Helen, Photo, Author

The in-between place

 First pass pages for FLYAWAY are complete, and I'm waiting for notes from my agent on my new novel. So I'm in that weird place between projects where I'm hesitant to start anything new but want to feel that I'm moving forward anyway. Here are some of the things I do when I'm between one book and the next:

1. Make a promotion plan.
This is a great time to map out the months until FLYAWAY releases (only 10 to go!) and figure out what I'm going to during each of those months to build excitement for the book. I contacted a videographer (Megan Bostic of Angsty Girl video) about making a book trailer, thought about some special features I want to run on my blog, and got some ideas for the giveaways I'd like to do.

2. Take time to promote others. 
Since nothing big was going on with my book, I spent some time raising awareness about my friends' upcoming releases. This included taking the Elevensies BookFeast poster into local libraries and making plugs for friends' books on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

3. Dig into research.
Even though my latest novel is now in my agent's hands, I know he's going to want me to revise. So, in preparation for that, I did some research on specific issues I know will come up as well as clarified some questions that remain in my own mind after finishing the latest draft.

4. Brainstorm new ideas.
I keep an idea file on my computer, and I'm using this time to flesh out some ideas I've had in the past as well as jot down some new ones. I never know when my agent - or editor - is going to ask me what I plan to write about next!

5. Write for fun.
Now that I'm not on a deadline, I'm trying to remember what it's like to write for pure enjoyment. I've been pulling out my books of writing prompts and spending some time just letting my imagination fly.

How about you? What do you like to do in between projects to keep your writing motor humming?

Speaking of being in between, I plan to take a short hiatus from blogging while my brilliant web designer, Barrett Dowell, transfers my blog to my website and sets it up on WordPress. I'm hoping this will make it easier for you to keep in touch and make comments. 
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Helen, Photo, Author

Romancing the Cover

 I couldn't sleep last night. I woke up all bleary eyed and dreamy, and I can't concentrate on anything. No, there's not a new man in my life. I'm just in love with my cover.

It's been a long road getting to a cover I adore. The initial proposed design just didn't work for me - the tone felt wrong, and the image didn't reflect the content of the book. But this one? YES! The girl looks exactly like the main character who's been inhabiting my head for the past few years. Her pants give you a taste of Stevie's eccentric sense of style, and the wings behind her hint at the bird-rescue subplot in my novel, as well as the theme of escape.

But what I love most is her face. She looks afraid, yet determined; vulnerable, yet strong. In short, exactly like I hope readers will find Stevie to be.

I'm not the only one with a gorgeous cover. Here are some of my favorite covers of 2011 debut novels:

Tess Hilmo
Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, Fall 2011

Jessica Martinez
Simon Pulse, Fall 2011

Kiki Hamilton
Tor Books - MacMillan, Fall 2011

Alexa Martin
Disney Hyperion, May 2011

Cynthia Hand
Harper Colins, in bookstores now!

Helen, Photo, Author

Waffling...and re-committment

I'll be honest with you: I've been waffling about whether to continue with this blog. As a friend of mine said (quoting a friend of his who said it to him), "every minute you spend blogging is a minute you could be writing fiction." Since I'm time-challenged anyway, I've been wondering whether adding another item to my to-do list is sheer madness.

And then there's the fact that, as far as I know, very few people read my blog. Once in a while I'll get a comment, which I'm tempted to print out and frame on my wall. But most of the time, I feel like I'm talking into a void, an activity which is neither an effective use of my time nor a boost to my self-esteem.

So I've had to go back and think about why I decided to blog in the first place. I didn't do it just to get my name "out there," because I know that wouldn't work. I realize that what I was hoping for from my blog was connection - connection to readers and other writers. That, and a place to share who I am and what I stand for. I do that in my fiction, too, of course. But a blog is a place to do that more directly, without plots or characters standing in the way.

The upshot is, I've decided to re-commit to my blog. I'm going to put it higher on my priority list, and I'll soon be moving it from LiveJournal to WordPress, in hopes that I can generate more interaction with you, my readers.

But I'm re-committing to more than just making the time and changing the platform. I'm promising myself - and you - that I'll dig deeper and be more honest about who I am and what matters to me.

Finally, I'd like to find out what matters to YOU. What would you like to know about me, or about my writing process? Ask me anything. I look forward to answering your quesitons in the weeks ahead.
Helen, Photo, Author

Writer's retreat take 2

 As you may know, I'm a big fan of writer's retreats. I crave the chance to get away from daily concerns and immerse myself in my writing. At least once a year, I do a solo retreat. But I also like to retreat with other writers.

Today, I did a retreat with members of my critique group. We had planned to go to La Conner, a lovely little town in the Skagit Valley, just north of Seattle. But with snow predicted, we decided it wasn't such a wise idea to make the drive. Instead we did an in-town "stay- cation."

We started in funky Columbia City, where  found the heavenly Columbia City Bakery. There we powered up our laptops and sampled such treats as miniature p. b. and J. cookies (yum!), muffins, and sandwiches on to-die-for bread. Plenty of coffee - and in my case, tea - was consumed as well.

After a couple of hours we started feeling restless, so after a stop at a fun consignment store, we headed up to Capital Hill, where some of us had lunch and wrote some more at The Canterbury (killer tater tots!), and others took a stroll along the cold but not yet snowy streets. Then we reconvened at Cafe Ladro for more pastries, tea and coffee and, of course, more writing.

It hasn't snowed yet, but I don't regret spending a day in town in the company of friends doing what I love most: writing!

What about you? Is there a particular place you like to go to get away from it all and commune with your muse? And eat pastries?

Helen, Photo, Author

How much is enough?

 I don't know if anyone's noticed, but I haven't blogged in a while. Why? Well, I was desperately trying to finish a draft of my work-in-progress so I could get it in to my agent. Time is of the essence in my life -- between teaching Pilates, teaching dance, being a stepmom, a wife, and a writer, there's just not a lot of it to spare. Over the past few weeks I felt that every available moment needed to be devoted to completing my manuscript.

The good news is, I did it! I spent last Tuesday evening tweaking it till I could tweak no more, then hit the Send button so it would be in my agent's inbox Wednesday morning. Now all I have to do is bite my nails and wait for him to read it and give me feedback.

Yesterday afternoon, a pamphlet from the publicity department at HM Harcourt showed up in my inbox. It was full of suggestions for authors on maintaining an online presence. Under "Blogging," they assert that to be effective, a blog should be updated a minimum of three times a week.

That number stopped me cold. I feel like a reject for letting my blog slide. And I find myself wondering whether, if I can't blog three times or more a week, I should even be blogging at all.

What do you think? Is it worth it to blog if  you can't blog three times a week, or even bi-weekly? What if you only want to blog once in a while, when you have something important to share? Or is it the consistency that counts; letting your readers know that you'll be there at the same bat time, same bat channel each week, whether you have something significant to say or not?

I hope you'll weigh in, dear readers. My inquiring mind truly wants to know.
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    contemplative contemplative
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Helen, Photo, Author

Book Feast!

 Librarians and YA/MG literature enthusiasts, here is a chance to win copies of the latest debut novels for yourself or your libraries! The Book Feast, hosted by The Elevensies, will run an installment of this giveaway each season, so you can have the opportunity to win all of 2011's fabulous books by debut authors. 

Fellow Elevensie Terry Lynn Johnson, whose novel DOGSLED DREAMS is part of this season's giveaway, has done such a good job of explaining how Book Feast works that I'll direct you to her blog for details.

Helen, Photo, Author

I've got title!

 I've been waiting impatiently for my editor at Harcourt to give me the go-ahead to announce the official new title of the book formerly known as BROKEN WINGS. The time has come, and my new title is....


I like it. I like the way it reflects the bird-rescue subplot in my book and the way it evokes escape. I like that it's a little quirky and unusual just like Stevie, my main character. I even like the angularity of the letters and the fact that it's one word. I'm hoping the cover designers will do something cool with it!

Thanks to everyone who gave me title suggestions. I loved many of them, but in the end, the decision was made by my editor and the marketing department.

Guess what song's been playing in my head all day?


  • Current Music
    Spread Your Wings by Queen
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Helen, Photo, Author

5 Techniques for "Unstoppable" Suspense

 I missed the movie "Unstoppable," starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, when it first came out, so when it came to our local three-dollar-a-seat theater, I jumped at the chance to see it. And I'm really glad I did - not just because it was, in my opinion, a terrific film, but because it so beautifully reinforced everything I've ever read about creating suspense. Here are five techniques I saw at work in "Unstoppable."

1.  Make your viewer/readers care about the characters.

I've seen movies (and read books) where bombs explode, cars crash, and people die right and left, and I felt nothing because I didn't care about the people these things were happening too. In "Unstoppable," you get to know the main characters and their backstories enough that, when it becomes clear that they stand a good chance of getting killed by the runaway train, you can't help rooting for them to make it to safety.

2. Foreshadow

From the moment the film opened, I got a delicious feeling that something bad was going to happen. The film makers took great care to show the mass and power of the trains as well as set up the dumb mistake that gets the whole plot rolling in the first place.

3. Set the clock ticking.

I've heard this rule so many times, but the movie was a great opportunity to see it in action. They kept cutting to the scene in the railroad strategy room, where you could see exactly where the runaway train was on the map and how quickly it was approaching the characters you'd come to care about.

4. Vary the pacing.

When I see movies or read books where it's all action all the time, I get desensitized. "Unstoppable" alternates between high tension scenes and scenes that focus on the main characters getting to know each other. These dialogue-heavy scenes, which are also humorous in places, give the viewer a chance to relax, breathe, and get ready for the next onslaught of tension.

5. Up the stakes.

This wasn't just a movie about two guys who might get killed by a runaway train. It was about two guys who had to stop a runaway train before it got to a highly populated area with a cargo of hazardous materials and crashed into a bunch of fuel tanks, potentially killing tens of thousands of people.

Next time I need some help with my writing, instead of picking up a book, I think I'll go to the movies!
Helen, Photo, Author

snow driving

I'm a wimp when it comes to driving in the snow. I grew up in San Diego and didn't see my first snowfall until I went to school at S.U.N.Y. Purchase at age twenty-one, so obviously I never learned to drive in it. Add to that the fact that snow driving in Seattle, with all its hills and undprepared roads and drivers, is a game of Russian roulette, and maybe you'll understand why I'll do just about anything to avoid being caught behind the wheel in the snow.

Well, guess what? Yesterday the weather forecasters were predicting a big snowfall anywhere from two o'clock on. The Department of Transportation sent out warnings, asking people to get home early if at all possible. But two o'clock came and went, then three, four, and five, and still no snow.

At six-thrity the weather was still cloudy and dry, so I decided the forecasters had been wrong and headed off for my book club meeting. I noticed a few flakes falling as I walked from my car to my friend's front door, but they were so small and wet, I thought, "no big deal." We had a lovely meeting discussing THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE and eating homemade cranberry bread, then about nine o'clock we wrapped up. I stepped out the front door, and ....snow!

My nightmare had come true: I was going to have to make my way home along streets covered with the slippery white stuffl. It was a white-knuckle drive all the way, with me going twenty miles an hour and saying my prayers every time I fishtailed. But I made it.

Sitting at my computer today, I started to think about how writing a novel is like driving in the snow. It's scary as hell, and you're not sure you're going to make it to the end, but you set your fingers to the keyboard and do it anyway. Every once in awhile you swerve off course and your heart leaps into your throat and you tell yourself you should never have attempted this crazy thing,  but somehow you get back on track. And when you finally make it to The End safe and sound, you thank your lucky stars and pump up your courage to go back and do it all again.