Friday, 28 December 2012

Writing: Things I've Learned Along the Way

Not in any particular order, but here you go:

1. Not everything is ready to be published.

I wrote and self-published four books when I was in high school. I was self-publishing before it became a trend, lol. As a young writer, I didn't really understand the true value of many drafts, revision, and editing. I've learned that it is important to push yourself and stretch your creativity, but not everything you write is going to be a bestseller let alone worthy of literary representation. Choose a project you feel passionately about and give it the TLC it deserves. It's important to know when to move on, but it's also important to know when to stick to it. There is no formula for this. It comes from within. I started Picking up the Pieces (now Podium Finish) in 2006. I self-published it in 2008. I thought it was done and I tried to move on. I've written other things, and completed college as a student athlete with A's in the process, but no matter what I did, I knew PUTP could be better, so I went through revision spurts. The manuscript today is a thousand times better than it was and is COMPLETELY different. Moral of the story: don't give up on a project you love. Other moral of the story: the other things I've written in the past few years are not ready to pitch. Four years ago, I would have self-published. Self-publishing isn't a bad thing, but I've since learned that if I wouldn't feel comfortable pitching it, it is not ready to self-publish by my standards.

2. Good ideas take time.

I have been working on PF off and on for 6 years. I'm 22. You do the math. Obviously, not all books take this long, but I've learned a great deal about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer along the way and this will be useful information when I start my next project (AKA my grad thesis, a middle grade novel.)

3. Get beta readers.

Get beta readers or critique partners. These can be people in your workshop. It can be fellow writers you meet on line. Basically, find someone who is able to critique your work objective. Obviously friends and family can be helpful, but remember they're friends and family.

4. Find the bright side in critiques.

Being told "you have an excellent writing style, but I'm not connecting to the voice" sucks, but that person is telling you a strength and a weakness. Know what you do well and know what you need to work on. Don't beat yourself up at the rejection. Confidence waxes and wanes, but don't let it break you. Find the silver lining.

5. Query strategically.

This can be anything from putting the genre in the subject line like: Query (YA Contemporary) to FOLLOWING submission guidelines. Do your research. Agents will usually say on their websites whether or not they want sample pages and whether those sample pages should be attached or embedded in the body of the email. Don't stand out because you were the one who didn't follow directions. Also, send out 5-8 queries and wait for a response. This will tell you if you have a strong query letter. Also set up an excel spreadsheet that tracks who you queried, when, and the response. There are lots of agents out there and sometimes the query process can be overwhelming. A spreadsheet is useful and free.

6. Read.

My writing has greatly improved since I started reading more. I read mostly YA because that is what I write, but make sure to read a variety. I don't write dystopian, but I've read several that I like and have learned something from. (Divergent, Legend, The Hunger Games) These books have action and emotion which can be universal. I write YA sports fiction/YA contemporary. Action and emotion are important in that genre too. I write action well, but struggle with capturing emotion. Reading how published writers handle it has helped my writing. Reading YA Contemporary has also helped when I write YA boyfriend/girlfriend relationship scenes.

7. Stay connected.

There are several great blogs with reviews and writing tips. There are also lots of giveaways and contests, so stay connected to the writing community. I entered GUTGAA and won a 30 page critique. That person has since read more of my work. I also won a $10 amazon gift card (which I used to buy a book on Kindle and an episode of Homeland--just got hooked on that show.)

8. MFA's are great, but not necessary.

I just completed my first semester of grad school. I met some wonderful friends, and I know I will miss the workshops while I'm in South Africa. (I also know I'll be doing some pretty amazing things in SA.) I wish I had applied to more grad schools. I don't know that I would have gone to a different school because UBC was my top choice, but I have recently found other schools with strong programs that I hadn't heard of and wish I had. I thought I needed to go to grad school. One because I had such a strong academic background, it was something I expected of myself and thought others expected of me. Two, I didn't think I would do well with a gap year. I now realize that I would have done fine if I hadn't gone straight to grad school. I was actually the youngest in the program--one of three 22-year-olds. That being said, I think I made the right choice. I also know I don't need an MFA to be a good writer. It's something I'm doing for me.

9. Use dropbox.

It's a lifesaver.

10. Upload your book to kindle and listen to it when editing.

I already posted about this so I won't say too much more, but I did an edit then upload my manuscript to kindle and had it read to me. I caught typos that I had missed. Me instead of my. Of instead of off. Dropped words. Extra words. Having it read aloud helped so much.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Winter YA Reads

I got my black belt on December 8th!

Before I continue, I should say I'm not a book blogger. I don't write super long, in depth reviews, but I adore people who do. That being said, I compiled a list of my favorite books from the fall a couple months ago, and, since I survived the end of the world (and if you're reading this, you did too, congrats, welcome to the club), I thought I'd do another list for winter. Most people use stars, but in honor of my black belt, I'm going to use belts. (The belts my martial art uses, so if you do another martial art and it doesn't match, that's why.)

Without further ado,

The Black Belts (equivalent to a 4.5 or 5 star rating)

Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone

**Nothing I say will do this book justice, but in case you haven't heard of it, it's a YA time travel romance. Wonderfully written and tightly crafted. It also made me add Thailand to my travel list.

The List by Siobhan Vivian

**A fantastic look at HS drama. The narrative voice was impeccable, truly getting into each of the character's heads and capturing their motivations. Also, there is a large cast of characters and each one is complex and well-developed.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

**Male narrator done really well. This book is clearly well-researched. An overall great read. (Now, go to goodreads for a real review.)

The Brown Belts (4 star rating)

Jersey Tomatoes are the Best by Maria Padian

**I adore books with female athletes in them. This book is more for the younger YA crowd, maybe 14-16 years old, but it was cute and dealt with more than just sports. It's a story of friendship, family, and body image as well. The main characters are a tennis player and a ballerina.

To Read: Bunheads by Sophie Flack (another ballet story)

Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

** I loved The List and wanted to read more by the author. This book was good, but not incredible. I related to the main character and was pleased that the writing style and complexity of the narrative voice was also present in this book, but it just didn't compare to black belt status of The List.

Legend by Marie Lu

Another wonderful dystopian-esque read. I loved Divergent and The Hunger Games. This is another good read. As a writer of contemporary YA, I think reading outside my main genre has helped my writing. Legend is told in alternating POV's and this aspect is done very well. The characters' motivations are clear. It's a great Les Mis-esque parallel. On a writing level, I grew frustrated with the eons of passive sentences that could have easily been made active. Why was this not caught in editing? I respect that it could be the author's style, but still, it was distracting. The next book in the series will be released at the end of January 2013. Looking forward to it.

Red Belts (3.5 Stae Rating)

The Dead and Buried by Kim Harrington (Had a lot of potential, but ultimately fell flat. Clean writing. Read like a horror movie, which worked well in some places and hindered it in others. The gemstone knowledge was interesting but also a major gimmick--the MC is named Jade and collects gemstones. Also, the stepmom's character was cliche. Worth finishing and an entertaining read, but not what I thought it was going to be.)

Blue Belts (3 star rating)

Spotting for Nellie by Pamela Lowell (Starts out wonderfully, but drags on and has one, maybe two too many POV characters.)

Up Next:

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King
Balancing Act by April Adams  
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

**There are a ton of amazing books being released in 2013. I can't wait. I'll update this list as the winter continues and will do another list in the spring.


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Revising Tip: Make Use of Your Kindle

While living in Vancouver, I became addicted to my Kindle. It made the 40 minute bus rides to campus much more enjoyable. There was only one problem. Reading in moving vehicles gives me wicked headaches. Luckily, most Kindle books can be read with the text-to speech function. The automated voice sometimes pronounces words phonetically, but it isn't terrible. Yes, audiobooks are better, but they are also more expensive. I've become very well-acquainted with the automated voice, and it gave me an idea for editing: adding my work-in-progress manuscript to my kindle.

I know this is not exactly a new idea. People have been able to add documents to their Kindles for years, and no, you can't edit, at least not on my model. I can't speak to the newer models.

How do you do it?

First you need to know your Kindle email address. If you're thinking what the heck is that or I don't have one, both thoughts occurred to me as well. Hit the menu button. Click settings. Go to page two. You'll find it there. It should be something like JaneDoe89_37@ You can email a file to that address, but it might cost you money. No, I don't know how much, but you can take the same email address and change to and it should still work. I did it. You will then get an email saying you have a file wait to download. I went through a variety of steps including plugging my Kindle into my computer. Somehow it worked. I synced my Kindle and my document came up. It's really not hard. I just made it harder than it needed to be, but really it was pretty easy.

Why do it?

I plugged in my headphones, turned on the text-to-speech and listened. I had already gone through one edit, but I found a few typos that I'd missed. I didn't catch them by sight, but I could hear them, so I had a pen and paper nearby and made a note so that I could fix the mistakes on my laptop. The cool thing was it read like a real book. It was just as good as the published books I'd read this fall. I know I'm biased, but doing this not only helped me to catch typos, it made my WIP seem a little more real. It reaffirmed my confidence in the book.

- Beth

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pros and Cons of NaNoWriMo

It's November which means two things. Guys will be growing out their beards for Movember or No Shave November, depending on what you want to call it. Also, hundreds, maybe even thousands of writers will attempt to write a 50,000 word manuscript in the next 30 days.

I've never attempted NaNo, but I've got some thoughts on it.

The Pros:
* It motivates people to write.
* There is a supportive community for participants.
* It is a "safe" way for aspiring writers to dive in.
* It enforces discipline (maybe too much of it and only for 30 days, but still, NaNo succeeds in getting butts in chairs.)

The Cons:
* On December 1, agents will be flooded with queries of writers wanted representation for their unedited manuscript. These queries will most likely not make it out of the slush pile. TAKE TIME TO EDIT!
* On a related note, NaNo wants quantity versus quality. In order to meet the word count, writers plug away, but don't edit, and at the end, in celebration of their hard work, these exhausted writers are eager to get their work out there, without having giving it the once over or given it to beta readers.
* People lose sleep and sort of don't have a life because they are desperately trying to meet their daily word count.

NaNo isn't all bad. I'm glad it gets people motivated to write and one could certainly argue that self-editing as one goes along can be counterproductive and NaNo doesn't really allow for this because of the need to keep writing to meet one's word count. That being said, the points about editing are also valid. Agents want manuscripts that are very close to being publishable, because publishing houses don't have the resources to spend on substantive editing the way they use to. The market has changed. Agents are now putting on the "editing" hats, so before you approach an agent, make sure your manuscript is as ready as it can be. Something you've written in 30 days, won't be ready on the 31st day.

Also, NaNo doesn't have to end once November is over, nor do you have to participate to learn something. Set reasonable word count goals. How many words do you want to write today? This week? When do you want your first draft finished? I hope to have a first draft of my WIP done by the end of the month. I'm not doing NaNo, but I'm definitely going to be writing away.

Are you doing NaNo?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Writing Quick Tip: Explore the Senses Without Saying Look or Hear

I've been toying with the idea of putting together a series of quick tips to improve one's writing. Here's the first installment. DON'T USE THE WORDS LOOK OR HEAR!

Why? You ask. Aren't writers supposed to use sensory language? The answer is yes...sort of. You want readers to be invested in your main character (MC), and that will not happen if they can't connect with the MC's emotions and perception of the world. However, saying "I looked up and saw him standing there" is a weak and repetitive sentence. If you look, you see. So what's the quick fix? "He was standing there..." Now make it stronger by describing his stance, the expression on his face, or how the sight of him impacts the narrator.

The same applies to "hear," such as "I heard the clanking of keys and the swish of the deadbolt sliding open." Rework the sentence to take out the word hear. Words like clanking and swish indicate sound, so the word hear is unnecessary.

The same rule applies to touch, smell, and taste, but these senses are less used.

On a similar note, another quick fix is to look for phrases like "I reached out and picked up." Just say "I picked up."

These are common problems in writing. Even the most experienced writers use these phrases. Sometimes it is easier, especially if you are in the groove, pounding out a first draft, but if you are in the editing phase and you use Word, do a search (ctrl F, I think. There's also an icon for it on the toolbar.)

Hope that helped! Happy writing!


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Week 21: The Next Big Thing

Happy Wednesday!

I'm participating in a game of blog tag. I was tagged by Rachele Alpine. Here's the link to her blog: Check it out and check out her upcoming novel CANARY.

So how does it work? I talk about my work-in-progress (well, one of them, haha) then tag other writers who will add this to their blog next week.

Here are the answers to the 10 questions about my WIP.

What is the working title of your book?
Podium Finish

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I've always loved sports, especially the Olympics. This idea came to me back in 2006 while watching the Torino Games.
What genre does your book fall under?
Young Adult (contemporary)  

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I'd love it if some professional athletes starred in the film. As for actors, not sure. I think Brad Pitt or George Clooney would be great for the coaches.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Harper Kavanaugh, the youngest member of Team USA women's hockey, is 7 months away from making her Olympic debut when she sustains an injury that could derail her Olympic dreams for good.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
This book was self-published under the title of Picking up the Pieces, but I hope to have it represented by an agency, as it has drastically changed since being self-pubbed in 2008. It used to have 5 main characters.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I have written several drafts since 2006, but the "first draft" took about a year and a half.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I guess I'd compare it to other great sports-themed books like the Dairy Queen Series and Chasing Jordan, though those are both about girls playing football.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I got the idea while watching the video montages during the 2006 Olympics. These montages would feature the athletes who were competing and would describe their struggles, injuries, and success. I loved watching these as much as the competition and remember thinking "these athletes would make great characters." There weren't many YA sports fiction books out at the time that were geared toward girls, so I wrote the book and haven't been able to get the idea out of my head since, hence the multiple drafts.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Harper is one of my favorite characters I've ever written. She's tomboy with a soft side. She's tough and no-nonsense, but a great friend. She also experiences her first relationship during the book.

Tag you're it!

Check out these blogs.

Brigid Gorry-Hines:

Diana Gallagher:

I can still tag 3 more people, so let me know soon if you're interested. Also, sorry that the links aren't clickable. I don't know how to do that.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Fighting Writer's Block

I've read lots of tweets lately from fellow writers venting about needing to just buckle down and write. Some said they were distracted by the internet. Others were stressing over meeting their daily word count. I think most writers go through this at some point, so how do you beat the slump? How do you make writing fun again?

1. Write the acknowledgments page for your work in progress.

This has two benefits. The first is that should your WIP be published you won't have to rack your brain for the names of all the people who helped you along the way, praying that you don't forget anyone. The other benefit is that this is something that is writing related, but not actually "writing," so if you find yourself at a loss for ideas and need a break or maybe you need a break because you have too many ideas, give this a try. It's fun and it can give you a bit of perspective, helping you to appreciate all the hard work you've put into you WIP. Hopefully, this appreciation will motivate you to finish your WIP.

2. Write out of order.

Inspiration comes at the worst times. In my case it happens when I'm on the stairmaster, dripping with sweat, with no pen or paper in sight. I'll think of a snappy bit of dialogue or a scene that belongs in the middle of the novel I just started. Write these things down. I used to tell myself I'd remember, but never did, so I rarely go anywhere without a pen or paper or my phone, so that I can write down inspiration when it strikes. So how does this relate to write out of order? I used to simply jot down my inspiration in short hand and would come back to my notes when I got to that scene, but I never used to write the scene. For some reason, I was hellbent on writing in chronological order--I think it was a fear that my writing would appear disjointed if I wrote out of order. Recently, I was stuck on the piece I was writing. I kept rewriting this one scene. It didn't feel write and I couldn't move forward. Then I had an idea for a scene that is probably 4 chapters ahead of where I was. Rather than writing shorthand notes, I decided to write the whole scene. It worked. The juices were flowing and when I was done and returned to the scene I had been working on, I was no longer stuck.

3. Do something else.

For me, it's going to the gym. See stairmaster reference in the example above. Having a separate activity that I am involved in not only serves as a release, but also helps me be more disciplined as a writer. I work best when busy, so it helps me to have to pencil in writing around other activities. I find I get more writing done on days when I have other plans than days when I have "nothing" to do.

4. Make a time card.

If you are surfing the internet too much while you are writing or maybe you just aren't making the time to sit down and write, start a time card. Writing might not be your full-time job, but if you consider writing your job rather than your hobby and treat it as such, you might be more productive. Being honest with yourself and recording how much time you are actually spending writing could make the internet less tempting. Sign in when you write. Sign out when you surf (unless it's research). Then sign back in. Having a tangible record of your time spent writing can help keep you focused. It can also show you how much time you are wasting.

5. Find a strong section in your WIP or a trunk novel.

Stuck? Feeling unmotivated? Find a section in a piece you've written that you like and reread it. It doesn't have to be a section in the piece you're working on, but it can be. I find that if I am stressing or losing faith in my project, rereading something I've written that I am proud of reminds me that I am a good writer and I can do this.

6. Outline or make a story board.

If you are stuck on a plot point, outlining can help you sort out the problem because it helps you think about the bigger picture. Story boards work the same way. They help you find your bearings when you are feeling a bit wayward.Take a step back and ask yourself the big questions. Where is this scene going? What does it reveal about my characters? Is it driving the plot forward and if not why?

These are just a few of the tricks I use when I get stuck. What works for you?


Friday, 28 September 2012

Body Parts are not Characters

Earlier this week, I read a fabulous blog post by Janice Hardy, which can be found here:

In the post, Ms. Hardy talks about writing what you mean. As I was reading the examples given in the post, I was thinking to myself  "I don't write like that." Wrong.

Sentences like "my eyes followed him to the door" might sound good in context and might even be okay if only used once or twice in a full-length manuscript, but when read alone, sentences like that sound weak.

My undergraduate adviser once told our creative writing class "to put every word on trial." Sentences work the same way. Mind you, this should happen in the revision/editing process. If you agonize over every word or every sentences as you are writing, chances are you will mess with your flow and won't get much actual writing done. For me, it is easier to tell if a paragraph is not working, but sometimes a weak sentence in a paragraph is harder to spot within my own writing.

Taking Ms. Hardy's blog post into account, I went back to the opening chapters of Borrowed Time and found that I did have sentences in which the body parts were the characters, and I noticed something, it happened almost exclusively in "love scenes." I had written sentences like "his lips met mine," "his fingers raked through my hair," and "his thumb rubbed my cheek." Technically the point is made, but when read as individual sentences outside of the context of the paragraph, they seem weak--passive. The character, in this case Trevor, the narrator's boyfriend, is doing the action, so he should be credited as such. It was an easy to make the sentences more active. "He raked his fingers through my hair" etc. I kept "our lips met" for the time being, but again, in writing what you mean, the meaning is implied, aka they kissed, but the phrasing sounds like the lips met up for coffee or something. "Love scenes" are the hardest for me to write and as it is I keep it PG-13, but that is only to be true to my narrator. (The problem is in trying to keep it age-appropriate, the writing often gets cheesy as evidenced by the above sentences. This is something I'm working on.)

Speaking of being true to the narrator, I tend to write "plot-driven" pieces. I remember my adviser once told us our characters should dictate the plot, we shouldn't dictate their actions. This was not how I worked. Wasn't I supposed to be in control? Wasn't I supposed to decide/know where the book was going? I think there is a happy medium between plot-driven and character-driven. As a writer, I like to have a blueprint for the plot. I like to know where the story is going because frankly I find I loose motivation if I don't. I don't like wayward stories. That being said, a writer should know one's characters, specifically what motivates them, what they desire, etc. I was talking to a writing friend the other day who reminded me that J.K. Rowling can tell you the complete history of any of her characters. Obviously the woman is impressive and can write, but that's what I mean. She knows her characters, and while the plot was obviously painstakingly thought out, her characters stay true to themselves and act on what motives them.

While combing through the opening chapters of Borrowed Time, I found one instance of "body parts as characters" that I immediately revised. To set the scene, Shelby has recently found out that she is being sent to boarding school. Her best friend, Adrienne throws her a going away party, but at the party no one seems genuinely sad that Shelby is leaving. In fact, at the party, Adrienne puts the moves on Trevor, which  makes Shelby want to give the party a little show ( a dance with Trevor that both he and those watching wouldn't soon forget) and then leave. There was a sentence in this section to the effect of Shelby wanting to go find the beer and get drunk but her "feet led her to the car instead." I remember when I wrote this scene I was thinking that leaving a party was not necessarily true to character. If she wanted to get drunk, why she leave. She made that choice, not her feet. However, my remedy at the time was to try to think what Shelby's character would do next. Plot-wise, I needed to get her out of the party, but what would Shelby do? Well, Shelby would call the cops and report the party to get everyone else in trouble. As I was editing earlier this week, I gave myself a little pat on the back for letting my character "act," but I cringed at the part about her feet leading to the car. I don't normally include my writing in my posts, but here's the revised scene. (A note about the reference to Trevor's brother, he is a cop.)

I wanted to get wasted, really, really wasted that night, but after I danced with Trevor, I found myself heading to my car instead of to the spiked punch or beer. I needed to get out of that party.
At least beer would help me forget that Adrienne had crossed the line, but since I was sober, I decided to return the favor and cross a line too. I grabbed my phone out of my purse and hit the emergency call button.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi, I’d like to report underage drinking at 1545 Thatcher Drive. You should send the police right away,” I said and hung up.
My guess was Trevor’s brother would give him and Adrienne the head’s up as soon as the call came into the station. The two of them would get everybody out of the house, and they’d be fine. As for those leaving who may or may not get pulled over and breathalized, well, that was my parting gift to them. 

**Hope you enjoyed that little teaser. Lesson learned this week: we might know the rules of writing, but we might not always execute them.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Fall YA Reads

I recently completed the first draft of Borrowed Time. While I was writing, I made sure to stay away from any other YA books that are narrated by someone who has died, as the second part of my manuscript is narrated by a ghost. Technically, I completed the ghost portion in early 2011 and then worked my way backward, but still, I didn't want to be influenced by other "ghost" stories, so I stayed away. Once the first draft was done, however, I was curious to see how my work compared to published works that had a ghost as a narrator.

I recently finished reading The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg. I liked the book enough that I will definitely read her future work, that being said, my opinion swayed over the course of reading the novel. I loved opening. The narrator, Brie, has just died, quite literally, from a broken heart after her boyfriend tells her he doesn't love her. As a narrator, Brie is funny, sometimes laugh out loud funny and her voice pulled me into the story. I was intrigued by the idea that Brie must go through the stages of grief. Enter Partick Darling, Brie's guide to the afterlife. Brie doesn't fall for Patrick right away, but it's obvious from the beginning that the two will end up together. (Trust me, there are enough plot twists that saying they end up together is not a spoiler.) Brie struggles to accept the fact that life must go on without her. She watches as her family falls apart and one of her best friends seemingly betrays her. Toward the end of the book, Brie realizes things are not necessarily as they seem--both the events leading up to her death and the months after. One of the things I grew frustrated with was that there seemed to be a few points where the book dragged on. Then things would seem to be wrapped up nicely. Was the book over? Nope. There were a few plots twists in the story, a couple I loved and a couple I thought the book could have done without. Still, TCHOYAM was carefully planned and well-written, one that YA lovers should check out.

I started reading Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin yesterday. I haven't finished, but so far I'm not loving it as much as TCHOYAM, probably because even though both protagonists are 15 going on 16 when they die, Brie has a voice that will resonate with readers of Upper YA, specifically ages 16-18. Elsewhere seems like it would appeal to a younger audience, maybe 13-15. Elsewhere tells the story of Liz, who has just died after being hit by a car. Liz then learns that she will live her life backward, that the dead reverse age in Elsewhere. This story is told in third person. Although the plot sounds interesting, the narration isn't as clever as Brie's. I'm trying to hold off judgment until I finish the book. Elsewhere isn't a bad read. I just don't think I fall into the target audience.

UPDATE: The first part of Elsewhere is slow, but it gets better. I did enjoy it in the end. Didn't love it, but it did get better and was a cute book. I'd recommend it for the 12-16-year-old crowd.

Another book of note is The Book Thief, which is narrated by "death." Markus Zusak has a phenomenal command of language. I read The Book Thief this summer and was completely enthralled. For me, The Book Thief is one of those books that is so powerful that it is next to impossible to describe because anything I write won't do it justice. Adults and older teens will love this book.

So what's next on my reading list?

Number one is 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma: Unfortunately, it won't be released until 2013, so I have to wait. In the meantime, I hope to get my hands on her other work,  Imaginary Girls. UPDATE: Read Imaginary Girls and wasn't a big fan. There were some great descriptions, but the plot did nothing for me. Chloe seemed way too in love with her sister. I read a sample of 17 & Gone and it seemed more interesting.

Send me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt: this will be released pretty soon, so I won't have to wait too long. UPDATE: I could not put this book down. There might have been one too many "friend fights" for my taste, but overall, this is a wonderful YA contemporary book about a high school senior who finds out she has leukemia and decides to try to keep it a secret from her best friends and boyfriend. Plus, Tiffany Schmidt seems super nice.

After You by Jessica Corra: again, not released yet, but I'm patiently waiting.

Also on the radar are:
Insurgent and Divergent by Veronica Roth
Slide by Jill Hathaway UPDATE: Read this and enjoyed it. It's a series, so I will be patiently awaiting the next book. I thought the premise was interesting. The main character "slides" into other people's bodies by coming into contact with something they've touched. Onlookers think she is a narcoleptic. Anyway, she witnesses a murder but can't exactly tell people why she knows the girl who died was murdered and didn't in fact commit suicide.
The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski
Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: This is more of a middle grade book than YA, but I think it will have crossover appeal. It's a heartwarming story of Auggie, a boy with a facial deformity, who goes to public school for the first time in fifth grade. The story switches POV, starting with Auggie, then switching to his 14-year-old sister, then his classmates.

See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles
This one was pretty good, though I'd argue the little brother's character was inaccurate at times for a three-year-old. It delves into an interesting family dynamic.

Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy
Very cute middle grade story (and great title) about a young medium who gets a little help from the great beyond to deal with tween problems like a first school dance and dealing with the school bully. A great read for the middle school aged crowd.
One for the Murphys Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Read an excerpt. Did not purchase yet.

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger
Still on my to-do list.

The List by Siobhan Vivian
Told in 3rd person POV, alternating into the heads of a full cast of characters, The List tells the story of high school girls, two from each grade, one named the prettiest, the other the ugliest. I loved this story and am reading more of Siobhan Vivian's work.

What are you reading?


Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Pros and Cons of Flashbacks

UPDATED: Thanks to all those who have commented on this post in the past week.

I will be "teaching" my Teaching Creative Writing class tomorrow. We are allowed to choose our own topics. I've decided my presentation will be about flashbacks. So, as preparation, I thought I'd test the waters with a post first.

First off: what is a flashback?

If you're a writer or even an avid movie watcher, you probably just read that question and thought "DUH," but starting a class with a definition seems pertinent. It also gets people talking :)

There are probably better definitions out there, but plain and simple, a flashback is a scene that references an event that took place prior to the occasion of the telling. If put the "present action" of the story in a frame, the flashback describes an event the took place outside the frame, prior to the starting point of the story. ***I think there could be a valid argument that flashback and reminiscence are not the same. I'd love to hear some other writers' thoughts on this. Can we say a memory is a flashback? Are all flashbacks memories? Haha, those are the type of questions I used to hate when profs would ask. Bring on the crickets.

What are the cons of a flashback?

Obviously not all stories are meant to be told in a linear fashion. However, the drawback to a flashback is that it has already happened and thus, arguably lack immediacy. Therefore, flashbacks should only be used if they reveal information about that drives the story forward. Also, flashbacks often have clunky verbage. I'll explain what I mean by that below.

What are the pros?

Flashbacks can reveal information about a character's desires, motives, emotional state. Showing a character's past sheds light on the type of person they are in the present and can help give the reader insight into the character's present actions. Therefore, an effective flashback is one that reveals information relevant to the character's present. Flashbacks can also slow the pacing of the story down if it is moving too quickly. (The con of this would be that too many flashbacks would make the story's pace too slow.) Also, flashbacks allow us to show pre-story moments in scene rather than in summation.

How to signal a flashback:

What is the tense of the first verb used in the story? This becomes the operational tense. If the story is told in past tense, then the flashback needs to be one tense removed from that--past perfect. If the story is told in the present tense, the flashback would be in the past tense. Past perfect can be clunky. Generally speaking, if the flashback is meant to be in past perfect, one should use the past perfect tense three times to signal to the reader that they are reading a flashback,  then the writer can use the past tense to streamline the verbage. One moves out of a flashback the way one enters it. If you have decided to switch to past tense in the middle of the flashback, the last three verbs of the flashback should be past perfect. This will signal that the flashback is ending and we are returning to the story's operational tense--that the flashback is over and we are continuing on with the rising action of the story. Flashbacks can also be formatted with extra white space--an additional line or two--before and after the flashback to visually illustrate that the scene is separate from the rest of the text.

Some writers chose not to write flashbacks in one tense removed from the operational tense. I'm not one who typically breaks conventions and find it annoying when I have to reread a paragraph because halfway through I realize its a flashback. I prefer the flashback to be hinted at through verb choice, but not all writers do this. All I can say is that I personally don't want my readers to be confused. I want them to be engaged, so I try my best to follow verb conventions when writing flashbacks.

**Another formatting option is to italicize the flashback.

Other types of flashbacks:
*dreams (Personally, I think dreams are overdone, especially by young writers, so I would avoid writing about a dream, but it is an option.)
*extended flashback: Flashbacks can be a paragraph, chapter, or even the majority of the text. It is possible to have a "story within a story" in which the flashback is "book-ended" by the present action.

I would also like to point out that flashbacks can be in poetry as well. A great example is the poem "Spring Rain," by Sara Teasdale.

**If anyone has any good citations for examples in fiction or nonfiction, please let me know. I know there are so many out there. (UPDATED: the Madeleine scene from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Also, The Things They Carried has flashback scenes. I've read that book three times and I can remember the flashbacks, but since I don't have a copy with me here in Vancouver I can't pull any excerpts.)

Thanks for reading. If you found this helpful or have something to add, I'd love to hear from you. Look for a post about  how "body parts are not characters" coming in the next couple days.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Thoughts on Workshop

Hi all,

Last week I promised a post after I completed my first week of grad school. I'm taking four classes this semester and love, love, love all of them, professors, classmates and all.

As of right now, I am thinking my thesis will most likely be in Children's Literature (no shocker there), but I'm also very interested in pursuing nonfiction. Luckily, I won't have to make this decision until after South Africa.

So...I had my first workshop. Overall, it went very well. I wrote a picture book/easy reader story--a feel good bedtime story is probably more accurate. The thing I love about workshop is that it gives the writer an opportunity to hear feedback and reader reactions.

For those who are unfamiliar with workshop, here's an overview. The class reads a selection provided by one or more students. We had four students submit, and each workshop took about 20 minutes. Those who are reading are encouraged to write comments in the margins of the manuscript--extensive comments. Sometimes this can be a bit tricky due to lack of space, so in my undergrad classes, we wrote workshop letters. They had to be one page, single spaced. The formula was pretty basic, but it was effective, one I would recommend to other writers who find themselves in a position to review another's work whether in workshop or otherwise. In the first paragraph, briefly summarize the piece. This can be very brief, but it is helpful for the author to have the summary in case the reader has misunderstood something about the plot. Chances are that if something didn't connect for the reader, the problem was in the text, not the reader's fault (obviously there are exceptions to this claim.) The second paragraph should offer positive feedback and should provide concrete examples. Rather than simply saying, "I like the narrator," choose a page or section that you feel best exemplifies why you like the narrator, include the reference and elaborate. Being vague helps no one. The third paragraph, or section in the case that the positive feedback needs to be divided into two paragraphs, should be suggestions for improvement. Tread lightly my friends. I've heard lots of writer's say "If you don't like something tell me." I understand this point. A workshop where everyone kisses up to one another is not productive, but it is important to remember that writing is personal, and therefore, there are polite and diplomatic ways to say what you want to say. The last paragraph should be closing thoughts, anything that did not fit above. Lastly, sign your letter. Take credit for your feedback. It's annoying to get a manuscript back with comments and not have any clue who made the comments.

Some professors lead the discussion. Others try to stay out of it. Also, some workshops are an open forum discussion, but other times we simply go around the room allowing each person the opportunity to comment.

One very important part of workshop is that the author does not speak until the very end. It can be a bit awkward sometimes to have people talking about your work right in front of you. It's also awkward to talk about someone's work while they are right there. The reason the writer remains silent is that sometimes it is tempting to be defensive or to explain, but think of it this way: if you are published, you are not going to be sitting there with every reader being able to explain your word choice or clarifying a confusing plot point. In workshop, the piece should speak for itself, even if it is an excerpt of a chapter. If the writer is too involved in the conversation, it does not allow for the other members of the workshop to discuss plot, narration, etc. However, if, as the writer, you take the time to listen and possibly take notes, you will most likely receive feedback that tells you what is and is not working in your piece. Workshops are a unique opportunity to discern how readers are reacting to your piece and if there is confusion, the other members of the workshop debate the possibilities among themselves. As with any beta readers or critique groups, workshops are helpful because they offer many other sets of fresh eyes looking at your piece.

Still, workshops cause anxiety among even the most seasoned writers.

I find it helps to remember that as a writer you are not going to agree with every reader's opinion. Some people "get" your work. Others don't. The trick is to sift through the feedback and make changes while still remain true to your voice and the integrity to the piece. The opposite is also true. You are not going to be everyone else's ideal reader. Obviously, the professor is the most likely the most accomplished person in the room and the one with the most experience. They are also the person giving the grade. I've heard lots of students talk about tailoring their work to fit their professor's preferences. I understand the temptation, but write the piece that you want to write,or better yet, write the piece you want to read. If you are trying to write for someone else, it is less fun.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Benefits of Outlining

I've read a few author interviews lately that have asked the author whether or not he or she is a planner or a pantser. What's a pantser? Someone who flies by the seat of their pants.

For me, I work in longer mediums, novellas, novels, lengthy personal essays. I struggle with short stories and poems. That being said, my ideas come to me nearly fully formed in terms of plot. I know the basic arc, the beginning, middle, and end from the get go. I've read some writers are inspired by characters first, and they let the character drive the story. I tend to write more plot-driven pieces myself, but I know my characters pretty well.

I'm a planner. Even in my non-writing life I write to-do lists or lists in general. I love schedules and concrete directions. So you'd think I'd be all about an outline for my manuscripts, right? Yes and no. My earliest works, Alive Without a Trace, Chasing Dreams, Going for the Mountain, all three written and self-published before I was 16 years old were all "pantser" projects. I didn't outline whatsoever. I wrote for the love of it, and I wrote everyday. I was a kid, naive, but I was ambitious and did not know the meaning of self-doubt. As I've grown as a writer, though, my projects have become more in depth and I've taken the revision process much more seriously. In this regard, outlining has been a marvellous tool.

For my WIP (work in progress) Borrowed Time, I started as a pantser, but then I read Bleak House by Dickens for my Oxford class. (I hated Bleak House by the way.) In our discussion, we talked about the alternating narrators and I had an epiphany. I had been telling the story from Shelby's perspective, and it was stalling. So, I decided to write it from Kiki's perspective. Kiki is a ghost. I wrote five chapters from Kiki's perspective for my Creative Writing tutorial in Oxford. I didn't find it too hard to start from Part Two, but it quickly became clear that I was referencing events in Part Two that I hadn't yet written about in Part One. I needed to outline or I'd drive myself crazy when it was time to pick up Part One again. Since the story takes place over the course of a school year, I started a new word document, made two columns, made headings for each month, and created bullet points for major plot points or quotes I wanted to remember. I also color coded it. (When I hand write outlines, I use different colored pens. It makes it easier to follow and the splash of color makes it a bit more cheerful.)

I recently finished the first draft of Borrowed Time, and as I was rereading it, I realized that I wasn't happy with how I dealt with the passage of time. I hand wrote an outline (with pink and blue pen). For each chapter, I documented the month, the conflict, the emotions, and what, if anything, needed to be fixed. This method allowed me to see that the second half of Shelby's narrative is paced faster than the first. There is also a one month jump that didn't read well, so I made a note on my outline to add a scene and divide that chapter into two separate chapters.

Outlines can be very detailed or just the bare bones. You don't need a formal structure either. My undergrad adviser had us keep a "great thoughts" notebook. The name sounds intimidating or pretentious depending on how you look at it, but basically, the point was to keep a small notebook with us and write descriptions of interesting events we saw, funny things we heard, etc. I'd tried this technique before but wasn't a fan. I'd even keep a notebook by my bed because I'd get all these ideas before falling asleep. I'd promise myself I'd remember them, but never did, so I made the effort to write them down. Thank God for iPhones. Pre-iPhone, I had to get up, turn the light on. It was a production. Inspiration struck time and time again, and I'd have to keep interrupting my sleep, so now I just use the voice recorder. Also, now that I'm juggling multiple projects, I keep a notebook in my purse so I can jot down thoughts during the 45 minute bus rides to campus. This notebook is not for a formal outline, but it does serve as an outline of sorts.

For Podium Finish, I would jot down scenes or dialogue as they'd come to me, but rather than outlining the plot, I outlined my characters. I created lists documenting everything from physical attributes, fears, desires, family, words that were specific to that character. Podium Finish is told in alternating first person point of views, and one of the toughest parts of revising was creating distinct voices. Having the lists of key words or phrases made the process easier.

I'm also thinking of expanding a short story I wrote in high school. It's roughly 20,000 words as is, spanning 5 years. I feel an outline similar to what I did for BT will be necessary to reference while I'm writing. I haven't gotten very far on this, as I'm editing BT and pitching PF to publishers, but I'm excited to dust off an old piece. The characters from the piece have stuck with me similar to the way the characters of PF are still in my head six years later. It's begging to be written, and I need to get my fingers on those keys! (I'll save motivation and my writing habits for a later post.)

Happy writing!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Some Writerly Musings

I start my grad school classes next week! I must say I'm excited to be involved in workshops again. I've had a relatively productive summer writing-wise. Podium Finish has undergone another revision and I completed the first draft of Borrowed Time. about midnight last night, when I was supposed to be getting a good night sleep before orientation, I decided I want to dust off an old story I wrote in high school and see where it takes me.

Before undergrad, I never showed my writing to anyone. It's not that I wanted to keep it a secret, but rather that I didn't understand the importance of the writing community. I had no concept of revisions, editing, or beta readers. My undergraduate courses showed me that getting feedback from others about your writing is not only necessary in order to grow as a writer, but is also fun. Criticism doesn't have to be negative, and some times it takes another person's perspective to point out areas of your work that need improvement. Do you use too much backstory? Do you have flat characters? Do you use filler words? As writers, we get set in a style, but sometimes we are blind to our own mistakes. This is why having a workshop or critique partner or beta reader comes in handy. Also, having to critique the work of your peers makes you a better writer. There were so many times in workshop when I would realize "oh, I do that too," or "man, I should try this technique."

Another great way to connect to the writing community is to read the blogs of other authors. I came across Veronica Roth's blog and loved it. I read the kindle sample of her book and am going to read it in full as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. Also, author Nova Ren Suma has some pretty interesting posts on her blog. So what's my favorite blog I've come across? The Other Side of the Story by Janice Hardy. If you're a writer looking for author interviews or tips on how to fix common writing problem, this is the place to go. If you have a finished manuscript, I recommend checking out the Gearing Up to Get an Agent contest on Deana Barnhart's blog.

That's all for now. In the coming weeks, I hope to have tabs set up for both of my manuscripts and well as my short story "Far From Home," which is available for purchase on kindle. I wrote it when I was a junior in high school. Check it out! I'll also be blogging about grad school. I wrote a children's story for my Children's Lit class. I have to hand it out on Wednesday for workshop the following week, so I'll let you know how that goes.

Have a good Labor Day weekend.


Monday, 27 August 2012

Flashier Isn't Always Better: Tips and Tricks for Preparing Your Resume

I don't have any younger siblings. I do, however, have some amazing cousins, one of whom is about to be a senior in high school. Realizing this got be thinking about the college application process and resumes. It's been 4 years since I applied to colleges, one year since I applied to grad school, but in both cases, having a well-prepared resume was crucial. So whether you're a senior in high school, a college student, or applying for your first job, here are some tips and tricks to make your resume stand out.

Where do I start?

One of the easiest tricks I found was to keep an ongoing list of activities I was involved in. This list wasn't a formal resume, but when it came time to put a formal resume together it was helpful. Sometimes it's hard to remember what you did as a freshman when you're a senior, so start early. Save the doc on your computer and update it every few months. That way, if you do need to submit a resume, for a job or college/scholarship application, you won't have to stress as much.

How do I format my resume?

Start with the header.

*The first line should be centered and include your legal name. (Elizabeth Pond, Elizabeth J. Pond, Elizabeth Jane Pond are all possible options) Your name should be in a font slightly larger than the rest of the text, try 14. You can also use a fancier font for your name. Something cursive but still legible. Choosing an easy to read font is important. You don't want your admissions representative or future boss straining to read your name and credentials.

* Beneath your name include your home address and email. (Contact info can be spread out across the page. You can even include bullet points to separate the components.) Some people choose to include phone numbers as well. Phone numbers would be more appropriate for a job resume, not one sent to a college. Your relevant contact info should be in a font size that is smaller than what you used for your name, perhaps 10. Choose a font that is simple and easy to read, such as Times New Roman or Arial. Use this font for the body of your resume as well. **Also, if your email address is something like BieberFan376 or TheNextLeBron, consider a creating a different account with a more sophisticated name. You want to stand out, but not because everyone in the admissions office is having a good chuckle about your email address.

Choose your categories.

* EDUCATION is typically the first category. If you are a high school senior, include your high school's information including the city and state. (If you have attended more than one school, include both or more school as well as the year you attended) For me it was St. Paul Catholic High School (Bristol, CT). I did not apply to any in-state schools, so it was important to include the city and state. If you are a senior in college, the same rule applies, especially if you are going to a school that is not as well known. Include your degree information. This can read written as Class of 2013 if you are a HS student or Bachelor's of Arts Degree in English, expected 2013 if you are a college student. You can also include your GPA in this section. For college resumes, it is common to have your cumulative GPA, your major GPA, and your minor GPA all listed, especially if your major GPA is higher than your cumulative GPA because this will show you have gotten good grades in your field of study. **Remember, though, your resume is not your transcript. Transcripts are also requested when you apply for higher education as well as some jobs. Your resume should tell what your transcripts can't.

* The rest of the categories depend on what the resume is going to be used for. It is okay to have more than one resume. For example, a resume for a job would highlight your work experience, but a resume for a grad school would highlight your academic background (then work experience, especially if you have done an internship in your field.) Also, if you are applying for a scholarship, highlight what qualifies you to receive that scholarship. Is it a journalism scholarship? Did you work for your school paper? That information needs to be higher up on the page. You don't want it to be overlooked because it is at the bottom of your resume. Prioritize!

Here are some possible categories. Obviously not all apply to everyone or maybe there is one that I haven't included that better fits your background. The trick is to have your most impressive, most relevant information closest to the top. If you are a high school senior, colleges want to know about your academics and extra-circulars. Grad schools, on the other hand, care more about academics and employment/internships than whether or not you played college ball or sang in the choir. **If you are applying to a creative writing MFA program, having a strong resume is great, but more weight is given to the quality of your writing sample.

ACADEMICS, SCHOLARSHIPS and AWARDS, EMPLOYMENT (or EXPERIENCE), EXTRA-CIRCULARS, ATHLETICS (sports can fall under extra-circulars, but if you want to play sports in college, for example, it would be better to have this as a separate category), SERVICE (or VOLUNTEERING) PUBLISHED WORKS.  **I've also seen resumes with REFERENCES as a category and the person will list their references contact info. This is more appropriate for a job resume. Colleges will ask for letters of recommendation to be included with your application or mailed to them directly. ***For a job resume, you can also include SKILLS such as proficient in Microsoft Excel or Office. (These might seem obvious to our generation. We live on computers, but it is still commonly included on resumes.) ****You can even include LANGUAGES SPOKEN and the level of proficiency i.e. fluent, near-native fluency, conversational fluency, proficient in reading, writing and speaking.

Okay, I've chosen my categories, now what?

This is where HS and College resumes differ. So let's tackle HS first.

You will need to include the year you did the activity and any positions you held. (For year, you can use the calendar year, or 9 for grade 9 a.k.a freshman, 10 for sophomore etc.)

Here's a quick example:

Chorus 9-12  *this indicates you did it all four years of HS
Debate Team 9,10 *only did the activity 2 years
Color Guard 9, captain 10-12 *did the activity all four years, but had a higher position for some of those years

Were you class treasurer or yearbook editor? Make sure you note the title. It shows leadership!

For college, use the calendar year. (You can use calendar year for HS too rather the grade, if you choose.) Also note the semester.

Here's a quick example:

The Profile Student Newspaper: staff reporter (fall 2008-fall 2009), associate editor (spring 2010)

Some activities might require an explanation. Maybe not so much for extra-circulars, but if you had a job or internship, you can include bullet point and give a brief description.

Such as:

Academic Peer Mentor (fall 2011-spring 2012)
* assisted first year students with creating their schedules
Writing Center Tutor (fall 2009 -spring 2012)
* worked 5 hours per week. Helped students structure essays and correct grammatical mistakes.

These explanations should be brief. Concisely explain the major points of what you did. These bullet points are especially helpful if the position you held or company you worked for is not easily recognizable. Also, avoid abbreviations of your resume. Write out titles like Academic Peer Mentor, even if it is known around campus as an APM.

How long should it be?

A resume should be one page. The reason for this is that the second page could become detached and lost in the shuffle. A resume acts as a blueprint. It gives others a sense of who you are. That being said it is important to have a neat, easy to read.understand resume, as this gives a good first impression. Also be careful what you choose to include because you will be evaluated on this information.

What if it is more than a page?

There are a couple tricks to solve this problem. Perhaps use size 10 as the font size for the body. Size 10 is still readable. Make sure your header is not taking up too much room.

Name                                                                                                    Name
Address                                                                             Address                         Email
Email          takes up room page space than

Also, check your categories to make sure that you haven't created too many. For example, if you created a category for scholarships, you might be able to put this info under academics. Also, if athletics can count as extra circulars. If you condense categories you are saving the a couple extra lines, which could make the difference when needing to fit your info on one page.

What if it isn't enough?

Don't panic. This doesn't mean you should rush out and do things just to pad your resume. Perhaps you could play with the aesthetics a bit. The body of the resume can be in size 12. Maybe your name can be in a size 16 font. Also, something to consider is that while a jam packed resume might seem impressive at first glance, it doesn't mean the person is a better candidate. Play to your strengths. Maybe you only did one or two clubs in high school, but you were the president of that club and organized events. Include that. Don't feel bad that your resume isn't as "full" as some of your peers. Maybe you couldn't do extra-circulars because you had to have a job. Having a job shows maturity too. "Full" resumes can be overwhelming. In some cases, less is more, so if you don't fill your whole page, think of it this way, you have more room to format, so when others might be trying to scrunch every last little activity in, yours will stand out because it will be easier on the eyes.

Remember, a resume is often the first impression college or employers have of you. You can tell a great deal about a person based on their resume. The activities you are involved in tell what you are interested in. The jobs you've had and positions you've held can indicate punctuality, responsibility, leadership. That being said, a putting together a polished resume is time well spent.

Sorry I wasn't able to include actual examples, but if my explanations weren't enough, and you want a visual, there are plenty of great examples out there. When I was doing my grad school resume, I found Google to be more helpful than career services.


Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Small Town Girl Taking on a Big, Big, World: Tips for Those Preparing to Study, Live or Travel Abroad

I've traveled to over 20 countries and 4 soon to be 5 continents. I studied abroad in England for a semester and now I'm living in Vancouver. These experiences have been filled with many wonderful people, places, and memories, but not everything has always gone according to plan. I've decided to put a list together of some of the tips and tricks I've learned along the way as well as some of the tips and tricks I wish I'd known. If you are planning to study, live, or travel abroad, hopefully these tips will make life a little easier for you.

Before you go:

Get all your documents in order. This includes, but is not limited to passports, visas, study or work permits, the address of where you will be staying and perhaps even directions of how to get their from the airport. Now, the first few things I listed seem obvious, but an address and map? When I was in Denmark, I told the taxi driver the name of the hotel I needed to go to. It was an English hotel name. He took me to the wrong hotel. The hotel names didn't start with the same letter. They didn't even sound alike, so it's not like he could have claimed "assonance with rhyme." I knew immediately that we were at the wrong place. He insisted we weren't, so I showed him a paper I'd printed out with the hotel name on it. Then he claimed I never told him that name, that I'd said the name of the hotel we were parked in front of. I'd never heard of this hotel. It was an English name, but it wasn't a chain like Best Western or the Hilton, something I would have actually heard of. I have many talents but rattling off random Copenhagen hotels isn't one of them. Meanwhile the meter was running. He took me to the correct hotel and by the time we got there, the fair was double what it should have been, so I didn't give him a tip. Lesson learned: show your cab driver the written address of where you want to go before you get in the cab. Also, ask how much it will be. In Lisbon, I was told it would take five minutes and cost less than 10 euro to get to my hotel (for more about this trip see my travel woes post). The cab driver saw a female travelling alone at night and decided to charge me 15 euros. He didn't go by what the fair meter in his cab said. He just made up a price. So...ask the cabbie how long it will take and about how much it will be BEFORE you get in. ****And if you have a good cabbie, tip well. When I needed a cab from the airport to my house in Vancouver, the cabbie had a bit of trouble finding the correct house. He knew we were on the correct street, so he shut off the meter, but it took another five minutes to find the house. I gave him a handsome tip, and he not only refused to leave until I was safely inside, but he also helped bring my suitcases up to the front door. I'm not saying you should flash your money around, but especially if you are a female travelling alone at night (abroad or otherwise) safety is your number one priority. Some will try to take advantage as the Portuguese cabbie did, but others will go out of their way to make sure you are fine, like the Vancouver cabbie. Had it not been the correct house, I would have been able to get back in the cab and go somewhere else, somewhere safe. That's a whole lot better than being stranded in a city you've only just arrived in.

Also in regards to documents, scan all your important documents. You'd be surprised how many times you might need a pdf of this or that, especially if you are studying abroad. Have all your documents, study permit, scholarship letters, loan info all scanned and store somewhere where you can access them easily, but also somewhere that is password protected. I'd also consider having your banking or credit card numbers on file somewhere in case your wallet is stolen. I guess you could argue that it would be equally as bad to have this information on your computer in case that is what gets stolen, not your wallet, or what if the information is in your email and it gets hacked, but it's your call. Just something to think about. There are pros and cons to having all your information in the same place, but the important thing, no matter how you choose to approach it, is to have all the necessary information with you.

Do research. My landlord has been amazing thus far. Before I moved, she told me about all the stores within walking distance and gave me the UBC bus info. Take advantage of these resources. Talk to the locals. It also doesn't hurt to do some research before you do though. Find out what activities are in the area. If you're a student studying abroad look into what clubs you might want to join. I did this in Oxford and had the opportunity to network with other creative writers as well as compete for the Oxford University Athletic Club. Plus, doing these activities is not only a way to meet new people, but also a great way to have some semblance of your life back home. If you're doing the things you love, you're less likely to be homesick.

Save up. If you can save your money before travelling abroad, DO. Again, this seems like a no brainer. If you're going on a vacation, you'd want souvenirs, right? True, travelling abroad for a vacation can be expensive and there are always little things here and there that add up, an excursion, a nice dinner, a good hotel, but when you're living abroad or studying abroad, there are other expenses: rent, groceries (which can be more expensive than in the US), a cell phone and plan, gym membership (I joined a gym in Oxford and in Vancouver. It's a must for me, but might not be to other people) and then of course there's bus passes, student fees, international student medical coverage. You can't plan for every expense ahead of time, so give yourself a cushion and be prepared to spend more on certain things than you had originally budgeted for. I house sat and was a nanny this summer before I moved. Part time jobs are a great way to earn a little extra cash and give you a little wiggle room in your budget. Plus, part time jobs are easy to come back to, so when you do return, if you find yourself strapped for cash, look into going back to these part time jobs.

Other tips for before you go:
* know the exchange rate between your currency and the local currency
* know that you may be charged an international fee when you make purchases (if you are living abroad or studying abroad for an extensive period of time, set up a bank account in your new country.)
* know that you will be charged a fee for withdrawing money from an ATM
* know that certain countries have stores that only accept MasterCard or only accept Visa. If you have a DISCOVER card, it might not work, so make sure you have a debit card handy.
* know some basic self-defense. I've already said it's important to be safe, especially if you are a female traveling alone, and I'm not just saying know some self-defense because it looks cool or because I do martial arts. I'm saying it because I believe women should know how to protect themselves. I took a self defense class in college. It's how I was introduced to Grandmaster Han's Martial Arts. Most colleges or cities offer self-defense classes at their gyms or community centers, so find one near you. A girl I went to college with approached my self-defense instructor about lessons. She knew she'd be travelling by herself in Peru and wanted a couple self-defense tips. It was finals week. The WAC (what we call our gym) was deserted except for a few other loyal gym rats, a few pre-med students trying to destress and me. My self defense instructor asked me if I would mind helping him teach this girl a few moves. (And so the calling of being a martial arts instructor began lol) Anyway, we taught her a few moves and she practiced them with me a couple times a week before leaving for Peru. I didn't actually think she would need to use what we taught her. I was wrong. When she came back from her trip, I jokingly asked her if she used self-defense. She did. She was at a party. Things turned south. She wanted to leave. A guy decided to block the one and only door. She proceeded to elbow strike his neck and kick him in the back of the knee so she could get out of there. The funny thing was as she was describing this to me, she stopped and said, "Now, I know that wasn't the exact technique you showed me." Self-defense doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't even have to be exactly how you learned it in class. It just has to work. She learned the basics and was able to use two moves to her advantage to get herself out of a precarious situation, and so I'll say it again: learn self-defense.

When you arrive:

*Explore! I went for long runs around my neighborhood the first week I was here. It was a great way to get to know the area. I also rode the bus to UBC, so I'd have an idea of how long the ride would take, and I got to see a portion of campus.

*Connect with other students. If you're studying abroad with other students from your school like I did in Oxford, go grab a bite to eat. These people might not become your lifelong best friends, but they are going through exactly what you are going through, so make those connections. If you're studying abroad and don't know anyone, orientation days are a great way to meet other new students, or you can reach out to other people in your program. I had breakfast with a second year grad student about a week ago and learned so much about the program.

*Call home. Skype, tweet, update your facebook status, whatever you do, immediately after you arrive and are settled, let friends and family know you're safe. As time passes, use the aforementioned means of communcation as a way of keeping in touch with what is going on back home and updating others about the exciting things going on in your life.

*Send postcards. Postage in Vancouver is a bit tricky. Apparently you can't just go to a Post Office and have them tell you exactly how much it will cost to send something, so I had to get creative. I bought 10 stamps at a drug store for $6.80. I had 6 postcards to send, so 4 got 2 stamps and 2 got 1 stamp. Hopefully, they will all get to their final destinations okay; if not, it's the thought that counts, right?

Those are all the tips and tricks I can think of for now. Hope that was helpful.

- Beth

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Summer 2012 Reads and Some Thoughts on Sports Fiction

What's the best book you read this summer?

For me, it was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Every once and a while I read a book and think "I wish I could write a book this good." Code Name Verity is exactly this type of book. From the beautiful and often times humorous prose, to the multiple plot twists, to the careful historical research, to the honest, emotional and down right sassy narration, this book is a great read for YA readers and adults.

So what's it about? That's a tough question without giving too much away. (I can't even tell you one of the main characters names without spoiling parts of the plot.) That being said, Code Name Verity is an engaging read with strong female characters. Find a copy at the library, a bookstore, kindle, I don't care where you get it, but you really should read this book!

The book On the Jellicoe Road came in a close second. I highly recommend that one as well.

Other notable books:

I love books about sports. Shocking I know, since one of my work-in-progress manuscripts is about the Olympics and the other is a ghost story in which the main characters are a cheerleader turned track star and a ghost (who was a track star in her own right while alive).

If you are looking for sports themed books, here are a few of the best I came across this summer.

Gold, by Chris Cleave (adult fiction)
The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen (YA fiction)
Catching Jordan, by Miranda Kenneally (YA fiction)

There is also the Dairy Queen series, which I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) last summer.

Truth be told, I'm not the best book reviewer out there. I did write a review of Gold for Goodreads that I was pretty proud of, but rather than rehashing the plot of the above three novels, which you could find anywhere, I'd like to provide a little insight into what I think makes a good sports themed novel.

So...I'm a writer and if you've looked at the about me picture on my blog you know that I can do a cartwheel (or 25 of them on the beaches of Spain, but that's another story for another day.) I was a three season varsity athlete in middle school and high school. I have 5 DIII collegiate varsity letters (1 in soccer and 4 in track and field) and I am a red belt in martial arts (hopefully I will get my brown belt in October!) Basically, I love sports.

That being said, when I was a teen, there were very few sports themed books out there and of those that were published at the time, the vast majority were geared toward boys. Title IX was passed in 1972. I remember thinking "if girls can play sports, why can't they read about them?" That thought combined with my interest in the Olympics led to Podium Finish (the Olympic themed work in progress I referenced above.)

So what makes good sports fiction? First of all, there has to be more to than plot than simply sport. Research helps too, as do character development and believable dialogue, though the last two are key to any kind of writing, not just sports fiction.

What do I mean by "more to the plot than simply sport?" Take Gold, for example. In Gold, one of the main characters, Kate, is raising a child with leukemia. The other main character, Zoe, is dealing with memories of her brother's death, which occurred when both Zoe and her brother were children. Zoe engages in some risky/reckless behavior and her friends and coach worry what will happen once the two-time gold medalist has to retire from the sport.

Gold also tackles friendship, family as well as the coach/athlete relationship which is also important in sports fiction. My favorite character in Gold Tom, the coach. Coaches play a huge role in athletes' lives, and many times what happens off the field effects practice (whether athletes and coaches want it to or not), so it is important for a coach to know his athletes well.

RESEARCH: Chris Cleave researched cycling in order to make the sports aspects of the novel more believable. I read somewhere that he even trained while writing. His descriptions of how the body feels when racing and what it feels like to be on a bike greatly benefited from this research. Cleave has a beautiful prose style as it is, but when it comes to writing about sports, athlete readers will call your bluff if you haven't done your research. We can see the importance of research in The Running Dream as well.

The Running Dream involves an up-and-coming runner who loses her leg below the knee in a bus accident. Like Cleave's novel, The Running Dream is well-researched in regards to the recovery process and how one is fitted with a prosthetic limb. These details could have been glossed over, but I'm glad they weren't. This insider knowledge adds a sense of authenticity to the novel. Also, The Running Dream highlights character development. The main character vacillates from self-pity and the desire for independence to the realization that she wants to run again and can't achieve this goal on her own. I appreciated the array of emotions. I know some writing teachers what to see nice clean-cut character change, but let's be real here, no one, especially not teenage girls, goes form emotion A to emotion B smoothly (and given the main character's situation, if she had, readers would have called the bluff; therefore, the vacillation was realistic and made the character change at the end of the novel believable). Our emotions are like little roller coaster rides. We go up and down, back and forth and at the end of it all, hopefully we've come out of the situation a better, more mature person. Without spoiling the plot, in the end, the narrator does run again, and she finds a clever way to give back to a classmate who, due to her cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and cannot run.

DIALOGUE: I said earlier that character development and believable dialogue are important to writing in general, not just sports fiction. Dialogue has to move the story forward. It has to tell us something about the character or it might as well be cut. I loved the dialogue in Catching Jordan. The scene where Jordan and Henry become parents to Jerry Rice, a mechanical baby given to them in family and consumer science class is wonderful. There is funny banter (present in that scene as well as throughout the book) that not only makes the characters themselves likable, but calls attention to their friendship. Jordan's relationship with Sam Henry reminds me of the classic writing advice "show, don't tell." We are shown what close friends they are from the onset. The dialogue helps our understanding of who these characters are. Personally, I admire the dialogue in this book because showing a friendship between characters is harder than telling about it. Novice writers tell. Experienced writers show.

As a side note, my mom teaches Family and Consumer Science and has brought the mechanical babies home a couple times. My favorite moment was her holding one up and saying "and this is my crack baby" like she was Vanna White showing off a prize. She has a fetal alcohol syndrome baby too, and for one night, a little over a year or so ago, I had three fake infant siblings. Luckily she was able to shut them off so we didn't have to do nightly feedings and diaper changes like she expected her students to. (For the record, my mom is an awesome teacher. She was Teacher of the Year in 2011.)

If you've read this far, thanks for putting up with a somewhat dry post. I hope you were motivated to read the books I referenced. In case anyone is curious about my works in progress, especially Podium Finish, I hope to put up more info about them once I get the hang of formatting my blog.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Signs You're a Grown-Up: a somewhat comical post that turned out to be very philosophical

1. Your friends from high school and college are either getting married (intentionally) or having children (not-so-intentionally).

2. The kids you babysit for have no clue how old you are. They just know you're 30? Adults have clue how old you are. They just know you're must be just about ready to start college, right? I cannot tell you how many times I've been mistaken as a 17-year-old in the past three months. I'm 22. Apparently have a baby face.

3. You don't like the taste of lemonade as much as you used to, but it fits nicely into the grad school food budget, so you buy it. (Kool-aid still tastes good, so you buy that too.)

4a. You pay bills and rent (and then proceed to complain about having to do so to your parents, who remind you that if you actually do go broke, they will help out. However, you're not broke yet. They know this, because even though you're a grown-up (perhaps legal adult is better phrasing in this case), they still have access to at least one of your bank accounts, so they can put money in if needed.
4b. You have a bank account that is entirely your own, not connected to your parents whatsoever.

5. You still think you should be going back to your undergrad institution even though you graduated. To combat this, just realize that the Class of 2016 has just moved in--you know the 17 and 18-year-olds you keep getting mistaken for.

6. Your former profs add you on facebook. Some even tell you to let them know when you're in town again because they want to take you out to lunch.

7. You work three part time jobs (or in my case, worked three part time jobs until you moved to a foreign country.)

8. You miss the cafeteria food because cooking a balanced meal for one person is hard. Also, everyone in the cafeteria knew your name, which was a plus. You also miss eating meals with your college friends. And themed days!!!! Theme days in the Hendrix cafeteria were the best.

On a more serious note, graduating and then moving to Vancouver has given me reason to reflect on my life, specfically the choices I've made and the people I've met. So here goes...

I've been asked why Canada or why creative writing? For me, it's simple. I love to write. I've been writing stories since I was five. It comes naturally and is as much a part of me as say working out is. The only difference is no one really stops to ask me why I workout everyday, sometimes twice a day, but as soon as I mention creative writing suddenly I'm not just a writer, I'm also a hippie, vegetarian, flaming liberal and all these other stereotypes that come with being a "writer." As for why Canada? UBC has a phenomenal program that has been around longer than most of the US programs. Also, most MFA programs require you to choose a genre: poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. UBC requires students to study more than one genre and it offers more genres than "the big 3." I will be studying Children's/YA and nonfiction. I will probably take a fiction course at some point as well. While I understand the benefit of specializing in one genre, in today's market, diversity is crucial. UBC's program reminds me of my liberal arts education. One of the many things I loved about Hendrix was the liberal arts format. Students were required to take one science class, one science class with a lab, a math class, a relgion or philosphy class, a foreign language class--you get the idea. Then, in the last two years of our education, we focused on the courses within our major. I loved that. I know liberal arts isn't for eveyone, but I love being able to study a broad range of subjects, so UBC seemed like the best choice. Also, over 300 students applied. Of those, the applications were narrowed down to approximately 125 and then again to roughly 22 students. I was one of the 22, and I got a scholarship. They loved my Children's/YA writing sample. That's the genre I want start my career in, so why wouldn't I go? That's the real question.

Plus being a writer has its benefits. I will never be an Olympian or a rock star, but I can write about them. Also, I can kill my characters off and not face jail time for it. :)

As for the people I've met, I made wonderful friends at Hendrix. I also met a great group of people a little over a year ago now at Grand Master Han's Martial Arts. I started because I enjoyed self-defense class and wanted an activity I could continue on with after college. (You can't throw shot put forever. However, I fully intend to try master's competitions once I'm 30+) Sometimes what you're looking for and what you find are two totally different things. I found what I was looking for. I also found something I didn't expect: a community. I've been on countless teams over the years, but when a group of girls all of the same age is fighting for starting spots, there often times isn't a sense of community present. So while I was friends with my teammates, I can't say I ever felt the community vibe. Grand Master Han's is different. You walk in and there are at least five people beaming at you as you walk in the door. They're happy you're there. Truly happy.

Martial Arts is a lot like life in some ways. Each person has their own journey, but no one goes it alone.

When I think of the groups I have been involved in over the years, not all groups offer a sense of "community." So what makes a group a community? For me, the "it factor" is a sense of family. The Hendrix community and GMHMA community are like a family to me. Now I realize that not everyone has the same definition of family, nor will every person agree that the two aforementioned groups provide a sense of family and that's fine. Hopefully those people are cherished as part of another community.

A community accepts you as who you are, and they are there for you no matter how far away you go (just like a family). You don't leave a community. I'm no longer in Conway, Arkansas, so yes, technically I've left, but you only really leave a community if you don't take what that community stands for with you (and if you don't take what it stands for with you, chances are it was a group, not a community, because a community shapes the person you are. A community positively impacts the person you've become in a way you cannot leave behind. Communities are positive. They aren't perfect, but they are a positive influence.)

I love that the Hendrix community is open-minded, accepting, and believes that learning can occur outside of the classroom. I've taken that with me. GMHMA also has tenants: the six training principles, plus the motto of never give up. I've taken those with me too. So I will repeat: you don't leave a community; you take it will you. That's the difference between a community and a group. No matter how far away you go, a community is right there with you in spirit. They've shaped the person you are and have impacted you in such a way that transcends the physical distance between you (again, like family or at least my definition of family). Communities grow. Groups don't often survive long distance relationships. Groups may stay in touch, but they go their separate ways. My high school sports teams were a group. The teams still exist. They resurrect each year with a new roster, but they are a group, not a community. We shared common interest, sport, but that's where things stopped. Communities shared a common interest as well as common ideals. You don't have to agree on everything. In addition to being next to impossible to get a large group of people to agree on everything, it would also be boring. Therefore, groups embrace what makes its members similar. Communities embrace the similarities and the differences of its members. After all, we all have our own individual journey. It just so happens that that journey is not one we walk alone.