Friday, September 23, 2016

And Now, Let Us Vote

Let's do this.

Last night, I filled out my voter registration and absentee ballot request forms. It was quick and easy, and if you live outside the US and haven't done it yet, you can do so at this website. It only took me ten minutes, and it's something we should all do.

One of my aunts asked me a couple months ago why I care so much about American politics, since I haven't lived there for my whole adult life. There's a long answer to that, and I'll get into it one day soon. But the short answer is this: First, the decisions that the American government makes affect people all over the world, including where I live; and Second, I want America to be a place that I can be proud to go home to one day. The fact that I care so much about American politics is part of the reason that I haven't lived there for my whole adult life, but I am still American. I am still of that place. I would still like to be able to call it home again.

This election, more than any other, is far too important to let ten minutes get in the way of your vote.

Have you registered yet?


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Anatomy of a Picture Book Revision

Anatomy of a Picture Book Revision

I recently needed to revise a picture book manuscript (my agent is one tough lady when it comes to making sure that everything is PERFECT before we send it out), and it was a Really. Tough. Revision. It was the kind of revision where I just felt stuck - where I simply couldn't see a way forward to a better version of that manuscript.

It got me thinking: there's a blog post in this.

Because I don't do anything the way you're supposed to.

I use the dictionary.

And the thesaurus.

And I also sketch out page spreads, even though I'm not an illustrator. (And I will never, ever show them to an editor. EVER.)

And also: coffee. (I drank the coffee. It was iced, and it was delicious.) (I guess coffee is a "supposed to do this" thing for writers. Nobody is a rebel ALL the time.)

There are authors out there who will say that no real writer needs to use a dictionary or a thesaurus, and that those are crutches, and that you're cheating by using them. But how else can you find the right words? They're not ALL in your head. I think this is especially true for picture books, where every single word counts. Where when you need a word that means something very very specific, you need that word and only that word and the page spread simply won't be right without it.

Sometimes, you won't need these things: dictionaries and charcoal. But sometimes, you might.

Sometimes doodling will unlock a new train of thought that will lead you to exactly the right words.

Sometimes poring through the thesaurus will get you thinking about words in a new way.

Sometimes you just need to ignore the guidelines and try something new. You might not use what you make, but it will point you in a better direction.

Sometimes, you need to ignore all the advice and do what works for YOU.

I totally cracked that revision that day. I sent it off to my agent with a flourish, and threw myself a mini party. YESSSS.

She told me the next day that there was a part that still wasn't quite working, and would I take another look at it?

It was the tough part. You know, the part I had thrown myself a party for? It still wasn't PERFECT.* But I knew that this time, I was on the right road.

So I got out my charcoal, and my dictionary, and my thesaurus, and I found the words.

What works for you? What's your revision process like?

*I cannot stress enough the importance of getting a good editorial agent.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Ruminations on Entitlement, Fan Culture, and Life in the 21st Century

I've seen this article about fandom and entitlement circulating on twitter, and after reading it and chewing on it for a day or two and digesting it for over a week, and after reading Maggie Stiefvater's essay on self-actualization and Classic Cars and listening to a bunch of audiobooks and watching the Olympics and taking in a whole lot of other media, I have a few thoughts.

These thoughts are primarily directed towards authors and writers and artists and creative people. If you're not one of those people, you might find this interesting anyway, but you probably won't. Either way, it's your time; invest it where you please, but consider this fair warning.

An author owes nothing to anyone, ever, except to tell a good story. And by "good story", I don't mean a happy story, or a story where everyone's favorite character gets the ending that everyone wants. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes, it's a better story if it doesn't happen.

Let me tell you a story.

A while back - it really doesn't matter when - I read a book. It doesn't matter which book. What matters is that it was a great book, and as with all great books, I found myself in its pages. Not the main character's pages, though. No - my story was not the story of fame and fortune and happy endings. Mine was the story of the sidekick who doesn't quite get there in the end. It remains to be seen whether or not this will end up being my story - I still have a pulse, so I've still got time - but when I read this particular book, that was my story, and I hadn't quite realized that truth until I saw it there, in black and white, a message from the author: This is you. This is what happens to people like you: you will leave behind not the mark that will change the world, but the smudge of a mosquito squished against the kitchen wall. Maybe. Maybe not even a smudge. Maybe less than that. Every story needs a good supporting character with a cautionary tale, and you, my dear, are it.

And I thought: This is me. Oh, shit.

Here's a thing that you and I both know: no-one wants to live through that storyline. We all live in hope that, despite our persistence in doing the same ordinary things every day, we will somehow break out of the ordinary and become extraordinary. We are all, as the saying goes, the heroes of our own stories, and we all want to live to see our inner heroes realized. We will be the ones, the narrative goes, who will fix this fucked up world we live in. The narrative is a lie. I understood, when I recognized myself in this C-list character who would never realize his inner hero, that I was not on the path that was going to lead to me realizing mine.

It was an awful feeling.

Here's another thing that I think maybe you know: readers often see books as representing the author's worldview. Sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but that's how readers see things. And readers idolize authors.

And in this stupid, screwed up world we live in, readers want to believe that their idols see the world the same way they do. I mean, think about it: we say that God created man in his image, but really, it was the other way around.

Reading that book was the beginning for me of a long, long time engaged in the act of self-reflection. I am still engaged in it. It is painful, and hard, and frightening to think that after almost four decades of doing Life, I have, quite possibly, been doing it wrong.

But - and I think you probably already know this, too - the self-reflection is the point of that book I read. Self-reflection is, I think, the point of books in general. For without self-reflection, how can we grow? How can we become better? And if we do not become better, how can we better the world around us?

Unfortunately, we do not live in an age of self-reflection.

This is the quandary: self-reflection is painful; we live in a society in which the overwhelming worldview is that pain is a thing to be avoided at all costs. We tell ourselves, and our children, that we can change the world. We want to believe that this is true. But personal growth takes effort. Achievement takes both effort and sacrifice. And yet we tell ourselves constantly that effort and sacrifice are too much to ask, and should not be necessary. Why work out every day for months when you can just get liposuction and have the whole thing done, recovery and all, in a couple of weeks? Kids staying up too late is no problem at all - instead of establishing a routine (which could take WEEKS, and deprives parents of their social life), just give them melatonin when you want them to get an early night. You want a book you can't afford? No need to save up - just download it for free. Even as we admire the Olympians, VISA runs an ad telling us that, really, we're winners anyway for picking the right credit card, and those athletes are just making life hard for themselves. And on, and on, and on. When we take this, and add the ease with which readers can communicate with authors online, and shake it all up with a dash of entitlement and a heaping spoonful of frustration, the inevitable result is a fan culture that feels not only entitled, but obliged to press upon creators.

How can Joe Blogs make his obligatory Difference To the World? How can he reconcile the command that has been handed down to him to improve upon what he has been given with the overwhelming cultural message that life is supposed to be easy?

Simple. He pesters the author. If you listen to him, GREAT - he has made a difference to the world! He can check that box. If you don't, well, he tried; it's not his fault. He'll just SHOUT LOUDER NEXT TIME.

The world is full of C-Listers. It always has been, and it always will be. From the mosquito to the mountain goat, the vast majority are destined to live out their lives quietly and pass on without notice. Most people are the definition of average, people who will not get a hero's ending - who chose wrong before they even knew they were making a choice and ended up gunned down by a false friend in a parking lot, stuck in a dead-end factory job, stuck with a dependent who will never be anything but a dependent, just plain stuck. People who find, when they put their classic car into Drive, that the engine has rusted out, and will cost more money to fix than they have available. Or maybe they realize, after driving their classic car in circles for a while, that they've been driving the wrong model. They thought, at the time they bought it, that it was the right model, but they were wrong, and now it is too late, because the purchase of this wrong car has led them to make other choices that further limit their car-driving options. Maybe they have too many kids to cram into the sporty two-seater that they now realize is their One True Classic Car, and while the Ford Edsel is nice, it's just not quite Right, but they only have the time and resources for one car, and while their kids might really enjoy the wild ride strapped to the roof of the two-seater, in the long run, that amounts to child abuse, so they stick with the Edsel, because even if it looks like a beached whale, at least it's reliable, even though maintaining it sucks up all of their time.

The world is full of people who are living lives that are "nice, but just not quite Right". They know it. They just don't know what to do about it, so they look for themselves in books and movies and TV shows and they look to see themselves getting that elusive happy ending, because if they can't get it in fiction, then where else are they supposed to get it? And they harass the creators of those books and movies and TV shows when they don't get that, because the ease of developing an online platform means that they have convinced themselves that they are all Special Snowflakes who Deserve To Be Heard.

Stephen Hawking said recently that it is urgent that humans figure out how to leave the Earth and colonize other planets, and his desperation echoes, on a larger scale, the desperation that lives in the hearts of ordinary men: the desperation that comes with the knowledge that if we do not make our mark in time, then when we die, all that we know and all that we are dies with us. All of humanity, ordinary and extraordinary, will one day disappear in a swirl of matter and anti-matter and we will be nothing but an unread footnote in the history of time. What a waste that would be of Stephen Hawking's amazing mind. And yet, it is inevitable.

All human beings struggle with this. We struggle to reconcile our need for recognition with the reality of obscurity in the grand scheme of things. Everyone just wants to know that a happy ending is possible. Very few people have any idea of how to go about finding it.

But you don't owe them that.

You just owe them a good story. You owe them the opportunity for self-reflection.

Whether they take that opportunity is up to them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Happy World Read Aloud Day, 2016!



It's World Read Aloud Day!

World Read Aloud Day is all about celebrating the power of words, and sharing the belief that everyone has the right to literacy. You can find out more about it, and find out how you can participate, on LitWorld's website.

Spreading literacy is really important to me (OBVIOUSLY), so I was really excited to be asked by my publisher to make this video, in which I read one of my favorite sections from my book, Bite Into Bloodsuckers.

I'm really excited to be able to share it with you, and I hope you all enjoy it. Happy World Read Aloud Day!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Spread the Love with BITE INTO BLOODSUCKERS Valentines!

Hey!

So, I didn't post last week. I was taken hostage by an alien invader, and I basically slept through the latter portion of the week.*

Sorry about that. You'll get two posts this week, to make up for it!

In the meantime, I've been busy making a SURPRISE for you! Valentine's Day is in four short days, and if you're anything like me, you still don't have any valentines to give anybody. If you have kids and you're anything like me, your kids don't have valentines to give out at their class party, either.

Come on, admit it. You've all done this at least once.

But you don't have to worry, because I've been there, and I've got your back this year. I made some super cute bug doodles and bat doodles FOR YOU, FOR FREE, just because I wanted to do something nice as a way of thanking everyone for all the BLOODSUCKER love. Scissors and sharpies were involved. It was quite the process.

PROCESS.
Also, hey, look, my office is real!
Here's a photo of one of them, when it was alllllmost finished:

Isn't he cute?
All bats are boys to me. Especially the pink and purple ones.

So anyway, these are here, for everyone to download and print. For free! Thanks for being awesome.

Just click here for the high res version, or click here for the low res version.

And if you're interested in my process, let me know in the comments and I'll post about that (with more photos) later in the week!

Happy Valentine's Day!

*Viruses are aliens, too. Especially when they're inside you.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Forward: Worlds of Ink and Shadow, by Lena Coakley, AND A GIVEAWAY!!

Once upon a time, many moons ago, a budding novelist (that's me) sat in a critique group at a writers' conference in Niagara Falls and listened to a passage that left her feeling awed, slightly inadequate, and a weeny bit jealous.

That the passage was one which was put forward for critique, and therefore considered by its author to be somehow lacking or Not Quite Right, left the budding novelist feeling even more inadequate and jealous. But mostly, awed.

The author of said passage was Lena Coakley, and the passage - which did not quite make it into the final draft - was a magical beginning, that grew into an even more magical book: Worlds of Ink and Shadow.

Look at all the Pretties...

I have been waiting so long for this book to be born. I am so excited to have finally gotten it into my hot little hands.

SCORE.

Worlds of Ink and Shadow is an historical fantasy that, as anyone familiar with Coakley's previous novel Witchlanders would expect, accomplishes many things at once. At its surface, serves as an origin story of the Bronte family, and a most magical and mysterious one at that. Coakley makes every one of the four siblings - Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne - live and breathe and shine in this novel that takes each of their points of view in turn. The way she seamlessly slips from one point of view to the next, always showing exactly what the reader needs to see, is masterful. Additionally, the blending of fantasy with reality - the way in which a tale about siblings who can cross over into their invented worlds is interwoven with the tale of four siblings who achieved literary greatness in our world - is a literary accomplishment worthy of the Brontes themselves.

But this novel is so much more than that. As Coakley weaves the story of the literary beginnings of this famous family, she also spins the story of every author, capturing the simultaneous joy and anguish of creating entire worlds, the fervent wish that those worlds could be real coupled with the great burden of being a God in those worlds, of being responsible for the lives and deaths of so many. All authors know the grief that accompanies the death of a beloved character, the weight that every decision about a character carries, the worry that if one does not get it absolutely right, then the author is doing her characters - and her story - a great disservice. Coakley allows Charlotte and Emily and Branwell to carry this burden, and thus shares with the reader something of what it is to create story. For writers like me, it is a work of great empathy. For everyone else, it is the final fleshing out that makes this story of the Brontes truly complete.

This is a masterwork. It was so worth the wait, and I cannot wait to read it again.

And because I am lucky enough to know Lena, and to have been to her launch party (which featured tea and scones and bonnets and a reading of the funniest scene in an historical fantasy ever), I have a treat for you.

I got an extra copy. An extra signed copy.

OOOOOOH.

You want this. Trust me.

To enter, simply comment with your name and email address, and tell me which Bronte sibling is your favorite. (Your email address is important, since it's the only way I will have of contacting you if you win.)

One extra entry per share on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr - link to your share in the comment, so I can see it, or if you tweet about it, put my handle @IshtaWrites in the tweet.

I will close the giveaway and draw a random entry at MIDNIGHT on the night of FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5TH, 2016. MIDNIGHT on the night of FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12TH, 2016.*

Open in the USA and Canada only. (Sorry, but shipping to Europe and beyond is EXPENSIVE, and the life of a writer is a hungry one. Just ask the Brontes.)

Good Luck!

*This week, I was taken hostage by alien invaders, and was unable to promote this giveaway the way it deserved to be promoted. So now that the invaders have released me, I've extended the deadline.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Holy Acknowledgement Surprise, Batman!

This week has been a tough one for me - getting up at 6am is taking its toll, and I slept through my alarm more often than not. I've loved my productive mornings, but making myself into a morning person when the sun doesn't rise for another two-to-three hours and it's cold (and dark and cold and AAGH and did I mention cold?) is hard work for me. I'm still enthusiastic about my projects, but I'm struggling to find the enthusiasm at 6 o'clock in the morning. Plus, there's Life Stuff, which I'm not going to get into.

And then I sat down to read a friend's book*, and got curious about who her editor is (because the book is awesome), and when I turned to the acknowledgements I saw this:

Holy patooties, fruities!

And then I jumped around like a maniac, because my name is in the acknowledgement section of someone's book, OH YEAH!!!!

Here's the thing about writing books.

It's hard. You're all alone, and you know it probably sucks, and you're struggling to fix it, and you don't know if you're making it better or worse. You finally get it to where you think it's shining like a shiny thing, and 99% of the industry people you send it to tell you that thanks, but they'll pass. It's HARD. And that's the way it has to be, because quality matters, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier. (It makes you more able to be a grown-up about it, though, which is important. Be a grown-up.)

And then you see your name in the acknowledgement section of a friend's book, and you remember that night months and months ago when you answered an email with exactly the right questions, and you remember what it was like to read those early pages, those treasured secret words, filled with hope and possibility.

You remember that you have allies. You remember that you are an ally to other people.

And you feel so freaking lucky to be able to participate in the magic of creating stories for young people.

I am so grateful that I get to do this. I work with some of the most awesome people in the world. We make magic together.

What made you feel lucky this week?

*The book is A POCKET FULL OF MURDER, by R.J. Anderson, and it is delightful. Perfect for the magic-and-mystery-loving 8-12 year-old in your life.

Accountability Count: Don't even ask when I got up; Worked on WIPs every day, YAY ME I GET COOKIES; language and music are suffering, but have been Filling the Well like crazy, so I feel okay about that. Also, NEW WEBSITE COMING SOON-ISH, watch this space.

Reading: Worlds of Ink and Shadow, by Lena Coakley, which I critiqued an early chapter of years ago and which is AMAZING and #1 on the Globe and Mail Juvenile Bestseller lists, YESYESYESYESYES! More on that next week.