Sunday, September 30, 2012

We Know Why We Write...Now Why Do We Publish?

My incredibly dorky phone
Like a lot of people these days, I have a smart phone.  One of the many benefits to owning it is being able to check my email, Facebook, etc., any time of the day.  I can look up movie times, place a library hold, or post pictures of my kids doing crazy things in real time.  There's really only one drawback to owning a smart phone: I can check my email, Facebook, etc. ANY TIME OF THE DAY.  It's not usually an issue.  I'm not one of those obsessive Internet junkies who spends all my time trolling forums or creating memes.  I don't even have to check in with my apps, because they are all set to alert me if I get any incoming messages.  Convenient, right?  Except when I am waiting for an answer to a query.

Yesterday, I sent off my first submission in two years.  As a result, I have checked my email no less than fifty times.  Possibly more.  Which is kind of hilarious, considering I just posted about dealing with rejection two weeks ago.  The thing is, I'm not afraid of being rejected.  I've had rejections in the past, and I survived.  I think what I'm really afraid of is being accepted.  The thought of being published--and the expectations my family and friends would have of me after that--makes me shake in my boots.  (Okay, fine, slippers.)

I think there is a second factor causing me to eye my phone nervously once every ten minutes.  I have always said I'd never be able to write a) short stories and b) horror.  I am awful at limiting the plot of a story, and more times than not, my short story idea hits 40,000 words before I realize what's happening.  At that point I usually shrug and forge ahead.  It doesn't really matter if I'm writing a short story or novel.  As long as I'm enjoying it, I'm happy.

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The horror genre is another matter.  I've read my share of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.  I love Mary Shelley.  I own a couple of Clive Barker books and they are in my TBR pile.  I love classic horror or a well-written contemporary piece.  But something has happened in the last twenty or thirty years.  Cinema has grossly distorted the entire genre to be something akin to the snuff film.  You can't watch an R rated movie these days without encountering too much sex and not enough plot.  Glorified, goreified porn.  And maybe that's okay with some people, but that's not what horror is about for me.  Unfortunately, books have followed where Hollywood is leading, and I've given horror a wide berth for the last few years.

Then, at the beginning of the month, I had an idea.  I'm not going into it here because it is horror, after all, and isn't suitable for polite company.  Let's just say it was a persistent idea, and eventually I got to the point that I couldn't ignore it.  I sat down to write, and when I finished, I realized that this is the sort of horror story I want to read.  It just so happened that a local magazine was looking for stories for their Halloween edition, so I screwed up my courage and sent it in.

Which brings us up to the present.  The question pressing on me now is, "What do I do if they like it?  What if my family wants to read it?"  I think my dad would be fine.  He'd buy extra copies and force his co-workers to read it, too.  My mom, however, would probably be horrified.

Which is kind of the reaction I was going for, though I'd like to avoid that awkward conversation I'd be stuck having about "writing things my grandparents can't read."

I guess my real question this week isn't "Why do I want to write?"  It's more along the lines of, "Why do I want to publish?"  I thought I understood, but this panic over submitting has forced me to reevaluate the question.  While I work on that, let me ask you:

What's your reason for seeking publication?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Is This A Kissing Book?



Since a main topic of conversation this month on The Prosers seems to be Why We Write, I thought I'd share one of my reasons. 

I keep writing so that I can write the Good Parts. One of my favorite Good Parts is the Almost Kiss. So far this week, I've written two Almost Kisses. I'm REALLY hoping they still fit into the story line of the collaborative novel somewhere. I'm only sharing one of the scenes today, but let me tell you, the other scene makes me smile. (It's way too long to post here, and besides, I'm attempting to blackmail Sheena.) 

The other Almost Kiss I'm sharing is from a story that I thought was completely unsalvageable, but as I looked through it today, I fell in love with it all over again.

 (FYI: I'm sure you'll figure out quickly that both of these scenes are written in magical worlds. But sometimes it's nice to know in advance.)

From the chapter I'm writing right now:
..."I read a book like this once. If we were in that book, this would be the moment you would tell me how dangerous you are and that I should stay away. Are you going to do that?" 
     The space between us widened imperceptibly, and I mentally kicked myself. I can't even get the dream-James to kiss me. "Do you want me to be dangerous?" he asked, and his voice was huskier than it is in real life. 
     I cleared my throat and attempted a smile. "It was a very popular book." His gaze caught mine and held it, and I swear I forgot how to speak. When I finally managed, my voice was barely a whisper. "No. I don't." 
    James smiled slowly and murmured, "Then I'm not dangerous at all." His gaze moved from my eyes to my mouth. "You've never been safer than you are at this moment." His lips were mere millimeters from mine when the sky broke apart... 
From Nanowrimo 2011:
     ...For one crazy moment Amye thought he was going to kiss her. Instead, he put his lips to her ear and whispered, "Forrest is here." 
     She didn't even gasp, though she wanted to. It took all of her effort to not move. Emotions swirled out of control inside her, and although part of her wanted to sit up and scan the walls for some sign of Forrest, far too much of her was distracted by Stephen's proximity. 
     Was this pretended dalliance really necessary? If Stephen knew how distracting she found it, he would never risk his precious prison escape in such a way. 
     She forced her mind back to Stephen's words. Forrest was here. Probably watching them right now. How did she feel about that? It was one thing for Stephen and the other prisoners to see her looking so filthy and in prison garb, but it was totally different for anyone else to see her now. Did it matter that it was Forrest? She was so completely befuddled that she couldn't tell.
Finally she whispered back. "Where?"
 
     "He's one of the extra guards." He looked into her eyes intently, and she stared back, her pulse racing. His face was only inches from hers, and she kept forgetting to breathe. Long seconds spiraled past. "You really like him, don't you?" he asked in a low voice. 
     "Who?" she whispered, mesmerized by the way his lips moved. Comprehension caught up to her seconds too late, and she put her hands on his chest and pushed him. He rolled away from her, an enigmatic smile on his face...



Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reasons to write


Recently, I promised Melanie I was going to talk about my favorite Diana Wynne Jones books this week. Well, that’s been put off until next week (Sorry Melanie!), because I actually had an actual blog-worthy life occurrence this week.

So, on Monday  night, I went to see this lady in concert, the one whose Kickstarter I mentioned a while back:



Amanda Palmer is a former member of the cabaret punk group The Dresden Dolls. She has a rough edge to voice and a talent for hooks and rapid-fire lyrics. Her concerts are as much spectacle and theatre as they are music.

But there’s one other thing about Amanda, the issue that makes this blog post relevant: she’s married to Neil Gaiman. (Click on this link for an amazing photo of them by Kyle Cassidy)

And, as it happens, Neil attended the San Diego show, and kindly came out to sign autographs afterward. And this time – unlike the only other time I met him – I managed not to babble like an idiot. I went for the straight approach, and told him that I really loved his books, and that I was an aspiring writer, and that his writing had helped inspire me.  He was really sweet and friendly and told me that the most important thing for an aspiring writer was to write every day.

So, I have this issue where I never, ever remember to bring things to a concert to be signed. So I looked at this piece of paper I had, and then at the bag I was carrying it in. I bought it from the Southern California chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Yes, that's right - rare plants AND embroidery.


Having nothing else good to be signed, on a whim I handed that bag to Neil and Amanda instead.


So now my bag has nerdy, geeky AND rock star cred!

Indeed an excellent night. And now I have something else to add to the list of reasons why I write:

1) Because it makes me happy
2) Because I love flexing my imagination to coming up with worlds and characters and plots
3) Because it expands my knowledge, of science and vocabulary and culture that I might never have otherwise encountered
4) Because NEIL GAIMAN TOLD ME TO

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Michael Westen & Jane Austen


To redeem myself in the eyes of all you Prosers after last week's debacle, this week I'm going to indulge in some wild Burn Notice speculation that probably has little to do with reality, and even less to do with writing.

Fact: (I think) I read somewhere that the basis for Burn Notice was the real experiences of an ex-spy who had to fight to get his good(ish) name back after he was framed. He even supposedly had real life Fiona and Sam counterparts.

Fact: (I think) I also remember reading that the Michael Wilson listed as a consultant in the credits of Burn Notice was said ex-spy.

So, it was with surprise and interest that I read this article in the New York Times about one Edwin Wilson, ex-super-spy, now deceased. You should read the article. Talk about someone living larger than life!

Why do I think Edwin P. Wilson, deceased, is Michael Wilson, consulting producer? I'll give you five good reasons:

5. Per the article, Edwin sounds like the kind of guy who would love to have his story told - his way.

4. Edwin spent years pouring over FOIA documents to find out who framed him and exonerate himself - just like a certain ex-spy we know and love.

3. Michael Westen spends a lot of time blustering his way through situations by sounding like he knows what he's doing. Sounds like Edwin Wilson did, too.

2. Edwin called his mistress, 'Wonder Woman,' and really, what's Fiona, if not Wonder Woman?

1. Uh, the name? Wilson, anyone?

So, what do you think? Was Edwin P. Wilson the mysterious inspiration for Michael Westen?


And since I'm not blogging about writing anyway...

Here's a video just for Melanie, because I ran into it again after reading her excellent post, and it made me laugh all over again.

No Corsets, No Hatpins, and No Crying.

Enjoy.




~Susan

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Importance of Character Descriptions


Picture from stock x-change 
by urmatecu78
There was a thread on Hatrack (a writers’ forum) a week ago about character descriptions.  I see these types of questions coming up on writers’ forums every once and awhile.  I was going to comment on this thread until I realized that my answer would be such a huge essay that I might as well use it for a blog post.  :)

Every time this topic comes up there is always the suggestion not to worry about description and leave it to the imagination of the readers.  I know everyone is different and some writers on Hatrack specifically are going after the short story market which has different rules than the novels that I read and write, but it has always struck me as odd to not describe the characters.  I’ve never read a novel that didn’t.

How much description is another story, and there is a sweet spot for me between too much and too little.   If descriptions go on for large blocks of text I sometimes (not always) get bored, and my mind starts to wander.  Also if the description is too specific, I sometimes have a hard time putting all the words together to form a picture.  I usually give up when the author is too detailed and choose just a feature or two and fill in the rest. 

But I also hate it when the descriptions are too vague or not there at all.  I keep characters in a flexible state when I first start reading because I know that details are still coming.  So I wait for those details to come so I can solidify the character’s appearance.  If those details never come, the characters feel vague to me, and I have a hard time connecting with them.

Perhaps I’m alone in wanting some details.  I hear the advice all the time that appearances don’t really matter; it doesn’t matter if the character’s eyes are blue and hair is brown.  Maybe other readers do like to be able to picture the characters however they want, but I honestly think that appearances do matter, and while hair and eye color usually don’t play a role in characterization, how a character looks is more than the facial features and coloring.  A lot of characterization can come from a physical description of a character.

For example:  Professor Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was very thin and wore shabby robes, and appears sickly.  This description leaves the reader wondering why he is this way.  Is he sick?  Is he poor or just doesn’t care to keep up his appearance?   How he looks is tied into who he is, as the reader learns later in the book.  But his appearance gives hints that there is something different about him, and this intrigues the reader and keeps them guessing until Lupin’s true nature is revealed.

How a person dresses and cares for themselves is very much tied to who they are.  A man who dresses in an expensive three piece suit is much different than one who wears a sports jersey and jeans hanging down a little too low.  I’m not saying to use appearances to convey stereotypes.  There is no reason the guy wearing the jersey and jeans can’t be a successful lawyer or someone with tattoos and blue hair can’t be a scientist, but there is a reason the lawyer prefers to dress like a gangster and the scientist chose to dye his hair blue, and that is part of characterization.  There are subtle clues that can give insights into characters by how they choose to present themselves.  

My point is, character descriptions is one more way to provide insights into a character, and honestly, I don’t understand why a writer wouldn’t want to take advantage of that.  I think there is something very interesting to explore in how a character chooses to look.  There is a dynamic going on between who we really are and how we want others to see us, and how we dress or do our hair (yes, I’m a girl) plays a huge part in that.  I don’t understand why a writer wouldn’t want to include that aspect of their characters.

Furthermore, character descriptions can be used as a sign post to signal which characters will be important later in the story.  The more description given to the character, the more that character will be remembered, so it is a good tool to help readers know who is important and who isn’t.

For example:  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge is sitting in the shadows next to Cornelius Fudge at Harry’s hearing, and when she finally leans into view Rowlings goes into great detail to describe how she looks like a toad.  It is a memorable description, and I’m sure Rowlings did that on purpose, so the readers would pay attention to her.   And when she shows up at Hogwarts later, I definitely remembered her vividly from the hearing and didn’t need any reminders.  It is an excellent technique.

So even though I do agree that whether a character is tall or short or has brown eyes or green has little to do with characterization.  I do believe that a good description can convey a lot more than what a character looks like.  I’m sure there are circumstances where what the character looks like really doesn’t matter to the story, but I think most of the time describing a character’s appearance can be an excellent tool for characterization. 

~MaryAnn

Monday, September 24, 2012

Read This Post if You Want to Live.

:)

I'm about to share with you my Number One Writing Secret.

Imagine this scenario...you're nodding off to sleep for the night, or you're jamming out to some Colbie Caillet, or you're in the shower, when you hear the rustling sound of fairy wings that is a brand new idea.

You're intrigued. You starts asking questions, and the Next Great American Novel idea has magically opened up behind your eyes.

You with me?

Okay now, stop here.

This path is beautiful,
but watch out...
the gate's locked.
From here on, you're about to take one of two paths. One of them is a trick that will make your writing better, but first here's the, perhaps, familiar path.

You follow the idea around for a bit. You explore, ask questions, and patches of prose, or scenes, briefly touch your mind. It's delicious. This is brilliant, you think.

The fairy tells you the last of her story, and zips away, and you're left with a smile on your face.

 Then life happens. You drop the kids off at school, you buy milk or broccoli, you break up fights, or finish an assignment for work.

Finally, you put the kids in front of something mind-numbing, or your roommate goes to bed, and you can finally open up Word...

...and nothing happens.

Okay, you think. There was this idea, and it was so cool, and oh yeah...(you write a sentence recited from memory), but... that's not exactly it. Darn this writer's block. You shut off Word, check Facebook, or Hatrack, and then go watch netflix.

And the idea is gone. You've lost it.

Okay, now, rewind with me on the path, back to the moment I said stop.

You're in the car, (or the shower, or on your pillow with your eyes closed) and you hear the rustling of fairy wings. You open your mind for a second, and ask enough questions to see if the idea has magic in it, or if it's actually a moth disguised as a fairy. I hate those.

If it's magic...trap it. Wrap it up in a ball, and put it in your pocket. Then, turn on Beyonce as loud as you can, and force yourself to STOP asking questions. Do not explore the idea yet. Put your metaphysical fingers in your ears, and say, "La la la la la! I'm not listening"

Let life happen. Drop off the kids at school, buy your milk, chat with your coworkers. This magical fairy of an idea will stay with you, and pop her head in at the oddest hours....because you are a writer, and fairies like writers. Do not let her out. Keep her trapped, and ignore her the best you can.

As soon as you are able, open up Word and let the girl go. Ask her questions, and she'll tell you her answers. Your fingers will fly over the keyboard, and will catch snatches of prose, moments of magic, locations, characters,  and pain.

Then the fairy will tell you the last of her story. She'll leave you with a smile on your face and enough fairy dust left on the screen that you can go flying again whenever you want.

Last week, MaryAnn wrote about how sometimes life gets in the way of writing in this beautiful post.  I've thought about that post all week, and I think I've come to a conclusion.

I think she got it backwards. I think the problem comes not when life gets in the way of writing, I think the problem comes when we let writing get in the way of our life. Life comes first. Life is the meal, writing is dessert.

Real life, our children, or responsibilities at work, smiling at our neighbor, talking to the kids as they're buckled in, taking care of yourself so you get enough sleep, or exercise, or keep clean - these things are more important than writing time. I'm not saying writing is not important. It is. But life happens in life.

Writing should always happen at your desk.

But I'm world building, you say. But this is just brainstorming...

No.

Brainstorming only really happens with a pen. Writing, without a pen,( or a desk), is just daydreaming. It's creating ideas that you are going to lose. It's wasting your time, and your magic.

So... my number one writing tip is this. Stop daydreaming, and start writing.
~Sheena

What I'm reading now, Stephen King, On Writing
What I'm writing now, FTCM, Fourth Draft.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Covers

When I was twelve, my English class read a fantastic book about a boy that lived in a world without color.  I think this was the first time in my life that a book stood out.  It made me want to understand the meaning behind the symbolism.  I wanted to dissect it and figure out all the little pieces in it that made it great.  The trouble was, I moved from one continent to another that year, and my brain had too many new things to process, so it quickly forgot about the book.  It would be nearly fifteen years before I would find the book again.  It wasn't the plot or the characters that helped me hunt it down.  It was the cover.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry.  The man in the picture is a painter named Carl Nelson, and the picture was taken by Ms. Lowry herself during a time when she worked as a photojournalist.  I had to email her to find this information out.
 
This is the image that was burned into my memory for a decade and a half.  I walked into a book store one afternoon, went directly to the children's section, and described it.
 
"I'm looking for a book, but I can't remember the name.  I think it is about a world where there is no color, and the front has a black-and-white picture of an old man with a long beard."
 
I expected the girl to stare at me blankly, or shrug me off.  Either I was exceedingly lucky and happened upon a woman that knows her children's literature, or this book has a really iconic cover.  (I suspect it was a little of both.)  She walked me directly over to the Independent Reader section, pulled out The Giver, and said, "Is this what you're looking for?"
 

Had the story been less powerful, I'm sure I would have simply forgotten the book.  A cover can only do so much.  As Chip Kidd said in a TED Talk, "A book cover is a distillation."  It has to condense the story down and summarize with a single glance.  If it's done well, it will pull the reader into the book.  If the book and the cover come together as one perfect unit, it will imprint itself on the memory of the reader for the rest of their life.
 
That was such a short post that I'm going to leave you with the very informative, and really funny talk that Chip Kidd gave regarding book covers.  I hope you enjoy!
 
  video

Friday, September 21, 2012

What Makes Jane Austen So Enduringly Popular?


In Trisha's post a few weeks ago, she said she was dissecting Jane Austen's work to see why it was still so popular. That sounded like a very entertaining task she had set herself, so I decided to join her. Here's my opinion. I'd love to hear yours.

(Unfortunately there are a few spoilers here--don't click on the appropriate link if you don't want to know. At the very end I spoil Howl's Moving Castle as well. Consider yourself warned.) 

What makes Jane Austen so enduringly popular? In my opinion, there are two main reasons. Let's call them the Anti-Apocalypse Principle and the Howl Effect 

The Anti-Apocalypse Principle
Jane Austen is enduringly popular because of her romances. (Is anyone surprised?) But her romances remain popular because of the rigid social and religious conventions that defined her era. When so much is forbidden, even a glance can be filled with romance. And a touch? Wow.

Contrast that to sexual tension that is constantly pushing the envelope...eventually there is nowhere left to go. (I really, really don't want to know if you disagree with that sentence. :)

Trying to write a romantic storyline in a world where anything and everything is acceptable follows the exact same principle Sabrina wrote about in her post yesterday about writing the end of the world:
 "Frankly, the overall ubiquity of world-ending plotlines makes the whole thing a little boring, and can take away from the tension. Some writers try to up it by making this the end of all existence. One wonders where they'll go from there: the end of existence, and you still have to do laundry first?"

 The Anti-Apocalypse Principle in Action:
Pride and Prejudice


The Howl Effect
Howl's Moving Castle provides another insight into Jane Austen's brilliance (I know, I know, she didn't write it. Just bear with me for a minute.) The genius of Howl's Moving Castle is this--When the story starts, you cannot see how it could possibly be a romance. The heroine has been cursed to look and feel like she is in her late 80s! How could Howl fall in love with someone he treats like a grandmother? Ew.

And then--at the end--this is the spoiler!--you find out he's been in love with her all along! It's the most fantastic ending ever. But the fun part is reading it again--and again--to see if you can figure out when it happened. His character becomes more rich and our belief that happy endings are possible for everyone increases with every reading.

I think Jane Austen does the same thing. Characters seem doomed for unhappy endings--not marrying the person you love is much more dire when you have no chance of taking care of your self. And when, at the end, they end up perfectly happy, we read and reread (and watch and rewatch) so that we can find the clues that happiness was waiting for them (and for us??) all along.

The Howl Effect In Action:
Sense and Sensibility


What do you think?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Upping the ante


Fantasy, as a genre has its great strengths – new worlds, interesting systems of magic, sweeping adventure. But it also has its problems.  For example, the world tends to end a lot. Think Lord of the Rings. The Avengers. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. The Stand. Most Stephen King novels, actually.

This is especially problematic in fantasy series. I first started thinking about this while I was reading the sixth book in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series.  I mean, I’m only on the sixth book, and I think Harry has saved the world from ending about three times so far.

Frankly, the overall ubiquity of world-ending plotlines makes the whole thing a little boring, and can take away from the tension. Some writers try to up it by making this the end of all existence. One wonders where they'll go from there: the end of existence, and you still have to do laundry first?

So  how do you keep upping the tension and the stakes in a series, without falling into the end of the world trap? (Or the Anita Blake trap –how many new men will Anita add to her harem this time??) I think it's important to remember that the world doesn't have to end for people to care about characters or a plot. There are so many smaller things that can end. Our lives and identities can be very fragile - how much would it take for your character's life to end as he/she knows it? Or their loved one's life? That, in my mind, creates as much tension as any global crisis.



It took a lot less space to say that than I thought it would, so to round out the post, here's a picture of  some ducklings:

From flickr, shared under a creative commons license. Taken by www.thegoodlifefrance.com



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

BFF

I may have committed the unpardonable Proser sin.
Oh, it started out innocently enough. I was bored and needed something new to watch on Netflix.
Psych, yep, watched every episode - twice. Burn Notice, check. Castle, new dvd's en route from Netflix, but they haven't yet arrived.
Not in the mood for Phineas & Ferb, AFV, or SpongeBob.
So, I tried out Flashpoint (streaming on Netflix, of course).
*Sigh* I like it. I like it a lot. And here's the heresy: I might even like it more than Burn Notice.



Why, you ask?

Flashpoint is about an SRU (strategic response unit) that deals with hostage situations, bomb threats, crises and the like. And although they have all the high tech weaponry and gadgets anyone could want, their first line of diffusing a situation is always negotiation.

The cast is great. Enrico Colantoni (who you might also know as Veronica Mars' dad, or Mathesar from Galaxy Quest) does a stellar job grounding the team as their Sergeant, Greg Parker. Hugh Dillon seems made for the role of next in command, Ed Lane, and the rest of the cast just mesh really well with their strengths and weaknesses.

There's a very strong emotional element running throughout the entire series. For one thing, the bad guys are usually not truly evil, but just people who have been caught up in situations that spiral out of control. For another, there is an emotional aftermath to the team's lifestyle. There's a price to pay for the SRU sniper who has to shoot someone to save a hostage - because he is still shooting someone. I like that it's not treated as a video game. The team supports each other, not only physically in combat, but personally, too.

Which brings me to how this all relates to writing.

I was watching a video clip (which, of course, I can't find back to embed), where Enrico talks about the two main characters, Greg Parker and Ed Lane and how, as separate characters, they have weaknesses and demons and regrets, but as they rely on each other, together they become a whole or complete man who can do the job that needs to be done.

The way he said that really struck me and got me thinking about friendships in film and literature. Friends come in all stripes. A friend can be the goofy sidekick for comic relief. A friend can be an extension of the main character's ideas. Sometimes friends are placeholders until the love interest shows up (Twilight, I'm looking at you).

But, I think some of the most memorable friendships in literature are the ones that Enrico was talking about - the ones where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron

A classic example of this type of friendship is found in the Harry Potter series. Harry is a great guy, don't get me wrong, but he's not spectacular in and of himself, and certainly not at the start. In the first book, he's pretty mediocre in his studies, a little unsure of his place in the wizarding world, and blindsided by fame and expectation. Ron rounds him out by being able to explain the 'ins and outs' of magical life. He gives Harry the impetus and courage to try harebrained things, and acts as a sounding board to his hopes and troubles. Hermione brings brilliant intelligence and insight to the group, as well as a moral code that at least tries to add some balance to the others' schemes.

If Harry had already possessed knowledge, courage, insight, and an unshakeable moral code himself, he'd have been labeled a Mary Sue pretty quickly. But as three separate characters, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are each believable, fallible, and interesting. And together, they fill in the gaps of each others shortcomings. They lend their strengths to each other. And together, the whole become greater than the parts.

And that, my friend, is the value of writing strong friends that complement, fill in, and buoy each other up.

~Susan

What I'm listening to: A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz. Excellent narrator and narrative voice. Lots of gory goodness for my older boys.

What I'm writing: Ch 21 / 64k. Although I just figured out what really needed to happen, so most of the gain is probably erased. Two steps forward, one step back.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why I Can't Seem to Find Time to Write


I had to modify my post this week.  I wrote it out when I was really tired, and when I looked over it later, I just didn’t like how it turned out.  I wrote a list of all the things I did that day in order to show why I didn’t have time to write a decent post.  Now, if I had been Sheena, it would’ve been hilarious, but alas, I am not Sheena, and my list was kind of boring, which I suppose is somewhat a reflection of my life.

I just had one of those days where I felt like I worked all day long and accomplished nothing.  I have those far too frequent.  The time just flies by and those little things that should only take a minute seem to take up huge chunks of time.  I’m sure everyone has days like that.  Anyway, it was a bit cathartic for me to map it out, to try to figure out where my day went, but I don’t think it worked well as a blog post, so rather than cringe every time I see it up there, I thought I’d just hash out a new one real quick.

There are no big writing lessons in this post, just a general rant about how hard it is to find time to write.  In looking my day laid out, I could see little moments here or there where I could’ve done more and been more productive, so it is helpful to examine your day and see those missed opportunities.  But sometimes those moments are needed.  Perhaps I’m a wimp, but I need a little downtime here and there to kind of recuperate and get back out there.

I always get a little frustrated when I see the writing advice to treat writing as a job, to buckle down and get serious and write, write, write, and read, read, read or you will never make it.  The problem is I would love to do that.  I would love to spend eight hours a day reading novels and writing, but the time just isn’t there.  I’m a stay at home mom and I know so many people in our society don’t take that job serious, but honestly, my job never ends.  I am at work and on call all day and all night.  Every day, including vacations.  All parents do this.  Working parents work all day and care for kids at night.  There isn’t room to treat writing as a second job because unless you beg or pay someone else to watch your kids, you are taking care of them.  You are working.

I’ve tried to get serious and push harder and just neglect the house, the kids, and the husband a little to get more writing done.  It took me a week before I could feel a tension in the house, and my poor husband got the worst of it.  I gave him very little time, and the time he got was me being crabby and frustrated because I was still falling behind on all my imaginary deadlines.  After a week, I knew I couldn’t keep it up.  It was hurting everyone around me including myself, and I wasn’t even getting paid for it.

I know that there are writers out there who are stay at home moms just like me and get a lot more writing done than I do, and I’d love to get some tips if you have any to share.  I heard Stephenie Meyers wrote Twilight in three months while taking care of more kids than I got, and the youngest was a toddler.  To me that is just amazing.  How did she do that?  But I'm not sure what she did would work for me for me and my family (although I’m willing to try any suggestions).  We are all so different. The bottom line is that I just have to have patience and do the best I have with the time I got.  

I still believe and hope (fingers crossed) that as my kids get older, I’ll have more time for writing.  Hopefully if I ever get a contract, I’ll have figured out how to be more productive, and if I get enough money coming in, maybe I could even afford to hire a babysitter here and there and a maid service to get a little more writing time.  Dare to dream.

So, I’d still love to hear from all you writing parents out there.  How do you find the time to write?

~MaryAnn

Monday, September 17, 2012

Getting Personal

Trisha made a great point about internet safety in her last post, so in response, I'm going to share the most personal experience I can think of.

Take that, common sense.

:)

When my husband and I were trying to conceive baby number three, I discovered failing at getting pregnant is the worst pain I've ever felt. It took us so much longer than I expected to get pregnant, and that expectation made failing at it every month much worse.

Trying to get pregnant took over my life. I counted the days religiously. I didn't take ibuprofen for months, just in case. I white-knuckle exercised, trying to lose weight before the baby came. Every month I had this hope that strangled me when I found out that yet another month had passed, and another hope had died.

The hope was crushing, and became too much to handle.

About that time, I received an email from Nanowrimo. Two years before I had tried Nano, and failed at 7,000 agonizingly slow words. I had a miserable time with it. The next year I tried again for 50,000 words, and barely wrote 3,000 words all month. 

I wasn't about to try and fail again. But I decided late that October,  I needed the escape that only comes from following around a spunky teenage girl and her love interest. I decided I would throw myself into the story, and take a much needed break from trying to get pregnant. 

I would write this story for me. I swore on the first page- breaking my own rules, I wrote make out scenes which still make me blush, and I put in illogical systems of magic. I didn't care. No one else would ever read it. This story was mine, and I wasn't sharing.

November first I wrote more than 11,000 words in six hours. There was something about Larissa's voice that felt familiar, and right. Some of my best writing yet, I've found, came out of Larissa's voice. I became obsessed with the love story. More than anything though, I found the escape I needed.

Cover made for fun through
myecovermaker.com 
I found out I was pregnant on page 230, but I couldn't let the story end. FTCM had become something bigger than a personal vacation. I believed in the story, in my writing, in my characters, and I felt I owed it to them to finish. Which I did on the third to last day of November. 

FTCM, to this day, was my favorite writing experience. I would leave my desk with my heartbeat racing, and my fingers twitching, ready to get back to the keyboard. It gave me so much joy, so much freedom, so much escape. 

But most of all, it gave me my little boy.

Second drafts, querying agents, maybe even self-publishing if all that doesn't work out, is the effort I'm trying to put in to give that story it's due. I'm trying to pay it back, and pay it forward, for anyone else who needs an escape.

And that's why I write.
~Sheena


What I'm reading now, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
What I'm writing now, Hatched (Second Revision) Chapter Ten.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dealing With Rejection

Taken from here.
Have you seen this article by The Huffington Post about Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, a literary agent with Larsen Pomada in San Francisco, who was recently attacked by a disgruntled author?  After receiving a rejection to his query, the man allegedly found her in a parking lot, where he repeatedly smashed her face into her steering wheel.  Thankfully, van Hylckama Vlieg was able to get away, and according to her Twitter page, she's doing okay.

Now this calls into question Internet usage, and the sometimes ugly side of social networking.  Sheena has an excellent post about over-sharing here.  I won't go into the safety issues that arise from sharing your every move on Facebook or Twitter.  It should be common sense, and if it's not, the Huffington Post link goes into that far better than I could.  I'm more interested in the disturbing--and apparently commonplace practice--of sending hate mail to agents after being rejected.

I doubt anyone reading this post needs to be told that this is a no-no.  It is my sincere belief that people are, on a whole, good.  But it makes me wonder how others handle rejection.  What do you do when, after pouring your heart out into a story, after sweating over your query for hours, you receive a form rejection?  Worse, when you receive a personal rejection that cuts your work down or calls into question your decision to be a writer?  What then?

I've had my share of query rejection.  Most of them were very bland.  "Thank you for your submission.  We do not feel we are suited to this project.  Good luck in your endeavors."  Blah.  Once, and only once, I got one that I think was actually written by a human, specifically for me.  The agent was sweet, very funny, and told me to keep going.  And I do.

But it's painful sometimes, to read that your work wasn't right, or wasn't good enough, or just wasn't...whatever it is books need to be to get that magical stamp of approval.  Would it help if I told you are not alone?  Even the best of the best were turned down, sometimes even laughed at, when they started writing.  Check out this post to see what authors like George Orwell, Stephen King, and Joseph Heller had to put up with when they tried to sell their books.  (Here's another, though some of them are repeats.)

It's not going to be easy if you choose to pursue publication.  It doesn't matter if you are self-publishing or if you're querying agents.  You're going to meet with people who don't like your work, don't like your characters, don't understand your point, or just don't like you.  Face it, accept it, and ignore it.  It's not worth splitting hairs over what every single person you come across thinks about you and your writing.

Take heart, my friends, and forge ahead.  Remember why you write.  Hold fast to your passion and your determination.  When you meet with rejection, learn what you can from it, but move on.  It'll make you a better writer--and a happier person--in the long run.

~Trisha

Friday, September 14, 2012

So...Did You Get That Book of Yours Published Yet?

A couple of weeks ago, MaryAnn wrote this post about self-publishing versus the traditional methods of publishing. 

It's something that's been on my mind a lot lately. I started seriously writing five years ago. Since then, I've written four full manuscripts. Of those, two probably need to be scrapped completely, one is ready for publication and one is in the editing stage. I'm in the middle of a collaborative novel that I'm really excited about, and I've got part of a screenplay I'd love to get back to, if I could ever figure out how to write screenplays (but that's another story). I've written several short stories, and even won a couple of contests, though I've figured out that short stories really aren't my thing.

I started writing the year I homeschooled my (then) fifth grader. A homeschooling magazine published an article about Nanowrimo for young people, and it looked like it was right up our alley. The more I wrote, the more I realized that writing was what I had been born to do. I loved my characters and believed in their story. They were worthy of traditional publishing, and I knew it.

And then it began. I knew exactly who I wanted to have publish my novel, and they were selling querying time to authors at a writer's conference in a city I was going to be in during the week I was going to be there. It was kismet!

I paid, memorized my query, met my dream publisher, and listened as she told me that the market was absolutely saturated with young adult romantic fantasy at the moment, and that her publishing company was not currently looking for any. She was kind, and she even stood with me in the hall afterwards and introduced me to some published authors and another publisher. Of course it hurt, but I felt like I'd scaled to a new authorial level.

I might have, but I never moved past it. Once or twice I spent a day finding agents to submit queries to, and I spent some time trying to perfect my query. I even forced myself to send a few queries out. Jessica Foster (who has been a guest poster here on The Prosers) blogged about how querying makes her feel. The video of the cat and the banana described my feelings about querying so precisely that I hope you'll take the time to go watch it. I thought about having a link to her post be my whole blog today, but as usual, I found a few words to add. :^)


I don't want to feel like that cat any longer. Back when I was just starting on this journey to authorhood, I wanted it to be a lucrative career. But here I am, five years out, and the truth of the matter is that on a good week I spend about fifteen hours on writing, and that includes this blog, critiquing other people's manuscripts, and all the other writerly stuff I do (except the brain work part. That goes on constantly--sometimes even while I sleep.)  Given the other things I have elected to do with my time, that number isn't going to change. I could spend that time querying and all the other things I would need to do to get published, but I would be miserable. I know what MaryAnn wrote is true--if I want to sell to a lot of people, self-publishing is going to take a lot of work. But I'm ready to get my books out there, and I've moved past the place where I want to write a best-seller. What I want to do is write.

~Melanie

What I'm currently reading: Nothing! 
Why: Because Legend, by Marie Lu was supposed to keep me occupied until next week, at least. Drat that exciting story line that tricked me into reading all day yesterday. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In defense of dark fiction


I started this series out of a sense of frustration. There were all these stories that were lovely, and dark, and haunting, and I couldn’t articulate very well why it was that I liked them. So I wrote about a whole variety of topics connected to the issue, all avoiding the main and most important question: why do I like dark fiction? And finally, as I first started to really think about this post, I came to a conclusion: that’s kind of a silly question.

If you follow the question all the way back to the start, it becomes way too broad. Why do we like anything? Is it indeed personality based? Life experience? What we read as kids? The alignment of the first full moon after the third Columbus Day after your birth? Maybe all, and maybe none.

Getting into the specifics isn't very helpful either. Maybe it's because I read some dark fiction as a child. Or maybe it's because of a wide variety of personal reasons - much to personal for the internet to read. 

In examining those broad and narrow reasons as to why I like what I like, I came across a more important question: why am I even writing this series? For one, I did just want to write about what I loved, and I wanted to explore my own interests. But perhaps there was another reason: I wanted to convince other people that they should be liking dark fiction more.

And that is the truly silly idea here.  Reading about why someone loves something is fun. Reading someone trying to convince you what to like is annoying. 

And so, why do I like dark fiction? Alas, I have to go with the same answer I gave at the beginning: because I do. Because I appreciate any story that can evoke emotion in me (sorrow is actually easier to evoke than joy, in my opinion). And because even dark fiction can be beautiful, in its own way.

To finish this series, I’ll share a few more of my favorite dark stories we published at FFO, because good stories speak for themselves. These are the truly dark ones, by the way, not to be read unless you’re willing to be more than a bit depressed.

I take a few steps into the room. Everyone said the hospice had a wonderful staff and a pleasant, normal setting because death is normal, completely normal. The reception area looks like a living room, with soft green sofas and house plants on the windowsill, decorated a with few small American flags. Tomorrow is the Fourth of July.

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. That’s what they keep saying while they pour each other drinks. They’re the grown-ups and they should know. But they say everybody at your new school really likes you, they’re just teasing the new kid, when you know everybody hates you to hell and it won’t ever stop until you’re dead.

Blood Willows, by Caroline M. Yoachim
The bleached-white cottonbones stretched up into the clouds. Scattered among them were the smaller blood willows, with branches sagging down to the ground instead of reaching to the sky. Bright red blossoms dotted the branches like a troupe of ladybugs.
“Will Mommy bloom too?” Natasha asked, noticing the flowers.
“We’ll see,” he answered.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Are You Happy?

My sister and I are psychic.

No, really.

We can go for months without the merest contact, and then when we finally get on the phone, we've somehow been thinking deeply about the very same stuff. It gets creepy weird sometimes.

This past week was not creepy weird, but it was...enlightening, to say the least. My sister and I, for some reason, had both been pondering what it means to be happy. What makes you happy? Can anything 'make' you happy or unhappy, or is it a state of being?

She suggested I watch the movie, Happy (and since it's on Netflix, how could I refuse?). And now, I'm offering it up as a suggestion for all you Prosers out there. After decades of research into depression, this, finally, is a fascinating glimpse into the mental and biological reasons for happiness.

One of the most interesting parts was the discussion of happiness in relation to extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Per the movie, extrinsic goals are things where value is found outside the person. They broadly include such things as:

Image
Money
Status
Praise
Reward

Intrinsic goals meet a basic human psychological need and have meaning regardless of external circumstance. These include:

Personal Growth
Personal Relationships
Service or Helping Others and the Community

This has plenty to do with regular everyday life. Research has found, that after basic needs are met, people are not made more happy by wealth, status or praise. Rather, it is the wealth of the intrinsic goals that creates a rich life. The movie chronicles rickshaw drivers, surfers, and African nomads who all count themselves as very fulfilled and happy, not because of the outward (extrinsic) trappings of their lives, but because of the joy they find in family and community and personal fulfillment. It was really quite eye opening.

The other epiphany I came to as I watched this movie is how this might also apply to writing. I know we would love to have our books picked up by a major publisher, maybe a nice advance, maybe even fans (how 'bout a movie deal thrown in?). But what if seeking after extrinsic goals will never turn us into happy writers? It reminded me of the story Stephen King tells of getting a huge desk and putting it in the middle of his room after his first big breaks. Now he was A Writer. But after he had his own epiphany, the big desk was dumped, and a small desk installed in the corner of the room. Because, he said (something to this effect, I don't have the quote on me), writing is a part of life, it is not Life. I also loved Trisha's post 'In Which I Don't Write' and her conclusion, that she has to write because she just likes it. In other words, it makes her happy.

Can writing lead to personal growth? Oh, yeah. All that imagination and those great story ideas roiling around in your head - it's intoxicating, isn't it?

Can it enhance personal relationships? Uh...maybe? I spend a lot more time staring at the screen these days. But it's been fun to see each of my kids pick up a passion for writing their own stories. And my hubby is fab. And there are such great writing communities around (like the Prosers!).

Does it help others? I think it can. We've had several discussions here about books that have touched our lives at just the right moment to make a difference, and how much we would like to give that gift to others, too.

I guess, the thing I took away from this, as far as writing is concerned, is similar to the conclusion MaryAnn came to, and Trisha, and Sheena, and Melanie, and Sabrina - you have to write first and foremost for yourself, for your love of your story, and because you are happy when you do it.

~ Susan

What I just finished reading: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth E. Wein - wow. just wow. read this. really.
What I'm reading now: A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix
What I'm listening (and cleaning) to: Tenth Grade Bleeds, by Heather Brewer
What I'm writing now: A blog post. Oh, you mean writing...the end of chapter 20 / 62K.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Key to Writing a Wildly Popular Novel

My sweet four-year-old daughter
desperately wants this for her birthday

This post will be short because I’ve been running around all day trying to find the perfect birthday present for my youngest daughter.  She wants this Monster High doll named Toralei Stripe (werecat), and apparently it’s sold out everywhere except on e-bay or amazon where they are asking $77 to $100 for this toy that is normally $20.  I love my daughter, but I just can’t pay that much, so please if anyone finds this toy for a decent price, let me know.   I really want to make my little brown eyes’ birthday wish come true. 

Anyway my adventure of trying to hunt down this doll, along with Trisha’s recent post, has gotten me thinking about how these toys, movies, books become so wildly popular.    I know it is the million dollar question, the secret formula that everyone would like to know, and here I am giving it away for free on the internet.    

So here’s my quick and dirty theory.

Concept-Something new and different, but still the same.

I can see why Monster dolls are so popular.  The concept is rather clever.  They are the children of the classic monsters like Draculaura (daughter of Dracula), Frankie Stein (daughter of Frankenstien’s monster),  Clawdeen Wolf (daughter of the wolfman), Ghoulia Yelps (daughter of zombies), Deuce Gorgon (son of Medussa), and even my favorite monster The Phantom of Opera  has a daughter, Operetta.  These monsters are put in a modern high school setting with clever word play like fearleaders instead of cheerleaders and creepateria instead of cafeteria.  The whole thing is pretty fun.

But honestly these dolls aren’t that far from the classic Barbie dolls.  These monster teens are all very beautiful and thin.  They all dress in stylin outfits with way too short skirts and way too high heels.  There are a lot of similarities to those Barbies I played with as a child and that are still on toy store shelves today.  So the Monster High dolls do have a unique concept (monsters in high school), but still shares many of the features as those classic toys that have successfully sold for years (Barbie dolls).  A little bit different, and a little bit the same.

Novel example:  Hunger Games.  Collins took the classic concept of Roman gladiators and twisted it by having them be children in a futuristic society. Also the strong romantic subplot and love triangle had already proven very successful in the YA market.

Theme-Needs to resonate with the readers

I believe that every story, no matter how shallow and inane it may seem, has a theme.  Some themes are complex and amazing and make us ponder them for days.  Some are very obvious and even trivial, but still every story has a theme. 

These Monster High toys are more than just dolls.  There is a much larger design behind them that is adding to their appeal.   My daughters love the Monster High website which has character bios, short videos, and games. I think there is a cartoon series on TV (not sure because we don't have cable), and I've even seen Monster High novels. From what I've seen, there seems to be a theme running through the whole thing about being inclusive and being okay with what makes you different.   Individualism is a theme that resonates with most Americans.  I think this adds to the dolls’ appeal.

These dolls do come in every skin, hair, and eye color imaginable, but all them are pretty, very thin, and hip which kind of detracts from that theme.  A little bit of conformity is going on there too.  So I guess the overall take home message is be yourself, but make sure you are pretty, thin, and stylish in the process.  I think that is as much depth as we can expect from these types of toys.

Novel example:  Harry Potter:  the themes of friendship and sacrifice resonate with most readers which I think contributes to its appeal.

Love-you gotta love it or no one else will

I’m a big believer in writing or creating what you are most excited about.  That passion slips into the text, and the readers can feel it as they read, almost like magic.

I really think the creators of the Monster High dolls had a lot of fun creating these dolls. If they didn't, it sure looks like they did. The way they worked monster elements into the characters' personalities and story lines is clever and funny, and I know I would've fun coming up with them.  But the creators didn’t slop through this.  They put thought and energy into the dolls creation and story lines, and it really shows.  I think this is one of the main reasons why these dolls are doing so well.  My girls definitely have been influenced by it.

Novel example:  Twilight-There is no doubt that Stephenie Meyers loved her story and her characters.  You can almost feel it on the pages.  I think that passion she had while writing it has played a huge role in why Twilight is so popular.  Write what you love and that love will shine through.

Those are my thoughts on how to write a novel that will shoot to the top of the best seller list.  I’m not going to ask for any portion of your sales when you hit it big using my amazing advice.  Just send me an autograph copy of your best seller and we’ll call it even.  J

Happy writing,

~MaryAnn

Monday, September 10, 2012

Making a Sow's Ear out of a Silk Purse

or The Sheena Method of Editing

Yes, at one point this was cool.
When I was in ninth grade, I wanted a denim jacket. A specific Denim Jacket. It was a casual version of a Leather-man's jacket with blue suede sleeves, and all my friends had one. I told my mom, showed her the exact coat I wanted, and then patiently waited for Dec. 25 when my new awesomely nineties jacket would be unwrapped.

But there was a problem. My Mom and Dad went Christmas shopping together, and while my mom was checking out something for my brother, my Dad took the shopping list and read, "Sheena ~ Levi Coat", and then proceeded to go into the coat section.

There was a lot of bad Levi coats at that time. Really bad Levi coats.

He picked out the wrong Levi coat. This one had patches, and ruffles. In that coat, I'd easily be the fourth member of the Denim to Die For gang.

 Not at all what I envisioned. Afterward, I asked my mom why she didn't stop my dad, and say, "That's a nice coat dear, but what Sheena wanted was this other one." My mom said my dad really liked the coat he picked out, and she didn't have the heart to tell him he chose wrong.

And it wasn't that the coat was so bad, that makes me retell this story some fourteen years later.  The coat wasn't my style, but it would have kept me warm in the winter. It's what happened after they brought the coat home.

Instead of returning the coat, and exchanging it, my mom decided to fix it. She cut the arms off, and then sewed on blue FELT sleeves.

Shudder.

...not what I ...wanted.

 I remember being very cold that winter, as somehow the hybrid coat would go "missing,"  or when I had to wear it, the wind blew through the stitches.

I have a couple of stories currently in my hard drive like that coat.  Weird hybrids, that have gone through one editing pass too many.

What happens, is the final product isn't exactly what I had envisioned. Instead of using my mad editing skills to make the story the best it could be, I cut huge chunks out of it, or put some random slant on the thing, making it into the new idea that I had. I create a weird hybrid of a story that must be killed.

This is why I hate second drafts.

I've discovered this happens because I'd decided to follow one of the many rules of writing that are prevalent online for writers. Finish a story and let it sit for six weeks. 

For me, this is a bad...monster creating...rule.

The problem is in those six weeks of waiting, I have six weeks of new story ideas. So when I come back to the story, I'm out of the mood of the POV, I lose the voice of the character, and I end up trying to make the story into something else.

...not what I...wanted.

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't write a second draft, what I saying, is "Sometimes what works for Steven King won't work for you!" That's okay. You can make your own rules. And here are mine.

Rule Number One of the Sheena Method of Editing-  Do not step away from the story. Revise while you still love the story. Don't quit while you are still motivated. Only step away from a story when you are done, and step just so far as to put it into the hands of a publisher.

Rule Number Two. Don't let other peoples opinion change the story. Sometimes people who crit a story have brilliant beautiful ideas, and you can tell, because you as the author, think it's brilliant or beautiful.  Other times their opinions don't feel right for your story. You don't have to listen to anything anyone says. You are the boss of your story. Other peoples input can help, but only if you decide to accept it.

Rule Number Three- Tell your own story. What you write might be a sow's ear, and try though you might, you can't make it into a silk purse. That's awesome. If you are a silk worm, make silk purses, the world needs more silk purses. But if you are a Sow, then friggen make BACON! The world needs more bacon. Don't try to be a different writer than you were born to be. Don't be ashamed of your own words, your own experiences, or your own genre. Lay them out the best you can, and don't try to copy another person's style.

Because a story that works, even if it's not exactly what you wanted to tell, is better than a weird hybrid.

Tell your own story, make it the best you can, and then walk away.
~Sheena

What I'm Reading Now - The Bartimaeus Trilogy Book One- The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathon Stroud.
What I'm Writing Now -  End of the World Challenge