Monday, February 27, 2012

Happy Birthday "Beast of Bannock!"

Five years ago, I opened a blank document, took a deep breath, and wrote, "The moon rose bright in the purple sky over the distant mountains, casting a pale glow like a blanket over the sleeping valley."  It was the very first sentence of what ultimately became The Beast of Bannock.  As cliche as it may sound, it was truly one of those life-changing moments where nothing would ever be the same again.  
Now, half a decade later, I'm still toiling away on this same manuscript.  And while that first sentence has gone through countless changes (as have 99.9% of the other sentences), the heart and soul of Ellis' story remains the same.
You're probably asking two questions at this point: "Why?" and "Are you insane?"
To that, I answer with a shrug and, "Quite possibly."
This is a bittersweet time for me.  On the one hand, I can't believe I've spent five years on this manuscript!  On the other hand, I CAN'T BELIEVE I'VE SPENT FIVE YEARS ON THIS MANUSCRIPT!  When I wrote that first sentence, I had no idea that the path to publication would be so winding, boulder-strewn, and filled with hidden snake pits and cobras that bite your tushy.  (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)  It takes a special kind of disposition (and yes, a touch of insanity) to keep climbing that mountain even when there's no guarantee you'll ever reach the summit.

Despite five years of daunting odds and tushy-biting cobras, I'm still not ready to give up on Ellis--not yet.  For reasons I can't put into words, I still believe in this one imaginary boy and want nothing more than to share his story with the world.
So close your eyes and make a wish, Ellis.  Maybe this year it will come true.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review #8: City of Dogs

I have not been the world's best reader thus far in 2012.  (Can you believe I STILL haven't read The Hunger Games yet?  Shame on me!)  But I am pleased to say I just finished reading another lovely Animal Fantasy book that I am excited to share with you.  This book is Livi Michael's wonderful middle grade novel called City of Dogs.  I had never heard of it before, but it caught my eye as I was walking through the library.  One glance at the cover made me say, "Oooh, I want to read that!"

Here's the summary blurb from Barnes and Noble:

Sam has always wanted a dog, but Jenny is a dog like no other. She has come from another world—a parallel world of mythology, where the whims of the gods decide the course of Destiny. Jenny fled in terror after her attempt to save the life of her first beloved boy interrupted the gods' plans for a battle for control of the world. But now her escape threatens Sam's world as well. So Jenny has to convince her motley pack of dog friends—tiny Pico, giant Gentleman Jim, slow-moving Boris, excitable Checkers, and nervous Flo—that it's their destiny to restore the worlds to order before it's too late.

Norse mythology, a huge respect for the hearts and minds of dogs, and many dashes of humor combine to tell the tale of a grand, epic quest to save the world for humans, gods, and dogs.

I can honestly say this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read.  Not once while I was reading did I feel that anything was formulaic or cliche, and I was constantly surprised by what happened next.  The blend of mythologies is intriguing, and Michael ties the variety of threads so carefully into one beautifully crafted story.  My two favorite aspects of this book, though, are definitely Michael's skill with voice and her creative utilization of mythological canines.
City of Dogs is told from multiple points of view, including Jenny and her five dog friends, as well as Sam and his Aunty Dot.  The voice of four-legged characters is so important in Animal Fantasy books, and Michael's canine voices are both truthful and fresh.  Each canine has their own mountains to climb and ways they shine, and their separate voices convey these.  Poor Flo is a nervous, worry-wort poodle, yet witty and intelligent, too.  The spastic mutt, Checkers, eats cushions and computer cords left and right, but bounds into battle and protects his pals from thunderstorms without a second thought. And little Pico the chihuahua may see the world from inside a purse, but his heart is as big as the universe.  Each dog voice is distinctly "dog," but full of deeper thoughts and emotions than just, "Must chase squirrel..." and, "Me want treat!"  It's easy to imagine any real-world canine thinking and acting as Michael presents her pooches, and that is certainly a remarkable feat to accomplish.        

With the twining of so many mythologies, I was happy to see that Michael used a variety of mythological canines in her story.  From the Norse wolf, Fenrir, to the hound of Hades, Cerberus, to ones I'd never even heard of like Black Shuck, the cast of mythological dogs adds an extra richness to the story.  One of Michael's overarching themes is that dogs helped shape the world, and humans should respect their canine partners in turn.  By showing the wealth of canines that shaped mythology, too, this theme becomes even clearer.  And of course, the mythological dogs are a treat in themselves, wagging their monstrous tails and getting upset tummies after devouring the sun and moon.  I thoroughly enjoyed Michael's perspective that even mythological super-canines are still dogs at heart.

If you write Animal Fantasy and want to study a great example of voice and character, this is definitely a must-read book for you.  And if you write mythological-inspired stories, you should definitely see how Michael weaves well-known lore into her own unique tale.  And if you just love dogs, you will not be able to resist the delightful canines in this tale.  I guarantee City of Dogs will keep you turning the pages and guessing until the very last word.

You can check out Livi Michael's website here, where the original UK version of the book is called Sky Wolves:  And do let me know if you read the book; I'd love to hear what you think! :)

Happy reading!

Note: I could not find a book blurb on Michael's website, so I decided to just use the one on the Barnes & Noble website here.  The US cover art is also from Barnes & Noble and owned by Michael.                

Saturday, February 18, 2012

COSCBWI Meeting February 2012: First Pages

This month's COSCBWI meeting was a "First Pages" group critique meeting.  You may remember that I posted a summary of another "First Pages" critique meeting back in August 2011.  COSCBI likes to do one or two critique meetings each year so our members have a chance to get immediate feedback on their work in a constructive and friendly environment.  I love attending these meetings because there are always fresh perspectives to gain and new things to learn!

During this critique round, we discussed a few important things to remember when you are crafting the first page of your novel:

1) Figure out your intended audience and make the age of your character clear.  If your audience is preschoolers, you'll probably want to make your main character roughly the same age.  Same goes for middle grade and young adult literature, too.  (There is a bit of wiggle room in the older novels as teens tend to read up.)  Make sure the subject matter appeals to your intended audience as well.  First grade readers will probably not be interested in a love-triangle picture book with werewolves and vampires, while teenage readers really don't need a novel about learning to tie one's shoes.     

2) Make sure your story is kid-centric.  If your story is told from a parent's or other adult's point of view, kids probably won't relate to it very well.  Agents, editors, AND readers like stories where kids are empowered and solve their own problems.

3) Similarly, try to use "kid" words and vantages, particularly if your story is told from First Person Point of View.  Remember that kids see the world very differently than adults.  An eight year old character probably wouldn't ramble on about the various hues in a sunset for three paragraphs, but they would likely notice that the setting sun makes the ocean look like orange juice.  This is something to watch in dialogue, too.  No fifteen year old boy would say, "And how are you doing today, my good friend?" when they can just spew, "What's up?"

4)  A good writing trick is to make your sentences match your action.  If your first page starts with the main character sword fighting in the midst of a battle, the sentences should be short and choppy--not long, flowery, and detailed.  (i.e.  I watched the heathen approach.  His armor was silver and black with speckles of blood across the breastplate.  A plume of crow feathers graced his helmet; his sword glistened like moonlight on a frozen lake.  I was so busy admiring the details that he lopped my head off with one swipe.  The end.)   Similarly, if your scene is calm and introspective, punchy sentences are not the way to go.  (i.e. The sky was blue.  The grass smelled sweet.  A duck swooped onto the pond.  It quacked twice.  Seeing it float made me happy!  This is NOT calming.)

If you pay attention to these pointers on your first page, then your readers won't be able to resist turning to page two!  :) 

You can read my post about the other tips and tidbits we discussed in August's "First Pages" meeting here.  And if you live in Ohio and want to come to COSCBWI's next "First Pages" meeting, you can check out membership information and the calender of events at:

Happy writing!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romance Writing Tips From "Bongo"

Happy Valentine's Day!  With hot pink hearts and curly-haired cupids running rampant this time of year, it's only natural that our thoughts turn to love.  Whether its steamy smooching in novels like Twilight or an innocent crush in books like Savvy, romance is a common theme in practically every genre of literature.  But with so many love triangles and starry-eyed infatuations, how can you make the romance in your story unique?


When I was little, one of my favorite Disney cartoons was Bongo about a circus bear who returns (rather unprepared) to the wild.  He doesn't know how to fish; he doesn't know how to climb trees; but somehow he catches the attention of a lovely little lady bear called Lulubelle.  Unfortunately, she is already the object of affection for one brute of a bear called Lumpjaw.  (What great names!)  When Lumpjaw comes to take Lulubelle from Bongo, she squares her shoulders, sticks out her chin, and throws a punch--right at Bongo!  Bongo recoils, Lulubelle glares at Lumpjaw--then whacks Bongo upside the head again!

Poor Bongo...

Understandably, Bongo is shocked by Lulubelle's behavior and slumps away heartbroken.  But in turn, Lulubelle's own heart shatters when he keeps his paws to himself.  So what went wrong here?

A little while later, Bongo comes upon a grove where line-dancing bears are singing this:

When a bird loves a bird he can twitter
When a puppy falls in love he can yap
Every pigeon likes to coo when he says I love you
But a bear likes to say it with a slap!

Love hurts.  (In this case, a lot.)

And then the bears proceed to slap their partners.  (Hmm...looking back, this was a surprisingly violent cartoon...)  After a few more rousing choruses, it finally gets through Bongo's thick skull that Lulubelle wasn't hitting him because she hated him; she was hitting him because she loved him!  (Since, that's what all wild bears do, duh.)  And no wonder she was devastated when he didn't slap her back!  I won't spoil the end of the cartoon for you, but the remainder involves a lot of slapping, singing, and, well, more slapping.

The two bears in this cartoon end up in their romantic predicament because they aren't on the same page AT ALL when it comes to displaying their affections.  Everyone has their own way of showing love as well as their own way of feeling loved.  This is a great thing to think about when creating your own characters and potential romances.  Maybe Trixie McCutie just wants to spend time with Hans Quarterback, but he keeps lavishing her with stuffed gorillas.  Maybe Hans Quarterback would love to receive homemade cookies, but Trixie McCutie keeps planning Laser Tag dates.  After several dozen stuffed gorillas and Laser Tag dates, neither Trixie nor Hans feel satisfactorily loved and you've got an explosive "Bongo" situation on your hands.  (Hopefully sans slapping.)  This idea can be taken to an entirely new level, too, if your characters are from different cultures--whether in the real world, a historical society, or a fantasy setting.  If you really get to know your characters and dig deep down into their cores, you can make romantic tensions, misunderstandings, and ultimate connections much more meaningful for your readers.

What sorts of ways do your characters show their affections and what do they yearn for in order to feel loved?  (Of course, this applies to non-romantic love situations, too, like friendships and family relationships.)

Who doesn't love a serenade on heart-shaped clouds?

On this Valentine's Day, I ask you to reflect upon how your dear ones show that they love you and ponder how you could better make them feel loved.  (Makes ya think, doesn't it?)  And always remember:

When love comes along don't be silly
Never ever waste your time like a sap
Let the others hug and kiss
But the bare facts are this
That a bear likes to say it with a slap!

Um, but please refrain from slapping your loved ones unless you are a bear.

Note: Bongo and "Say It With A Slap" are from Fun and Fancy Free and owned by Disney.  Pics are from Google Images.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

First Art Piece of 2012

Boy, it's been pretty quiet around here recently!  Being sick three out of four weeks in January and traveling the other week really put me behind schedule.  Since I haven't figured out how to add more hours to the day, I've had to concentrate on one thing at a time in order to cross some items off of my "To Do" list.  And now, I'm very pleased to say that I managed to complete my first art piece of 2012!  (Yes, I know I'm already lagging on my New Year's schedule, but I'm totally counting this as my January piece since it was 75% done by the 31st!)
This is Ellis--the hero of my manuscript, The Beast of Bannock.  He's a thirteen-year-old boy trapped in a horse's body, here represented in his equine form.  I have wanted to do this digital piece since I sketched the picture last February during my "30 Horses in 30 Days" project.  Although it might not look that complicated, I spent a ridiculous amount of time making this piece represent Ellis to the best of my ability.  (Being an artistic snail while still learning the ins and outs of Photoshop certainly didn't help!)  I'm very pleased with the end result and consider it my favorite digital piece to date--not only from a technical standpoint, but also because the subject matter means the world to me.
I experimented with some new techniques and Photoshop doohickeys for this piece, including creating (and struggling with) clipping masks and playing around with effects and font types.  I also learned how to make my first brush (those scars in the background can now be used anytime, anywhere) and create an original watermark.  I especially tried to nail down my Bannock-style and a cohesive look in this piece which I can implement in future character sheets.  (I'd love to illustrate my entire cast of equine characters someday...) 

Now that this piece is done, I'm ready to jump into some writing, reading, and more art!  (And what better inspiration for me to get started on those revisions than seeing this image on my desktop?)  Since my portfolio is finally a bit fatter now, too, I also have an exciting art announcement coming up soon!  (Woohoo!)  I can't wait to share it with you, so stay tuned!  :)  

Note: Ellis and The Beast of Bannock are not published, but proudly owned by me.  I learned how to make a brush and watermark with this great tutorial on DeviantArt by vampiremackenzie.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Dark Side Of The Desk: Pleasing Everyone

Usually, I don't like writing about the negatives of writing and pursuing publication.  With so many fun and wonderful things about writing like conferences, workshops and retreats, it's easy to focus on the positives most of the time.  Unfortunately, sometimes you have to face the unavoidable unpleasantness of the writing world--or what I like to call, "The Dark Side of the Desk."

When I got back from vacation a few weeks ago, I found an agent rejection email waiting for me in my inbox.  I knew it was coming; I'd been waiting for a response on a revision request I submitted last June.  Rejections themselves are an unavoidable darkness (as are lengthy agent wait times), but, like most writers, I've gotten so used to rejections that they don't really phase me any more.  (There are plenty of fish in the sea, you know!)  However, it was the suggestions in the rejection letter that sent tears of frustration streaming down my face.

What happened was this: Agent A decided the revision still wasn't a good fit for her, so she gave it to Agent B.  (That part at least was a "hooray"--it means she still saw promise in it!)   But, Agent B passed as well, writing a lengthy list of suggestions regarding EVERYTHING I had just so happened to change in my manuscript over the past year and a half.  And I'm not kidding; I mean EVERYTHING.  Each and every thing she thought I should revise was present in my Manuscript Version 2010.  Yes, her "ideal" version of my manuscript was already sitting on my hard drive in a folder labeled, "Rejected Bannock."

You can see why this situation would result in tears of frustration.  Part of me wanted to email her Manuscript Version 2010 despite no revision request.  Part of me wanted to crawl into a hole and forget about all my futile hard work over the past 18 months.  Most of me wanted to scream.  And a little part of me said, "Okay, let's just think about this for a minute.

While it was tempting to push that reply button and attach Manuscript Version 2010, I remembered there was a reason I had made all those changes in the first place.  Now, I don't just follow advice willy-nilly from agents/editors/critquers.  When I sent out Manuscript Version 2010 in, well, 2010, I contemplated all the suggestions I received, latched onto the ones that were consistent and made sense to me, and revised accordingly.  And I was ultimately happier with the manuscript.  What really frosts my cookies about Manuscript Version 2011, is that every submission over this past year has resulted in at least one or two editorial suggestions that would return my manuscript to a prior draft--therefore contradicting the suggestions made by professionals who read Manuscript Version 2010.  (Agent B's suggestions just hit every agonizing point imaginable--and her suggestions even contradicted those of Agent A's!)

For example: following the rules of "The Hero's Journey," I originally had my protagonist, Ellis, stubbornly refuse his quest.  MV 2010's responses were, "But his quest is so cool!  It helps him get exactly what he wants.  Why would he refuse it?"  After rolling that idea around in my noggin, I agreed and revised.  MV 2011's responses?  "He needs to refuse his quest.  He should be angry and suspicious at his situation and unwilling to cooperate."  And my response?  Well, that involves a lot of #'s and @'s...

So, whose advice is right, and whose is wrong?

Well, that's one dilly of a pickle...

Contradicting advice is one of the most difficult things writers must face.  It has nothing to do with the professionals themselves; they don't know they're giving conflicting advice.  (I'm sure most would apologize for the anguish they cause us if they did know.)  Writing is just a subjective field.  Time and time again, my colleagues and I have attended consecutive conferences and even received opposite advice on the same draft.  One professional says, "This is a great opening.  You have me hanging on to every sentence.  Please send more!" But the next professional says, "You're not even starting your manuscript in the right place.  Count me out."  And we writers are left scratching our heads.  Get enough of this conflicting advice, and it becomes absolutely paralyzing.

This is sort of where I am at the moment.  I can't make my hero younger AND older; more rash AND more thoughtful; reluctant AND willing; sassy AND respectful.  So, do I return to MV 2010--you know, that version that got rejections across the board?  Or do I keep going with MV 2011--you know, that other version that got rejections across the board?  Did I simply send my manuscript to the wrong people at the wrong time?  I know it's impossible to please everyone, but what if you can't please anyone?

In such situations, people usually give the blanket advice, "Just go with your gut."  And that's why the need to send MV 2010 to Agent B quickly subsided.  While I can't help but wonder if the answer would have been, "Yes," if she'd read the older manuscript, a tiny voice inside me pipes up, "But you don't like that version."  Perhaps that is the voice of said gut (although, I imagine guts would have manly, Schwarzenegger-esque voices if they could talk.)   And gut is right.  I don't like MV 2010.  I put it in that "Rejected Bannock" folder with gusto.  But obviously, MV 2011 isn't quite right either.  So, since Ellis can't say "Yes," AND "No," to his quest, perhaps in MV 2012 he should say, "Maybe?"

Gut says, "Beats me. Me want more chocolate."

Since guts sometimes aren't very helpful, this is where we'll return to "The Light Side of the Desk" and one of the best aspects of writing of all: your support system.  In instances like this, I would indeed be currently screaming and crying in a cave somewhere if it wasn't for the people who support me.  If you find yourself in a situation of contradiction like mine, just remember that you aren't alone.  There are other writers who share your frustration and are left with a gut who just wants more Hershey bars.  Luckily, I am very blessed to also have a family who curses the Writing Gods for me, a hubby who wipes away my tears, and writing buddies who say, "Okay, let's figure out how to fix this!"

Here's to hoping our writing futures are filled with more Light Side days than Dark ones.

Note: Both pics were found on Google Images.  Snoopy is, of course, owned by Charles Schulz and Peanuts Worldwide LLC.