Thursday, January 28, 2010

When the Aliens Look Down on Us, What Must They Think?

Before I get to the alien question (and the dominoes) -- Cindy Pon, accomplished fantasy author and artist, just interviewed me for The Enchanted Inkpot. She does not pull punches with her questions; the interview is here.

And now:

The first piece of awesome, via my sister, codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer... I never thought I could get so stressed out about an armadillo and some dominoes.

Second, via Laura... maybe this is what publishers should do in lieu of book trailers!

Finally -- via a couple people, most recently my pal SMJ -- have you seen this yet? This happened at a train station in Antwerp and completely surprised all the travelers waiting for trains. (It was a promotion for a TV reality show in which contestants compete to win the role of Maria in a theatrical production of The Sound of Music.)

Sometimes it breaks my heart how much I love our planet.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In Which the Blog Gets Too Serious and Is in Need of Dominoes

You talk about keeping the faith while writing -- but how do you keep going when you can see that your manuscript is a total mess? How do you keep the faith?

Well... I don't know; maybe a combination of mulishness, arrogance, and self-delusion? :o) All underrated qualities, IMO. More seriously, I keep it because I have to. I mean, what other option do I have? Giving up? Is that really an option? If I keep going, mightn't the book fail? Yeah, it really might. But if I give up, there's no longer any "might" about it -- it will fail. Sorry, but that kind of failure seems to me like the least satisfying kind of failure. If my book fails, it will NOT be because I didn't try hard enough. I'm not going down without a fight!

I get a little annoyed when I hear people talking about the inherent insecurity and low self-esteem of "the artist." Art glows with faith even in its weakest parts. At every moment, writing is an act of self-confidence -- the sheerest, most determined, most stubborn self-belief. You CAN have faith and doubt at the same time; the most insecure writer on the planet has faith that shines just as bright as her doubt, and she deserves props for that. It might be hidden deep, she might not feel it and you might not see it, but it's in there, or she wouldn't be able to write.

Give yourself permission to believe in something even as you doubt it -- because you know what? I think it's possible to believe something into being.

This blog is getting too serious. On Thursday, I promise DOMINOES!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

FAQ: Who reads your first drafts?

How do you choose your early readers -- the ones who give you helpful criticism while you're still writing and revising?

This is a really important question and is a process that can take some experimentation. Here's what I've decided I need in an early reader:
  1. A person who reads books often and intelligently.
  2. A person who is willing to tell me the hard truth.
  3. A person who, nonetheless, tells the truth with respect, i.e., delivers criticism in a way that fortifies me, NOT in a way that tears me down.
Intelligence, truth, and respect. That's what you need from an early reader. The person who doesn't read lots of books? Might not have opinions that will be of much value to you. The person who tells you that your manuscript is perfect? Is either lying, loves you too much to see the flaws, or is not the discerning reader you're looking for. The person who laughs at your work, tells you you're stupid, and suggests that you're wasting your time? I advise you to cover your ears, run away as fast as you can, and if they follow you, KICK THEM IN THE BALLS.


Here's what you need to bring to the table:
  1. You need to expect that when you hear those first comments -- especially the first time you do this -- some of them might hurt your feelings. Some might make you angry. Some might scare you and make you think that you're never going to be able to fix this book. THIS IS NORMAL. It's also temporary. Keep your mouth shut and live with your existential despair for however long it takes (hours, days). Go for long walks. Have a good cry. Dance it out. When you've rediscovered your faith in yourself, go back and review the comments. You may discover that in your absence, they have magically become accurate, helpful, and unhurtful.
  2. You need to remember that your readers' suggestions are only suggestions. If a reader suggests a change and your entire being revolts and continues to revolt, well, you don't need to make that change! You are allowed to disagree with your readers!
  3. Nonetheless, you need to take your readers' comments seriously. So, you've decided not to follow a certain suggestion because it doesn't feel right to you? --Okay, fine. But a suggestion, even one that feels crazy and bad, should ring a little warning bell in your mind. Why does your reader feel that something needs to change in this place? Is your reader picking up on something valid that isn't quite working? Something big? Something small? Is there some other change you could make that feels right to you and that addresses your reader's concern?
Some random additional thoughts:

I start out by giving my manuscripts to my sister, secret codename: Cordelia -- plus, now that I have them, my editor and my agent. I wait until I've done one or two revisions before I give it to my next round of readers. At that point, I give it to several people at once. The number of people depends on how much time I (and they) have and how much work I think the book still needs. Here's a funny thing that always happens: my readers come back to me with opposite opinions. One will love Aspect X of the book and another will hate it. One will despise Character Y and another will want to marry her. When this happens, it's awesome, because it reminds you that there is no "perfect" book. A book isn't universally right or wrong, good or bad; every book is different for every reader. And the more this happens, the more you begin to trust yourself to revise it well. In the end, you're the most important reader; you're the one who needs to decide how the book is asking to be written.

There will also be opinions that your readers have in common: Plot Point Z isn't working, because Character A is behaving in an inconsistent manner. LISTEN EXTRA HARD TO THOSE OPINIONS.

You will learn how to decide what comments to act on and what comments to ignore. You will learn by doing. You'll also learn trust -- in yourself and in your early readers. And you'll come to appreciate how critically important your chosen readers are!!

A tip: Your early readers are doing you an enormous favor. Ask nicely. Print the document out for them and tell them what kind of feedback you're looking for. ("Any kind you want to give me" is a valid request, but if they ask for more guidance than that, work with them until you're both clear.) If you want the manuscript back and they live far away, give them an envelope and return postage. Don't pressure them -- if they don't have time to do it when you need it, find someone else. Don't hover over them while they're reading. And when they're done, THANK THEM, even if you don't agree with a single one of their comments. (Which never happens.)

Goodness, this got long.

Incidentally, Cordelia may be an intelligent, honest, trustworthy first reader, but this doesn't mean that she didn't text me before my trapeze lesson to verify the location of my will.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sending my Congrats into the Ether. Also, VOTE

I watched the Youth Media Awards webcast live with a second tab open to my library account so that I could put books on hold as they were announced. Congratulations are flying around the internet, of course, and I'd like to add mine. Especially to Rebecca Stead and Francisco Stork for When You Reach Me and Marcelo in the Real World, winners of the Newbery and the Schneider, respectively, because (1) I love those books, and (2) we three share an agent, so in some silly way, I think of them as my writer siblings. Congrats to my agent, too!

A list of the award-winners is here.

My weekend rocked (you did see the the trapezing shenanigans, didn't you?), and now that things are settling down, Bitterblue is tapping and tugging. I like activity, and then I like the calm and focus that follows the activity. Time for a winter writing blitz!

One last thing: Massachusetts Democrats, get your butts out and vote for Martha Coakley today. I mean it!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

An ALA Special Report: When I Said Shenanigans, I Meant Shenanigans

See this rig?

See these authors?

Don't you think these authors should jump off that rig?

Well, anyway, they thought so.

Sarah Miller and I fly on the trapeze (S left, I right; click to enbiggen):

Sarah and I reach for the catcher.

The catcher snatches us out of thin air:

Not done yet! Here are videos (practice swings, sans the catch):

For those interested in trapeze lessons, check it out. It was SO MUCH FUN. In particular, the moment when you're flying upside-down like crazy and suddenly a swinging man appears, grabs your wrists, says, "Gotcha," pulls you off your trapeze, swings you back really far, swings you forward really far, and then flings you into the air: AMAZING.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vids, Pics, and Leserpreis Thursday

While I was on my blog break, I gathered a little pile of videos/pictures I wanted to show all of you. They don't really go together, but they don't really go with anything else I have planned, either, so I thought I'd throw them at you all at once. Ready for some randomness?

Here, via my lovely pal and fellow writer Tui Sutherland, is How to Wrap a Cat.

(When I was little, one of our cats was just that mellow. She was the World's Best Cat.)

Next up: via my pal C, Target is selling the fabulous Yay scale, designed by Marilyn Wann, author of Fat!So?: Because You Don't Have to Apologize for Your Size. Weigh yourself on this:

Next up: my favorite Itzhak Perlman segment from Sesame Street (I did warn you these were a little random, right?):

Next: my favorite dance from the most recent season of So You Think You Can Dance: Kathryn and Legacy dancing, choreographed by Stacy Tookey. I couldn't find a good quality shorter version; if you just want to see the dance, it starts at 2:20. This is one of the few dances on the show, however, that I think gains something from the viewer knowing ahead of time what it's supposed to represent -- so for those skipping all the intro stuff, I'll just explain that Kathryn is a woman, and Legacy is her fear.

Finally: a piece of mail. So, there's a German website called LovelyBooks that's a community for readers and book lovers, not unlike goodreads. LovelyBooks has a book contest called the Reader's Prize; the finalists are nominated, and the winners are chosen, by readers. My book, Die Beschenkte (that is, Graceling), won the 2009 silver medal in the category of literature! See what I got in the mail?

In case you can't read it, it says "Leserpreis 2009." All the other winners are here.

Thank you so much to my German readers -- you've touched my heart ♥!

That's all, folks. ALA Midwinter is in town this weekend. If you have a question you'd like to hear me (or Mitali Perkins, Lois Lowry, or M.T. Anderson) answer at the Horn Book booth on Saturday, go tell Roger Sutton. I have some serious authorly shenanigans planned for the long weekend (about which I will blog, should they prove blog-worthy), so my Monday post might turn into a Tuesday post.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie FAQs

Has anyone optioned Graceling and/or Fire yet?

Who would you want to play the various characters? Do you have any movie ideas?

On rare occasions, I try to picture Katsa, and usually, I fail. Sometimes, however, Zhang Ziyi springs to mind, because she can be fierce. Truth is, I'd love to see Graceling translated into a Hong Kong action movie. It would be totally different! Not just translating from book to film, and from my vision to the film director's, but from an American genre to a Hong Kong one. Could it be done? I don't know, and the story might have to change a lot, but when I watch Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I find myself thinking about it.

When I saw The New World, I was blown away by the quiet emotion of actress Q'orianka Kilcher. She could pull off Fire.

Aside from what I've said above, I have no actor ideas for my characters, and no movie ideas. To be honest, it's really hard for me to picture what my characters look like... I don't have clear looks in my mind for them. Every once in a while an actor will have the right spirit for the role, and that's when I get thinking.

Thanks to my pal D for helping me formulate my answers today.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shaking Up the Blog; an Article; a FAQ -- and Some Unputdownable Books!

So, after a lot of thought and some consultation with the wise, I've come to realize that I need to make a change on the blog. I'm so grateful to all of my readers for the enthusiasm you have for my books and my blog -- but the downside to all the wonderful discussion that happens here is that moderation of comments has becoming a consuming activity that cuts into my writing time. It's better for everyone if I spend most of my energy right now on Bitterblue -- so, NO, I'm not going to stop blogging -- but I am going to turn off comments. This is not necessarily a permanent change, it's just what I need right now to focus on my writing. I make this change with sadness!

This will be a shift for me, because I end so many of my posts with questions for you! I guess they'll tend to be hypothetical questions from now on. One nice thing about Blogger is that you can change settings on a post-by-post basis, so maybe now and then I'll have the time to open a post to comments. We'll see how it goes.

I hope you'll stick around!

Okay, enough of the blue stuff. A quick note:
The current Horn Book Magazine includes my article, "Hot Dog, Katsa!", which is an excerpt from the speech I gave at the 2009 Summer Institute at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College (my grad school alma mater). You can read it in the print magazine or online. It's about the joys and frustrations of the fantasy writing process. Check it out, and the rest of the (first full-color, ever) issue, too!


I always feel like a bad reader when I give up on books before the end. Do you ever abandon books you're reading?

Goodness, yes. Looking back over the past couple months, I can think of seven books I've abandoned. I won't name them; I don't trash books here; but I'll say that all of them came highly recommended; one of them was by an author I otherwise love; one was a highly acclaimed international bestseller. I. Just. Couldn't. Get. Into. Them. And trust me, I tried; I read at least half of most of them, even the acclaimed international bestseller, which was at least 500 pages long. But at a certain point, I always remember that I'm going to die someday. I don't have time to waste on a book I can't get myself to care about.

Also in the past couple months, I read from start to finish, unable to put down: Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh; Liar, by Justine Larbalestier; A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner; The Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo; and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. TGwtDT, in fact, was so unputdownable that at one point, when I absolutely had to tear myself away to run a critical errand, I took the book with me, so that I could go to a coffee shop after the errand and read it there rather than having to wait the 10 minutes it would have taken me to walk home.

I also read Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, which deserves special mention, because it's one of the best books I've ever read.

About the books I abandon -- I think my abandoning them is more a reflection on me than on the books. No book is for everyone. When you read, there's something you're looking for, and it's not the book's fault if it's not there; it just means you need to keep looking. (It's not your fault, either, so don't feel guilty!) Anyway, I'm very hard on books, probably because I spend the whole day tearing apart my own writing, seeing all its gazillion flaws -- so it's really hard to turn off the uber-critical eye when I turn to other people's work.

I've tried to identify a common thread in the books I abandon. I think it's a combination of not being able to get into the prose style plus the characters not feeling real to me, not being believable -- which prevents me from caring about what happens to them.

Monday, January 4, 2010

In Which I ♥ My New Year's Routine

Slovak cover of Graceling ------------>

So, one of my favorite tasks this time of year is The Changing of the Daily Planner (henceforth, ∆DP). ∆DP involves putting last year's and this year's planners side by side; going through last year's; and writing into this year's, in ink of significant colors, the things that happen every year (birthdays, bill-paying days, tax-paying days, etc.). It also involves writing into this year's planner all the plans for 2010 that I've already made.

This is partly because my daily planner is the Women Artists Datebook, which contains quotes at the bottom of every page, artwork every few pages, and poems here and there. While moving from the old planner to the new one, I get to review last year's favorite quotes and poems and peek ahead to this year's.

Today I'm going to share some of the joy of ∆DP 2010. :o)

A few favorite quotes from the old year:
... the job of the artist is not to resolve or beautify, but to hold complexities, to see and make clear. - Toi Derricotte

The facts are always less than what really happened. - Nadine Gordimer

Our parents had us so convinced we were precious that by the time I found out I was nothing, it was already too late -- I knew I was something. - Florynce Kennedy

I have great believe in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift. - Septima Clark

A favorite poem from the new year:
The Rapture

is what occurs to me, watching you
lead them towards the gondola,

the prospect of a few thin cables
dangling you like a box of kittens,

our children looking down,
a thousand feet above reliable earth,

laughing, noses mauling the icy glass,
little breath clouds that blur the view.

And when at last you are lifted
into the mountain's buried side

to where my eyes can no longer touch you,
I will sample the small dark thought

of never seeing you again,
in which case I beg to be taken -- extracted,

suddenly, preternaturally zapped away,
as if I were never here, and loved that much.

-Michelle Bitting
Feel free to share a quote, a poem, or a New Year's routine in the comments ^_^.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Meanwhile, Back at the Blog

Hello, beautiful people! I'm back. How was your December? Mine was fabulous. I've been doing a lot of traveling... and I also received two intriguing packages:

(1) My Czech and Slovak Gracelings, published by Ediposs. The Czech cover is on the right. I would tell you what Výjimečná means, except that I don't know! The Slovak title is Výnimočná. If there are any Czech or Slovak speakers out there who'd like to educate me, please feel free to leave a comment! [ETA 6:42pm: both titles are the feminine form of "someone who is phenomenal or exceptional," more or less. Thank you to Marek from Slovakia for the translations!]

(2) A super surprise from my Book Blogger Holiday Swap Swapee, Heather from Tales of a Capricious Reader!

Heather was thoughtful and did her research. Courtesy of my somewhat awkward MacBook camera, here's my loot (starting at the top and going clockwise): pens; hot chocolate; a beautiful little hand-made journal with a Paris theme (perhaps Heather knew psychically that I have events in Paris this spring?); hair ties for my ever-present pigtails; POST-IT NOTES!; an adorable little change purse with an "I ♥ books" theme (this has already gotten a compliment from the check-out person at Trader Joe's, whose first word was "book" -- we had a whole conversation about it ^_^); and, as if that weren't enough, Impossible by Nancy Werlin and Nothing but Ghosts by Beth Kephart!

Thank you, Heather :o)

So, I want to wish everyone a peaceful and thoughtful New Year. This is one of the few holidays I always feel like I can get behind, because I love that it's a time for contemplation and resolutions -- in my case, resolutions that will bring more peace to my life, such as: I will think very carefully about my priorities before I accept invitations to do appearances, and I will forgive myself when I have to say no -- because, after all, my priority this year is finishing Bitterblue, not to mention my personal life. (Um. I mean that living my personal life is one of my priorities -- not finishing it!)

What about you? Do you have a resolution you care to share? Preferably not the kind that is self-denying or self-punishing, as resolutions can sometimes be? ^_^

Happy new decade, everyone.