Friday, March 30, 2007

Sterling Winners & Losers

This week I received a wedding announcement that whisked me back to the days of oversized shirts, painfully pegged jeans, and poofy bangs. The reason is that I went to high school with both the bride and the groom.

I took the groom to Girls’ Preference my junior year. His twin took me to prom. I ended up being great friends with both guys.

But it’s the bride, Liz, that has got me thinking over the last week. Liz and I weren’t best friends throughout high school, but our paths crossed several times. We were friendly with one another, and we had several shared acquaintances.

One project we were briefly involved with together was the school’s literary journal, In Print, my first publication. It’s the one and only place people will ever see a poem written by me. (Let’s just say I’m not a poet, and there’s good reason for that.) The journal has a photo of the staff in it. Liz’s name is listed as they lay-out person, but she’s not in the picture (although her best friend is). There’s also a guy named John Fish. Nice boy, weird hair.

But the reason I’ve been thinking of Liz is something a bit bigger. It’s because we share a common bond of being losers. Seriously—hear me out. We both applied and interviewed to be the English Sterling Scholar of our graduating class. Neither of us won. Instead, we were both alternates. (Read: the losers.)

Even at the time, I remember thinking that Liz should have won. Of the three applicants, she was the person who had done the most with English while at high school. She had worked on the school paper and (I think; I'd have to double check) on the yearbook committee, for starters. I had been in creative writing. Sure, I had challenged the AP English test without taking the class (yea for me, I got a 5). But I didn’t do the other stuff she had, like learn the lay-out computer program that actually MADE the literary journal.

The winner was a good friend of mine, and I mean no disrespect when I say that I don’t think she deserved the honor. She was a great student, definitely. No question. But her school resume was loaded in other areas just as much as English. She could have just as well applied for the Music Sterling Scholar. She took the title, I believe, because she had a way of making the teachers like her. (Okay, I’ll say it. She was always the teacher’s pet.)

To be honest, until this week, I hadn’t thought about the Sterling Scholar thing for, oh, fifteen years, until another friend (Thanks, Sarah!) pointed it out this week as we chatted about receiving our wedding announcements in the mail.

Now for the kicker:

Here’s where the three English Sterling Scholar applicants are today:

The winner went on to get a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies.

Liz is currently a favorite English teacher at our old high school (ironically, teaching my nephew at one point).

And of course, I’m publishing books, freelancing magazine articles, and teaching at writing conferences.

Only the two alternates went on to do anything with English.

In some ways, I wish I could go back to those adolescents we were and assure them that you know what? The adults don’t always know best. Follow your heart. You really do know what you’re doing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In the Company of Weird

This last weekend I experienced weirdness nirvana—and I had an absolute ball!

For those who keep track, this weekend happened to be the 4th annual LDStorymakers Writers Conference. I spent two days teaching writing, learning writing, and hanging out with writers. If you recall, writers tend to be a weird if lovable bunch, but all of us writers are weird in different ways, so I was right in my element.

So here are a few choice tidbits from my weekend:

First, my weirdness. One of the classes I taught was on grammar and punctuation. Thrilling, no?

Well, to me, it was. And one of the best parts was that a big-shot editor from Deseret Book attended. I finally got to meet Lisa Mangum, who I had heard about many, many times over the course of my career.

Instead of being intimidated (as I had thought I would be), I was thrilled that she sat down in my class. Why? Because really, who else in the world could possibly appreciate a class about commas and semi colons better than an editor?

Several times I turned to her and said things like, "Right, Lisa? Isn't that how YOU would use an em dash?" And she always agreed with me. "Certainly. You're absolutely right." (Or something like that. I was too star struck to remember exactly what she said.)

Of course, after attending my class, Rob Wells had to point out the obvious. "You are such a nerd."

Yeah, well, but he was the one who discovered after attending Josi Kilpack's class that, to his own horror, ROB IS A ROMANCE WRITER!!! GASP!!!

A few other gems from the weekend:

Thanks to Janette Rallison, we discovered that a writer's conference may be the only place on earth where you'll discuss Magnum PI, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch, James Bond, Darth Vader, and Mary Poppins all in the same hour.

It's a ball to find poems written in certain set forms and then sing them to well-known hymns at the top of your lungs. This fun was led by Professor Cynthia Hallen from BYU.

James Dasher has the most bizarre imagination of anyone I know (and that's saying something; I tend to keep company with some weird people).

Every other word out of Jeff Savage's mouth was good-natured rib on James.

Rob Wells admitted to considering using the Hooters logo as a symbol in one of his books.

Josi wore her sunglasses in her hair all day long (and finally told us all why she does that; I always wondered, and now I want to!).

Julie Wright ran the bookstore so smoothly no one realized how much work went into it until after the fact when our books were suddenly just gone.

Other gems: Learning the mystery behind the barbeque smell in the hallways. The freezing cold ballroom, yet the smoldering hot classrooms. All of the keynote speakers who were entertaining, informative, and just plain fun. Getting "crowned" with Heather Moore as next year's conference co-queens (below.) Be impressed I figured out how to add a photo to my blog, because I am a techno-idiot.

My favorite example of writer weird-dom: Tristi-the-pixie Pinkston. I personally don't like to humiliate myself, but Tristi does just that regularly—and on purpose. For two days straight, she donned fairy wings, a crown, and a wand as the door-prize fairy (the conference theme was "The Magic of Writing"). Every few hours she flitted into the ballroom of the Provo library and "poofed" the magic hat that James Dashner held (who furiously blushed every time). But wait; it wasn't over. Once she added a red boa and sang to James (whose face was so red it nearly exploded).

Did I mention I love Tristi?

My best memory was simply driving away on Saturday night with a tinge of melancholy sadness that it was over for another year, but at the same time pumped to get back to writing.

Finally, and on a more serious note, the conference itself really was spectacular. We've grown and improved each year, to the point that I can honestly say WOW.

We have received an amazing amount of positive feedback from our attendees, but let me end with a piece of feedback from Lisa Mangum (yes, that same Lisa from my class) who works at Deseret Book. Her commentary on the conference says it better than I could, and coming from an outside source as high up in the LDS publishing world as she is, it's saying something:

I have been to many writer's conferences during my ten years as Acquisitions Editor for Deseret Book Company and I can say without hesitation that the LDS Storymaker's Conference is one of the best I've ever attended. I was impressed by so many things about the Conference: the classes were exceptional, the presenters were stellar, the speakers were inspirational, the attendees were enthusiastic. I left the Conference thinking to myself, "Here are the writers who are devoted to their craft, who are willing to work hard and be persistent, who understand the business of writing and of publishing. Here are the writers who are going to revolutionize the LDS writing world." I was so happy to have met so many great people who are involved in such a thriving, active writer's community. I look forward to reading the work that will come as a direct result of the Conference. It truly was a privilege to attend the 2007 LDS Storymaker's Conference. —Lisa Mangum, Acquisitions Editor, Deseret Book Company

Seriously, people, this conference is an amazing experience, and I hope that Heather and I as "Co-queens" can make it just as good as Josi and Julie did in 2007. We'll do our best to make the Storymakers proud and to live up to our attendees' hopes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Borderline Braindead

I've spent the last few weeks chained to my computer while going over reader evaluations and making revisions on my latest manuscript. I've had about three weeks to do any changes, because, quite frankly, that's all I have if I want this book to have any chance of reaching the printer in time to make an appearance at the LDS Booksellers Convention in August like my publisher plans it to be.

So I've done acrobatics to make that happen, since Booksellers is, let's face it, a good place to be as an author, and I've worked hard for years and years to be where I am in the industry. I got to be at Booksellers last year, and the chance to be there again in 07 is one I won't pass up.

Booksellers is where the fall releases get debuted and spotlighted. It's where booksellers literally lineup to get your book. (Face it, this is the one and only time I'll ever have people literally waiting in an long line for me to sign a copy for them.) It's a great promotional opportunity.

As always, when I got my book accepted and the evaluator comments back, I read through them with interest. And, as always, some of the comments conflicted with one another. Others just didn't make sense. (One insisted that a character's motivation should be such and such. It WAS. So I figured I needed to clarify. I did.) Some of the comments had a lot of merit, and I decided to use them and revise to make the book stronger. Some readers had caught a few minor plot holes. I filled them. A few comments I wasn't sure on, so I picked the brains of trusted writers I knew and saw where their opinions fell. Fortunately, they all landed in the same places, so I followed their advice. Some of my readers suggested other changes, additional scenes, and so on.

The final result of the manuscript: a longer but better, stronger, book.

The final result for me: my brain is cottage cheese.

The final result for my family: they ran out of underwear, dishes, and bread.

That rarely happens. (Hush, honey. It doesn't either.)

I'm usually on top of the laundry especially. But somehow the other day in the middle of rewrites I looked up from the monitor to see that the house had pretty much fallen apart.

Alrighty then, I thought, paper plates for dinner it is. What chapter am I on?

Monday, March 12, 2007

NOT an Anne Freak

I know this may come as a shock to many people. To many of my close friends, in fact.

But I am not an Anne of Green Gables freak.

Sure, I have every single one of Anne books. They're all dog-eared and nearly memorized. I own all the movies except for the last one, which is a vile thing that should never have been made. (Any self-respecting fan knows what I'm talking about, and I could go on a rampage about the timeline, the characters, the technology, and the sheer adulteration of all things Montgomery, but I'll spare you.)

I was introduced to Anne in the eighth grade. It was the year when L.M. Montgomery's books were somehow being republished after a long time of being out of print, and I scooped them up as quickly as they were being reprinted (and as quickly as my allowance let me). I remember the excitement of buying Rilla of Ingleside at the Farrer Middle School book fair.

My closest friends were doing the same, and we were all living the Anne life. We took long walks through nature and watched sunsets and ate cookies and had tea parties the way we imagined Anne and Diana might have. We started (okay, I started) a creative writing club based on Anne's.

But there was a big difference in how the rest of them viewed our activities. While they imagined themselves as being Anne, I imagined myself as her creator.

Forget Anne; I was Lucy Maud Montgomery!

Oh, I liked Anne. I still do. But I wanted to be the writer who made her up. I wanted to create a character and stories. I wanted the paper and pencil in my hands (or the keys of the typewriter under my fingers).

To this day, I have an entire shelf in my office that carries my LMM books. And it has a lot more than Anne; it has all of her books that I began collecting in eighth grade. At some point (when I really, really trust them) I'll let my daughters borrow them.

In addition to Anne, there's Pat and Emily and Marigold and Kilmeny and The Story Girl and Jane and Valancy and The Tangled Web and a slew of short stories. There's an autobiography. There's five volumes of journals. There's a CD of photographs and information about LMM's life. There's a volume that includes poetry and other writings that pre-date Anne.

And if I'm being perfectly truthful, Anne doesn't even make the top three of my favorite LMM heroines.

To me, Anne is only a slice of who Maud really was. (No, she didn't go by Lucy. She actually hated that name.) And for that matter, she only wrote eight books about Anne because the public demanded it. Even she got tired of Anne. Ever wonder why she started writing about Anne's KIDS?

I love learning about who she really was, what her life was like. How it differed from her books. (VERY MUCH.)

Some day I'd love to go to Canada and visit places that are special to her.

And no, it wouldn't necessarily be the Green Gables house, although that might be fun. I'd prefer the manses where she spent her married life and did the majority of her writing, and that might mean not visiting Prince Edward Island. Instead I'd go to Leaksdale and Norval, both not too far from Toronto, on the mainland.

If I ever do go to PEI, I'll be sure to go to Park Corner and check out the little nail by the stairs that she used to measure herself on each time she visited her cousins. Those are the little human elements that make her real to me.

LMM has had such an impact on me that I've noticed phrases, characters, and even plot lines in my own work that hearken to hers--unintentionally. My computer is even named after her. (Maud, of course, not Lucy.)

As a nod, I try to read one of her books each year. Up next? Anne's House of Dreams.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

A Don't-Miss Writing Conference

Coming in only two weeks is a terrific opportunity for aspiring LDS writers: The LDStorymaker Writers Conference! The Conference is Friday & Saturday, March 23 & 24 at Provo's Library at Academy Square.

I’m a huge fan of conferences in general—they’re a great way to polish your writing skills, network with other writers, make new friends, learn more about the business end of the industry, and get feedback on your work. I always come away from conferences with my creative batteries charged, feeling refreshed and eager to get to the keyboard.

This is the LDStorymakers’ fourth annual conference, and I’ve been privileged to be part of it every year. It’s one of the best conferences in Utah, with a wide variety of ability levels and topics to fit any writer.

Back by popular demand this year is Writer’s Boot Camp, a two-day, heavy-duty hands-on workshop where your work is critiqued by published authors and conference attendees. It was a huge success and wildy popular last year, and looks to be growing even bigger this time. I’ll be a Boot Camp instructor/sergeant again this year. I’m also teaching two classes.

The first is on dialogue, something I feel passionate about. If you write good dialogue, your story really comes to life. Write bad dialogue, and your story is about as flat as cardboard. You always hear "show not tell." Good dialogue is one of the best ways to SHOW.

My other class is on a topic many writers shy away from learning about, but it’s absolutely critical you know this stuff if you want to being taken seriously: grammar and punctuation. When you submit a manuscript, you want the editor to notice your story, not your misplaced modifier, not the awkward punctuation or the incorrect spelling. Editors are looking for a reason to reject you; don’t give them one! If you are unsure what a comma splice is or how in the heck to use lay/lie correctly, this the class for you.

The 2-day conference is filled with terrific workshops from lots of great published LDS writers. Among them is Brandon Sanderson, who publishes young adult fantasy nationally; Janette Rallison, author of many national humorous young adult novels; and Rachel Ann Nunes, one of the top-selling LDS romance authors of all time. Entertainment will be provided by popular speaker John Bytheway.

If you’re interested, take a peek at the LDStorymaker website. The early bird registration deadline has passed, but the conference is still a bargain. Don’t miss out.

I hope to see you there!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

History Goldmine

I'm taking a minute away from book rewrites (one of the less-fun parts of the publishing end) to mention one of the coolest experiences I've had in a while.

Backing up: Last November, I got a phone message from one Darrin Smith, a historian living in Cache Valley. After reading House on the Hill, which is set in Logan and focuses on the Logan temple, he knew I had a love for that building and the area. (He was absolutely right. Even though I've gone on to research other temples and parts of Utah and write about them, my heart belongs to Logan and Cache Valley and always will.)

He gave me an amazing offer: I could have free rein of his archives, which include diaries, theses, photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and a ton more on two conditions: that if I ever publish another book about Logan (which I plan to--several, actually), that he can be in the acknowledgments and that he can have a copy.

Holy cow! Are you kidding me? DONE!

The problem with his voice mail was timing--I got it right before the Utah Chocolate Show, during which time I'm little more than a blur. After the show came Thanksgiving. Then final manuscript preparations so I could submit my latest book to my publisher, and on top of that was Christmas (no need to elaborate there . . .). Put mildly, I was busy. Then the New Year arrived, with more deadlines and craziness.

Throughout the entire time, Darrin's name and number sat on a scribbled note right next to my monitor. Every day I'd look at it and think, "Dang! I've got to call this guy!" But I also knew that it would make little sense to call without having an idea of when my family could make the trek up north. Finally, toward the end of January, I found a few clear dates and called him back.

By this point, he likely thought I had droppped off the planet and didn't want to take him up on his offer. He graciously invited me and my husband to come visit.

Last weekend, we did. For a couple of hours, he showed us some of his huge collection, including original photos of Logan in its early years and photos of some of the real people in my book. I almost trembled when I got to hold the picture of Billie King, who died in a tragic snow slide. It was like finally meeting an old friend.

My husband and I packed up a few armfuls of records and photos and headed to the nearest Kinko's. We spent hours frantically copying documents on two different copiers (and quickly blowing through over a hundred dollars), leaving only when they closed for the night and kicked us out (who knew that a Kinko's in a university city wouldn't be open 24 hours?).

When we returned everything to Darrin late that night, he graciously gave us some photographs he had taken of the Logan temple--one of which is so darn cool that I can't wait to post it on my web site. (I'll be sure to include information on how others can purchase a copy of the photo--it's timeless, beautiful, and unlike any photo of the temple you've ever seen.)

I have yet to go through the big box of copies I have sitting next to my file cabinet now. Thanks to rewrites and other editorial deadlines, it may be a little while before I can really sit down and dig through it, enjoying the rich history and compelling stories.

But I can't wait to do that. Some of the information comes from the very things that Nolan P. Olsen used to write his volume about the Logan temple--the very book that got me excited to write a novel about the construction. Now I get to read HIS original sources and learn even more.

Darrin's generosity has been tremendous--and he's saved me literally years and years of research, much of which it would have been impossible to duplicate even if I had tried. Since I'm a storyteller rather than a historian, this experience has been a once in a lifetime goldmine for which I'm truly grateful.

Thanks, Darrin!

Why Suomi 100 Means So Much to Me

(TL;DR: scroll to the end to snag Song Breaker for free. Today only.) One hundred years ago, on December 6, 1917, Finland declared indepen...