Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rationalizing magic

I've been thinking a lot lately about how I write stories, and how my methods might be causing me some difficulty.

As I've mentioned before, ideas are the easiest for me. However, they come in bits and fragments, rather than whole story ideas.  For example, I imagined a girl tripping and falling through shadow into another dimension. Marbles that hold bits of memories and music. A society where the young people never see summer, because of a plague that happens only then. And an area so contaminated that no magic can exist there.

The problem I have is making those bits of ideas work in the context of a whole story... and a logical worldview.  I can get so frustrated with the rationalizing process that my interest in the story wanes.

Let's take the example of the place so contaminated that no magic works there. I liked the idea of there being sites around the world where no magic can exist. I've been reading about several case studies - Fukushima is always in the news. And about Japan's Minamata Disease, caused by years of chemical factories spilling tons and tons of organic methylmercury into the ocean, leaving thousands of people with nerve damage and developmental disorders (note: do not google Minamata Disease, especially pictures, if you have a weak stomach or want to be able to sleep  tonight.  I'm referring to descriptions of effects on children and a few horrifying photos).  Fukushima, of course, is always in the news.  And, of course, Chernobyl (last year, I read Voices from Chernobyl, made up entirely interviews with survivors. It's one of the most amazing and heartbreaking works I've ever read).

An abandoned grand piano in Pripyat. Photo attribution Timm Suess, from Wikimedia Commons.

So it all seems great - poison, toxins and radiation disrupt magic. But how? The scientist in me wants to know, the reader in me hates when things don't make sense.  Never mind having no idea how toxic metals might interact with magic, I don't know enough about physics to explain how radioactive iodine and other particles might interfere with whatever energy defines magic. In the current short story I'm working on, I don't go into it too much, except to state that magic comes from the energy of all living things, so anything that disrupts or corrupts that flow of energy corrupts magic.

So how about you? As a reader, how much logic do you expect from magic systems? Do odd magic systems and ideas bother you in a novel or short story if they're not properly explained?

And how do you, as writers, handle ideas that seem cool but don't make immediate logical sense? How do you explain them without getting frustrated?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Baby Talk & First Drafts*

* aka, my little pep talk

When my little girl turned one, my mother made her a pink flannel blanket. It was covered with smiley daisies, and it took about 30 seconds for her to glom onto it as an inseparable appendage. She couldn't say blanky yet, so she simply called it 'wahggie.' Mornings were not complete until she was wrapped in her wahggie, playtime never the same unless it was within arm's reach.

And then one day she woke up and asked for her banky. It was the same flannel (now a bit faded), the same smiley daisies. I sniffed a little and sighed; a piece of her childhood had ended. The banky went on to become her 'fler banky,' at which point it began fraying around the edges, and then the 'flawr blanky.' Finally, when it had lost nearly all it's stuffing and my little girl was old enough to read and write, it became her 'flower blanket.' She still occasionally snuggles with its deflated remains.

So often  when I write, I want the words to come out perfectly the first time. Oh, I've read all the posts from authors about how horrid their first drafts are, but I've also read their published books, and I have this sneaking suspicion that their horrid and my horrid are on completely different planes of existence. I despair, I mourn. Sometimes I can't get the words onto the paper because of how awful I know they will be.


What if I had expected the same perfection from my daughter? What if 'wahggie' just wasn't good enough and nothing else would do but 'flower blanket?' I would have missed out on so much. Her smiles, would have turned to frowns, her unbridled passion for that brand new, bright and cheery blanky would have been lost.

I guess what I'm trying to say is (for those of you like me who stress yourselves out when writing), would it really be so bad to treat our stories like our babies? We call them our babies (I know you do). We have hopes and dreams and aspirations for them. And yet, how many of us wish they would leap from our brow like Athena from Zeus, fully formed and ready for battle with agents and publishers.

Maybe there is joy to be found in the imperfection of a childish first draft. Maybe we can trust that our manuscripts will grow up through the various revisions, the words will mature, the fabric of the story will wear to a comfortable softness that we couldn't imagine any other way (maybe we'll even lose some stuffing in the process).

Maybe, we really can relax enough to love and nurture the unbridled passion of writing and know that there will be time enough later to take care of the rest.

~ Susan

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Trouble with Endings

I’m trying to perfect the ending to my novel right now, and honestly, I’m almost paralyzed.  I’ve never been this slow at writing, so easily distracted, so critical of every word and plot turn.  It is driving me crazy. 

But I know exactly why I’m feeling apprehensive about writing my ending.  To me endings are so important.  They can make or break the entire book.  I’ve kept reading stories despite my interest lagging a bit only to reach the end and found it brilliant, making the whole entire book, even the slow middle, amazing.  Conversely, I’ve been turning pages in a fury to reach the end only to be disappointed and left feeling hollow about the whole book.  Getting the ending right is crucial.

I blogged a while back about re-watching the series Lost, and I have finally made it to the end.  Please don’t calculate how quickly I burned through the six seasons.  Part of my speed was me trying to avoid writing my ending, but part of it was that even the second time around, the show is riveting.    But having reached the end, I’m reminded of how polarized the critics and fans were.  Some loved it, praised it as the best series of all time, well-done, and emotionally cathartic.  Some were disappointed, calling the writing lazy and saying it undermined the entire series.  Really, the whole internet was abuzz with people blogging about why they loved it or hated it.  On a side note, recently Damon Lindelof, co-created and executive producer of Lost discusses the ending and how he feels about the criticism, which I found very interesting.

For the record, I loved the ending.  I thought it was perfect, and I might blog next week about why it worked so well for me (for those of you who care), but today, I want to discuss why the ending for Lost was so satisfying for some and so dissatisfying for others.

Endings are tied to readers’ expectations from the beginning.  Every genre has certain conventions for beginnings that hint about what type of story to expect.  A horror story doesn’t start the same way as a romance unless one of the lucky couple bites it in the end of the chapter, and even then, there is a different tone and sense of foreboding that foreshadows the event.  Likewise, a love story with a tragic ending shouldn’t begin as a light hearted chick lit.  The reader needs to know what kind of story he/she is reading, and what to expect from the ending.   Now I’m not saying the ending shouldn’t be unexpected.  I like unexpected endings.  I’m a big fan of the big twist when it is done right, but there is a difference from a twist and an ending that completely jumps the shark, an ending that comes out of nowhere. Those endings are neither clever nor satisfying.

So to figure out why people were so dissatisfied with the finale of Lost, we need to look at the beginning.  From reading a lot of the complaints and praises for the finale, I feel like there two camps of viewer.  The ones who were intrigued by the mysteries of the island were dissatisfied with the finale, and the ones who were focused more on the characters’ journeys were very satisfied with the ending.  I’m sure I’m over-simplifying this a bit, but that is the general feeling I got from reading the many, many blogs and reviews on the Lost finale.  So looking back at the beginning of Lost, what kind of story was promised?  The mystery of the island or a journey of the survivors?  It just so happens that I watched the pilot episode not too long ago.  :)

The pilot episode was very much about the characters, especially Jack.  Yes, there was a plane crash, and people were reacting to that, but how they were reacting was already establishing who they were.  Jack taking charge and running around helping everyone, which of course he should since he’s a doctor, but then he’s the one to go out into the jungle in search of the cockpit and goes back to help Charlie when the smoke monster is chasing them.  This nicely establishes his need to save everyone.  Kate tagging along with Jack to get the receiver and her comment about running while she stitched Jack up hinted of how she could never stay in one place for very long, and Sawyer not really helping much and smart mouthing off showed how he only looks out for himself.  Things were happening, but the focus was very much on the characters. 

Later episodes with the flashbacks, further illustrated this character focus, showing that all the characters were lost long before they got on the island.  The natural end for the show would be for those characters to find themselves, which is how the series did end.  They found themselves in the sideways world (the afterlife) when they remembered the island and remembered each other.  They found themselves through each other.  If that was your expectations of the series Lost, then the finale was perfect.  It resolved the original promise of lost souls finding their way.

But that wasn’t the only promise in the pilot episode.  The island itself became a character.  The black smoke monster was introduced as well, showing that the island was far from ordinary.  And in part two of the pilot, there was a polar bear and the French woman’s transmitting message.  The mystery of the island was also presented with Charlie’s famous line, “Guys, where are we?”  

Every week the mystery of the island deepened with the others and the hatch and the darma initiative, and while many things were explained, many weren’t.  If you found the mystery of the island more intriguing than the emotional journey of the characters, I’m not surprised you were dissatisfied with the ending.  Because the sideways world detracted from that promise, and in some ways, may have undermined it.

So I believe the take home message from Lost is to be careful to fulfill the promises made to the reader.   Make sure you are delivering the type of story that the audience expects.  The beginning should reflect the ending, and if there is a problem with the ending, maybe you need to revisit the beginning.

Now I got to get back to working on my ending.  :)


Monday, May 28, 2012

Guest Proser -Stefan Milicevic

Friend of Prosers Stefan Milicevic wrote a novel in seven days. Crazy right?

I'm gonna let him talk about the experience while I go barbecue/ leave flowers/ thank all military and their families.

Happy Memorial Day everybody!

Writing a Novel in one week by Stefan Milicevic


  Yes, you. 

  You want to write a novel, right? Come on, don’t be so modest.  I know you want to.  And you know what? That’s one laudable pursuit. Raise that paw and give me a collective high-five dudes and dudettes.

       So, how about you write that masterpiece of yours in, let’s say... One week?

       Hey, come back here.  I ain’t done talking to you.  It’ll be worth your while.  I promise.

       Because if a *bleeping* flake like I can do it, you can do it better (RESEARCH springs to mind). About a bajilion times.

       Writing a novel is quite the feat, more so if you try to do it in one friggin’ week.  Because, you know.  That’s, like,  168 hours, minus grabbing something to eat and going to the potty. A quick aside: I learned to appreciate diapers.

       Unsavory jokes aside, while it seems like a Brobdingnagian endeavor, it is manageable.  Note that I didn’t say easy.  

       If you’re up for this Crazy ride (Capital C, baby!),  give me a minute or two to give you the skinny. Show you the ropes.  Ease you in. Be the Rorschach to your Night Owl. Uh, right. Enough metaphors. Let’s get crackin’.

    Know what you’re about to do.

                I have the annoying tendency to prove people wrong. No, Stefan you can’t drink five six packs and pass the breath test. No, Stefan don’t put that fork in the toaster. No, you can’t wrap it in an aluminum sheet. That yogurt looks past its expiration date, Stefan, you shouldn’t eat it.

                Dares and acts of bravado can get you into a lot of trouble. Writing a novel in a single, piddling week can too. Take a day to prepare mentally. Get some chores done. Most importantly tell your spouse, partner or parents what you’re about to do. That way you will avoid awkward scenes when you suddenly start behaving... oddly.

My mother told me actually that I was muttering the word MANUSCRIPT in my sleep. That happened around day three or four. Imagine how I behaved around day six or seven.

                Write the book you ALWAYS wanted write

                This may run contrary to some advice on the interwebz, but generally, pick the one novel you always wanted to write and stick to it. The reason is simple, really. You need enough drive to be able to see this trough. If you don’t care about the characters it’ll be one tough ride. Bleed on the page. Not literary, please.

                Writing slams can pull the best out of you. When I sat down to edit the novel I wrote, I found out that I subconsciously put a lot of my inner demons on the page.
     My ongoing battle with depression. My fear of losing people that are dear to me. My parents’ divorce. My problems with alcoholism and marijuana. My paralyzing fear of failure.

                Then add all your interests into the plot and setting (or things that zing you as John Brown says) and you got a winner. For me those things were anime, comic book heroes, Shinto mythology, love triangles, Shakespearian tragedies, George R.R. Martinesque plot twist and a smart-ass Harry Dresdenish narrator.

                All of this I stuffed into a 60.000 word YA novel. The concept? A cross between Sailor Moon and Watchmen. Sounds silly? Maybe. But it was a blast to write. I am going to query this novel actually, so wish me luck. Excelsior!   

                 It writes or it gets the hose

                Another way to phrase this would be “write or get off the pot”. You got a daily word count goal of 8 or 10 thousand words. That’s more than your average short story. Sure, there’s time to spend with your pets, get the laundry done or have a raging fistfight with alien invaders, but be sure try to clock in at a thousand words an hour.

                It may be hypocritical of me to say this, since I played hooky more often than I care to admit, but I had to compensate for my little adventures by writing well into the wee hours. That will screw up your sleeping schedule so be aware of this particular pitfall. I know, I know, people who write novels in glass houses shouldn’t... words and typing...throw word counts... hypocrisy...something...

                Meh.  Next one.

                Make time and find a good place to duke it out with the miserly Muse

                When I decided to write a novel in the space of a week I went to my mother’s place. I live in Banja Luka. With some 250 000 inhabitants there are a lots of interesting people to be found there.  There are also numerous bars, two movie theaters, Uncle Mujo’s monthly all-you-can-eat event and a few strip clubs (or so I heard).
  In Teslic, where my mum currently resides, there’s not much to distract me.

                That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change locations (not all across the States at least), you should just keep your distractions to a bare minimum. If all you got is a blank page on your LCD screen your Muse will start prancing, biting, pinching and demanding to be entertained. Muses are fickle. They tend to ignore you until they get bored. Bore your Muse intentionally and you will see a series of miracles unfold.

                Have I mentioned that there’s no internet connection in my mum’s house? Key point, right there. 

                Now, you probably have a day job. Or Academic obligations. I understand that. This weekend I’ll have to write my thesis and a plethora of assignments I left on ice because I wanted to write my novel (“Conventions of Transcription in Serbian-English Translations “ isn’t as fun a topic as it sounds). I even shirked College for two days. I let my professors know beforehand.

                The thing is, I really want to do this novel writing gig as a full time job at one point in my life. It might be a silly ambition, but sacrifices are sometimes necessary. I will let the obvious human sacrifice joke stand. I am more refined than that.

Load your shotgun...

                ...and shoot your inner editor. Not in the face, mind you. You’ll need that guy later. The Inner Editor (also known as Homo non shutupix in make-believe Latin) is somewhat like Steve Urkel. He is smart. He is lovable. He knows his stuff. But, hoo boy, do I want to ball-gag him. For purely pragmatic reasons, of course.

                Remember, you can fix everything LATER. I even changed a character name half way into the novel. No big deal. That’s what revision is for. That’s why we have word processors - to quickly fix our mistakes. And to write raunchy joke emails. A writer an agent and Steve King went into a bar... Uhm, yeah. Let’s keep moving.


                I am a heavy smoker. Awww, come on, stop booing. Pretty please with KFC sauce on the top? Okay. Thanks.

                The truth is, nicotine and caffeine are great energizers. As long as you can take your vices in moderation (this coming from the guy who smokes two packs a day), you’ll be fine. I tend to eschew energy drinks, because they taste yucky, but a friend of mine swears upon those.

                Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

                Fruit. Ah, juicy, tasty fruit. Let me get this clear: your body isn’t a temple. It’s the Chinese wall. And you’ll need every bit of mortar and every brick to survive this taxing ordeal. If you stuff your body with junk food the Mongols will come along and start effin’ shizz up. I know that because I watched the South Park episode. Cheetos and Doritos come after you finish the novel.

                I prefer bananas, oranges, apple slices and grapes. Yum.              

Prepare a soundtrack

                One the prime reasons for my success. Music. Find songs that resonate with your characters and themes. Compile a neat soundtrack that will keep you motivated to churn out those words. I know quite a few writers who prefer working in silence, but I say prepare a soundtrack anyway. You can listen to it while working out, or while you eat.

                My novel is set in Tokyo, so I listened to a lot of contemporary Japanese music (which is a sophisticated way of saying J-Rock) .  Movie OSTs are especially good.

                Write a romantic scene to the theme song of Dirty Dancing and try not to break out in tears.

Let your imagination run wild

    I recently discovered that I am a discovery writer. Which is weird. It’s like being a dude all your life and suddenly you find out you’re a chipmunk. Who has a rock band.

                Discovery writing can be thrilling. You chug along and, holy smokes, end up surprising yourself. You can work with an outline at the ready if it suits you, but don’t be afraid to add things on the run.

                Your protagonist needs a radiation proof mutant ninja buddy? Who rides a steampunk unicorn named Precious? Let him have it.

                Be always sure to have enough material in your mental buffer if you’re discovery writing. Be at least one step ahead. It’s a touchstone of sorts, so you don’t get lost in the vast, frightening place of plot-land.

Be smart

                With all that being said, the year has a lot of weeks. If you are ill, are expecting a baby or awaiting guests who will stay a couple of days don’t do this. Your health and family are more important than writing a novel. While I do not condone procrastination, I prioritize some things over writing. If you are committed to writing a novel this way there’s just the page, the scantily clad muse (male or female, take your pick) and you.

                That’s a no-brainer, really. You know this as well as I do. No need to belabor the obvious. J

                Feed the Ego, Dr. Jekyll and let it run wi... OOOOH, SHIII-

                You are awesome. You really are. It’s not easy to write a novel, much less so if you’re doing it in a week. Kudos to you, sirs and ladies. Tap yourself on the shoulder. Boast a little bit. Let everyone in twitter land know it.

                As Chuck Wendig once said (a far more loquacious fellow than I can ever hope to be) writers tend to be ashamed of what they do. Pray tell why? You are the spiritual successor of Homer and Shakespeare. Of Dickens, Lovecraft and Howard. It’s easy to denigrate someone else’s writing efforts.

                Lot of folks on their high horses like to chuckle at you?

                Ignore them is what I say. Or, if you’re anything like me, get into a fist fight (if you win, they have to read your novel and line-edit it).

                That novel is YOU. Nobody can write the same novel as YOURS. It might have a similar theme or nigh identical plot (heck, the Simpson probably did it), but no-one can take your authorial fingerprints and copy them.

Us adults (I am 22, but indulge me), like to say funny things. Stop dreaming. Stop fantasizing. Be responsible. Yada yada yada.

Don’t let people treat you like Beavis and Butthead. Aim for the stars. Tell your stories. Writing a novel in a week might be just the first step. I don’t know you. I communicate to you via a blog post. But if you are a writer (published or not, doesn’t matter) and love telling stories I consider you a friend and brother/sister.

Place your palm on that screen and give me a cyber high-five, will you?

And finally...

There’s the argument that a novel written in the space of seven days may... You know... Suck.
I am not qualified to judge that, nor is my opinion viable. However, I do know that Frankenstein and Dracula were written in a couple of days as a part of a dare.

The truth of the matter is that you can only write and edit.

That’s the extent of your control. Leave judging the merit of a literary work to folks like Howard 


Just write the best novel you can. And then do it again, ad infinitum.
I’ll be rooting for you from the other side of the Atlantic.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Climbing out of the Query Pit

I hate queries.  Writing them.  Reading them.  Editing them.  It hurts my brain.  There are about a thousand other things I would rather do.  Change a poopie diaper; clean the little space between the fridge and the counter; sand and re-stain my bookshelves—all preferable to writing a single query letter.
Why?  Because I thought the point of a query was to condense my three-hundred-page book into three paragraphs.  Quite frankly, if I could summarize my entire book in three paragraphs, it would be a pretty cruddy book.  This is why I’ve got four or five books sitting on the back burner.  I’ve edited and re-written them all so many times that I can’t stand to look at them anymore, so I should be querying, right?  Well until a few weeks ago, I didn’t hold out much hope for that because of my utter disdain for the whole “condensing” thing.

Thankfully, at some point in the last few years, I stumbled across literary agent Kristin Nelson’s blog, and I had the good sense to keep up with it.  I’ve learned how to tell a competent agent from a bogus one, what agents think as they read our queries, and most importantly, I’ve come to realize that agents are actual people, not the snarling, query-gobbling monsters I imagined them to be.  Then a few weeks ago, I had my biggest epiphany yet: queries aren’t about condensing.

In a webinar hosted by Ms. Nelson, I learned that queries are actually about the plot catalyst.  She defines this as a main event that happens within twenty or thirty pages, without which the rest of the book could not take place.  If that sounds complicated, take a deep breath and relax.  It’s actually pretty simple.  Here are a few examples of plot catalysts in action:

1.  The Hunger Games
Did you ever stop to consider what would have happened if Prim’s name had never been called at that fateful Reaping?  If Katniss had never been a tribute in the Hunger Games?  No, of course not.  There wouldn’t have been a story without that.  The plot catalyst here was when Effie called Prim’s name and Katniss volunteered to take her sister’s place.  Everything that came after, the entire fate of Panem, shifted on that one pivotal moment.

2.  On a Pale Horse
Zane doesn’t have much going for him, and before the end of the first chapter, he has sunk to such a low level that he’s prepared to kill himself to escape the misery that has become his life.  It’s only when he accidentally shoots the incarnation of Death that he is launched into his story.  He takes up Death’s mantle and sets out into the world to judge men’s souls.  Without that act of paranormal homicide, he would have probably died and the story would have lasted a whopping twenty-seven pages.  It would also have gone down as both the most depressing—and probably worst—story ever told.

3. Howl’s Moving Castle
Sophie is all set to live out her unlucky life as the eldest child, until the Witch of the Waste curses her.  Being turned into a hobbling old woman was the event that propelled Sophie into an adventure she otherwise never would have embarked upon.

4.  Marked

This one happens pretty fast: by page three, a tracker marks Zoey as a vampyre, setting the rest of the story into motion.  Without that, she never would have left home to begin a new life in the House of Night.

5.  Star Wars: A New Hope
Okay, this one isn’t a book, but it is an easy example and I’m pretty sure most everybody on the planet has seen it.  Right off the bat, you know the universe is in chaos thanks to the dark side of the force.  You also learn pretty fast that although Luke wants to join the rebellion, his loyalty to his aunt and uncle will keep him from doing just that.  Obi-Wan tries to get Luke to come with him to rescue Leia, but Luke initially refuses.  The plot catalyst comes when Luke discovers storm troopers have destroyed his home and family.  Only then does he agree to help Obi-Wan, and learn the ways of the force.  (Imagine if his aunt and uncle had lived.  Luke might have become the most prominent moisture farmer in the outer rim, but the rebellion would have failed and Vader would have gone on destroying planets.)

What do all these stories have in common?  The catalyst takes place early on in the story (within thirty pages) and it is an actual event.  A catalyst can’t come from an emotion, it can’t be a theme, and it isn’t a description of something.  If you can nail your plot catalyst, you’re half way there.  (Side note: if you can't locate your plot catalyst within thirty pages, you probably have too much back story and need to do some chopping.)

What’s the next step?  Summarize the plot catalyst into one sentence.  Here’s a few from book jackets:

“Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games.  - The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

“Shooting Death was a mistake, as Zane soon discovered.” On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony

“But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady.” Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

“Sixteen-year-old Zoey Redbird has just been Marked as a fledgling vampyre.” House of Night: Marked, P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast

Now work your summary around the plot catalyst sentence.  What happened?  How did it change the character’s life?  How will he/she overcome the problem?

I’ll use Howl’s Moving Castle’s full book jacket as an example.  It isn't a query, but I think you can see how this would work well as the summary portion of the query letter:

“Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate.  But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady.  Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle.  To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on.  Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.”

That’s a four-hundred page book, stripped down to the plot catalyst and the consequences that follow.  It demonstrates the change in Sophie’s life, and the obstacles she’ll have to overcome to fix things.  It doesn’t give the outcome.  It doesn’t explain how Sophie goes about overcoming the obstacles, and it certainly doesn’t delve into descriptions of the people, places, or systems of magic.  It’s short, sweet, and a good representation of the story’s style.

I’m not sure why this didn’t click for me before watching Kristin Nelson’s webinar.  Maybe my brain refused to believe it was that easy.  Maybe after spending so much time editing and re-writing, my brain turned to Swiss cheese.  I don’t know.  But I’ve got the hang of it now and I’m really excited to test this new found understanding out on the unsuspecting world. 

Now go write your queries, people!

Friday, May 25, 2012

I accidentally raised my children to be British

 My first grade boy stormed into the house a few days ago and said, "Steven is a prat."
 "What did you just say?" I asked, certain I'd misheard.
 But I hadn't. "A prat. Steven is a dumb old prat."

Oh. Of course. Probaby most parents would be concerned about the name-calling. I just want my kids to be certain their name-calling is anthropologically appropriate for our geographical region.

My older son doesn't use the word prat very often. He says "git."

I categorically state here and now that if any of my children start talking about 'snogging' they are automatically grounded. What a heinous word that is.

Have you figured out where my children got their impressive vocabularies from?
They were raised listening to the audio versions of Harry Potter. Whether this was a good parenting choice or not is a matter of debate. But it is what it is. (When my youngest was about four, he was describing an injury he'd sustained while we were out on a walk. "Then it seared with pain," he said.)

I've been thinking about words a lot this week because I've been doing the final edits on a novel I've been writing. Although I've spent a lot of the last few years of my life editing, I'm not sure I've ever done it in such a concentrated time frame. It's helped me to notice my tendency to overuse certain words that have a plethora of appropriate (and not so appropriate) synonyms in my beloved thesaurus.

Plethora: overabundance, embarrassment, excess, surfeit, glut, surplus, superfluity

Or how about heinous: monstrous, atrocious, odious, terrible, dreadful, shocking, scandalous, wicked, disgraceful, immoral, shameful, indecent, disreputable, appalling, awful, horrendous, inexcusable, unspeakable, abysmal, dire, unpleasant, bad, poor, unpardonable, uncalled for, indefensible, unwarranted, unjustifiable, beyond the pale, reprehensible, terrible

My thesaurus doesn't even mention the words prat, git or snog. But I looked up the word "prat" on, and I learned something new.

Prat: rump. Synonyms include backside, bum, butt, moon, tail end, tush.

I had to move to to find git.

Git: A foolish or worthless person. Synonyms include: berk, booby, doofus (yay! Finally, a geographically appropriate word, though perhaps a bit outdated) and PRAT.

Do you suppose this means that 'git' and 'tush' are also synonyms? It makes you wonder...
(And no! I don't really think they are synonyms.)

The geniuses at Merriam-Webster agree with me that snogging is too yucky to be considered a real word, so I had to google it.

Snogging: 1. To touch with the lips, or press the lips (against someone's mouth or other body part) as an expression of love, greeting, etc. 2. To cuddle or kiss

Hey British people! That's NOT what it sounds like it means. 
Whenever I read the part where Sirius says he caught Kreacher snogging a pair of trousers, I still blush.

At this point, I could segue into zillions of wise writing tips:
ü      Read, read, and read some more!
ü      Study the dictionary and thesaurus to make sure you know lots of words and the subtle differences in meaning between them.
ü      Increase your working vocabulary.
ü      You can't always trust one resource to give you everything you want to know about a word you've just learned.
ü      When you are editing, if you are using the same words frequently, make sure you're doing it on purpose, and not just because you were too lazy to notice.  
ü You should definitely check out this link to see if you are using your gargantuan vocabulary correctly
ü      When your characters hail from geographically diverse areas, the differences should show up in their vocabulary (unless there has been a cultural phenomenon similar to Harry Potter in their lives).
(I'm sure you can think of more.)

But really, this was all just a buildup to show you this amazing clip a friend of mine posted on Facebook last week. Every time I watch it I laugh harder and feel a greater reverence for the English language. It's the story of The Three Little Pigs told in Shakepearean English by a comedian. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Writing tips - best of

Last month, my friend and former in-person-critique-group buddy Margo (permalink to her blog on the right!) took part in an interesting blog challenge: a whole month of top ten lists organized by alphabet.  It made for fun reading, and I kind of wish I'd joined in – I’m sure you all have noticed how much I love lists.

My favorite of her month's posts was her Top Ten Writing Tips. I love that idea - writing seems to be such an amalgamation of tips and tricks and lengthy discourses on how to make your pacing work.  So for this post, I decided to compile my favorite tips and quotes and pieces of advice for this post - though I came up with six instead of ten. Nothing too lengthy, just the single sentences or short paragraphs that were real eye openers from me, and ideas I revisit again and again (except when I lose the links).

1) Making a list of ten ideas (this was also on Margo's list).
I've written about this before, in this post, and gave an example. Basically, if you're trying to come up with an idea or solve a problem, you write out a list of ten possible answers. Those first ten, or at least the first seven, are generally clichés. Once you get past those, the truly fascinating ideas start to flow.

2) First step toward a character driven story
All right, I can't find my link for this one, but I found one piece of advice for how to tell if your story is heading toward being plot driven or character driven: Does your story start with something happening to your character? Or does your story start because of something your character did?

3) For those of us who get too attached to individual words:
Writer Erin Bow says:  "No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can't put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.”

4) This perfectly sums up what I strive for in my characters. 
Holly Lisle: ” “Fiction---good fiction, anyway---is dream made flesh, given purpose and drive, and set on a quest to show us the best in us and to give us the power and the tools to dream beyond reality's 'merely good enough' to a vision of what is truly great... ...

and then to give us the stories of men and women of character who in turn inspire those of us who dare to reach for the truly great within ourselves.

THAT is why you write fiction."

 5) This isn't a tip as much as a perspective that really fits how I feel about writing, and about money, and the perspective I sometimes see that pure art should be unconnected to money.
Greg Curtis : "“People say that writers write for money. From my own experience that's not true. I write for me. I publish for money.”

6) From Neil Gaiman: "Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
I had a hard time with this last one. Everyone's advice on how to fix things seemed so sensible… until I'd fix something just to have a publisher say they didn't like that part of the story. Now I still listen to advice, of course – but I fix I it in a way that's true to the theme and the heart of that particular story.

More groups of author quotes:

 Go give it a look. Find your magic tips. And I hope my fellow Prosers and all the readers will share their favorites... I'm only at six out of ten, after all.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Round 'Em Up

From the world of good advice and strange writerly commentary, here are a few things of note around the web:

"Veteran publishing insider," Alan Rinzler, reminds us, "It's All in the Details, Writer," and deftly proves his point.

Shannon Hale, author of the forthcoming Palace of Stone (sequel to the Newberry Honor, The Princess Academy) has not one, but two posts on the need (or lack thereof) of mother's in literature.

Kidlit's, Mary Kole, has a well timed warning that Confusion is Not the Same as Mystery when trying to begin a story with a bang.

Want to know what's big in YA book covers? Kate Hart has another round of amazing infographics - including some stunning statistics about portrayals of persons of color.

Author Suzanne Crowley's post considers the price of constant immersion in media today.

And in the same vein, Nathan Bransford has an excellent article on if we're really communicating anymore.

And before I post this one, I must warn you, make sure you have a big chunk of time on your hands. Maybe you've seen it before, I hadn't. I present to you, SlushPileHell.

Happy Writing!

~ Susan

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Even the Noblest Characters Need Flaws

Sheena blogged yesterday about the conflict she has being a parent and a YA writer.  The desire to create believable, flawed teen-aged characters, but at the same time, not making those undesirable behaviors seem acceptable. 

Her post got me thinking about characters who are great role models.  Characters with a strong sense of a moral code, who are self-sacrificing and loyal and always do the right thing even when it costs them everything.  Characters who are real heroes.  While their virtues make these characters admirable, it is their flaws and imperfections that make them lovable.  Even the most noblest of characters needs to be deeply flawed.

Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean is one of the most compelling characters ever, and Les Miserables is in my top five greatest books of all time.  It is an amazing story.   If you haven’t read it, you should.  I believe you can download it onto your e-reader for free, so there really is no excuse.  And watching the musical is not equivalent to reading the book.  The novel is so much deeper and richer.  You really really need to read it (although I do recommend the abridge version).

Warning-mild Spoilers

Jean Valjean starts out as an ex-convict, imprisoned for stealing some bread to help feed his sister and her seven starving children.  When he is finally released from prison (nineteen years later), he is bitter and angry and doesn’t believe in any sort of justice.  He is broken.  But a single act of kindness from a bishop (who shows Valjean mercy even though Valjean stole from him) transforms Valjean into a compassionate, heroic man of faith. 

Valjean makes a lot of sacrifices for others.  He turns himself in to save another man who Javert (the policeman obsessed with bringing Valjean to justice) thinks is him.   He is generous even when he is running from the law and his generosity attracts too much attention and many times brings the law down on him.  He devotes his life to care for an orphan girl named Cosette who has no one but him to take care of her.  He even is willingly buried alive at one point to help her. 

But his noble and self-sacrificing traits are not what makes him such a compelling character.  He constantly struggles to hide from the law and keep Cosette safe.  All the while, he is plagued with self-doubt and moral dilemmas.  And because he has devoted his life to Cosette, he struggles with letting her go even though it is what is best for her.  At one point, he even selfishly tries to keep her from Marius, the boy she loves although later he risks his life to save Marius for her, but still, doing the right thing is hard for him to do.

It is Valjean’s self-doubt, his moments of selfishness, and his struggle to do what is right that makes him a sympathetic and compelling.  His flaws are what makes him feel real.

Jack from Lost

I’ve been re-watching Lost on Netflix lately, so I got Lost on my mind.  Jack is one of my favorite characters.  He definitely has an interesting story-arc and grows more than any other character on the show.  In fact, he kind of does a 180˚. 

Jack is a noble character.  He is self-sacrificing to a fault.  He is always thinking of everyone else before himself and makes a compassionate and inspiring leader.  Out of everyone on the show, I think he is the most admirable character, but he as deeply flawed as the rest of them.

His desire to save everyone is as much a flaw as a virtue.  His wife leaves him because of his devotion to his job and his unrelenting need to fix everyone.  He ruins his already shaky relationship with his father because he refuses to cover for his father’s malpractice (sure this was the moral thing to do, but Jack pays a steep price for doing it).  And ultimately, Jack’s inability to save everyone on the island breaks him, and he is only whole again once he sacrifices himself to save those that are left.

In his attempts to save everyone, Jack struggles and struggles, and so many times he makes the wrong decisions that only complicates their problems.    He is quick to act and slow to think, closed minded, plagued with self-doubt, and has some serious anger issues.

And just like with Jean Valjean, it is these faults that make him interesting, and his constant struggle that makes him feel real.

The Real World

In real life no one is perfect, but a lot of times we like to appear that we are.  I feel this happens a lot in my community.  Everyone is almost afraid to admit that they struggle in life.  We all try to pretend that our marriages are ideal, our houses are always clean, our bills are always paid on time, and our children are always obedient, talented, and brilliant in every way.

I don’t know if people are like this everywhere, or just where I live, maybe it’s an issue with middle class America, but I feel like we are almost afraid to admit that we are human, that we struggle.  But I think this perfect image that we try to project holds us back and keeps us from really connecting with each other.

The people I am closest too have seen the ideal version of me stripped away.  They have seen my insecurities, my stupidity, my vulnerability, my arrogance, my doubts, my selfishness, my weirdness, and I have seen the worst in them as well.  But those parts of ourselves that we work so hard to hide, that we fear will make us unlikable actually can make us more lovable, because these are the aspects of ourselves that we struggle with, the parts of us that are damaged, that make us real, that make us human.

And this is exactly why characters need to be flawed.  They need to be sympathetic.  They need to struggle.  They need to be human.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Imperfect Parenting

My seven year-old loves to read, so naturally, when I brought home the createspace version of Hatched, he wanted to read it.

Panic set in.

It wasn't because I was worried he wouldn't like it, or that the story wasn't good. Nothing so logical. I started to panic, because I allow my characters to do things I would never let my children do.

On Friday, Melanie wrote this awesome post on how we aren't our character's parents, and how as authors, we need to stop coddling them. It's brilliant, and definitely worth reading.

Mom let them do what?
It made me think though. I've never thought of my characters as my children, so I've never tried to coddle them, or tried to give them the same sense of morality that I want my children to live by. I've only tried to create true characters in honest situations. And true characters make out with cute boys, swear, and stay out late fighting the forces of evil. At least they do in my head.

Does writing about that make me a bad mom?

When my kids are teenagers, and get busted for staying out past curfew, will they say, "but you let your characters do it?" Will my daughter flirt and kiss cute boys, just the same way Larissa does in Funny Tragic, Crazy Magic?


As a mom, I try to show my children the example I want them to follow. I try to practice what I preach. I want to let them know what I think is right or wrong, and I expect them to live by the rules my husband and I set.

 But I remember being a teenager. I remember the heartache, and the confusion. I remember what happened in the halls of my Junior High. I remember making bad decisions, and I remember the consequences. The idea floating in my head of what my perfect children will be like when they are teenagers forgets all that. My children won't know anyone who does drugs. My perfect children won't feel heartbreak, or be in car accidents, or swear, or be involved with any of the vices I regularly and happily inflict on my characters.

I don't write for teenagers because I want them to know what they should be doing, or what good kids do when confronted with evil. I don't write morality plays, or EFY firesides. I write for teenagers because I want to help them know they aren't alone. I write for teenagers, because I remember what it is like to be a teenager, and those are the stories that infect my brain, and force my fingers to dance across a keyboard.
I've  heard, "My parent's just don't understand" so often from teenagers, that I think it has become a cliche. I wonder if maybe teenagers think that, because their parents want their children to be something that they aren't, and they don't understand why it isn't happening. Maybe parents don't understand, because they are too busy trying to teach the kids how to be better, to stop and see the kids for who they are. Maybe we don't want to see what our teenagers are going through, because we know pain is coming, and we can't protect them from it.

It's a hard road, trying to figure out the line between accepting our children for the perfectly imperfect creatures that they are, and expecting our children to be good, to be kind, and make good decisions. My oldest is seven, and I'm already panicking about it. What do you do? Do you let them be real, or do you try to teach them to be better? Is there any way we can do both?

Can we set firm limits and expectations while allowing our children the privilege of knowing that WE as parents aren't perfect? Do we have to pretend to be something we are not, in order to force our children to be something that doesn't exist? Is that really what being a good parent is all about?

I try to write about real people. Maybe I need to allow my children to be real as well.

And maybe, I need to allow my children to see that I'm real as well.

Why does that concept make me panic?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

While I Wait for my Hand to Heal

When I was sixteen, I broke my wrist washing a window.  It’s a stupid story, and it spawned a whole string of embarrassing comments scrawled across my cast.  It was not the first time I’d broken a bone, and not the last, but definitely the worst.  That’s probably why no one in my family batted an eye the other day when I sprained my hand yanking the car door closed.  (Yep, that's what happened.  And yeah, it's embarrassing.)  I can barely type now, so I’m going to make this week’s post short and sweet.  Here’s a few things I’ve been filling my time with while I wait for my hand to heal.

1. Query Shark
If you don’t know who Janet Reid is, and you’re not familiar with her blog, Query Shark, get acquainted.  Her posts are insightful, and usually pretty funny.  The latest is a parody of everything a query should not be, and it is better than funny.  It’s hilarious.  You can find it here.  I hope it gives you a laugh, because it totally made my day.

2. Behind the Name
I’ve had names on my mind this week, too.  I’m about half way through a story and I’m still trying to decide what to call a few of the characters.  Sometimes I can get all the way to the end before I figure it out.  All the while, I surf the web, specifically this site learning about the etymology of first and last names.  It’s a great resource if you want to search by first letter, country of origin, meaning, popularity, etc.  (If you’re looking for last names, click here.)

3. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
I’m also gearing up for a writer’s conferences I’m dying to go to.  Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers is hosting a conference in September, with a novel-length contest that is still open for entries.  Whether you want to check out a few workshops or you’re looking for a pitch session with an agent, (and you are in the Denver area,) I think it'll be worth attending.  If you're not in the area, spend a few minutes Googling writing workshops in your neck of the woods.  You might be surprised how many workshops, groups and conferences you're missing out on.

My hand’s killing me so that’s all I’ve got today.  I'll try to leave you with something inspirational.  I hope you enjoy this short video of an artist in the process of creation.  I know it's hard sometimes to see writing as beautiful when you're in the middle of it, but I don't think it's any different than other forms of art.  It's not always about the finished product.  Sometimes the beauty is in the brushstrokes...or keystrokes, for us.

(Video was removed; please follow this link instead.)

Have a great week!