Pushing Past Our Comfort Zone – Continuing to Learn When We Think We Know it All

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

– Socrates

I’m at that stage in my writing where I no longer feel like a complete novice. I’ve made many of the classic beginning mistakes – I fell in love with my own words whether or not what I was saying moved the story forward, I sprinkled my sentences liberally with adjectives and adverbs, and the narrative voice? We were best friends.

I’ve since moved on to the more advanced mistakes.

Like becoming a bit complacent with my craft.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that although I may now be able to whip out some excellent dialogue and show the action of a scene and insert some awesome sensory details and have great pacing and an authentic teen voice that I still have things to learn; that this is an ongoing, evolving journey that I may never truly master.

My friend and fellow critique partner Helen Newton came along just in time to remind me. She gave an excellent presentation at our Tulsa SCBWI schmooze earlier this month where she discussed novel revision techniques. One of her suggestions dealt with reading your manuscript out loud – in different ways, like in a monotone or with an accent. The purpose of this exercise was to make mistakes in your writing easier to see when you hear your words read aloud  – especially by someone else or in a different rhythm. When we become too familiar with our own work, we can miss glaring mistakes that others might see without a problem.

This reminded me of a recent story I heard on NPR about radiologists who were given films of lungs and asked to look for cancerous nodules as part of an experiment. Almost all failed

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe
Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

to notice the picture of the gorilla superimposed on the slides  because of their narrowed scope. They were looking for disease, not gorillas. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness”.

“In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.”

So did I have “inattentional blindness” in my writing? I’d heard this practice of reading one’s work aloud was a good idea before, but never before in such detail. I’d also never had the patience to try it. It was one thing to read a picture book manuscript out loud, but an entire novel? And more than once? Forget it.

But the very next week, I was preparing my submission for our upcoming OK SCBWI conference in April, and I was working on completely new manuscript. I needed some input before submitting it. There was no time to get feedback from the great and mighty dream team, my critique group, so what was I to do? I recruited some beloved family members and gave the read-aloud idea a try. I’m useless when I read my own work aloud because I stop and edit too much, hence negating the whole purpose of the exercise.

I have to admit having two different people read aloud through my pages was really helpful. They both also made helpful editorial comments when they were finished – which showed me that they’d finally learned to spare my feelings and comment from the heart. All of which kept me from sending something out that was less than stellar.

Now if I could just talk them into reading my completed YA manuscript – it’s only 350 pages. I sense a hefty bribe is in order there.

So what about you? Do you read your manuscripts out loud? Do you use a program to read it out loud for you? Do you cajole adoring family members into reading it for you? What other revising exercises do you find helpful for seeing the hidden mistakes?

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Gone, Daddy Gone, Your Love is Gone – A Postal Challenge Review

gone-girl-book-cover-homeGillian Flynn is a master of emotional manipulation. In her latest book, Gone Girl, a man comes home on his wedding anniversary to find a disturbing scene – front door open, evidence of a violent struggle, pool of blood, and a missing wife.

But is she dead or just gone?

Flynn really puts you through the wringer as she has you rallying behind the husband one minute – sure he’s being unjustly framed – and the next she has you shaking your head, wondering how he could be such an insensitive idiot.

What’s so agonizing is that for the most part, we only learn about the wife through extensive diary entries and the husband’s memories. The problem is, these two views don’t always match up.

So…who’s telling the truth? The missing wife or the imperfect husband?

Was his wife really such a raging, manipulative bitch or was she the compassionate soulmate trying to patch their life back together?  The constantly evolving views of the characters leave your head spinning until you just don’t know what or who to believe. The noose gets tighter around the husband’s neck as the evidence piles up against him. And yet you want to believe him. You want to be on his side.

And that’s when Flynn comes along and lets you rest your head on her shoulder and says, “There, there.” She has you right where she wants you.

How does Flynn get us to care for such a flawed character? Genius!

I picked up this book after an editor at the SCBWI LA conference recommended it as an excellent example of pacing. She wasn’t kidding. I lost many hours of sleep staying up reading just one more chapter.

With the fabulous diary entries, this fine read qualifies as one of my Postal Reading Challenge books.postalreadingchallenge button Learn more about this splendiferous challenge here at the Indextrious Reader’s blog. Feel free to join in if you are so inspired.

Here’s a plot summary for Gone Girl from Flynn’s website:

Marriage can be a real killer. One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn, takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong. As The Washington Post proclaimed, her work “draws you in and keeps you reading with the force of a pure but nasty addiction.” Gone Girl’s toxic mix of sharp-edged wit with deliciously chilling prose creates a nerve-fraying thriller that confounds you at every turn.

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick Dunne isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but hearing from Amy through flashbacks in her diary reveal the perky perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister Margo at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was left in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?

If you love a great psychological mystery with fantastically twisted and well developed characters, you will love this book.

Learn more about Gillian Flynn on her website here.

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop Stops By

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Welcome to the NEXT BIG THING Blog Hop.

What is a blog hop? Basically, it’s a way for readers to discover authors new to them. I hope you’ll find new-to-you authors whose works you enjoy. On this stop on the blog hop, you’ll find a bit of information on me and one of my books and links to other authors you can explore!

My gratitude to fellow author, Michelle Pierce, for inviting me to participate in this event. You can click the following links to learn more about her at The Barenaked Critic.

In this blog hop, my fellow authors and I, in our respective blogs, have answered ten questions about our current book or work-in-progress (giving you a sneak peek). We’ve also included some behind-the-scenes information about how and why we write what we write–the characters, inspirations, plotting and other choices we make. I hope you enjoy it!

Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts and questions. Here is my Next Big Thing!

1: What is the working title of your book?

Institutionalized: I’m not Crazy

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?

While in college, I worked as a mental health tech with adolescents at a psychiatric treatment center. Once there was this young girl who came in, very calm and poised, from a local small town where her father was an important business man. She claimed from day one that she didn’t need to be there – that there was nothing wrong with her. Well, she seemed so sincere and she wasn’t violent or defiant with her peers or any of the staff; nothing on the surface pointed to her needing to be there. It really made some of us wonder if maybe she was telling the truth…at least for the first few days. Then the honeymoon was over. It still got me thinking about what it would be like for someone to be locked up inside who didn’t need to be there. Apparently that thought stuck with me.

3: What genre does your book come under?

Contemporary Young Adult

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ugh! This is always such a difficult thing for me to even wrap my head around. I ‘d have to lean toward Jennifer Lawrence playing the main Winters Bonecharacter, Sara, but not so much for her role in the Hunger Game – although she looks more the part in that one, physically. I thought she was great in that, don’t get me wrong, but she was just stunning and raw in Winter’s Bone.

I don’t even want to talk about what a mortifying thing it was trying to do a search for images of a male lead to play Matt, the love interest – yes, there can be love in the psych ward. Every option I even considered, when I’d look closer at them, I’d say, “Geez, he’s so much older than I thought” – don’t know what that says about me or our culture, not in the mood to tackle it. I decided to settle on a more busted version of Zac Effron, one who’s lived a little more, had life beat him up a bit. He’s just too damn…I don’t know, Disney?

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Sara Peterson, a 16 year-old girl admitted to Whispering Sands under false pretenses, has to navigate the unfamiliar and often violent world of true deviants and sociopaths by pretending to be one so she can get back home in time to save her sister from the real psycho in the family.

6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

I hope to have my book represented by an agency. It is currently with an agent who requested the full manuscript at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference last August.

*fingers crossed*

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It took about a year and a half to get a complete draft, although the book was mostly finished long before that. I just couldn’t stop editing as I went along. From the very beginning idea – to writing those first ten pages to this last revision – it’s been about three years.

8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There are some great books set within an institutional setting that I would recommend, although mine obviously has that different slant with the sane person trapped inside. (I won’t mention the ones that got things so wrong they were laughable.) 

Funny StoryI enjoyed It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. His book is about Craig, a high-school junior in the gifted program whose infatuated with his best friend’s girl. When he realizes he’s suicidal, he checks himself into the psychiatric ward of a hospital, thinking they’ll do an observation, help him, and send him home in time for school the next day. Once in, however, he must stay for a week; the juvenile ward is being renovated, so he’s in with adults as well as a few youths. (Plot summary from IMDb.) Vizzini gives Craig a much calmer, less violent experience when he lets him stay on the adult unit, but his inner struggles and pain experienced in the book are no less complicated.impulseCvr

Another great book is Impulse by Ellen Hopkins. Impulse is about is the story of three young people whose lives intersect in a psych hospital, after separate attempted suicides. It is about the things that brought them there, but more about the bond that forms between them. (summary from author’s website.) Hopkins always has such a great connection with characters and emotion. I love her. I also think that you must read her books in hardcopy. The way her poems are laid out add to her work and it just doesn’t translate well in electronic form.

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have some very personal reasons for writing this story. It really had to be told. Seriously. The main character actually started shouting in my head – interrupting a perfectly good story I was already working on – demanding that I start telling her story instead.

So I did.

There were so many girls who came through the doors of the treatment center that broke my heart and toughened my skin to what this world sometimes holds for us, even for the young. I’ve thought about many of them over the years and hoped they made it through okay, although the odds were not in their favor.

And though this story is NOT about any of them directly, it was definitely inspired by many of them and by others closer to me.

10: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Maybe a sample of the first few pages? These are new and no one except my family – not even my critique group – has seen them. 

CAUTION: There is some strong language – this is a young adult excerpt, after all.

Before

“I am so going to that dance! Could Dad be any more controlling?” I stormed into my sister’s room. She had better lighting and a bigger closet to raid. I headed into its depths to hunt down the most rebellious dress I could find.

“C’mon, Sara, do you have to do this?” Sam’s voice came muffled and weak from behind. “You know he’s going to be pissed.”

I popped my head out and smiled. “Only if he finds out and you’re going to cover for me.”

“Uhhh…”

“It’ll be easy.” I flipped through the hangers; all of the colors smashed together, everything smelling like Sam’s vanilla body spray. “You just tell him I’ve gone to bed early, pouting and not talking to him because he’s such an asshole –.”

“Sara!”

“Okay, you don’t have to tell him those exact words. You always know what to say to him. He listens to you. Me, not so much.” I held up a red, low cut dress. Sam shook her head.

“That would fall right off you and it’s the wrong color,” she said.

“Ouch.” I tossed the dress at her and dove back into the closet. “Wrong color”. I muttered under my breath wiped sweat off my upper lip. Like Sam ever had to worry about anything being the wrong color or falling off her perfect form. Sometimes it was hard being the lanky, athletic one. I dug deeper, passing the long-sleeved conservative numbers. Sam had to have something that would fit me and make me look just a bit dangerous. This was my one night of breaking the rules; I wanted to go all the way.

“Maybe…maybe you shouldn’t go,” Sam said. She was standing right behind me in the closet, rubbing her arms like it was cold. “Do you even know this Dylan kid?”

 “Ha! You sound just like Dad. Wait …you didn’t say anything –.”

“I-I didn’t. It’s just…”

“Jesus, Sam. You’re always telling me to be strong, independent, to stand up for myself – to everyone but Dad.”

“You know how he is – very stubborn, like someone else I know.” Sam handed me a delicate lavender dress with fluffy toile, not dangerous, but pretty. “Try this one.”

“Umm, thanks.”

 “Hey, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something.” Sam was sitting on the edge of her bed.

“Yeah?” I stood in front of her full-length mirror, holding up the dress. I hated to say it, but it looked really nice. I twisted and piled my wavy black hair on my head with my free hand, imagining it an up-do sculpture of fabulousness and not it’s usual tangled mess. “Hand me some bobby pins.” I reached my hand out.

She tossed me some bobby pins and then sat back down. “I, uh…shit.” Her hands twisted in her lap.

“Jesus, it’s not about using condoms again, is it? I told you if you kept bringing that crap up – slipping them in my purse, demoing proper use on the bananas, can’t eat them for breakfast without laughing, thanks! – I was going to become a lesbian.”

 “Shut up!” Sam threw several pillows at me, laughing.

I tossed the dress aside and retaliated. Then dismissed the fluffy pillows in favor of my favorite Sam torture and grabbed her just above the knee – the most ticklish spot.

“Damn it, Sara, quit!” Man, could she buck and fight when she wanted to. Elbow to the jaw, pow! I shook my head.

“Who’s the strongest?” I grabbed for her knee again.

“Oh, my God, you are Miss Psychopath, now get off!” Sam went limp.

Victory.

“Ugh, it’s freakin hot.” I turned on her ceiling fan and flopped down on the bed next to Sam. Sweat ran down through my hairline and into my eyebrows. I’d have to take another shower before the dance. “Here, let me share.” I ran my hand across my forehead and then wiped the sweat on Sam’s leg.

“Gah! You’re so nasty.” She threw her arm over me and squished me into a Sam hug. I missed this closeness. No one ever hugged me when she was gone, forget snuggling. Sam nudged my shoulder.

“Just…take care of yourself when I’m at school, okay?”

So there you have it! Half of the first chapter of Institutionalized: I’m not Crazy.

Let me know what you think! And be sure to visit my fellow blog hoppers next week.

And now to pass on the gauntlet.

Below you will find authors who will be joining me virtually, via blog, next Wednesday. Please be sure to bookmark their sites, and add them to your calendars for updates on their upcoming books!

Happy Writing and Reading!

Stephanie Theban is one of my fantastic critique partners and she has a lovely blog at stories. read em. write em.

William Sells is a brand new writer friend who has a blog on his Goodreads author page.

And a late addition to the blog hop, but no less important, the ever fantastic Ms Cricket Muse! Please make sure you check out her site as well.

I can’t wait to see what these fantastic folks have to share with us next week.

Getting in Touch with my Austen Peeps – A Challenging Review

Some of you may have remembered that I’ve taken up a couple of challenges this year. (I first mentioned them in this post here and this one here.) Both involve reading and reviewing books with differing themes. Not such a tough thing for a lover of reading, I admit. In the end, not so much challenging as just fun and another excuse to share some great books with you. I have two reviews for you this week – one today and one this weekend.

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200For the Pride & Prejudice Bicentenniary Challenge, I wasn’t ready to tackle the original text just yet. Then I stumbled on some news about a children’s author I follow on Twitter. Then I read that she not only wrote something for adults, but that it had a Jane Austen theme. Not only that, the first book in this new series was just made into a movie. And it’s all about a woman who is totally obsessed with Pride and Prejudice and that fantastic Mr. Darcy, much to the detriment of her own love life.

Perfect!

The book?

Austenland by Shannon HaleAustenlandPB150

Here’s the plot summary:

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

And honestly, how many of us (participating in this challenge or not) can identify to some degree with a (slightly obsessive) preoccupation with Pride & Prejudice and hoping that there is a Mr. Darcy out there for us as well? Of course, I’m not saying that we would take it to Jane’s extreme, but still…

Jane is at first ecstatic to be immersed in the world of corsets and drawing rooms, but soon she finds the actors a little too spot on, feeling as if she is the fraud ruining this romantic utopia. She begins to think back on each of her failed relationships to see where they all fell short of the most perfect romance ever written. Is there really a Mr. Darcy out there for her or should she stick to her plan and get this nonsense out of her system once and for all?

Here’s a brief excerpt:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her. There was no husband, but those weren’t necessary anymore. There were boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of mutual dissatisfaction—well, that was the way of things, wasn’t it?

But Jane had a secret. By day, she bustled and luncheoned and emailed and over timed and just-in-timed, but sometimes, when she had the time to slip off her consignment store pumps and lounge on her hand-me-down sofa, she dimmed the lights, turned on her nine inch television, and acknowledged what was missing.

Sometimes, she watched Pride and Prejudice.

You know, the BBC double DVD version, starring Colin Firth as the delicious Mr. Darcy and that comely, busty English actress as the Elizabeth Bennet we had imagined all along. Jane watched and re-watched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s that zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry…Ah!

Each time, Jane’s heart banged, her skin chilled, and she clamped down on the distracting ache in her gut with a bowl of something naughty, like Cocoa Pebbles. That night she would dream of gentlemen in Abraham Lincoln hats, and then in the morning laugh at herself and toy with the idea of hauling those DVDs and all her Austen books to the second hand store.

Of course, she never did.

That pesky movie version was the culprit. Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course). But it wasn’t until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader’s imagination and into her non-fiction hopes. Stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane’s soul and made her shudder.

It was embarrassing. She didn’t really want to talk about it. So let’s move on.

Hale gives a charming, if at times uncomfortable, view of what it would feel like to actually be transported to one’s own Austenland. Be careful what you wish for, here. This book may make you question how much of your concepts of romance, what you expected to find out in the world when searching for someone to be your partner in life – the deep down ones that you never told anyone – were based on unrealistic expectations and fantasies not to be found in the real world. You may ask yourself, “Is this nagging sense of my life being incomplete that I sometimes get after reading/watching P & P from some lame lack of fulfillment or just the wistful longing that great literature can evoke?”

Of course, those stories never show the perfect romantic couples dealing with whose turn it is to take out the trash or feed the screaming baby at 2 AM either, do they?

This is a great, easy read for any hardcore Austen fan to enjoy.

Learn more about Shannon Hale and her books here.

Realistic Romantic Expectations – A Conversation with the Youngling

The post I had planned for today was very different, but after an inspiring conversation over breakfast with my daughter, this is the one in most need of an expedient sharing.

The youngest of my younglings was regaling the tale of one of her male friends, one she considers to be like a younger brother and one she has taken it upon herself to mentor in the politics of love. In the past, he has come to her for advice on many things regarding the cryptic female species and has even asked for her approval over his choice of girlfriend – mostly to check out the girlnet of information to make sure his potential love interest isn’t a “psycho” or “too clingy” – that sort of thing. Apparently this is a reciprocal arrangement.

How thoughtful.

Love ActuallyAnyway, as my daughter had firmly given her seal of approval to his current girlfriend, she proceeded in her tale about how this young man had gone to elaborate lengths to ask this same young lady to the winter formal. It was a nice story including teddy bears, balloons, notes, and favorites chocolate candies. He had obviously put in a lot of time and consideration into his plan. She commented not that she wished someone would do that for her, but that she hadn’t realized how creative this boy could be. My daughter then said he asked her for suggestions on what he should do for Valentine’s Day for his girlfriend. Even after appreciating this grand gesture he had made earlier, my daughter said sure, he should get her some chocolate or something, but if he was only showing her that he cared about her on special occasions or when it was socially required, then he was missing the point.

Wow.

I couldn’t have been prouder.

And when the hell did she learn that?

My husband then walked into the room. My daughter told him about the elaborate winter formal popping-the-question story and then asked if he had ever done something like that, made a grand gesture when asking a girl to a prom or dance.

It may have been wrong of me to laugh, but I do know my husband. Grand romantic gestures are not in his chemical makeup. I can count on one imageshand the number of times I’ve received flowers from him over the past twenty-two years. He has on occasion even forgotten my birthday. Ouch.

It is a lovely thing to be appreciated by the one you love. And that is one thing, despite what I’ve said so far, that my husband is actually fantastic at doing. Many times he has said to me, “Have I told you how much I love you, today?” or “You are my best friend.” just out of the blue because he was moved to do so. I have never felt uncertain of his feelings for me and I’m never jealous of other people. What more could one want in this world than a companion who one trusts and who really gets you?

I can’t count how often he has done little things for me without me even asking, like rubbing my neck when I’ve spent the day writing and I’m all achy or bringing me chocolate when he knows I’ve had a stressful day at home with the kids. Sure, he may also bring me some truffles on Valentine’s Day, but not because he has to, but because he knows I have a major chocolate addiction. Sometimes he’ll actually wait until the day after Valentine’s Day when the boxes of chocolate are half price. I don’t mind. I still get my chocolate fix – and maybe in a bigger box. I have come to be a huge fan of the smaller, more frequent realistic gestures of love.

May all of you have more of them in your life as well.

Happy Random Day in February!