Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Plot Goggles: The Best Tool I Acquired at Taos Toolbox

At a workshop like Taos Toolbox, so much happens that you could never relay completely just what you've learned. In truth, I don't know if you can fully comprehend all that you have learned for at least six months to a year, and even then you may not have the whole picture. Learning is like that. Things take time to seep into your brain.

But there are always some immediate takeaways. As I've mentioned previously, I went to the Toolbox with the distinct intent of mastering plot. While learning Plot Breaking, a Hollywood technique for hashing out major plot points, was probably the most practical thing I learned, there was a more conceptual point of realization that I think is going to help me as I move forward on this writing journey.

It's not a new concept, not even to me, but sometimes you have to see things multiple times and then see it from a different angle to fully understand. It's this. For a story to be emotionally satisfying, you have to make a big promise* in the beginning and then deliver an ending that is unique, but appropriate to the characters and situation involved. Oh, and the stuff that happens in the middle needs to be interesting and/or entertaining.

Sounds simple and obvious, right? That doesn't mean it's easy to do. How many movies have you seen that you've enjoyed, up until the end where it fizzles or lets you down in some other way? Same with books. And it's frustrating because you want to love it; instead, it leaves you wanting. And sometimes it's not just the ending. Sometimes the story goes wrong much sooner.

Take, for example, the movie Pacific Rim. If you love the movie, great, no offense meant here, but for me it didn't work. The prologue where the main character's brother is killed is interesting and moving and makes it look like this monster movie is going to have a little more depth than your standard monster action flick. After that, they deliver an illogical premise filled with contrived character arcs and a few ridiculous characters doing stupid things. It's not that I can't hang with this kind of movie, but the beginning promised me something else, so I was disappointed in what they actually delivered.

A better monster picture, in my opinion, is Megashark vs. Giant Octopus. The title lets you know this is going to be an absurd monster picture - so get your popcorn and be prepared to razz the movie all the way through because it's not taking itself seriously. Megashark delivers exactly what it promises, and hilarity ensues.

A great book that lost me, a little bit, at the end, was The Martian by Andy Weir. I highly recommend it, but the denouement (the capper at the end) felt slight. I wanted more emotional resolution so that I could cheer bigger and love this book. Instead, I have to say that I really, really like it – with this one little reservation.

As I look back at some of my older stories, I can see where I failed to deliver an emotionally satisfying story arc. Either the promise wasn't big enough, or the challenges not great enough or the end didn't fulfill the promise of the beginning. Going forward, I will be much more conscious of this. The best tool that I acquired in Taos was a pair of plot goggles that allow me to see story more clearly. I'm sure other attendees of Taos Toolbox acquired different tools, but this is what I am most grateful for.

*NOTE: When I talk about a big promise, I don't mean that you're characters have to be saving the world, but the stakes need to be high – for them.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Making a dead-tree book

I recently had a new baby. Thankfully this one's labor pains were more psychological in nature, less physical. ;) I created the paperback version of my novel, CONVERGENCE. This is a task I've meant to do for a LONG time, so the fact that I did it is worth celebrating, hooray!

But for you, dear reader, I thought I'd go through a few of the details of producing a dead-tree book in case you haven't done it yet. This was my first, although I've created ebook versions of many of my books and stories.

By way of reference, since I use Scrivener for my primary writing tool (you should too - I can do a post about this in the future but I really love composing in Scrivener) I find the ebook creation process takes no more than 2-3 hrs per title, sometimes less. The dead-tree version was a bit more involved, and I had to configure my Create Space account, tasks that are one-off and now that they are completed I won't need to do again. But even with these, I'd estimate it took about 8-10 hours total to produce the paper book, which is not a bad investment.

So what does the process look like from a high level?

  1. First you need your wraparound cover. If you're a graphic designer, awesome (and more power to you!) If not, find yourself a good cover designer. I personally use The Cover Counts, helmed by my good friend Renee, but you can find cover designers in many places online. Renee participates in a group called The Cover Art Collective, which is a group of cover designers. You can also find a few links via JA Konrath's blog and others. NOTE: Until you know exactly how many pages your manuscript is once it's formatted for print, your cover designer won't be able to finalize your wraparound because one key variable is the page length (which dictates spine width.) However, since a cover can't be produced overnight, it's best to get the cover in-process before you get too far down the path, hence I list it first. You will need to write whatever blurb or tagline for the front cover that you want, plus the back cover blurb and any about the author or other info you want to offer. Give that all to your cover designer at once, simpler for you and for them.
  2. Go to Create Space and create an account. Spend a little time filling out all the background info (including bank info, since presumably you're hoping to get paid for your books somehow!) It'll save you time later in the process. 
  3. Decide what kind of "trim size" you want. There are many options. I stuck with 6x9, which is a pretty standard size for paperbacks these days, indie published or not. 
  4. Decide what color you want the interior paper. I went with ivory, because I've read that fiction is more commonly done in ivory. Bright white tends to be more common in non-fiction, and I had no desire for my science fiction novel about a girl on a space station to get confused for a non-fiction title! ;) Plus I thought it would look lovely. I am very happy with this choice. 
  5. Download one of the templates that matches the size you chose for trim. These are MS Word templates, so I used a final .rtf export of my Scrivener file as my base for my MS Word document. The advantage of using an .rtf of the document is that it had very light formatting, which meant I had to do less tinkering. 
  6. Tinker. ;) Formatting is formatting. I followed the guidelines from Create Space as much as possible and used their pre-defined styles as best I could. If you don't know how to use styles, it would be a good idea to read up on this first. It's much easier to manage a complicated book formatting project if you're prepared. 
  7. Upload your file to Create Space and use their previewer to see how you did. I found I didn't like the way the pages fell (which one was on the left/right) at the beginning of the book, so first I tinkered until I had them the way I wanted. I ended up creating an interior cover page so that I have a place to sign, when and if I get so famous that people want me to sign their books. I also ended up adding in a graphic to break up the end of the book so that my two "About the Author" pages faced each other. 
  8. Figure out your current page count and let your book designer know ASAP. 
  9. Get and upload your final wraparound cover. 
  10. Preview again. This is one of those "measure twice, cut once" kinds of pieces of advice. Just take another detailed look. Page through. Look at what you have on the header/footer on a dozen or two pages, makes sure the page numbers are working properly, that the left/right pages are set the way you want (from my perspective it was difficult to tweak this without screwing other things up, so try to limit your tweaking to one single additional page, which should push everything one page over.) 
  11. Cross your fingers and submit! Create Space will take 24-48 hrs (or whatever their website says at the time you submit, this may change over time) to review your title. Then PREVIEW AGAIN! Just to be sure. 
  12. Lastly - order your personal copies! Create Space will recognize you as the author of the book and offer you preferred pricing, which should just be a few dollars per copy. If you've set up distribution using Create Space channels, you may be surprised to find your paperback book available on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble almost immediately! And, this cracks me up, you may find your book available even on extra sites like you can find on the "New from xyz$" panel on a product's information page. Makes me feel just that wee bit more famous! FYI, your cut is a little higher when you can direct people to purchase directly from Create Space, so offer that on your personal sites and when you market your book, if at all possible. 

So there you have it, my tale of dead-tree publication. Any questions or corrections? If you've put out your own books in paperback, have you found any tweaks to this process that help streamline things for you? 

Go forth and publish! Thanks for letting me share my book baby with you!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Not alone

I had plans for tonight's post, plans which got sidelined when I wandered across this post on Rachel Hartman's blog. After Sheena's lovely, brave post on Tuesday, I'd been thinking a lot about depression anyway. In any case, reading Rachel's blog And that lead me to this post from Libba Bray. I started to read, and then I started to cry.

Seriously, go read the post (unless you're in a sensitive spot - then, save it for later). This post is seriously so very, very important for everyone to read, for those of you who struggle with depression, and even more so for those of you who do not.

I don't like to talk about my personal struggles with depression and anxiety. They're really not that bad, not at the point where I'm "white-knuckling it," to borrow Libba Bray's phrase. My depression is more of the slow grind, the low-grade weight in the background that is pulling me down every day with the constant whisper of, "Why try? You've screwed up before, and you'll just do it again. There is no hope. There is nothing you can do."

I've been working a lot lately to find the right words for what depression is. It's still so firmly entrenched in my brain that my depression is a weakness, that if I were just stronger or cleverer that I would have thought my way out of this whole mess a long time ago. That if I were somehow a better person, that I wouldn't hurt so much every day.

But that's sort of like saying, "If only I had more lemons, I would be smarter at math!" The two things - innate quality of character and depression - are not in the least bit related. Depression is a chemical error in your brain. It's not quite a disease; if anything, it's closer to something like having a weak knee. Okay, so maybe that's a terrible metaphor too. The point I'm trying to make is that depression doesn't come because we're weak. And if depression makes you feel weak, it's just that you've likely been using all your strength to present that normal facade that society demands.

Libba Bray's post better articulates what I'm trying to convey:
If depression were as physically evident as, say, a broken limb or cancer, it would be easier to talk about. The pain could be marked, quantified, obvious to the observer. You would feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry that I haven’t returned your email but you can see the huge hole in the center of me, and I’m afraid it has made such dialogue impossible.” But the stigma of depression is that it comes with the sense that you shouldn’t have it to begin with. That it is self-indulgence or emotional incompetence rather than actual illness. This brings on attendant feelings of shame and self-loathing, which only exacerbate the pain, isolation, and hopelessness of the condition. “I cannot share this,” the depressed person thinks. “It is too embarrassing, too shameful.” And so, you swallow it down, until it feels that your heart is a trapped bird beating frantic wings against the pain you’ve shoved up against it.  Depression isn’t like being sad or blue or wistful. It is crippling. It is a constant whine in your head, making it hard to hear yourself think.
I'm not posting about my depression to get sympathy. I'm doing well. I'm learning how to fight back effectively, thanks to my awesome therapist. I'm posting this because there are so many others out there struggling with depression, who have that awful beliefs about self worth that I do, and who maybe are afraid to talk about it because of society's stupid bullcrap view that depression is indeed some sort condition created just to garner sympathy and attention.

So to all my fellow combatants of depression: fight on. Ask for help, if you need it. Offer help, if you can. And never, ever give up.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What To Do When Depression Finds You.

You suck, Depression. 

The thing about depression, in case you don't know ( but we blog for writers, so of course you know) is that some days it feels like there's a monster who wraps his tentacles around me and pulls me down the drain of a very deep pool. I call this deep ending. You're welcome to share my terminology.


My choice this Deep End, was Howl's Moving Castle (Thanks Karen for the heads up on the price!) LINK!

I liked it fine. I'm deep ending so I'll have to reread it when my feet can reach bottom so I can really enjoy it, but all in all, it's good. I kept thinking Howl should be played by Benedict Cumberbatch one day. They both have an obnoxious slightly disdainful lovability to them, like they are a challenge, and a heartbreak waiting to happen, but maybe possibly they just need a strong willed young girl hiding behind a grown up's face to tame them. 

I volunteer as tribute.


I have a 14 oz bag of skittles on my bed right now, and I've eaten most of it today. I've eaten so much candy that my mouth hurts, and I no longer enjoy the taste of sugar, but it's a thing I'm doing, and I have this theory that if I get to the bottom of the bag I won't be sad anymore. This is a crap theory, but I'm clinging to it. I'm deep ending people, don't judge me. The problem with having candy near me, is that it keeps bringing the little people who call me Mom near me, and I'm not sharing my candy with you people. I'm keeping it. All of it. It a sad swirling hole at the bottom of my stomach. It's here to make me feel sick. That's what it's there for so I can feel something. i.e. sick.
This is possibly steps away from a food disorder, but to my twisted brain, I wonder if I eat so much candy it makes me puke, then possibly the little people, or people in general, will buy that I'm actually sick, and therefore leave me alone.

Depression is a kind of sick.

But explain that to a three year-old with a stinky diaper.


It's my Birthday today. Yay. Yup, I'm spending the birthday in the deep end of depression. This isn't fun for these three reasons. 
  • 1. People call you. Both my sisters have called me, and expected me to talk back with them, and I'm in the deep end, with my book and a half full bag of candy saying... not what I'm thinking, (go away) but... "Thank you for reaching out to me on my Birthday."

Panasonic KX-TG6512B DECT 6.0 PLUS Expandable Digital Cordless Phone System, Black, 2 Handsets
 It does make me feel loved. It does make me feel less like I'm drowning at the bottom of a pool, and more like I'm treading water with my sisters and my friends next to me, and maybe there are streamers hiding behind the candy, and there will be pizza and ice cream and cake, and you can't be sad when you are in a POOL PARTY!

The thing about depression is that, for me at least, it makes me want to keep everyone away. I want to be by myself, but at the same time, I want desperately to know that people love me. So I'm rude, but I want you to stay.

  • 2. Expectations. I'm a weird twisted person and I take things as omens when they happen on my birthday, and that's weird, so I'm not doing that anymore, but this is not the way I wanted to spend the first day of my thirty first year. I'm having a hard time remembering that the deep end kind of days don't happen every day, and that I can fully function again, possibly, someday. When it's on my birthday I have this weird thought that it's going to follow me around all year long, like a curse. There is something wrong with my brain. 

  • 3. I'm worried I'm being mean to my family by not showing up for my birthday, and by not show up, I mean hide in my room eating all the candy, reading my book by myself. I will walk downstairs when the pizza gets here. But until then, I'm sad and I feel guilty for not making MY birthday a bigger day for my kids, followed closely by being annoyed that it's MY Birthday, so I'll spend it however I'd like. Yes, it's my party, and I'll cry if I want to, Children.




This video makes me giddy, and reaches deep down to the deep end of my depression to make me giggle.

They've gone for it. They are not holding back. And I really appreciate all this effort they are expelling on my day of doing nothing but reading and eating enough candy it makes me sick.


So you are deep ending in depression on your Birthday, and you kind feel you might throw up, because all you've eaten today was microwaved eggs and a 14 oz. bag of Skittles, and it's your BIRTHDAY?! You know what you REALLY need to do today? GO to the DMV to get that driver's licence of yours renewed! Otherwise you may never drive again, and that might be okay, because staying in a room and hiding sounds like a life plan today, and there is nothing in my life plan today that includes needing to drive, so SUCK IT DMV.

No, actually, that's the sickness talking, so instead, I'm going to track down my three year old, find the wipes, change the diaper. Then I'll load all three kids in my minivan, and drive to the DMV, and pay the fee and show them my birth certificate and smile at the camera. And then, every day after this one, I will look at that picture on my ID and see the film of skittles shining on my teeth, the tracks in my makeup, and my I-just-lay-in-bed-all-day-today hair, and will remember that I can do hard things, and that I am stronger than my poisoned brain.

But first I might check out Pintrest for a while.

Happy swimming, people.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Warning: Deadlines in schedule are closer than they appear

Time is not my friend. To tell you the truth, we haven't been on speaking terms for years. I can sit with a piece of paper and pencil and map out my entire day--carefully thinking about how long it will take to drive places, and which order things need to go in--and still mess up and realize I need to be in three places at once.  It's almost like time is playing games with me, contracting and expanding when I need it to just sit still.

The other day, my son had a dentist appointment at 2:00. All the other families with foreign exchange students were meeting at the lake, and I was sure I had plenty of time. There wasn't a lot of room for error, so I carefully thought it out. Yep. There was time. Then we got there, and it was nearly time to go. How did that happen? I'd thought it out so carefully. Sure, my kids took longer to get out the door than I'd accounted for, but really...that long? So I figured out when we needed to leave, but apparently I didn't take into account how long it would take to walk back to the car, and we ended up careening down the road to make up for lost time. (Even given my issues with time, I rarely careen. But my dentist's office is one of those rare places where you never have to wait in the office. If you're ten minutes late, you've got to reschedule. So a smidgen of careening ensued.)

I can sit down at the computer for one very important, very quick reason, and get up two hours later with no memory of where the time just went, and without having accomplished my original purpose. The only explanation that makes sense is that time just folded in on itself.

There is only one thing that saves me from being at time's absolute mercy. And that is a deadline.

Deadline (n): /'dedˌlīn/1. the latest time or date by which something should be completed. 2. the boundary drawn around a prison which prisoners can cross only at the risk of being shot.

I love that second one, because it is a brilliant metaphor for the way I feel when I am approaching a deadline.

So, stop what you are doing and make yourself a deadline. Not convinced? Don't take my word for it. Here are several quotes about deadlines. I admit that a couple of these quotes are anti-deadline. How do deadlines make you feel?

A goal is a dream with a deadline. 
--Diana Scharf

Deadlines refine the mind. They remove variables like exotic materials and processes that take too long. The closer the deadline, the more likely you'll start thinking waaay outside the box.
--Adam Savage

Deadlines aren't bad. They help you organize your time. They help you set priorities. They make you get going when you might not feel like it.
--Harvey Mackay

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
--Douglas Adams

“I am a person who works well under pressure. In fact, I work so well under pressure that at times, I will procrastinate in order to create this pressure.” 
― Stephanie Pearl-McPhee

“The sooner I fall behind, the more time I have to catch up.”

“Procrastination is reading all the quotes on this page when you have a huge report due tomorrow.”
--R. T. A. Birektt 

“Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate.”
--Harold Ross, The New Yorker

 ‘Never put off tomorrow what you can do today.’ Under the influence of this pestilent morality, I am forever letting tomorrow’s work slop into today’s and doing painfully and nervously today what I could do quickly and easily tomorrow.”
--J. A. Spender (The Comments of Bagshot)

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand—and melting like a snowflake.”
--Francis Bacon, Sr, 1561-1626

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
--Winston Churchill (November, 1936)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Blogging from Taos Toolbox - a Master Writing Class in Science Fiction and Fantasy

For two weeks I am in Taos, New Mexico at an advanced writer's workshop called Taos Toolbox held by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress. So far, it has been quite the learning experience. There are things I've known on the periphery but never fully understood the importance of until discussion and explanation crystallize their importance here.

The setting is beautiful, high up in the mountains. There can be some issues with altitude. More than a week in and I still get a little more winded than I should going up a flight of stairs, but not as bad as the first day. We've seen squirrels and chipmunks, mule deer and some of went on a horseback ride even higher in the mountains. Some people have gone to the gorge, others to Taos Pueblo. Sounds like a lot of fun, and it is. But mostly we've been working.

My purpose in coming to the Toolbox is to improve my plotting skills. I want to write novels, but I'm never sure how to sustain tension and interest over the course of 100,000 words. This is almost funny because usually, when I sit down to write a short story it ends up a novelette. Writing long comes easy. But spinning threads and adding layers and texture, which requires world building in addition to plotting isn't just about writing long. You have to do a lot of things to keep you reader in suspense, wanting to turn the page. That's one of the many things I'm learning here.

I will tell you, there is nothing better than sitting around with a group of smart, like-minded people who are kind enough to lend their energy and time to help you hammer out your plot. In Hollywood it's called 'plot breaking'. I call it, 'thank you all so much for helping me figure this monster out'. Mine especially, since it's a science fiction mystery, has a lot of different threads, with different color post-its. I needed tags for not only the plot and sub-plot, but for clues, red herrings and the crazy neighbor. Yes, even though there's murder, it's a lighthearted tale.

Don't misunderstand, the workshop covers character and world building, as well as many other things. It's just that plot was my bugaboo, and thus, my focus.

The other great thing about workshops like this are the wonderful, creative people you meet. It's a room full of support and friendship where you can geek out to your heart's content and no one is going to look at you strange; heck, they'll join in. These are people I will be calling on in the future when I'm looking for help and support and I expect and hope they'll do the same. These are people I'll always hope to see at cons, or have dinner with if we're in the same town. These people are awesome.

We have three more days, and while there are things I'm missing from home, I'm going to miss these people, and the whole learning experience, when I leave. If/when you're ready, check out the Taos Toolbox. It's a workshop you'll never forget.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Finding your tribe - a guest post for Karen by Nina

It took me well into my adulthood to accept the fact that I'm a geek. It’s not like it was a surprise, after all I spent much of my youth buried in video games, comics and speculative fiction. I also applied to a science track in high school and when I didn’t get in, proceeded to attend the same high school, taking a lot of the same courses as those who did and started learning HTML and CSS and soon after my first real programming languages. My friends used to tease me about being a geek and I always denied it, I never perceived myself as one. Geek culture at the time wasn’t exactly friendly towards women (ever hear of Rule 37? There are no girls on the Internet. One of the brainchilds of the early Internet days of my high school years) and besides that, geeks were the ones everyone bullied and I got enough of that as it was. I was almost thirty when, after a spectacular amount of soul searching, I finally admitted to myself what pretty much everyone around me had known about me for a long time before that. 

Admitting that was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me. I started finding droves of people who liked the same things I liked, who understood the jokes and references I made and it was amazing. I made it my mission to find other geek girls and find them I did, on Facebook and Twitter. Then one of them suggested starting up a geek girl blog in Finnish for other Finnish geek girls. Nörttitytöt was born.

Finding you

The thing is, to be able to find your people, the ones who get your jokes and understand your pain on a visceral rather than an intellectual level, you first have to know yourself. This is surprisingly difficult because most of us want to be seen as something different than we actually are. I, for example, wanted to be seen as an intellectual but also cool and rock and roll. Too cool to care in other words. The trouble of course being that I did care.

 I went through a lot of identities before I found and accepted the one that actually makes me happy. The great thing about that of course being that I’ve had many experiences that will and have come in useful in my writing (working on a freighter ship is in many ways comparable to working on a starship, apart from the view of course) and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. But all through those identities I also felt disconnected from most of the people around me, even while I blended in and worked hard to do so.

 So the first thing you do is decide that something that makes you happy has merit all on its own just because it makes you happy. The next thing you do is find that/those thing(s). Like the Bloggess says; Get furiously happy. (Language warning on that link BTW, might not want to listen to it over the speakers at work)

Finding your tribe

So you know yourself. Now how do you go about finding your people? You can probably guess that my first answer is going to be the internet. Blogs are a good way to start as well as any form of social media. Into the supernatural (not the show, though of course that applies too)? Romance more your thing? What about machines and monsters? Trust me, there’s everything for everyone. You might not find the right community the first time, maybe not the second time either, but you keep searching and there they’ll be.

 Meeting these people out in the real world is especially advisable. Whether it’s through cons or meetups or just plain impromptu get-togethers, for some reason the relationships we forge with people we’ve met in so called real life seem more real to us. The interactions are especially different while meeting out in the real world and some casual mention of something cool might spark an interest or drive you down toward another community of friends. So, who are you? Where is your tribe?

PS. Apparently Seth Godin has a wonderful book on creating your tribe but I haven’t read it yet. But based on the previous books by Seth Godin I have read, it’ll be well worth the effort.

 -- "Learning is not to be attained by chance, it must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence." ~ Abigail Adams

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Breaking the block

It happens more often than I'd like that I wake up on a Thursday morning and realize that I once again forgot to come up with a blog post. Well, I may have some bad tomato karma (up yours, fusilium crown and root rot), but apparently the gods of blogging are smiling on me, because today I found this post on how successful writers deal with writer's block.

I've read some of the advice in the article before - taking a walk often works for minor writer's block for me - but I hadn't thought of this one piece of advice from a  New Yorker writer:
"A thing I do, if writing isn’t going well, is to write out something I really love, like one of Keats’ odes or a bit of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop or even a few sentences from Woolf or the Gospel of John. It’s nice to remember what can be done with words always but especially when it seems like you can’t seem to do anything with them."

I've gone through writer's block. It was during a rather dark period of my life overall, and I don't really like to think about it all that much. In my case, the solution was to just start writing something silly – a story that I liked, but I had no interest in ever publishing. And I never did publish it, and I never finished it. It was some silly thing with like twelve main characters. And by the time I finished writing the outline and the character profiles, I got bored with both that story and over the idea that I couldn't write, and was able to move on to other things.

More recently, I've learned that the first step to confronting any fear, is to bring it out and treat it to the bright light of day. It's kind of amazing how frail and weak those long-held fears can seem once we gain the courage to actual air them out.

My writing fears want me to know that I've never written anything good in my life, that no one will ever like what I write, and that I'm not going to have a good time working on my writing tonight.

And really, when I look at those words on their own, my writer's block is kind of a whiny jerk, and not interesting or powerful at all. That's not to say that I won't forget this next time I become insecure, because long-learned fears aren't so easily rooted out.

What ridiculous things does your writer's block try to tell you?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


It's my son's third birthday today, so I'm going to try to be quick.

Touchstones. Usually when you hear this term, it's talking about an object, or smell, or something concrete, that you can look at and remember something good. Like a pin that reminds you of a vacation, or the smell of cinnamon and oranges that remind you of Christmas when you were seven. It's a term that comes, I think, from gold making, but I don't know why I think that, so don't quote me.

Let's quote wikipedia instead.

.touchstone is a small tablet of dark stone such as fieldstoneslate, or lydite, used for assaying precious metal alloys. It has a finely grained surface on which softmetals leave a visible trace.

See, gold making. I was right!

Essentially, it's something common that shows gold in other things.

This term also applies to characters, and it a really useful tool in storytelling.

The Touchstone is one specific character who helps the audience decide who to trust. They are usually a minor character, someone who has a reach into upper class and lower class, who is likable. They are a character you sympathize for, but mostly they are just a character you trust, because they are smart, selfless, and the dog of the story that if you kick them you've gone too far. They are a common stone, but who they are reveals the character of more shiny characters.

The first one I ever heard of was...Touchstone from As You Like It. The world of that play is very gray and murky, and it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It's hard to tell who to trust. If you have a story like this one, consider adding a Touchstone character. Touchstone(the character) is funny, but  he's not over the top goofy, or stodgy. He's smart, and quick-witted, but not so courtly that you see him at a distance. He is the voice of the audience, so when he chooses a side, that side becomes the good one.

Tn-500 joannefroggattAnother example, is Anna from Downton Abby. Yes, I talk about Downton Abby a lot, and that's because Julian Fellows knows his stuff. Whatever you think of the show, you have to admit he knows how to tell a story. Whenever I learn something, I think I wonder if they do this in Downton Abby, and the answer is often, yup.

Anna is a ladies maid, so she has a reach into both classes of the story, but she's more of a regular person. Even her name, Anna May SMITH, sounds common. You probably know someone very similar to her.

Her liking Bates makes him likable. Her not getting along with O'Brian, puts O'Brian on the outside of people we trust (also her hair does that, but that's another blog post) But the most useful thing about this storytelling wise, is how Anna liking Lady Mary makes Lady Mary likable. This is really useful when you have a slightly less than perfect or likable Hero.

Heroes have to grow, so that means they have to start off, sometimes, as weaker jerk-faced losers, and grow into their trophy and happy ending. While they are in that beginning stage, it's so important to have someone like them, otherwise the reader might just get fed up with the character, and not care enough to see the growth. If you make that someone a common man, a smart, all seeing, likable, regular person, then the reader will put themselves in that character shoes and like the character too, see the good in that character the way the Touchstone does.

Hero: Hi! I'm a whiny insecure hero to be.
Touchstone: But look how kind you are.
Reader: Look how kind that whiny insecure hero to be is. I like them.

Touchstones can be a larger Character (like Anna) and be useful for a long period of time. The reader will grow to trust their opinion on all people. While this character can grow, you have to be careful with them, because they are the face of the reader, so if you, say, have that character be attacked, it will feel more personal to the reader. You can use this, but you must be aware of this cost. And also, if you show them as wrong, it will dilute their effectiveness throughout the story, so you have to be careful. Weaken the Touchstone, and you weaken their effectiveness and the likability they have given. If Anna is wrong about Bates, then somehow that diminishes your opinion of Lady Mary, even though it's uncorrelated.

When you've created a Touchstone, how the Hero relates to that Touchstone is essentially how the HERO relates to the READER. So you can have the Hero be rude to everyone else, but they must be kind to the reader...i.e. the Touchstone. They must always apologize to the Touchstone if they are not, and if the Hero does something extra kind to the Touchstone,( like give her a present, or let him sleep in a warmer spot) even if the Hero just killed a thousand people, or just did something awful, the reader won't hate them. USEFUL!

Touchstones can also be really minor, and only really have a few moments in the story where they make the Hero likable and then go about their common everyday lives. But they are so useful, you can have them come back as needed whenever the hero needs reminded of their humanity, and their potential for GOODNESS. (Not greatness. Goodness.) So if you have a unlikable hero, and you want to make them likable simply, you can insert a Touchstone and move on with a damaged, but likable hero.

Either way, they're interesting. Now that you know about them, you will see them everywhere.

Happy hunting!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Melanie's Spring 2014 Reading List

Happy Fourth of July everyone!
For a change of pace, I’m writing about books AFTER I read them. Well, mostly.

Killing Ruby Rose
By: Jessie Humphries

When Ruby’s dad, an LAPD SWAT sergeant died, Ruby picked up where he left off and went after the bad guys herself. She ends up killing a murderer to save his intended victim, and discovers that she’s gone from being the huntress to the hunted. There’s a sick mastermind at play, and he has Ruby in his sights. The intense action and the sexy boyfriend kept me hooked from the very beginning, and I loved it.
I had two small complaints--Ruby was super broken at the beginning of the story. I know a lot of people love reading about broken characters, but she was too broken for my taste Second, people were far too willing to let Ruby be alone during this dangerous time. I guess it was necessary to advance the plot, but it seemed a little unrealistic--especially when her best friend and her therapist desert her. On the other hand, I often don’t enjoy books as much when I read them on my kindle, and this one kept me riveted. It is definitely for mature YA readers because of the high body count. 

by Rainbow Rowell

This one was the biggest disappointment in the pile. I loved eleanor and park, so I had high hopes for Fangirl, but I didn’t like it. I basically just skimmed the last half just to see how it ends. It is contemporary new adult fiction.

The Fifth Wave
by: Rick Yancey

On a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth's last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie's only hope for rescuing her brother--or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

This was a great book, and I enjoyed it even though I’m a little sick of dystopian. It wasn’t perfect—either it was so exciting that I read too fast and missed an explanation somewhere or there was a pretty gaping plot hole (50/50 chance, actually). But that “so exciting that I read too fast” is a pretty awesome thing, wouldn’t you say?

I might be the only person who didn't know this, but The Fifth Wave has joined the ranks of YA books that are being made into movies as fast as they can be churned out.

Screwing Up Alexandria
by: C.M. Keller

I love YA books with a male protaganist, but they can be hard to find. That, combined with the awesome historical settings and the exciting action would earn 5 stars from me. But you throw in a fun time-travelling romance, and I'm totally hooked. Screwing Up Alexandria would be a great book to read all by itself.

When Mark comes home from Babylon with a coded tablet, he never dreams someone would be willing to kill to get it. But they are. So Mark and Miranda kidnap an ancient cryptographer named Nin and take her to the Library of Alexandria to decipher it. The search for the truth of the tablet takes all of them to the most dangerous time on earth. And when Nin ends up on an altar surrounded by blood-thirsty crowds, only Mark can save her. But he’s blind.

The Lunar Chronicles
by: Marissa Meyer

I read all three of these so quickly they kind of feel like one book, even though they each have their own heroine. I was initially turned off by the fact that Cinder was a cyborg, but if you feel the same way, no worries—she is super awesome, and there is a fun romance to make up for it. If you haven’t read them yet, you definitely should! Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella, Scarlett is Little Red Riding Hood and Cress is Rapunzel. Cress was my favorite--instead of a tower, she was locked in a satellite. Such awesomeness.

These Broken Stars

by: Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

This is the story of Lilac Laroux, the richest girl in the universe, and Tarver Merendsen, the soldier she ends up with on a lonely planet. I'm a huge fan of survival stories, and I'm a huge fan of romance, and this struck exactly the right chord with my heart. Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner each take one character and write from their point of view. You probably know how much I love collaborative novels like that. 

Currently Reading:
Hyperbole and a Half
by: Allie Brosh

Allie's blog post about the a lot is one of my favorite posts ever written, and her post about depression is incredibly moving. So I've been excited to read this ever since I heard it was coming out. It's a library book, but I wish it wasn't so I could take a sharpie to the swearing. That way I could keep it out where my kids can see it. Instead, I read it furtively, where they can't see, because it is a brightly colored comic book, and what child can resist those? It is so amazing, that I was still at the library, and my 16 year old daughter was checking out her own set of books, and I kept nudging her to read the next few lines, because I was laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face.

What’s up next?

We Were Liars
by: e. lockhart

I am so excited for this one. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau is one of my all time favorite books (who can resist a girl who loves Wodehouse?) From what I can tell, this one is darker, but I still have high hopes. I’ve read about 4 pages already, and the imagery is stunning.

A Thousand Splendid Suns
by: Khaled Hosseini

Yes. A grown up book. We’ll see how I do. This one was recommended to me in the comment section of my last post. Reading a grown up story never hurt anyone. I’ll let you know how it goes.