Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong

When my book first came out, I was lucky enough to chat (through email) with the real nephew of Neil Armstrong. He told a story about his uncle helping a woman whose car broke down in a store parking lot in Wisconsin. At some point, the woman noticed that the man underneath the hood of her car looked familiar. When she mentioned to him that he resembled Neil Armstrong, he quipped, "Yeah. I get that a lot".

I suspect that the woman went home, put her food in the frig, and over dinner told her family about the nice man who helped her in the parking lot. She might have even mentioned that he looked like the first man to walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong called himself a "nerdy engineer". He probably hated being called a "hero" and reminded people that thousands of people worked to make that great moment happen. But on July 20, 1969, it was Neil Armstrong who took the controls of the lunar lander, known as the Eagle. When it became apparent that the automatic pilot was going to set the Eagle down in an area filled with giant boulders and craters, Neil Armstrong flew it manually. With only a minute of fuel left, he searched for a safe place to land. Back on earth in Mission Control the atmosphere was so tense that famed Flight Director Gene Kranz told the Flight Communicator Charlie Duke  "You’d better remind them there ain’t no damn gas stations on the moon."  Even with all those years of planning and all that hard work from thousands of people in private companies and government agencies, there nothing Mission Control could do. It was all in the hands of one man.

Along with the rest of the world, Mission Control waited.
With only twenty seconds of fuel left, the lunar lander touched down. Neil Armstrong calmly announced "the Eagle has landed."

The world cheered.
A few hours later, that "nerdy engineer" took that first historic step.

Here's part of the statement from Neil Armstrong's family:

"...While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.

For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In this post, I ask debut author Nikki Loftin sinisterly hard questions

In her debut middle grade book The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy Nikki Lofin has managed to combine all of my favorite things: candy, some dark humor, a great story, lovely writing, a school with a rock climbing wall and did I mention candy?

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy--Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei's favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister?
It's up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. What they discover chills their bones--and might even pick them clean!

Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you've got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy.

Nikki’s book has been called a “mesmerizing read” and an “irresistible contemporary fairy tale.” Sure, it’s been likened to Grimm, and I’ve even heard some comparisons to the great Roald Dahl but this story is pure Nikki. Smart. Witty. And fun.
On her launch day, Nikki is here at Ramble Street so I got to ask her a few questions about her writing process.

Welcome Nikki. Let the questions begin.  
So how'd you find your way into Middle Grade books? 

I took a left at Self-Help and wandered through Romance? Okay, kidding. Although not about the romance part! A few years back, I realized that I’d been deferring my dream of Being a Writer until suddenly, there I was, gray hair and all, with the same unfulfilled dream I’d had when I was young and perky. So I started writing… a romance. A very bad paranormal romance in which the characters were never quite able to, um, take that final step (if you know what I mean) because I couldn’t write that squicky sex stuff! Once I put all 60,000 words of that aside, I found the plots pouring into my head were all middle grade – the kinds of stories I made up for my kids at night. The kinds of stories I’d devoured as a kid. And so far, the middle grade trend has continued! 
Thanks goodness. I wasn’t sure I could write one more heaving bosom or chiseled chest if my life depended on it.

Well, I’m glad you left Romance. Let’s talk about writing. What's your favorite part of the process? You plot, right? I don't. My outline is generally my first draft (which is extremely time-consuming). Do you have any suggestions to help us non-plotters? How do you approach plotting? Do you know the ending of the story right away? Do you start with a what-if scenario? A theme?

Oh, pantsers. We all think the rest of the world plots, don’t we? It’s our deepest insecurity.
No, Nan, I don’t plot, not if I can help it. Plotting is for old fogies, soulless robotic word count monkeys who shun the Muse, etc. (Just kidding! Some of my very best friends are word count monkeys. They can’t help it that they have no souls.)
I love that feeling of a new story, unfolding like a mystery as I work. I usually start with a what if scenario, and build it mentally until the first lines start to come. Then I race to the keyboard!
Of course, I don’t wing it entirely – about 10,000 words into a new novel, I’ll sort of chart out what I think will happen, just to make sure I have enough story there to keep it going for an entire book! But I make sure I don’t plot out what the ending will be, as I firmly believe that if I already know that, then: a. the writing won’t be any fun, and b. the story will be predictable and boring.
My best advice would be to read the screenwriting book SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder, and adapt it to work for your novel. It’s been transformative for many writers lost in their plotlines…including me! As long as I use any structure loosely, I’m good. Gotta leave room for the magic to happen, right? :)

Wait. You don’t plot either? I’ve read your book and a few pages of a first draft of another story you wrote. I was sure you plotted. Are we non-plotters insecure? My stories start with “what if” scenarios and, like you, I wander through my first drafts.

Okay, next question: I'm sure you've had many wonderful things happen since you've gotten "the call". Holding your first book in your hand is a dream come true. But I found that lots of unexpected wonderful things happen along the way too. What has your experience been?

Oh my gosh. I think the Big Day that’s coming next weekend – my book launch party at the local indie, Bookpeople, in Austin -- may be the cherry on top of this whole three years of work. I mean, it’s not every day your Life’s Dream comes true, right? And so my family and friends are all coming – some of them flying into the state just for the occasion. It’s humbling and joyful and terrifying… like a wedding and a debutante ball and an inauguration all mixed together. And the friends who can’t be there are celebrating with me like you are, on blogs and Twitter and Facebook! Sharing my joy with all my favorite people? So much to be happy about. (And on a related note, so many cupcakes to bake! Must get started on that…)

Nikki, I’m jumping up and down for you. Having that dream come true is amazing. There are so many great parts, like getting "the call" and working with an editor (which is my favorite part of the process). And speaking of editors, have you noticed that there are tons of writing books on how to get your first book published and just as many about how to market your first book. But when it comes to books about writing, there seems to be a big black hole when it comes to talking about the editorial process. What was that part like?

Strangely smooth! (For the first book, anyway. And I’d love to talk about the subsequent books, but I’m going to need more time to recover. As in, a few years. Someday, they tell me, that second book pain will all be valuable to me. Anyway…)
For some reason, my editor liked my first book pretty much in the form I turned it in, which was a great blessing, as I hate revising like unmedicated dental surgery. The most annoying thing was trying to find better names for the book and my main characters. But I thought all of her revision suggestions made perfect sense, and I was happy to tweak away! Also, I’m a fairly “clean” writer, so there wasn’t a hugely humiliating copyedit phase.
Of course, I’m going to plead the fifth on this question if you ever ask about Book #2.
I don’t think anyone has the same experience twice, so maybe that’s why there’s no book about the editorial process! Or maybe they’re all keeping secrets from us…

I do like the idea that someone is keeping secrets, but I think you’re right about the differences in the editorial process. I've gone through the process twice, and it does seem like each book goes its own way. So are you done with book two? I’ve heard that one is the hardest. As far as writing goes, I’m the opposite. Revision is my favorite thing. That first draft. That blank computer screen.  That’s the scary part for me.

One last question from the candy addict in New Jersey. What’s your favorite candy?

I think my most addictive candy would be peanut M&Ms. But my favorite is Dark Chocolate with Orange Lindt bars. Mmmmm. I ate SO MANY of these in the past year. 

My current favorite candies are those peppermint patties. I promise to eat a bunch of them today in honor of your book launch.

Thanks for stopping by, Nikki. Enjoy your day! Hope you'll come back to Ramble Street soon.