Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My bone to pick: the "worthless" protag

I've noticed a trend in YA of the "never good at anything" protagonist. And when I say trend, I mean it's in like every book I've ever read in YA. Well, maybe not EVERY book, but it's pretty damn prevalent. To the point that I roll my eyes when I read book descriptions that say something like "Swiggy Figglebottom wasn't very good at math/sports/ladies/basketweaving, but when a mysterious blue haired stranger showed up on his door and informed him he was the lost prince of Swiggy's Swag Palace, he found an awesome power that made him superly awesome and awesomely super."

And look, I get it. Kids want to be empowered, and most kids think of themselves as ordinary or no good at sports or whatever, and this is their escapism to be something great and amazing. It's inspirational and uplifting, and for some kids (like little JEM back in the day) it is a way to cope with the less than satisfying world around them. I'm definitely guilty of the same tropes in my own writing, and have crafted more than one story where some weird little forlorn girl in a seaside town is discovered as princess of the universe. So I realize the hypocrisy.

But what annoys me about this trend and the concept behind it is that it reinforces that someone really can be "worthless." That because you're not the star basketball player or head cheerleader or editor of the newspaper, you're nobody. That what you do, or what you're good at, is what defines your worth. Not who you are or how interesting you can be or how awesome your knowledge of trains is, but what you can demonstrate. And that's just not true. In fact, the most fascinating people in my life are not the ones who can jump the highest or fly planes (fine, ONE GIRL flies planes), but the ones who can keep me engaged in an interesting conversation. And it was the same in high school. I didn't collect my friends based on what they could do, I collected them based on how interesting I found them to be. Sometimes that translates into awesome skill sets, but sometimes it translates into perfectly ordinary skill sets. Luck of the draw.

My point here is that I'd like to see the genre move away from the Swiggy Figglebottoms into more complex characters. It's an easy out to write the characters who were terrible at everything until they drank the magic potion. I want characters who come from all walks of life, and who are interesting even if they can't shoot hoops or don't live in the rich neighborhoods. And sure, they can have a chip on their shoulder about it, but I don't want their lack to be what defines them.

I read a great piece of advice once (maybe Maggie Stiefvater?) about your characters: they shouldn't necessarily be who we are, they should be who we want to be. A kid who doesn't live on the right side of the tracks but can still hold his own with the rich kids without being a douche about it? I like him way more than Swiggy Figglebottom, and that's a character I would want to watch over 400 pages.

How do you feel about the "no good at anything" protag? Do you like this concept or are you fed up with it like me? What kinds of characters do you like to follow in the books you read?

Monday, May 21, 2012

How do you capture ideas?

I think any creative type knows the drill: you're walking out to your car and inspiration hits. Or you're just about to hop in the shower when that scene you've been agonizing over finally crystallizes. Or worse yet, you're deep in revisions (dreaded, dreaded revisions) and a shiny new idea smacks you upside the head.

What do you do? Follow the rabbit down the hole and potentially write the next Hunger Games? Push the thought aside and focus on the task at hand and maybe lose your brilliant idea? Sit on the idea until it becomes something worth pursuing as it foments in the back of your mind? Or scribble it down and shove it in a file somewhere to come back to later?

Inspiration is a funny thing for me. When I first started writing, I would chase down every idea by writing it out until I couldn't think anything up anymore. What this translated to as a young writer (like, 10) was that I never finished anything. ANYTHING. In fact, the very first time I finished an entire manuscript, I was shocked that I'd actually finished something. Chasing down every idea left me scatterbrained and half finished, and that wasn't going to drive anything forward. I also never had time to practice craft because I was spending all of my time in that first feverish state of writing when you're willing to stay up until four in the morning just to capture a whisper in your mind.

So then for a while, I made myself focus. If an interesting scene or premise popped into my head while I was working on something, I set it aside and didn't follow up on it. My thought was if it was interesting enough to pursue in the future, it would stick around long enough to be told. I had the same approach to songwriting (back when I wrote songs); if a melody was good enough to be remembered, I would remember it without recording it. So of course, this meant I lost tons of ideas. Sometimes I'd have the perfect dialog exchange with myself in the car on the way home, and by the time I got around to writing it I couldn't remember half of what I'd said. So what I ended up with on the page was wooden and boring, a shadow of it's car self.

Which brings me to my current approach to capturing ideas. It's a flawed system, I'll admit that up front, and the hyper-efficient organization freak inside me wants a real system, but so far it's been a good blending of my two prior approaches. When inspirations strikes, whether I'm at the grocery store or sitting in front of my computer at work, I sit on it. I spin out the web of the story and look for ways that I could craft it into a full-fledged story (and not just a vague idea). If I hit a wall immediately, I know the idea was just that - a passing fancy in the wind. And I don't record it, because if I'm not even interested in following it down the rabbit hole for five minutes, I sure as hell won't be able to write and edit an entire manuscript about it. But if I can follow it for more than five or ten minutes, I'll open a new Word Doc (or Google Doc, depending), and write down everything I can think of.

This file is usually a mess of bullet pointed ideas, short snippets of scenes, character and location listings and their descriptions, and links to initial research if I need it (I'm into period pieces). I don't restrict myself on what I write, so long as I capture everything I thought of in conjunction with the idea. This helps me later on if I do eventually return to the story idea, because it's usually the cute/clever little details that I forget when I sit down later. Or, I solve my problem from the beginning and forget what I decided I would do.

And if I'm in the middle of something else, that's where the brainstorm ends. I don't let myself get sidetracked, I don't start writing from the beginning (I'm a very linear thinker and writer), I just capture the storm of ideas and then save them later for safe keeping. And if they're interesting enough to write about, I can't stop thinking about them until I have to go back. If they're not, I haven't wasted 50,000 words talking about them.

So how do you capture ideas? Where does inspiration strike you? Do you have a methodology that's more organized than mine (PLEASE share if you do)?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Confession time

1) I have so many great blog post ideas rattling around my brain, but I don't have the time/brain space to dedicate to them. And so they sit in half-drafted form in my unpublished folder.

2) I don't understand fruit on the bottom yogurt. Why am I paying to mix my own yogurt? You mix it for me, I give you money, this is the transaction. I feel the same way about salads in restaurants, which is why I almost always order ceasar salad.

3) I've been avoiding editing my latest WIP. I've gone through a (great) critique session with my fellow critters and I have some wizzbang ideas for improving it, but I've been balking at actually making those changes. I don't know if it feels too overwhelming, or I don't feel like diving back into the story, or if I feel like I need to constantly be producing new material (or all of the above), but it's really starting to tick me off. With myself.

4) I've been trying to cut back on my coffee consumption. My second bowl of coffee this morning tells me it's not going well.

5) I've read a lot of mediocre YA novels recently. I'm obvs not going to name names, but I was surprised in each instance at how underwhelmed I was with the writing and storytelling. I still consider the YA genre to be groundbreaking, and a lot of my current favorite authors are writing in YA, but some of the ARCs I've read recently are suggesting to me we're hitting a saturation point with the genre. In a way it's good, because it means YA has come into its own as a genre, but it also makes me think production is prized over quality for some publishers.

Do you have anything to confess today?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Writing action scenes

I'm a big fan of action scenes in my writing. I write (mostly) adventure stories, and adventures involve all kinds of sword fights, ninja throw downs, tunnel chases, and booby traps. Writing action scenes is a whole different barrel of monkeys that often confuse people when they're first starting out.

I don't claim to be an expert on writing action scenes, but I've learned a lot about how to craft them through my writing classes and other helpful blogs, and in the spirit of charity I'd like to pass on those learnings to all you, my lovely readers.

Tips for writing whiz-bang action scenes (technical term)
  • Keep voice out of the scene. That sounds counter-intuitive to every piece of advice you've ever read, but for action scenes it's true. Writing in action scenes should act like a window through which to view the physical, and a lot of times voice can break the tension or pacing of what's going on in the scene by reminding the reader that someone else (not them) is watching.
  • Keep your word choice concise and your sentences short. Action is fast-paced and clipped, and your writing should be as well. This ties into the previous bullet point, but deserves to be called out as it's own point. If you think about a comma like a breath, when people are fighting for their lives they don't have a chance to take a breath, and neither should you as the writer.
  • Stay focused. This isn't the place to wax poetic on the brutal nature of man, or focus on the vibrant foliage in the background. Set your scene up before the action starts so the reader is clear about where they are, what they're wearing, what weapons they have, and why they're fighting. Don't get distracted in details in the middle of someone swinging a sword.
  • Think about your action like a movie. Action scenes are probably the closest a book gets to a movie, and the details need to be crisp and obvious enough that readers can visualize the action in their head. If you can't visualize it as the writer, the reader definitely can't visualize it when they're reading, which breaks tension.
    • I have a special advantage in that I take martial arts classes, but they've taught me how to describe the physical in words that make sense. It's critical to know what descriptions make sense to most people.
  • Consider your audience when making vocabulary choices. If they don't know what a mace or a stiletto or a rapier is, then make sure you make it clear what they are before they start fighting. You don't want someone thinking your character is throwing shoes in the middle of a castle dungeon.
What action scene tips can you share from your own writing?