Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Awesome List


This week I read two amazing books: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Greene, and Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Both were books that I'd come across recommendations for several times, but had just now read. Actually, it was someone here on the Prosers that convinced me to give The Fault in Our Stars a try. I tried to look up who it was, but the search feature wasn't helpful. :(

Anyway, recommendations are a tricky thing. So much depends on individual taste. For example, some people might say of me, "Well, she likes Star Trek and Downton Abbey and Harry Potter, but she also thinks that Black Sheep is one of the finest examples of film making in the last decade.”


I’m actually not entirely kidding about Black Sheep. It’s the best B-movie I’ve ever seen. They went for purposely funny instead of accidentally, and it actually works. But you see what I mean. There are a large number of people who are troubled by that amount of gore, and others who might rightly have zero interest in a horror movie about ravenous sheep. Farmers, for instance.

 So it seems to me that the perfect recommendation should be not just your favorite, but also something so unbelievably awesome that no one could really deny it. I mean, the perfect recommendation should be something where you might sort of secretly believe someone would have to be somehow deficient not to like (not that you’d say it). (Note, I don't actually think there's something wrong* with you if you don't like these. I'm just trying to make a point).

And thus, here is my awesome list, things where I think you absolutely can't go wrong. Some are funny, some are sad, some are a bit of a pain to get through. This list was going to be longer, but then I would envision someone telling me they didn’t like Monty Python, or Fullmetal Alchemist, and I could sort of understand that reaction. 

But there's the other side too - this kind of list shouldn't just be awesome things,but also awesome things you love. For example, I think anyone who doesn’t like Indiana Jones (at least the first one) is kind of silly, but I don’t love it with every piece of my heart. Lots of pieces, but not all of them. And along the same lines, the two books I mentioned above came very close to making it, but not quite. Honestly, I think I'm still processing them, and will need to read again. But not too soon, because I already cried too much over them in the past week.

So these are things made of pure, unfettered awesome, in their own ways. If you haven't encountered them yet, go forth in great haste to your library or bookstore!


Princess Bride

Have fun storming the castle!



Catch-22 

(Not the easiest book to read, and not the quickest read. But once you get it, it’s genius beyond imagining)


Diana Wynne Jones

I already blogged about her here.


Terry Pratchett

(I’ve been meaning to do a post on him for ages)



Girl Genius

Previously blogged here.



Firefly
I mean, I loved it so much, I named my cat Kaylee. Note close resemblance:



Sherlock



The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay


(The book, NOT THE MOVIE)

To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee



The Last Unicorn, Peter Beagle




Wow, that’s really a lot shorter than I thought it would be. Honorary mention, perhaps, to A Fistful of Sky by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, because it’s awesome and lovely and heartwarming, but a bit uneven in pacing.

What makes up your awesome list? Please share!




(*Unless we're talking about the Princess Bride, because really, there's no excuse not to love that movie).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Any Story Can Be Fixed

I have blogged before about how much my girls love these Monster High dolls from Mattel.  After birthdays and Christmas, we are growing quite a collection.   My husband went on a business trip not too long ago and brought back Monster High dolls as a present for our girls.  That very day, my youngest proceeded to decorate the doll’s face with markers.  This is what she ended doing to the doll.



My husband and I were a little upset that she had altered the doll only hours after we had opened the package.  These dolls are not cheap.  My little daughter didn’t realize that the marker wouldn’t come off and tried to put on a brave front, but I could tell she really wanted me to fix the doll.

I tried everything I could think of.  Soap and water, rubbing alcohol, oxy clean, Mr. Clean’s magical eraser, and fingernail polish remover.  None of these products had any effect whatsoever on marker.  But I wasn't ready to give up.  At this point, I did what anyone would do when facing a problem they can’t solve.  I went to the internet.

Of course my daughter was not the first to mar the face of a Monster High doll with marker, and smarter people than me have found a solution, one I would’ve never come up with on my own.  Oxy-10, that over the counter acne medicine contains a bleaching agent, 10 % benzoyl peroxide that can be activated in direct sunlight.  Now this wouldn’t have worked if my daughter’s doll was any color other than white because it might bleach away the face color as well.  We were lucky.

I covered the doll’s hair with tinfoil and her eyes so that the sun wouldn’t fade away those colors, put Oxy-10 on the marker lines, and set the doll in a window for one week.  After a week, here is the result.



I was amazed how well the treatment worked, but clearly we missed a few spots.  So I repeated the process for another week, and the doll looked awesome.  


There are still some faint yellow marks, and we could’ve gone another round, but my daughter had been without her new doll for two weeks, so we decided it was good enough.  At some point, I might try another round.  But I was so pleased with how well this worked.  I really thought the doll was unfixable, but with a little research and a little time (well a lot of time for a five-year-old girl), we fixed her.

Now, what does this have to do with writing?

I know that a lot of first time writers are cautioned against getting stuck on their first book.  I’ve seen the warning many times on the internet to not get trapped into constant revisions, that you can learn more from writing a new story.  And I do think that that is good advice for some situations, but I also think that any story is fixable.  It might take a lot of time and effort maybe even a complete rewrite or two, but no story is beyond repair. 

I'm not the type of person who can walk away from a problem even if it is difficult or even seemingly impossible.  I don't like to be defeated by markers on dolls or a story that I just can't figure out how to end.  I know that any problem can be solved in some way.

If I know what is wrong with my story and if I have an idea of how to fix it and if I love the story and believe in it and am still excited about it, I’m not ready to give up.  It might take a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of thought.  I may have to rewrite the entire thing maybe even more than once, but I don’t like to give up on something that I believe in.

I know not every writer is like me, that some writers are more instinctive and have a million ideas floating around in their heads and will probably learn faster writing a story once and then moving on to something new, and those writers need to do what is best for them.

But I think there are also writers like me.  Who have these stories that for some reason they feel really passionate about.  And it isn’t that they want to write stories, but that they want to write these specific stories.  I don’t think that these writers should give up on those stories even if they have horrible pacing or poor characterization or are anticlimactic or just don’t work for some reason.  These stories are fixable; all stories are fixable.  But only the writer can decide if that story is worth the time and energy to fix it.

~MaryAnn




Monday, February 25, 2013

Just because it's Monday, and I can.


*Reblogged from boekwegbooks.com


Look whose name is right here ^

Twitter is a way, apparently, of stalking people in a socially approved way.

As many of you know, I'm planning on indie - publishing Funny Tragic Crazy Magic, but what some of you don't know, is that it's also in a pile on an awesome publishing house's short list. I follow (read stalk) the editor on twitter, and today she posted this picture about overcoming her depression.

A shot of Zoloft came for me when I looked at the notebook under her books and saw my name. My name uncrossed between two crossed out names. She's read it, she's liked it enough to not cross it off.

*Also, Melanie Crouse, I see an "se - Love" right there at the bottom, which in my mind has to be Crouse.

Because of this, and also because moving while trying to get book ready is less helpful than you would think, I'm pushing back FTCM launch date.

Not by much.

Funny Tragic Crazy Magic will launch April 1. April Fools Day. That's no joke, although my beta readers will get it.

A quick status report, I've broken FTCM into 5 Acts. Act 1 and 2 are back from the editor, Act 3 and 4 are in her capable hands, and Act 5 is staring at me, daring me to fix it before sending it on to the editor.

And it's good people. You can tell, because look whose name is right up there, uncrossed.

Best of luck to you, Editor-Who-Likes-My-Book.  Depression truly does suck.

~Sheena Boekweg

Friday, February 22, 2013

Simple vs. Simplistic: In a Glass Grimmly and Me

Stretching out far, far into the distance was a line of towering white cliffs, undulating in and out before an endless expanse of the purest, deepest blue she could ever have imagined. The white cliffs, a thousand feet high if they were an inch, were topped with green tufts of high grass. Below the cliffs, between them and the pure blue sky, ran a long, smooth cloud beach, against which the blue of the sky gently broke like waves. (In a Glass Grimmly, by Adam Gidwitz, p. 83)
sorta, kinda like this...
Once upon a time, I too went to a writer's conference. For an extra $10 (give or take) I entered the first chapter of one of my novels into a contest. There were several categories I could enter, including fantasy, science fiction, mystery, women's lit, historical...and children's. Now I'm not going to go into a long irritated rant about how YA and Children managed to get lumped into one category. Ridiculous, IMO. Ridiculous enough that I didn't think to enter my solidly YA entry into the children's category, but into the fantasy category. Now, the lovely thing about that extra $10 was that my first chapter would be critiqued by three people, one of whom was guaranteed to be an actual agent or editor who worked in the genre.

Well, it would have been lovely, except that the first critique, while not unkind, managed to cut me to the quick. I can't tell you why it hurt so bad. I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances, like jet lag and having been rejected by my dream editor that self-same day. I didn't keep it, so I can't quote it word for word, but it said something like this:  "This writing is too simplistic for this category--it seems like this would have been a better fit for the YA contest."

In one fell swoop, he had insulted not only my writing style but my intelligence AND my reading choices. I, who had always prided myself on my scintillating vocabulary, and who had worked so hard at improving my sentence structure, had been judged simplistic. Did that also mean that the books I chose to read somehow required less intelligence than "grown-up" books? (Well, frankly, yes. Sometimes. But not usually!)

In the days since that writing conference, another genre has gained in popularity: middle grade. In A Glass Grimmly, which I quoted at the start, is a middle grade book. It is filled with words like: precipitously, cerulean, primordial, reverberated, gelatinous, darkling and viscera (don't ask). Some of the sentences are simple, and some are complex and wonderful.

 To state it simplistically, YA and middle grade are not defined by the complexity of the writing. Rather, they are defined by the ages of the characters. Therefore, complex books like The Book Thief and The Fault In Our Stars are considered YA, right alongside Twilight, because they have teenage characters. Trisha wrote a great post about the evolving dynamics of YA here.  Middle grade books generally have younger characters, and there are some policies about romance (specifically the lack thereof.) The topics covered in both categories are often deep and complex. For example, In a Glass Grimmly tackles topics like: Are strength and courage the same thing? Are parents always good? If people do not accept you, are you a worthwhile person? And the one I personally struggle with: My children love this book, but should they really be reading it if it contains sentences like: 
The last one convulsed on the floor, screaming in pain, as blood bubbled up out of his body like a hot spring and flowed all over the floor in crimson waves, eventually lapping up against the throne's legs like water against rocks on a beach. (p. 191) FYI--I skipped this particular sentence when we read it out loud.
So, if I disagree with my anonymous critiquer's assertion that YA writing is by definition less complicated than adult writing, then what is left is his allegation that my writing is simplistic. It probably is. I dislike writing that thinks too much about itself. I enjoy straightforward writing, suffused with occasional gorgeous, complex descriptions that propel the story forward. I write the same way, except that I might not have mastered the "gorgeous, complex descriptions that propel the story forward" bit. I can keep working on that, but now, at the end of this blog post, I realize that it seems silly to try and make my writing more complicated just for complication's sake. But let's rename it. I absolutely prefer the word simple over the word simplistic. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I write YA.

So, my writing style aside, what do you think? 



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Looks at Books from LTUE

LTUE was amazing in so many ways. First, and foremost, as Sheena said, getting to meet a couple Prosers in real life. I felt like I'd known them forever. Then, of course, was the chance to meet my favorite YA author, Megan Whalen Turner, who was the guest of honor. She is just as smart and gracious and witty as I had imagined. Third, the classes were excellent - I ended up with 36 pages of notes.

And lastly, the subject of today's post. On the plane flight home, I read over all my notes and kept finding scrawled in the margins the names of all these books. So many people on the panels made references to and gave suggestions of books I'd never read, or only heard of in passing. It was like getting my library piggy bank filled up and overflowing.

So, I thought I'd list out all the books I'd written down and see if any of you had read any of them, and what you thought of them. Most are YA, some are adult or tools of writing books.

Here we go:

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder - I'd heard of his 'beat sheet,' but never read the book.

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth E, Wein - Yes, I bawled my way through Code Name Verity, and now it looks like I've got some Arthurian legends to read. Elizabeth Wein is an exceptional writer.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman - Nebula nominee 2009

The Thursday Next Novels by Jasper Fforde

The Key of Kilenya by Andrea Pearson - I got to listen to Andrea at LTUE and really enjoyed her perspective. This book is a free download on Kindle right now.

Black's Pocket Law Dictionary - One of the most interesting classes I went to was on contracts, which I know nothing about. They suggested spending a month after getting a contract looking up every word that wasn't 'a' or 'the' in this book because common words don't have the same meaning in law. thepassivevoice.com was recommended in several places as a great site to get information. From what I understand, the owner is a intellectual rights lawyer specializing in the publishing industry.

Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede - I love Patricia Wrede, why have I not read this one?

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Novel by Katherine Paterson - Either the panelist couldn't remember the name or I didn't write it down. Katherine Paterson also wrote Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved. This novel is about a girl who leaves home and afterward her entire village dies of the plague. It was used as an example of  a tight 3rd that 'broke the rule' to switch to show the village's demise. Anyone got a clue?

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Agatha Christie - lots of them.

Summer of Night and The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons

The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer - Sherlock Holmes has a little sister!

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith - This is a perennial favorite for Megan Whalen Turner fans.

Dairy Queen and Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Kate Coombs is a very fun author I met, and sat with! She has several books out as well as a website, Book Aunt, where she reviews books and has all kinds of fun stuff.

Gail Carson Levine - no books specified, so they must all be good :)

The Virgin's Promise by Kim Hudson - the Hero's Journey from the female perspective.

Dangerous Voices by Rae Carson

Danyelle Leafty is another author on several panels I attended. I found her thoughtful insight very helpful. 

And Julie Wright was downright hilarious.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Sweetness of Salt by Cecilia Galante


And there you have it. I'm sure I missed a ton, but what a feast!
Thanks LTUE and all the people who made it awesome.

~Susan

Monday, February 18, 2013

In Which I Live a Dream and Become a Real Writer

I have this secret dream that all of us Prosers get together and do OSC book boot camp this year. It would be amazing, and I can tell you that for sure, because last Saturday I had a tiny taste of it.

Amazing!
 I went to LTUE with MaryAnn and Susan. That, for your information, is what Susan actually looks like. I had no clue. It's kind of funny, but all of you Prosers have become like sisters to me, and we haven't met before. It didn't feel to me like we were meeting for the first time.

 I felt the same way when I met Sabrina, except with better lighting.


Open invitation for the last three Prosers I haven't met yet,( Sarah, Tricia, and Melanie), let's go to lunch!

 We had TOO much fun at LTUE. We laughed, and learned, and talked about books and publishing and met real life authors. It was a book nerd's paradise.

It was my first convention, and I think I'd never gone to one before, because I had a million excuses not to. But mainly, I didn't want to have to commit to this dream I have, because whenever I say I'm a writer, I have a secret fear that people will read my words and see my soul and say, "Ick".

 But mostly I didn't want to be weird. It's not normal for a mom and Mormon woman to daydream about what life would be like to live on a moon of some far off galaxy. It's not normal to drive my kids to school, and be whispering bits of dialog, or world building, or be thinking what if. It's not normal to worry about if people will think less of me for publishing a book on my own, or to look at a sixteen year old boy and think he'd make a cute hero. It's not normal. I'm officially not normal.

 I know this, but I didn't want to be the not normal that goes to scifi conventions. That was my own personal line in the sand.

But I've crossed it now, and I liked it.

What I took away from the conference, more than the inspiration from Susan and MaryAnn on how to fix the climax of my book, or hearing brilliant people say things I've thought, and things I never would have, that gave me a new path for my own ideas, or even the ...fact... that Dave Farland discovered both Twilight, and Harry Potter, was the clear and secure knowledge that I'm not the only weirdo out there.

 There were hundreds of men and women who got the Dr. Who references, and the spoke of some inspiration they got from one of my favorite books, and a ton of books to my TBR pile to inspire me later, who were amazed at the idea of goats in space, or the importance of the sewing needle and how it affected our society.

The amazing thing, is that there are thousands, maybe millions more of us out there who didn't go to LTUE, but who have the same dream. That might be intimidating number to think of, if you see all those people as competition,  but I don't. I've read a thousand books that have taught me the same singular message I learned from LTUE. I'm weird, but I'm not alone.

I'm weird like you.

Now, I'm off to fix my climax.

Happy writing, happy reading, happy life,
~Sheena

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Breaking YA Taboos: Swearing, Violence and Sex in Young Adult

I still remember what my grandma sent me for Christmas in 2000.  I remember, because it was the first time anyone had given me a book the size of a dictionary for Christmas, and I had some seriously mixed feelings about it.  I'd never heard of the book--in fact, I must have been living under a rock up to that point, because at 16 years old,  I'd never heard of the Harry Potter series whatsoever.  Who was this Harry Potter and why did his goblet have fire in it?  Didn't he know goblets were for drinking?

The number 4 on the spine discouraged me.  I couldn't just jump into a series with book 4!  It took a few months to work up the desire to find books 1-3, but eventually I got around to it, and soon I was hooked.

A lot has changed since I took my first tentative steps into the world of Young Adult.  Christopher Paolini opened the door to teen writers, something Steph Bowe has since repeated.  Stephenie Meyer gave us Twilight, and made it okay to be an adult YA reader.  The Hunger Games made violence and death par for the course.  In my last blog post, I questioned whether Warm Bodies was classified as YA because of the violence, drug use, sex and swearing, and it turns out that yes, it is.  So what do all those changes mean for us writers?

When I started writing YA (about ten years ago now...gasp!) I ran into a lot of roadblocks and rules.  Teens can't swear.  They can't have graphic fights.  Kissing was about as far as anyone was willing to go in the romance subplots.  Even the subject matter had to be chosen carefully.  The main character couldn't have a drug problem, but the best friend could.  That way the reader could get a glimpse at the dark side of the world, without being put smack dab in the middle of it.  Today, however, the rules have changed.

Last year, BYU professor Sarah Coyne conducted a study to determine the level of profanity in YA books.  She pulled 40 samples from an adolescent best seller list, and many were shocked at her findings.  I, personally, have read enough YA in the last decade that it didn't surprise me in the least to hear that, on average, the books contained 38 instances of swearing from cover to cover.  However, the study has lead many to question whether YA books should come with warnings on the covers, to better help parents choose which books their teens should be reading.  (I'm not going into the moral debate that idea creates.  If you want to read an article containing the ALA's response, you can find it here.  This is another article, which takes an opposing view to the study and the BYU publication.  There.  Balanced information.  My job is done!)

Profanity isn't the only thing popping up in droves.  The evolution of the Harry Potter books themselves shows how dark and violent the world of YA is becoming.  If you need a really controversial example of what's being published under the YA banner, check out Nic Sheff's book Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.  If you weren't convinced before how quickly things are changing, that book will open your eyes.

It's not particularly new for teens to be exposed to violence and swearing.  Video games, movies, even cartoons have been a part of our culture for decades.  Before that, comic books.  Before that, fairy tales.  Ever sat down and thought about the story of the three little pigs?  At least two of the pigs get eaten, people. Talking, house-building pigs, reduced to bacon.  Or what about the original Little Mermaid?  Disney put a pretty spin on the ending, but earlier versions have the prince sailing off into the sunset with a different woman, turning the mermaid into sea foam.  (Undine, considered to be the myth that spawned the mermaid story, ended up killing her husband and his lover.  Talk about murderous revenge.)  For some reason, it's only just now beginning to catch up in modern adolescent literature.

Love the portrait of dad, guys

One boundary that is getting pushed more slowly than the others is sex.  The level of sexual explicitness in Harry Potter can be summed up with one word: snogging.  Twilight acknowledges a teenager's desires, but makes marriage a prerequisite before fading to black.  Becca Fitzpatrick and Cassandra Clare give their characters opportunities to sleep together, in the most literal sense, but both provide barriers to going any further.  But other authors have crossed the invisible line.  Kristin Cashore's characters in Graceling aren't having any babies, and the writing is fairly obscure, but it tiptoes just over the line that some writers (and readers) consider "safe."

Andrea Creamer, author of the wildly popular Nightshade series, took a stance supporting her use of sex and violence in YA books in an essay for the Wall Street Journal.  At one point she says,
"Teens don't live in a vacuum.  They inhabit the same brutal world as adults without the knowledge and tools of adulthood.  They're looking for help to gain those skills."
Simon and Schuster has spearheaded an interesting new online feature.  When Abbi Glines first wrote The Vincent Boys she had more than a few explicit sexual scenes.  Simon Pulse, a division of Simon and Schuster, chose to cut the scenes for the print version, marketing the book to teens, but later added them as online-only content intended "for mature readers only."  The aim of this online campaign?  To cater to the cross-over readers who want the excitement of YA plot and the steamy romance of an E. L. James.  Does this dual publication set a new standard for YA?

Not necessarily.

Another genre is emerging from all this debate and boundary-pushing.  New Adult, supposedly a genre to bridge the cross-over gap, is gaining a following in the publishing world.  I don't think that means we'll see YA settle back into the safe world of fade to black and "oh fudge!"  The line has been crossed, and we can't go back.  But hopefully with New Adult garnering shelf space in bookstores, there is room for both kinds of stories.  Writers that previously struggled to find their place in the YA world won't have to censor their plots and dialogue, while other writers can tell a great story without feeling societal pressures to spice things up with sex and violence.

Ultimately it's the author's job to guide her readers through her story.  We've been given a huge canvas on which to paint our scenes, but that just means we have a bigger responsibility to our readers.  Teenagers especially need to know that no matter how bad things get in a story--no matter how violent, how dark, how awful--there is always hope.

Maybe that was the most important YA rule all along.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Magic of the Ordinary


Fantasy is, all in all, about the unreal, the unusual. In a way, one basic definition of fantasy could be thought of as, “Anything that is not possible becomes possible.”

But in some ways, I think that fantasy can be at its most memorable when it goes a little bit in the other direction. When the stories aren’t just about dragons and wizards and enchanted swords, but about ordinary, mundane things.

Think about it. How many people have had their picture taken by a certain wall between platforms 9 and 10 in London’s King Cross Station?  Or paused an extra moment at the zoo to admire the owls? 

Junior postmen in training! 
(Photo taken by Artur Mikołajewski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), 
CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.0  (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

How many people, after reading Alice Through the Looking Glass, peered extra hard into their mirrors, looking for that other world? And how many children have poked around at the back of wardrobes, looking for other worlds? 

You could argue that urban fantasy does this a lot. And yet, I don't find myself checking around street corners for vampires (though one time, there was a zombie walk in San Diego that I hadn't heard about, and I was a bit surprised for a moment to see some blood-covered people shambling down the street...). I think there needs to be a balance. The ordinary objects need to be something that stands out among all the magic, so that they are the exception rather than the rule.

And when that balance is right, I think it can get at the most powerful potential of fantasy, of any story: to take us out of our regular lives, and for one moment, put us somewhere magical.

What objects have books made magical for you? 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

That All Important First Paragraph

Picture from stock.xchange
If you don’t read ex-agent now author Nathan Bransford’s blog  you should start.  He has done a lot to help and encourage aspiring writers.  Last week he held his Fifth Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Contest.  This contest is awesome for three reasons.

1.   The winner and finalists get some awesome prizes like partial manuscript critiques by an agent and query letter critiques by Nathan Bransford.  These are prizes that could potentially help you land an agent.

2.   When he announces the finalists and the winner, Bransford takes some time and talks about opening paragraphs.  Trends he sees in the samples, things that work and things that don’t work, and he points out the elements in the opening paragraphs he chose as finalists that won him over.  Overall, his analysis is extremely helpful.

3.  If you spend a little time (okay a lot) and read through the entries, you can get a good idea of what an agent or editor’s slush pile looks likes, and what makes some first paragraphs stand out over others.

I’m going to summarize some of his points and share some of my own ideas, but first I want to provide the links so you can read what Bransford has to say for yourself.  Well worth the time, IMO.

Contest entries (if you want to see what the slush pile looks like):  1st contest, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

The finalists announcement and discussion of opening paragraph:  1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

The winner announcement and discussion of finalists’ paragraphs:  1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th.

Now that you've read through all of that, here are some things that I'd like to highlight.

What is needed in the first paragraph

 I struggle a lot with beginnings (and endings for that matter).  The first paragraph is so hard to write, and I think that is because it needs to do so many things, introduce character and setting, help the reader get their bearings, establish the tone and voice, and give the reader a good idea of what they are getting into.  It is a bit daunting when considering everything that needs to go into so few words.

I know when I’m trying to perfect that opening paragraph, there are so many things I want to establish immediately because I feel like the reader needs to know all of these things up front.  Sometimes I have to force myself to slow down.  Not everything has to be in that first paragraph, just enough to ease the reader in.

Nathan Bransford said that there are three important things a first paragraph needs to do: “…it establishes the tone/voice, it gets the reader into the flow of the book, and it establishes trust between the author and reader.” 

I agree completely with what he says here.  Tone is very important to establish early.  This plays a large role in making a promise of what type of story is being told.  Is it light-hearted or dark?  A roaring adventure or a quiet slice of life? These are things a reader needs to know from the start.  

I think it is interesting how he talks about establishing trust.  A reader is planning on spending a bit of their time in the writer’s world. They need to feel that they are in good hands. 

And finally, Nathan talks about the importance of flow. This is something he brings up a lot in discussions about first paragraphs.  Having a nice flow is important throughout the story, but perhaps it is a little more important in the first paragraph when the reader is first trying to find their bearings.

Nathan Bransford describes it better.

The concept of flow and rhythm is especially important. It's hard to begin reading a book. The reader is starting with a blank slate and doesn't have much context for understanding what is happening. It takes a lot of brain power to read the opening and begin to feel comfortable in the world of that book. So even if the novel starts with action, or especially if it begins with action, it's very important to draw in the reader methodically, with one thought leading to the next. The flow of the words and a steady building goes a long way toward hooking the reader. Quite a few paragraphs jumped around or felt scattered, and it made it difficult to stay engaged.”

Pressure to Hook the reader

I think we writers sometimes feel a lot of pressure to make the first paragraph hookish or very clever or intriguing, and perhaps first paragraph contests like this only seem to emphasize that importance to immediately capture a reader’s interest.  But really if you try to force something into your story that doesn’t belong, it will only backfire.  I think beginnings need to feel authentic and natural more than anything else.

But don’t take my word for it.  Let’s see what Nathan has to say.

“And...... what didn't work?  Well, in general I'm wary of anything that feels forced: forced cleverness, forced wordiness, forced cheekiness, forced sagacity.... anything that doesn't feel natural and authentic. Great first paragraphs feel effortless, and of course they're anything but.” 

And

“Lots of really great books have very quiet and/or unremarkable first paragraphs. Your book is not going to succeed or fail based solely on its first paragraph. While I do think a good first paragraph can help grab a reader, I hope the takeaway from this contest isn't to elevate the first paragraph more than it deserves or convey that it's essential to cram the entire plot into the first paragraph or to make it overly clever or to treat it as anything but it what it is: your reader's first impression of the book.” 

The importance of being original

One more thing that I’ve learned from these contests is that originality stands out big time.  I know that there are cliché starts that we’ve all been warned not to use (or at least try to avoid if possible), like waking up or a character looking in the mirror or starting with weather, just to name a few.  And every once and a while an aspiring writer argues against these “rules” citing the many published books that have started that very way.  I think that it is important to see what agents and editors are seeing.  Go through and read a page or so of the entries in Nathan’s contest, and you will see how quickly many of those beginnings blur together, and if you’re trying to capture the agent/editor’s attention, that is a bad thing.

In this last contest, there were so many entries that dealt with death, finding a body, burying a body, the protagonist being dead or having died before.  I understand that this is a very dramatic way to start a novel.  Death is a very emotional thing, but after reading so many of these, they no longer stood out.  I glossed over them because they didn’t feel original.

I think we aspiring writers need to realize what agents and editors are seeing in their slush piles isn’t what we are seeing at the bookstore, and when they are kind enough to point out openings that are cliché to them, we should listen.  I’m not saying you can’t start your novel with death or waking up or any of those “cliché” openings, but you should be aware of the pitfalls if you do.  Honestly, you should try to avoid them if at all possible, but if it’s not, if that is the place your story has to begin, then make sure it sparkles and shines because it will need to stand out big time to feel original.

That is all I got.  So tell me what you think makes a great opening paragraph.

~MaryAnn

Thursday, February 7, 2013

K*A*E*P*E*R*N*I*C*K (and S A N D E R S O N)

Last Sunday, my facebook news feed was suddenly filled with posts like this:
  • I may end up being a closeted Kaerpernick fan!! 
  • K A E P E R N I C K!!!
  • I'm a 49ers fan now
  • The man has a rocket for an arm...amazing passes!!

(Granted, 3 of these 4 particular posts were all written by the same woman, but you get the gist, nonetheless.)

I didn't understand all the fuss. I'm not the biggest football fan ever, but even I could see that Kaepernick was leading his team to a spectacular fail. I kept asking my son things like, "Are you sure we're cheering for the 49ers? Cause those Ravens are looking pretty amazing." (In real life, I'm a Patriots fan. But one does have to cheer for somebody at these things, right?)


Then the lights went out.


When they came back on, I became a solid 49er fan, at least as long as they've got Kaepernick. Holy smokes, that third quarter rocked. I could watch it over and over, like it was a particularly fun episode of Psych. Unfortunately, it was 5 yards short of rocking to a victory.  But Kaepernick has a career of Superbowls ahead of him, so it's a little like only ending up as #2 on the NY Times Bestselling List on your first try. I should be so unlucky...


Then I learned why true football fans were so much more amazed by Kaepernick than I was. For those of you who don't already know, here it is: The superbowl was only Kaepernick's 10th start in the NFL. Can you say "overwhelmed"?

Sometimes, as a writer, I feel the way I imagine Kaepernick might have felt. Some of the things I want to write are too big, too complicated, too much for me. Sometimes, I purposely make them smaller, so that I have some chance at success.


Sometimes, I'm not true to my characters, because the line between complex and unlikable seems too fine for me to find.


Sometimes at the beginning of a project, I freeze, because now I've written a book or two, and I sense the enormity of what I'm trying to do again.


Sometimes I let it get to me, and give up.  And then I get so depressed I can barely get out of bed in the morning, because writers have to write, whether they are good at it or not.


But sometimes I get a 'lights out' moment that allows me to get my head back in the game. I often curse those moments, because they might signal the end of a writing era I wasn't ready to end. Story ideas may fizzle, characters may fade from my memory, but eventually, something new always begins.


I read an article about Brandon Sanderson last week. Brandon Sanderson wrote his first 8 books in college while working the graveyard shift at a hotel. He says the first five were terrible, which was exactly what he'd heard would happen. The sixth book was Elantris. I believe he's written 12 published books since then, and six of them were best-sellers.


After a while, he decided to make his books "bigger and full of all the nobility and awesomeness that I wanted to see in epic fantasy. It was flying in the face of what everyone had told me. I wrote the biggest, coolest, epic-est book I could."


He says, "Sit in a chair and write. Ignore this thing they call writer's block. Doctors don't get doctor's block; your mechanic doesn't get mechanic's block. If you want to write great stories, learn to write when you don't feel like it. You have to write it poorly before you can write it well. So just be willing to write bad stories in order to learn to become better. " (from BYU Magazine, Winter 2013, p. 55)


My advice for this week: Write. Write what you want, with characters that are so deep and complex that at first they seem shallow; with worlds so alive and vibrant that you fear you'll never be able to capture them on paper; with the best sentences you can manage to write, and without shame. And be grateful, when the lights go out, for it means something is happening...


(if only that something could be narrated by Ron Perlman, right?)






Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writer's Conference Confoundment

So, my dear and fabulous husband has splurged and purchased me a trip to my first ever Writer's Conference.

I feel:

Excited - oooh, what fun!

Scared - what in the world has my husband gotten me into?

Nervous - I'm going to be around Real Authors™

Not Worthy - who do I think I am going to something like this - I mean, my WIP isn't even finished - and for that matter, why isn't it finished, I mean, really? Why not???

Confused - can I go to a conference when I haven't even published anything? I've hardly even finished anything?

Self-Conscious - what would Real People™  who know where I live think if they knew I was doing something as weird as this?

Thrilled - there's a good chance I'll get to meet a couple Prosers in real life!

So, here's a question of the day -


What the heck am I supposed to do?


And here are a few sites that might be helpful:


Getting the Most Out of a Writer's Conference - here 

Writer's Conferences: Are They All They Should Be? - here

The Do's and Don't's of Conference Etiquette - here

Networking and Promotion Through Writer's Conferences - here


What tips do you have?

~Susan

p.s. - I'll report back in a couple weeks and tell you how it went.



Monday, February 4, 2013

Kiss of Fire, Rebecca Ethington


Kiss of Fire (Imdalind #1)

Imagine Twilight if Edward was the only one in his family who was trying to be good. In fact, imagine if Edward's father killed humans for fun and would do anything  to control  his place of power, and that Edward was fighting to keep a semblance of his humanity, even as his father made him do horrible things.

Now imagine that  Edward and Bella had known each other their entire life. Imagine that they were friends first, and that falling in love was a process forged in solidifying experiences. Imagine that they earned the powerful love that they have.

Imagine if Edward wasn't a sparkling vampire, but a hot wealthy rugby player with brown curls, and the ability to heal or destroy. Imagine if Bella was a bullied beauty, hiding behind hoodies and trying to stay invisible. Imagine she had her own magical secret, a secret that'll end up killing her.

Now change the names to Ryland and Joclyn, give them a ton of character growth, and take away the cliched happy ending.

And what you have is Kiss of Fire by Rebecca Ethington.

Here's the goodreads link. Here's the amazon store link.

 I've known the author of this book for a long time. We met as Sophomores in High School, and Becky was beyond kind to me. That's the word for Becky, kind. We made secret Star Wars handshakes, wore the Disneyland shoes, and hung out in the drama room belting out Styx and Queen. ( For those of you who've read the book, I'm not saying that I was the inspiration for Joclyn's best friend Wyn. I'm thinking it, but I'm not saying it.)

:)

We'd sort of lost touch when she emailed me to ask if I'd be a beta reader for her.  She decided to make a copy of this book for her Grandfather for Christmas, and wanted to get her "little book" ( Becky's words not mine.) out there in case other people might want to read it too.

When I read her rough draft, I was blown away. This wasn't a little story, it's a freaking gem. A freaking gem that grabs you by the eyelids and pulls you around until at the end you're an emotional wreck. It's brilliant and beautiful, and kicking butt in sales. This "little" book has been on Amazon's top thousand for weeks now. It's having the kind of success that I hope and pray that my little book will find too.

Because...

Oh yeah, by the way, I'm publishing Funny Tragic Crazy Magic.

Just thought I'd throw that out there.

(Launch date March 23. More details to come at my NEW Website www.boekwegbooks.com, or on facebook @ .facebook.com/SheenaBoekwegYAAuthor. Like if you'd like.)

With that self-promotion put aside, let's talk more Kiss of Fire. See, my friend Becky is a huge example to me on what to do, not just as a writer and in self-publishing, but also as a classy human being. Never more so than now.  She just announced on her website, rebeccaethington.com, that for all the month of February she's donating $1.00 from each copy sold to the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org).

Like I said, she's kind.

Please read and support this book. It's going to be huge.
~Sheena









Sunday, February 3, 2013

It's a Hero! It's a Villain! It's...Internal Conflict!

Melanie wrote a post on Friday about writing villains, and it's had me paying attention to the conflict and villains in the books I read.  I've been looking at the heroes, too.  The book I'm reading right now doesn't have a cut and dry antagonist, but there are loads of conflicts and consequences.

The book I'm talking about is Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion.  Heard of it lately?  Probably because it came out in theaters a couple of days ago.  Looks like Twilight, only with zombies, right?  It's not.  In fact, I'm not even 100% sure it's considered young adult.  The characters drop more F bombs, drink more alcohol, have more awkward zombie sex, and kill more of each other than any book I've read in a long time.  If you want to read the book, I say go for it because it's an excellent book, but be aware it isn't for prepubescent tweens wanting to read about undying romance.  (There is a little udead romance, but that's different.)

Anyway, if you've seen the commercials, you probably have some idea what the story's about.  If not, here's a (mostly spoiler-free) rundown.

R is a zombie that lives in a 747 at the airport.  He spends his day riding escalators and ruminating on the meaning of life after death.  Once in a while, he and his fellow zombies go on hunting expeditions where they capture and devour the Living.  It is during one such hunting trip that R meets Julie (after eating her boyfriend's brain and gaining his memories.)  Rather than eat her, something inside of him switches on and he saves her life by bringing her back to his 747 and hiding her from the other zombies.

Unlikely as it may be, Julie and R become friends.  R starts to change.  His usually limited speech begins to flow.  His hunger disappears.  He starts dreaming again.  He decides he wants to be different. He wants to be a human.

Last night as I'm closing in on the ending, something horrible happened.  Julie gave R a vodka laced glass of juice, and to his utter confusion, it made him drunk.  Even if you've never downed half a bottle of vodka, you probably know that alcohol has a way of making a person do things he wouldn't do if he were sober.  And R is no exception.  His drunken actions are no different than what they were at the beginning of the book, but because I spent so many pages watching him transform into this amazingly humane zombie, I was horrified.  So was he.

I closed the book and stared at it for a few minutes.  I picked it back up and started to open it, then shut it again.  He just spent an entire chapter talking about how he wanted to earn Julie's forgiveness, earn the trust she'd placed in him.  And now I don't know how he's going to do it.  Worse, he's put the largest surviving human city in jeopardy, because he was too much of a coward to right his wrong.  I put the book back down and went to bed.  It was too much for me to tackle at 10 pm.

I'll finish the book, though.  I've got 50 or so pages before it's over.  There's still time for him to fix this.  There's still enough pages left for him to take responsibility, and accept the consequences.  Sure, there are outside threats he has to face--a city full of humans that would kill him on the spot if they knew what he was; a girl he loves that may or may not turn against him when she finds out what he's done; an entire hive of zombies that will debrain him if he tries to go back home.  His chances seem pretty slim compared to those odds, but I don't think any of those things are the villains.  I think he is his own villain.

From everything I've read in this story, it's not a battle of good versus evil, or Dead versus Living.  It is all inside of R.  His struggle, his fight, takes place between the cursed part of him and the scraps of humanity clinging to life.  And even though what he did in the book last night is going to cause a domino effect, his reaction was completely human.  I hope that part of him wins, but since I haven't finished the book, I don't know for sure.

It's been an enlightening story for me.  Most of the time, the bad guy is a character, a group, a force of nature, but this week I've learned it can be something smaller.  Something inside of the hero that limits him, or makes him his own villain, and I have to say, it's been an exciting realization.

Sometimes a story needs a villain to threaten the status quo.  That all-encompassing evil that cannot be changed no matter how much compassion or righteousness the ultra-good hero has.  It can only be defeated.  But then there are times where the hero has to face his own weaknesses, and take responsibility for his actions to become a better man.  I feel like the stakes are higher when the character has to go up against himself.  If you fight a villain and you have right on your side, story logic says you are going to win.  (Heck, if you're the main character, chances are you are going to win, right or wrong.)  But if the character has to do battle with his own nature, it's not a sure thing that he's coming out the other side unscathed.  Which is why internal conflict, though not an action-filled scene of blood and gore, almost always trumps an external source of conflict for me.

Well, that's what I've got today.  Now it's time for me to finish R's story.  Will he face the fallout of his actions and prove to Julie that he's worthy of her?  I don't know, but I'm dying to find out.