The plot thickens

It’s day two of Camp NaNoWriMo and I’m behind in my word count – way behind.  The upside is I’m still working on my novel, just indirectly.  Even though my word count is not progressing much at the moment, I’m working to get to where the words will flow.  I decided (belatedly I know) to deconstruct the first half of the novel.  I’ve started editing the first part of it but realized I haven’t read the last two-thirds or so since I wrote it last November.  Not only that, but I’ve learned some things recently about scenes and blocking out plots.

I’m not so worried about my low word count this early in the month.  The average daily word count to shoot for to finish on time is 1,613.  It’s not an assignment; it’s a number to keep in mind.  Another number the folks at The Office of Letters and Light (the NaNo organizers and managers) supply on their novel stats page is the average words you would have to write from where you are now to still finish on time.  For me in the middle of day two with 246 words under my belt it’s 1,651.  See?  It’s still early.

Getting back to scenes and plot progression.  When I read a book I have to be able to visualize the action and the scene or enough of the scene my imagination can fill in the blanks.  What that translates into is scenes.  If I don’t have enough information to visualize a scene it pulls me out of the story.  If I find myself wondering what the author meant by something, wondering if I missed something, it pulls me out of the story.  I’ve been hearing a lot lately about thinking of a novel as a series of scenes.  I’d never thought about it that way, but it eventually became a light bulb moment.

It had to percolate in my subconscious for a while, but I think the brew is ready.  I opened the first half of the novel and I’m taking it chapter by chapter making review margin comments that look like this:

Chapter 1 – Scene:  Protag introduces herself. / Scene:  Protag explains how the story starts and how she had a fight with her BFF.

Chapter 2 – Scene:  Protag is freaked out because __________. / Scene:  Protag calls BFF and tries to explain, asking her to come over.

Chapter 3 – Scene:  BFF is convinced the fight was a mistake and sees proof.  Protag’s mother invites BFF to stay for dinner. / Scene:  Protag convinces parents she is sick and should stay home from school.  Protag makes a plan with BFF who is going to play hooky.

Keep in mind there’s a lot going on in each chapter to capture and hold the attention of the reader but the list of scenes is a good way to distill the story down to its bones.  My hope is that eventually I will be able to make a scene-by-scene outline that will allow the actual story writing to progress faster.

I read author’s sites when I enjoy their writing.  At one such site (I can’t remember which one) the author recommended you take a novel you like, that has a plot you appreciate, and deconstruct it.  I wasn’t sure how to go about that, but the scene list looks like a good way to go.  I think I’m going to start with the first of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark.  I love that book, and I want to figure out how the heck she did that, never mind best seller’s lists and HBO deals.  I’ll let you know how it pans out.

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What do kids and YA or youth writers have in common?

Kids and those who write for them have to face a lot of the same decisions.  There is one large difference, of course.  As writers, we struggle with these decisions for our characters.  For adolescents and young adults themselves, the decisions are personal.  They agonize over the first time they want to ask a girl for a dance without being forced by a gym teacher.  They struggle with the challenges of dating and the social pressures regarding drug use and sex, and all that is influenced by the pendulum swings of hormones.  Nostalgia just took a turn for me.  Ah, angst – I remember it well.

As writers, we have to decide how we’re going to present these situations and how they are going to affect our characters.  Young Adult publications run the gamut of idyllic stories that seem intent on setting a wholesome example to edgy stories that reflect the slimy underbelly of the reality in which some children live.

In the novel I’m writing my protagonist is a fifteen-year-old girl.  She’s a pretty normal, sassy teenager but events are going to change her reality and she’s going to have to adapt.  Will she start cursing like a sailor, will she kill somebody in a fit of rage, will she and the guy she’s been making goo-goo eyes with have sex?  Not sure yet, but it’s been on my mind – thus this post.

I can understand the motivation of some parents and educators to only let kids read books that can serve as an example of exemplary behavior.  That’s what I wanted for my kids and want for my grandkids.  I would prefer they never experience adversity and never have to make difficult choices.  In order to ensure that, we would have to move back to Eden.  That quest would be fraught with everything I tried to shelter them from and is an impossibility, whether you believe it ever existed or not.

I spoke to a psychologist many years ago about how to handle it if you suspected someone was contemplating suicide.  This came up because my son suspected a friend of his was contemplating suicide.  Her advice was to ask them point blank – ask if they were thinking about it, if they were planning it and how far into the planning they had gone.  She assured me I would not be putting ideas into their head.  They were not going to say, “Why didn’t I think of that!” and start planning a suicide if the thought wasn’t there in the first place.

I have extended that advice to include any emotional place a person, adult or child can find themselves.  We chose what to read based on our needs, likes and dislikes.  If it’s of no interest to us we won’t read it.  If our children read something that relates to them and their lives or brings up something they’d like to understand, it opens the door for dialog with us as parents and educators.  Just because we don’t want them to experience or be faced with a thing doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Telling them they can’t read about difficult realities also tells them we don’t want to talk about them, effectively shutting the door to dialog.

I tried to write this blog post objectively and give equal time to both sides of the debate, but I find I’m just not objective enough about it to do that.  The journalist in me cringes, but the parent, grandparent and writer in me has to take a stand.

You’re not the boss of me

I am all for independent thinking.  Don’t tell me what to write and don’t tell me how to write it.  Well, maybe suggestions would be okay, but only if I ask for them.  In a perfect world, anyone who reads my writing would just be completely impressed.  That was my initial sparkly fantasy about being an author.  Since then, the realities of writing have intruded into my psyche.  That hasn’t been a bad thing.

The written word (as well as other forms of story-telling) is powerful.  It has the ability to bring people to a subject or situation they may never have considered before, and it has the potential to sway opinions.  In anything capable of wielding such power, responsibility is intrinsic.

Wait just a minute!  Hold the phone, Charlie!  Say what?  Yeah.  That was my reaction, too.  What does this mean to me? I thought as my initial fantasy faded into an ethical quagmire.  Well, I’ve had many moons and several opportunities to think about it since then.

These are my choices: I can write in a way that benefits and gratifies both reader and community, or I can squander my efforts on biased, badly researched, self-serving writing.  I’m not saying I won’t write controversial issues.  I’m not saying I won’t write in controversial ways.  Authors of some of the classics presented in high school English classes were considered muckrakers when they were published, on a par with yellow journalism.  Their controversial writing stirred up the powers that be and precipitated change.  Prime examples are The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which is about the meat packing industry a hundred years ago and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in the 1960s, which brought the dangers of pesticides to light.

My point is they had a point and it was for the betterment of society as a whole.  Does that mean you can’t write a light piece that doesn’t tackle the big questions plaguing us all?  Nuh-uh.  My largest work in progress is a young-adult-turns-vampire story.  It’s not going to turn society on its ear nor re-write political rhetoric.  It’s going to entertain.

That said, my novel has interpersonal conflict and portrays social issues.  It’s a given.  It’s about a 15-year-old girl, her friends and relatives and they’re living in this world.  Any time you have a varied cast of characters launching on a quest it’s bound to happen whether in this world, on another world or in another universe.  Some things are universal.

My bad guys will think themselves good guys but will suffer consequences for bad choices.  My good guys will have an assortment of foibles and will sometimes make bad choices.  Again, there will be consequences.  All this comes about through conflict, just like real life.  Ask any teenager.

While preparing for this post I found sites that have tackled the issue from several viewpoints.  They are worth a look and are presented in no particular order.

First is William Mastrosimone, who is a movie writer in Hollywood and has impressive credits.  He wrote this article called “Confessions of a Violent Movie Writer” for a site that is no longer active but the information is still there for educational purposes.  You can find it here.

Another is at Media Literacy @ suite 101.  Called “A Writer’s Responsibility:  To Move and To Change,” it’s authored by Katherine Ward.  She aims her post to writers with a writing degree and assigns them a greater ethical burden.  I have to disagree on that point.  It doesn’t take a degree to write effective fiction or non-fiction, although it can’t hurt.  The onus is inherent to the writing, whether or not the author has a degree.  That said, the post is a good one.  You can find it here.

Next is not one but two posts by Annie Neugebauer on her blog by the same name and subtitled “The madness.  The heartbreak.  The writing.”  Amen, Sister.  I read the blogs in reverse order.  She refers to the second post in the first, which I found in a Google search.  The first post is titled “Disagreeing with Books: Writer Responsibility and Reader Accountability.”  It can be found here.  The second post was written earlier and is titled “Why I’m Tired of People Ragging on Twilight.”  It is a post that addresses the same issue from the back door and can be found here.

I’m compelled to mention a book called Writing and Responsibility by Carl Tighe which is apparently a text book.  I’m sure any student can attest that would account for the hardcover price tag of $110.00 at Amazon but you can get it for Kindle or in paperback for under $30.  I haven’t read it, but I intend to buy it with my next paycheck.  The editorial reviews on Amazon are sterling and the author’s creds are impressive.  Amazon’s offering is here, but I’m sure it’s available elsewhere as well.

Balancing writing ethics and personal freedoms is something each of us has to decide for ourselves.  My stand is firm, but if I should read a compelling enough argument or fictional situation, I might have to revise my view.

Thoughts?  Speak!  Please.

Parentheses, ellipses and dashes, oh my!

I have to admit to a love affair with the three versatile punctuation marks in this post’s title.  But like too many love affairs, this one is driven by undemanding attraction, convenience and an avaricious need for immediate gratification.  Mind you there is a place for such pleasures.  What I’m finding out is that given further effort and a deeper goal, the written word can be deeply satisfying and more in-depth.

Let me explain.  More and more what I’m reading is rife with said punctuation.  The writing is cute, flashy and trendy.  Like I said, there is a place for that.  If I’m writing a piece that’s short and sassy, cute, flashy and trendy may be just what I want.  If, however, I’m writing a piece that aspires to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature or a Pulitzer, limiting the use of such razzle-dazzle would probably be prudent.  I know, I know, winning a Nobel or a Pulitzer is not the goal of writing.  I’m just trying to show the pendulum swing from ditzy prose (which I occasionally write on purpose) to Literature (notice the capital “L”.)  While it grates my last nerve when people discuss literature as if it has a capital “L” and does not include genre or speculative fiction, I’m using it to make my point – which I then had to qualify.  Yeah.  That will probably be another post.

I was watching the past season of  The Voice at Hulu.com.  I never seem to be in front of the television at the right time, so I try and watch The Voice, America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent on the computer.  I love those shows but sometimes I get bored and play solitaire or Mahjongg at the same time – or even (gasp) click through the rehash parts and the yadda-yadda-yadda.  My point is that when the coaches work with the contestants, they invariably tell them their remarkable abilities to warble and hit Cloud Nine with vocal temerity is admirable, but it has more impact if it’s done less often.  The point of delivering a song is to impact, not merely impress the listener.  Impress them and they go “Oooooh.  Wish I could sing like that.”  Impact them and they go “Oooooh.  Where can I buy that?”

I looked up the ins and outs of usage for each of these punctuation marks and more, but I don’t have room in this post to recap it for you.  So here’s your homework:  Look it up yourself.  I’ll even supply some reference sites.

There are proper and improper ways to go about even a relationship based on infatuation.  Really.

Here’s what I found:

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/dashes-parentheses-commas.aspx

http://www.myenglishteacher.net/dashes.html

http://www.uhv.edu/ac/newsletters/writing/grammartip2005.10.25.htm

http://darcknyt.deviantart.com/journal/Dots-and-Dashes-The-Em-Dash-and-Ellipsis-214173994

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ellipsis.aspx

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-use-ellipses.aspx

Emote, I say!

Last week I explored writing with specificity, the flip side of vaguity.  Speaking of which, soon we’ll have to discuss neologisms and solecisms – but not this week.

Not only is it desirable for your writing to be definitive and precise, it must also evoke emotion in the reader.  Emotion is what makes your readers give a flying fig what happens to your characters.  When your words pour into the brains and hearts of readers, you want them to bite their nails, worry their bottom lips with their teeth, create Botox-resistant creases between their eyebrows and have to put the story down while they laugh, imagining themselves as the protag.

We can’t just tell them a character was happy, but show them how happy so they feel it too.  I feel a bit like a voyeur sometimes when I watch people read my stories.  It’s heady stuff to see physical signs they’re invested in the story.  If they laugh, “Awww,” or look worried, as long as there’s no pause in their reading, I’m ecstatic.  I’m like a junkie with a fix, a kid on Christmas morning, a dog with a new bone.  That’s what I’m talking about.

I have to work at this myself.  If I don’t, my writing tends to be sweet and boring.  One of my critiquers told me some of the dialogue in a short story was kinda Hallmark-y.  Nothing against Hallmark cards or the Hallmark Channel, but that isn’t what I was going for.  I took the same piece to a critique group.  After their critiques, I mentioned what the other critiquer had  said about my dialog being Hallmark-y, and they all nodded.  Uh-huh.  They had pointed out the same weakness in the dialog, they had just used different words.

So that particular short story is back on the drawing board.  While I decide exactly what I’m going to do with it, I need to work on writing and evoking emotions.  I know the only way to keep getting better is to practice.  Who knew when I blew off the advice of my grade-school piano teacher that I’d be spouting the very same thing myself?  Practice, practice, practice writing forever and ever, amen.  That last part was my addition, but now I am a believer.

Another layer in the business of conveying emotion is creating a situation where it has to happen.  Shake things up.  Create conflict.  At heart, I’m a peaceful let’s-all-get-along kind of person.  When I read, I want murder, mayhem and non-stop action.  Hoo-yah!  Go figure.  When I write, I need to work at creating situations where emotion is built-in and all I have to do is let it happen.  Let’s  say our protag is on her way to the store and she runs into her former best friend whom she hasn’t seen since they both left for different colleges many years ago.  That’s a big ho-hum.  Now say this is the ex-friend who was seen kissing our protag’s soul mate just before they both disappeared without a trace?  Can  you imagine that run-in sans emotion?  Not so much.  It would boil off the page.

All this makes me want to get at it.  You too?  So practice already.

On reading and being read

I really enjoy reading.  I was a voracious reader as a kid.  My reading included several Jack London books from my grandmother’s bookcase and whatever caught my fancy at the library.  If it had animals in it (mostly horses) I’d read it, which included Black Beauty and Flicka, of course.   When babysitting, in my teenage years, I perused the parents’ bookshelves, two of whom were doctors – a  a child psychiatrist (his kids were a challenge) and a neurosurgeon.  There was a plethora of illustrated medical textbooks, and I found lots of pictures of gross anatomy.  When I say “gross” I don’t mean it in the medical sense.  Another gal for whom I frequently babysat had a copy of Mandingo by Kyle Onstott next to her easy chair.  Yowser!  That was definitely not young adult lit, and I couldn’t wait to babysit again and read the rest.  I was too embarrassed to ask if I could borrow it when she was done, and worried she’d tell my mom in any case.  Gasp!

That was then.  Now I have grown children of my own and even grandkids who are reading and one who is starting to write stories.  Be still my heart!  When I read now, it’s usually on the Kindle app on my iPhone.  Not only is it easier physically on my wrists and hands (I have carpal tunnel syndrome) but it’s backlit so I don’t have to keep a light on when I read in bed.  Best of all, though, is the built-in dictionary.  I can highlight a word and up pops the definition.  Technology is a wondrous thing.

I’m kind of a techno- and info-junky in as much as my pocketbook will allow.  My husband and kids will tell you I should lose the “kind of.”  As a result, when I read a book, I’m more than likely going to look things up beyond definitions.  For instance, I was reading Death Calls by Caridad Piñeiro and the main characters, who were in Miami and of Cuban descent, ate a take-out dish called ropa vieja.  I’d never heard of it, so I went online and found not only a definition but a recipe.  Now we eat it regularly, and love it.  By the way, ropa vieja is Spanish for “old clothes” and is a popular dish in many Latin countries.  One of the sources assumed “old clothes” was a metaphor for a throw-in-what-you-have stew.

Another of my favorite resources is Google Maps.  I was reading the Riley Jenson Guardian series by Keri Arthur, and again I had to act on my curiosity.  The author lives in Australia, and the series takes place there.  In one scene, the protagonist was in Melbourne, Australia, on Lygon Street, which she said was famous for its ethnic eateries.  (Do you detect a theme?)  I thought if it were a real street, it would be on Google Maps, so I entered Lygon Street, Melbourne, Au . . .  and clicked on the entire address when it popped up.  Bingo!  There was not only Lygon Street, but a row of flagged restaurants and other landmarks complete with phone numbers and addresses.  Since I wouldn’t be visiting other than virtually that didn’t matter, but it did put me in the right section of the street.  I grabbed the little guy on the top of the map’s scroll bar and put him on one end of the street, which brought my view down to street level.  From there, I coasted down the street and took a look around.  I didn’t even have to worry about driving down the wrong side of the street.

One day at work just after aquainting myself with Lygon Street, I had occasion to speak with a gentleman who was in Melbourne, Australia, and time to chat with him while I was looking up what he needed.  I told him about reading the book and looking around Lygon Street on Google Maps.  He knew the street and said it was known for Italian restaurants.  Must have been his favorite cuisine – I also saw, Greek, Thai, Mexican and lots more.  He also coached me in how to say Melbourne like a local (MEL-bǝn) and had me practice until he said I’d sound like a local as long as I didn’t say anything else.

What does all this mean to me the writer?  This world we live in is getting smaller all the time.  (I was going to say “exponentially” but I try to avoid buzz words that don’t really mean anything.)  I am not the only one who can say to myself, I wonder if that’s right? or I wonder what that looks like? and find out almost immediately.

One of my favorite authors, who shall remain nameless for the moment, turned her protag into a ferret, which she said was a rodent, and another character entered her into rat fights as just another rodent.  I didn’t have to look that one up – I’ve had ferrets.  They are not rodents; they’re carnivores who eat rodents.  They have fangs, not two long front teeth in the middle.  Due, I’m sure, to the lag between writing and publishing, it took two more books before her protag said something to the effect of “everyone knows ferrets aren’t rodents.”  Oops.  I felt bad for her.  When I had ferrets I found that lots of people mistakenly think they’re rodents.

As a writer, if you don’t know if something is possible or true, you’ll probably look it up.  The danger is those things you assume are true and don’t bother to look up.  Stephen King has confessed he hates to do research and it has come back to bite his backside more than once.

It’s something to keep in mind.  If it does happen to you just say, “Rats!” and know you’re in good company.

To outline or not to outline, that is the question

While I was going through a box of office-related items packed up from my old desk when we moved it out and moved my new desk in, I found a notebook I’d given up on finding a long time ago.  It was full of character analyses, back story and miscellaneous ideas for a young adult novel I started some time ago that stalled.  It’s from my pre-outlining, write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants era.  That didn’t work well for me.  My personality is flexible, try anything, push boundaries and take what comes.  My non-fiction writing experience has shown that to work for about three to five chapters.  At least that’s my experience.  Maybe I should have taken the fact that I can’t play chess outside of learning the basic moves.  I can’t visualize the game beyond the move that’s happening on the board at any given moment.  If you’re good at chess, maybe you don’t need to outline novels.  Let me know on that.  I’d like to hear.

I workshopped the beginning of that particular story on the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  The link is on the Resources page at right.  I got some valuable feedback, positive and negative.  One critiquer who was a published YA author, after listing some advice, said she liked it and couldn’t wait to read what happens next.  The problem was, neither could I, and I had no idea where to take it from there.  I had lots of ideas but was very unsure on how to develop them, and I couldn’t decide who was going to be the bad guy.  I just let it percolate from the back to the fore of my brain and back again.  Round and round it went, but not forward.  Shortly after that I wrote, among other things, what was in the notebook I found, but it was really wheel spinning.

After a couple more great ideas that wowed very few chapters, my plots again fizzled.  I put novel writing on the shelf for a while and started reading like a maniac and writing occasional shorts, flash pieces, essays and slice of life essay-type things.  I always proof what I read, even if it’s an entertaining novel.  My mother had a full-time office day job and evenings (sometimes late into the night) she typed term papers and theses for students on a portable electric typewriter with a manual return.  Ah, those were the days.  I often proof-read anything from freshman reports to science-heavy doctoral theses.  Now I read to entertain and educate myself.

How could I possibly pass up an opportunity to be entertained and educated all within the covers of a novel?  When I read, I decide what I like about the way a particular author handles plot or action scenes or relational interaction; what I like or don’t like and what I’d do differently, like it or not.

I also visit the authors’ web sites, which often contain a plethora of insight into how that particular author works.  That advice can be a couple of short articles that are funny and informative and offered as fiction, like Kerrelyn Sparks at http://www.kerrelynsparks.com/writing_tips.html, who really brings her point home with humor and wit.  She writes the Love at Stake series.  On the other hand, writers’ sites can contain a mother-lode of detailed instruction that goes on for pages and pages, like Jennifer Ashley’s writing blog:  http://www.jenniferonwriting.blogspot.com/. She writes The Stormwalker series as Allyson James as well as many other series under the noms de plume Jennifer Ashley and Ashley Gardner.  Then there’s Jim Butcher’s blog on writing: http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/.  He writes The Dresden Files series.  These are some of my favorite authors and they write some of my all-time favorite series.  Isn’t it lovely that they also like to share their knowledge about writing?  Yes!

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