Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Going back to what inspires me

As part of the writing process I've discovered a penchant for returning to books that inspired me to daydream and drove my own desire to create stories. The deeper into a writing block I get, the more I turn to classics from my childhood (classics to me, anyway) to rekindle the excitement and remind me what good writing looks like. And maybe to steal a little of that writing magic for myself. There are a few books that leap into my mind immediately when I think of amazing books from my childhood that inspired me and drove me.

I read everything by L'Engle I could get my hands on, but this book set the standard for me. I loved Vicky (the MC) and was super jealous that I couldn't go swimming around with hot boys and playful dolphins. But even beyond that, it was a perfect summer coming of age story, and I was forever disappointed by my lackluster summers watching The Andy Griffith Show and eating microwaveable hamburgers (let's not judge, people). L'Engle had a simplicity of language that felt fresh and clean, the way that looking back at youth should feel. Emotions were simple but felt complex, and her characters reached a maturity level I always hoped to find (still waiting for that to kick in). And I totally blame this book for making me want a summer beach house set high on a craggy bluff in New England.

This book made me laugh, broke my heart, and added chickabiddy to my list of affectionate nicknames. I kid you not I can't read the synopsis of this book without getting choked up even though I haven't read this book since middle school. I would never ruin this book for anyone (although the Amazon reviews and descriptions do a pretty good job of it), but I had NO CLUE what was coming when I got to the climax of the book. Creech perfectly maintained the mystery of Sal's mother's disappearance until the end, a feat that I appreciate on a whole new level now that I have my own mysteries to maintain.

Characterization: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
I recently reread this favorite and found myself laughing out loud at the early descriptions of Anne's character. From the descriptions of her actions to the run on dialogue that reveals more about her hopes and dreams than just what's happening before her, Anne comes through from the very beginning. The quaint setting and mundane experiences are elevated to an entertaining level when filtered through the eyes of such an entertaining main character. I'm not usually a big fan of setting description, but Montgomery also does a beautiful job of painting Avonlea in vivid purples and luscious greens and snowy whites (see? I'm learning). She tells the story of a place I would almost hesitate to visit because it couldn't possibly measure up to imagination.

World building: The Belgariad series by David Eddings
This series instilled a love of fantasy (GOOD fantasy) in me from an early age. The complicated rules and interplay of wizardry were effortless and invisible. I never felt like I was being told what I needed to know to understand a scene; the information was woven into the storytelling to the point that when you did need to know something, you already learned it several chapters back. Eddings also juggled a large cast of characters but made them stand out on their own terms and I loved and knew every single one of them. This was the series that set me daydreaming about distant planets and unknown powers and epic battles and strong women who could still be feminine. I'm definitely looking forward to revisiting these again soon.

What about you? What inspired (or continues to inspire) you? What books have stuck with you all your life?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tell the truth, Wednesday

1) I started this post yesterday.

2) I have some great ideas for blog posts but am so swamped by work/holidays/pesky need to sleep that I haven't had a chance to write any of them up (see 1 above). Here's hoping 2011 is a little more organized.

3) I'm risking this coming to fisticuffs, but I'm not a big Sinatra fan. I'll take Bing Crosby over old blue eyes any day.

4) Drinking coffee gives me what my boss calls "crack knee." I secretly like it because someone once told me it helps burn calories faster.

5) I'm kind of dreading the holidays this year. I've heaped the responsibility of a twelve-person dinner on myself and the partner-in-crime ungraciously told me I didn't buy enough food to feed twelve people. I have no way to know and now have nightmares of hungry family members glaring at me balefully.

6) When people ask what I want for Christmas my head says, "Ask for cash or socks or something practical" but my heart says, "Ponies! Dolls! Toys!"

7) Frank Sinatra came on while I was writing this post and I went to Pandora to thumbs down the song without realizing it was him. True story.

8) I don't feel compelled to get to 10 on this post.

9) I love the concept of fantasy and read a lot of it as a child, but I find most of it overwritten with a lot of confusing names and traditions that seem forced and unnecessary.

10) Damn.

This is probably the last time we'll chat before my dinner failure Christmas, so happy holidays everybody!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What I learned from learning

Oooooh, deep, right? So I've completed my introduction to creative writing class for this semester, and while I wait for the advanced class to start I thought I'd share some of the wisdom I've culled from the class. Some of these I've written about previously, but you'll just have to deal with that, won't you?

How to take criticism
There's more to this topic than I could write in even a full blog post, but there was on overriding lesson I learned about this as part of the workshopping process: be quiet. Whether you're face to face with the person or reading their notes after the fact, just listen. Don't try to argue or explain or disagree or agree. You won't have the chance to do any of those things with any other readers, so just listen to what they're saying from the perspective of a reader. Your writing is the only chance you get to tell your story, and if you're not clearly conveying something your critique partners will let you know.

How to give criticism
I definitely struggled with this one. You guys gave great advice - lots of positives with a few specific improvement areas - but I still had a hard time coming up with some of those positives. I am a critical person by nature and not prone to sugar coating, so I wanted to focus on what they could do better. It was only after hearing the feedback on my own work - the good and the bad - that I realized how important it is to let people know that they're on the right track. Even if it wasn't my cup of tea, even if I thought the grammar was a hot mess, even if I had no idea what they were writing about, they needed the encouragement to go on. Most of us were fledgling writers, and for a lot of the participants this was their first time sharing their work with someone ever. I didn't want the burden of crushing someone's dreams on my conscience.

The basics MATTER
I've been a voracious reader since I was five years old, and I'd been writing seriously for about a year and a half when I first started the class, so I figured I knew what was up. I knew about conflict and plot and sparkly romance (not to be confused with romance between sparkly people). What I didn't realize was how vague my concepts of the basics were. I mean, I knew you had to have characters, but I didn't think about characterization. I knew that people needed to know the scene was taking place in a room, but I didn't think about actually describing that room. I knew that I liked the tone of some books better than others, but I never really thought about how to convey that tone consistently throughout an entire novel.
Deconstructing the basic elements of storytelling, examining them separately, and then putting them back together helped tremendously. Deconstructing the basic elements of your own story - plot, conflict, characterization, tone - and examining them as separate pieces of the puzzle will help identify those nagging areas that need improvement.

What have you learned from your writing journey?

Friday, December 10, 2010

My sweet little Frankenbaby

This makes count number two of times I've talked about Frankenthings on this blog. If anyone's keeping track.

We finished our creative writing class last night and turned in our portfolios of work completed for the class. Part of the portfolio work was to revise the two pieces we workshopped during the semester. Let me tell you, revising the first two chapters of my WIP when I'm only seven chapters into the thing anyway was...bizarre. It messed with my mojo a little, but I think it was a necessary practice. It forced me to do research earlier than I would have, which has helped shape the plot of the rest of the story. It's also saved me a nightmare of revision work trying to incorporate those changes throughout an entire WIP (instead of just seven chapters of it).

Still, it felt a bit like I was turning in a Frankenbaby. I haven't yet extended my revisions through the other existing chapters, and I've cut up a lot, added a lot, moved a lot around, and changed a lot. In my head, as the manuscript creator, the story is a patchwork of plotlines that have evolved over time but haven't necessarily been updated. I've toyed around with revisions before, but I've never shared a revised work with anyone, and frankly I've given up on revisions more than once because I got so fed up with the process (JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE). So handing in something that felt that hacked up was...weird.

Still, the process taught me what is probably the most important lesson I've learned in writing so far: letting go of perfection. What I see/expect in my head and what actually comes out on the paper are two different things, but the reader doesn't know that. This can go both ways (another important lesson I learned) (also, don't be gross), but it can work in your favor - the reader only knows what's on the page. They don't know what you feel like you left out, or what you meant to do with the character but forgot about, or how you wished you could have more accurately captured the clothing descriptions. All they know is what you give them, and they don't know about all the Frankenbaby scars it took to get there.

Although when I think about it, it still sometimes seems like a lawn that someone's done one too many donuts on.

What about you? Does revising make you feel as if your story is falling apart? Do you struggle to keep up with all the loose ends? Or do you thrive on the thrill of the cut?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Beth Revis might be the awesomest person to throw a contest this December

Unless you live under a rock (which, if you do, do you also eat grubs?), you've heard of Beth Revis around the hinterwebs. She's got a little book called Across the Universe coming out soon, and to help promote the release she's throwing an Epic Contest of Epic (and yes, I imagined an echo on that).

Check out these sweet and savory deets, I want one of those freaking watches:

67 Mini Swag Packs
Signed AtU Bookmark
Signed AtU Bookplate

15 Button Swag Packs
Pin-button featuring AtU
Signed AtU Bookmark
Signed AtU Bookplate

15 ARC Packs
Signed ARC
Set of three pin-buttons (1 large, 2 mini)
Set of Bookmarks featuring 
fellow debut 2011 authors (many signed)
Signed AtU Bookmark
Signed AtU Bookplate

2 ARC & Watch Packs
Signed ARC
A super-rare AtU Watch
Set of six pin-buttons (one of each design & size)
Set of Bookmarks featuring 
fellow debut 2011 authors (many signed)
Signed AtU Bookmark
Signed AtU Bookplate

Added into as many of the prize packs as I can stuff in them are collections of bookmarks from fellow debut 2011 authors, many of which are signed. The top three prizes are getting one of each; the rest are getting divvied up wherever I can squeeze them into the packaging. Pictured below are most, but there will be a few more surprises along the way...

To win any of the 99 above prizes, all you have to do is enter your address into the form below. I will pick a random 99 people (open internationally), pop their address on the envelope, and drop it in the mail. By the end of the month, you may open your mailbox and find a neat surprise waiting for you! I'll also be mailing out all the left-over postcards I have until I run out of postcards or funds for postage...

Now, a contest isn't a contest without a big-huge-amazing grand prize, is it? 

The Big-Huge-Amazing Grand Prize
Signed Hard Cover, First Edition of AtU
A super-rare AtU Watch
Set of six pin-buttons (three designs, two sizes)
Set of Bookmarks featuring 
fellow debut 2011 authors (many signed)
Giftbag of swag I'm planning on 
giving out at my launch party in January
Signed AtU Bookmark
Signed AtU Bookplate

Friday, December 3, 2010

This better make me smarter

I made the grave mistake of doing a little "light" research on my current WIP yesterday. My creative writing class  wraps up next week and we owe a portfolio as our final assignment in the class. The portfolio will include, among other things, revised copies of the two pieces we workshopped. One of the major feedback items I received as part of this process was that people wanted to see more setting and time period descriptions to give them a better idea of the environment (so demanding). I've written previously about not meaning this to be a period piece, but I'm coming to the begrudging realization that this probably is a period piece, of sorts.

So yesterday, in my naivete, I thought, "Oh, I'll just look up a couple of things, how the city looked and how people dressed, no biggie."

BIG biggie. MAJOR EPIC biggie.

First things first, there were books out there about what I was writing on. Non-fiction, too, which is even better. Real facts. Things I can build off. Secondly, I had no idea what I was talking about. No idea. I was playing at amateur hour. I thought I had a cute, clever story (I still do), but there was SO MUCH MORE THERE that I would have seen if I'd bothered to ever look up anything. Ever.

Yes, I'm lazy.

My little research foray has now rocked my world. Fifteen books in my Amazon queue later and I'm already reconstructing the story. For the better, of course. And now that I have the missing piece, I realize I knew I was missing it the whole time. I've felt all along that I'm on the edge of something potentially wonderful, but I didn't have the tools to bring it to life. This is what I was missing all along. Context.

BUT now I have to do something with it. Like, read about it and synthesize that into something usable in my story. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh. All I have to say is all this research better make me smarter. Like maybe I'll actually learn (and remember) when the Civil War took place (THIS IS A JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE, PEOPLE).