work with fresh eyes. I can't do that. I am no use to myself right now... I don't like that.

In the meantime, I've been doing a lot of research. Trying to understand the market a bit better. I wander bookstores and look at what's buzzin', what's on what table, whats in what section, what constitutes women's fiction, what books are next to one another, what books look like the books I write, which agents are thanked in the acknowledgements, what the jacket copy looks like. Jacket copy is a form of query letter, in some way, so I study them like bibles. I've also been reading a lot of young adult work to prep for my next novel. Nothing has blown me away but I love the young adult voice, I am inspired by it.

Speaking of which, I am finding it very difficult to write that 2nd idea. Or anything for that matter. I started a short piece and grew bored with it. I can not wrap my head around the 2nd book idea right now. I don't feel ready to dive into another psyche, another voice, another person.

I am stuck in my current novel. I can't seem to focus elsewhere. I am antsy to get back into it. To finish it. It sits right now. Far away. I want to be close to it but I have to stop myself. Because it rests in the hands of someone new...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Intentional Tangent

After this week's myriad of events, I planned on writing a bit about the Engage Expo and narrative storytelling through games and toys. However, I regret to say that I didn't find anything incredibly insightful during these talks and discussions. A lot of times these industry conferences relay things you already know. Or it becomes a chance for people to talk about the things they are creating (which is certainly inspiring) and there's often nothing to take away except a new url or a new toy or game you'll want to check out the next holiday season. Again, I'm reminded that conferences are for networking and it's simply not the best forum for me.

So...I'm sure you'll all find it ironic that, instead, I found Kathy Griffin's show on Friday night to be a genius model for storytelling. I know what you're all thinking. She's a vulgar, inappropriate, rude, self-absorbed, callous, crude (etc. etc.) attention seeker. And I get it that a lot of people might not be able to handle her comedy. In fact, she repeatedly reminded us that her show is made for people in New York City because we're the only audience that can truly handle it. And we can. We've seen it all and a couple of completely inappropriate jokes are not going to phase us. And they really didn't.

But let's put her comedy aside and get to the heart of this post. To be able to stand on stage for 2 hours (2 hours!) and have an entire audience completely engaged and entertained, hanging on our every word...well, that's what we, as writers, want. And when the end comes, we want our audience to want hours more of us. We want them to want the sequel. The next book. The next story.

Kathy's ability to do this astounded me. I couldn't understand it. 2 hours! 2 hours of stories and I wanted hours more. I felt like a little kid at bedtime: tell me more stories Kathy, tell me more stories!

As a writer, I wanted to understand how she was able to do this. I'm going to put the obvious out there quickly:

1. Interesting subject matter? Check. (Acting lessons with Liza Minelli! Tea with Gloria Vanderbilt! The list goes on...)
2. Distinct Voice? Check. (I think she said f&^kballs approximately 1,000 times)
3. Humor? Check. (duh, it's a comedy show)
4. Great characters? Check. (Tiger Woods! The Balloon Boy! Anderson Cooper!)
5. Great setting? Check. (Hollywood!)

But it's about structure. I want to get down to structure. Kathy started her comedy show with a welcome and dove right into the Tiger Woods Press Conference. 1 1/2 hours later, she wrapped up the Tiger Woods Press Conference. Argh. You're all probably thinking. She talked for an hour and 1/2 about Tiger Woods?


She went on incredibly structured tangents. But always, always, looped back to the original topic.

So, why is this important?

Because this is what we all want to do. And I'd argue it's what most storytellers do do. We want to keep people wanting more. If we start with A, then dive into B with A unresolved, our audience is always waiting for a resolution to A. And she consistently delivered the resolution to every unfinished story. And there were many. It was a constant stream of suspense for the un-resolved and delight in the current subject, consistently weaving between the two until every story had been completed.

Because this was all done through spoken word, most people would consider this a tangent. But an intentional one. While it all felt very natural, a good friend telling me one hilarious story after another, it's obvious that this was a well thought out plan. There's no way you could tell a series of stories in this manner without complete intent.

The skill it takes to do this and keep an audience engaged is impressive. Think about this in your writing. Think about how everything you introduce in your work keeps the audience wanting more. Think how you can continuously extend that suspense over the course of an entire novel. Think about how you can keep people waiting and think about how time sensitive it is. Feel when it's time to pick up a story and tuck it aside. Feel when it's time to resolve it before it's too late and you've lost your audience. After watching Kathy's 2 hour set, I know that... f&%kballs...I sure am.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pay It Forward Query Critique Contest

I recently discovered Elana Johnson's blog and I am quite thrilled that I did. She writes young adult science fiction and fantasy and her blog posts are funny, quirky, and most importantly, helpful! Because she also blogs at Query Tracker and has written the eBook: From the Query To the Call and has a lot of insight to give.

This week, she and Shelli Johannes-Wells from Market My Words are having some fabulous contests. And Elana is giving away query critiques from 5 Top literary agents, which I desperately need right now!

Click here to check it out!

Also, I'm having a bit of trouble highlighting my links in my blog posts, so if you are not reading this in a reader or through e-mail, scroll over this text to see the links. Grrr, I don't know why they aren't highlighting in the proper color!

When I'm Not Writing

Right now, my manuscript is out in the hands of some writer friends, where they are hopefully tearing it apart with helpful criticism. This means that I am spending the time researching agents and working on the 15th revision of my query letter.

So, I thought it best to tell you what I'm doing when I'm not writing.

Most of the time I can be found watching Guy's Big Bite:

Wait, why don't I own any squeeze bottles? :-( I think I need to change that.

But this week is going to be completely out of the ordinary. There are so many exciting things happening, I can barely contain myself:

1. First of all, and this is completely random, I will apparently be meeting Donnie Osmond at 1:30pm. I realize this makes absolutely no logical sense. Honestly, I'm not even sure why he's here in my office. But, for whatever reason, I will be meeting Donnie Osmond and I've declared this hilariously awesome, in a Tiger Beat magazine kind of way.

UPDATE: I did not meet Donnie Osmond! I signed up to meet him at 2:10pm. And there was apparently a change of plans and he only came from 1:20pm to 1:40pm. FAIL!

2. Tonight, for the 3rd year in a row, I will be attending the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. This quite possibly tops Christmas as THE BEST TIME OF THE YEAR. There is no other time when you can walk into a room with 1,000 immaculately groomed and perfectly behaved dogs, pet them until your hearts delight and squeal every time you see a dog you like (which, for me, is every .251 sec). Click to check out my experience from last year.

3. It's Toy Fair! For those of you who don't know, my day job involves writing and producing content for interactive toys and games. And Toy Fair is rather exciting. It doesn't top the Dog Show and it's a little in-your-face consumer-ific, but it is an exciting place for people to show-off the toys they've been hard at work on all year. I know you all think we're just elves living in the North Pole having a jolly old time, but making toys is actually hard work. I am incredibly inspired by the creative minds in this industry and, in addition to Toy Fair, this year I will be attending the Engage Conference and Expo. Obviously, I am most excited about the panel: Engaging Through Narration, Character Development, and Story. And, while it's a little out of the realm of novel-writing, I still hope to provide some take-aways and insights from Toy Fair and the Engage Expo that make sense for writers reading this blog :-)

4. Kathy Griffin is coming to town! On Friday, I will be attending her comedy show at Madison Square Garden. I think she is hysterical. Anyone who has the guts to come out with a book called 'Official Book Club Selection' is tops in my world. I can't wait to laugh and laugh and listen to her potty mouth.

So, this is a very exciting week for not writing. What about you guys? What events are you looking forward to in your downtime?

Thursday, February 11, 2010


This is one of those occasions where I feel like writing a post for my blog, but don't actually have anything to write about.

But of course, I have a lot of things on my mind at any given point. So here they are:

1. This Terrier had its coat stolen RIGHT OFF OF ITS BACK in Park Slope, Brooklyn while its owner was in the deli buying milk. Outrageous!

A co-worker of mine decided whodunit. It was this guy:

2. I haven't seen any of the Oscar nominated films this year (except Avatar). I am not okay with this. But I also don't feel like spending $12 a pop on a movie, re-ordering my netflix queue, OR purchasing bootlegs off of the street.

3. This explosion happened 2 blocks away from where I work. I didn't even hear it. Guess what? I feel lucky to be alive.

4. This one time, when I worked at a waste water treatment plant for a summer during college, I figured out how to break the firewall and install AIM on my computer. That was the smartest I HAVE EVER BEEN.

5. I just wrote a song entitled: Dancing Magic. I actually wrote down the words: "We'll shine and sparkle everywhere!" I just sang it in our media room and tried to sound like I was a 7 year old Latina girl. I will soon have to present the recording to people who make a lot more money than I do. I keep reminding myself: People pay me to do this. But I don't have a shred of dignity left...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

And So it Snows

What a great day to sip tea, write words, read books, look out the window.

I am at work and not sure how I ended up in a grey, office cubicle writing words for people that aren't me...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Give the Baby Cocaine!*

You may or may not know this, but a few years ago I actually got an MFA in Film and Television. My focus was in screenwriting and I wrote 3 really weird screenplays, 'acted' (we can use this term loosely) in a lot of student films, and watched more Italian Neo-realism than you can imagine. I'm still paying off the tuition right now and for a while I looked back on that period and asked 'What the heck was I thinking?' The truth is, it took 2 years of graduate work, a lot of money, and a few years of working in television production to determine that I did not want to be a part of the Film or TV industry. :-(

Now that I'm a little older and wiser, I realize that the time was invaluable. Not only did it lead to writing scripts for toys and games (which led to a new found love for writing for children), but it also made me a better writer.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned while writing scripts is to always, always, always up the stakes. The conflict in every single scene NEEDS to be taken to the next level. Even if you think you've gone as far as you can go, take it one step further.

I'll tell you how I learned this lesson.

I wrote a script that involved my protagonist leaving his child with a babysitter. My protagonist was in quite a state, having just lost his wife and being badgered by extended family members to take a break from work and life to sort through his feelings and concentrate on raising a child on his own. Perhaps to prove to his family, and to himself, that he could handle things, he decided to show 'em up and say: I can do this! I can hire babysitters and go to work and be fine! Fine, fine, fine! So he dumped the baby off at a babysitter's house and went to work.

When he returned to pick the child up, he found quite a state of affairs. Totally coked out babysitter and his little babushka licking white stuff from the kitchen floor. Obviously, he thought his child was eating cocaine and he freaked out, as any parent would, went crazy, and went straight to the hospital. Me being me, I wrapped things up all nice and neat and the doctor laughed and said: 'Your baby just had some sugar!' And all was right with the world. Well, I mean, the guy still had some major issues, but lesson learned, right? Wrong.

My professor did not like this. He did not like this one bit.

Professor: Up the stakes, Melissa! Sugar? Really? Sugar? Is that all you've got?

Me: I can't give the baby cocaine!

Professor: Give the baby cocaine, Melissa.

Me: I can't give the baby cocaine!

Professor: Exactly! You can't give the baby cocaine. So GIVE THE BABY COCAINE!

He had a point. So I tried it. I gave that little baby cocaine. And I've got to admit, the stakes were a lot higher. A LOT. The tension and the conflict were much stronger. The action in script took an unexpected turn and it left things in a much more intense place.

So, the next time you write a high stakes scene, step back and ask yourself this figurative question: 'Did I give the baby cocaine?' And if you didn't, well, you know what to do...

*Please note. This blog does not advocate giving real babies Cocaine. Only fictional babies.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Handing it Over

Good news! I finished the first edit of my novel! It wasn't as dreadful of a process as I thought it would be and I think my manuscript is in a much, much better place. And I discovered something about myself that was a bit of a surprise: I like to cut things. I was like an animal, slicing and dicing. I got rid of one of my favorite scenes in the whole novel because I found out it just didn't serve a good enough purpose. And I actually thought it was fun to select all and press delete (of course I have a cut file so it wasn't like it was gone forever).

Now, as they say, when you love something, set it free. Love is probably not the correct word but at this point, I'm so brain dead it's the only cliche I can think of. So I'm about to send out the book to some fresh eyes for critique before I begin querying agents.

I workshopped the first 150 pages of my novel, but I stopped at that point for a variety of reasons. My formal workshop simply ended its run and my writing group sadly fizzled after the honeymoon wore off and a few attempts to meet up failed. I did not actively try and keep these connections because my workshops and critique groups were taking up a lot of my writing time. There was a point where I was involved in about 25 other people's novels and I basically got workshop burnout. It's unfortunate, because I lost most of the valuable connections I had made with other writers. If I had to do it over again I probably would have tried to stick to 1 or 2 critique partners so that writing and critiquing could be of equal priority.

I have a few writers who are willing to read my work so I'm grateful for that, but I'm thinking I'd like to reconnect with some of the writer friends I've since lost. After all, they were there from the beginning of this silly little thing. I wonder if some of them would like to pick up where we left off.

We shall see...

In the meantime, I wonder what other people will see in my novel that I simply couldn't. After all, this whole 'I write, you read' thang is truly what it's all about, right? Heeeeere weeeeee gooooooooo!!!!!!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


The best thing about writing is when you're sitting on the blank page, cursor blinking, not sure where you're going or what you're doing, words coming out one by one in neat little rows, pressing enter for a new little paragraph, when suddenly, BAM, your characters poke you on the shoulder and say with a sly little laugh, "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore..."

And, suddenly, just like that, you're really not. Something changes. Somebody walks in, someone you never knew, and takes over the scene and they're wild and fresh and new and bold, and they come with all kinds of convictions and beliefs and abilities. So fast that you don't even have time to question: "Who are you and where did you come from?"

These moments happen a lot when I am writing. I have very vague outlines and they are usually based on emotional moments and beats that need to happen in a story. My outlines very often look like this:

M and E talk. E is upset.

Literally. That's it.

M is Mom by the way. E is my protaganist.

Personally, I firmly believe in this approach. It doesn't work for everyone but it's best for me. Because, in the back of my mind, I know the topic they are going to talk about. But, in real life, people don't usually set out to talk about a specific topic. A question may be burning inside of someone, but that person very rarely sits down for coffee and automatically asks: Why don't you love me anymore? If they do, well, I hope I'm not sitting at the other end of the table 'cause they mean business. (Although, that might make a very good scene. Reminds me of an Edward Albee play, Scene 1, Line 1: "Hi honey. I've decided I'm leaving you'" But I digress...)

So when I sit down to write about M and E, I have absolutely no clue what they are going to talk about. They could talk about anything. Anything at all. So when I press enter and start a new paragraph, what comes out of their mouths is always a surprise. I like working this way. I am fascinated by it. If it surprises me, it means it will surprise my readers.

The thing is, these surprises very often leave me completely baffled. My inner dialogue often goes a little something like this:

What the... what? You're a pitching a tent?
Crap. I have no idea how to pitch a tent.

What's that you say? You work at a brewery? You want to talk about what it's like to work at a brewery? that's what you want. Note to self...figure out how to make beer.

You want to get out of the car and swim? In Missouri?
All right, but uh, can you wait a few minutes? [Frantically googles 'swimming in Missouri']

I once tweeted with a writer who was a little concerned that she suddenly had a blacksmith in her story. Oh boy, can't help you there. Better go out and get an apprenticeship or something. Eeks.

The reason I am fascinated by this whole element of surprise is because, in actuality, I am surprising myself. As much as I often feel that my characters are running off with the story, taking me places I've never been, forcing me to learn how to pitch tents and make beers, it's I am making the decisions. Even if it seems they are completely out of my control.

The 3 examples above are true stories. And I am proud to say I now know how to pitch a tent, I can BS my way through a conversation about beermaking (I never knew the hops were flowers. Or about worts! And that's a fun word. Say it 3 times), and I know where you can find a swimming gorge in Southeast Missouri.

So how do you surprise yourself when you're writing? What things have your characters done that have left you a little shocked and dismayed?

Photo credit: ADoseofShipBoy

Monday, February 1, 2010

Updates, titles, and tips

A few updates today...

I am nearing the completion of the revisions for Part II of my book. Side note: I've split the book into 3 mental acts (that's the script writer in me) but, technically, it's all one book with no parts. That being said, Part II is where most of the plot is and plot is always very difficult for me. Fortunately, my characters have been exceptionally helpful. It's unclear whether they're begging me to be more active or I'm pushing them, but whatever the case may be, we have a nice working relationship. Only 1 scene to re-write and 1 scene to write from scratch before I begin revisions to Part III.

I decided to re-design my blog, so if you're reading this in a reader or through e-mail, feel free to check it out because I think it's pretty. And the edges are all a surprising, beautiful yellow. Which is the color of the sun. Sun=happy. And it only took 6 hours for this indecisive Libra to choose a blog template. So humour me :-)

I chose a title for my Work in Progress. It is now called Spared. I don't know if this is the best title for the book but it seems to suit my pages quite well right now. Out of curiousity does that word conjure up anything for you? Does it intrigue you in any way? I'd love to know.

And because this post has been very selfish so far, here's a Writing Tip:

When you finish a scene, or a chapter, or your words for the day, before you do a happy dance, write the first sentence for the next scene or chapter or set of words you plan to write tomorrow. Trust me on this one.