Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zuko

If you’ve read this blog regularly, you know that I am a big fan of the Nickelodeon cartoon show Avater: 

the Last Airbender.  I’ve blogged about it twice, here and here, and I think I’ll probably blog at least once more about it in the future.  I really love this show, and it does so many things right.  There is a lot to learn from it.

I loved all of the characters on the show, but Prince Zuko was my very favorite.  I’ve already blogged about him before as being an awesome antagonist, which he was especially in book 1, but when I got the letter Z in the A to Z challenge, I couldn’t resist doing another Zuko post.  :)

There are going to be some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the series and want to (and you should want to because I promise that even though it is a cartoon it is really, really good), you might want to stop reading here and come back when you’ve finished.

Zuko starts out as an antagonist, but I think by the end of book one, it is pretty clear that he is more than that.  The story is as much Zuko’s as it is Aang’s, and I believe that they are really both the protagonists each with their own paralleling and intersecting story lines and character arcs.  This time I want to talk about Zuko as a protagonist.

I love stories of redemption, and I love stories where two people on different sides become friends.  I’ve read and watched many stories with these themes, but IMO, no one has done it better than Avatar.

Here are three things I love about Zuko’s redemption story arc.

1.  Even when he changes sides, his goal remains the same.  He always wants the same thing, to restore his honor.  His father, the Fire Lord, banished him in dishonor and told him he had to capture the Avatar in order to restore his honor.  That is the fuel that drives him, that makes him such a relentless antagonist to Aang and his friends.  When he finally changes sides, Zuko still wants to regain his honor, and it is his view of what honor is that has really changed.  He realizes that no one can give him honor, he has to earn it by doing the right thing and restoring the balance the Fire Nation has destroyed.  He joins team avatar to not only regain his honor, but the Fire Nation’s as well.

Why this is important- Zuko goes through big changes, but at the core he hasn’t changed that much.  What defines him does not change, and this helps him stay consistent.  No matter how much he changes, he’s always Zuko deep down.

What we can learn from this- A character doesn’t have to maintain the same goal like Zuko, but something at the core shouldn’t change.  In the end, he/she still need to be the same person.

2.  Love opens his eyes, and no it is not the love of Katara like a lot of team Zutara fans wish (there is no romance between these two characters, but that doesn’t stop some fans from dreaming).  It is the love of his Uncle Iroh.  Iroh is one of the best characters ever written IMO.  Zuko would have never found his way without the patient, ever-hopeful, and unconditional love of Uncle Iroh.  But it is important to note that Zuko doesn’t change for Uncle Iroh, but is inspired to change because of what Uncle Iroh shows him.

Why is this important-  Zuko would never have changed if his uncle hadn’t opened his eyes and helped him see what was really important.  A character can’t be redeemed without some sort of inspiration, and love can be a powerful inspirer.  

What we can learn from this-  I think a lot of redemption romances misses the mark when the redeeming hero (it’s usually the hero, but it could be the heroine) only changes for the heroine.  Love can help open his eyes, but real change has to come from within or it will never stick.

3.  Zuko got everything he wanted before he walked away.  The episode The Crossroads of Destiny drove me nuts at first.  I was so ready for Zuko to join the avatar, and it looked so much like he was going to, but then he joined up with his sister and helped her nearly kill Aang.  But I realized how much more powerful it was for him to have regained his honor in his father’s eyes and his place as heir in the fire nation, to get everything he thought he wanted, and then give it all up to do what he believed was right. 

Why is this important- The change was far more profound when Zuko gave up everything he ever wanted.

What we can learn from this-  We have to make our characters make those tough choices.  Giving up nothing to switch sides is easy but giving up everything to switch sides shows a much higher level of commitment.

4.  The change was realistically shown.  The metaphorical journey Zuko went on was pretty amazing.  There were ups and downs, steps forwards and steps backwards, there was frustration and anger and confusion.  It really was a story about someone trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged.  I loved the episode when he saved Aang from General as the blue spirit, and the episode when he helped the Earth Kingdom boy, and that moment when he stood on top of the mountain in a lightning storm begging the universe to strike him so he could prove he was strong enough to deflect it, and when he confronted his father and proved that he could.  It really showed the small and big moments that changed him.

Why this is important-  Change is never easy.

What we can learn from this- If you really want to write a redemption story, you are going to have to really show it.  No short cuts.

That is all I got.  I’ve really enjoyed this A to Z challenge.  It has been fun reading my fellow prosers posts as well as many of the other participants in the A to Z challenge.  So thanks everyone for a fun month.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for YA Hangover

I just read Divergent in three hours. In one ignore-my-kids-and-my-house kind of a day, I read this beautiful, sad, truthful, raw story.

Now, in my kindle glare induced headache, as I try to walk through the chaos that is my house after three hours of kids unattended, and try to wake up to the nonfictional life I actually live in, I'm grateful for books. As much as I love to share my stories, there's something amazing about sharing someone else's stories.

I love reading. I love how inspired it makes me. I love how free I am when I read, and how I get to go somewhere without leaving my responsibilities or children behind. I love finding authors and characters who think the same way I do, or find characters who do or say things I never would, or who say things I've felt, but have never been able to express in words.

I've missed books. Somehow in publishing, marketing, blogging, living, writing, and...not slushing, I've lost reading. I put it on the not as important section of my 'to do' list. My most recent writing has suffered because of that. I couldn't figure out why I felt so stalled when I opened up Word to write something new. But then I came across this...

found here writerscircle on facebook.

And so, as I end this too busy month, I'm giving you a promise. This next month, I'm taking a break, and I'm reading. I'll keep you posted as I go, I'll tell you what I read, and where to find it. But for the next month I'm going to look at the world not as a YA writer, but as a YA reader.

I think my writing will be better for it.

Happy reading!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Xanth

I'm going to cheat my way through this one...X is for Xanth, but what I want to focus on is Piers Anthony the writer, and the fact that the man is a writing powerhouse.

Did you know that in the world of Xanth, there are currently 38 published novels?  Or that Mr. Anthony is currently working his way through book 39?  Or--get this one--a published and highly respected author of many years is opting to self publish book 39?  To me, this is a game changer.  Published authors are choosing self publication over more traditional routes, and that's an exciting shift.

I'm keeping today's post short.  Really, really short.  (I'm on vacation!)  But in the event that Xanth, or Piers Anthony, has somehow escaped your notice, go check 'em out.  Or you can go with his series, Incarnations of Immortality, which is my personal favorite.  I'd start with On a Pale Horse.

And since this is my last post for the A-Z challenge, congrats with a fantastic month everyone.  Stay tuned for Y and Z from Sheena and MaryAnn next week.

Friday, April 26, 2013

W Is For...Walking

Friedrich Nietzsche and I disagree on a lot of issues. However, as my friend Susan (not the Proser) says, that doesn't mean he was a complete waste of space. And he may have been a trifle hyperbolic, but I still agree with him when he said:
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.
When I was in high school, walking is what my friend Kara and I did. We wandered through the neighborhoods, at a not particularly fast pace, chatting with people, and stopping wherever the action was, but still managing to log miles and miles most days.  

I walked quite a bit in college too. Who doesn't?

But it wasn't until I lived on a lonely rural road that I discovered the joy of solitary walking. I will go so far as to say that if I hadn't started walking by myself, I would never have become a writer.  I wandered up and down the corridors of my mind as my feet wandered up and down roads and deserted tracks. I discovered patterns, interesting twists and out of the box answers to problems in real life and in my novel. I talked to God, and felt him answer.

But somewhere along the line, something happened. My kids started growing up and getting busier. I started blogging. My desire to publish a book became more demanding. I started teaching preschool. We got Netflix Instant. I needed to lose weight, so I gave up walking in favor of more intense, less contemplative exercise (and, in an interesting twist, didn't lose any weight.)  We moved to a suburb. For a myriad of reasons, I stopped walking.

Getting back into it has been so hard. Not the actual walking. That's as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, but settling into that meditative state is hard. I find myself timing my walks, thinking about what else I could be doing. What happened to the woman who drove 3 hours to walk by herself on a gorgeous trail for 9 miles? That day, I was so deep in thoughts of a new novel that I couldn't believe it when I got to the trail's end. Only when I thought about it did I realize how jelly-like my legs were. 

Haruki Murakami said:
No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative...act.
I've been swimming twice a week all year long. Now that I can keep up the breaststroke for a long, long time, my mind is starting to roam as I swim. It's such a freeing feeling. (And suddenly, all my heroines can be found at their local pool.)  Doing something over and over and over again seems to be the key.

Other activities that have helped with my writing:
Washing dishes
Cross country skiing
Cutting vegetables (lots and lots of vegetables)

How about you? What actions do you do often enough (and mindlessly enough) that they have become contemplative?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Villains

Today's post is brought to you by Google Cache. Because in trying to fix my formatting, I deleted this already published post. Several Prosers got to witness my panic before I finally figured out how to find the cache. Phew!

All right, fantasy writers. We need to have a little chat. It’s about our villains – because they seem to be getting more and more clich├ęd as the years go by.

I give a large part of the blame to Tolkien. Lord Sauron is sort of the gold standard of villains, the predecessor to innumerable Dark Lords that harassed medieval villages, kidnapped heroines, and generally sought to plunge all that is good into darkness.

 In all honesty, I’m actually fine with the Tall, Dark and Evil. It’s those villains that are one step down that I really bother me: humans that are presented as so horribly monstrous or villainous that there’s basically no humanity left to them. Some thriller or mystery novels are especially bad about this, and seem to compete over how many negative traits they can give to their villains. It can get a little ridiculous. I've come across some villains who are evil, sociopathic, perverted, serial killers who also hate kittens and rainbows, and usually tries to sexually assault the heroine near the end of the story. What, were the authors afraid that the readers would be all, "Well, he's killed three dozen people, but he hasn't run over any puppies lately! Maybe he's not all that bad!"

 In anime, the evil of any villain is easily determined by the size of his or her shoulder pads

Pretty much every author I talk to is aware of this issue. One solution that many of us choose is to give the villain a twist of good, a redeeming feature to make them seem less of a caricature and more human. More often than not, this ends up being a love for cats. Though villains’ cats are always sleek and well behaved, and don’t shred the Shroud of Evil into tiny pieces, or bat the Orb of Pain around the kitchen floor, or interrupt multiple times as the villain is trying to just get her friggin' blog post finished.

I’d like to propose the opposite. Instead of giving a bad guy a twist of good, why not instead start out your villain as a good person – with just a little twist of evil? I'm not necessarily talking about the bullied kid who suddenly turns psycopathic and sends flying monkeys after the school (I think I might be getting my Buffy the Vampire Slayer plots mixed up here). No, a person who is good, and who has been good, who has a chance of fate that makes them choose the wrong path. I'm also a big fan of people who believe they are doing the Right Thing.

I do understand the point of making a villain the epitome of evil. Then the hero doesn’t have to suffer any qualms about taking him/her/it out. I do sympathize – it can be a bit boring if we have to watch the hero suffer through agonies of guilt after utterly destroying someone who was essentially a good person. Let me know if you have any ideas on how to convey that. Other topics for study: how evil does an action have to be to merit punishment? What matters more, motives or action? What is the most essential trait of a villain - is it just opposing what the hero desires? Is that all it need to be, or should it be so much more than that?

Here are a few examples of interesting, complex villains.

Baron Wulfenbach
Is he evil? Is he good? Who knows? He does try to kill Agatha on a fairly regular basis. But he's Gil's father, and he's opposed to the Other, who seems to be the Big Bad in the series. And besides, am I really supposed to like a bad guy this much?
Here is a link to Baron Wulfenbach just trying to squeeze a little fun time into ruling an empire... though I think Othar wishes the Baron had a different idea of "fun."
http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20040105 (the feature on the Baron goes about 10 pages)

The Queen of Attolia
She might start out seeming rather like a caricature, but by the third book in the series, well....... Just read the whole Queen's Thief series. If you need more encouragement than that, go see the 800 posts we’ve made about the series, like here, here and here. Not to mention the one Melanie did just last week!)

Loki from the Avengers
I suppose you could argue that his complexity comes from the fact that he’s a trickster character rather than a true villain. He’s definitely more bad than good, but every so often, we get a glimpse of the pain underneath the evil. Plus, he’s hilarious.

If you want advice on how to create an excellent villain, I recommend Melanie’s post (http://theprosers.blogspot.com/2013/01/creating-villain.html). 

Who are your favorite complex villains?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Under Things and Unmentionables

Ah! Got your attention with that one.
But, alas, this is not to be a Victoria's Secret post - not even, well, a Victorian secret post.

Salem History

What this will be is a quick summary of something my favorite author said. Very, very loosely paraphrasing:
As an author, there are all sorts of wonderful tidbits we know about our book: characteristics of people, history, bits of conversation, poetry/song/dance(?) - hence things that are under the radar of the main plot - Under Things.

The second part of the loosely, loosely paraphrased advice is: Don't tell the reader. Unless, Unless the thing moves the story forward in some way. Otherwise these things are, and should be considered, Unmentionable.

As a (maybe extreme) example of failing to do this, I recently listened to a book on tape which shall remain unnamed. It was a nice story, interesting, somewhat compelling.
The End
Except that it wasn't the end. After the day was saved, the author backed up and redid the climactic battle from another character's point of view just to show how that character heroically wrapped up his own story line.
The End
Nope. It went back again and described the battlefield, and then went forward in time to how the plains became a place of picnics and Maypoles in some distant future time.
The End
But no... Seriously, it went on and on until I wondered if I'd stumbled into some seventh circle of the Simarilian.
I could tell that these details delighted the author and were meaningful to her.
But. I. Didn't. Care. 
(sorry, did that sound harsh?)

Compared to the above example, actually minding your Under Things and Unmentionables and Not Adding Every Single Detail can have several delightful benefits:

  • The readers have to work. When readers have to connect the dots themselves, they become vested in the story.
One of the reasons Harry Potter was so appealing was that we had to work toward discovering things right along with Harry.

  • Not telling everything gives a sense of depth to the story. Mentioning things without going into detail is like having the reader walk in on a group of friends sharing a joke - they want in on the joke, too. They just know there's something awesome behind it. 
Just ask any of MWT's fans about Ornon's lost sheep- 
What do we really know about the incident? Absolutely nothing except that sometime in the past, Eugenides did something to Ornon's sheep. Why do fans love it then? Because they know the result. Eugenides can rile up Ornon to no end by simply quietly baahing when he's around - and it sends everyone into gales of laughter. Now it's the fan's joke, too - even though we have no idea what originally happened.

  • It makes readers wonder. Wonder is one of the great tools of a writer. If a reader is left pondering a story after they close the back cover, then something lasting has happened. Loose ends are not always bad. Loose ends lead to conjecture, surmises, discussions, fanfic(?) - and that's when a story won't be forgotten.

So, all you writers, gird up your Under Things, don't get your Unmentionables in a wad, but whatever you do, don't let your readers see them! (unless it's absolutely necessary)


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Toothless

I don't mean Toothless the dragon although he is cute and my kids love that movie.

I’m going to talk about a personal experience of mine, but bear with me; I will relate it to writing.

I spent two weeks without one of my front teeth, and not when I was five or six where almost every kid has some gaps in their smiles.  I was a tad bit older. 

When I was thirteen I ran into a boy playing baseball and my front tooth fell out completely.  A dentist was able to put it back in, and it lasted for about ten years.  

When I was about twenty-three, I had to have it extracted, and I wore a flipper (tooth hanging off of a retainer) while waiting for a more permanent solution.  I really wanted to get an implant (fake tooth imbedded in the bone) but I didn’t have the bone density in that region to support the implant, so I had a bone graft.

Once the bone graft was done, the surgeon told me that I couldn’t wear my flipper for two weeks.  I’d just gone through a painful procedure and spent well over a thousand dollars for it (insurance doesn’t cover this), so I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize the graft.  

My initial reaction was to hide away at home until I could wear my flipper again, but I couldn’t take two weeks off from work.  I had to go on with my life toothless. 

Maybe this sounds shallow, but a smile is an important part of how we relate to other people, and people in this day and age aren’t used to seeing a gappy smile from anyone over the age of eight. 

The people who knew me were awesome about it, my friends, my family, my husband, and lab mates (coworkers).  They understood the situation.  They knew and loved me, and honestly didn’t treat me any differently.  I was still the same person.  

But strangers treated me very different.

I was in grad school at the time, and I remember an undergrad wandering into our lab, where I was the only one working, and asking me where the girls’ bathroom was. I didn’t want to answer, but there was no one else around, so I angled my head down trying to hide my missing tooth, but I didn't do a very good job at hiding it, and the moment she saw the gap, she backed up like I was diseased and said, “Never mind.”  She could not get away from me fast enough.  

It’s almost funny now, but at the time it was pretty hurtful that she found me so revolting, because of something that was beyond my control.  

Not everyone's reaction was that tactless, but every stranger would at least flinch when they realized I was missing a tooth.  It was hard to get used to.

Being toothless quickly changed me.  I kept my head down and didn’t make eye contact with strangers.  I didn’t smile or talk if I could help it.  And when I had to talk even to my friends and lab mates, I would angle my head down trying to hide my toothless gap.  

I made my husband order for me at restaurants which he hated, and the fact that I wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone made the waitresses look at my very sweet husband like he was some sort of wife beater who had me cowering in fear.  I felt bad about making my husband feel that way, but I just didn’t want to talk to anyone and see their reaction.  I didn’t want to feel like I was repulsive.

Soon my two weeks were up, and I was so happy to be able to wear my flipper again.  Everything returned to normal, but the experience was interesting.  I am glad that I didn’t just hide at home for those two weeks because now I know how it feels to toothless, to be marred in a small way and how people treated me because of it.

We all have these little life experiences good or bad, and they are gems for us to draw upon when we are creating characters and scenes.  And we can extrapolate these experiences to imagine how it would feel to do something we have never done before.  

All of those experiences that make us who we are gives our stories an authenticity.  No one has lived exactly what you have lived, and no one will write the stories that you will write.

I know sometimes we writers can get obsessive about writing.  Right now, I’m feeling really motivated to get my novel out there in the world, and it is tempting to flake on all my personal responsibilities and shove in movies for the kids, and just edit all day long.   I can see how easily a writer can lose themselves in their writing, and forgo the real world for imaginary ones. 

I’ve heard the advice that to make it as a writer you need to write, write, write, and read, read, read, and certainly doing those things is very helpful.  But I would like to add that you also need to live.  Those life experiences (like being toothless) are priceless.

So get out there and experience life, it will only make your writing stronger. 

Oh and be nice to toothless people.  Look them in the eye and treat them like a human being because that is what they are.


Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Sequels

I'm in knee deep plotting for the sequel to FTCM, and in my research I've come across a couple of cool trends when it comes to plotting out a sequel. Please use, abuse, or avoid these trends in your own sequel making.

Trend One, Book 2 Means Love Triangle. 

You've spent all of book 1 falling in love with a couple being together, so then for book 2, Character A and B needs be separated ... for... like... a reason. (insert here) and then some other hot/powerful "friend" gets in the way of A and B's happy ever after.

Why this works: 

Angst! Drama! Heartbreak! Also, often times the beginning of a love story is the fun part, so add a love lambda, and you get to do the fun part all over again. MaryAnn wrote a bril post about love triangles, which I suggest you  consult before attempting one of your own, but there are a lot of reasons to go there. The main one, in Sheena Speak, is you get to scatter the ducks. If Character A and B are in love heading for a happy ever after, then the story is over, and if the story is over, then there is NO room for a sequel. Scatter the ducks!

Why this is Lame: 

One, it's a cliche because it's SO easy to do everybody does it. Sometimes well, sometimes...not. Two, it weakens the power of the love story in book 1. And Three, that second guy has an uphill battle as far as the reader is concerned. He may always seem lame, no matter how chiseled his abs are.

Also, what are we teaching our readers, if we tell them that the only good part about falling in love is the beginning? Happy characters in love can still save the world.

How to make it work: 

Photo from movies.mmgm.com

Don't make the secondary love interest this guy----->

Secondary love interests should be indispensable to the plot. If you could take the character out, and not change the story, then you're doing it wrong.

Switch it up! Make it be the girl who goes away, and then make a love triangle between likable guy and two great girls. Try making the secondary love interest the villain.  Don't make the secondary love interest stupid. Try to do the love triangle in a NEW way.

Or not.

There's always an audience for angst.

Trend Two, Fight a Brand NEW Enemy. 

 All of book 1 they were fighting BAD GUY. And then... like, they beat BAD GUY. But then you want to write a sequel... so INSERT NEW BAD GUY ( or GIRL).

Why it works:

 Harry Potter did it. 

When you have a new enemy every book, then a reader can come to any book in the series, and feel a complete story. Good guys beats bad guy, day is saved.*

*Wow, that felt like a complete story.

Characters can grow, with the over-arching villain battle still to come. Good times had by all.

How this can get stupid quickly:

How many bad guys are there? It can quickly become a comic book if your constantly finding new bad guys lurking around every corner. Yes, I'm talking to you, REVOLUTION.

This can make the sequel feel episodic, or unnecessary.

Not good.

How to make this work:

photo from movies.mmgm.com
Make an awesome bad guy.

Heath Ledger's Joker was phenomenal. Look at the pain and the crazy in that character's eyes. Beautiful.

It works, because Batman, (do I need to say the hero) was changed forever in dealing with him.

Every story should CHANGE the hero, and nothing changes a hero quicker, than an awesome bad guy.

Let your crazy out, and make someone so evil they have to be stopped. Explore something new that the Book 1 didn't. Make Book 2 count!

Trend Three, Embrace What Made Book 1 Awesome, and Forget About Writing a New Story.

Anchorman 2, Shrek 2, anything by Adam Sandler.

Why this works: 

People want sequels for a couple of reasons. First, to tie up loose ends, and second, to live in the world of the story again. If all ends are tied, but you want to go back and live in your own personal Narnia for a little while, then I advise you go through book 1, and clearly remember what makes your world so darn interesting, and put all that good stuff in the sequel.

Why this can be lame: 

Have you ever read or watched a sequel and thought, "I think this has been done before?"

For example, did they really need a Taken 2? How dumb are these terrorists?

How to make it work:

An image of a jumping man with red overalls and a red hat, a blue shirt, and a vegetable in his right hand Sometimes you want to live in the same story over and over again.

Mario indeed saves the princess, no matter what galaxy, castle, or paper he lives in.  Bowser will never be killed, and he will never get the point.

Still a fun game.

Now, personally preference, I like a character to change and grow. But there are some characters that are SO awesome, that to change them should be a felony.

Die Hard, for example will always have the same plot. James Bond will always be driving an awesome car beating another INSERT HERE villain.

Make it slightly different, or don't. Just make it AWESOME!

Trend Four, Empire Strikes Back It.

 There's a reason why stories are so often trilogies. Awesome beginning in book 1, bad guy gets even in book 2, and then book 3 bad guy is defeated. Sequels are often MIDDLES where the bad guy gets...ahem, badder.

Why this works: 

Strengthening the existing villain, in theory anyway, strengthens the need to kick her hiney. You get to live in the world you dig, live in a hero's head for a while, and get the privilege of shelling out more money when the third and final book/ movie finally comes.

Why this can be lame: 

Am I the only one who sometimes reads a sequel and then thinks "How much crap are they going to put us through?" Good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. But in general, middles can suck. Why would I be happy with a story that is ALL middle?

How to make it not suck: 

SW - Empire Strikes Back.jpgEmpire Strikes Back it.

Yes, the main plot of Empire strikes back is the...um... Empire striking back, but that is not the entirety of the story. There's also a love triangle ( It's okay character A, Character B is actually your sister, and also you're on Hoth the whole time anyway), new information, and exciting battles. .

But most importantly, even as the villain is strengthened, the hero is trained. Use book 2 to make the hero kick-butt-awesomer. Don't lose HOPE!

Strengthen the bad dude, and you strengthen the power of your over-arching story.

Also, then you get to write a trilogy*!


* rolling in pretend money.*

* Buy my book, Funny-Tragic-Crazy-Magic, and together we can make this pretend money I'm rolling in .35 cents. :)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rothfuss

Amazon's listing for The Name of the Wind
Once upon a time there was a boy that wrote stories and poetry.  He grew up and went to college, where he took his sweet time graduating.  He went in with the intention of being a chemical engineer, and came out with an English degree nine years later.  He wrote a book during all these years, edited the heck out of it, and used a portion to win The Writers of the Future contest in 2002.  More stellar edits, five years, and three volumes later, The Name of the Wind hit bookshelves, won a Quill Award, and made the New York Times Bestseller list.

Patrick Rothfuss, ladies and gentlemen, is another one of those writers that makes me feel like this writing thing might turn out okay.  You know...eventually.  I'm closing in on a decade since I finished my first gigantic fantasy novel, which exists as a very old file on my external hard drive, and a single printed copy I haven't touched in three years.  So okay, maybe I'm letting that story slide, because I just don't see much value in fixing it, but I can't help looking at writers like Patrick Rothfuss and thinking, holy cow, sometimes hard work and dedication pay off, even if it takes a decade (or more.)

I want to tell you how fantastic The Name of the Wind is, but in the interest of full disclosure, I'll let you know I'm only half way through.  It's long, for those of you who have never picked it up in the book store.  I'm talking Wheel of Time long.  And it's fantasy, so if that's not your thing, you probably won't make it through the 700+ pages, which is too bad because even from where I stand, teetering in the middle, I can tell it's worth it.

So for all you fantasy fans out there, if you haven't checked this book out, do it!  And for anyone who has been working on a story for a decade, take heart: not only are you not alone, you're not doomed to a life of failure, either.  I'm not saying you are going to be the next Patrick Rothfuss, but hey, you never know if you give up now.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q Is For...Queen's Thief

I was a teensy bit surprised Susan didn't beg to switch places with me so she could write about Queen's Thief herself. I shall attempt to do it justice, but she is the true expert, as you can see in her posts here and here.  I am merely a Eugenides groupie. If you've only read The Thief, you will be completely blown away by the man that boy becomes.

But I can't tell you about it. Queen's Thief fans are incredibly wary of giving away plot points of their beloved novels. Here's why:

...The Queen's Thief is very easy to spoil. These are actually character-centred rather than plot-centred novels, but they're also the kind of novels where learning certain things about the characters reconfigures the story you thought you were reading, and revisiting it once you have that knowledge will always be very different from reading it for the first time. Ana@littlethingsmeanalot 

How do I write a post persuading you to read the books without talking about them at all? Unlike me, Megan Whalen Turner has mastered the art of Withholding. (Obviously, this is not without controversy. Many people think Not Withholding is an Iron Clad Rule. I disagree. As Dalai Lama XIV said, "Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.") It's hard to withhold when writing in first person, because theoretically, we should know everything the character is thinking about. I can't even tell you how MWT does it. Ask Susan. She knows.

I read The Thief years and years before I read the rest of the series. To me, it was just an enjoyable little story, quickly read, quickly forgotten. Some people love the parts about the gods, but I'm not one of them. It's kind of like the singing in The Lord Of The Rings. Just get on with the story already! Besides, it seemed like such a stand-alone book that I didn't check to see if there were any sequels.

There most definitely are. And after Susan's glowing reviews, I decided to give them a try. The rest of the books are fantastic. Even though The Thief won a Newberry Award, it is the weakest of the books, by far. Did I mention that I'm a Eugenides groupie? How I love that man.

In spite of his being spoiled, petulant and histrionic, he captures my heart. He's the kind of hero that makes any rule-breaking by the author acceptable. And I couldn't find one quote from the books I could share that would help you understand him that didn't spoil the story in some way.

"In the midst of an adventure that turns into political intrigue, which gets wrapped around questions of faith and loyalty, this series contains a love story, and a story of redemption and forgiveness. I can think of no other values and struggles more important for younger readers to start wrestling with, and none in which I need more instruction and illumination myself. It’s all a little humbling, is what I’m trying to say." Charlotte Boulay  
The Queen's Thief Series

1. The Thief
2. The Queen of Attolia
3. The King of Attolia
4. A Conspiracy of Kings
5. Yes. There will be more. 
Hurry Megan. Hurry!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Present Tense

Any new readers of the blog (hi!) might not know that in my spare time, I read slush for Flash Fiction Online. Basically, I read half of every submission we get – usually hundreds of stories a month. Given the amount of time I spend reading stories, I’ve developed pet peeves.

One of them is the use of the present tense. I am decidedly not a fan.

Now, before I started researching this article, I had no idea the depths of feeling that people had regarding the use of past vs. present tense. Complicating the issue is the fact that the debate seems to align itself closely to new writers vs. old writers (not old in age, but old as in more time spent writing). It is definitely not a helpful stance for all the old writers to turn up their noses and say things like “Only amateurs use present tense.”

I do admit that part of my problem with the present tense used to be that it just seemed trendy. But in reading all of the pro-present tense posts, it came out that though people have noticed the option of present tense, they didn’t choose it because it’s popular. They choose it because for them, the use of present tense makes the story seem more immediate. Because it makes it seem like the story is happening right now, that the reader is experiencing it with the narrator.

Alas, I disagree. Maybe it’s because I never felt any lack of immediacy in all those past-tense novels I’ve read all my life. All the dangers the heroes and heroines were facing all felt very real to me. Unless the story is being told as a journal, or another method where the narrator speaks directly to the reader, I assume the story is being told as it happens. Which isn’t necessarily obvious with past tense, but as one blogger put it:
Any reading of literature or watching of films involves a little suspension of disbelief. Even though you see who the author is (and the author is rarely the narrator) and that the book is fiction, you imagine or pretend, as you’re reading, that the book is “true” and that the narrator is, in fact, recounting events that happened. This literary contract I can live with… as long as the narrative recounts events as having happened in the past tense.
 This perspective made me smile:  
Whereas it’s reasonable to think that a narrator may be telling you about something they experienced before (as is the case with novels written in past tense), the idea that the narrator is actually standing right there in front of you narrating exactly what they’re doing right now is a hurdle that readers must get over in order to enjoy the story. Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it. 
In the end, it’s all a matter of opinion, about what works best for you as a reader. I think that if someone wants to write in present tense, more power to them. But understanding the opposition, so to speak, is important (at least so you understand their perspective, and are less tempted to break a plate over their head when they complain about your tense choice).

This blogger explains the crux of the matter:
From what I can tell from a quick survey of Internet articles, readers notice when stories are told using the present tense. I’m not saying, nor are those readers, that there’s anything wrong with the use of present tense. We are saying that its use is noticeable.

For me, I’m overall not a fan of different stylistic choices. Because though words are the heart and soul and the everything of a story, the instant your reader stops to notice the words, they get kicked out of the story for a moment, rather than being immersed in it.

But some stories do beg to be told in a unique and different way. So if your story needs to be told as something out of the ordinary, then as long as the story is reaching its best potential in that way, no opinions from anyone should stifle your creative process.

Bonus links:

This blogger offers some great tips on how to write in present tense:

Phillip Pullman on why present tense can be restricting:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Out Of Print

One of the wonders of the self-publishing boom has been the huge number of books that have become available. As the traditional gatekeepers are bypassed, more people (like our very own Sheena!) find themselves able to offer their work to a wide audience. Niche books that might never have seen the light of day now have a chance to shine.

Now, we all know there's a downside to this, too. There can be a lot of flotsam and jetsam to sift through to find something of quality. But one area of this revolution where I think authors and readers are already benefiting (and will do so even more in the future) is out of print books.

I got it in my head a while ago to start a collection of the books I loved as a child so I could share them with my own children.

Some, like Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and Flicka, Ricka, Dicka had been reprinted and were still available. 

Others, like The Great Blueness (my favorite book on colors) and The Big Jump (so incredibly clever!) I bought used on Amazon (and no, they didn't cost as much as they're listed for now!)

Some I'm not sure I'll ever be able to afford.
And it just about breaks my heart that I might not be able to share these great stories with my kids.

There is hope, though, and not just for children's books. Ebooks and print on demand are making it easier to bring back all sorts of texts that were otherwise lost forever. Authors who retain the rights to their backlogs are finding new success and new fans by republishing. (I suppose this is a good place to point out the importance of authors being very particular in their contracts so they can retain the rights to their work).

Until this post, I hadn't thought about it, but I wonder if you could petition a favorite author to republish their works. Hmm. 

If you could, what books do you wish you could find back?


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Needs

I hear the question all the time for characterization, “What does the character want?”  I like wants.  Wants are interesting.  Everyone wants something.  It is a great thing to think about in terms of motivation, and even more fun when a character thinks that they want one thing, but really wants another.

But what about what the character needs?

I wonder if needs are just less interesting than wants because we humans all need the same basic things, but we all want so many different things, but I think it is still a useful question when working on characterization.

I think almost everyone has heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory presented by Abraham Maslow in a paper called “A Theory of Human Motivation.”    See that motivation.  It makes sense that needs would be a strong motivator, stronger than wants.  And if we think about wants a little deeper, we’d see that every want is connected to a need, and sometimes that underlining need is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t.

Maslow categorized the basic human needs into different levels, and while the human brain is complex and multiple needs on multiple levels can be motivating us at the same time, in general, one level of needs has to be met before we will “deeply desire” the next level (according to Maslow).  Notice the deeply desire.  Just because someone hasn’t met the first level of needs (physiological) doesn’t mean they don’t need companionship or safety or respect.  Only when you are starving, that need for food becomes the most important.  Humans are complex, and my far from expert opinion is that we need all of these levels, but some are just more pressing than others.

So here are the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with the most fundamental needs first (source).

1.  Physiological needs  breathing, water, food, sex, homeostasis.

2.   Safety  Security of:  body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property

3.   Love/Belonging   Friendship, family, sexual intimacy

4.  Esteem  Self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others

5.   Self-actualization  Morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of fact

I think that by figuring out where your character is on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can identify the underlining need driving your character’s wants and maybe achieve a deeper level of characterization.  Might be worth thinking about. 

Of course like every brilliant idea, someone else has beaten me to this; here’s the link to see another perspective.

Happy characterization.


Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for Minecraft

My eight year-old is obsessed with this game called Minecraft, for those of you noobs, it's basically Legos you can't step on.

 Or maybe that's too simplistic.  It's awesome. Watch this video for a brief ...um...briefing about what Minecraft is all about.

It's the ability to create worlds. Don't believe me? Then check out these 21 amazing minecraft creations over at geekosystems.com.

Now, maybe I'm weird, but I've never been very good at world building. Things get complicated, and confusing, and while I was looking into this game to see if it was appropriate for my eight year old to play with, ( meh, he's good), I started wondering if this creative type game might be a good way to have a concrete world of my story in which to visit for like reference and stuff.

Wouldn't that be fun. And also a good way to avoid that plot hole that's staring at me.

And that's how they get you.

While I resist, I present to you all, What Minecraft Teaches Me About Writing.

1. Start simply. Use what tools you have to make the best world you can.
2. Mine. Do your research. The more you know, the more tools and materials you have, the cooler your world will be.
3. Don't dig too deep. In Minecraft, if you dig too deep you die, and that's pretty good advice. I think there's definitely a time to stop mining and start crafting. Do your research, but only so much as is helpful.
4. Stay in create mode for as long as you can. Yes, it's lonely. Yes, it's just you there. But the longer you develop your skills before you  make yourself available to creepers, the better you can stave them off.
5. Survival mode IS fun. I'm really enjoying having my book out there, but it really feels like I'm in survival mode, and that badly pixelated zombies or creepers are going to pop out of a corner any second and cream me with a bad review. But...that's okay. In fact, that makes it more fun. Because no matter what happens...
6. Game Over isn't the end. I can always start over with a new story, ( and possibly a new pen-name)  and start playing all over again.

Peace out peeps. Watch out for zombies. And creepers. And don't dig too deep.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

L is for Lois Lowry

The letter L is the one that propelled me into this A-Z author blogging.  Lois Lowry has been one of my favorite authors since 1994, when I read The Giver for the first time.

Back then, there were dystopian novels, like Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's 1984.  There were also young adult novels for every genre from fantasy to horror.  (Remember Goosbumps?)  It wasn't until The Giver, published in 1993, that the young adult dystopian was born.

Since then, dozens, even hundreds of authors have run with the idea to the point where many dystopian fans have grown tired of the formula.  Which is why it's so refreshing to read The Giver quartet, a series based on human connection rather than action and looming death.

But like all the authors on my top 10 list, Lois Lowry is more than a skilled story teller.  She is an inspiration to writers, particularly writers in her field.  When asked in an interview with the Huffington Post whether she'd ever considered writing a book specifically aimed at adults, she gave one of the best reasons to write for children I've ever come across:

"Early on I came to realize something, and it came from the mail from the kids. That is, kids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they're still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don't think that's true of adults as much. I'm an adult, I read, I'm no longer going to be changed by it. I think writing for kids is profoundly important."

I just wish there were more writers out there like her, writing for an audience that can still be shaped and influenced, and using that platform to promote love and compassion.

Lois Lowry, you're my writing hero.

Friday, April 12, 2013

K Is For...Kissing

Any Proser worth their salt should have been able to guess what "K" word I would choose if given half a chance. I think I've made my opinion about kissing abundantly clear: it's a good thing, practically a necessity, and yet easily overdone.

By far, my favorite kind of kiss is the Kiss=Redemption kiss. This kiss is easily confused with the "I like bad boys" kiss, and yet they couldn't really be more different. For example, I'm as repulsed as a couple of jazzy songs and a carnival will let me be by the kiss (or its substitute) at the end of Grease.

But take Logan Echolls and Veronica Mars. At first, Logan's sole purpose in life seemed to be humiliating Veronica and forcing her into isolation and misery. I hated Logan. But there were glimmers of another side to Logan: a tortured, lonely soul hiding in there, somewhere. And then this:

There--do you see it? She is kissing the good part of Logan, not the bad, and he is shocked to feel that good part of himself reaching back to kiss her too. From that moment on, any writer with any brains at all would make sure that all he does for the rest of his life is to live worthy of this moment. Of course he'll do it clumsily, and of course he'll have moments where he's torn by two opposing forces, and hurts her. I'm not saying the writers at Veronica Mars nailed it. Eventually, I think they fail. But this kiss does change both Veronica and Logan forever. And that's my favorite kind.

How about you? 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Jury Duty (the power and the price of boredom)

Last month, I had to report for jury duty for the first time. I did sort of know what to expect: mostly, sitting around in a room waiting for my name to be called. I attempted to be prepared. I brought four books with me, and some pen and paper in case any story ideas came to me (never leave home without it!).

I was told that most often you either get picked for a jury or let out before lunch. But on the day I went, they were trying to select jury for a six week trial. So they let us go to lunch, but then they held us. So we waited. And waited. And waited.

Not long after we got back from lunch, I was ready to crawl up the walls with boredom. I’d finished one book and was thoroughly sick of reading. Normally, I like to fill any stretch of unused time with Story Thoughts and Plotting. But something about that situation, about being stuck in one room and not being able to escape, killed every bit of creativity I had.

Ah, boredom. The force that takes free time and somehow turns it into mindless, soul-numbing frustration. Sounds like something to be entirely avoided at any cost, right?

My personal view of being bored: like my mind is suffering in a giant burning pit
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of a creative commons license. Attribution to Tormod Sandtorv / Darvasa gas crater panorama / CC BY-SA 2.0

Well, I’m not so sure.

In our society, boredom used to happen a lot more. Waiting in lines, sitting in train stations. But then someone invented the smart phone, and suddenly, the number of people staring into space decreased rapidly. I still have a regular old cell phone, and a new IPhone is not exactly in my budget. So for know I remain an observer.

But I have to wonder – what are we losing out on, now that we no longer have those moments to wonder and dream? How many genius ideas are we missing out on, because someone was playing Angry Birds rather than calculating a way to make the mailing of packages more efficient? Never mind any social contact that might be lost.

Of course, not all moments lend themselves to creative thoughts. Some moments, like my jury duty, are rather soul crushing. And we'll always have traffic (at least, those of us in So Cal will).

And that leaves me with the questions for today: how do you take an empty moment and make it creative rather than boring? Some things are out of our control: setting, noise, the number of idiots on the road. The amount of time we wait at jury duty.

My ideas for coping so far are few. All I've got is being prepared: bring a certain number of books. Or make preparations to encourage creativity, like making a list of story problems you want to solve before you even leave.

How do you make boredom disappear, or transform into something new?