Playing with Words

a journey into the world of writing for young readers

Guest Post by Swati Avasthi
michele on trike
Today I'm honored to host author and fellow 2K10'er Swati Avasthi. Her Young Adult debut novel Split is gathering a lot of attention. Welcome Swati!

Obsess much? If you marked yes, then write a novel.

Like most novelists, I have a day job: adjunct professor of creative writing. And I can tell you that, yes, writing can be taught. I’m one of those teachers who believes that everyone has a story worth telling and that everyone can learn how to tell it.

So why do so few people? At least two reasons that have nothing to do with publishing: 1) To paraphrase Stephen King, you need to write one million words before you write a good one. Yep. One million words. Or around 12 medium - long novels. Now, Split was the second novel I wrote. But I’ve done the math and one million is about right.

Reason No. Two. Not everyone wants to revise. My students resist revision. They believe in the creative muse. Fearing they will destroy the delicate balance that the muse bestowed upon them, they cling to every word. (Either that or they know how to BS and have three midterms, two papers, and a beer to drink. But let’s assume they believe in the muse.) I believe in the muse.

Mine’s named Oliver. I couldn’t write without Oliver. He carries me from scene to scene and finds nuance and meaning in moments. He is like most muses: sensitive, flighty, and disdainful of reality. He has no idea what a deadline means, doesn’t care if the reader needs to know who is who in a novel, and snobbishly eschews logic. He leaps lightly from here to there, never willing to settle. Oliver is wonderful, but not perfect – sometimes not even that good.

Let me show you what I mean:

Draft One of the Split’s opening:

Now I have to start lying. I doubt “I was in the neighborhood” is going to work. It’s 19 hours from Chicago to Albuquerque, if you drive all night, if you only stop for Mountain Dews from 7-11s and “extra crispy” from KFC which, by the way, closes much too early in Oklahoma.
What if I tried, “I was passing through”? Nah, not unless Christian’s gone blind in the last six years. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the chasm and suck on the salt of my blood...
Final Draft of Split’s Opening:

Now I have to start lying.
As I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in, I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind. “I was in the neighborhood?” Yeah, right. It’s 19 hours from Chicago to Albuquerque, if you drive all night, if you only stop for Mountain Dews and KFC’s extra crispy. By the way, KFC closes far to early in Oklahoma.
Maybe I should try, “I’m just here to borrow a cup of sugar.” Pathetic. How about “One more stop in the eternal quest for the perfect burrito”? Unless Christian has gone blind in the last five years, no lie is going to cut it. My split lip might tip off Clever Boy. I run my tongue over the slit and suck on blood.
Maybe it’s not a huge difference and yet, in the final version, every word in a novel has been chosen, consciously. (Not written consciously. Written in the flow and passion that Oliver brings. But revised with a discriminating eye and tuned by an attentive ear.)

I think everyone can write a novel. I just am not convinced that everyone really wants to. Or rather, I should say, I’m just not convinced that everyone is as obsessed with the sound of their characters’ voices. Novelists won’t settle for “I was in the neighborhood” in paragraph one and “I was passing through” in paragraph two. We cringe at the repetition, not only the redundant sentiment, but the sentence construction. (Passive voice? Twice?) We care whether there’s a paragraph break between sentence one and sentence two. Many novelists, including myself, regard meter and flow, rhythm and cadence so highly that we read every word aloud, pencil in hand, making the spots that trip our tongues.

So in my syallbi, where I permit myself to add a little snarky humor, I always write: Real writers revise.

In recognition of Domestic Violence month, the Before the Split blog tour and charity auction are live! Follow the tour or bid on items. First Chapter Critique from Bonnie Doerr:,name,124605,auction_id,auction_details

First 15 pages of YA Novel Critique from Cheryl Renee Herbsman:,name,125193,auction_id,auction_details And also from her, Signed copy of Breathing:,name,124979,auction_id,auction_details

The general auction site link, if you need it, is:

My first fan letter
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Okay. So, I knew I wanted to be an author. I've always loved to write. But I had no idea the kind of feeling you get when the first fan letter arrives in your inbox.


Overjoyed that someone has gotten to know and love the characters you've been hanging around with pretty consistently over the last couple of years.

Surreal, for all of the above mentioned reasons.

On the day of my book launch I met a young lady, aged 11, who carried with her a bag of books she was reading at the time. We talked about reading and writing and her mother bought one of my books for her. I told Camille while she was reading the book, if she had any questions she could send me an email. Before I got home that day she'd written to me asking if one of the characters in Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery would appear in the second book. I told her not to worry, Maddie was in the "gang."

Today, I opened my email, getting ready for another day of articles, stories and my new WIP, when there was another email from Camille. I'm so excited about it I'm going to copy it here:

"I finished your book. The first thing I thought when I finished it was "I want more." I can't wait for your next book, and I guarantee I will be first in line!!! Keep up the good work!

Your fan forever,

I have a fan! Forever!

Every day of this experience is like another best day of my life.

Getting ready for my book launch party
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I'd like to interrupt this blog with an important message from your blogger! LAUNCH PARTY IN THREE DAYS!

The trials and tribulations of having a book come out ... somebody should write What to Expect When You're Expecting (your first book). Without my 2K10 mates I would really be in trouble. Instead I'm inundated with blog entries, blog tours, phone calls, twitter parties, facebook postings and not to mention book signings, panels, and this Saturday my big day -- my BOOK LAUNCH party!
I'm making five dozen cupcakes to share the sweetness of the day with 75 of my closest friends. (Math was never my strong suit.) The Country Bookshelf, in Bozeman, Montana, my favorite independent book store, called to say they got the books in (whew!) and I have some giveaway items to bring. I'm getting pretty darned excited about the whole thing.
As they say anticipation is everything and in this case it couldn't be more on the money. This is the third date for the book launch. It was delayed several times because the books weren't ready yet. Not printed. Not back from the printer. I don't think they're actually at the distributor yet ... but they will be! And that's what counts.
Now, back to the party.
I sent out evites to a bunch of friends and I've been so tickled at the number of people responding YES! The local paper ran a story about it and the bookstore sent out a newsletter. It's going to be so GREAT!
Just today, I got an email from one of the managers at the bookstore who gave the book to her son to read. She said, "he's enjoying it!"

Now back to your regularly scheduled programing.

A week before release!
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Next week my debut middle grade novel FAIRVIEW FELINES: A NEWSPAPER MYSTERY is set to come out. Last night I dreamed no one showed up at my launch party. That is the anxiety talking. But it is a fear. Not that no one will show up to the launch party -- hey, I'm making cupcakes -- but that my book won't sell. Okay. I said it. I suppose every writer has that fear somewhere, even if it only comes out at night.

What to do to combat the fear? Well, I spent yesterday answering interview questions and writing blog posts where I will be guest blogging and going on my debut blog tour. I have a lot of signings and speaking engagements lined up and quite honestly, the best way for me to keep the fear away is to keep busy.

So I'm working on another novel, working on some other writing assignments, focusing on my upcoming SCBWI Conference coming up at the end of the month and basically trying to keep my mind occupied.

Wish me luck and stop by Amazon to order a few dozen of my books!

Books in my life
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Going to library was always a big treat for me. My mom and I would walk to the local library and come home with stacks of books. We used to have these cheesy crackers and it’s hard not to remember sitting in my room, reading picture books and being careful not to get my orange-tinted fingerprints all over the books.
I can remember there was one book I took out every time. (It seemed like I took it out every time I went, but I don’t suppose that’s possible!) It was The Best Loved Doll. There was something about that book that just touched my three, four, five year-old heart. I’m sure I had it memorized but I still wanted my mom to read it to me. Maybe I was teaching myself what it meant to be loved.
When I was a bit older I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries. There were other books, Alice in Wonderland, the Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, but I always had a soft spot for the mysteries. In fact, I can remember keeping the books in my desk, and secretly reading during subjects I didn’t like (ahem, like math).
As I got into high school I read everything that wasn’t nailed down. I loved Henry Miller, Williams Burroughs, James Joyce, (I never got into Jane Austen, the way a lot of my friends did), and I think I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead a few times, and of course I love the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, and the Golden Compass books.
I think every time I read a book by Tana French or Jess Walter I want to write just like them. But I can’t. I can only write the books that I can write. Which, I think is a good thing.
I love the books that you can devour in one sitting, and the ones you don’t because then it would be over.
Books have always been one thing in my life that I could depend on, that didn’t let me down. You can open a book and fall into a story and stay there. I can only hope that my books do that for readers, just so I can pay it forward.

Getting busy is no excuse
michele on trike
This summer has been a whirlwind but it's been a wonderful whirlwind and I'm happy to have things flying around. This week my debut middle grade novel, Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery, was up on Amazon for pre-order and needless to say I'm very, very excited. Here's the link:
Just seeing it there made me realize how real this is. I dreamed about this moment for so long I can't believe I'm actually awake (or maybe, like Inception, I'm still dreaming!).
I've been out in the world passing out bookmarks, setting my launch date (September 11th at the Country Bookshelf, Bozeman, Montana, 1 - 3 pm) and book signings, getting ready for a panel discussion at the Montana Festival of the Book at the end of October, booking out of state signings, blog tours and speaking engagements. And the best part is, I love every second of it!
These days a debut author has a lot on her plate because publishing companies just don't want to invest with an unknown. So it's up to us to do all the footwork, lay the groundwork and get out and sell our books.
So for the next few months (and probably longer) I'll be adding to my workload -- probably doubling it -- besides keeping up with magazine freelance work, I'll be finishing up the second book in the Newspaper Mystery series, rewriting a manuscript for my agent so he can sell it, and working on a first draft of a YA manuscript I've meaning to write for a long time.
It's a good thing I'm the kind of person who is happiest when she's busiest!

Hurry up and wait and wait
michele on trike
I know you've probably heard it all before, but getting a book published takes a long, long time. First you have to wait for someone to accept the manuscript, then you have to wait for the contract. Then you have to wait for the editor to send you the edits, then the line edits and then the copy edits.
And you have to wait for the cover. Don't forget the cover! Without the cover you can't tell anyone about your book. Well, okay, you can tell them, but they won't believe you.
Then you have to wait for the book to go up on places like Amazon so people besides your close friends and relations can see that yes, you do actually have a book coming out. They can even pre-order it!
And finally, you have to wait for the real, live book with real actual pages, a cover (remember that cover that you LOVED, LOVED, LOVED?) and your name printed on it.

For me, this process has taken a very long time. But believe or not the release date is getting closer. Today my publisher called and told me... are you ready? SEPTEMBER 14TH!!! Yes, it's true. My middle grade novel, Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery (it wasn't just some dream) is really and truly coming out on September 14th!

I'm pinching myself, but not too hard, (I bruise easily) because this journey has been a long one. But I'm also up for some celebrating. And planning a blog tour, and a book launch, and a ton of other things I haven't even thought of yet.

Who knew this could be so much fun?

Process, process, process
michele on trike
For those in real estate, it's location, location, location. For those of us in the writing business (or the business of writing) it's all about process, process, process.

Right now I have several projects all in different stages of work. If I were a painter you would be able to walk into my studio and see four or five canvases with wet or half dry paint on them.

I'm waiting for line edits for my book that is due out this summer while waiting for the marked up manuscripts from my writers' group on the second in the series. I'm also waiting for line edits on my picture book which is due out later this fall. At the same time I'm rethinking a manuscript I thought was ready for submission, but after talking with my agent, I've decided to do some more polishing, add a new, new first chapter and basically go over everything one more time.

And, finally, I have a brand new novel I'm working on ... feeling my way like a blind man in a china shop ... trying some new stuff and relying on my emotional truths to guide me through the process.

Process. It comes back to that. I've realized that I am a very intuitive writer. I prefer to sit in front my computer, relax, take a few breaths and see what happens. I usually have a chapter goal in mind, but I don't like to work much further, other than a basic outline of what I hope to resolve in the book. This way there's a lot of room for the characters to react, for things to change, and for me to surprise myself.

The advantage of working on a few different projects at one time is when I'm ... not really stuck ... more like ready to take a break, I can switch over to something else (like this blog post!) I never like a day to go by without writing something, even a grocery list. (Hey, I've gotten some pretty good poems from grocery lists.)

It's also good to know your own process, to embrace it, whatever it is. I like to catch little phrases and write them down as they come, collect them and perhaps use them, perhaps not, but in any case it keeps me thinking. Yesterday I found myself driving around town thinking about this new novel, this half-formed character, what would she do, say, think about... what motivates her? What emotional truths can I bestow on her. It's like parenting, in a way. Offering bits of my life experience and then releasing her into the world (of fiction.)

It's also reassuring to know that I even have a process! I do a lot of mulling. And lately I've taken to keeping a legal pad next to my computer to write notes to myself.

And lastly, embrace your process. After all, isn't that what keeps us writing and not selling real estate?

Clearing the decks and the mind for a re-read
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Okay. I finished my crappy first draft, put it in a virtual drawer for two weeks and am getting ready to take it out for a read-through. I know there's going to be changes, issues, loose ends I've neglected to tie up. That's a given.
What I need to do is try to read it as if I didn't write this, as if all the clever things I've come up weren't mine at all. In other words I need to be highly critical.
What I don't need to do is come at the manuscript with a crazed look in my eye and a very sharp knife. (In other words, I don't want to rewrite everything.)
I'd like to perform a careful reading before I send it to my writers' group, who will line edit and give me feedback. My writers' group can be depended upon to be truthful, whether it hurts or not, for the benefit of the story. Because that's what you need in a writers' group. It's not a love fest, it's a group of fellow writers who can read something and give constructive criticism.
So this week I am going to open my file and try to read as carefully as I possibly can, try to find the mistakes, the not-quite-right wording, and figure out what needs fleshing out.
In order to do this I have to clear my mind, pretend I don't know what's going to happen to my characters or what twists the plot has in store for me. I need to come at it from a fresh perspective -- as much as possible.
To do that sometimes I'll clean out my refrigerator, or my closet, go to a yoga class or three, or make a batch of cookies.
Then I go up to my office and open the file. Sometimes I need to actually print out the manuscript so I can get away from my desk and read it. But not all the time. Since this is really my first re-read, I'll probably do it onscreen.
So, wish me luck and stay tuned.

Val Hobbs Blog Tour Stops Here!
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The Last Best Days of Summer
Written by Valerie Hobbs
Published by Frances Foster Books
Farrar Straus Giroux

Valerie Hobbs newest book The Last Best Days of Summer examines the parallels of aging – both coming of age and senescence – like two ends of the rainbow. As twelve year old Lucy is coming to grips with being in middle school, taking her first steps into being a teenager, her grandmother is trying to wrap her head around her growing senility. It is a beautiful and tender story that treats both ends of the spectrum with respect.

When Lucy goes to visit her grandmother at her cabin at the lake, she begins to suspect that things are not as they were… her grandmother nearly starts a fire, goes for walks in the woods in her nightgown and finally strands them on an island during a thunderstorm. But Lucy is not on top of the world either, as she feels guilty about the way she’s treated a special needs boy, who somehow finds his way to the cabin.

While there is no tied-with-a-bow happily ever after there is a sweet resolution. Hobbs’ treatment of the story is touching and true to life. In the end we share Lucy’s love (and loss) of her grandmother’s wisdom and wish we all had a Grandma Luz to talk to, even if only in the pages of a book.

There's also a blog tour giveaway! For every comment on Valerie's blog ( there's a chance to win a signed book or a tee-shirt!


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