Monday, April 24, 2017

What I've Learned (About Writing) From the British Baking Show

(BBC photo)

I just rewatched several seasons of the British Baking Show on Netflix. It’s comfort TV for me: lovely English grounds, accents (!), and beautiful food. And unlike most American cooking or baking shows, the contestants and the judges are actually supportive of each other. But recently I’ve been thinking of how some of the contestants acted in the competition and how that relates to writing.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Don’t self reject. In season 1, episode 4, one of the contestants flubbed his dessert. He was so angry at himself that he threw everything in the garbage or rather the “bin.” So he had nothing to show for himself during the judging—except a garbage can.

Lesson learned: I’ve had a couple times where I’ve felt like giving up on a manuscript or writing because of harsh criticism I’ve received. Thankfully, I snapped out of it. There are other ways to reject yourself too—like not sending your work out at all or not sending it to certain agents or editors because you're certain they wouldn't like your work. All of this is throwing your work away before someone even has a chance to judge read it. 

The Baked Alaska before it went in the bin. (BBC photo)

2. Don’t broadcast your mistakes to the judges (or other writers, agents, or editors). In season 2, there was a baker who constantly put herself down. At one point, the judges told her to quit telling them what was wrong with her baking before they took a bite! Despite that, this girl made it to the final three—so obviously she had a skewed view of her talents.

Lesson learned: It’s easy to put your work down when you’re handing it off to beta readers, critique partners, editors or agents. In Confidence, I talked about how I struggle with this myself. But if you put your work down (or elaborate on all your mistakes before someone reads your book), you prejudice your readers against your work. Don’t do it. Be quietly confident—confidence is not the same bragging.

Mary and Paul judging the dreaded technical challenge (BBC photo)

3. Good bakers (and writers) have style AND substance. In the second season and third season, two bakers kept getting criticized for bakes that were beautiful on the outside (fancy piping and cute themes), but tasted horrible. This is not what you want to do!

Lesson learned: It’s not just words or lovely phrases that make a book, it’s the story your book tells that makes it compelling. Purple prose and lovely metaphors will not mask plot holes. I’ve been so guilty of this at times—because I struggle with plotting, but love a good turn of phrase. 

(BBC photo)

Have you made any of these mistakes? Do you watch the British Baking Show?

Monday, April 17, 2017

MMGM: Navigating Early

I’m convinced that contrary to what people at writing workshops say, the hardest part of a book to write is the ending. I don’t know about you, but I’ve started many a book that was very promising only to fling it across the room (figuratively, of course) by the middle or the end. The worst is a book I love till the last chapter.  (And don’t get me started on those twists that make you see the whole book in a different light. These type of shocking endings don't often work.)

But then there’s a different kind of a book, a book that’s more like a slow simmer. It might start strong, it might meander, but the end is completely satisfactory, making you forget that you ever had to make yourself keep reading in parts.

That, my friends, is NAVIGATING EARLY. It was a book I loved from the beginning, had some doubts about in the middle, but was very pleased with how it ended.

The Synopsis (from Amazon):

From the author of Newbery Medal winner
Moon Over Manifest comes the odyssey-like adventure of two boys’ incredible quest on the Appalachian Trail.

When Jack Baker’s father sends him from his home in Kansas to attend a boys’ boarding school in Maine, Jack doesn’t know what to expect. Certainly not Early Auden, the strangest of boys. Early keeps to himself, reads the number pi as a story, and refuses to accept truths others take for granted. Jack, feeling lonely and out of place, connects with Early, and the two become friends.

During a break from school, the boys set out for the Appalachian Trail on a quest for a great black bear. As Jack and Early travel deeper into the mountains, they meet peculiar and dangerous characters, and they make some shocking discoveries. But their adventure is only just beginning. Will Jack’s and Early’s friendship last the journey? Can the boys make it home alive?

What I loved about this book:

1. A book with a child with autism where the autism isn’t the focus. There’s been a lot of books with characters with autism in recent years, and most of them I love. But I loved even more that Early’s autism wasn’t named, and how Jack comes to realize Early actually has feelings. This may seem like a minor thing, but I think it's a common assumption people have. Kids with autism are still kids, with dreams and goals and real emotions.

2. Early—I already mentioned him in my last point, but he has to be one of my all-time favorite characters. I loved how he listened to music on different days—and he has such fantastic taste. (Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday!) Usually I bond with the narrator, but Early was the character I sympathized with the most. He is why I kept reading.

3. Metaphors and narrative progressions—I loved how the author used Early's days of the week music, especially how Billie Holiday was for rainy days, and the whole concept of raining inside. There were other luscious and meaningful patterns and repetitions in this. Lovely.

4.  Pi! I cannot forget the main reason I picked up this book. I loved how Early saw Pi as a story, I loved the pi elements and mystery in terms of whether it stopped. (Before we read the afterword, which clearly said it was fiction, my kids and I had some interesting discussions about this.)

What more can I say? There’s adventure, boating, pirates, a murder mystery, and a story within a story. If you like character-driven novels with a lot of depth and adventure, this one’s for you!

Just for fun, I’m including a picture from our Pi celebration last month. We always make a p-i-e in honor of it. It’s on March 14 (3.14), if you’d like to celebrate next year! Come to think of it, NAVIGATING EARLY would be the perfect read for that day.

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

MMGM: Cloud and Wallfish

I am late to the party on CLOUD AND WALLFISH, although I actually read this last fall. When I picked the book up, I knew the author’s name was familiar. I’d read THE WRINKLED CROWN by her, but though that was intriguing, it doesn’t hold a candle to CLOUD AND WALLFISH. I think this is what happens when a writer really writes from the heart. Nesbit’s heart came through strong and clear in this one—and it was obvious that she knew her setting like the back of her hand.

Here’s the synopsis (from Amazon):

Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening). As Noah—now “Jonah Brown”—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.

Cloud and Wallfish

1.    Nonfiction at the end of chapters help kids understand the historical background: I thought this was an interesting way for the author to give kids background about the time period without overloading the actual story.

2.    Setting/time period I’m drawn to: As many of you know, I lived in Ukraine shortly after the Iron Curtain fell, so I could relate to so many of the oddities and situations  described in this book. I loved how it showed the propaganda against the U.S. It rang true for me on so many levels.

3.    Interesting kids: Both Jonah (Wallfish) and Claudia (Cloud) were such interesting, unique characters. Their friendship was beautifully handled and well-done. The “Cloud” scene at the end is an image that will stay for me a long time.

4.    Biblical allusions: I thought the references to the Tower of Babel and Jonah and the Whale added a lot of depth to this story, although it is not a religious book.

Caveat: The interesting thing about this book was that I expected from the first chapter that it was going to be a spy novel with lots of action, people being chased, etc.  And though spies are integral to the plot, and the stakes are high, it was really a character-driven novel about a cross-cultural friendship about what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Now, I was not disappointed at all, because I love novels about friendships and novels set during the Cold War, but if you’re looking for James Bond-type book set in Eastern Germany, you might be disappointed.

If you enjoy reading about this time period, you might also enjoy SECOND FIDDLE by Roseanne Parry, another favorite of mine, which is about an American violinist in Eastern Germany shortly after communism ended.

Have you read Cloud and Wallfish or any other novels set during the Cold War?

To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

ISWG: Confidence

I went to a pitch workshop last fall which was eye opening. It wasn’t formulaic as some of these types of workshops are. Instead, it was about being able to talk about your work, whether to a publishing professional or your best friend, in a way that makes other people interested.

The presenter kept saying, “You have to believe in your work—or no one else will.”

Now of course I know this. In my head.

But it wasn’t till I got home, processed what I learned, and started drafting a new query letter that I realized something.

I was terrified to put a certain book down as a comp title.

It’s a good book and one of my favorites. It’s one of those books I think of as “out of my league” because it’s a sort of recent classic in my genre.

I was terrified that if I used that book people might laugh and think, “Who does she think she is comparing herself to that book?”

But my book is very similar in a lot of ways and would appeal to the same audience.

As I wrote my new query letter and put that “out of my league” title at the top I thought, “Wow, that’s bold.”

But shouldn’t a query letter be bold?

And the strange thing is this boldness thing is carrying over into my writing as well. When I get feedback on my writing, it’s often the lines or even the scenes that felt risky to me that get the most positive feedback. There’s something to this being confident in your own work thing on so many levels.

What I’ve realized is that like fear, people can smell confidence. And if you have it, it shows.

I’m faking mine till I make it.

How easy is it for you to talk about your work--in a query letter or in person?

What is Insecure Writer's Support Group?

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting!

If you're looking for more ISWG posts, check out our website here.