Monday, June 30, 2008

Inspiration: Mythology and Fairy Tales, part 4

Hold onto your hats, I'm about to whip out one of the lessons I teach in class (hope y'all are more awake than some of my students!).

The "Cupid and Psyche" story is one that we can track throughout history fairly easily. For example, we know that the first written record of the story was written by Apuleius just a bit after Christ's birth. But the story shifted and changed. It reached many part of the vast Roman Empire, and it extended beyond the Roman Empire as merchants crossed borders. There's a German version, recorded by, guess who, the Grimm Brothers. In fact, there's a version of the "beauty and the beast" story in nearly every European many, that fairy tale researchers have cataloged and classified the different stories here.

It's easy to track this story. Started in Rome as a myth, got passed down as a folk or fairy tale in the new countries that became part of the Roman Empire, expanded over the decades and centuries beyond the Roman Empire's borders. The story shifted and changed when it changed place and time periods: in Rome, there's a wicked mother-in-law (Venus), but later the story has wicked sisters. There is a king when the story's a myth; later the father becomes a merchant (probably because it was merchants sharing the story).

It even makes it's way across the pond: Whitebear Whittington was one of my favorite stories as a barefoot Appalachain child.

So what's my point? Don't be afraid to take a myth or fairy tale and develop your own unique story based on it. People do this naturally when telling stories--stories change over time, they develop, they update characters and scenery and situations. If you've got a fairy tale "type" that you love--Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty--research it. Look for the common themes. Try to change the purpose or the characters or the plot to make it a story that fits your audience.

Because that's what people have been doing for centuries.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Inspiration: Mythology and Fairy Tales, part 3

As I'm scheduling these posts, I realized that by the time this post goes up on my website, I'll be in Oxford...eating lunch at the Eagle and Child pub...squee!!

I'd like to add to my original take of using myths and fairy tales in stories to enhance a new work. Back so many years ago (ok, it was 2004) and I was a young, beautiful (sleep deprived, beer swilling) college grad, I wrote my thesis on C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces. (It wasn't my first pick, but my advisor wouldn't let me do Chronicles of Narnia on the basis that it was overdone...and when I tried to come up with a thesis on it that hadn't been written before, I couldn't.)

For those of you who don't know this little-known work, Till We Have Faces is Lewis's only fantasy written for adults, not children. It's based on Apuleius's myth in the book The Golden Ass...a myth more commonly known as "Cupid and Psyche." If you don't know the myth, well, I'm just shocked, and you can find a summary here.

Anyway, Lewis wanted to take this very pagan myth and "Christianize" it (that's the whole point of my thesis, btw). He tells it from the "wicked" sister's point of view (although she's not that wicked...most of the story is about how the myth has been skewed by misunderstanding). He changes the story to show that Psyche is like a chosen one from God, and how difficult it is for those who are not "natural" saints to accept and love those who are; how sometimes our love can be more like jealousy, and we sometimes bring down the people we love because we don't want to them to leave us.

It's a brilliant book. But it's not a repeat of "Cupid and Psyche." The story isn't about love conquering all...or least, it's not about human love conquering all. Lewis changed the purpose of the story, and that changed everything.

That's the point of using a myth as a jumping off point or inspiration for a new story: to create an entirely different, new story.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Inspiration: Mythology and Fairy Tales, part 2

Figured out the Greek myth yet? (Imagine me cackling...ok, I'm probably too jet-lagged on the other side of the world to really cackle, but imagine.)

Bellerophon was one of the ancient Greek heroes; he's the guy who rose Pegasus and fought the chimera. There's a more complete summary of his background here.

My story doesn't revolve around Bellerophon. But he was the inspiration for my main character's name. And I had my main character ride a pegasus. And the monster chimera is a key part of the story. And the main baddie dies from lead (like how Bellerophon killed the chimera).

But the story's about how a young girl is tempted by magic and must chose between saving her teacher or taking a powerful magic—the kind of magic she's always dreamed of. That's got nothing to do with the Greek myth. In truth, I could have left the Greek stuff out and told the same story. I didn't want to, though. Think about the Percy Jackson series—Rick Riordan could have written Percy without the Greek stuff, and just made up an entirely new world and set of gods to fit the story. But how boring would that be?

The best take-offs of myths and fairy tales are not the ones that are direct re-tellings, but the ones that change our ideas of what the myth really means, or that use a fairy tale to add another dimension to the story. Inspiration and re-tellings should enhance a story, not shape one.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Inspiration: Mythology and Fairy Tales, Part 1

This is going to be a series of posts on myths and fairy tales and using them in your work. Hope you like--it was the only thing I could think of before I left!

My Latin teacher's favorite phrase for us to translate was "There's nothing new under the sun." (My Latin teacher was notoriously slack—he'd often give us the same phrases on tests—sometimes he'd even give us the same tests over again because he didn't feel like making new ones. Anyway, it got so that if I saw a line that contained "sol," I knew it was the above phrase. I didn't learn any Latin, but I did make an A.)

My point is, we're all just repeating stories (usually; there are some awesome completely unique stories...but I digress. Again.). The bildungsroman, the hero's journey, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast...there are variations of these stories everywhere. And it's not a bad thing: one of my favorite movies is Ever say nothing of Star Wars (which would be the entire reason I wore long hair in braids for most of my life).

The key, I think, is to make a unique variation of the story. Even straight up re-interpretations of old stories—much of Shannon Hale's works, or even Percy Jackson—puts a new twist on the story to keep it fresh.

I hope that, when you read the synopsis I've posted before, you can't tell the Greek myth that inspired it. I really hope not. But what if I told you that the main character's name is Belle Ravenna? Or that one of the key things in alchemy they learn is the concept of solve et coagula (ha! I did learn some Latin! It means: separate and join together)—and that the alchemists "separate" different animals to "join together" new ones—like separating an eagle and a horse to make a pegasus?

Hmm...I think I'll be cruel and let you all think about it for a bit. You'll find out in a day or two (as long as Blogger's posting these things right!).

Sunday, June 22, 2008


So just in case any of you were curious about the project I was working on so furiously this past week, here's the rough synopsis I made about half-way through. I found that making up a brief synopsis of what I was working on helped me to keep focused.

Fifteen-year-old Belle is perfectly normal: normal school, normal family, normal friends. Her English teacher, Ms. Wendt, is not. Ms. Wendt is a witch. Even stranger than the fact that Ms. Wendt supplements her lessons with magic is the fact that her classroom is located behind an electric blue door that erases her students' memories of magic when they leave. Every day, Belle's class leaves through the door and forgets everything about Ms. Wendt being a witch...until they re-enter the class the next day. As Belle and her friends Robert and Esperanza try to find ways to thwart the door and remember their magical teacher outside of class, they discover that there's something much bigger going on. Ms. Wendt is a prisoner of her own classroom, trapped behind the electric blue door that ensures no one will remember her or help her escape. Belle's new science teacher hints that there may be a way save Ms. Wendt, but as Belle and her friends learn about alchemy, they begin to question whether their new teacher wants to save Ms. Wendt or use her magic for his own purposes. Either way, the first step for Belle to save her teacher is to remember her.

Also, Nathan Bransford had a great post recently about describing plot.

So basically, plot is a premise plus a major complication that tests the protagonist. It's what opens the door plus what's keeping the door from being closed.
He also has great examples of premise vs. plot...something that I think might help out with anyone working on making a pitch...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Going Dark

I am going to be traveling with 18 students for the next two weeks, then coming back for just a day before I set off for the mountains and celebrate my first anniversary. I'm going to try to have Blogger set up to continue to post every other day or so in my absence, but if nothing happens for 2 or 3 weeks, well, you know. And also, even though posts are going up, I won't be able to comment on them...but I'd love for you guys to continue to comment if you feel so inclined!

Just as a bit of a tease...I've got a series of posts coming up on using myths and fairy tales in your stories! Hope you like it!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Finished! ...or just beginning?

Yay! I did it! The story is on paper, the rough draft is done... whew!

Final count: 62k words, 220 pages, 20 chapters, 1 very sore butt (I need a better chair).

I've got one day to spare, then I'm going to be globe-trotting for three weeks. That should help me get some distance (literally and figuratively) from the novel, so that when I finally get back and ready to work, I'll be able to give at least a cursory edit.

And this work is really going to need an edit. I have no illusions about that. This is just a first draft. And besides:

"Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist."
- Jane Smiley

So it will take a rewrite (or eight). I've already got notes in there as I was writing (check this fact! describe scenery more! add this detail somewhere before chapter 8!). This book was very difficult for me to write, and I know there are whole parts that are choppy and rough because it just wasn't flowing.

After having written a few yet-to-be-published books, I know that just because words are on the page does not make them worthy. I've got to edit for grammar, and then edit for content, then develop character, voice and plot more...and then do it all over again. And then give it to a critique group or two and add more changes (which are usually done to the sound of me hitting my head against my desk, saying "Why didn't I think of that?!").

...but at least the first draft is done.



I DID finish today!

The Differences Between Boys and Girls

I needed a chaos scene. I had a class full of kids in my novel, and I needed them to create enough chaos that the teacher would be distracted and the other kids could escape class without the teacher noticing.

It was getting late, and all I could think of was to have the girl students pretend to see a mouse and start screaming. I knew it was lame, but it was all I could think of.

Later, I was eating supper and asked my husband, "If you were a student in high school and needed to create chaos, what would you do?"

He looked at me like I was stupid. "I'd just punch the nearest kid and start a fight."

Well, obviously. I'd never thought of that, and never would have. I think that's the difference between a boy and a girl. Girls tend to be more passive--no one gets hurt when a mouse runs through the room. Boys tend to be more violent--but also more effective. My scene wouldn't work because, well, there was no mouse and there's a limit to how much trouble a girl screaming "Mouse!" will cause. But with a fight...well, then you have the kids fighting, and all the other kids circling around, screaming "Fight!"'s much more effective chaos.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

You Know You're a Writer When... spend half an hour online looking for a description of how people eat the still-beating hearts of cobras and what, exactly that would look like.

And then you research kids books.

I wonder what people would think if they looked at my history?

I'm Stalling on Purpose

Here I am, plugging away at my current WIP, trying to wrap up about 10-20k more words in, OMG, 3 short days...and I'm so reluctant to start. I think it's because I know that when I finish, I'm going to have to do a lot of revisions.

OK, whine over. I'll start the meter here, and update throughout the day:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


There's a new Howl book by Diana Wynne Jones!

And Robin McKinley's coming out with a new book!


...and I'm back to work now...

Writing Progress: Tuesday

PS- This will be updated all day as I write. I think I'm schizo--I work so much better with three things going on at once!

YES! I've topped 50k!!!


I won't be able to write much today--I've got errands and doc appointments and won't be at my computer much. I'm going to try to get another 1000 words down, but...

Anyway, just as I'm writing away and struggling with my book, Nathan Bransford comes out with quite a cheery post:

Here's an analogy sure to brighten the mood of the unpublished: writing a book is kind of like spending a year creating a lottery ticket. Sunny days, people! Sunny days!

At least he ended it with rainbows and puppies.

Welp, I'm off to write my lottery ticket now!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing Progress: Monday

Get your own meter here!
And now it really is time for me to quit slacking and get back to work.

There's Got to be a Story Here Somewhere

Ok, ok, I know I'm slacking. But I'm at 50k words now, and only need about 15-17k more to finish and my brain goes dead if I don't take breaks and...ok, I know, it's all excuses for why I'm playing on the internet instead of writing. But Brookly Arden had a post about why I wish I lived in NY city...naw, it was a post about this Scholastic editor's adventures in NY--it just made me wish I lived there. And she saw this.

There has got to be a cool story that someone could make out of that. The design and concept of the thing is amazing. I wish I could come up with some sort of adventure and story around the telectroscope....or at least be able to see it :(

Ok--back to work!

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Blegh. I'm a bit stuck, so I thought I'd share some of the inspiration for my setting. When I got stuck in the story, I decided to switch setting. I always knew that I wanted my characters to go from their home/school to a new place, but I never really though I'd put them in Malta, a small Mediterranean island I visited in college! The setting, however, is perfect.

I've got ancient ruins at Hagar Qim for my kids to explore, a series of towers developed by the Knights of Malta, and the "Silent City" of Mdina, with it's beautiful narrow streets. I'm working on a way to include the il-Gardjola--it's got six sides, two of which are adorned with carvings of eyes, and two with carvings of ears to symbolize how the Knights of Malta were always watching and listening to enemies who might be approaching. I don't have a purpose for this detail yet, but it's just too rich not to include.

But the most important thing is the beautiful doors of Malta. In America, the style, color, and shape of our house says a lot about the inhabitants--but in Malta (at least the cities), there's not much room for different styles, and everything's built out of the same brown limestone. The differences and uniquenesses come through the beautiful doors...and as doors are an integral part of my story, I just couldn't refuse a chance to include them!

So...that's what I've been thinking about as I write the next 50-100 pages of my book to finish it. At the very least, this has helped me jump start my stalled writing and reminded me of how I need to include all these rich details into my book!


Sorry I've not got anything to blog about...I've been too busy writing! I've crossed the 150 page mark, and it's my goal to finish the rough draft by June 20th...because on June 21st, I am leaving to Europe for two weeks, then I've only got a day of recovery before I leave for a trip to the mountains to celebrate my first anniversary with my husband! So I've got to get the writing done now, while the stories so strong in me. Wish me luck!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Powerful Writing

All this talk about voice made me think about the works that were strongly written and what made them good. When I think of a single passage in a book that stopped me in my tracks, I think of Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown. This is a book I read in high school or junior high, and one that I love. I read this book for one certain passage, about half-way into the novel. When I read it the first time, I still remember weeping so hard that I couldn't see the page. In fact, I don't think I wept so much at a novel until I read JK Rowling's fifth Harry Potter the end...when a certain character I loved died.

Here's the set-up. Aerin is the not-so-talented daughter of the king. Her cousins all have great magic and are beautiful and accomplished and all, but Aerin sticks out like a sore thumb with red hair and a mysterious dead mother. In order to find her place, she starts fighting dragons, which are a dangerous nuisance (but little more) in her kingdom. This gives her an unsteady hold on prestige. She's good at it, but it's menial work and not very respected. Until one of the great dragons awaken--one that's as big as a mountain and capable of destroying the entire kingdom.

Aerin fights and kills the dragon--but is mortally wounded--her body is broken and burned, and she swallowed dragonfire, which is killing her from the inside. Her father (the king) and Tor (her cousin and crown prince--and soon to be fiance) meet her on the road, and Tor grabs her by the arm--which has nearly been burned off by the dragon.
She screamed, except that she could not scream, but she made a hoarse and awful sound, and Tor dropped his hand and said something she did not hear, for her scream made her cough, and she coughed and could not stop, and the bleeding began, and flecks of her blood dripped down Talat's neck, and her body shook, and the cloak fell away from her and onto the ground, and Toor and Arlbeth sat frozen on their horses, helplessly watching.
What makes this such a powerful passage? Well, first of all it's the context and the 112 pages leading up to that passage. I know all about how Arlbeth loves his daughter despite her unconventional ways, how Tor loves her but Aerin doesn't love him, the struggle Aerin had to turn Talat into a proper horse for her. I know these people, so I care about them.

But that's not why this passage brings me back to the book so much that I have been known to read up to that passage and stop without reading the end because I love that one sentence more than the whole rest of the book.

Let's analyze this passage as a writer:

  1. It's one sentence long. This is basic, but it's important. The structure of language changes how we read. When I read this one long sentence, I cannot make myself take a break, the way a period would naturally make me stop. I pause at the commas, but not as I would at a period. The length of the sentence, accompanied by how it is broken up into small segments with the comma clauses, makes the reader move from clause to clause quickly. The speed of the reading makes the reader feel the quickness of the event. It's not slow and drawn out, it's pain that's compressed and compounded in a very short time. It's the difference between slowly applying heat, or thrusting one's arm into a fire. The pain is all right there, all at once.
  2. The action progresses within the sentence. Aerin's pain starts in her arm, which leads to her scream-cough, which leads to her coughing up blood. It's a progression, and it's key to the sentence structure. If there was one pain--say, the pain in the arm--and that pain was contained in one sentence and described in several different ways, we might perhaps have a better idea of what the pain in the arm really felt like (i.e. I don't know if it's a burning pain, or a crushing pain, etc.). On the other hand, we'd lose the momentum of the progression--this sentence is not about how badly one part of Aerin is hurt--it's about how all of Aerin is hurt.
  3. There's a shift in perspective. The sentence starts with Aerin, focused entirely on her pain, but ends with the men who love her--Tor and Arlbeth--and how they cannot help with her pain. That last clause, that's what makes me weep. The sentence shifts from physical to mental anguish. It shows how pain extends past the person who is in pain. It puts the story into perspective, and makes the pain of Aerin that much worse because there is no help for her, and because those who love her really can do nothing but watch helplessly.
So that's what I think makes that passage powerful. In general, powerful writing needs certain elements. In this case, it's a combination of backstory, structure, description and perspective. Certainly the passage is not as important to me when it's cut out of the text and pasted here--and certainly a book would not be readable if every single sentence was powerful. However, in our writing, I believe that one of our goals should be a build-up to a similar powerful passage. You can have several, certainly, and the whole point of writing should not be these few powerful sentences, but if you can write a story that is so gripping, one that can lead up to words that are so powerful...well, then, you've succeeded.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I can't quit with a good subject...

Tabitha had some great comments to make about my recent post on voice. This really is a topic that I am struggling with now, as I don't think my current WIP has a good enough voice (because, mainly, I'm so busy working on plot that I'm ignoring other elements, like voice...and, you know, grammar). So I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but...

What is voice? I dunno. It's a little indefinable, isn't it? I can't give a simple answer, but here's the way I think of it. Imagine two high school kids in art class. They both love to draw. They both study their high school teacher's instructions. They both have the drive to be artists. But when you look at Susie's drawings, you can tell that this kid may be creative, but she's no artist. It's just not there. She could study the technical side of it all she wanted, but she'll never make more than lines on a page. But then look at Annie's drawings. She needs improvement, sure, and she's certainly not da Vinci yet, but there's some indefinable quality that makes you know that this kid can draw. She's a natural. Even her doodles seem to come to life.

Now, the kid who doesn't have that natural-born artistic quality and the kid who does can both go to college and study art. They can travel Europe, study the masters, whatever. But the kid who doesn't have the art inside her won't ever be able to produce the stuff that the kid who does have it can. With study, the kid who doesn't have art can make a passable drawing. She could even be good at drawing...but her work won't be in museums. The kid who does have art...that's a whole other story.

In my opinion, this applies to all artistic endeavors. There's a difference between photographers and people who just take pictures. There's a difference between emo kids who write angst-ridden poetry in their darkened rooms and Maya Angelou. There's a difference between someone who writes with voice, and someone who writes without it.

Can voice be taught? Tabitha made an excellent point when she said:
If you mean that Voice can't be taught in the way 5+2=7 is taught, then yes, it can't. Or, if you mean that *finding* one's Voice can't be taught, then maybe. I suppose it depends on whether pointing someone in the right direction is considered teaching.

Still, that's only one aspect of Voice. And I truly believe that the rest can be taught.
Can voice be taught? I don't know. I agree with Tabitha in that this will depend on one's definition of voice, and in some ways, I still think that no, voice can't be taught. But I do think that voice can change, and that teaching can change

Here's my ideas on it. In my above example, Susie just didn't have that artistic spark. But let's say that something brilliant happened to her. She got pregnant and had a child. Her world view's changed, now. She looks at the world both as her own person and as the mother of her child. Now, let's say that she starts to really study the work of Mary Cassatt. She's inspired by the work, and goes to a class taught by a teacher who specializes in that vein of art. Now she has the drive, and has grown in skill. Her art will certainly be better...and she might have now become the type of person one could faithfully call "artist."

I suppose, in that way, voice can be taught for a writer. Technically, I'd argue that the books we as writers enjoy reading work as mentors and inspiration for our own writing, and every time we read a book, we learn about voice (if we're paying attention). Likewise, attending a writing class could provide the basis for developing a better voice.

But it's not that easy. Despite all this, I still contend that there is some element of voice that can never be taught. That you either have it, or you don't, and if you don't, you'll never get it. Perhaps I am somewhat jaded because of my experience working with high school kids on creative writing. Some of them are brilliant. Those kids make me want to weep because they're so good. Some of them...well, they try really hard, and they do everything technically right, but...they don't have it. They'll never be writers. They'll never progress to more than teen-angst-Fallout-Boy-ripoff poems. They'll never make a short-story that anyone other than their family and friends will read. This is bitter, and it's sad, and I'm fully aware that despite the fact that I've been writing novels for five years, I may be in that category as I've yet to be published.

In any artistic endeavor, there is an artistic spark that, without it, the artist can never truly be an artist. Some people can't do math, or have a terrible memory for dates. Likewise, some people can't write, and some can't draw, and some can't sing. The thing that makes artists so terribly sad is that some, despite their dreams, can never be what they want to be.

But it's not that depressing, either. This is all not to say that if you don't have a voice, you can't be a writer. I don't think you can write effectively without a strong voice, but I don't think you should give up if you don't have one now. Part of voice relies on drive. Looking at my high school students, I can see that some of them are simply not good writers, but I would never, ever tell them to quit. If they're passionate about it, who knows what could develop? In high school, everyone's passionate about something. And although mostly they're all just passionate about getting into each other's pants, some of the kids have the passion to write or draw or sing. Maybe part of voice is just sheer stubbornness not to fail.

I'd like to think so.

Didn't You Know?

Summer begins today...not June 21st. Your calendar is wrong. Trust me. Summer begins today.

Because today's the first day of summer break!!!

Kids have no idea how much their teachers love break more than they do :)

Maybe now I can finally get some writing done! You know, between leading a group of kids to Europe, Yearbook Camp, and a teaching conference in the mountains. Sometime around there I should have time to write :)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When Will the Voices End?!

I know I've done waaaayy too many posts on voice, but I found this post on BookEnds fascinating and had to share (also, I am waaaayy too tired to make up a post on my own:

Voice occurs through word choice. Your vocabulary isn’t limited, but the words you choose to use more often than not are. Soda versus pop? Where you live, your background, and your experiences determine your voice. They all come together to determine who you are, and how your words will sound on paper.
I think this sums up voice nicely. At it's base, voice is just the selection of words. However, there's a difference between a boring voice and an intriguing one...

So, how do you get a handle on voice? You begin to look for it. You analyze yourself and your writing. Is your voice active or passive? Do you love adverbs? Adjectives? Prepositional phrases? Pronouns? Look for what makes your writing work—that unique element in the paragraph you really love. Then you eliminate the stuff you overuse or that makes your prose sound flat.
Again, a basic. To me, at this point in my writing, voice comes in steps. Get the words on the paper (step one, what Dunway just describes as word choice). Then, edit (step two, what she's describing here).
Just as your fingerprints are original, so should be your voice. Write what you love, characters you can love, and your readers will love you. Your voice is what sets you apart from everyone else; it’s what adds that special sparkle to writing that editors are looking for when authors recycle the same basic plots over and over. I mean, what makes your amnesiac bride with the cowboy’s secret baby unique? It’s the way you tell the story, and the way you make your plot come alive through your voice.
And this is why I think that voice cannot be taught. It's part of your personality.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Voices Talk to Me When I'm tired...

I'm exhausted. I was up until about 12:30 last night grading my students' final essays (a 6-8 page monstrosity on the effects of apathy in society). There were almost 70 essays, and I felt the need to comment on every one of them.

My husband, around 9 PM or so (I started grading at 1 PM and only took about four or so breaks), came in and told me I shouldn't bother writing comments on the essays since the kids wouldn't read them.

Today, when the greedy little jerks swarmed me before school, I gave them their essays one-by-one and sat there and made them read the comments!!

Anyway, I'm beat. But Rachelle Garner has a great post on voice, something I've been blogging about for awhile now.

So how do you find your voice? You can't learn it. You can't copy it. Voice isn't a matter of studying. You have to find it. And the only place to find it is within you.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Publish"America is suing Preditors & Editors!

I am shocked and outraged. Preditors and Editors is a website designed to help new writers spot scammers. It publishes information on whether or not an agent/editor charges fees, etc., and whether or not it has legit sales. Basically, it's one of the few reliable sources on whether or not you should send your work to an editor/agent.

And now it's being sued. (Info via Editorial Anonymous)

PublishAmerica, as most of you know, is a vanity press that pretends to no be a vanity press. For info on how to help, please click on the donation button on this page.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Stages of a New Writer

I don't know if every writer goes through the stages, but these are mine.
  1. Wannabe writer: It's a dream, but nothing more. No real effort it put into writing.
  2. OMG! I can write!: You've actually written something, and you're amazed that you've done it. It's got a plot, and it's book-length. Wow!
  3. ...this is it?: You're a bit shocked that you're not making JK Rowling's salary yet. You wrote a darn book, where's the film rights and huge advance?!
  4.'ll take more work than that: You realize your first book isn't perfect, even after revisions. You put it gently under the bed and start over, really working on craft.
  5. Yes! I'm a good writer!: You've actually written a decent novel. It's probably your sentimental novel, but at least you wrote something decent.
  6.'s still not good enough?: You realize that just because you wrote a decent novel, that doesn't automatically mean fame and fortune.
  7. Publishing learner: You read blogs, websites, and books on how to get published. You learn about the staggeringly small percentage of writers who get published.
  8. Drink: Gin comes in here. Lots and lots of gin. (Or something...some "excuse" comes up that makes you put writing in the background, and even if you say you've got to do X instead of writing, you know in your heart you're just avoiding writing because it makes you a little sad.)
  9. Persistent submitter: You start the long haul. You query. You curse. You drink more, but you still keep querying.
  10. Defeat of the sentimental novel: You realize that it's not them, it's you. You're too close to your novel. You realize it's good, but it's not good enough. Repeat step 8.
  11. Determined writer: If you ever get past steps 8-10, then you become a Determined Writer--you keep writing, knowing the odds, knowing that steps 8-10 might be repeated.
  12. Professional writer: You join critique groups, focus not just on "tips to getting published" but on "tips to being a better writer." You edit before submissions. You realize that writing towards publication is a business, and you treat it as such, as much as possible.
Right now, I'm at stage 12. I'm hoping lucky 13 is publication!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Revision Quotes

Vivian posted some quotes over on her blog, Hip Writer Mama.

They're just awesome. Here's one I really liked:

"Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing."

-Richard North Patterson

This is something that I struggle with constantly. I call it my "sentimental manuscript." It wasn't the first book I wrote, but it's the first one I thought had a chance at being published. Problem was, I thought it wasn't just ready for publication; it was perfect. Of course I was wrong.

The only cure for sentimental manuscript? Write another book, and try not to care as much. That's the only thing that worked for me.


I've struggled so much with the plot of my current WIP that I've not really had a chance to delve too deeply into characters. So here's my ideas on the ideal way to develop characters.

  1. Create a personality for the character. This doesn't have to ever go on paper, but you should know the character's likes and dislikes. You should be able to say what he's afraid of, his favorite thing to eat, whether or not he's a night person.
  2. Create a set of motivations and values for the character. This goes deeper than personality--it touches on character values. Does the character value truth? Then he'll be angry when someone lies. Does the character not really care about what it takes to do something? Then he'll be more ruthless.
  3. Create a plot. Plot and characterization lies hand-in-hand. If you just have the plot, then you just have a list of events. If you just have characters, then you just have a list of people. Combine events + people to get a story...and if you've established who and what the characters are and their values, then you'll know how they will react in a given situation.
Essentially, the author's job is to create the events that the characters react to. JK Rowling created Harry Potter as a strong-willed boy willing to fight for what's right, one who's a bit reckless and with a hero-complex, but one who essentially had a good heart. Then she put this boy in a situation where he had to do these things. Think about the fifth book. Harry has a vision of Sirius being tortured. That's the event. His reaction--rushing heedlessly off to save him--is based on Harry's character. Combine the event and the character, and that's the story.

My goal in writing: infuse more of my characters into the plot. I had only a vague idea of all but the main characters, but I've got to bring in more on my side characters so that they react to a situation based on their own personalities instead of what I need them to do to develop the plot.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Wanna Give it a Try?

(Read the post below this one first)

Here's my student's final essay question:

Describe using specific examples from the poem and real life, what Jaime Torres Bodet's poem "The Window" says about opportunity.

The Window
Jaime Torres Bodet

Translated from the Spanish by George Kearns

You closed the window. And it was the world,
the world that wanted to enter, all at once,
the world that gave that great shout,
that great, deep, rough cry
you did not want to hear-and now
will never call to you again as it called today,
asking your mercy!

The whole of life was in that cry:
the wind, the sea, the land
with its poles and its tropics,
the unreachable skies,
the ripened grain in the resounding wheat field,
the thick heat above the wine presses,
dawn on the mountains, shadowy woods,

parched lips stuck together longing for
cool water condensed in pools,
and all pleasures, all sufferings,
all loves, all hates,
were in this day, anxiously
asking your mercy…

But you were afraid of life.
And you remained alone,
behind the closed and silent window,
not understanding that the world calls
to a man
only once that way, and with that kind
of cry,
with that great, rough, hoarse cry!

Try out an answer in the comments section! I promise to grade you easier than I do my students :)

Learning from Students

My day job is a teacher. Which will mean I may be scanty on the posts for the next few days. It depends on whether I really buckle down and grade those finals, or whether I slack off and play on the internet instead.

The essay question on their test is to interpret a South American poem, "The Window" by Jaime Torres Bodet and explain what that poem is saying about opportunity. Some of the kids really went with it, describing lost opportunities to say goodbye to their grandmother, or creating scenarios of how they thought the poem was talking about lost love (which reminded me more of this poem).

In reading these essays, I could really tell the difference between the kids who were writers and the kids who weren't. I'm not saying anything bad about the kids--it's just some people can write, and others can't. As a teacher, I am perfectly aware that there is a limit to how much I can teach each child about literature and writing--just as their is a limit for each individual child on how much math, or science, or history she can understand. Some people are programmed for certain subjects more than others.

I digress. The difference, at this very early stage in these young writer's life, is personal observation. Some kids were straight to the point, and while their examples were technically correct, they weren't very specific: "I wanted to go to the roller skating rink, but for some reason I decided not to go. Who knows what could have happened?" But others really went in depth. The student worked to make the example real. One wrote about a friend who had a scholarship to study in Spain, but didn't go because he was scared. He talked about the kid's facial expression, the shift from eagerness to cowardice, the way his appearance changed from open and willing to closed and shy as the departure drew nearer. He added real-life detail that made the example come alive.

A writer must do this. A writer must observe life. When the writer then creates a character, the writer must consider what that character would do in real life. A character cannot just progress plot--that makes a story a list. A character must instead have depth, "real" emotions that dictate actions, even poor actions like missing a trip to Spain. A character cannot be simple. In order to create real characters, a writer must have personal observations of real people. It's the details that create reality. Writing without detail is like a blurry photograph--you might be able to tell what the picture is, but you're not going to frame it and hang it on the wall.

Example: In the Percy Jackson series, Percy's mother makes blue-dyed food as a special treat for Percy because it's her little way of rebelling against an oppressive husband who says blue food is impossible. That's a minor detail. Without it, the plot does just fine, the characters develop just fine--it's not needed. But it makes the story so much richer, the characters so much more real.

Striving to develop real characters with real histories, real emotions, real motivations, and real actions makes a richer, better story. Our goal as a writer is to do just that.

PS: A little note about my finals. They're killer. The school allows us 3 hours of testing, and I use all three. The kids have nearly 200 multiple choice, 9 short answers, and an essay...and the questions are all very specific. Sample short answer question: Give an example of a medieval allegory, explaining the symbolic and literal meaning. Or, define the differences between Abrahmic and dharmic religions and explain how these differences influence literature in the East or the West. *insert wicked witch cackle here*

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In Praise of the Butt

Yesterday, as I wrapped up a new chapter (and crossed the 100 page hurdle that means, for me, this book will be finished or I'll die trying), I cracked my knuckles in satisfaction. These past thirty or so pages, where I was trying to get over writer's block and figure out where to take my characters has been difficult to write, and reading back over them, I know I'll have to do some heavy revision to that section simply because it was difficult to write. I've taken my character in a whole new direction, so I'm going to have change some foreshadowing in the earlier chapters. And the writing's clunky--I was worried about what would happen and didn't focus so much on the beauty of language as on getting the plot on paper.

But the important thing is: the plot is on the paper, the story is there, and the story can go on, much like Rose did (and Jack didn't).

For the past few weeks, I've been having a hard time getting the words down. I tried plotting, and making character maps, and outlining, and a whole lot of other stuff I don't normally do.

Nothing works so well as my butt in my chair in front of my computer. Butt-in-chair is the perfect remedy for writer's block. Last night, I goofed off on the internet, worked on critiquing someone else's chapter, and finally I had to decide: play a video game, take a bath, read a book...or work on my book. I had no words, and told myself I didn't have the energy, it was too late.

But I tried butt-in-chair for a little bit. I brought up my ms. I stared at it. I guess I can add one more sentence at the end of this paragraph. I thought. Then I'll read a book in the tub. So I added a sentence. Then another. Then a paragraph. Then a page. Then ten.

If I ever get whiney about writing again, just remind me: put your butt in the chair and write.

PS--PJ's got a great little story about butts on her blog, too! (but with a little bit of a different angle...)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Letting Your Characters Decide

I've recently gotten to one of those turning points in my novel, and, I've got to say, I'm very disappointed in my character. She didn't do what I would have done. She didn't do what I wanted her to do--in fact, she did everything wrong.

Which is great.

When you get to the point in your writing where you know, logically, what your characters would do in the situation, especially when it's the opposite of what you'd do, then you know your writing is working, that your characters are clear, and that you've established a strong scene.

Which doesn't mean I still can't disagree with her!

Fun Contest!

It's easy to enter Keri Mikulski's contest for free books: just go to her blog, and write about your favorite vacation spot. Go! Now! Free books are up for grabs!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Getting through writer's block

I've been struggling for awhile now as to where to take my story. I had the beginning done (about 80 pages), and I knew the ending, but I had no idea what went in the middle...I had no idea how to get my characters from the beginning to the end.

I tried outlining, but that doesn't work for me. I brainstormed a bit, and came up with a rough guide for the next three or so chapters. Here's a sample:

Chapter 10

-Adventures with wands! --Note: only elements

-Flower storm from cherry trees

-Belle changes self, room, etc. at home

-Discuss with others

That's the extent of my outline for that chapter. As you can see, not very detailed, but the best I could do. Then I just sat down and stared at the screen.

The result? I realized that some of the mythology linked with my world matched mythology and images I'd learned about during my college trip to Malta. OK, then, I took my characters to Malta. By doing that, I discovered more links, more ways to connect the real world and the world I'd invented. It didn't work perfectly. I had to do a lot of image and map searching to make sure my memory matched real life. And I had to change that outline, skimpy as it is, as I went--I had to change the order of things, add in clues about the ending, etc., that made one line of my outline into a whole chapter by itself, or merged two chapter outlines into one chapter. In the end, I've got nearly 10 pages written, and a clear idea of what else I'm going to write. That old inspiration is back; a Maltese carving at Hagar Qim led me to a three page description and connection to my characters that I thought of while driving home from my mother's birthday party.

Lesson learned: when writing gets tough, just keep going. Do whatever it takes. If you've got to make short-hand outline sketches and then ignore them, do it. Whatever it takes, as long as you've got your butt in the chair and your hands in the writing!