Thursday, January 31, 2013

In Honor of Grandparents

I’m very sad to say that last week, my beloved grandmother passed away. It wasn’t much of a surprise; she was 90 years old, and several factors had indicated that she was finally ready to move on. But still, I really miss her already. Love you, Grandmommy.

In fiction, grandparents seem to fall into three categories: crazy wacky senior citizens, old and wise wizards (Merlin, Gandalf), or automatic wisdom dispensers (put in a coin, get a life lesson!). But especially this week, I wish for more nuance.

Here are a few stories where characters of older years get better, more detailed treatment.

Terry Pratchett has Cohen the Barbarian and his team. All are well past the age of 80. Sounds like they’d be easily beat, right? Well, let’s put it this way: of all the fights and wars that mercenaries face, all the challenges from evil wizards and young upstart barbarians… these are the guys that lived to 90. Plus, Cohen has diamonds for teeth. Take that, dentures!
(Edit: Completely forgot to add Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, witches extraordinnare).

There is, of course, Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie is a young woman transformed into an older woman, but I love the way she reacts to the change. Instead of getting upset, she takes the chance to speak her mind, and finally express her opinions.

There’s also John Scalzi’s series, which begins with Old Man’s War. I love the idea of the book, that the government specifically pulls those sixty-five and older into their military, because who better to be fighters than those with decades of life experience? (They get new bodies to better fight hand-to-hand).

I also loved the grandma in Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. I don’t remember her name, but she was wonderful.

At FFO, we have two stories that feature older characters in the main role:  Irma Spinklebottom’s Recipe for Cold Fusion, and Star Maven.

I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface here – I haven’t even gotten into TV or movie characters! (Shepherd Book, for instance (“::sigh:: I never married”)). 

Who are your favorite grandparent characters?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to Find an Awesome Beta

I’ve been going over my critiques that I’ve gotten on my novel I’m trying to get ready to query, and I am so amazed at how insightful and brilliant these suggestions are.  Really, how can anyone do this writing thing without some brilliant critiquers (is that a word)?

I think it is important to find the right people to be your readers especially if you want them to read an entire novel.  That’s a lot of work and time for a person to give to you, and if they aren’t helpful, then you’ve only wasted theirs and your time.  And I’m not saying that you need to find someone who only showers you with praise or only makes suggestions you agree with or that you are obligated to use all of their advice, only that you need to find someone who understands what kind of story you are trying to tell and can see where it is and isn’t working. 

Here are a few things to look for in a critique partner

1.       Someone who is your target audience.  This is really important because if the critiquer doesn’t even like the genre you’re writing or understand it, they may be giving you the wrong advice.  They may not understand the conventions of the genre or try to push your story in a direction that it shouldn’t go.  You need someone who would very likely pick up your book in the bookstore. 

2.      Someone who reads.  Sheena did a post on that mythical creature, a writer who doesn’t read, which was hilarious, and I am sure there are some shiny exceptions, but I think it is safe to say that someone who doesn’t read wouldn’t make a good critiquer.  Movies and novels do have a lot of story-telling similarities, but there are a lot of differences too.  You are better off with someone who knows how novels work.

 3.  Someone who is honest even when it hurts.  Honesty really is the best policy.  I don’t think I need to say more.

4.   Someone who is encouraging.  Yes it is great to have someone so insightful that they can tear your story to shreds and give you amazing ideas to rebuild it, but if they don’t send you home with a lollipop or two to help nurse those wounds, I think they can discourage you from continuing on.  I’m not asking for someone to just sing praises, but they should be able and willing to point out the good along with the bad.

So how do you find a beta reader who fits all of these requirements?

This is how I found my amazing critiquers.

1.    Become a fan of an aspiring writer.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading snippets of writing on the writing forum Hatrack River.  There were several writers who always impressed me.  I always found myself wanting to read more of what they wrote.  I kept my eye on these writers, and whenever they asked for a critique, I’d volunteer.  I know there was a selfish, self-serving motive behind it even though I really did want to read their stories.  I did hope that at some point they would be willing to swap manuscripts with me.  My thinking was that if I was their intended audience then they might be mine.   And it worked.  I managed to get Sheena to be my first official beta reader (or maybe she was an alpha), and she was an awesome critiquer, and her insights were invaluable.   So Sheena, I may be your first official fan/stalker.  Online only.  :)

2.  Go fishing in a critique group (online or in person).  I joined an online critique group on Absolute Write.  It is still going strong today even though I’m no longer participating.  It was a lot of work, but way worth it.  I just don’t have that time to put into it anymore.  But it was a great place to test out beta readers.  I got to read a little sampling of what they wrote and how they critiqued, and then I sent out encouraging e-mails just to test the waters to see if they were receptive.  And that is how I found Sarah.  :)  She gave my submission a very thorough and insightful critique, and then blew me away with her submission.  But I’m not sure if I’m Sarah’s first official fan because everyone in that crit group loved her writing, but I’m going to name myself the president.

 3.   Just get involved and have fun.  Hatrack River is a great forum.  They have lots of contests (opening hooks, short stories, novel openings, etc).  If you get involved, you can get to know the other aspiring writers and their writing.  It is a great way to find writers to stalk, I mean admire.  I’ve got a couple future potential beta’s in my crosshairs from this. You know who you are, well, at least some of you do.

4.  Don’t forget to look close to home.    I’ve heard the advice of not using your friends and family as beta readers because they will only praise you.  Well, that is not always the case.  I have some pretty smart and well-read sisters who aren’t afraid to be honest with me as well as an amazing husband.  In some ways, they are tougher on me than any “stranger” has been.  So if there are people in your personal life that like to read the kind of books that you are writing, it may not hurt to ask them to beta for you.

I feel a little evil and self-serving in the post.  Yes, Melanie, that is how I can write villains (I’m half-evil).  I really think you should just relax and get involved in writers’ forums and don’t worry about finding a beta.  You can learn a ton and have a lot of fun.  But if you keep your eyes open, you may be as lucky as I was, and get a few amazing beta readers while you’re at it.

Thanks guys for everything.  You really are the best.  :)


Friday, January 25, 2013

Creating A Villain

Not all villains are a single person.
(The flag of the Alliance; Firefly)
This post wasn't even remotely what I had in mind for this week's blog topic. It wasn't what I wanted. It wasn't what I was interested in. But, at 6:15 this morning, I realized it was what I needed.

See, I was hoping to start writing a new book this week. It wasn't that I had any genius ideas burning in my head. Instead, it was because I was obsessing over this project that I was supposed to be letting rest, and I couldn't seem to force myself to focus on the project I was supposed to be working on. great idea was to start writing SOMETHING ELSE.

With that (and unfortunately nothing else) in my mind, I started researching How To Create A Plot, and it didn't take long before I found this genius site. Actually, this is a post about outlining your plot, which is a different creature entirely from creating a plot, but it's kind of amazing how the two things intertwine.

The villain in Chuck
(Daniel Shaw)
In a nutshell, Glen Strathy's premise is that the very first thing you need is a Story Goal, which is the thing your main character is trying to accomplish. The second thing you need is a Consequence, which is the negative thing that will happen if the Story Goal is not achieved. Or--important distinction here--what the main character THINKS will happen if the story goal is not achieved.

Step 3, Requirements, is basically a checklist of things that have to happen in order for the reader to feel like your protagonist is getting closer to their goal, and Step 4 is Forewarnings, or events that happen that show that the consequence is also drawing near.

Voldemort from Harry Potter
I'm skipping a lot of good stuff here, including some important steps, so if this seems like an interesting way to plot, please go check out the blog post. As I started brainstorming plots using this method (which was not really created for brainstorming plots, I get that. But it works!)  I came up with some really interesting ideas. My Story Goal was pretty easy to come up with: My character wants to find a way back to her family. There are a zillion other stories out there with the same Story Goal. What makes it different are the details--Why isn't she already with her family? Where is she? Who is keeping her from being at home?

These are the questions that complicate everything, and soon enough, my mind was stalled in the exact same spot it stalls with every book I've ever written. The villain. It's like I get there, and realize there's a whole other story that needs to get told, or maybe even two. While my characters are busy with the minutia of their lives, there are politics unfolding, wars happening, and a million other things I need to know about if I'm going to create a villain, including my world's history, and his/her life story (if the villain is a person.)

Stories don't need a villain, but they do need a conflict. Your character might conflict with another character (villainous or otherwise), with nature, with society, or with himself. For better or for worse, I'm lumping all of these things into the word 'villain'.

The Wicked Witch of the West
Basically, my inability to see through my villain's eyes is what was keeping me from working on my original project, and so I'm shelving this new, shiny idea for now (it's got potential though, so you may see it again someday) and going back to the project I should have been working on all along.

In my experience, plotting my villain's story isn't much fun, but it still needs to be done, and Mr. Strathy's Plot Outline steps seem like a great way to do it. I'll keep you posted. I'm hoping for nothing less than breaking through a wall that's been hindering me for nearly four years now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Hooray for ham!*

One of my top three favorite Shannon Hale books (the other two being The Goose Girl and Book of a Thousand Days) has been born in movie form!

It's been a long gestation, but well worth the wait according to happy Sundance moviegoers - and Sony who just acquired it for $3,000,000.

But see, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Long, long ago, way back in 2008, Shannon Hale wrote a book.

Austenland is the tale of unlucky-in-love Jane Hayes who is stifled by an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth. No man or relationship will ever measure up (this she knows - she even has all her past boyfriends numbered beginning with a grade school crush). When Jane is bequeathed a three-week vacation to an English resort based on Jane Austen's novels, she apprehensively accepts, determined to get Mr. Darcy, and truth-be-told, all men, out of her system forever. But once there, robed in chemises, pelisses, day dresses and spencer jackets, Jane finds herself swimming in deeper water than she expected. The gentlemen actors are scrumptious with their top hats and side burns, her fellow vacationers both hilarious and endearing, but what is she really looking for, and what does reality mean when you're in Austenland?

It's a great book that hits all the right notes on America's obsession with all things British in general (*ahem* Downton Abbey *ahem*) and Jane Austen in particular.

Not long after the writing of said novel, a couple of Shannon Hale's friends (Stephenie Meyer, a la Twilight, and Jerusha Hess, a la Napoleon Dynamite) got a hold of it and together they dreamed of making it into a movie.

In July 2011 Shannon announced on her website that their dream was going to become a reality. Shannon and Jerusha wrote the script, Stephenie's company produced, and Jerusha directed. I was going to link to some of the hilarious posts Shannon wrote from the set in England, but there are just too many. I highly suggest going to her site and just reading forward for a few weeks starting July 5, 2011.

The cast had a blast filming, and apparently the camaraderie came through on the celluloid (pixels?) as well. Austenland was picked up for release at Sundance, an honor in and of itself. And the audience and critical reaction at the sold out showings has be gratifyingly positive.

I can't wait for this to hit the regular theaters. What an awesome thing to happen to a fabulous writer!
You go, girl (and girls, including Stephenie and Jerusha).

What other books are on your wish list to become movies?

~ Susan

* "Hooray for ham" was the line that cracked me up today as I was rereading Austenland for the umpteenth time.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Downton Defense

Basically, if you haven't seen Downton Abby, go watch seasons one and two right now. It's available on Netflix.

Go on. I'll wait.

Welcome back. Obviously, you've seen seasons one and two, and so you won't be annoyed by the spoilers that are below. Carry on.

So yesterday, Trisha posted a great blog about how when you set the rules of the world of your story, you need to stick by them.

She outs Downton Abby in particular of breaking the rules, most clearly with the character Matthew Crawley's "I can never stand again. No wait... It's a miracle, let's dance." plot line.

I suggest you click on her post, because she makes some great points. It's a common fault for T.V. shows to present an obstacle, and then just drop it when it gets boring. The worst offender I can think of is Glee, where characters are despondently in love with one character one episode,  break up for a dumb reason the next, and then drop their hate just so they can sing a duet two episodes later. And don't get me started about how they never sing the same song more than once. I get why for a T.V. show the repetition is annoying, but as a real life choir dork, it strains believability.

And you can't stop believing.

But anyway. On topic. I have to defend Downton Abby, because the point Trisha raised is a huge one for me as a writer.

Season two of Downton Abby has Matthew just returned injured from war. The Doctor says there is a chance that he could recover, but most likely he will never be able to stand again. He won't be able to walk, to run, or... most importantly, he won't ever be able to have children.

This is a big problem, because as the heir, his child (if it's a boy) will inherit a huge fortune. And it's not just the vast amount of money, and properties that the child would inherit, it's the history of it that's important.  The tradition. And don't forget who the fortune came from, Cora's American money, Lady Grantham's traditional money. Above all of that, what's most important is the name.

 Lady Mary has been raised her entire life under the knowledge that she is entitled to a better life then others because of the name she was born into. Imagine the kind of self delusion necessary to live surrounded by people you like or love ( like Carson, Ana, etc.) who live feet from you yet in a completely different world. How can you justify that without giving the thing that separates you (i.e. family name and money) an enormous amount of importance.

Mary loves Matthew, but has lost him now more than once because of her need to prove the weight of her family's name. And now, here he is, in a wheel chair, engaged to someone else who will care for him more patiently than she would. By all tradition she should let him go. If she marries someone else and has a son, then she will carry on "the family show" the way she'd been born to do.

And then Matthew stands.

I love that, that shot in the dark that scatters the ducks. For me, it's not because it breaks the rules that this moment stands out, it's because it reinforces my most important opinion/rule of writing. Always scatter the ducks. Always go for the thing that changes a path, because a story ends once the path is set.

Yes, I see how it is jumping the shark for him to recover, and I'd be right by Trisha's side, complaining about lazy writers breaking their own rules, except that long before he stands, the doctor says that there's a chance that he will recover. By that one comment, the doctor put the dueling pistols onto the mantle.

But even if he didn't, I think I'd still be willing to look the other way, because to me it's not about the rule or the expectation of the audience that they are breaking, it's about the test the characters are going through.  If you are going to test a character, and change them emotionally, prove themselves morally, or just hold a character over a fire, there is a segment of your audience who will stay by you, just to watch the characters squirm.

Not everyone will stay, but I probably will.

Trisha brings up the Spanish influenza story line as another example, and yes, it seems improbable that the only person who died from it, was the obstacle in the way between Mary and Matthew. But hey, it's a love story. Obstacles have to be removed somehow. And the creators go to great lengths to say that historically that's how it happened, it was just when a person seemed recovered that they were at their most dangerous stage.

Yes, I did watch the PBS specials.

There are a few other times when the writers suggest a treat or a threat, and then take it back, but for every "We're going to lose Downton", there's a punch that's not pulled. Characters die. Love stories end. Characters are pronounced guilty. Consequences happen, though usually the upstairs gets off lighter than those in servant's garb. But that's kind of the way with it, now isn't it?

Downton Abby, to me is all about the rules, and the traditions of polite society. The show is about  the fairness and impracticality of rules; from Matthew, a distant relation inheriting all the money, and not Lady Mary, because he's male, to the rules of conduct between the upstairs and the downstairs, to the unfairness of Lady Mary's affair compared to the maid Ethel's consequences for the same level of mistake.

I think writers can take notice to some of these rules. For example, a writer with a "name" can break a rule and survive just fine, but a lowly writer could break the same rules and have a huge fall out. Also, yes sometimes success can happen for someone else, even though by all accounts, it should have come to you instead. Speak up about it, or else marry the person who stole your opportunity. ( Downton suggest's that's fine).

If you can give me a character that I love, like Lady Grantham, or Walter Bishop, or Kristina Braveman, or Matrim, or Gen, or Katniss, then you can break any rule you want to, and I'll stick along for the ride.

The main reason, however, that I'm going to keep watching isn't because of the soap opera characters in Jane Austen clothing. It's not because of the seeping slow minutia of the lives and growth of the characters, or the picturesque landscapes, the house itself, or the amazing costumes.

 I will continue to watch for Lady Grantham.

That Dame Maggie is a treasure.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Breaking the OTHER Set of Rules

Every Sunday night, two television shows record on my DVR.  These shows could not be more different.  Once Upon a Time (which I've blogged about before) is set in a modern day town, peopled by various fairy tale characters.  Every episode features two plot lines: the lives of the modern day characters, and a flashback to their lives before they were transported from their world to ours.  I've said it before and I'll say it again--I love this show.

The other program I record on Sunday is Downton Abbey.  PBS fans will likely know the series, which is set between the years 1912 and 1921 in the Yorkshire countryside of England.  If this is the first you've heard of the show, I have to warn you spoilers are coming, though I'll try to keep them at a minimum.

There is one thing that ties these shows together for me, and I probably only noticed it because they air on the same night, so I end up watching them back to back the next day.  Like all stories, they both have to follow their own rules.  In Once Upon a Time, magic cannot exist in Storybrooke, Maine.  That is the entire reason the evil queen transported the fairy tale characters to our world.  She brought them to a place where they could not rebel, and then took away their memories, creating a version of life that suited her.

Downton has its own set of rules.  The plot follows the Earl of Grantham, his family, and the people that serve them.  Life in an English manner house in the early 1900s was extremely structured.  Clothes had to be changed several times a day, women had to be chaperoned when visiting with men, servants had to keep the house running without being seen by the family.  Everything was done just so, with attention to both detail and propriety poured into every aspect of daily life.

The first season, for each show, was mostly about setting up for later conflict.  Now that both shows are a few seasons in, some of those carefully laid out rules--the rules that govern the plot and character existence--are starting to come undone.  (Here's your spoiler alert.  Look away!)

In Once Upon a Time, magic has made its way to Storybrooke.  It started out small enough, with Regina crushing the huntsman's heart, or finding a loophole that allowed her to pull a poison apple through from the old world.  At the end of season 1, Emma kisses Henry and the magic of true love wakes him from Regina's spell.  Not long after, Rumpelstiltskin finds a way to bring all magic into Storybrooke, which means season 2 has been filled with every kind of rule-breaking imaginable.

People who died in one episode turn out to be alive in the next.  Emma and Snow White become trapped in the fairy tale world, with no hope of return, and yet after several episodes of searching and fighting, they find a way home.  Regina promises never to use magic again, but within an episode or two, she's back at it.  Rumple makes similar promises to Belle, but breaks them almost in the same breath.  In fact the only thing you can count on anymore is when a character says "This is never going to happen," it'll probably happen next week.

It might sound like a lot of backhanded storytelling, and I suppose it is.  Here's why it works, in my mind anyway.  Once Upon a Time is a fast-paced story.  Because you flip between the present and past, you get a more rounded idea of who these characters are.  It's also pretty normal for the characters to be embroiled in a physical fight in one era, while struggling with an emotional war in the other.  It helps keep the plot from feeling stuck.  It's the changes themselves, though, that usually set this pace.  When you think you have a grasp on what's happening, or how the world works, someone throws a wrench into the gears.

However, the writers always ensure the changes are plausible.  Magic isn't possible in Storybrooke because of a curse, but as the first season unfolds, it becomes more and more evident that Emma is going to break that curse.  And once the curse is lifted, all bets are off.  It's no wonder then that they start to find fairy dust, or that Rumpelstiltskin's previously worthless antiques start to exhibit strange new properties.

My only criticism is how often rules are set and then broken.  Most recently, a character crossed the town line.  In the first episode of season 2, the writers laid down a rule: anyone that crosses will lose their memory of their fairy tale life.  I suspect the rule was put in place for two reasons.  One, to keep the characters contained, and therefore keep the story on track, and two, to make it a gut-wrenching moment when this character fell over the barrier.  They will never regain who they are--something the character's love interest pointed out with great pain.  And yet, having spent as long as I have with this story, I'm not buying that for one moment.

The solution will be plausible--magic, true love, whatever they come up with, will fit with the story enough that it'll pass.  The writers are too smart to have an easy solution on hand right away.  The characters are going to suffer, and struggle.  Sacrifices will be made, but in the end they'll find a cure for this unfixable memory loss.

This false suspense is okay in small doses, and forgivable when the solution is plausible.  But what about when the writers just cram something in to tie up whatever plot line they're struggling with?  What happens when you break the rules of your world for no good reason?

Enter season 2 and 3 of Downton Abbey.

In season 1, the audience was given a very intimate look at life within the Grantham household.  Sibling rivalry, scandal, even housemaids with a grudge all had their moment in the story.  All the rules were set, and when they were broken, the offenders were met with consequences.  Mary's adventure with Mr. Pamuk had particularly dire consequences for most of season 1 and all of season 2.  It was season 2 that really dropped the ball, though.

Matthew, heir to the current Lord Grantham, sustains an injury in the second season which, according to the doctor, will leave him crippled for the rest of his life.  His miraculous recovery is never given a satisfactory explanation.  In fact, the doctor merely shrugs his shoulders and sweeps the whole thing under the rug.  Later in the season, several of the characters catch Spanish flu.  Again, most make another miraculous recovery, and the one character who dies does so unexpectedly.  I'm not sure I want to be sick under Dr. Clarkson's watch.  Seems to me every time he gives a diagnosis, it goes the other way.  (Is this some kind of foreshadowing for poor Mrs. Hughes?  I hope not.)

Season 3 is driving me crazy.  Lord Grantham swore he'd never allow his runaway daughter Cybil and her less-than-respectable husband to visit Downton, and yet the season kicks off with them staying for several episodes.  Lord Grantham also lost basically every penny he owns and faces ruin, but of course an unexpected inheritance for Matthew means they can keep their home, and fortune, if only Matthew would get over himself and accept it.

There are so many convenient, hardly plausible events that pop up in the latter seasons of Downton Abbey.  It's almost as though the writers threw up whatever obstacles they could think of, and when they got tired of them, they magically went away.  If it had only happened once, maybe twice, I think I could overlook it.  But it happens constantly, and it's getting out of hand.  I'm ready for this season to be over, and while I hear there will be another season in production soon, I'm not totally sure I want to watch it.

It doesn't matter if the world you're building is complete fantasy or if it's set smack dab in the middle of your hometown.  There are always going to be rules you have to follow.  If your character is blind, she can't regain her sight just in time solve a murder simply because it's convenient to the plot.  If your character loses all his money at a game of craps and he's wandering through the street destitute and hungry, he'd better have a good reason for finding that million dollar lottery ticket.  Otherwise you're just slapping a band-aid on a problem you aren't ready to deal with.

If you find yourself doing this, I hope you'll take a step back and figure out why you've chosen this route, and start asking questions.  What other path could you have taken?  Maybe your character can use her other senses to solve the murder case, or your gambling addict will finally see he has a problem and start the slow path to recovery.  You can break your own rules, by all means, but not without a good reason or a lot of skill.

Better yet, maybe a little of both.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

H.P. Lovecraft Has Some Writing Advice for You

This week, I was delighted to discover a link to H.P. Lovecraft’s advice for young writers, initially published in 1920 by The United Amateur. Shoutout to Grey Matter Press for the link. (I was perusing their facebook page to see if they had an update on response to submissions for the anthology I submitted to, and they do – lovely people!  ::tries not to obsessively check email::)

There's a lot of good stuff in there. I particularly like his advice on story structure: 
In developing a theme, whether descriptive or narrative, it is necessary that three structural qualities be present: Unity, Mass, and Coherence. Unity is that principle whereby every part of a composition must have some bearing on the central theme. It is the principle which excludes all extraneous matter, and demands that all threads converge toward the climax. 
Mass is that principle which requires the more important parts of a composition to occupy correspondingly important places in the whole composition, the paragraph, and the sentence…. According to this law, the end of a composition is its most important part, with the beginning next in importance.
Coherence is that principle which groups related parts together and keeps unrelated parts removed from one another.... It demands that kindred events be narrated without interruption, effect following cause in a steady flow.
Of course, not all the advice is current. See, for example, this line: “As a general rule, it is well to give close critical scrutiny to all colloquial phrases and expressions of doubtful parsing, as well as to all words and usages which have a strained or unfamiliar sound.”

Yes, Mr. Lovecraft, it is indeed "well" to give such scrutiny.

My other favorite part of that above quote is the mention of strained usages of words, which seems to be a constant in some modern writers of fantasy. (And yes, I am looking in the mirror as I say that. Must control urge to use all fancy words available!)

Other gems from the article:

On description:
Descriptions may be of objects, of places, of animals, and of persons. The complete description of an object may be said to consist of the following elements:1. When, where, and how seen; when made or found; how affected by time.2. History and traditional associations.3. Substance and manner of origin.4. Size, shape, and appearance.5. Analogies with similar objects.6. Sensations produced by contemplating it.7. Its purpose or function.8. Its effects—the results of its existence.
More on structure: 
In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average.
 On inspiration: 
“In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook”
 I know that if I've been reading a lot of a particular author, it seems like I'll start to mirror some aspects of their writing even in my own thoughts. Anyone else do that?  And whose writing style would you like most to emulate? I'd like to be more like Patricia McKillip or Joseph Conrad, lyrical but not nonsensical.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Emotional Payoffs

There are about five movies that I will always sit down and watch, over and over again.  One of them is Titanic.  I love that movie.  It’s got romance and action and set in one of the most fascinating and tragic moments in history, and I’m a little shy to admit it, but I love, love, love, “The Hearts Will Go On” theme song by Celine Dion. 

SPOILERS (but really who hasn't seen this movie?)

But there is one scene that grates on me every time I see the movie.   It is when Rose gets on a lifeboat, and as she is lowered from the sinking Titanic, she looks up at Jack and jumps back onto the ship.  I understand that it is supposed to be a great, emotional moment, showing that Rose is choosing Jack.  She is choosing to stay on a sinking ship just to be with him.  She is giving everything up, her wealth, her privilege, her safety because she loves him too much to leave him.  I think it is supposed to be a great romantic moment, but I hate it.  It is the one flaw in what could’ve been a perfect movie.

The reason this moment is so passionately despised by me is that in that one action Rose essentially kills Jack.    In the end when Rose and Jack are in the water, he dies of hypothermia because there is no room for him on the slab of wood.  If Rose had stayed on the lifeboat, Jack could’ve had the slab, and he would’ve been the one who was pulled out of the icy water.

I would forgive Rose for killing Jack if her actions had been noble, if she had given her spot to another passenger, but she doesn’t.  She gets on the lifeboat and then changes her mind about being saved and jumps off when it is too late for someone else to take her place.  Rose knows that there aren’t enough lifeboats that half the people on the ship are going to die, and yet she takes a spot and then leaves it, without thinking about how she selfishly stole a chance from someone else to survive, like one of those little children that died with their mother (that scene was heartbreaking).

That scene could’ve so easily been rewritten so that Rose either nobly gives her seat to someone else or doesn’t have the option of getting on a lifeboat after she saves Jack from the brig.   Plot-wise there was no need for that scene.

But I doubt I’m seeing something that James Cameron didn’t see.  He is a master story teller.  His skills are way beyond mine.  He has written/directed/produced some of my most favorite movies of all time.  I seriously doubt that if he somehow magically came across this blog post he would think, “Wow, this chick has a point.  Why didn’t I or the other hundreds of other people working on this movie realize that Rose basically kills Jack?"

So why would James Cameron choose to have Rose jump back onto the ship?  I’ve never asked him nor have seen or read anything about him discussing this, but I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think I’ve got a decent answer. 

It is all about emotional payoffs.

Sometimes logic needs to take a backseat in storytelling (not always, just sometimes).   Stories, for the most part, are an emotional experience, and anything that gives an emotional payoff takes precedence over logic.

I read this blog post by writer Alexandra Sokoloff a while back on “What Makes a Great Climax.”  In this post, Alexandra talks about the ending of the movie Jaws (SPOILERS).  

It is powerful ending, where Sheriff Brody is hanging off of the mast of a sinking boat with his gun and Jaws is coming right at him, chewing on the oxygen tank.   Brody shoots at Jaws aiming for the oxygen tank but keeps missing until the shark is almost upon him and then he shoots the tank and Jaws explodes.

In her post, Alexandra talks about how author of the book and co-screenwriter of the script Peter Benchley reported arguing with Spielberg over the ending.  Benchley thought the shooting-the-oxygen-tank death of Jaws was completely implausible, that audience wouldn’t buy it.  But Spielberg believed that if he drew the audience in on this emotional journey that they would go with it, that they would trust him.

I’m going to quote Alexandra directly here because I love how she worded this in her post. 

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

So maybe blowing up a shark by shooting at an oxygen tank he just happens to be munching on isn’t the most plausible way to kill a shark, but there is a huge emotional payoff there, in seeing the shark that had tortured Brody and killed and maimed his friends die in such a dramatic way.  It doesn’t have to be logical as long as it delivers the emotional payoff that the audience wants.  Honestly, I think that scene was brilliant.  It certainly worked for me.

I think that is the reason Rose had to jump from the lifeboat back on to the Titanic.  That was a big, emotional moment, and the scene needed to be big and emotional.  Rose needed to make that choice, choose to be with Jack and give up everything to be with him, and if she had missed the lifeboats, she wouldn’t have been able to make that choice.  And if she had given her spot on the lifeboat to someone else, that moment of choosing Jack wouldn’t have been dramatic enough.   It was the turning point of her character arc, and that moment had to be big. 

If you are on the emotional journey with Rose, you’re not supposed to be thinking about her taking someone else’s spot or how Jack might have survived if she had stayed on the lifeboat.  You’re just supposed to be relieved that she chose Jack over Cal and her mother and that soulless life of wealth and privilege that was destroying her spirit. 

I think the take home message here is that there are those moments that need to be emotional and need to be big to give the audience or readers the emotional payoff that they are waiting for.  And these are the times when logic sometimes has to step aside because the story comes first, and you have to do what is best for the story even if it isn’t what is most logical.  Of course there will be readers who might be annoyed with the lapses of logic, but those are the ones who are not emotionally invested.  You need to give that emotional payoff to your readers who are.

So tell me, did that scene in Titanic bug you too or were you too emotionally invested to think about it?


Friday, January 11, 2013

On Anne Hathaway and Head Hopping (This Is Absolutely, Defintely Not About Being Crazy)

Yesterday, if you had been in my neighborhood, and if you happened to be driving down the road at the same time as me, and if you happened to be able to read lips, your attention might have been riveted by a soliloquy going on in my car. It went something like this:

You tried to kill me, James. You tried to murder me. What could you possibly say that would make that alright? You held me under the water until I passed out. In what universe is it alright for a guy to do that to his girlfriend? You tried to kill me.

This interesting bit of dialogue, while disconcerting all by itself, becomes even more disturbing because, as far as you can tell, I'm alone in the car. No blue tooth, no cell phone--just me. It makes a person James in the car with me? Perhaps duct taped and lying on the floor in the back?

And then I say:

It's not what it looks like, Ana. I can explain.

At that point, if you are wise, you probably drove as quick as you could in the other direction, because I am obviously insane, right?

Wrong. (Of course that's what they all say...)

I do this a lot. I try to do it mostly when I'm pretty sure I won't be caught. For a long time, I thought I was trying to come up with dialogue, but if that's the case, I'm coming up with some pretty lousy dialogue. Every now and then I come up with something that I want to save, but for the most part, as far as actual writing stinks. Instead, I'm trying to feel.

I want to know. If Ana is confronting James for the first time about what he did, how does she feel? There are lots of possibilities...Sad? Terrified? Under the right circumstances, she might even be amused. But as I was driving down the road yesterday, I realized that Ana is furious. She isn't furious because that's what I decided she was going to be. She's furious because she IS.

Once I know what Ana is feeling, I head hop on over to James. Again, theoretically the possibilities are endless. Is he derisive? Annoyed that he got caught? Defensive? It turns out that James is in shock. He can't believe she found out about this now, when he thought it was all over.

And then I start over:

You tried to kill me, James...

Like some broken record. Drives me crazy (but not that kind of crazy). Or it did. Now that I know what I'm really doing, it's actually kind of cool.

In any high-voltage scene, there is a chain of emotions that build on each other. When I'm going through these scenes in my head, not only am I figuring out how to keep my characters true to their personalities, I'm also creating an emotional pathway, so that when I actually sit down to write the scene, my emotions go where I want them to, and they go there quickly. It's immensely helpful.

Then, to make myself even more weird, while I'm writing, if my character bats her eyelashes, I bat mine. If he sighs, leans back and puts his hands on his forehead, I do that. If my character smells something bad, I crinkle my nose. I find this really helps me to know if what I'm having my characters do is believable. For example, despite what paranormal romance authors would have you believe, very few people can actually lift one eyebrow.

Not every paranormal romance hero can be Jensen Ackles, ladies...
So, far from being embarassed by my apparent multiple-personality-disorder, I'm kind of proud of it. It reminds me a little of method acting.

I think I'll call what I do Method Writing.

Which brings me to Anne Hathaway and Fantine, in Les Miserables. Have you heard the stories about what this woman did to herself to make her part believable? 

As far back as her Ella Enchanted days, I have loved Anne Hathaway. I admit to being torn about what she did to prepare for Fantine though. On the one hand, her performance is unimaginably heartbreaking. On the other hand, personally, I value health above creative perfection.

Lately, Les Miserables  is the only music that plays at our house (well, except One Direction, but that's just a given). My daughter and my son both walk around the house singing, "Look down, look down, You'll always be a slave/Look down, look down/You're standing in your grave." And my daughter hijacks me at inopportune moments. "Just watch this one part,'s just five minutes." Let me tell you, what Anne Hathaway did for Fantine is some of the most memorable acting I've ever seen.

I've written at least two starving characters, and I never skipped one meal in their behalf. So how far do YOU go to understand your characters?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Little Bit More

I'm sorry this post has to be brief today. Maybe someday I'll fill you in on the adventures of my real life - but I'm not quite ready to yet. So, instead, here are a few things I ran across the other day.

Thing #1

A little while back, I posted about when not to query an agent. Recently, I found this bit of interesting data. Agent Sarah LaPolla, over at Glass Cases, has been gracious enough to share her 2012 month-by-month breakdown of queries she received and manuscripts she asked for - with surprising results.

Unsurprisingly, in 2012 Sarah received the most queries in January (430) and the least in December (152 w. a shortened month), with an average of about 332 queries per month. Now the interesting thing is that even though January and February were her busiest months for submissions, they were also, by far, the months where she requested the most manuscripts.

Hold onto your seats folks. February won Sarah's querying lottery with ... drum roll please ... a 3.6% manuscript request rate. January (2.7%) and November (2.8%) were nearly tied in second. The worst month? October, coming in with just one manuscript request out of 300.

Now, this is just one agent (whom I greatly appreciate for giving us this glimpse into her world), and she goes out of her way to try to make it seem like these numbers aren't quite as intimidating as they really are, but isn't this an interesting tidbit of data about our chances of making it?

Thing #2

Kristin Nelson at Pub Rants also provided a run-down of her yearly stats.
Per her website, of  "32,000+ or some big number..." queries sent to her agency, they asked for 81 full manuscripts. Let's see:

81 / 32,000 X 100 =  a 0.25% manuscript request rate.

Oh dear, I think I need to polish my rose colored glasses a little more. :)

And just to finish things off, a completely unrelated yet highly educational diversion - my son's new favorite animal:


Monday, January 7, 2013

Inspiration In Ten Seconds...give or take


“A story is told that Whistler once painted a tiny picture of a spray of roses. The artistry involved in the picture was magnificent. Never before, it seemed, had the art of man been able to execute quite so deftly a reproduction of the art of nature. The picture was the envy of the artists who saw it, the despair of the collectors who yearned to buy it. But Whistler refused steadfastly to sell it. 'For,' he said, 'whenever I feel that my hand has lost its cunning, whenever I doubt my ability, I look at the little picture of the spray of roses, and say to myself, Whistler, you painted that. Your hand drew it. Your imagination conceived the colors. Your skill put the roses on the canvas. Then, said he, 'I know that what I have done, I can do again'”
~Sterling W. Sill

Happy writing!
~ Sheena

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Romance Themes in Other Genres

My husband and I are buying our first house next year.  We've talked with our lender, figured out what we can afford, and we've got a plan for when and where to start looking.  The one thing we're missing is what to look for.  As a consequence of knowing diddly squat about what we want in a house, we've been watching a lot of HGTV.  I don't know if this the most ideal way to go about it, but watching people snip at each other over every detail of their house hunt is at worst entertaining, and at best informative.  It has us going over our likes and dislikes with each other in advance, so we're not bickering as we view homes.

The other night, a show about mansions came on.  We're not aspiring to anything quite that opulent by any means, but it was fun to see how rich people live it up in their custom homes with heated indoor pools and gold-leaf toilets.  One house in particular was so over-the-top, decorated in a style that would have put Louis XVI at home, that we laughed.  There was nothing--nothing--we liked about the house.  At least that's what I thought at first.  But then they started talking about the kitchen, and they cut to a picture of the range oven.  Okay, I thought, I could stand to cook in a kitchen like that.  Maybe a little smaller, though, without the heavy gold knobs and finials everywhere.  A watered down version of that kitchen would be really nice.

The same can be said for the romance genre.  I like the happily ever after, but sometimes the way you get there can be a bit too over the top for me.  I like watered down romance.  I like plot outside of boy meets girl, which is exactly what I try to put into my writing.

So today, I want to pull examples of watered down romance plots buried in other genres.  The most obvious, or perhaps the most useful within this group, is young adult.

Let's take a look at two very different young adult books.  For this purpose, I'm going with ones I know are relatively universally known for the sake of time.  Harry Potter and Twilight are popular enough that I won't have to go into lengthy detail, and at least most of you will know what I'm talking about.  So even if these aren't your favorite books, try to stay with me.

Harry Potter is about 99% fantasy, 1% romance.  I'm not necessarily talking about the way things end, with Harry and Ginny, and Ron and Hermione married with families.  I'm talking more about the themes that arise throughout the series.  Harry himself spends seven books learning his own value despite an unhappy beginning and what appears to be insurmountable odds in his future.  This is a theme that romance has perfected.  There is, in every book of the series, a bond between the characters that does eventually erupt into an actual, though downplayed, romance.  At one point Hermione has to choose between Ron, whom she loves, and Harry, who she knows is right.  She does what is right, and stays with Harry, despite the fact that it means losing Ron.  To me, this was the moment that rang most clearly of romance.

So, would Harry Potter survive without these aspects?  Probably.  It would be different, but it would be recognizable, because it is first and foremost about Harry and his world, and the fight with Voldemort.  Now if we look at Twilight with this in mind, we get a very different answer.

How long of a series would Twilight be if you removed the love triangle between Edward, Bella and Jacob?  Maybe two books?  What if you remove the love aspect altogether?  Let's say, for instance, that Edward was already with someone.  That he and Bella became friends, and that Jacob too only felt platonic love for her.  That might take up a single, albeit long, volume, but it wouldn't be the same book.  I'm not even sure you would know it for what it was.  That's because there is nothing watered down about Twilight.

There are so many books that fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  For young adult I like between twenty five to fifty percent romance.  In middle grade, or those on the cusp, like Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me or Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, I prefer little or no romance themes.  Older fiction, like sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, etc. can contain as much romance as is necessary to develop and enhance the plot, without stealing the spotlight.  That really goes story-by-story for me, and it's up to each writer, and reader, to decide how much is too much, or too little.

I'm curious to know what percentage you think is adequate--or at what point you think romance is overdone in various genres, specifically young adult, since I know so many people on here write it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Santa is Real, and He's Everywhere

Christmas is over, but I have one last bit of holiday business before I move on. A PSA of sorts.

My six-year-old wanted one thing for Christmas, which he talked about every single day for months. It was his only request in his letter to Santa. The ultimate gift: The Queen Anne's Revenge Lego set.
This is a big set that became very expensive near the holidays, thanks to the law of supply and demand. But my child was OBSESSED. So, being suckers, we bought it for him. So did my generous parents. And then, being practical suckers, we sold the one we'd bought and rush-shipped it to some other desperate parent. 

We were ready for Christmas.

Then, on December 22, our UPS driver brought a large, mysterious package that made a Lego-esque noise when we shook it. John face went white when he looked at the sender: Operation Santa. We locked ourselves in our bedroom and opened the package, hands already shaking with guilt and dread, and found a beautifully wrapped, brand new Queen Anne’s Revenge inside.

Attached was this note:
Oh.... crap. We had no idea this program existed. I hadn't wanted to clog up the mail but our obsessed kiddo knew a letter required a stamp and a mailbox. And we didn’t know Santa was real. We didn’t know!!!!! 

I tried to track down a number for Operation Santa, some kind of central office for returns, but I came up empty. Post offices participate in the program and then individual volunteers can choose letters to answer anonymously; donors bring their gifts back to the post office for shipping.

We found one Toys for Tots location still accepting donations, and John got the Lego set there just under the wire. We can only pray it was a blessing to another child this Christmas. We have far more than we need or deserve, and after reading about some of the letters Operation Santa answers, I was reminded of just how lucky we are. 

So spread the word!

Santa isn’t a person; he’s a network. 

There are real elves who read letters. Don’t mail a letter to Santa if you’ve already got the job covered, because not every kid has a Santa sleeping in the next room, or grandparents who can shower them with gifts, and the post office is there for the kids who don't.

We still feel horrible about the whole thing, but I try to find a silver lining in my posts so here goes:

I’d been depressed about more and more lately – about senseless shootings, violence against women, against children, against people. About dysfunctional politics, apocalyptic predictions, a pile of goals unmet in 2012, and a whole cranky family all sick for Christmas. 

Meanwhile, a stranger I will never meet read my son’s letter – just a simple note asking for a decadent toy – and decided to make him happy. Just to make him happy, without even taking credit.
Maybe a family like us had an extra set, or maybe our elf went out of his way to buy this gift. Either way, it struck me as an act of exuberant generosity. And as guilty as I felt for the gift we didn't need, it’s possible that I did need a dose of kindness. It gave me a little faith in joy just in time for Christmas.
Make someone happy.

1) Don’t mail a letter to Santa unless you need the help (tell your friends!), and
2) Don’t forget that every act of kindness makes a difference to someone. Always. 

I am amazed every day at true stories of bravery and selflessness in the face of tragedy and horror. But once in a while, isn’t it nice to know that good isn’t only a response to bad? We aren’t just all selfish people all the time until something stuns us into action. For all the dark possibilities in the human soul, we have it in us to simply want to make someone else happy. 
I hope I can remember that every day of 2013.

Our charity Lego set was a fluke occurrence, and a lot of generous people work with the post office every year to make Christmas special for kids who wouldn't otherwise get a visit from Santa. If you want to answer letters from children in need, you can find out more about Operation Santa here. And if you ever find yourself with an extra present, think of Toys for Tots, or a local shelter or hospital. If anyone has other ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Girl Genius

This Christmas, I finally got what I’d been wanting to buy for a long while: the complete Girl Genius comic book set (well, all 12 volumes printed so far).
I love this series to the ends of the earth and back. I love this series for its twisty plots, the sense of humor and its excellent heroine.

It’s hard to explain the plot without giving anything away, but here goes.

For nearly twenty years, Europe has been ruled by Baron Wulfenbach, who seized power after the Other devastated Europe, turning much of its population into mindless revenants. Those who hate the Baron seek to find the long lost Heterodyne heir, a family of mechanical geniuses. Agatha Clay is living a peaceful life until the day thieves make off with her locket – and suddenly she’s waking up to find her hands covered in grease and half-completed mechanical projects surrounding her. Some think Agatha might be the long-lost Heterodyne heir. But many would rather kill first and take DNA samples later…

All right, that really doesn't capture just how much fun this series is. There are giant airships, revenants (like zombies, but better), clockwork princesses, jaegermonsters, lightning moats, homicidal castles, and the world’s most deadly merry-go-round. 

This another series where all of the supporting characters are wonderfully constructed, from the only sort-of-evil Baron, his consistently underestimated son Gil, to Agatha's personal team of Jaegermonsters. 

The best part of all this?
You can read the whole thing online.

(the first volume of the comic is black and white, but then it’s color throughout)

If you don't have time to dig in to the whole thing, here is a four page short story about Agatha and her warrior friend Zeetha, who insists on waking Agatha up before dawn for training, and Agatha has finally had enough.

The authors also sell all their volumes online, though they’re not cheap (thus it took me like three years to acquire them). But I’ve already got one friend here hooked, and I plan to pass them around to others. For those of you with kids, the authors recommend the stories for teens and up. There's language and a few corsets, and allusions to sex, but nothing shown.

Go on, give it a try. You didn't have anything to do this weekend... right?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Four Chords and Seven Basic Plots

I remember being surprised when I learn about Christopher Booker’s theory that every story fits into one of seven basic plots.  It seemed to me that there was such a variety of stories out there.  How could they all be reduced to seven basic plots?  And as an aspiring writer who is constantly bombarded by the idea that agents and publishers are looking for something original, the idea that every story ever written fits into one of these seven patterns is a bit disheartening.  How many original stories can come from seven basic plots?

Maybe a lot more than you would think.

My husband showed me this YouTube video a few weeks ago by a group called The Axis of Awesome, a comedy band.  In the video, they showed how all the greatest hits in the past forty years are based on the same four chords, and by repeating those four chords, you can sing almost any pop song ever written.  I found the whole thing fascinating because a lot of the songs that I knew were really so different from each other even though they all used the same basic four chords.

So below are two of the Axis of Awesome’s four chords YouTube videos.  In the first one, they discuss what a four chord song is and list all the titles of the songs they used while playing them.  The second one is their music video which is just funny.  I will give a warning that there is some strong language (very little actually), but don’t let that keep you from watching it.  It is pretty funny and also amazing to see how all these songs use the same four chords.

I don’t know anything about composing music, so link here to someone more knowledgeable to explain why those four chords are so magical if you’re curious.  The above link talks about how the four chords is just one aspect of a song, the harmony, but music contains so many other elements like “melody, rhythm, tempo, meter, dynamics, articulation, and timbre.”  Maybe I’m over-estimating a bit, but I think by tweaking other variables there may be an infinite number of songs that can be composed based on these four chords.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here.  Stories also have a lot more aspects to them then plot.  There is characters, setting, tone, style, theme, conflict, etc.  I think you could take one of these seven basic plots and by changing the other story variables come up with an infinite number of stories. 

I’m not really sure if every story can be boiled down to one of Booker’s seven basic plots, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they could.  I believe all stories have familiar patterns in them and part of becoming a good story teller is getting a feel either consciously or subconsciously for those patterns.  For some reason, maybe it is because they are somewhat familiar, we are drawn to those patterns.

Maybe that is the same with the four chord songs, that there is a familiar pattern there that we find so appealing.  Maybe what we want from stories and songs and art in general is something familiar and surprising at the same time.

Happy writing and Happy New Year’s.