Monday, April 30, 2012

Character Quirks

One of my favorite thing to add to characters are little character quirks which differentiate one character from...say a barbie doll stand in.

People are weird. I can't be the first person to tell you that.

Vortex of missing phones eats another victim.
Like me for example, I can't not lose my cell phone. Anytime I put the phone on silent, I will (without choice, and without meaning to,) set it down somewhere and lose it. It's actually kind of funny.

But mostly it's expensive.

 So now, I always have the volume up. It's not generally a problem, because most people call my home number. My cell phone actually rings, but only at church, or during the movie, or anytime when silence is required.

Feel free to give any character you want, that random quirk.

I've had characters always have to wear gloves. I've had characters always have different color band aids on all if their fingers, or characters who sing in the car, or always walk around barefoot, or who always have a deck of playing cards in their back pocket, which they like to shuffle when bored, or nervous. Characters can send spam emails of kittens, or compulsively check Facebook, or to see if they have any text messages. Characters can wake up early to do yoga, or have five alarms, because one just doesn't cut it.

Do these habits further the plot. No. Do these quirks give insight into the character, not always no. But they do make the character more interesting, more remarkable, and most important, more real.

Think of Nynaeve, from Jordan's Wheel of Time, how she always pulled her braid. These quirks can be a tell into a characters emotion. Or Brad Pit's character in Ocean's eleven+  who was always eating. Every scene. Eating something. It could just give the character something to do.

They can also be a tell into the characters psyche. My character who always wore gloves was ashamed that she wasn't married, so she wore gloves to cover up her ring finger.

I never mentioned why she always wore gloves, but all the clues were there. To someone who was paying attention, these little quirks added depth to the character and to the story. But if they didn't catch it, it didn't change the plot. It was also cool, how at the end she was married and didn't wear gloves.

That quirk told a story. It told her story.

Plus it's fun, and a way to use your people watching as a way to deepen characters. Quirks can be borrowed. And thank heavens, in real life, people are weird.

(Insert Evil Laugh Here).


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Poe-try in Motion (Pictures)

After reading Melanie's post on Friday, I promised myself I'd cut down on my movie intake and focus on writing.  I’ve done a pretty good job clearing my evenings and I’m actually making headway on a few of my stories.  But I'll admit, yesterday I broke my movie fast a little early and went to the theater to see John Cusack play Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Raven.’

Let me start off by saying, if you are planning on watching this movie for Poe's horror stories, you’re going to be disappoint.  In fact, if you grew up loving ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ or ‘The Mask of the Red Death,’ for instance, you might want to skip it altogether.  It’ll just annoy you to see how little deference they pay to Poe’s stories.  (Don’t go if you’re squeamish, either.  That should probably go without saying, but just in case, I’m saying it.  There.  You’ve been warned.)

The movie takes place in the days leading up to Poe’s death in 1849, and the script’s writers re-imagine history much the same way the author of ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ has reinvented our sixteenth president.  It is a good movie for the sake of entertainment, but it in no way represents history, or literature for that matter.

I enjoyed the film for the most part, but I wasn’t totally satisfied with the story.  I went home and cracked open my copy of Matthew Pearl’s ‘The Poe Shadow’ to fill the void left by ‘The Raven.’  So far, I’m both in love with Pearl’s style and captivated by the story, so my hopes are high.  It’s startling to see how dissimilar the stories are—how they follow the same concept with two very different outcomes.

I started to wonder what makes one story more successful than the other, and how I can apply this concept to my own writing.  For me, so far, ‘The Poe Shadow’ is the more successful of the two renditions of the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.  Pearl was painstaking in his research.  He sketched a very realistic version of Poe, whereas 'The Raven' seems to draw most of its facts surrounding the poet from Griswold’s infamously libelous, 'Memoirs of the Author.”  Pearl’s Baltimore is better fleshed out, his plot is more imaginative and his characters are more sympathetic.  But how did he get to that point, and why didn’t 'The Raven,' as a story, make the cut?

I can see where 'The Raven' could have taken this turn or that and become a great movie.  The actors were all fantastic in their roles, the scenes were visually immersive.  Had the writers started at the genesis of the plot—the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe—they might have made a movie worthy of him.  The genesis in this case is rooted in history, which means they needed to start with research, and lots of it.

The second step, the one I think a lot of writers skip, is pre-writing revisions.  When someone throws out the idea “What if Edgar Allan Poe had to solve murders based on his stories?” someone else needs to say, “What else you got?”  I’m totally fine with a blur of fact and fiction—'Shakespeare in Love' did it superbly well—but shouldn’t that blur be credible?  Somehow I doubt Poe kept a pet raccoon, and I doubt even more that he fed it human hearts.  I also doubt he rode out into the forest alone, armed with a gun, in pursuit of his lost love’s kidnapper.  Cusack plays the tortured artist well, but Poe was more of a cantankerous critic than a tortured artist at that stage of his life, something Pearl picked up on and incorporated well in his own story.

Finally, I think 'The Raven' suffered from something that is endemic in Hollywood movies these days: lazy storytelling.  The romance sub-plot, for example, was sheer laziness.  The writers tried—vaguely—to convey the strength of the bond between Poe and the new woman in his life, Emily Hamilton (played by Alice Eve), but they fell short with awkward love scenes and hastily thrown together dialogue.  On paper, it would have fallen apart.  As a movie, the writers relied on Cusack’s acting—his desperate rage toward the killer, and his burning desire to see Emily again—as evidence of Poe’s love and devotion.  To me, it seemed oddly misplaced and at times hard to swallow.  By the end, I really couldn’t care less if he found Emily in time.  I just wanted it to be over.  I'm pretty sure that's not the reaction the writers were going for, especially since the love story was meant to fuel the rest of the plot.

So what did I take from all this?  Research.  Pre-revise.  Don’t be lazy.  If your premise isn’t well researched, nobody will buy into it.  If your plot is stale—or worse, illogical—people will lose interest.  If your characters are awkward on paper (or on screen), nobody will care if they live or die.  It’s pretty basic stuff, but even Hollywood gets it wrong sometimes.

I think it’s time to get back to my movie fast.  I’ve got a lot of work to do on my own stories if I want them to be well researched, polished and imaginative.  Thanks to storytellers like Matthew Pearl and the master himself, Edgar Allan Poe, I remember why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sometimes Writers Shouldn't Read

Or: Six Ways To Jump Start Your Writing

Truth is, I haven't felt much like an author these last few weeks. The "prose" part of "Proser" had deserted me, turning me into a mere "poser."

Then I decided to take a week off from reading.

First of all, let me state that I agree wholeheartedly with Sheena's post about how writers need to read. But I've got to add my own two cents. Lately, on a typical day, this is me: I have a pile of health magazines that I thumb through in a pinch. I also have stacks of my favorite books that I pick up whenever I'm "between novels". Plus, when I'm in the car or working in the kitchen, I've got audio books to keep me company. All of that reading is in addition to all the real reading I do--I think I read about 2 books a week, give or take 5.

Add in my current Psych obsession, and I believe I'm forced spend approximately half an hour a day creating my own thoughts. Luckily I've got music to break up the tedium.

News flash! This is not a healthy lifestyle for the long haul.

It all came to a head last week when Sabrina published her personality post.  It turns out that my personality has a tendency to deteriorate into "frenetic escapism."

Wow. Who would have guessed?

I wasn't even sure what I was trying to escape from, but I knew those personality people had nailed it. In an effort to figure it out, I decided to ban all reading materials for a week. I'm also severely limiting my television time, though if I'm being honest, I haven't given it up completely.

About 24 hours in to my self-imposed ban, it was like a dam burst in my head (this sounds like a good thing to escape from, right?) I've been trying to name a magical group of people in one of my novels for years now, and suddenly I found the perfect word. I began the final edits on the novel I'm planning to publish this year. I wrote the first chapter of a novel I'm collaborating with some friends on. I went from writing nothing but my Proser post to having to drag my butt away from the computer because my fingers were getting blisters and my back was cramping up.

Truth be told, Obsession is my middle name. I am not a good multi-tasker. This morning, my seven year old told me that when I'm sitting at the computer, he can get me to say yes to anything. Excuse me? Were you even in the house while I was on the computer? Drat.

I wonder what I told him he could do.

Six Ways To Jump Start Your Writing:

1. Make a list! Two nights ago, this was my Facebook status:
Today, I started writing a new novel, cleaned out my garage, planted some hostas, chauffeured the kids to about 3 dozen places, protected J. from being loved to death by a Great Dane, cooked, cleaned, did laundry and went on a lovely walk...Somewhere upstairs, there's a bed with my name on it. Cross your fingers that I can make it.
That felt good. Until I wrote it all down, I had been feeling like a bit of a slacker. I was so focused on everything I didn't get done, that I couldn't see all my accomplishments. I imagine it would be even more helpful to write it all down in advance. I hear there is something quite soothing about checking things off a list.

2. Block out some time. Turn off all your distractions. Put your books in a safe that opens on a timer. Treat this time like gold.

3. But don't block out too much time. Except in November, when all bets are off, you aren't just an author. No matter who you are, you juggle many plates. Balance is the key to keeping them all up in the air. When you've figured it all out, let me know how you did it. I'll let you be a guest poster on The Prosers.

Remember, family is the most important thing. Of course, parents out there, remember that when your children are seeing you happy and productive, you are being a great role model. BALANCE, my friends. It's all about balance.

4. So far, everything I've written has been stuff I've always known was great advice but can't do to save my life. However, I'm pretty good at this one:

Keep your mind open to new opportunities and experiences, especially when you are feeling burned out. Don't be afraid to try new things!

5. Make sure you spend the majority of the time thinking your own thoughts. It may sound drastic, but cutting out books for a week worked for me. Or television...You know what your poison is.

6. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Deadlines rock. I'm not certain I would even get out of bed in the morning if I didn't give myself a deadline. Use them! Abuse them even. Make crazy, life changing deadlines like, "I'm going to finish all the rewrites to this novel by Friday at noon!"

Important warning: Deadlines works best when you are looking at your To Do list (rule 1) and your calendar (rule 2) when you make them. That way, you don't promise yourself that you'll finish the rewrites to the novel by Friday at noon, the first chapter of your new collaborative novel by Wednesday at 10, your regular blog post by Friday morning, create your new book review blog (complete with book to review!) by Saturday at 3. All without changing the usual flow of your daily life. Not that anyone would be crazy enough to try such a thing... 

**Don't forget to go to Melanie's First Annual Name My Book contest to submit your ideas or even just to register for the chance to win! The deadline is June 15.**

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Writing outside your experiences

One of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers is, "write what you know." It makes sense – understanding something, having experienced it, can give a sense of reality and authenticity to a situation or a story.

Still, in the greater scheme of things, one person's experience is rather limited. So what do you do when you want to write about something new?

Bear with me, because this is going to be a bit circuitous.

I’m a big fan of NBC's singing competition The Voice. Personally, I'm rooting for Lindsey to win.

She's badass and unique and all sorts of creative. My favorite performance of hers so far was her duet during the battle rounds, where she and Lee Koch sang Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box.

From time to time, contestants on the show (including Lindsey) have complained that they don't like a song choice because they don't have an emotional connection to it. They do have a point – when a singer really feels a song, it can be a stunning performance. However, I can't quite buy it.

The other singer in the above video, Lee, initially had trouble with the song. Nirvana is right up Lindsey's alley, but Lee has been more of a folk rocker. But when he mentions to Christina Agiulera that he can't quite connect with the song, she tells him something interesting: Those lyrics meant something particular to Kurt Cobain when he wrote them. What you have to do is find your own meaning. Make them matter to you.

Taking the other side 

When I was in college, I took a Middle Eastern Studies class. It fulfilled my ethnic studies requirement – and it was very apropos, as the Iraq war was just about to break out. It was a great class, mostly focusing on religion and womens' issues. Not much of the class sticks in my mind – except for one assignment.

The assignment was to take part in a debate. My team was assigned women's issues, particularly the debate about Muslim women who want to wear headscarves. Somewhat to my dismay, I was assigned the position of defending the wearing of a headscarf. Seemed like a pretty obvious symbol of male oppression to me. But since I didn't feel too strongly about the issue (and being the overachiever that I am) I did the research and came up with the arguments.

Still, they were just facts on a page – until I started acting them out in class (we presented the mock debate to the other students). In saying the words, in acting out the position… it became real to me. I found myself understanding an issue that I'd had only the vaguest of opinions on before. Even today, I still wince every time I hear about France's ban on headscarves, because I created that small connection with the issue.

Back to the original question

So I suppose I do agree with that frequent advice. We should write what we know. But I no longer think that as limiting. I see it as a challenge.

So I share the challenge with you: find something interesting that you don't know too much about. But don't just read about it – really put yourself in the position. College classes willing to listen to your debate might be few and far between, but that' s what writer friends are for. Argue a different perspective. Find a strange song, or a strange personality you've never understood before. Dig deep into it, examine it from all angles until it becomes something you understand. Then make into your own.

That's where authenticity comes from. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Amazing Discovery of the Week:



Carpe diem

~ Susan

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sometimes the Boy Shouldn't Get the Girl

I recently read a series (that shall remain nameless) where the love interest died at the end. It kind of came out of nowhere, no foreshadowing, no build up, no big romantic sacrificing moment, just a sudden, tragic death. And even though I really liked the character, I had no emotional response to his death. It just fell flat. I couldn’t figure out why the author killed a main character like that.

 So I went to her website and read through the frequently asked questions, and I wasn’t alone. One of the first questions was why did that character die? Her answer was because he was just a causality of war. In real life, sometimes people just die without any reason, and that was how she wanted his death to be.

While I respect her decision as a writer and staying true to her vision, I think stories need a stronger sense of purpose than what we find in real life. Random things happen in real life, but not in stories. Everything needs to makes sense, everything needs to relate in to the main plot, everything that happens needs a reason. If you are going to deny the reader a happily ever after, it needs to fit the story and the theme. It really needs to be the point of the story.

 There are a number of love stories that I love that do not have a happy ending. In fact, when these types of stories strike an emotional chord with me, they stay with me forever. Stories with tragic or unhappy endings can be very powerful, but they need to be done right. Here are a few of my favorites, and why I think these endings are absolutely perfect.

1. Gone with the Wind. Okay, I love Scarlett O’Hara. I think she is one of the greatest characters of all time. But her endless selfishness, inability to give up on what she couldn’t have (until she could have it), and her pride destroy any chance she had of true happiness. Rhett clearly loved her and did everything he could to win her over, but in the end, he had too much self-respect to put up with her any longer. I like the open ending (I will never read Scarlett, blasphemy). Maybe Scarlett would change and win Rhett back or maybe not. But at the end of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett hadn’t earned her happily ever after.

2. Titanic. To me, Titanic really wasn’t a love story. It was about Rose finding the courage to break away from a life that was controlling her. Jack inspired that change, and in that way he saved her, but it was Rose who made the choice to leave everything she knew behind and start a new life. Although the romantic in me would have loved to see those two go off in the sunset together, the story was stronger having Rose go off on her own. It showed her transformation. That she became brave enough to start a new life on her own, without anyone to help her. She built a rich life for herself, became an actress, flew an airplane, got married and had children, but through it all, she always kept Jack in her heart.

3. City of Angels. This ending was very tragic. Seth gives up being an angel for Maggie only to lose her after one day together. I heard that a lot of people didn’t like this ending, but I thought it was perfect. Seth chose to human, and the good comes with the bad. Love comes with loss, happiness comes with sorrow, pleasure comes with pain. Both the good and the bad experiences are what makes being human so wonderful. Even though Seth only got one day with Maggie, to him it was worth the “fall.” Loving her was worth the pain of losing her.

4. Casablanca. I think real love is about selflessness. It’s about sacrificing that one thing that you want the most for someone else. In Casablanca, the thing Rick wants most in the world is Ilsa, and Ilsa clearly loves him too. But keeping her in Nazi controlled Casablanca and away from her revolutionary husband who needs her isn’t what is best for her. Rick can see that even if Ilsa can’t, so he gives up what he wants most and convinces her go. It’s incredibly romantic even if it isn’t a happily ever after ending.

5. Wuthering Heights. Some people think Wuthering Heights is a great love story and others call it a hate story, and I think they are both right. Love and hate are closely related. Both are very passionate and consuming emotions. I think in their own selfish way, Cathy and Heathcliff really did love each other. But it was a selfish, obsessive, all-consuming love that destroyed them and everyone around them. Wuthering Heights is a fascinating story of the darker, destructive side of love, and if Heathcliff and Cathy ended up with a happily ever after, it would have romanticized that type of love instead of showing how truly devastating it can be.

Of course all of these stories, except City of Angels, are classics.  To me they are perfect from start to finish, and their endings are emotional and connected to the major themes and stayed with me long after the story is over.  This level of storytelling is hard to achieve.

Honestly, I struggle with endings. To me, they can make or break a book. Happy endings are usually the safer way to go, because most of the time, readers want happily ever after. So if a story is going to end in heartache, there needs to be a good reason for it, or it will fall flat.

 So what are your favorite unhappy endings?


Monday, April 23, 2012

Writers Who Don't Read, and Other Mythological Creatures

Three mythological creatures I just don't buy.

Writers who don't read.

I'm critting a novel for a girl who says she doesn't like to read. I don't get that. At all. It's like she's trying to learn a foreign language, but refuses to listen to anyone who is fluent in it, or take a class, or read a textbook about conjugating verbs. In essence, she's trying to recreate a new language without checking to make sure she's pronouncing things correctly.

Why make life more difficult than it needs to be? A lot of the things she struggling with have answers she would get from reading the right book. I can't tell you how many times I found the answer to a problem from a book, or found the trigger that instigated a story out of a novel I'd just been reading.

But she says, she just not a "reader."

I think writing is like talking, and reading is like listening. Have you ever met anyone who liked to talk, but refused to listen. I sure have, and they're obnoxious. Don't be obnoxious. Read.

People who aren't "Readers"

My husband says he isn't a reader, but I emphatically disagree. I think he is a reader, he just hasn't found that one book yet, that book that sinks its teeth into him and won't let go. I know what book it was for me, Melanie and MaryAnn both posted about what book did it to them. Maybe he just hasn't found his book yet.

I just don't understand people who aren't readers. Yesterday, my husband and I were looking online at the new Ender's Game movie. When he saw the cast list on IMDb, he said to me, "Why are there so many kids in this movie? Are there a bunch of kids in Ender's Game?"

I just looked at him. I married you? I though briefly. We've been married eight and a half years, and in all of that time it never once crossed my mind that my husband hadn't read Ender's Game.

I'm going to try to make him read it, hopefully it'll be the book that inspires him, but no promises. He wants to wait for the movie.

A couple of months ago, I was returning one of my kids books to the library, and I had to pay for it, because it was damaged. I said to the librarian, "Oh no, I think we might have a Ramona moment." She looked at me, and I kid you not, she said, "Who's Ramona?"

I stood there, "Ramona Quimbly. Beverly Cleary. Beezus and Ramona?" Still no look of recognition crossed her face. "You're a librarian, and you don't know Ramona?"

It's obnoxious. Don't be obnoxious. Read.

People who like the Bachelor.

I've been told, (through words, and body language) that reading books is a neglect of duties to my family or my house, or that "I'd read too, if I didn't have so much to do," as if reading should be number one of time wasting diversions to avoid.

 As a person who is trying to write as a profession, reading is my education, my training, and my certification. Reading is not like watching The Bachelor.

I mean, come on. The Bachelor? Come on.  It's obnoxious. Don't be obnoxious.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

I Hear Fictional People...Guest Proser Patricia Hall

Anybody that knows me knows I can get a little obsessive when it comes to waiting for a new book to come out.  Right now I’m waiting for Bitterblue, the follow up to Kristin Cashore’s young adult book, Graceling.  I roam the internet, looking for news on release dates, covers, anything to hold me over until I can get my greedy hands on my own copy.

Recently I found myself sifting through blog entries about Kristin’s writing process, and specifically how she develops characters.  Someone asked her if her characters ever pop up in her head while she’s not writing—if they give her advice or if they make their presence known in her everyday life. She said no, they stay where they belong, in her stories.  I read this and nodded.  Yes, that sounds right, I thought.  My characters don’t really pop up in my head while I’m changing diapers or going grocery shopping.  At least I couldn’t think of a time when they had.

Then something funny happened.  I was watching a movie, completely engrossed in what was going on, when one of the characters made some passing comment on their luck finally changing.  I snorted and immediately thought, “Ha! Tabby [a character I was writing at the time] would never wait around for her luck to change!”  Then I thought, “Did that just happen?  Did my character just pop up out of nowhere?”  I figured it could have been a fluke.  I’d been running through character building exercises that morning—it must have been carry-over from that.

It happened again a few days later.  I was driving down the road, minding my own business when a truck shot around me and cut me off.  There, at the forefront of my mind, was another one of my characters, shouting at me to speed up and honk until I got my point across.  I smiled and shook my head.  That wasn’t my reaction.  (I’m a fairly levelheaded driver…most of the time.)  It was my character’s reaction and he was not happy with the way I shrugged it off.

So, twice in one week, I found out that I was wrong.  My characters do insert themselves into my thoughts.  Probably always have, I just never noticed before.  Now I don’t think I’m particularly crazy (unless I’ve been up for twenty-four hours straight with a sick baby, at which point all bets are off.) I’m pretty sure there have to be other writers out there that know what it’s like to think, “My character would never take that kind of crap!”  Still, I think this realization has helped me in a couple of ways.

One, I’ve started writing more consistent characters.  Now whenever I have decisions to make, I consult my characters.  Invited to a dinner I don’t really want to attend?  What would Character X do?  What about Character Y?  What does that say about them as people?  Laptop crashed and I lost the last six days of work because I didn’t bother to back it up?  (Cringe!)  How would Character X react?  Why didn’t he react like this instead?  What do his friends think if he acts that way?  For me, it’s become my strongest character-building tool.

It’s also shown me that I’m doing something right.  Most of the writers I know are their own worst critics.  They talk down to themselves, rip apart their own work, and go through periods where they are sure they’re wasting their time.  I’m definitely one of those types.  The trouble is, writers can’t rely on anyone else to pick them up when they feel that way.  If I believe something is trash, nobody else is going to convince me it’s not.  So it’s nice to know on those days when my plot is coming unraveled and my dialogue is gummy and off and my word count is getting out of hand, I don’t have to worry about whether I developed a realistic character.  I know I have, because they’re usually there, laughing or crying or shouting at me to get over myself and finish the book already!
At which point I usually take a deep breath and do exactly that.  And you know, it’s made my life a lot easier.  As a writer, anyway.  Now if only I could convince my characters to vacuum and do the dishes for me, too.  I'd be set for life.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pen Names, Slayers, Harry Potter and The Vortex of Doom

I didn't think she'd have the guts to do it. Not this soon anyway. I wouldn't have thought JK Rowling could climb much higher in my estimation, but she managed--with sheer nerve and chutzpah.

What I thought would happen--at least at first, was that she would be smart enough to realize she could never write a series to match Harry Potter. It took a lot of time, and seven whole books to turn the world of Harry Potter into the richly detailed world we all know and love today. But the media isn't going to allow her seven books this time. If she can't do it in one book, there are people out there waiting to lambast her for it. In my opinion, she hardly has a chance (of critical success, anyway.)

I thought she'd try again eventually, when she couldn't take it anymore. But here she is, already poised on the brink of publishing her first adult book. It's called The Casual Vacancy, and the release date is September 27, 2012. Right in time for my birthday! Here is the summary, straight from the Little, Brown Book Group's web site:  
"When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?"

I'm sure it will be the best-selling book of the year. I've got my fingers crossed that I'll like it too. JK Rowling is not the only author crossing genres these days.

Crossing Genres

I just finished reading Slayers by C.J. Hill. C.J. Hill is the pen name for one of my favorite authors, Janette Rallison, whom I've mentioned before on this blog. She's just about the only writer of contemporary YA romance that I would readily admit to reading, and it's mostly because she is so completely hilarious. She also writes Paranormal Romance. Whenever my daughter or I pull out our battered copy of My Fair Godmother my whole family starts clamoring for one of us to read the bikini scene:
The problem was that I'd never worn a bikini before. My dad doesn't allow them. He thinks even one-pieces show too much skin and constantly suggests that Jane and I wear wet suits...

Actually there would be some advantages to wearing a wet suit. Primarily, it wouldn't fall off your body after you dove into the pool. As soon as I hit the water, I felt the straps of my top give way. I tried to grab hold of it, but the momentum of my dive pushed me farther away into the pool. I needed air, but I needed the top of my bikini more. I also needed to shriek, but I couldn't do that underwater...

The lifeguard blew the whistle again, sending a shrill reprimand in our direction. "You need to exit the pool now!"

Really, lifeguards are way too uptight.

"She'll just be a second," Tristan called back. "Her bikini top came off!"

Let me say right now that if you're planning to ask a girl to prom there are several things you don't want to do. Yelling "Her bikini top came off!" in front of an entire pool full of her peers is on the top of that list.
The whole scene gets funnier every time we read it.

Slayers, on the other hand, is not a comedy. It's about a world where dragons are real.

"They're ferocious. And they're smart: Before they were killed off by slayer-knights, they rendered a select group of eggs dormant, so their offspring would survive...The Slayers are descended from the original knights and are now a diverse group of teens."

When the Slayers are near a dragon, they gain supernatural skills. Some of them fly, some can throw shield charms, some can see what the dragon sees. This book by C.J. Hill couldn't be more different than the books by Janette Rallison, which is, I suppose, the point of the pen name.

I'm glad there was a pen name in this case, more because I would have been disappointed that it wasn't hilarious than because of the crossing of genres. Don't get me wrong--it has funny moments, and of course it has some romance. I really enjoyed Slayers, and hope everyone reading this runs out to buy everything by both C.J. Hill AND Janette Rallison.

Some more examples...

David Wolverton writes science fiction under his own name, but when he writes fantasy, he calls himself David Farland.

On the other hand, his good friend, and one of my heroes, Orson Scott Card, writes science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction all under the same name.

Robin Hobb is the pen name of Margaret Ogden when she is writing fantasy, but when she publishes contemporary fantasy, she uses the name Megan Lindholm.

If, like Orson Scott Card, you have always dabbled in multiple genres, your followers will expect it of you, and you don't need to change your name. However, that seems like the much riskier way to go on a path that is already treacherous enough. Most people agree that unless it sucks your soul into the vortex of doom, it's a much wiser thing to establish yourself in one genre, possibly forever, but at least until you have a solid fan base.

Then, if you are like J.K. Rowling, and your name is such a household word that it is an absolute guarantee of success, you probably don't want to change it. Of course, J.K. Rowling is sort of a pen name too. Her real name is Joanne Rowling, but her editor thought more boys would be interested in the book if it wasn't obviously written by a woman. The K comes from Kathleen, which was her grandmother's name, and isn't part of Joanne's legal name at all.

How about you? Do you plan to write in more than one genre? Would you write under a pen name? 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Personality types

I've always been something of a fan of quizzes and personality tests. When I step back and think about it, my fascination isn't entirely logical – I mean, I do spend more time in my own head than anyone else does.

But in any case, its fun to find patterns in my own thoughts that I might not have previously recognized. Of course, most quizzes are pretty silly – like What Color is Your Aura? Or Which Harry Potter Character Are You? (which is pointless, because the multiple choice answers are so obvious that it's not really hard to figure who you're going to get).

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum of usefulness is something called the Enneagram. It's made up of nine main personality types, each of which has a wing, or subtype. It also describes how your personality can change if you're healthy or if you're troubled.

Look, here's a picture. The arrows show the directions of integration and disintegration.

It apparently has some sort of Greek or Babylonian origin, which I'm guessing means that, thousands of years ago, stone tablet quizzes were very popular, with subjects like "Which Greek Philosopher are You?" or "Which Invading Hoard Will Ransack Your Town This Year?"

Anyway, properly explaining the whole thing would take forever. There's also, for example, the triads: thinking, feeling and intuition. Here is the website if you want more detail.

Anyway… I'm kind of in love with the Enneagram. Because the description of my personality type is somewhat alarmingly accurate. I mean, when I first took the quiz, it was like the internet could read my mind.

Here are some descriptors of my personality type, from the book The Wisdom of the Enneagram (p. 179)
-I often feel alone and lonely, even when I'm around people I'm close to (check)
-I can forgive almost everything except bad taste (check - this one made me laugh, because it's silly of me, but so true!)
-I tend to brood over my negative feelings for a long time before getting free of them (check)
-I tend to spend quite a bit of time imagining scenes and conversations that haven't necessarily happened (CHECK CHECK CHECK)

But I didn't bring this up to talk about my own psyche. Another big part of the Enneagram that I like is its insights into other types of personalities. I see it as a tool to explore other ways of thinking and other approaches to the world - for that ever difficult character development.

For example, when I first come up with a character, and I've spent time developing their history and characteristics, I go look at the quiz on the Enneagram site. The quiz, which is used to determine personality type, presents a series of questions and asks you to chose which of two choices fits you best.

There are the obvious ones:

1. I have tended to
a. Take on confrontations
b. avoid confrontations

But then there are ones that are less intuitive:

2. When I have a new experience, I ask if it will be:
a. Useful to me
b. enjoyable

3. I have been more:
a. relationship oriented than goal oriented
b. goal oriented rather than relationship oriented.

4. I've typically been interested in
a. Asking the tough questions and maintaining my independence
b. Maintaining my stability and peace of mind

In relation to character development, my very favorite part about the Enneagram though is their list of basic fears and desires for each personality type. It wasn't something that I really thought about before, and yet these things are at the heart of everyone's personality. So now it's something I ask myself about my characters. What do they really want? What do they fear most in life?

Basic Fears (The Wisdom of the Enneagram , p. 32)
Type 1: fear of being bad, corrupt, evil or defective
Type 2: fear of being unworthy of being loved
Type 3: fear of being worthless or without inherent value
Type 4: fear of being without identity or personal significance
Type 5: fear of being useless, incapable or incompetent
Type 6: fear of being without support or guidance
Type 7: fear of being deprived or trapped in pain
Type 8: fear of being harmed or controlled by others
Type 9: fear of loss of connection, of fragmentation

Basic desires (and their distortions)  (The Wisdom of the Enneagram , p.33)
Type 1: the desire to have integrity (deteriorates into critical perfectionism)
Type 2: the desire to be loved (deteriorates into the need to be needed)
Type 3: the desire to be valuable (deteriorates into chasing after success)
Type 4: the desire to be oneself (deteriorates into self indulgence)
Type 5: the desire to be competent (deteriorates into useless specialization)
Type 6: the desire to be secure (deteriorates into an attachment to beliefs)
Type 7: the desire to be happy (deteriorates into frenetic escapism)
Type 8: the desire to protect oneself (deteriorates into constant fighting)
Type 9: the desire to be at peace (deteriorates into stubborn neglectfulness)

If you're interested in taking the quiz for you, or for your characters, copy and paste this link into your browser (it won't hotlink, not sure why): . If you take it for yourself, you'll know you answered the questions right if you come up with a description that is alarmingly accurate. J If not, try one of your secondary results.

Let me know what you get if you take the quiz, or if not, what basic fears/desires seem to most match you or your characters.

(And if anyone is wondering, I'm a Type Four with a Five wing).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Case of Emergency

            Stuck, stuck stuck.

It's that part of your story. You know, the part where you know what needs to happen. You know what leads up to that part, and what comes after that part, but for whatever reason the scene, or paragraph, or even sentence, when it's down on paper, has all the tension and allure of a teenager's smelly sock.

What do you do? Well, if you're me you stare at it incessantly, moan, bury your head in a pillow, and announce to the world that you'll never - never, you hear me - make it as a writer. Then your blow your nose and maybe dig into that stash of clearance Easter candy you swore would last till summer break (at least). But more than anything, you get on with things.

So, the most important piece of advice about getting unstuck that I've learned as a fledgling writer? Does it come from a literary genius? From some secret cabal of writers? Did I pull a genie out of a bottle to give me the ultimate answer?
Well, yeah, the last one, sort of. The most important advice I've found to get past that part of a story comes from Disney's Alladin. It's a shame I couldn't find a clip on Youtube, so you'll just have to pretend along with me. Remember when Alladin is snookered by Jafar into going into the Cave of Wonders and gets stranded there? It looks pretty bad for him and poor Abu. He's about as stuck as you can get. But then the genie comes, and after the song and dance number and some witty dialogue, he plops Alladin on the magic carpet and gives this fabulous advice:

"In case of emergency, the exits are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here anywhere! Keep your hand and arms inside the carpet! We're outta here!"

How does this relate to writing? Well...

Here: There's not just one way a story has to be. Your exit to get past that part may be to write the scene the way it wants to come out instead of how you think it should. Some things might need to be tweaked later, but the whole of it might be better in the end.

Here: Talk it over. A spouse, a trusted friend, a writer's group. I was sorta hurt when a few people (including my hubby) said they didn't buy a scene of my WIP. But, after a good stint of pouting, I rewrote it and it's better than it ever could have been on my own.

Here: Sleep on it. Or daydream on it. Give your subconscious leeway to stew, simmer or deep fry your problem. Sooner or later the solution will boil over into your consciousness.

Here: Rearrange the furniture. Okay, don't tell my kids I said that - I'm forever moving stuff around and it bugs them to death. Sometimes great writing is in the wrong place. Cut and paste is your friend - no pain, no long term damage. How would that scene, paragraph or sentence work out somewhere else?

Here: Take out the trash. Maybe that part really isn't supposed to be in your story at all. Be open to the possibility of dumping it altogether, no matter how much you love it.

Here: Write poetry to that part. (see here and here). Yes, I'm serious. A limerick, haiku, a ballad. Get those creative juices flowing in a different direction and see if the phrases you use can't also inspire the work itself.

Here: Move on. Like a boyfriend who won't commit, sometimes you just have to let go. As the days pass, you might find a new and better guy, er, scene. Or, you might also reconnect with that old flame and see it in a brand new light (maybe it's ready to change a little, too).

Here: Lastly, relax. You can do this.

We're outta here!

~ Susan

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How to Make the Ensemble Work: Lessons from LOST

I’m a big fan of LOST. In fact to this day, I still mourn the loss of it. I know a lot of fans were disappointed with the finale, but for me it worked. The story delivered the promises that it made to me. A lot of viewers got caught up into the mystery of the island, but to me, the story was always about the castaways. Characters who were metaphorically lost and could only find themselves after they became literally lost.

Recently I found the entire series of LOST on Netflix, and I started watching the first season. I’m as drawn in as I was the first time. LOST wasn’t perfect, but it did do a lot of things right, and I know I’ll have more to say about it especially the ending, but that will be another post. Right now I want to talk about how LOST made an ensemble cast work.

The Awesomeness of a good ensemble

In stories with a true ensemble, there really isn’t one protagonist but a group of main characters, and these stories tend to focus on the relationships between the main characters. In LOST, it is clear that Jack is the main protagonist but just barely. For the most part, there was a core group of characters that the series focused on.

But even if a story has one clear protagonist, developing other main characters and creating a core group can really make a story special. Part of the magic of Harry Potter was the engaging large cast of interesting and well-developed secondary and side characters. I really don’t think the Harry Potter books would not have done as well without Hermoine, Ron, Dumbledore, Snape, etc.

I’ve read a lot of high fantasy novel with a core group of characters on some sort of quest. Even though there usually is one main protagonist, the dynamics of the group is very important. In fact, the stories that stayed with me the most were the ones which made me connect to almost every character in the party like Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, and Harry Potter. Putting together an engaging ensemble of characters can really make your story shine.

How to make an ensemble work

The series LOST gives us lots of valuable insights in how to make an ensemble cast work.

1. Work the characters into the ensemble slowly. Nothing is worse for a reader than to be thrown into a large group of characters with no real focus. The reader quickly gets lost and loses interest.

LOST started with Jack. He was the first character on screen, and he anchored the audience through the first episode. All of the other characters were there in the chaos, but Jack was the focus, and he slowly introduced us to the other characters as he met them. The other characters take turns being the focus of later episodes, and really it takes almost the entire first season for all the main characters to be fully introduced.

Character introductions are important. Don’t rush into establishing all the players. Introduce a few characters at a time, and let the others be a mystery as the plot unfolds. Wait for the right time to make them the focus and reveal their backstory.

2. Every character needs an interesting backstory. LOST spends a lot of time on backstories for the main characters, and it is done really well. It accentuates who they are and who they become.

There is Jack with a complicated relationship with his dad, and even in his backstory, he is trying to save everyone. Then there is Sawyer who while trying to find the man who was indirectly responsible for the death of his parents actually becomes the man he’s been hunting and hating all those years. Hurley uses the numbers he hears a man repeating in a mental institution in the lottery and wins the multimillion dollar jackpot, only to be plagued with bad luck thereafter. All the main characters of LOST have rich, detailed, often heartbreaking backstories that are just as rich and fascinating as what is happening on the island.

Honestly, most stories should not go into this much detail about backstory. LOST was telling two stories in most of the episodes, the backstory of a character and that character’s present experience on the island. The backstory paralleled what was happening on the island, which was really quite brilliant. This fit the story that the writers of LOST were trying to tell, but it doesn’t work for all stories.

Still backstory is important. In fact, I feel that it is essential for good characterization. So making interesting, detailed backstories for all the characters in the ensemble will make them feel like real characters whether or not that backstory is revealed. Everyone in the group should have their own motive for going on the adventure or being a part of the group outside of the main character. This will make all the characters in the ensemble come to life.

3. The characters interact with each other in big and small ways. In watching the first season of LOST again since it first aired, I was surprised by how many times the characters interacted with each other in small ways that weren't big plot turns.

I remembered the big things like Locke befriending Walt, Charlie and Claire's romance, and Jack and Sayid torturing Sawyer, but I didn’t remember all the small interactions like Hurley trying to fish with Jin, Sawyer giving Charlie Claire’s diary, or Jack pushing Boone aside to resuscitate Rose. These were all small moments, but they gave the impression that these characters were interacting with each other even when they were off screen. It made it feel as if these people were really living together which sets up the strong relationships that developed later.

A lot of times in my reading of high fantasy adventure stories, we see the protagonist getting to know all of other characters in the group, but what is sometimes missing is that interaction between the other characters without the protagonist involved. I know this is hard to do especially when the protagonist is the main focus, but if you can subtly work in moments showing glimpses of how the supporting characters interact with each other to give the impression that there is more going on beween them than what is on screen or on the page. This will give the ensemble realistic group dynamics that make them feel like a real people instead of a bunch of characters following the protagonist around to service a plot.

4. Conflict, conflict, conflict. LOST is chock-full of conflict. First of all, they are stuck on deserted island that is pretty creepy with whispers and an unseen monster that tears people apart. If that isn’t enough, they are not the only people on the island, and the others are rather hostile.

But that isn’t all the conflict. Every character has internal conflict, Jack’s insecurities on being a leader, Sayid’s guilt, Sawyer’s inability to connect with others, Charlie’s lack of self-confidence, and Michael’s struggle to be a good father. Then there are also conflicts between the characters. Jin suspects Michael is interested in his wife. Boone doesn’t want Sayid to “date” his sister. Michael thinks Locke is undermining his authority with his son. And Sawyer clashes with pretty much everyone.

If you throw a bunch of people together in any setting, there will be conflicts between them. A group that always gets along is not only uninteresting but unrealistic. The characters need to have conflicts with each other in order to feel like real people.

The thing about conflict is that it can push people apart and draw them together. It can strengthen or challenge relationships, and I feel that in real life, you can’t have a meaningful relationship without some sort of conflict.

The moments I really liked in LOST were the moments that they all came together. Whenever there was a bigger threat, they put their differences aside and banded together like when Jack, Sayid, Locke, Sawyer, and Kate went after Ethan who was threatening to kill them one by one. Those were the moments when you could see relationships forming, when they learned to trust and depend on each other. You need moments like that to make an ensemble work.

Some parting thoughts

LOST had a pretty big ensemble cast. That works well for a TV series that has a lot of time to develop characters and plot lines. But in writing novels, small groups work better. You should have the smallest group possible to tell the story. That gives more space to really develop those character and relationships to make the ensemble really memorable.

So I want to know what you think. What are some of your most favorite ensembles in books, TV, or movies, and why do you think they worked?


Monday, April 16, 2012

Mining Your Family History for Story Ideas

One of my favorite TV shows (which my children and husband tease me about) is Who Do You Think You Are. On the show, celebrities, (and almost celebrities) research their family history trying to find a connection to their past, or find answers to some unknown family secret.

It's awesome.

My mom is a genealogist. That's what she does as for fun, money, and milkshakes.

Sarah Heald
Personal Hero
So I've always known about where I came from.

 I've always heard stories of my great great grandmother Sarah Heald, who sang for the Queen (or was it King?) of England, and then gave up a promising opera career in England to join the Mormon church and settle in a small town in Idaho.

I've always known about Annie Welker and her corncob pipe, who as an early Mormon pioneer, asked her husband to marry her widowed niece in Canada.

William Brewster has my nephew's eyes
I've known about king Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is my ancestor ( along with basically everyone else with Irish blood).

  I've known that both my mom and my dad are related to William Brewster who came over on the Mayflower.

 It's part of who I am to know where I came from.

When I look back at these names and dates written on a pedigree chart, I can't help but wonder what if felt like to grow up when they did. I can't help but wonder how my great great grandparents met, and what flowers adorned their wedding. I can't help, as a mother, to sympathies with my great (and great great grandmother) who lost children. I wonder what it'd be like to be the unmarried younger sister, whose name never continues on in perpetuity.

I think every person on this earth has heartbreak, and therefore, every person on this earth has a story. To me, I think  about the worst thing in the world that could happen is to be forgotten.

But there's just so many of us on this planet. So many people live and die, and never do anything that lives on or is remembered. But that doesn't mean our stories aren't important. It doesn't mean our heartbreak isn't real and important.

As the product of these strong men and women, whose choices and heartbreak determined how and where I was born, I have to go back and tell their story. Their stories. Because who else is going to do it?

If you don't happen to have a genealogist mother, or great aunt, or second cousin in California that does this kind of research, maybe you are the one who can start. Maybe you have an adventure in front of you in discovering where your people come from.

Here's how you start.

  1. Ask those who know. If your grandparents are still living, ask them about their family, about their parents, their upbringing. Ask your mom, and your cousins, and just keep your eyes and story net  open for stories.
  2. Look online. and, are two awesome resources to get started finding your story. Just type in your name, and look at what has already been discovered. 
  3. Look in your community for resources, like heritage centers, or libraries, historical societies. You never know what stories await you, until you look.

One thing else to think about, is that you don't need to research until you find the end of your line in order to find stories. My favorite episode of Who Do You Think You Are was the episode with Rita Wilson. She wanted to find out more about her father, and the secrets she uncovered about her recently passed father could break your heart. It's amazing what we don't know, at least until we look.

It's not about finding dates, and birth records. It's understanding who your parent really are, and what your grandparents felt, and why you were born where you were. It's about finding out where you got your curly hair, or your nose, or stubbornness, or maybe to explain away your children's rebel streak.

It's about connecting the dots, and doing the math, to find out how old someone was when they were married, or lost children, or died. It's about discovering the real life characters who made you who you are.

As a storyteller, doesn't that just make you curious?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

When the Writing Gets Tough . . .Guest Proser Jessica Foster

Writing can be difficult. It can be beyond difficult. We spend months and months writing over 50,000 words (or in the case of NaNoWriMo, we sacrifice sleep, food, and hygiene to write 50,000 words in one month long burst).

Then we submit our hard work to our beta readers with the instructions, “Be tough.” We basically ask them to rip it to shreds and break our hearts. It makes it better in the end, but man, it still hurts.

We’ve lost sleep over plot holes and missed sunny days to meet our goals. We’ve zoned out on entire conversations as we ponder story lines or dialog.

It’s a tough business, my friends.

How can we make it easier?

I was pondering this and it made me think of an example from my real life.
Buying gas for my car.
I hate it.

It means I have to actually get into my car and drive to the gas station. I’m not a big fan of driving (I mean come on the gas station is within walking distance—it’d be so much easier to walk).

Then I have to maneuver my car into the station around the gas pumps and potholes and fifty other cars needing to buy gas. And I have to do this twice because I forget which side my gas tank is on every . . . single . . . time . . .

To top it off, after paying the huge bill, I inevitably will forget to put the gas cap back on and have to buy a new one.

Buying gas is no fun. But it is necessary because running out of gas makes for a really bad day. It is a fact: I must drive, therefore I must buy gas.

A few weeks ago, my experience in gas buying changed and now I look forward to it.

What changed?
(If you say my attitude, no cookies for you. This isn’t one of those posts.)

One word. Bribary. Er I mean rewards.

Heaven..thy name is Slurpee!
See my gas station is this nifty little place called 7-11 and they have the delicious little drinks called Slurpees. So if I go to get gas, I get a Slurpee.

How does that apply to writing?

Well, writing is going to be tough. Why not reward yourself for little accomplishments along the way?

When I finished the edit of my latest work in progress, I allowed myself to read Possession by Elana Johnson  (I’ve been dying to read it).

Your reward doesn’t have to be big. (If every time you finished a chapter you gave yourself a free kitten and a trip to Disney World, things would get out of hand fast). Figure out something you love and use that to motivate yourself. Get a bowl of candy or grapes and every time you write a hundred words, you get one. When you’re finally brave enough to submit your story to your betas, go see that movie you’ve been dying to see or order a pizza. Or take a walk. Or buy a book. The possibilities are endless.

So go out there and get to writing. And when it gets tough—remember, bribery . . . er rewards!