Wednesday, February 29, 2012

King Kong, Cowbirds and Teen Critiques

I'm dipping into my archives for this post tonight. I got caught up today with some traumatic doctors appointments (everything's fine), homework help, meals, general exhaustion and then a family bonding movie of King Kong - the original 1933 version. As my son said, "How long could girls scream back then?" (I will say, for the time period I'm pretty impressed by the special effects and sets.)

But this post, unfortunately, doesn't have much to do with King Kong.
It does have to do with my son's comments, though. You see, I have two bona fide teens living under my roof, and they have some pretty strong opinions about things. I always imagined that having a teen or two on tap would be a fabulous thing for a YA writer like me. There'd always be someone to try out my novels on and get their thoughts, right? Right?

Not so fast

My kids know I spend way too much time living in my head. But it doesn't necessarily mean they want to share the gray matter space with me. They know to repeat themselves several times for requests, or better yet, write it on a sticky note and paste it to my computer screen. They know my eyes may be focused on their faces but I'll really be rehashing some scene from my book. 

Cute Cowbird - Not  (
Sometimes I wonder if my writing is the cowbird of our family. You know, the egg that's laid in a cute little songbirds nest, only to hatch into a huge, ugly bird that kicks its step-siblings out and hogs all of the parent's time and resources? Maybe it is resentment that causes my kids to turn up their noses when I want to share a part of my 'fabulous' book, but more likely it's just the age.

Teens can be fickle creatures. Hard to please. But, those very things that can drive me bonkers most of the time are some of the best qualities in a YA critiquer. After all, don't we want the cold hard truth if our work will connect with its target audience?  I do. So here are a couple tricks I employ when I want to know what my teens think.

Catch them unawares

The easiest method I've found to turn a teen into an unwitting critiquer is to wait until they're relaxed, but not otherwise engaged in any electronics (I know, it's a rare occasion). Then I start reading out loud. As soon as they roll their eyes, fidget, or otherwise leave mentally or physically, I know I've lost them. More often than once it's happened during the first paragraph. But the few times they've listened for a whole chapter, I knew I was on to something.


Yes, I'm not above paying for my teen's critiquing prowess. But, if I'm giving (whether it's screen time, sugar or something else), they have to give a little extra back, too.

One way to get a more in depth critique and still make it easy for them is a simplified version of a critique list. It's in a format any kid would probably recognize. I usually create a bookmark and ask my teen to simply write the 'grade' next to a section they notice a problem with.
A – Awesome, amazing, aw yeah – This is good.
B – Bored – Really just not that into this. Too long. When does the action start?
C – Confused – What just happened there? Who did what, now?
D – Dumb – That would never happen. They would never do that. I don’t believe it.

And lastly, I ask them to draw a line where they would have put the story down if they didn’t have to keep reading to get their bribe, er, reward (this might be the most important step because it lets me know when the story really goes off the rails). That’s it.

A warning, though, use your teens sparingly. They won’t want to read the fifteenth reincarnation of the same scene. If you have enough teens around, use a different lot for the first draft and the one you hope is the final draft (don’t be afraid to mortify your kids, younger siblings or neighbors by asking who their friends are - and can you borrow them?). It’s always good to have a fresh set of eyes on your work. 

So there you have it. Having feedback is invaluable, and getting it fairly painlessly from your target audience, even better. I think these methods can work nearly as well on younger kids and spouses, too. What things have you done to get your work critiqued?

~ Susan

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning to Think Like a Writer

After being out of grad school for…umm…a little more than a few years, I recently got another publication in a reputable scientific journal . Before I get any further, I have to say that Megan Brinkmeyer (a current grad student for my Ph.D. advisor, whom I have never met) did the bulk of the research for this paper. If she hadn’t taken up this project my brilliant (well, sort of brilliant) data would only be published in my thesis which if I’m lucky will be read by maybe ten people. So Megan if you happen to accidentally stumble on this blog, thanks, you rock!!! :)

Bear with me; this will tie into writing I promise. :)

Learning to think like a scientist

I’m not going to bore you with the details, but the data used in this paper was my first project when I joined the lab. I worked on it then got frustrated with it, worked on something else then came back to it. And I did this off and on for my entire graduate career.

When I got the green light to write my thesis, I gathered all my data on this project and scattered it around me and tried to piece it together into a cohesive chapter. It didn’t take me long to realize that all my data said NOTHING. It was all useless, dead ends, and I could not put it in my thesis.

So I sat down and really thought about the project until I formed a new hypothesis, then I designed experiments to test it. I ran the experiments night and day for about a week, and I got good results that made that chapter really strong. In one week, I did what I couldn’t do in four years.

What takes the bulk of the time in grad school isn’t the research but learning how to research. And at the end of your graduate career, you should have retrained your mind to see things more objectively, to think more critically, to look for creative solutions. You should’ve learned to think like a scientist.

My being able to solve that problem in a week really exemplified this. It was gratifying to see that growth in me, that a problem that had plagued me for so long was now obvious, and I really felt that I had gotten to where I needed to graduate and move on to the next level.

How Learning to do research is like learning to write.

I’ve been writing for four years now, and once again, I feel like I’m retraining my mind, but this time it is to think like a writer. Here are a few similarities I've found between learning to do scientific research and learning to write.

1. You are never going to learn without actually doing it. Reading up on all the scientific theories and techniques isn’t going to teach you anything if you don’t actually get your butt into lab and do the physical research.

Likewise, you will never learn to write without actually writing. Don’t worry about reading up on all the theory and studying every book in your genre before you start to write. You’ve already read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies. That was your undergrad degree, now you are ready to start writing. So get your butt in the chair.

2. BUT reading is essential. It is absolutely necessary that you stay current on the scientific literature in your field. If you don’t know what is going on, you are going to fall behind and become irrelevant. Also, you will rob yourself from inspiration. Reading about what others have done could spark a brilliant idea that could lead you to the Nobel Prize.

In writing, reading is just as essential. Tastes of readers evolve, so you need to stay current in your genre. Also, reading is a great source of inspiration. You just need to accept that reading is part of writing and make time for both for the rest of your life.

3. You need to learn about the tools available to you and learn how to use them effectively. Millions of scientists have come before you and passed down vital information generation after generation. They have developed techniques, protocols, and instruments that will be necessary for your research. The most brilliant hypothesis doesn’t do you any good if you can’t test it, and to do that, you need these tools.

Writing is no different. Millions of writers have come before you. They have learned things and have passed on their wisdom, so have editors, agents, English professors. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? These are your tools (usually called the "rules" of writing). Learn them and how to use them effectively.

4. You can’t be afraid to tweak those tools. In research, the protocols and techniques rarely work perfectly. You are doing something that has never been done before even if you are using methods that have been thoroughly established. Most of the time you have to tweak the protocol to get it to work. This is one of the most challenging parts of research.

In writing it is the same thing. You are writing something that has never been written before in your own unique way. And while the “rules” are helpful, you can’t just follow them exactly and get the results you want. You have to be brave enough to tweak them, play around with them until you get them to work for you.

5. You are going to fail, accept it. Research leads you to lots of dead ends. Your hypothesis may be proven wrong or worse you get unpublishable results. Failure is part of the game. You need to take what you can from it, shake it off, and move on.

Writing is no different. You’re going to fail. You’re going to have to rewrite, trunk novels, and abandon your precious words. It is hard. Especially when you’ve put so much time into something, but nothing is ever done in vain. It is just part of learning. Learn the lessons, shake it off, and move on.

6. Don’t ignore your intuition. The idea that there is some intuition in science might seem strange. While you do need concrete evidence to prove your hypothesis, if something in the data looks strange or feels off, it might be worth investigating rather than brushing it aside as unimportant. Sometimes intuition pays off; sometimes it doesn’t, but it is always worth considering just in case your subconscious is picking up something your conscious mind missed.

In writing I think intuition is much more important. You are trying to give the audience an emotional experience, and emotions are for the most part intuitive. You have read thousands of books and seen thousands of movies, and your unconcious mind has most likely absorbed the patterns in story telling. So trust your instincts (for more on this read Sarah’s beautiful post).

So these are my tips for changing how you think. They worked for me in grad school, and hopefully they will work for me in my writing endeavors.

I know I’m still not there. But I hope that there will come a time when I scatter my WIP around me trying to makes sense of this whole writing thing, and suddenly that which had eluded me for so long finally becomes so clear and so obvious, and I realize that I’ve retrained my mind to think like a writer. Then I’m finally ready for the next step.


Monday, February 27, 2012

How To Lose Weight...Without Even Trying.

Since it's the end of February, it's probably about time I get started working on my New Year's Resolution.

Every time I write a novel, I gain twenty pounds. I don't mean to do it. It's just that my muse's best friend is chocolate. Also, butt in chair is good for producing word counts, but also produces an increase in a different number.

So, if you too suffer from NIWG, (novel induced weight gain) here are a few tips I've found that help when you try to edit the number on the scale.

1. Start your diet journey with whitening your teeth.

 There are a few reasons for this.

Every day for a week you have to spend 45 minutes with your mouth closed. If you're like me, and there are certain hours that are more snack tempting than others, plan to whiten your teeth during that hour, and you can cut out a bunch of calories a day.

 After you whiten your teeth, they can be a bit sensitive to cold and sweet, which means that Ben and Jerry's in the fridge will be less tempting.

 But the main reason I suggest whitening your teeth, is because for the next week, every time you look in the mirror, you will smile. After smiling at yourself every day for seven days, it could become a habit. Besides, who doesn't look better with white teeth? When you feel good about what's going on in your mouth, then you want to feel good about what goes into your mouth. Makes sense to me.

2. Find someone to hold you accountable. Get a gym buddy. There's no way that I would have blogged once a week if I didn't know MaryAnn was going to check it first thing, and that Sarah would eventually get around to reading it too. :) Quite by accident, I found two gym buddies who go every week day at 5:00 A.M. (sigh)  Magically, it's become my favorite time of the day, and I'm bummed that I missed it this morning. Hi, gym buddies!

3. As a writer, I live inside my own head at least 75% of the truth that number is probably much higher. When I try to diet, a lot of my mind energy is focused on who I'll be six months from now, or who I was in High School, or even who I think I should be, but is genetically impossible for me to ever be. That kind of thinking isn't helpful, and it isn't healthy.

 Now I'm not going to tell you you always need to live in the NOW, because let's face it, sometimes the NOW is super boring. I think the best time to live in, (in your head) is when you were 4.

My daughter is four, and when you tell her she's beautiful, so doesn't roll her eyes, or doubt it, or even says thank you. She says, "I know."

I love that girl.

So this is the tip...whenever you think something negative about yourself, or compare yourself to another person, think...would a four-year-old think that?

 If not, then don't drop character- Go play tag, eat your vegetables (and make a funny face when you do it), ride your bike, go to bed early, play dress up in your nicest princess dress, (or knight in shining armor clothes), put on a tiara,( if you have one), and then look in the mirror and smile.

You owe it to your four-year-old self to be happy.

 No matter what number is on the scale.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Romantic Subplots Part 5

A Hodgepodge of Thoughts About Romantic Subplots:

All the rules (and their links)in one place!

Rule #1: An exciting story should drive your plot, not the romance
Rule #2: For their love to be believable, your characters need a genuine history. In fact, your characters need memories with each other that the reader doesn't share.
Rule #3: A story without internal and external conflict isn't really a story at all. To make a love story sizzle, forces should combine to keep your characters apart, BUT other forces should combine to compel them to be together.
Rule #4: Create romantic tension.

Rule #5: A genuine respect/friendship

At first, I thought I'd covered this pretty thoroughly with Rule #2. But then I realized that your characters could have tons of history with each other without having a genuine respect or friendship. Somewhere from the time they meet until the time they fall in love though, they need to learn to respect each other, and they need to become friends.

Enough said.

In my last post, I asked for some suggestions about things I might have missed in my Romantic Subplot Rules. I got a few very interesting thoughts, and I'd like to share them with you.

In the comment section last week, Maryann said, "Romantic hoping or suspecting someone might feel for you what you feel for them, but not sure enough to admit how you feel. That analyzing their every word, every look, every movement and trying to piece it all together while at the same time trying to be encouraging, but not too encouraging back just in case they aren't into you." I thought that was a perfect definition.


Sarah shared a complicated, but fascinating blog post by David Baboulene that you can find here:

The word 'subtext' really threw me. I couldn't say I'd ever thought the word in conjunction with my own writing before. Here's what I've discovered:

What is subtext?  
1. An underlying theme or implied relationship between characters.  
2. Thoughts not directly in the text, such as tension or emotions..
3. The hidden meaning of words or actions in the story.

As I thought about subtext, while simultaneously beginning to read The Hunger Games again, I came up with another thought about romantic subplots, to be used at your discretion.


Readers have been trained to bond with the first romantic love interest that shows up in a book. You can use this to your advantage in so many ways. The most reasonable way is to make sure that the intended love interest is the first person your readers romantically bond with. If there has to be someone else first, you've got to metaphorically sweep him/her under the rug by matching them up with someone else, making them unredeemable, or at least uninteresting, moving them away, killing them off...whatever strikes your fancy. Otherwise, you will create a love lambda J or a love triangle, whether you mean to or not.

Gale and Peeta are my case in point. Peeta gets chapters and chapters devoted to him, while we rarely get a chance to see Gale. The readers first chance to bond romantically is with Gale, and we are a loyal bunch. Once our minds are made up, it takes a lot of effort to change them. Some of us never do.


Last week, Carl Duzett likened romance in literature to a mystery. Your characters are given all sorts of physical and conversational clues and they have to figure out what the other people are thinking and feeling. When you think about romance this way, it opens up a lot of fun sidetracks and blind alleys for your characters to go down, as they decide whether or not to trust each other.


You'll notice that in 5 weeks, I have never mentioned kissing or any of its associated trappings. That's because while I think kissing is great, and I hope your subplot has some J, it is not an essential piece of the true romantic puzzle. Of course it will happen eventually, but it doesn't HAVE to happen in the story to make a romance believable. On that note, I'm going to end with a spoiler for Howl's Moving Castle. It's one of my favorite romances, with nary a kiss to be seen. If you haven't read it yet, don't read the next paragraph! Instead, rush to your public library and check it out!

**Spoiler Alert!**
Howl said, "I think we ought to live happily ever after," and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. "It should be hair raising," added Howl. 
 "And you'll exploit me," Sophie said. 
 "And then you'll cut up all my suits to teach me," said Howl... 
 "Sophie," said Martha, "the spell's off you! Did you hear?" 
 But Sophie and Howl were holding one another's hands and smiling and smiling, unable to stop. 
 "Don’t bother me now," said Howl. "I only did it for the money."  
"Liar," said Sophie.

Good luck with your writing! 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cooking up Stories

Once in a long while, I read a book that doesn’t just stay with me, but changes how I see the world in some fundamental way. This week I read one of those books: An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. 

I hate to be bossy, but I will: Buy it. You’ll want it in hardback. You’ll want to read it over and over again. You’ll want to underline passages—some for wisdom, some for practicality, and some for sheer beauty. You’ll find yourself looking forward to grocery shopping, without a list, eager to buy whatever vegetables look fresh and trusting you will find a way to enjoy them.

I must confess that I am not a foodie. I don’t watch cooking shows. I have never tasted truffles and I don’t drink wine because I don’t like it. I also don’t like very spicy foods or anything that tastes like the sea. I had foie gras once, in the south of France, and it took all my willpower to swallow without gagging. I have never learned how to cut up a whole chicken and I have an unabashed love of ranch dressing.

With Ms. Adler’s guidance, I may still make friends with a raw chicken.

An Everlasting Meal is not a cookbook, or even a book about food. It is about reclaiming a relationship many of us have lost or never had between buying food and nourishing ourselves with it. The subtitle, Cooking with Economy and Grace, is apt, but could as easily be reworded Living with Economy and Grace. For me, this is a book about living. And, for me, a book about living is necessarily also a book about writing.

I’ve been working on my first novel for about two years. When I started, the experience was as all-consuming as any budding romance. I was swept away with the act of creation, with guiding characters through my twists and turns, with the unexplored corners of my own imagination. 

It turned out to be a bit of a turd.

So, I began a second draft, and then a third, learning more about story structure each time. The more I analyzed and reworked, the more my writing time started to evoke the same emotions as scrounging for dinner when I haven’t made it to the store, the kids are hungry, and it’s already 6:00. I get enough of that feeling when it actually is 6:00 and I haven’t made it to the store and the kids are hungry. The honeymoon was over.

I studied scene and sequel, pacing, inciting incidents, four-act structure, 8-sequence structure, plot points and pinch points, and the dreaded info-dump. I’ve learned a lot, but the problem is that good stories don’t come from recipes. 

In An Everlasting Meal, Ms. Adler includes recipes sparingly, explaining in the introduction:
But cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page. There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals' remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become.
Isn’t it the same with stories? You begin from wherever you find yourself. You begin with a character, or a scene, or a situation. You follow your imagination through all the loose ends and wind up with ideas that can’t be used but get thrown into the hearty stock of creative juices to season another meal. You write today’s pages and then let them marinate as you go about your day.

The opening essay, “How to Boil Water,” graces the act of boiling vegetables or pasta or chicken with a spiritual simplicity:
There is a prevailing theory that we need to know much more than we do in order to feed ourselves well. It isn’t true. Most of us already have water, a pot to put it in, and a way to light a fire. This gives us boiling water, in which we can do more good cooking than we know.
This, too, is how to build a story: put water (or characters) in a pot and light a fire.

People have told stories as long as they have had language, which is somewhere on the same scale of ancientness as starting fires. Yet, when my son asks for a story, I seize up the same way I do when it’s dinner time and I haven’t planned a recipe. What if I get it wrong? What if I leave something out? What if I don’t know what I’m doing?

The other night, I surveyed my refrigerator and found only a few odds and ends hastily purchased without a plan. I had ground turkey, a bunch of kale, half an onion, garlic, and sliced baby bella mushrooms. In the meat drawer I discovered a forgotten but unopened tube of cooked polenta.

I scoured the Internet for a recipe that didn’t require canned tomatoes, and came up with zilch. 

So I started where I was, browning turkey with onion and garlic and mushrooms. I smelled all the spices in my cabinet until I came to garam masala, bought long ago for one recipe, and my nose perked up. I added a little, tasted, found out it’s freaking delicious, and added more, plus kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, tension on the tongue. I added the kale, steaming to emerald green. I dug in the pantry and threw  in a handful of raisins for sweetness. I cut cubes of polenta and browned them in butter, then called it all dinner. It wasn’t pretty, but the kids cleaned their plates, even the kale. When John got home, they couldn’t wait to tell him how good dinner was. Even the kale!  

The next night’s bean stew didn’t go as well, but I know I can still save it. I have bacon up my sleeve.

Ms. Adler gives the moral of this tale in “How to Paint Without Brushes”:
If we were taught to cook as we are taught to walk, encouraged first to feel for pebbles with our toes, then to wobble forward and fall, then had our hands firmly tugged on so we would try again, we would learn that being good at it relies on something deeply rooted, akin to walking, to get good at which we need only guidance, senses, and a little faith.
I picture ancient people around the hearth, telling stories of gods and monsters and romance and adventure as they break bread together, and I think: I have stories to tell as surely as I have water and fire and the wisdom to add an onion.

I have countless teachers, authors, and friends to thank for guidance. I have human nature to thank for senses. And I have An Everlasting Meal and a well-used pot to thank for faith.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Idea Hunting

There are many things in writing that I struggle with: characterization, writing stories shorter than 10,000 words, pacing (dear god, pacing)….  But one thing that has always come easily to me: ideas.

In a magical, perfect world, ideas would rain from the sky, or grow on trees.  That hasn't quite happened to me, but back when I started writing seriously, I'd have crazy, full story-length dreams. For a new writer, it was extremely convenient.  But there were two problems:

1) Even the most perfect dream story was not entirely flush with logic, and some of the more bizarre (and cool) occurrences took too much time to explain within the story.
2) A few years later, I stopped having those sorts of dreams.

I'm actually not all that upset.  The dream stories were in general to be more trouble than they're worth. So I've had to adjust.  Lots of authors like to say that they find inspiration everywhere, throughout their everyday lives. That has certainly happened for me... but it just seems to take way too long. So instead of waiting for ideas to come to me, I've learned to go out hunting for them.

My current favorite source is writing prompts. Prompts tend to range from a simple concept (such as that anthology Dark Faith I was writing for, to detailed descriptions of plots or even worlds.  The ones that work best for me are the ones that provide multiple seemingly unrelated objects or concepts that I can combine as I wish. 

Pictures can be another of my favorite sources of inspiration. The journal With Painted Words has a monthly contest where each story must be inspired by the month's picture. But that's the only journal I know of. One of my other favorite sources for pictures is Wikimedia Commons and their annual featured photo contest (here are the 2010 winners). 

For example, the following picture pretty much demands its own story. (click for larger size)
photo by Mayquel, from wikimedia commons

It looks abandoned, so whose laundry is that? And why do the top floors look like a separate house, like it once sat at ground level, until the lower floors rose from the dirt, pushing the old house up closer to the sky?

Once I find a prompt, I sit down at the computer and pour every thought I have onto paper, until I find an interesting one (like a house rising slowly from the ground, still brown with dirt - why would that happen? Fairies? Aliens? House is alive? It's a reflection of someone's subconscious?)

As another example, the Liberty Hall Flash Challenge (link below) once had this as their prompt.

Cazadora de Astros, by Remedios Varo

I got a poorly written flash story out of the challenge, but the idea from that challenge keeps growing and changing, and now it's slated to be my next novel.  (Melanie, I think you read it when it was a novella - this is "Swallowed the Moon" I'm talking about, in case you remember). 

As a bonus, Remedios Varo is now my favorite artist (she's a surrealist, a contemporary of Salvador Dali).  Basically every single one of her paintings is a story.  Here's a page with a bunch of her works, or you can do a Google image search to see her many, many gorgeous paintings.

Not every prompt leads to a novel.  But one of the things I've found about writing is that pretty much every aspect of it takes lots and lots of practice.  The same is true with hunting down ideas - I have pages and pages of half-finished prompts and really terrible ideas.  But the more I practice, the faster I come up with ideas, and the easier it is to identify the great ones.

 Here are some links to good sources of prompts. There are far more out there than I have space to include.

  • Hatrack River's Writers Workshop has a contest section (run by its members; anyone can start a contest).
  • Liberty Hall Writer's Forum runs weekly flash challenges and short story challenges.  You email them for the prompt each week - and if you're just gathering ideas, like me, you're not required to enter.
  • Polluto has some of the most detailed prompts I've ever seen.
  • Penumbra has monthly themed issues.
  • I like the idea of the Ancient New Anthology, where they ask you to present a society that has one invention way ahead of its time (I wanted to do a medieval society with genetic testing, but then I started to wonder how they would get the energy to run the equipment, and if that counted as two technologies, or if I could make that stuff up, and could you really do it without computers, and then I had a headache and had to go lie down).
  • With Painted Words has a new picture each month as a prompt.
  • This anthology has a cool picture as a prompt.

Happy idea hunting.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Girls Rule, Boys Drool, uh, Rule, Too

According to my kids, I grew up a looong, looong time ago. And I guess it’s true. I was a child of the last millennium. I grew up long enough ago that I remember checking out a book from our elementary school library that had wonderful illustrations of the jobs boys could do when they grew up – fireman, mayor, astronaut, cowboy. And the jobs girls could do when they became women – mother…and…teacher. That book really was there, and I remember feeling disappointed (though, I must say, having grown up and gotten all sorts of degrees, the thing that means the very most to me is being a mother and a teacher to my children - but, back to the point...).

When I was very young, before  I was introduced to sci-fi and fantasy, I read and read and read, all of Walter Farley’s books (The Island Stallion was my favorite), and all of Marguerite Henry’s works and My Side of the Mountain, and just about any adventure book I could find.

And because of the kinds of books I read (which nearly all had boy protagonists, and if there was a girl anywhere, they were more like a sort of semi-assistant if they weren’t a downright nuisance), I came to the conclusion that boys led much more exciting lives. When I wrote my own stories, it was almost exclusively with a male protag. I even remember telling my mother how much more interesting that was than an, ew, girl.

Microscopic Freshwater Organisms

It seems strange now that I could have had that view about boy and girl characters in books, because my personal upbringing was really quite liberal. My mother had been a Rhodes Scholar and received her Master’s degree summa cum laude in zoology. She would take us to the river to collect samples to look at under the microscope, or even a few times prick her own finger (!!) so we could look at blood cells. One of my grandmothers was an author, the other designed and built homes. In school I was always encouraged to excel academically and had absolutely no doubts about my worth or ability to do so. So why, oh why, such a skewed view in literature?

Today I still read, though not as widely as I’d like to. Of the recent books I’ve finished I have to say, about 90% have had a female protag. It’s mostly MG/YA, just like a lot of the stuff I read as a kid. But I know there weren’t that many kick-butt, take no prisoner girls in lit back then. I am happy there are more now.

But…I also happen to be the proud mama of three boys. And what I hear from them is that in YA books today they feel the boys are just arm candy to the girls – sort of a semi-assistant (though usually gorgeous), if not a downright nuisance. There's too much ogling and not enough action for them to be interested (I freely admit, though I've tried to keep my male and female protag equal, my WIP falls into the swooning category - my boys won't touch it with a ten foot pole). In MG I find a lot of boy protags who are anti-heroes, the funny slacker dude (There are notable exceptions to all this, of course, such as Harry Potter).

Is it just the books I’m picking up, or has the pendulum shifted way too far the other way? One way or another, older boys aren’t reading. It’s a conundrum for the publishing industry, I know – YA romance sells and so it’s an easy choice to publish more of that even if it leaves the Y chromosome population out in the cold. I don’t want to bemoan this, or gripe. But I do hope we come to a point of gender balanced literature with enough quality stuff that everyone can find something. I’ve wondered lately if the new interactive books for all the nooks and tablets and pads might be a way to bridge this gap and bring boys back to reading.

I’m obviously kind of rambling, because I have no grandiose solutions, only observations and questions. What do you all think? Is there a gender imbalance in books today? And if there is, what solutions do you see?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This Means War: The Love Triangle Done Right

My husband and I went on a date this weekend, and we saw This Means War a romantic comedy instead of a shoot ‘em up action films we normally see.

I can probably count on one hand the number of romantic comedies that I’ve really really liked. Don’t get me wrong, I love romance, but in most romantic comedies either the romance feels off or the humor isn’t quite my taste, but whatever it is, most of them don’t work for me. This one did. More amazingly it worked for my hubby too. That is because this story is part action flick, part spy vs. spy, part romance, part bromance, and all comedy.

The premise of this story is two CIA agents (played by Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) who are best friends fall for the same girl (Reese Witherspoon). They decide to both date her until she chooses one of them.

So this has the classic love triangle, a commonly used device in romances found in everything from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games. Sometimes the love triangle is awesome, and sometimes it falls flat. Honestly, I thought it was very well done in This Means War, definitely one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Here are the five reasons that made this love triangle work so well.

1. It really was a love triangle. A lot of times the love triangle isn’t really a love triangle, but what I call a love Lambda. In case you don’t know or don’t remember, Lambda is a letter in the Greek alphabet that in its capital form looks like this Λ. Notice that it looks like a triangle, but isn’t quite a triangle. You are missing the connection between the two love interests (see figure below).

The love triangle in Hunger Games is really a love Lambda. Peeta and Gale are not friends or brothers or have any relationship at all, so there shouldn’t be a line between them, same for the love triangle in the Twilight series. But in This Means War, the two guys are best friends and partners. They really love each other (in a platonic way), so there is another relationship at stake. Their friendship could be destroyed by competing for the same girl. It adds another level of tension to the story, and tension is always good.

Now don’t get me wrong, a love lambda can be done very well, and I thoroughly enjoy a good one, but I always prefer some sort of relationship between the two love interests. I like to see the dynamics between the two love interests, and I like the higher stakes.

2. Both love interests were likeable. Both FDR and Tuck were great, cute, funny, and all around awesome guys. You really want both of them to get the girl.

Sometimes in love triangles you get one guy who is clearly better than the other, and it becomes obvious who the winner should be, sometimes to the point where you think the MC is an idiot for not being able to choose.

Although sometimes it is less of love triangle and more of an antagonist trying to break the two apart like in Titanic (Jack, Rose, and Cal). And it is always fun when the one who seems the better choice ends up as the true antagonist like in Pride and Prejudice (Darcy, Elizabeth, Wickham).

But in a true love triangle, both love interests need to at least at first come across as appealing or the MC looks a little dim witted, or worse, a jerk for leading one of them on when she clearly prefers the other.

3. The one in the middle was likeable. Lauren was cute, funny, charming as Reese Witherspoon always does so well. She never came off as jerking the guys around. She seemed sincerely interested in both of them, and really struggled to make her choice. She also gave herself a time limit, so she wouldn’t be jerking them around indefinitely.

Sometimes the one in the middle can look a little like a jerk. Leading one love interest on when it is clear to everyone who she/he really wants to be with (cough, cough, Bella). This was not the case in This Means War. She truly came off as someone struggling with the decision and feeling like a horrible person because she couldn’t make up her mind.

It did help to that the two guys weren’t exactly innocent. They kept the fact that they were friends from her and pretty much trashed her constitutional rights. But it was all in good fun (comedies can get away with these things), nothing too creepy, but I’m sure some would see this as romanticizing the stalker once again. :)

4. One love interest seemed more perfect for the one in the middle. No matter how awesome the two love interests are, in the end someone has to win. Well not always; they could share like in the movie Bandits.

But most of the time, audiences want a monogamous relationship at the end, so one of the love interests needs to come off on top. In This Means War, one of the guys definitely seemed to connect better with the girl.

In the end, it is a romance, and the right guy needs to end up with the right girl or it isn’t satisfying. I thought it ended perfectly even if I saw it coming almost from the beginning.

5. The love triangle was integral to the plot. It pretty much was the plot. I don’t think the love triangle always has to be the main part of the story, but it should serve some purpose to the overall plot. A lot of times a love triangle feels thrown in to add more conflict. Love triangles are a bit overdone and don’t work in all stories, and there are other ways to add conflict between two love birds that might work better. So unless the love triangle plays a vital role in the story, it might be better to find some other conflict to keep two characters apart. There are plenty of them. :)

Not all Love triangles have to meet all of these criteria, but I think these are good points to keep in mind when writing one. I always enjoy a good love triangle when they are done right. Just one more thing I can never get enough of.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Just Keep Painting

In the last week and a half, we've had pneumonia, strep and RSV in our house. Tis the season. I lucked out and didn't get sick, but after sitting with my seven month old on my chest for two days straight, I had cabin fever so strong, I thought The Muppets were going to enter my house and sing about it

But... I couldn't leave... Mostly because I have three children and three different diseases.

I'm not sure how that happened... Some people are just lucky.

Right before they got sick we bought four gallons of paint. We decided to switch the kids rooms around, and then decided to do it in as much of an expensive way as is possible. While the kids were sick, it was just sitting my garage... a project that needed doing, a change in the house, and a way out of my cabin fever, without getting everyone I saw infected with not one, not two, but three diseases.


So last Tuesday, (Valentines Day), I decided to paint the kid's rooms. Because nothing says romance like paint fumes.

Sorry, honey.

Anyway, this is the color that I chose to paint my seven month old's room. It's called tide water, by The Martha. It looked blue, when I chose it.

 I got the baby safely asleep in the middle of my bed, put on Tangled for my four-year-old daughter, and then poured the paint. Still looked blue.

After I swiped the first roll of the roller, I looked back to check out the color. And instead of the awesome blue color you see on the right of you screen, it was green. Not just green, but an olive green.

That was not what I wanted. Not even a little bit.

I painted an entire wall, and then stood back and checked it out, and still, olive green. I thought, "Well... maybe it will dry differently." We recently painted the back splash in our kitchen red. It started the pinkest shade of magenta in the world, but it magically dried the right color. Paint does magic tricks while it dries.

 I decided to give it a bit of time, see what happened.

 I kept painting. After I had three walls painted I stood back, and checked out the wall that had dried.Still not blue. It was a darker olive green.


Because paint is expensive, (and I'm many times do I have to say it?) and because olive green is better for a boy's room then the bright purple that was there before it, I kept painting.  Sad though, because what I wanted wasn't happening.

But then something awesome happened. After I cut in and completely removed every trace of the purple, I stood back, and it was exactly the color I wanted. Blue...ish green.

 See, the color wasn't one hundred percent green... it was just green compared to the purple.

What does this have to do with writing?

See, I've been working on getting Hatched ready to self-publish, (at least I had been before remodeling the house, and dealing with my sweet sick kids,) and truth be told, I've been getting frustrated with it. No matter what I did, it turned out green. Not bad, just not what I wanted, not what I envisioned it would be.

But I learned something from painting... though this could just be the paint fumes talking... you can't know what color something is, until it's dry, and finished. Also, comparing your unfinished work to something that has been done for a while, is a bad thing. It'll only make your story look unfinished, because... surprisingly... it IS unfinished.

Moral of the story... finish. Keep going. Just keep painting. When you get that last word painted in, you can step back, and it'll be what you want.

And if it isn't, then you aren't finished yet.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Romantic Subplots Part 4

You and me--all that lights upon us though
Brings us together
Like a fiddle-bow
Drawing one voice from two strings, it glides along
Across what instrument have we been spanned?
And what violinist holds us in his hand?
Ah, sweetest song.
--Ranier Maria Rilke

Rule #4: Create romantic tension.

I bet this is the rule you've been expecting since the beginning. It's the one I've been dreading. 

I am not a romance writer. I almost never even read romances. I'm not trying to diss an entire genre--it's just not what I'm looking for in a book. However, I love romance in other kinds of stories, and romantic tension is great fun to read. But it's not a lot of fun to research. Do you have any idea what kinds of things come up when you google romantic tension? Don't try it. You don't want to know. (And heaven help anyone trying to research sexual tension. Yikes.)

What Is Romantic Tension?

Romance: The feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.
Tension: The state of being stretched tight or a pulling force.

Imagine the relationships between your characters as a web. The threads connecting some of your characters are probably loose and easily broken. But romance causes the thread between characters to be pulled tight. This causes heightened awareness of sensory input traveling along that thread. It causes your characters to perseverate on sensory input traveling along that thread. Your job, as a writer, is to communicate that heightened awareness to your readers.

It doesn't sound very romantic when I put it that way, does it? Ah--but it is! Let me show you some of the ways it can manifest itself:


I could watch that all day long. Do you see how difficult all that sensory input is making it to even have a conversation? Good stuff.

Frustration and Jealousy

Click here to see another great example of romantic tension.

From: Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce
(Nawat is a crow who has recently turned into a man)
Nawat looked up at her with a smile that lit his eyes. “You are beautiful in the new light,” he told her. “If I were the Dawn Crow, I would bring you the sun to hatch as our first nestling.” 
Aly blinked at him. Her heart felt strangely squeezed by some powerful emotion. She bit her lip to distract herself from a feeling that made her horribly unsure. “Have you been kissing anybody?” she asked without meaning to, and gasped. She had let words out of her mouth without thinking, which was not like her! Worse, they were such personal words, ones he might feel meant personal feelings she did not have!

This was the kind of thing that other girls said, those girls who were not bored by all the young men who had courted them. How many handsome fellows had sighed compliments to Aly while, unconcerned, she had mentally wrestled with breaking a new code? At home she never cared about her suitors enough to worry if they kissed other girls.

She scrambled to blot out what she’d said. “Not that it’s any of my business, but you should understand, people have a way of kissing for fun, without it meaning anything serious, and I’d hate for you to think someone wanted you to mate-feed them just because they’re kissing—” Stop babbling, her mind ordered. Aly stopped. 
Nawat’s smile broadened. That disturbing light in his eyes deepened. “I have kissed no one but you, Aly,” he assured her, serious. “Why should I kiss anyone else?”

An Old-Fashioned Girl by: Louisa May Alcott:
"Don't shut your eyes, Polly; they are so full of mischief tonight, I like to see them," said Tom, after idly wondering for a minute if she knew how long and curly her lashes were.

Plain old sweetness
Jane Eyre by: Charlotte Bronte 
"Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?" 
I could risk no sort of answer by this time: my heart was still. 
"Because," he said, "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you - especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land should come between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, - you'd forget me.” 
Only one more rule to go. Just to make sure I'm not missing anything, what do YOU think the last rule should be??? 

Links to previous posts:

Friday, February 17, 2012

Yes, You Should Have Gotten a Flu Shot

But don't worry, Ryan Gosling's got your back.

It's been a wild week in the McCanless household. Under-parented children, over-medicated adults, and some kind of pink sugar-related holiday stuck in the middle of it all. I don't know if it's the flu or the Tamiflu, but I've been in too big a haze to even read, let alone write. So I'm keeping it simple tonight with ten things I learned over the last week:

1. Husbands are awesome, and mine is extra-super-special awesome, but they can’t be trusted to buy Valentines. That's why Kid #2 had to pass out Dora the Explorer cards to his mostly-boy Preppy Kindergarten class. There wasn't even any sort of compensating candy attached.

(Corollary: I do not like the little boy who refused to accept my child's offering because it was "for girls". He's on my poop list. I usually have another name for this list, but the kid is five.)

2. One day of gorging yourself on candy while your mother dozes in a semi-comatose state, with only her own hacking cough keeping her from complete oblivion, won't hurt your health. At least not measurably, in the short term, as far as the aforementioned mother can tell.

3. Argentine ants like to kick me when I'm down.

4. A five-year-old can figure out how to do his own temporary tattoos. So if you keep murmuring something about "Maybe later, honey, mommy's really sick," while he keeps asking for you to help with one of his Valentines, you may discover the next morning that he's got a tattoo on his neck. This may not strike you as terrible until you take him to his school in the slightly rougher part of town, where a significant number of parents have their own, permanent, neck tattoos. You may still decide that you are too busy sucking air into your gunky lungs to bother washing it off for a full 3 days.

If you're treating your fever like a slot machine,
that might be the fever talking.
5. Adults aren't allowed to run fevers as high as kids do. When you see your temperature climbing over 103, the appropriate response is to call the doctor. It is not to waste all of the (surprisingly expensive) plastic covers for the ear thermometer by obsessively betting against yourself on how high you can go.

6. The forehead-kissing method of fever detection does not work if the one doing the detecting also has a fever. This should be obvious, but somehow... Well, I apologize to everyone who comes down with this illness because I thought Kid #2 was fine.

7. How I Met Your Mother is funny.
8. I am blessed with people in my life who are kind and caring and there in a pinch. I couldn't have survived this week without friends covering carpools for me and inviting the kids over for playdates, teachers forgiving forgotten homeworks and missed volunteer shifts, and my husband being all-around wonderful even when he got the two days of sore throat and sniffles that were his version of "sick." (Corollary: I married hardy stock.)

9. Kid #2 is five now and not a baby anymore, but he's still the best little nap companion in the world. I mean, I hope he feels better and stuff, but until then... SNUGGLES!!!

10. I totally, absolutely, 100%, without a doubt should have gotten a flu shot.

Once I've sprayed the office with Raid and cleaned up the thousands of tiny dead ants, I will begin clawing my way back out of the hole I sank into this week. So, in the spirit of overdone Internet memes...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Procrastination = bad

So! Nothing like staring at a page ten minutes before I’m supposed to be in bed, and an hour before midnight, with no idea of what to post. I tried to write something about how I come up with ideas, but it ended up falling really flat, and I wanted to do a better job with it.

What do I call this? Blogger’s block? Posting block?  I spent all day dealing with slush or reading boring science reports block? I’ve been on the computer for way too long block?

None of those really roll off the tongue.

I feel bad doing yet another post about nothing, since all I did last week was rant about my computer (which is still broken, but not nearly as badly. This week’s post is brought to you by the generosity of Lawyer Friend, who is letting me borrow her old laptop.  This bumps Lawyer Friend up to the #2 thing I would save in a fire, after my cat*.)

I really apologize… but I got nuthin right now.  So, here are some writing links:

One of SFWA's many fantastic articles.  This is a good source of inspiration when you're trying to develop a new world, and need a kickstart of what to figure out.

One of my favorite pages: Strange Horizon's list of stories they see to often.  I see these a lot in the slush pile too.  Especially the one about heaven as a bureaucracy. A very good thing to read if you're publishing short  stories.

A short but very helpful post with a very simple rule for telling if you story is plot or character-driven (at least from the outset).

And some funny pictures:

Pun of the week:

For my fellow scientists:

And specially for Sarah:

And a promise to do better next week.

*I’m at best the #3 thing Lawyer Friend would save in a fire, because she has two cats.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fair Weather Finds

For sailing ships in the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the worst things to encounter was the doldrums. This seemingly harmless low pressure weather system wreaked all kinds of havoc, not the least of which occurred when the wind simply ceased to blow. Without even a puff or a breeze, the sea became smooth as glass. At night the stars reflected off the ocean's surface so that the ships seemed to be drifting in space. Sounds pretty, right? But when the wind was the only means to power those ships, doldrums lasting days or even weeks were downright scary.

I know I’ve been feeling like those ships with a lot less creative wind filling my sails lately, and I wonder if you have, too. Call it the winter blues, or writer’s block or the blahs, but my writing output hasn’t been up to par and neither have my spirits. I think I’m stuck in the doldrums.  Sailors in the olden days had very few options for escape. They could try to row their way out, or they could wait for the weather pattern to change. (Uh, I can’t think of too many more escape routes here – lasso a passing pod of dolphins for a ride?)

Sometimes I think that a lot of stuff I do in the winter months is simply biding my time waiting for the weather pattern to change. Here’s the thing though, I’m not so sure that’s all that bad. In fact, a lot of things we do in our idle time can boost brainpower and even keep depression and anxiety in check. Maybe my creativity just needs a little downtime before it comes out kicking again. Does yours? Here are a few things to do while we wait.


The simple act of looking around and being amazed at what you find can spark the imagination. If all you see outside is dull, then Youtube can be a pretty great substitute. Whether it’s watching a ginormous murmuration of starlings, or driving into a haboob (sorry about the language in the vid), or oohing and aahing over the aurora borealis, life has some incredible material to stoke a writer’s imagination.


Did you know that laughter lowers blood pressure, boosts your immune system, improves memory, and actually increases your creativity? Yep, it’s a scientific fact. And personally, I think it’s one of the best medicines for the blahs. Here are a couple sites for your daily dose.

Cake Wrecks - When Professional Cakes Go Horribly, Hilariously Wrong

Hyperbole and a Half – this site is so hilarious. Be warned, though, it can have some major language.

(Oh, and I’m always looking for more sites. Any suggestions?)


Volunteer, invite friends over, heck, invite strangers over. Skype or Google+ or Facebook.  Do something nice for someone else. Nuff said.


 I’m sure there’s some research out there about how listening to new kinds of music stimulates your brain or something, but I’m not going to look it up. All I know is that I like finding new songs.

I’d actually forgotten about this song until I started writing this blog post, but it always makes me smile.

A few others:

My son introduced me to heavy metal orchestra. Yes, really. Bands like 2Cellos and Apocalyptica are becoming quite popular in some niches.

 And for a more old school sound it's hard to beat Fitz and the Tantrums and The Black Keys.


Of course, reading is a writer’s bread and butter, a staple in the creative diet. So what have you read lately? (I just finished Girl of Fire and Thorns)


Yep, I should be doing it. So should you. And that’s all I’m gonna say.

Gut it Out

Lastly, sometimes you just have to get out the oars and row your way out of the doldrums. No magic dolphins are going to appear to tow you out. So, if a good dose of BIC (behind in chair) is what it takes, go for it.

Spring will come, spring will come…

~ Susan

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love, Hate, and Publishing

Being Valentine’s Day, I was going to blog about how Disney’s Tangled is the perfect romance (maybe next week), but this week I have something else on my mind.

I just learned about the debacle on Goodreads last month, where YA authors or friends of YA authors commented on what were perceived as snarky reviews (a detailed overview can be found here).

This whole thing reminded me of the YA Mafia incident a few years ago (countered here by Holly Black and here by Justine Larbalestier) where an author and book blogger clashed, and the whole thing resulted in a misconception that YA authors were threatening the careers of aspiring writers/book bloggers who gave their books scathing reviews. Clearly no good comes from authors responding to reviews.

I love Goodreads. I have an account that I never update. I think I’ve written one review, two at the most. I don’t really use Goodreads the way it was intended. But every time I finish a book the first thing I do is go to Goodreads and read through a page or so of reviews. I like to see how other people felt about the book I just read. It’s kind of a way to gage what other readers feel is important in a book. I think of it as research. :)

For the most part, I’ve always found the reviewers at Goodreads to be fair. People are entitled to their own opinions, and as long as there are no personal attacks, I think it is all good. Some reviewers are a little snarky and ranty, and honestly, I think a little lesser of these reviews than I do of those that are more respectful and well-thought out. And the Tempest review that started one of the fiascos was honest and intelligent, in my opinion. The reviewer had an issue with a character, and she clearly demonstrated her point. And whether someone agrees with her or not, she made her point very clear without demonizing the author.

But I have seen some pretty scathing reviews at other sites and on blogs. Some bloggers and reviewers make personal attacks on the authors with some pretty bold claims about who the author is and what the author believes in, like you can really know who someone is from a brief biography and reading one of their novels. Writer John Scalzi wrote an interesting post on being fictionalized.

This to me is the dark side of being published, and the more successful you are, the more people are going to pick on you. And I know there are some writers looking down from their huge piles of money, but that comes at a price. I have to say, I feel kind of bad for Stephenie Meyers. So many people who don’t know her are so mean to her (not her books, but her, personally).

Sometimes when I dare to dream that I could actually be successful at this writing thing, I think about how I’d feel if those things were written about me. Would I still think those negative reviews on Goodreads are fair? Would I grind my teeth when people try to psychoanalyze me or claim I’m anti-feminist because my MC doesn’t fit their idea of a strong, independent woman (only a true Mary Sue would be that perfect)? Will my skin be thick enough for this plugged-in culture where everyone has an opinion and the means to share it, and some do so without any regards at all to common courtesy?

I do know that I’ll need a good plan to deal with it. So this is a note to me if my dream ever comes true and I actually get published. I know, dare to dream. :)

1. Don’t read reviews. Reviews are for readers not the author.
2. If you do read a review (cause I know you will), do not respond. I repeat, do not ever respond, ever.
3. If you are so dying to respond that you can’t contain yourself, type it up in word, share it with your friends and family, sleep on it, then delete it in the morning.
4. Remember that tastes vary. Not everyone is going to love your stories, hopefully some will.
5. Remember that some people on the internet do not see other people as people only a faceless mass. This gives them permission to be meaner and ruder than they really are.
6. Surround yourself by supportive friends and family who know the real you and will share in your outrage, but will repeatedly remind you not to break rule number two.
7. Always remember what really matters.

That is my plan of attack. I know it is a little of putting the cart before the horse, but I can’t help indulge in the fantasy every once and a while.

So how about you? How would you deal with the negativity once you are published?

Oh yeah, and Happy Valentine’s Day.