Dec 20, 2012

Christmas Memories

I'm enjoying spending time with my sister this Christmas and yesterday we started talking about a toy we remembered from our childhood.

My sister and I, in unison:  "Here comes my body!"

Everyone else stares at us.

Me:  "No! It was real. You know how you used to pull the string at the baby doll's neck and she'd say different things?"

Kids stare blankly at me. Nope.  Not familiar at all.

Me:  "Well, okay.  So you did.  That's how the dolls talked.  Anyway, this doll had a long string between her head and her body and she said different things as the body and head reconnected."

Daughter:  "I'm pretty sure that's not a kid's toy."

Sister:  "No! It was. It was hilarious. And whose voice was that?"

Me:  "Was it Rita Moreno?"

Sister: "No, she was loud, but she was on The Electric Company."

Sister and I, in unison:  "Hey you guys!"

More kids enter the room.

Kid 1:  "What's going on?"

Kid 2:  "You should stay.  Our moms are losing their minds."

Sister and I, in unison:  "Here comes my body!"

Me:  "Oh, wait!  It was someone from Laugh-In. What was her name?"

Sister:  "Jo Anne Worley."

Me: "Yes! The doll even looked like her too."

Kid 3:  "They're making this up, aren't they?"

So yes, we had to go find proof of the doll's existence.  We came up with this video from YouTube.  They were called Talk-Up Dolls and they were produced by Mattel in 1971.

My daughter gave me a look that said she thought I was old, so I started singing, "Bimbo, Bimbo, Where ya gonna go-e-o?" and my mom took over from there.  When I was a kid, I insisted she'd made up the lyrics on the spot.  So she had to get out the record player to play it for me.

That's Jim Reeves. The song came out in 1953.

I wonder what things will make my kids seem old to their kids. Kim Possible? Invader Zim? Webkinz?

Oct 29, 2012

Mindful Writing Day

I'm not sure how long Fiona Robyn has been hosting River of Stones, an invitation to mindful writing.  This monthlong, January event has existed at least two years because that's how long I've been enjoying the small stones of bloggers I love and admire.

This year, Fiona is hosting the first-ever Mindful Writing Day on November first.  It's just one day and it's just a small bit of writing---a small stone---but there are over 1000 writers participating.

I adore the idea of so many writers polishing a handful of words until they resonate and I love the idea that, together, we create something really meaningful and reflective.

If you'd like to join us, here's the information from Fiona:

This Thursday the 1st of November is the first ever Mindful Writing Day, organised by Kaspa & Fiona at Writing Our Way Home.

To join in simply slow down, pay attention to one thing and write it down (making a small stone). Read all about it here.

small stones are easy to write, and they will help you connect to the world. Once you've started, you might not want to stop... You can read more about small stones and find out about Lorrie with pea-green eyes in Fiona's free ebook, Write Your Way Home.

If you visit Writing Our Way Home on Thursday you'll find out how to download your free kindle copy of the new anthology, 'A Blackbird Sings: a book of short poems'.

You can also submit your small stone and see it published on the blog, and be entered into a competition to win one of five paperback copies of the book.

Oct 22, 2012

The Author Bio

My wonderful editor/publisher, MaryChris Bradley of Buddhapuss Ink, wrote to me and asked for an updated bio to go in the Mystery Times Nine anthology.  I've had my old bio for so long, it's mostly invisible to me. It's like a beat-up hat that still does the job.  I don't see it, so I rarely notice how shabby it's become.  An update really is in order.

I asked my daughter for help and she started pulling books off the shelf and reading author bios aloud.  It turns out most of them say the same thing:  I am younger than you and my awards could crush you with their weight. These are authors I really, really like, but their bios are clearly written for someone other than readers.  Awards committees? (Do they need more?)

Still, there are a few awesome bios in the stack.  I was going to share my favorite lines on Twitter, but they're too long.  So here are a few of my favorites:

K.M. Grant, author of Blood Red Horse:  "K.M. Grant was born into a large family that often found itself caught up in historical events---usually on the losing side.  One of her ancestors was the last person to be executed in the Bonnie Prince Charlie Rebellion in 1746, and the travels of his head, before it was finally reunited with his body, captured her imagination as a child."

Derek Landy, author of Skulduggery Pleasant:  "As a blackbelt in Kenpo Karate, he has taught countless children how to defend themselves, in the hopes of one day building his own private munchkin army. . . The reason Derek writes his own biographical blurb is so that he can finally refer to himself in the third person without looking pompous or insane."

Brandon Sanderson, author of Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians: "Brandon Sanderson is the pen name of Alcatraz Smedry, and the actual name of a fantasy author, who is prone to bouts of delusion in literary form and has had his library card revoked on seventeen separate occasions."

Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events:  "Lemony Snicket has been chronicling the lives of the Baudelaire children with only occasional breaks for food, rest, and court-appointed sword fights.  His hobbies include nervous apprehension, increasing dread, and wondering if his enemies were right after all."

Vivian Vande Velde, author of Now You See It. . .:  "Vivian Vande Velde, like Wendy, has been traumatized with pairs of unfashionable glasses since the tender age of two.  Despite her parents' assurances that she was 'cute' in her glasses, twenty-twenty hindsight (and photographic evidence) suggests to her that their judgement may have been clouded by the oldest corrective lens there is: love. She spent her first paycheck on contact lenses."

Hmm.  Yes, I do seem to like the funny ones.  I can google book lists and awards, but I like the people who give me something more or make me laugh.

Of course, none of these bios would work for authors of academic works, but the reverse may also be true. The academic/award bio may not be the best choice for YA and Middle Grade authors.

Character Creation

This year all my kids are participating in NaNoWriMo.  Past Octobers have been crazy enough, with my older daughter asking for advice and plotting away---changing her novel ideas as often as her Halloween costumes.  This year I have three storytellers, all acting out scenes and trying out ideas on each other.

You may be scratching your head at this.  Isn't November the novel writing month?  Oh yeah. Definitely.  November is all about the writing.  That's why October is all about the planning.

If you have kids who love to write and haven't checked out the Young Writers Program (YWP) on NaNoWriMo, you really should.  YWP NaNo offers great support and young writers are allowed to set their own word goals. Fifty thousand words is a great length for adults, but kids need to start with kid-size novels.  NaNo even offers age-appropriate materials for novel planning.

That planning happens in October.  So yes, this is the time of year for the traditional hayride and visit to the pumpkin patch, but it's also the time of year for story-planning.  In practical terms, that means a weekend full of carving pumpkins and creating characters.

To assist in character creation, the kids and I made paper dolls using Carla Sonheim's directions.  We love Carla's books and often use her ideas as starting points for our art explorations.

So how did it go?  Really well!

My youngest created only a few people, but ended up expanding the physical world for her characters. She hadn't given much thought to where they lived, so we built a house for them out of a mac-and-cheese box and she told me all about their likes and dislikes.

My oldest laughed as she imagined the comments her characters would make about her imperfect drawings.  "Death hates his sweater," she told me.

And middle child?  The one who drags his feet on most school projects? He created two characters and started seeing tension between them. He doesn't have his story nailed down yet, but he has a dozen options that will work.

And me?  I realized once again how many characters I've developed in Claire's world. The exercise was a good reminder for me that my NaNo novel cannot contain all of them.  I am a visual planner, so just gazing on the available characters helps me to stay focused.

When we'd finished with our creations, we shared with each other, explaining something about each character.  After I told a bit of background about one, Littlest patted the doll on the head.    When my son described one of his possible plots, his paper figures started fighting.

Play is an amazing way to develop stories. Next week we'll incorporate costumes and role playing into our novel building---and then we'll go trick-or-treating.

Hallo-NaNo-ween is quickly becoming my favorite time of year.

Oct 20, 2012

Why Word Count Matters

Why should you care about word count?

Honestly, you shouldn't---not at first anyway.

Before you consider word count, you need to get a sense for the story you're telling.  How big is it?

It's like packing for a trip.  It's easier to decide on appropriate luggage after you know the size and scope of your adventure. Sometimes we don't have enough information to figure this out until after we've started writing.

We do this with short stories all the time.  We start with flash fiction and then realize there's no way the story is going to fit. So we decide it's a short story.  Then we decide it's a novella.  Then, finally, we realize the idea is book-size.

It can happen on a bigger scale too.  We can write a single book and realize we have enough material for a series.

Too often we let our luggage determine our destination.

We spend far too much time trying to figure out how to fit all our stuff into one, small case and then, when we're finally done, the story doesn't work anymore.  We trim to the allotted size and all the delightful banter and detail get stripped away.  Everything happens so fast that the action is hard to follow.  I've seen writers get stuck for years trying to pare down their writing when, really, it's the completely wrong approach.

Keep in mind that the opposite happens too.  Sometimes writers don't have enough story for the container, so they start adding filler.  I see this in published books far too often.  The author sends off a wonderful first book and the editor thinks it's so good that the writer gets a two- or three-book deal.

I've read the results of filler novels and I know you have too.  The first book in the trilogy is awesome.  We buy the second book, anticipating greatness, and it reads like a bridge to the third book.  The third books comes out and we don't buy it.  Instead, we flip pages in the bookstore to confirm our suspicions and sure enough:  filler all the way up to those last few chapters that could have been condensed to an epilogue for the first book. That's the published version of what happens when we let the luggage determine the destination.  It can be done, but even seasoned writers have trouble pulling it off.

Let's face it. Storytelling is a skill we learn on the job.  Most of us start out inspired by dreams and mental wandering. In the beginning, we don't know how to make up a good story that fits inside the allotted space.  Only experience will teach us---and there's the rub.  We have to write books to gain experience.

So we can just self-publish and forget all about word counts, right?


Well, we can---just not if we want readers.

Story length is based on reader expectations.

And yes, reader expectations are often shaped by the publishing industry, but that's a deeper topic about the interplay between public taste and commerce. We'd just end up talking about reality television and whether that plague has visited us because viewers want it or whether it's a car crash from which we cannot look away. We'd end up talking about violence in culture and violence in theater and then we'd have to talk about Sophocles and Batman and then we'd have to stay up late into the night drinking coffee and pacing and waving our arms.  So, for now, let's just accept that reader expectations exist.

If you are a new author and I've never heard of you, I'm not going to start reading your 250,000 word novel.  I don't care how it's published. Traditional or self-published, it's more of a commitment than I'm willing to make to an unknown writer.  It's like arranging to go on a European vacation with a blind date.  I'm not doing it.

In general, first novels should be on the short side.  And, even then, most readers are not going to take a chance unless they know the author's name or they're introduced through a friend. Reading is an intimate, time-consuming activity and first impressions matter.

The heft of the book makes a huge impression, whether it's physical weight or e-weight.

Let's say I respond to a free download offer on one of the big book sites.  I download and open the piece for the first time.  If I'm expecting something of substance and I get a ten-page story, I'm only thinking one thing:  "I'm so glad I didn't pay for this." Am I inclined to buy a later book from the author based on the fantastic writing in those ten pages?  Nope. If I'm in the mood for a novel and I get a ten-page story, I'm irritated. I probably won't read it at all.  On the other hand, if the author labels appropriately and calls it a short story, it will meet my expectations and I will be happy.

The same holds true for a book that is too long.  If I'm expecting an average-length novel and end up with a tome, it's still the blind date and the European vacation.  I don't care if it's free. It's too much of a commitment. I'm not going.

So how do you make your story fit expectations?

As you gain experience, you will develop a sense for the bigness of ideas.  You'll know that one particular tingle is book-size and another smaller tingle is a short story.  You'll know if the world you're imagining is a base camp for a series of short stories or if it can only be satisfied by a series of novels.

With enough experience, you may be able to create ideas of a particular size to fit your needs, but this is advanced novel wizardry.  You cannot attempt this until you get a feel for the size of your creative impulses.  And you can't get a real understanding of how many pages it takes to tell a story until you develop your voice.  An author with an expansive style will need much more room than an author emulating Hemingway's minimalist approach.

There are, of course, plenty of people who think they can fix this problem by prescribing write-like-Hemingway advice. My personal theory is that those people write in such a sparse style that they have words left over for telling other people exactly how they should write.

Please use caution and beware advice from anyone who tells you what your voice should be.  Growing as an author means finding the voice in you that is unlike the voice of anyone else.  Own it. Fill the page with it.  Then, since you're a new writer, figure out how much story you can fit into the allotted containers.

Word containers can be stacked.

This realization was a big deal for me.

Yes, we know that all stories are really just words stacked together to form meaning.  And each of those units of meaning gets stacked to form something bigger, right?  This is the basis for the classic five-paragraph essay.  We stack paragraphs and make them work together to create a unified essay.

Novel-writing is not so different.  We use paragraphs and dialog to create scenes. We can stack scenes together to create short stories or stack scenes into chapters and stack those to create a novel.

Basic stuff, right?

But the same thing works with story containers of a predetermined length.

Focus on the size of the story before determining the number and size of containers needed to hold it.

Harry Potter is a story packed into seven books.  Narnia requires the same number of books, but Lewis' style is more sparse than Rowling's, so the total word count is much less.  Still?  Seven books each.  Seven word containers.

So let's pick something else.  American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a one-book story of 624 pages, so probably around 156,000 words.  That's on the high side for fantasy, but Mr. Gaiman has an established readership, so this is no blind date.  The novel is composed of four parts, each of decreasing length.  The first and second parts could easily be stand-alone books in a series. The third part is the length of a novella.  The last part is the length of a short story.  To create this longer novel, Gaiman stacks: novel, novel, novella, story.  If he were a new author, he could have released the first part separately.  Heck, if he were Charles Dickens, he might have released each chapter separately.  No matter how many ways the book could be published, it would still be a series of word containers, stacked together to create unity.

Since I already mentioned Dickens, let's look at Tale of Two Cities. The book was self-published, one chapter at a time, in a weekly circular. The story itself contains three parts (Book the First, Book the Second, Book the Third).  The copy I have is 376 pages, so I'm estimating about 94,000 words.  Essentially Dickens has three stacks:  novella, novella, novella.  Each novella is composed of a stack of chapters.  Whether we read the book one chapter each week or all in one sitting, the story is the same.

So let's go back to American Gods. If a new author produced a similar work, the advice would probably be to trim words to produce an average-length novel.  An inexperienced editor might point at Gaiman's chapter structure, where he stacks short stories among the scenes.  Easy advice?  Get rid of the short stories.  The book still holds together without them, so they must be surplus, right?


Too often we ignore everything beyond a novel's most basic structural integrity.  Yes, the book would still hold together without the shorter stories, but the unified vision would be diminished without them. Trimming words is one approach, but not the best.  If pressed, I would divide the story into smaller publishing releases rather than taking a word away from the total.  Making the novel fit publishing changes the story.  Changing the container size or release schedule does not.

The Bottom Line

Tell your story in your voice and then pack your story into acceptable and appropriate-size containers.


Stack scenes into chapters.

Stack chapters into novellas.

Stack three novellas into a book.

Stack two connecting novellas and then weave the chapters together in an alternating sequence.

Stack scenes into short stories and then stack the short stories into a novel.

Use containers to tell the story you need to tell.  Do not squash your story or add unnecessary filler.  Let your adventure determine the luggage, not the other way around.

The Containers:

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America uses the following word length for their Nebula Awards:

  • Novel:  over 40,000 words

  • Novella:  17,500-40,000 words

  • Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words

  • Short Story:  under 7,500 words

For my purposes, which have nothing to do with the Nebula Award, I add another smaller container for flash fiction (under 1,000 words).

For the acceptable length of novels, I defer to those who know better and break things up by genre:

There you have it:  those are your containers.  Now write your story and start stacking.

Oct 19, 2012

The Five-Act Structure

We're delving into the world of Gustav Freytag with this one, but first some background:

The three-act structure of Aristotle dominated literary form until Horace started seeing the world in five acts.

Think about that for a minute.  Aristotle was born in Greece in 384 BC and Horace, a Roman, wrote his Ars Poetica around 18 BC.  We're talking about a big span of time. It's far too easy to condense timelines for things that happened a long time ago.

Now, because this isn't a history of literature from start to finish, jump way ahead with me to the Renaissance (from 1500 to 1642 when Puritans closed theaters).  Renaissance dramatists loved the five-act structure.  Think Shakespeare and Marlowe.  Most of us are familiar with the five-act structure.

Then 19th-century dramatists like Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen started getting adventurous again. (Yes, I did just include this picture of Ibsen because he looks awesome.  Of course I did.)

Ibsen and others started experimenting with the 3-act structure--and even (gasp!) the four-act structure.  What was the world coming to?

Enter Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, who reacted against this new trend.  In his literary criticism, Freytag explains how the five-act structure works.  From Freytag, we get the pyramid we are so often made to memorize in middle school:

But here's the big question:

How well does Freytag's Pyramid work for structuring our own novels today?

John Randall says, "No real story-teller follows Freytag's Pyramid in any sort of literal way," and yet just last year I attended a writing conference where the speaker talked at length about how essential it is to use Freytag to structure a good story.

The bottom line for me?  If it helps you, use it.  If not, don't stress about it.  Writing is more art than recipe.

Oct 16, 2012

Trailing of The Sheep, day two

Ah, the end of the trail.  Yesterday was our first day home and I spent it trying to catch up with all the basics (laundry, getting food in the house, unpacking, getting the kids back into a homeschool routine).  I also pulled together all the video I took from Trailing of the Sheep, spliced it into smaller pieces, and added a great bit of Irish music from Sláinte.

And more photos:

And one final photo, because it's fitting:

Oct 14, 2012

Trailing of The Sheep, day one

Today we completed the first leg of our trip home, stopping at Hailey, Idaho to enjoy the Trailing of The Sheep fiber festival.

Fall colors along the drive:

Anyone know the history of this old house near Arco, Idaho?

Two sheep wagons in the wild:

At the fiber festival, sheep wagons are on display:


In the evening, we went to the Ketchum Community Library for a presentation by Linda Cortright of Wild Fibers Magazine.  The venue was small, all the chairs were filled, and people lined every bit of wall space.  Linda is a passionate and funny storyteller.  I really her talk.

I also have to plug the Ketchum Community Library.  Since we were here last, they've added a Young Adult room.  An entire room!  It's so inviting and the books are displayed beautifully.  I can't imagine a better place for a teen book club to meet.

Tomorrow? The Trailing of The Sheep parade.  As a kid, I remember sheep moving past the road next to Van Buren Elementary School in Caldwell, Idaho.  We'd all rush to the fence to watch the sea of wool and I was transfixed.

The same view still mesmerizes me.

Today it is much more difficult for ranchers to move their sheep through urban areas and along busy highways.  Add to that the questionable but fast methods of processing wool in China, the difficulties of small producers getting their product into large grocery stores, and you have a way of life quickly disappearing.

I love a town that celebrates the continuation of working ranches.  It's not something to take for granted.

I'll be back tomorrow with lots of photos!

Oct 13, 2012

Yellowstone, day seven

Our day started with a two-hour drive up to Gardiner so Paul could interview Lee Whittlesey, Yellowstone Park Historian.  Mr. Whittlesey was charming and enthusiastic or, in Paul's words, "He was awesome!"

Paul has been asking some great questions about Yellowstone's beginnings.  As a homeschool mom, my response when I don't know an answer is, "Let's find out."  Usually this results in an online search or a trip to the library. This time we'd researched our hearts out and still found no answers, so my answer changed to, "Let's ask someone who knows."

Mr. Whittlesey has been studying and publishing histories about Yellowstone for thirty-five years.  He's written a dozen books and more than twice that many articles about the park.  He'd just completed a hectic conference week and still he made time for this interview.

Paul now has answers to his questions, 35 minutes of recorded material for his National History Day project, and even more enthusiasm for both Yellowstone and the study of history.

Some days I'm overwhelmed with the goodness of people.  Today is one of those days.

The rest of our last day in the park was filled with a driving and hiking along the path from Mammoth to Cooke City, Montana---and then more driving and hiking all the way back to Hebgen Lake.  It was a beautiful way to spend the last of our time here.

The Yellowstone Research Center, where Lee Whittlesey has his office.  The library and archives are also here.  This is where we spent most of day six as well, reading and scanning.

Blacktail Deer Plateau.  Yes, there are still areas of Yellowstone where you can drive out on dirt roads and not see a soul.

This petrified tree is over 35 million years old.  Early tourists chipped away at the trees for souvenirs and now just the one remains here.

Photos from Cooke City, Montana.  This is an early mining town.  The look and feel is familiar to me from other mining towns we've visited.  Less familiar: the mine reclamation work--along with the dire warning signs.

Soda Butte:

And one final picture:  an elk at Mammoth.

Today we're off to Hailey, Idaho for The Trailing of The Sheep Festival.  Yay!  If you know me at all, you know I love sheep.  :)

Oct 11, 2012

Yellowstone, day six

Day six was a research day in Gardiner, Montana.  The Yellowstone Research Library is an amazing resource and the librarians there are knowledgable and friendly.  I'm including a photo of the library from the inside, but I also like the way it was visible through the arch as we were driving into Gardiner:

Of course, any day in Yellowstone involves wildlife.  Here are two foxes we spotted in the residential area around Hebgen Lake.  The elk are plentiful all along the Madison as well as in Mammoth.

And after research?  More hiking of course, this time in and around Mammoth Hot Springs:

We're having such a great week here. Thanks so much for all your comments.  Several of you have mentioned the fat coyotes and yes! I'm used to seeing them in the spring when food is scarce and their sides are a little hollow.  They've definitely eaten well this summer.

See you tomorrow!