What I've been up to this afternoon

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I mentioned recently that I planned to practice drawing again. I miss it something fierce, and hey, getting my old skills back will only improve trailers of the future. THE FUTURE!

So, here's what I've been up to this afternoon. They're just sketches, but I can totally feel myself getting better. Recognize anyone? If you click it, they will get bigger. I think.
Oh, and by the way. I'm racing Kurtis Scaletta to 500 Twitter followers. The moment I do reach 500, I will give away two free copies of The Absolute Value of -1 to random followers. Here's my Twitter. I'm not telling you Kurtis's.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

That is, "recently asked questions."

End of last week, I was featured over at Edited to Within an Inch of my Life, the blog of Heather Kelly. She asked some great questions, and I supplied adequate response . . . most of the time! Some of my answers were totally inadequate! Hence, there were some follow-up questions in the comments. I will now, using my great powers of eye sight, insight, and foresight, answer those questions!

1. The title

That crazy title of mine! It's a catchy, intimidating mouthful, isn't it? And until recently, I had the darnedest time discussing it intelligently. But lo and behold, at BEA, I recorded the podcast linked in the previous entry at this blog, and on the spot as I was, I managed to produce a pretty decent answer. To sum up: The Absolute Value of -1, or |-1|, simply means 1, mathematically. More poetically, the idea is that the three main characters of the novel (Lily, Simon, and Noah) are dealing with a new absence. The title implies a question: what is the value of that absence, and how does it begin to shape Lily, Simon, and Noah into new adults?

As to how we came up with it, this was a group effort on the part of the Aforementioned Editor, me, and my wife. We each made a list of ideas. The Absolute Value of -1 appeared on my wife's list, and after a couple of rounds of voting, let's call it, was chosen.

2. The process

Heather asked me about how I write, and I only answered with regard to |-1|, really rather an oddball book, process-wise. So now I'll try to expand that answer a bit, since I will (hopefully) never write a novel using the |-1| (fifteen-year-long and terribly confusing) method.

(We all know what a pantser is, right?)

I have a couple of distinct methods, depending on what I'm writing. If I'm outlining, chances are good I'm doing a work-for-hire job. My outlines usually work like this: I have a vague idea what I need the story to be about (a recent example is a horror story that takes places in a movie theater). In a very pantsery way, I start an outline. I type "chapter one," and write a few sentences on what will happen in chapter one, including characters who need to be introduced. At this point, since I am at heart a pantser, I have no idea how this thing is going to end, or which characters I really need, so I wing it.

Here is a sample opening chapter in outline form:


NAME is walking to school, very slowly because it’s early. His friend meets him and they walk on. Both are slow and tired. It’s winter. Their hoods are on, their eyes are sunken and dark. Everyone’s are, after all. In homeroom, the principal, who sounds very tired, He announces the typical mumbo jumbo, and then says the head lunch lady, to brighten up our day, has added hot chocolate to the menu, free of charge!

Notice no names have been chosen yet. Also notice a little bit of set up has already happened, specifically that these students appear to be the walking dead, and that there's free cocoa. (Doesn't sound like much, but when you consider this is the opening chapter of a middle-school zombie chapter book, it begins to add up.)

At some point during this pantsery outlining method, I'll actually realize how things need to end, what people's names will be, and other important details like that. Then I can go back and add things. Since it's such a succinct form, that isn't the headache it would be if I simply pantsed it (more on that in my next process section). For example, though I don't save outline drafts, so I can't prove this, I suspect the line about free cocoa was added when I was already halfway done with the outline, since it would not be like me to predict the Chekhov gun I'd need so handily.

So, once this outline is all done and the dots connect, it's simply a matter of adding lots of flesh to the bones: give characters voice and shape, build the setting, write the action scenes where needed.

Did I just gloss over a hard part with that whole "simply a matter of" stuff? If so, I apologize. To me, that isn't "process" itself anymore.

Okay, moving on.

Process the second: writing a novel. I'm a pantser for like 20 or 30 or even 40 or 50 thousand words. There was a time not long ago that I would simply give up when I realized I was out in the middle of the ocean with no paddle and no clue where the shore was anyway. Friends used to tell me to simply gather all my lost novels into a collection called Beginnings.

What I do now, as opposed to what I did with |-1| (which I won't dwell on), is to back-outline-- write a synopsis, even. That is, with lots of good scenes written, I put that aside and start building a proper skeleton. Could I do this first? I think probably not, because I can't get a good idea of the story I want to tell without a well fleshed-out character, chock full of voice, attitude, conflict, loss, and whatever else shows up when I'm pantsing.

Creating the skeleton at this point is certainly the most difficult aspect of writing a novel for me. Two cases:

YA MS the Second, which I started around Christmas 2008 and which is still unfinished-- I wrote about 40 thousand words on this one before it began to fell apart. It took months, I think over a year, to get a synopsis that I was fairly happy with. I've now finished a draft, but it is still not right, because the synopsis is still not right. It's going to take a lot of thought to figure where I need to make changes or put my protagonist down a road I was afraid to before. (More on that right now:)

YA MS the Third, which I started about a year ago, came as quickly at the beginning, and again I found myself drowning. But this time I got lucky: while hunting for inspiration, looking at photos of Greenpoint, Brooklyn (the novel's setting), I stumbled on a news story I had missed when it was news, having just left New York. In 2006, a warehouse (one I was already using as a major location in the novel) had burned for two days. Everything clicked then, and I knew what my protagonist had to go through to bring the book's arc where it needed to be. Outlining at that point was relatively easy. The problem then was putting my protagonist through it: suspicion, arrest, social workers would have to get involved. This was more than I'd ever intended when I'd started. I don't know a thing about social work, police stations, criminal negligence! So I hemmed and hawed, I did everything I could to avoid researching and writing those difficult scenes. The whole time, though, I knew that if I could just push through that material, I'd have a finished plot! So why did I resist? I can't say, but I do it all the time, and if my crit group comrades are any indication, so do a lot of other writers. Check yourself: my guess is that you do too.

The solution for me was, eventually, was to remind myself that "testing out" a road by writing a few scenes, even leaving out that which I did not yet know via research, would not hurt me. It would not hurt the finished novel of the future. It would not hurt my protagonist. It would just take a couple of hours. Big whoop! It's well worth that and much more to find the right arc.

One other point when it comes to novel writing. As I mentioned, the "outlining halfway through to be sure I ever reach the end" is the hardest part for me. Don't get the idea I get this done in an afternoon, simply thinking about my characters, the 40k words I have already, and what the overarching conflict is. No no. With YA MS the Third, for example, I divided the existent work into distinct scenes. Since the book contains a buttload of flashbacks, as is my wont, I then arranged the scenes (printed out and everything) in chronological order. I then synopsized each scene, thereby creating an outline of what I already had. I shuffled the scenes around quite a bit to maximize tension, to withhold some information while revealing other information--always to maximize tension. Only when that was done (it took weeks) was I able to see where my protagonist had to go (the lock-up!) to give me the climax I needed.

Oh man, I nearly forgot! If not for this advice from Cyn Omololu, I sincerely doubt I would have finished YA MS the Third even yet. It is invaluable, and I suggest referring to it often.

3. Schedule

I am very lucky. I do not have a full-time job (unless you count stay-at-home dad, which you totally should, for crying out loud). I do, however, have in-laws, and those in-laws have been very generous with their time. That means babysitters, people, and babysitters mean coffee shops for me, and coffee shops for me mean work time.

I do have one set day every week (Tuesday, as it happens) on which I will get at least six hours of work time, thanks to a SIL. I'll use that time to write freely, work on a work-for-hire project, write a blog entry like this one, or struggle through any of the steps in the processes described above. Most weeks, I'll also take a Saturday morning or afternoon. Many weeks (especially during the summer), I'll get a second week day, thanks to the MIL.

So is it a set schedule? Sort of. One thing is for sure: I will always get 10 to 12 hours per week with which to write or do related work. I'd like more, and someday I'll get more. Even this fall, when Sam starts pre-school, I'll get a nice twelve hour chunk right there, and I will use it to write assuming I can concentrate while I'm worrying about my son in pre-school!

Okay, I think I managed to answer the questions in the comments on that interview. That process answer was hell of long. I hope it made sense.

"I'm very immature"

Thursday, June 24, 2010

This will shortly become a permanent fixture over at my main site, stevebrezenoff.com, but for now, enjoy this four-minute interview I did during BEA.

And speaking of the main site, I also finally wrote a "long version" of my bio. Check it out!

Dad's Day 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

Been a while.

Yesterday was Father's Day. Father's Day and I have a spotty history for the last ten years. I haven't been too into celebrating it, in fact, until last year, when I was for the first time a dad on that Sunday. It was a pretty intense shift in my perspective about the holiday.

One of my gifts from Beth, Sam, and Harry this year was a picture book called The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers. It's a beautiful book, about loss and coping and learning how to put one's self at risk again, and it sums up my feelings on Father's Day very nicely. It's also very sad in a way, though it ends on a positive note. If you haven't looked at it yet, I hope you will, especially if you are someone who has lost a parent, perhaps a little sooner than you thought you might.

On the brighter side, I was also gifted with a hand-crank pasta maker and a gift card to a coffee shop at which I like to write. The real highpoint, though, was our bike ride up to Como Park for a late morning picnic. That was perfect. Here's a photo of our bikes: (ETA, Blogger image uploading is wonky. This will have to wait, of you can check this Twitpic.)

Also there was a lovely Indian dinner and a Buffy marathon. We're on a big Buffy kick, Beth and I, the last few days. We started right in season four, the one we probably know the least, but knowing us we'll go right through the rest of the series before we stop. Perhaps we'll even be inclined to watch one, two, and three afterward.

It's just over two months till the official release of The Absolute Value of -1. Watch this space for a bunch of contests and giveaways during the summer.

Lots of tunes!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I'm on two deadlines right now, and waiting for some exciting news. So, to pass the time while simultaneously procrastinating on those two deadlines, I will now drop my 200th blog post: my official playlist for YA MS the Third, a book almost no one has read!

I hope it won't disappoint anyone.

I don't make a habit of publicizing my working tunes, but recently, the AE was recommended a particular Avett Brothers song, one that played a nearly formative role in YA MS the Third. We got to tweeting briefly on the subject, and I decided I'd go ahead and share my full set list. I'm finally getting around to doing so.

Some of these are old, old favorites. Others are newer tunes that were in such frequent rotation that they colored the mood of the book to some extent. Others, like the aforementioned Avett Brothers tune, are so appropriate to the book it's uncanny, especially when you consider how much of the plot and characterization was set in stone before I even heard them.

Without further annoying ado!:

(grouped by artist)

Avett Brothers
"I and Love and You" -- this was the song the AE first tweeted, and the first song that I associated with the book. It's lyrics are crazy appropriate, as its general vibe of hopeful melancholia.

"Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise" -- this one maintains the previous mood, but its lyrics feel somehow even more appropriate. I verge on tears when I hear this one, simply because it reminds me so much of my main characters.

"Kick Drum Heart" -- a more upbeat tune from these bluegrass punk fellows, this tune captures nicely the not-so-uncommon lighter moments in the book.

"Never Forget You" -- I always felt this tune fit the vague retro feel of YA MS the Third. Its theme, also, of long-lasting friendship, especially with booze involved, fit nicely with a sub-story.

"Sometimes" and "Cheap Kicks" -- mood-wise, same deal as above. They just work, to me.

The Ting-Tings
"We Walk" -- you knew I had to get my Ting-Tings in here, and this song is the only one on the album that feels appropriate, lyrics and mood-wise. The Ting-Tings bring the added bonus of being a two-person band, which is relevant to YA MS the Third. Also, there are no rhymes, which always impresses me.

"One Step Beyond" -- whenever I sit down to work on or simply read through YA MS the Third, this is the song I first put on -- it's on right now. It is the over-arching theme of the book to me, though I can't say for sure why. If you see me at BEA next year in checkered Vans instead of orange Chucks, you'll know why.

The Replacements
"Androgynous" -- a longtime favorite of mine that sneaked into the manuscript toward the end of my last phase of revisions, and I'm glad it did. This tune and "One Step Beyond" are I think the only ones mentioned directly in the MS.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"Heads Will Roll" -- I needed a couple of angry vocalists on this set list for one particularly angsty scene, and Karen O -- who isn't from Brooklyn, but always makes me think of Williamsburg -- couldn't have been more perfect.

The Gossip
"Heavy Cross" -- not sure what it is about this tune, but it felt like a natural for the MS and to rock along with Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It's also one of the first tunes my son danced to, so hey.

Belle & Sebastian
"We Are the Sleepyheads" -- I have no idea what this song is actually about, but the frenetic fun vibe of this tune suits plenty of sunny, lovey moments in the MS. Plus I was dying to get something from this amazing album on the set list.

That's it! I hope you hear some new songs and enjoy them. Let me know.

We're baaaaack

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


This was a good vacation, almost entirely, which is a pretty good score.

There was my first visit to BEA, and as a signing author no less. There was the Great Pizza Tour of 2010 (more on that in a bit). There were several books read, which when you consider my reading speed is really great. There was a visit to old friends at S&S. And there was the tummy flu -- which is less fun, but no vacation is perfect.

First up, the books. As mentioned previously, I finally read The Freak Observer. Powerful stuff. I also picked up another Carolrhoda ARC, this time for a middle-grade called I, Emma Freke. So good! I don't read as much middle-grade as I used to or as I'd like to, but I found this book positively enchanting. If the gorgeous cover sets the bar pretty high, the book itself is right there with it.

And speaking of high bars, Angela Johnson, I am sorry for not reading you sooner. I picked up an ARC of Sweet, Hereafter (the book came out in January of this year, so I don't know why an ARC is floating around, but anyway), and my mind was blown. What this woman accomplishes in under 140 pages is astounding. Gut-wrenchingly astounding. Heart-breakingly astounding. I have an ouevre to purchase and devour, I think.

Okay, so. The pizza tour. The first thing I ate when I arrived in Manhattan last week was a slice and a sicilian slice at a random joint on 9th Avenue, called appropriately enough 9th Avenue Pizza. The plain slice was good. The sicilian was about 30 minutes past its prime. A photo I sent to facebook:

Of course if you know me at all, you know that was only the beginning. There was also the requisite trip -- okay, two trips -- to Eddie's. But friends, this visit to NY set a new standard. My accomplices and I began dinner at Motorino, the new-ish VPN joint housed in the space that once belonged to Una Pizza Napoletana (probably where I had the best VPN pie of my life). It was great. Better than Punch? Hard to say -- at least for the margherita pie. But the special we got -- a white pie with brussell sprouts and pancetta -- was amazing. Probably the shining star of the evening.

From Motorino, we headed west to Keste. Here's a photo:

Keste was good, but I think not as good as Motorino nor as good as Punch. The cheese on the margherita, while touted as buffalo and might have been, felt undercooked and slightly rubbery. It didn't have that wet ooziness that Motorino's pies had so well.

Finally, we stopped quickly at Joe's on 6th Avenue, just around the corner, for what is the best good old NYC slice in town. When people say NY-style, this is what they mean, and what none of them can do quite as well.

So there ya have it! Our trip to NYC in a nut shell. Now I have loads of laundry to do, mail to go through, groceries to buy, and this pesky tummy flu to wrangle.