The Business of Writing
Summer used to mean trips to the library, at least once a week and usually more often. Books had to be gathered from under beds and behind car seats and children rounded up and loaded into those same seats, wiggling with anticipation over the new stories they’d discover and bring home.
Often we’d get sidetracked and end up grabbing a shave ice from a local teenager sweltering in a temporary shed covered in plastic raffia. I used to keep baby wipes in the car so sticky tiger’s blood wouldn’t dot the new book covers.
But now things are different. Last week my 14 year old daughter asked if I could take her to the library. I turned away from my computer, blinking. It’s the middle of July and I haven’t had a single strawberry shave ice. We’ve driven by the library a zillion times. Why haven’t we stopped in?
Oh, man. Does this mean I’m a terrible mother? My kids are not reading this summer. They are going to fail their SATs and end up addicted to video games and living in my basement until I die, a cold Diet Coke clutched in one hand and a dusty library card in the other.
Quick! How many books do they have to consume in the weeks before school starts to catch up? 10? 20? We’ll give up tv. We’ll give up sleep. We’ll—
“Mom? Did you hear me? Can we go to the library? Or can you at least recommend something from your eBook collection? Since I can’t pick up the books and check the back, I don’t know what’s good.”
Oh, yeah. EBooks. Between gifts, subscription services, and purchases, there are thousands of books in my digital library for the kids to choose from. “Son,” I yelled up the stairs, “what are you reading?”
The 16 year old peeked over the railing. “Last week I read Brandon Sanderson’s newest. Yesterday I finished the entire Sherlock Holmes collection and I’ve started on Terry Pratchett.”
“So you don’t want to go to the library?”
He waved his smart phone at me. “Whatever for?”
My daughter said, “Well, I want to read The Fault in Our Stars.”
“Mom’s got it,” he replied. “Check her Amazon account.”
“I also wanted dystopian.”
“Mom’s got the Legends series.”
“I want books.”
I get where she’s coming from. There’s something about holding a book, measuring your progress through it, trying to slow down when you know the end is coming up and you war with yourself over wanting to prolong the journey as much as you want to find out what happens.
I also know that eBooks are immediately available and infinitely more portable.
At the library, I wasn’t surprised when my daughter borrowed Legend by Marie Lu that she had to put her name down on the wait-list for Prodigy and Champion. It’s a popular series and there were four or five kids ahead of her. I also wasn’t surprised when she came to me at 11 pm asking how to download the final two books.
The desire to know what happens next crushed the book purist in her.
And now I fear I’ll have to find new excuses to make summer shave ice runs. But the kids are reading. Won’t have to finish the basement after all.
Had a blast yesterday at BYU with the Kid Authors Camp kids. An amazingly smart, talented, and fearless group of writers. They asked all the tough questions about how contracts work, movie rights, and how they can publish their work when they’re ready, like in maybe another hour or so when they finish their last chapter. These kids are going places!
If a writer gets an idea, she’ll need an icy Diet Coke before she can sit down and write. When she goes to get a can from the fridge, she’ll notice the salad dressing next to it is expired.
If she notices the date is two months past, she’ll wonder what else is old.
If she opens the produce drawers, she’ll see wilted lettuce, wizened carrots, and squishy avocados. Looking harder, she’ll notice past its prime sour cream, yogurt, and a lack of milk and orange juice. Digging deeper, she’ll find suspicious things in containers that may or may not be alive. Disgusted, she’ll drag the trash can over and start dumping.
After filling two trash bags, she will realize that the shelves are cruddy.
If she thinks the shelves are cruddy, she will empty out the entire fridge to clean it. When she goes to get a dish rag, she will discover the towel drawer is empty. Running upstairs into the laundry room will send her into a major freak out over what her daughter has (hasn’t) done with the towels. She will fling open doors to kids’ bedrooms and bathrooms and freak out more.
Going back downstairs she will open the pantry for paper towels and hyperventilate when she sees spilled cocoa and sugar all over the floor. Calming down, she will sweep, scrub the fridge, take out the trash, and discover that Mother Hubbard’s cupboards are bare.
Hopping into the car, she’ll realize that a run to the grocery store isn’t going to cut it, so it’s down the canyon to Costco. While sixty miles from home, she’ll think of more errands to run and will stop in a luxury department store to buy make-up on sale and get distracted by all the new handbags.
Until she checks the price, it will take all her will-power to leave her favorite bag there.
Six hours later, she’ll return home, restock the fridge, and tell everybody to clean their rooms and make their own dinner from Costco roast chicken, Caesar salad mix, and sour dough bread.
Finally, she will sit down to write the awesome what comes next, stare blankly at the computer screen, research the best online price for the handbag, and write a blog post instead.
On Feb. 28, 2014 authors Christine Haggerty, Angela Hartley, and I held two creative writing workshops at Uintah High School in Vernal, UT. I talked about being an author and building craft skills and Angela gave a presentation about the power of synesthesia in writing. Synesthesia mixes the experiences of senses in powerful ways like tasting green or hearing chocolate. Angela then showed the students this image and asked them to write about it. Below are a few excerpts. For more examples, please see Christine or Angela‘s blog.
The fog descended through the trees tasting like soapy water. ~ Nichole
It was early morning and Samantha was already out running through the woods. ~Jeff
I bit my lips. They tasted sweet like the blossoms of the bush next to the road. ~Brianne
The sounds of a car and dogs behind him. Chester ran faster. He could almost feel the yelling coming from the ranch director. He was not going back to that place. ~Dalton
It had been weeks since Kasanalea had seen another person. ~Aspynn
Just as she began to feel the suffocating effects of the fog closing in, salvation came. ~ Jesse
As the sun finally began to rise, Kim breathed a sigh of relief. ~ Harmony
“I thought you said we would be safe here,” she accused. ~ Stacia
I was standing in the fog. Dark. Cold. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear something. I shouldn’t be out this late. ~ Trestyn
Out of breath, my muscles aching. I sucked in the crisp morning air as I ran faster into the light. ~ Jaeley
Leaves scattered out of the way as we sped down the pavement. ~ Paige
On Thursday, February 27, 2014 authors Angela Hartley, Christine Haggerty, and I held two drama workshops at Union High School in Roosevelt, UT. I gave a short presentation about how writing is really for the dogs and then we workshopped five original scenes. The students’ performances were amazing. For more about our adventures, check out Christine and Angela’s blogs.
I don’t believe in writer’s block, even though I’ve been stalled out on book three in the Niuhi Shark Saga for several months now. It’s not that I can’t write—I’ve continued to write and even publish other works—it’s that I haven’t wanted to work on the series.
It’s not block, it’s apathy.
Part of the apathy comes from the publisher wanting to wrap it up as a trilogy instead of a five book series—oh, but Lehua, we’d like you to keep the third book’s ending open enough that if sales warrant it, there’s the option to write books four and five. In the meantime, we’d like to see something else. I could go on ad nauseam about the challenges of working with an understaffed, underfunded new publishing house, but if you’re a writer, you’ve heard it all before.
So five into three. Really three into one, since the first two are already published. No matter how you do the math, it doesn’t fit.
I thought about simply writing book three the way I originally envisioned it and then self-publishing four and five—heck, I’d give them away to anyone who asked.
But a series with three nice books sitting on a shelf and two only available on the nearest eReader didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what would. Some days I even convinced myself that I didn’t care, the same way people convince themselves that a large Diet Coke cancels out the buttered popcorn and peanut M&Ms they consume at a movie.
For the past year, every time I sit down to write I have to do it around the three-ton shark sitting on my keyboard. Go back to starring in Shark Week shows, I’d think. Aren’t there some white-bellied tourists from Wisconsin you can haunt? Unlike bigger budgeted publishing houses, in my experience, small presses don’t bug you much about deadlines, particularly when they’re busy trying to hook bigger fish.
It was therefore easy, sorta, to ignore Jaws Junior and the tsunami wave of story hovering over my head. Easy, that is, until book two started percolating through the kid-lit jungle net and kids started sending me email.
Aunty Lehua!!!!! I can’t believe you ended it that way!!!!!! What happens next?!!!!!!!
Middle grade readers love exclamation points.
They also send major guilt-trip vibes.
Working as a content editor with other authors made me realize my real problem wasn’t finding a way to tie up all the loose ends. It was reconciling what made sense in a third book based on the first two. In my head I had too much story. But if Zader chooses to do something else…
Suddenly, a completely new and different shape for a third book began to emerge. I bounced ideas off published authors who had read One Boy, No Water and One Shark, No Swim, but had no preconceived ideas of where the story was heading. I then went to my ace in the hole—a few middle grade readers–and asked what they’d like to see in the last book. While radically different from my original ideas, the new book three made sense.
With a clearer vision in mind, I finally feel ready to write the last book of Zader’s Niuhi shark saga. The series will end, questions will be answered, and Zader’s journey will be worth it—both for him and the reader.
Cue the theme from Jaws.
“It’s pronounced L’wah. It’s French,” proclaimed the guy sitting next to my son, Aaron. Aaron gives him side-eye. The guy and his girlfriend are studying the bios of the authors seated on the platform in front of the room. It’s the first day of a writers’ conference and I’m here to talk about how to write children who sound, act, and think like children instead of mini-adults. Seated in the middle of the table, I figure I’m in a power-spot.
“No, says the woman, spotting a dark-haired, olive-skinned author seating herself to my right. “It’s Native American. It’s Leh-huish-hah.”
Aaron tries not to snicker.
“I’m telling you it’s French. L’wah!”
“Welcome everyone. Let’s start by having each of our panelists introduce themselves.”
“Aloha! My name is Lay-who-ah Parker and I write…”
When they hear me say my name, they both shake their heads. “No,” the guy says, “she’s wrong.”
That’s my most pressing problem right now with my right foot in a cast and needing to be propped higher than my heart. The ice bag takes up what little room I have between my gut and knee and reclining half on my back and leaning on an elbow, I’m at a loss at how to balance the computer and type at the same time. Cocooned in a pillow nest, I’m tired of taping out one letter at a time on an iPad. Serious writing needs ten fingers.
It’s my fault for always writing at a desk with a chair and keyboard and two big monitors in a room where I can shut the door. Like a jock with lucky socks, I’ve trained myself to think that it’s all about the quiet room and the ability to use a mouse. Writing on the living room couch is a cramped affair filled with scraps of other people’s conversations and too loud music.
Adapt or die. Right now death is winning.
Being cooped up the past two days has built up a torrent of words and ideas that want to pour like water over a cliff, but they will have to wait until my foot no longer needs elevation and ice or I master some new yoga poses.
It’s going to be a long two months.
‘Twas the Night Before Deadline
(with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)
‘Twas the night before deadline, when all through the den
Not a writer was writing, not even with pen!
The novel was due to reviewers with care
In hopes that sales stimulus soon would be there.
The words were not flowing, no dialogue said,
While visions of better books danced in my head.
And husband asked, “When?” And I said, “Don’t know.
I’ve got pages and chapters still left to go.”
When out in the kitchen there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my laptop to see what’s the matter.
Away to the counter I flew like a flash,
Tore open the wrappers and snarfed all the stash.
The moon on the beast of the new-fallen show
The depths of the bottom we writers will go.
When what to my thundering thighs should appear,
But six empty plates of neighborly cheer.
With a Diet Coke chaser, so icy and quick,
Came the illusion of writing so lively with wit.
More rabid than weasels the words how they came,
And I laughed as I wrote them—to my endless shame.
“Now Gaiman, now Meyers, now King, and Dean Koontz,
Gabaldon, Pattersen, you guys with the loot,
My books are on shelves and great reads to boot!
It’s time to move over, c’mon y’all—scoot!”
Like bad reviews before these wild words fly,
When they meet with reality, sugar crash is nigh.
So back to my laptop my fingers they flew
Enough with this poem—I’ve real writing to do!
As the author of a series, I’m often asked by other writers about character development—specifically, how should characters change from one book to the next. I always say it all depends on whether your series is more like a fast-food burger or a chef’s table dining experience.
You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.
When you walk into a burger joint, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Some series, particularly detective fiction like Robert Parker’s Spencer series, are structured like your basic grilled patty in a bun. First book to last, Spencer changes his underwear and not much else. A crime is committed. It gets solved. Some shooting, drinking, and bed-hopping happens in between. The order the books are read in doesn’t matter much more than having a bacon cheeseburger one day and a jalapeño ranch burger the next.
For burger-lovers, this consistency is a good thing. For authors making bank with a series, it’s awesome. With infinite combinations of new toppings and special sauces to season the plot, there’s no reason to mess with the character of the ground chuck. And with no over-arching storyline, the series never ends.
But no matter how juicy, few people crave burgers all day every day. Variety being the spice of life, it should be no surprise that some series are the literary equivalent of a multi-course chef’s table meal. When you sit at the chef’s table in a restaurant, you relinquish control over your dining experience to the chef who determines the pacing, ingredients, and presentation of each course. For readers, it’s about savoring each dish on the way to dessert.
Think of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. In each book the wizardlings had adventures and obstacles, but there was a more important over-arching tale involving Voldermort and Harry that advanced until it was resolved at the end of the last book. Now imagine knowing from the beginning Dumbledor’s end game and Snape’s true character—you’d be eating dessert first and spoiling your appetite for all the delicious tension built in the previous six books.
Just as a chef considers the textures, flavors, and juxtapositions of each dish in his set menu, the author of a cohesive serial story forces characters to change and grow from book to book, ultimately piquing the reader’s hunger for the next course. In a burger book, character development is secondary to the plot. A juicy char-broiled book series is all about enjoying similar experiences with beloved characters over and over again.
Here’s another example.
The Niuhi Shark Saga is a multi-course luau complete with roasted pig, hula dancers, and cake. It’s one loooooong story broken into bite-sized MG/YA books.
Through the series Zader, the protagonist, changes from the odd kid who always has to be rescued to the kid who questions everything to the young man who determines for himself how he will live his life. In each book I have to consider where Zader is in terms of his eventual transformation and where the other characters are in relation to both Zader and their own conflicts and ambitions. It helps that many of my characters are going through adolescence, arguably the biggest transformative time in anyone’s life.
In book one, One Boy, No Water, Zader is hiding in the shadows. There’s a lot of symbolism about young, tender things growing in the protective safety of the reef. He has Uncle Kahana, Jay, and Char Siu to guide and support him, and he’s pretty comfortable being led. At the end, Zader recuses his brother from a paralyzing fear and himself from bullies. This triggers his predator nature, and it’s obvious he’s outgrown the idea of camouflage as safety.
In book two, One Shark, No Swim, Zader’s grown enough that he no longer accepts what he’s been told as fact. Uncle Kahana is unwilling to deal directly with the changes he sees in Zader, and that causes problems. Char Siu, Zader’s gal-pal, is starting to understand that there’s a big difference between boy-world and girl-world and she’s navigating deep water while the boys are still splashing in the shallows. Jay begins to get caught up in competitive surfing, leaving Zader alone on the sand. These conflicts and others finally drive Zader to listen only to himself and to make a choice no one expects.
In book three, tentatively titled One Fight, No Fist, there are consequences for Zader’s choices. He’s older, more secretive, and both less trusting and more protective of his family and friends. He’s bolder, more aggressive, and is ready to take the fight to his stalker. He’s so far from where he started, he’s almost a different person. Consequently, all of the other characters have to change and adjust to this new person—or better, don’t adjust—and the reader can watch the sparks fly.
The changes the Niuhi Shark Saga characters go through are really the storyline that ties the books together. Without character growth the series would be like The Simpsons tv show—Homer chasing one doughnut after another, hanging out at Moe’s, and never learning or suffering from the consequences of his adventures for more than 30 minutes.
Now there are a lot of doughnut lovers who crave that consistency. Go, Homer, go!
But if you’re in the mood for something different, try a little of my Niuhi Shark Saga lau lau and poi. But be sure to leave room for the killer pineapple-upside down cake. You won’t believe what happens next!