Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Recently a friend of mine who has read my family-saga novel recommended that I read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline; she felt it was a similar type of story, and that I'd enjoy it. She was right (good call, Rachel!), and I just couldn't resist writing a review on it.


Orphan Train is the story of Molly, a teen-aged girl living in a hostile foster home, and Vivian, a ninety-plus year-old woman who has an attic filled to the brim with eighty years of life history. When the book opens, Molly has recently stolen a beaten-up copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and has been sentenced to community service as a result; her goth style and sour attitude make it very unlikely that she'll be able to find a suitable place to work those hours in her small Maine town. She resigns herself to being thrown out of her foster home, and placed into a juvenile detention facility. 

Her boyfriend, however, has other plans, and asks his mother to pull some strings in order to get her an interview with Vivian, who needs someone to help clean out said attic. Molly is skeptical about getting the job--she's learned that life very rarely goes her way--and she doesn't really want it anyway. Spending fifty hours with a woman who's older than the hills does not sound like a fun way to spend her evenings and weekends.

Of course, she gets the job. And of course, as she helps Vivian sort through the attic, she and Vivian find they have more in common than either expected.  

Vivian is also an 'orphan' of the same type that Molly is: after a tragic fire killed the rest of Vivian's family, her mother isn't able to care for her any longer and she becomes a ward of the state. She was sent out of New York on a train with a passel of other orphans to the midwest; when they arrived, the children were given to whoever wanted them for whatever reason, with few or no questions asked. 

The bulk of the book tells Vivian's story, while Molly's situation peeps in and out; I won't give any spoilers, but will say that there are surprises waiting for them both as their journeys intertwine. 

Why I liked it

Kline does an excellent job of creating complex characters. Molly is the type of teenager that most people cross the street to steer clear of, but Kline makes her likeable, and eventually, loveable. Vivian also could have become a dark, nasty character, but Kline walks a masterful line that avoids making her just cold and damaged or pathetic and saccharine, and gets the reader rooting for her. And while both characters are victimized, she doesn't make the characters victims; this is not an easy job to pull off. 

Her story-telling is fast-paced, but still takes time to be beautiful. Her descriptions evoke emotion and a sense of place with deceptive ease, and without disrupting the pace of the story. This is a page-turner; I stayed up until 5:00 am finishing it because I couldn't put it down. And yes, I did cry--but not where I expected to cry.

I would have more of Molly's story, but I think that's just because I didn't want the book to end; in truth, her character arc is well-written, and satisfying. I also had an issue with one element of the ending (won't say more because I don't want to spoil), but that's completely selfish on my part, and had to do with my empathy for the characters rather than what was the best choice for the book! 

Will you like it?

If you like books that have a historical element to them ('orphan trains' really did exist, and children such as these really were distributed like pamphlets in the 1920s), or stories that focus on how a character develops over a lifetime, you'll enjoy this book. If you are drawn to intergenerational fiction or books about unlikely friendships, you'll also find this an enjoyable read. I'm happy to highly recommend it. 

Happy reading!

Monday, February 16, 2015

My writing goals

About a year and a half ago, I committed to finishing my novel, and to writing fiction as a broader goal. I'd been trying to write my novel while doing other things, putting it aside for months, working on it spurts, and that just wasn't working. That shouldn't have been a surprise; I never expected that sort of approach to work in any other aspect of my life, so why should it work here?

A year and a half later, I've written three books and several flash pieces, two of which have been published. The main reason I've managed to get as far as I have is that I made the change to setting concrete goals for myself, and held myself accountable.

Now things are a little more complicated. I have several projects instead of just one, and I'm at a stage where I'm facing some scary stuff, like querying agents. So, I'm taking those goals and that accountability to the next level: I'm bringing them here, where they're public and you all can hold me accountable.

Here is the current state of my projects:
Hazel-Green: Should be getting final feedback from my beta readers this week.
MMORPG: Currently revising first draft.
Accidental Divination: First draft is complete, and blissfully hibernating.
Flash pieces: I have one story waiting to be submitted.

So, here is my six-month plan:

February 2015

By the end of February I will:
1) Have a query letter ready to go out to agents.
2) Send that query letter to at least five agents I have researched.*
3) Have finished the narrative summary revision pass of MMORPG.
4) Finish submitting 'Left Overs' (flash fiction piece).

March 2015

By the end of March I will:
1) Finish the final polish on Hazel-Green, based on the beta-reader feedback.
2) Finish the remaining revision on MMORPG.

April 2015

By the end of April I will:
1) Follow up on the query letters sent at the end of February, and send out new letters as needed.**
2) Distribute MMORPG to alpha readers, and get their feedback.
3) Finish my narrative summary revision pass on Accidental Divination.

May 2015

By the end of May I will:
1) Revise MMORPG based on alpha-reader feedback.
2) Follow up on the query letters sent in April, and send out new letters as needed.

June 2015

By the end of June I will:
1) Distribute MMORPG to beta readers.
2) Create query letter for MMORG.
3) Finish the remaining revision on Accidental Divination.
4) Prepare for NaNoWriMo Camp NaNoWriMo in July.

July 2015

By the end of July I will: 
1) Distribute Accidental Divination to Alpha Readers.
2) Send query letters to at least five agents researched for MMORPG.
3) Gather feedback from beta readers for MMORPG.
4) Write 25,000+ words during Camp NaNoWriMo on my next project.

There are a couple of caveats:

*I am also considering submitting this book to Booktrope, and am waiting for feedback on that.

**If I'm super-duper lucky, maybe one of the agents will want pages, or even want to represent me! But I know rejection is far more likely, so I'm not going to count those chickens. I will be very happy to have to revise this plan if they hatch.

***I'd like to write at least 50,000 words, but am building in a bit of a safety net for anything that takes longer than I anticipate.

There it is, in black and white...I'll check in each month and let you know how it goes! I'll re-evaluate and revamp as needed. :)

Happy writing!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Do five things every day to move your writing forward

Today I thought I'd share with you one of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever read, and why I think it works. I found it about a year ago in one of Lawrence Block's books about writing; there are several, all useful, but this one snippet has been the most helpful thing I've found in them: Do five things every day to move your writing forward.

Five is alive! (Source)
What five things? Well, that's up to you. But do five things, every day, no matter how big or small.

One of those things should be writing, of course. We all know we should write every day. Another of those things should probably also be reading: how lucky are we that we're in a profession that forces us to read prolifically! Twist my arm, why don'tcha?

But the others are more flexible. Make a new connection on twitter. Read an article about writing on your favorite blog. Spend half an hour researching agents. Look for relevant pins to add to your character board on Pinterest. Have lunch with a fellow writer, to get those creative juices flowing. And so on, and so on.

Wow. Those are some awesome snacks.
They should be different things, of course. Don't write five pages of your book and declare yourself done. Don't friend five new people on twitter and go have a snack. Each of these count as one thing.

The things you do will differ depending on where you are currently--if you already have an agent, researching agents doesn't make sense. If you've just had a book published, several of these things will probably involve book promotion. Just make sure to do five, every day.

Why is this so important?

Speaking for myself, I'm the sort of person who would happily crawl into a little cozy writing cave for six months and have no contact with the human race. My significant other would throw me scraps of food and come in for a cuddle now and then, but that would be it and I'd be happy as dust on a tchotchke.

 I heard you were dead...(Source)
And when I came out of my cave, I'd have lost half of my social media contacts because everyone would have thought I'd gone all Snake Plissken. I'd have missed a ton of new books and interesting articles, which I'd be too overwhelmed to catch up on after the fact. And any interesting prompts or discussions that might have made my writing better would never have crossed my path.

I've heard of tiny living, but this is ridiculous...
I would have also lost valuable time trying to get my other projects out into the world. It takes time to get things submitted, find an agent, get a book/article/story published; we all know this. You don't just finish a piece, say 'Woohoo!', and flick the 'publish now' switch. While you're sending out those letters and working through the rejections to get to the acceptances, you should be writing your next book/article/story. These things take far too much time to do in a fully linear, non-overlapping way. At least if you want to be successful and have enough money to pay the rent.

I would have also lost valuable time building my platform, something that's becoming increasingly important for aspiring writers. Blog readers and Twitter followers don't develop over night, and they don't take kindly to being neglected for long. At least the ones that involve actual people that you actually want to connect with. Just like a plant, you can't water them only once every six months and expect them to grow.

And maybe most important of all, while I was in that cave writing, the part of my brain that thinks about all this stuff gently in the background while I work would have had no input. Yep, it's true, the brain works on problems and processes information even when we're not thinking about it. Things we've read, seen, and done recently 'prime'  concepts and knowledge in our minds, keeping it all activated and ready for use when it's needed. So when we do a variety of tasks over time, we keep our minds efficiently processing whatever particular task we're focusing on at the moment.

So try it out. Sometimes I'm not as good as other times at remembering to do all five--sometimes I only do a few, and sometimes I crap out altogether. So I've created a simple spreadsheet to jot down which things I did each day--this lets me know if I'm slacking off too much for too long, and reminds me to revisit things that I haven't touched for a while. You know how it is--'Gee, it seems like only a week since I compiled that list of prospective agents, but it's been a month! I better follow up on that.'

Thank you, Lawrence Block, for the amazing advice. So far, it has served me well, and I have every confidence it will continue to do so. Now where's my next installment of Matthew Scudder??

Happy writing,

Monday, February 2, 2015

Using Pinterest for character development and marketing

I recently made a discovery that I had to share: Pinterest is a great tool for character development.

A while back, someone in a group I'm in asked if anyone had made a Pinterest board for their books. The thought intrigued me, but I didn't run with it. Then, a few days ago, a friend mentioned she had created a Pinterest board for a character in one of her books.

But I heard her wrong, and thought she said she'd made a whole page for the character. A whole page? Like there is an actual person, who has their own actual page with their own actual boards? The idea banged around my head setting off a bunch of fireworks, and I was off and running.

See, there's a lot of advice out there about building your characters, so they aren't two dimensional. Exercises you do when you put your character in certain situations to see how they would react. Questionnaires and lists. All wonderful, and I love using them. But none of those techniques give me a legitimate reason to look through pretty pictures.

I instantly ran to Pinterest and created a page for the main character of Accidental Divination, the book I started during NaNoWriMo. I've just finished the first draft, and hope to write a sequel, so thought it would be cool to create a space where I could 'become' the main character, Semarra Rae. I spent several magical hours creating boards for her, and finding pins for those boards.

For almost any aspect of a character you can imagine, you can make a board. Of course the obvious visual things, like a 'muscle car' board or an antique jewelry board, but not just these. A home repair board for a character that flips houses. A board for tech articles for your software engineer. Even a board for gambling tips and favorite casinos for your gambling addict. No matter how strange or obscure, you can make a board for it.

In fact, if you realize you can't think of many boards for your character, that's probably a warning sign that you haven't given him/her enough dimension. Give them a few hobbies, or a few odd quirks. Maybe they love Tasmanian Devils (I know I do--don't judge). Challenge yourself to come up with a half a dozen, at least.

As you make decisions about which things you want to put on your character's board and why, you'll find yourself making decisions about them that deepen your insight into who they are, and this will show up in your writing.

But it gets even cooler.

Remember when LOST came out, and had a whole bunch of fake web pages based on the show? Pages for the Dharma Initiative, and the founders of that initiative, pages for the fake websites, etc.? Even though the fans knew these pages weren't real, they spent hours surfing them, looking for insights and clues.

You can do the same sort of thing with your character, if you create a whole page and not just a board. If you build it the way a real person would, it will give the impression the real person exists, because it's a full page with multiple boards determined by their personality. And with that, you've created a web presence for your character, and you can use this to build interest for your book:

  • Before your book comes out, use the page as a teaser. What sort of character is this? What sort of person likes these things? 
  • When the book comes out, use the page to highlight interesting aspects of your character and plot. Pin items/lists/places/events that feature in your book. Tweet them as hints to your audience. Play guessing games about how they're relevant. 
  • In between books in a series, use them to keep your reader's interest alive. Reveal things about the character that you didn't in your book, bonus aspects of who they are. Give hints to the next plot. All of this will help keep your audience engaged. 

So how do you do create a separate page for your character?

1) Create a new e-mail address to use for this purpose. 
You will need a separate e-mail address for every Pinterest page you create. But, that's not as annoying as it first seems. Gmail, for example, lets you create multiple e-mail addresses, and you can forward the mail from each one to your 'real' e-mail address, so you don't have to deal with multiple accounts. So, if your character's name is 'Sherlock Holmes', grab something like sherlockholmes@gmail, and set it to forward any mail to your main Gmail account.

2) Set up the Pinterest account associated with your new e-mail address. 
Name the page after your character in some way, preferably something that a search engine will pick up on. Here's the one I created for my character; I used her first and middle name:

Now you'll want to start adding pins...and here's where it gets a little bit tricky to have more than one Pinterest page. Let's say you're on your personal Pinterest page, and you see something that would be perfect for Sherlock's page. You don't want to have to log out and log back in as Sherlock, find the pin again, and pin it. So there are two ways you can get around this.

3A) Create a board on your personal Pinterest page for pins you want to later pin to Sherlock's board. Then have Sherlock follow this board (or all of your boards). That way, you only have to log on as Sherlock once in a while, and grab the pins you've been storing up. This is my favorite solution. I have a board on my personal page named after the book itself, for this purpose and to publicize the book if I want to do so directly from my own page.

3B) From Sherlock's page, invite your personal page to add pins to his boards.
This way, Sherlock's boards show up under your personal list of boards, and you can pin directly to them without having to switch accounts. To set this up, log into Sherlock's page. Go to the board you want to share; either open it, or click on 'edit':

Then, invite your personal page to add pins; enter the e-mail address associated with your personal board, and click 'invite':

You'll get a notification on your personal e-mail board to pin to Sherlock's boards; once you accept that, you're golden.

The reason I don't like this method as much is that when you pin to Sherlock's boards, it will say that the pin was added by your main page, not by Sherlock. If you're going for the illusion that the page is actually maintained by your character, this will interfere with the effect.

There you have it! I hope something here has been helpful; I'll report back as I learn more.

As I've been pinning things for Semarra, I've been whittling away at her character, and have been inspired on her behalf. Quite a few of the pins have started to spark potential plot points, and have helped me flesh out existing scenes. And it's been tons of fun.

And here's a parting question for you: which book character's Pinterest page would you like to be able to visit, if it existed?

Happy Monday!