Thursday, December 8, 2011

Words Should (Even)Flow

I write this blog while watching a live Pearl Jam concert on tv, listening to Vedder play his guitar while the enamored crowd sings "Better Man."  He is grinning from ear to ear.  I am grinning from ear to ear because I love him (in the platonic musical god sort of way of course).  And I am distinctly jealous because no matter how well I write, there will never be a crowd of a thousand bookies chanting catchy phrases from my work.  

Actually not completely sure I'd want that.  But it did cause me to pause and think about the strong tie between good music and good writing.  Both should be listened to and appreciated for their lyrical qualities.  How often, though, do we actually listen to good literature.  Just listen?  

I was recently lucky enough to hear Margaret Atwood read from both her fiction and nonfiction works.  Sure, I love it when writers talk about writing and their process, but the reading of the literature itself was just beautiful.  She is a force.  That's for sure, but her change of pacing, the nuances of tone, even her subtle gestures made the words all the more powerful.  It's been ages since I've listened to an audio book or simply let someone read to me.  It doesn't have to be the actual author but at least someone invested in the reading.  And listening to a reading will quickly dispense with bad literature.  A mismatched, ugly sentence flows about as well as a river full of molasses.  

When I am hard up for inspiration, I often think about a song.  Not the words per se or even the melody but the feeling I get when I listen and the overall message conveyed.  One of my first short stories, seventh grade I think, sprouted from the vaguely hippy Judy Collins music my mother bought for me on a vintage grey cassette.  I think I was still sporting my Fisher Price tape player at that point with the rainbow buttons.  I hit play and rewind and play and rewind to "Michael of the Mountain."  And no the story I wrote wasn't about Michael or a magical mountain or anything else starting with an m.  But it was about a feeling of isolation and contentment all neatly wrapped in one.  It was what I thought the song would be had it been distilled into a few pages and a few hundred words.

For me, framing the writing process this way (in lyrical terms) can also force me to slow down.  The pace, the rhythm, the wording morph into notes on a page, and how they each fit and follow one another is a special process.  It's my personal heaven because I'm miserable if I've stuck things together and it doesn't sound pretty.  And I don't mean pretty like a princess or glitter, but pretty in the sense that words fit perfectly.  A musician hits a wrong note, we wince.  An author hits the wrong word, we should shudder all the same.

Will I write a raucous, bawdy romance story if I listen to Lady Gaga?  Not necessarily, but I always want my writing to sound as pretty as a song even if no one ever says the words out loud.  The effect should be the same.  The rhythm, the movement, the things that are not about plot or character but just the language need to be present.  Maybe it's an archaic view, but so much modern writing is rushed.  Slapped together with glue and rubber bands and concept, that not so often do readers look for those lovely phrases that, like our favorite line from a song, mean exceedingly much to us.

*Since I started this post, my husband introduced me to The Talking Head's Stop Making Sense concert/film which only reinforces everything I've mentioned above.  David Byrne is such a force.  Thanks, sweetie :-)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ho Ho Hold Up, Where Are We?

This post won't be of much use to anyone writing-wise.  But blogs by their very nature can be self-indulgent and ramble from time to time.  That or I'm prematurely preparing for my senior years where I'll be a retired teacher who puts my feet up on other peoples' desks and regales other peoples' students with my own vaguely amusing stories.  (Yes, I fully intend to use phrases like whipper snapper and getting jiggy with it to further date myself.)

Regardless I have found myself falling into frequent writing trances over the last few days.  (To clarify, a writing trance by my own definition is a moment where I stop paying attention to everything else going on because I've been inspired, and I gather details to use in a story either that day or a month or a year down the road.)  Perhaps it's because I'm on holiday break, luxury beyond luxury, or maybe excessive turkey induces strange bursts of creativity, but I stop every few minutes and mentally jot down notes.  Usually this happens from time to time and more often than not with people.  A strange movement.  A funny phrase.  An irresistible outfit never meant to be.  But over this past weekend it's been more constant and more atmospheric.  I keep seeing places that look ready for action.  A Christmas tree lot.  An animal shelter that takes in any animal, literally any animal.  And then I wonder what comes first, the place or the person?

Intuitively I want to say the character.  How can you write a novel without a character?  But what about those lovely atmospheric pieces where the setting frankly takes over the people as if they're possessed by it?  (Wuthering Heights pops into mind immediately.)  And of course I must fall on a Harry Potter reference.  Hogwarts is actually alive.  The building is organic and moves and reacts to its inhabitants.  How often do we as writers slave over a characters only to drop them in humdrum surroundings?  Or they live in the wrong setting, one that is cliched or too complex?

I never give proper credit to setting, to be honest.  I often let it materialize on its own, but the piece I'm working on right now switches settings drastically and I think it's forcing my brain to be much more aware of their creations.  They can't be arbitrary, or worse yet generic, because they propel my heroine (yes I always write about women or girls) into utterly different states of mind.  Her exploration of the settings is key to her development as a character and her quest, albeit trite, is to understand herself through the places she visits and the people she meets.  Were I not to meticulously plan these out, to explore them fully first in my head, there's no way I could authentically write her experiences.

Maybe that's why I'm noticing every place I go, not the people around me but rather how the people interact and respond to their environments.  It's pleasantly draining because then I remember that other things should occupy my mind. School starting back up in two days.  The laundry in the basement that resembles the Fraggle Rock trash heap.  Holiday shopping lists barely touched by Black Friday shopping (another provocative setting).  But I believe in striking while the iron is hot, and if the creative Sarah is hyperactive this holiday season, I'm tempted to let the laundry grow and sit on a bench somewhere watching the places, not the people.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

NaNoWriMo, You Dirty Dog

Is anyone else being driven absolutely batty by NaNoWriMo?  (It's even exhausting to type out the acronym, with the correct capital letters and such.)  It has eluded me forever, and while I am progressing along at a beautiful pace this year, I find the endeavor seeping into almost every inch of my life.  And my jury is still out on whether or not this is a useful practice.

Sure it's pushing me to write write write.  And if I have to type the word 'the' 60,000 times ala Nicholson in The Shining, I am finishing out the month with a novel in my pocket.  I am in fact writing through my normal blockades where in past projects I've just stopped or skipped on to something else.  Characters who misbehave are tossed into the trash for now and make way for those who will fall in line and skip along with the plot I've devised.  I've simplified the novel's settings to track them more easily and add richer detail.  I downloaded the new index card application for my iPad (which is lovely, can't recommend it enough) and I am certainly more organized than I have ever been with previous projects.  This locomotive of a project is on schedule.  

But...and there is always a it healthy to go nose to nose with a project and not come up for air until it's finished?  Does life allow for this sort of a luxury?  I am lucky to have a support system like no other. My husband picks up the odds and ends rattling around the house that I may be dropping because I've got one eye on word count and one eye on plot progression.  My parents chip in too, constantly, despite their ridiculously busy jobs and responsibilities, providing baby back-up whenever necessary.  But I still feel like I'm walking around with one of those adorable/evil cones dogs wear to keep from scratching themselves. I feel like the 150 percent I'm pouring into my YA novel is coming at a cost to other areas.  Do my children understand that I can't be quite as fun this month because I'm writing nonstop?  Will my teaching suffer if I'm watching the clock and wondering when my next free hour comes to knock out the required 2,000-word chapter?

And fellow writers, aren't we already an obsessive and escapist group?  (Also repetitive, because I feel certain I've blogged about this before.)  I remember these writing blinders sustaining me in high school, a place that I was never too fond of.  I say this loving it now, although being on the other side of the desk as a teacher is a far cry from the angst-ridden and teenage nightmarish place many students experience.  As a teenager I wrote for hours, read for hours, reminded myself that there were a million unexplored worlds to creep into that made my own feel finite and not so oppressive.  I remember writing a novella in middle school actually, after Gary Paulsen came to speak to us, and I'm fairly certain I did nothing else for three months solid but write until my orange Mead notebook and Trapper Keeper were chock full of the stories.

No wonder NaNoWriMo is only a month, because any longer and I might forget my name.  Or my address.  Running a mental marathon filled with metaphors and alliteration, conflict and resolution, is no easy task.  But then again, at the end of November while I am feasting on turkey, I will in fact have my novel in my pocket.  So NaNoWriMo, let's call a truce.  Get me to the end of my book, and I'll stop griping about the annoying acronym or the fact that I may have forgotten to tie my own shoes, that brain space occupied by my writing.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Conferences, They Do A Body Good

Get thee to a writing conference.  Right now, this second.  Drop your Starbucks, board your pets, call in sick (and cough for good measure.)  But make your way to a writing conference because it is like a shot of writing adrenaline right in the good old chest plate.

I say this as I rarely take my own advice.  I worry about how much a conference will cost or if it's worth the expense.  (I've been lucky enough to receive two scholarships - check for them.  Usually one or two are available.)  I mentally list the five hundred and seventeen things that I ought to be doing instead of traveling, settling in, and conferencing.  Grading and parenting are often the two big ones I can't quite dismiss.  And of course  I miss my children, my husband, even the fat orange tabby cat who masquerades as our pet and is in reality a slash and claw machine.  Sure I see them every day, but between school, sports practices, and the daily minutia the weekend days are precious downtime to enjoy with them rather than running on the frantic hamster wheel that is our life.    

But honestly the thing that most keeps me from conferences is an ugly voice in the back of my head that tries to remind me with its acid tongue that I'm not a writer yet.  I don't receive a steady paycheck.  My books are not on Barnes and Noble's shelves.  Most of the free world does not know me as an author.  A teacher?  Sure.  A mother, daughter, neighbor, friend?  Yup.  But not an author.

With that laundry list of reasons why I shouldn't go to a conference, there need to be major ones on the other side of the teeter totter to balance things out.  Or frankly why go to another writing event ever again?

Well, there are.  There are plenty of reasons, and I can offer a few from my own humble perspective.  But by reading them, you (as a writer, and you ARE most likely one if you're reading this) are promising me that you will get yourself to a conference this year, next, or within the decade.  Life of course throws obstacles aplenty, but the obstacles should only show us how impassioned we are to make writing real in our lives.

First, meeting other writers is just neat.  We're eccentric, we're spread out across the universe, and we're not easily identifiable like say those ladies who wear the red hats.  I spoke with a mother from Utah, a criminal attorney from NYC, and a teacher from Connecticut.  Except in the banquet room over breakfast we were all writers, many of whom had not yet experienced their big breaks.  Not that I'd ever be pleased with anyone else's misfortune, but it's encouraging to know that the highly publicized stories of twenty-year-olds with six figure book deals are certainly not the norm.

And there are mentors and advice galore.  I was lucky enough to attend the Rutgers One-on-One Conference, and I worked with an agent who was exceedingly helpful and could concentrate on my manuscript and query.  (Of course my hope is that I can submit a revised version and snag her as my agent in the near future.  I'll keep everyone posted about that.)  But even when the ratio's not that favorable and there look to be two dozen writers for every agent or editor, there are still moments to touch base.  Or sit and listen to the wisdom.  And there's plenty of it.  Not just from the formal presentations and workshops.  Eavesdrop on the juicy conversations that more times than not describe situations and questions you have or will eventually find yourself in.  Even if it's something simple and obvious like, "Write like your life depends on it."  I've been repeating that phrase in my head a lot the last few days.  It's a far better voice to listen to than the negative one.  

And finally, more than the other reasons, the conference will energize you to write.  I came home realizing that my writing regiment just wasn't cutting it, and usually I consider myself pretty prolific.  I manage to find kernels of time, but since the conference I've been religiously knocking out two and three chapters each day of writing or revision even if all my other duties are screaming at me to stop and please instead pick up a stack of laundry or sort toys. The conference reminded me that I am most certainly a writer who, along with many other talented men and women, should work each and every day on my craft as if it was not only a hobby, but as if my professional happiness depended upon it. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Quality, Quantity, or Quiche?

This post comes on the heels of two slices of spinach and Gruy√®re quiche and a bowl of asparagus and goat's cheese pasta, so not sure how coherent I can be on such a full and deliciously satisfied stomach thanks to my hubby.  But I'll try nonetheless...

I have prolific writing moments.  There are notebooks in my garage full of stories, novel starters, and random one-liners.  I also have have a formidable rejection pile, stories gracefully declined from Glimmer Train and The New Yorker.  Zoetrope and Esquire.  (My favorite one, actually, includes a personal and deeply complimentary note from the editor at the time of Esquire :-)  When I'm not feeling so prolific I wade through the sorry Sally stories - yes, my students are studying alliteration, I'm sort of obsessed - and this brings me to the topic of today's blog post.

Is it better as a writer to have our name out there any which way we can, or should we exhibit a conservative hand and reserve placement solely for the glitz and glam of the big names?

As always, I don't know on which side of the line I fall.  There are thousands of online destinations where a piece can be published these days.  I ran my own online literary magazine for two years, and on any given day I toy with the idea of starting another even though I'm already sleeping fewer hours than I'd prefer.  There are also a multitude of author's personal websites.  And hubs for fan fiction, role playing scripts, and blogs.  Ahem, yes I said it.  Blogs like the one you are reading right now.  

Literally I could send any of my previously failed stories out to one thousand and seven places and not begin to scratch the surface of the internet's wide grasp.  Of course I'd re-edit them first.  Not to pat myself on the back, but I'm guessing someone would pick up these stories.  Somewhere.  If not, I'd finally get my own site running and place it there myself.  The question that begs to be asked, though, is "does the process become too easy?"

Does instant publication make us more likely to release our pieces into the wild before they are ready?  Sure there are thousands of authors out there, but if there are thousands of sites looking to populate their spaces with work, can it all be sustained?  Or do editors find themselves dropping standards and accepting more than they should?  And do authors build a quick and large resume of publications that don't necessarily represent their best works?  As we all know painfully well, not all stories are good enough to be published.  Or frankly to see the light of day.  But in the digital age have we lost the outside filter that differentiates quality from fluff?

Of course we now find ourselves racing head-first down the slippery slope of investigating the meaning of the word quality, and the last thing I want to do is come off as a lit snob.  I like my comic books as much as my classics, and I believe that all genres, styles, voices, etc. are unique and could easily be championed by a Lady Gaga song touting their beauty.  I'm thinking more of polished and finished versus draft and sloppy.  I can best liken the core of my question to Project Runway.  I have no issue with the purple pleather maxidress with a red leopard print boa and granny bloomers beneath if that's the designer's masterpiece.  BUT had the designer been given more time, wouldn't he or she have edited and finessed more?

Do we as writers need to force ourselves to keep revisiting and sending our works to the best of the best until something crosses through the magic gate into substantial publication?

Playing the devil's advocate, several incredible authors and literary phenomena have emerged from the internet.  Authors can connect with one another.  Critique groups defy state and country lines, and the idea of a global literary community has never been more possible.  Youngsters are encouraged to write because they believe their voices will be heard more now than ever before.  And authors are nudged into being more prolific and connecting with readers, a once shaky at best path of communication.  I emailed quite some time ago with Jodi Piccoult and got goosebumps that authors are that accessible.  I remember the first short story of hers I read in Seventeen Magazine back in the late 80's.  

Perhaps my real question isn't quality versus quantity of publication but instead a concern with how the art of writing is evolving.  Is the line between draft and final copy so blurred that the fine art of editing isn't a must anymore?  I can't imagine how hard it must have been for writers to work with typewriters and little tabs of white out.  (Who am I kidding?  I'm thirty-five, and when I was a kid I did it, too.)  You didn't race to type a word unless you were deeply invested in it.  A wrong keystroke meant aligning the little white square, backing up the machine and paper, and retyping *if* you manage it in the right spot.  Now, we have undo icons, quick deletes, and buttons that let us publish in under a second.  Is the ease and convenience of immediate and mass publishing hurting the art and craft of writing?

I write this while eyeing the tempting orange publish post button.  It's late, but I think I'll read back over the post a few more times.  Just in case.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been?

I'm sure I'm not the first person to swipe the title from Oates' iconic short story featuring uber villain Arnold Friend.  Great story, great question, no answer when it comes to my writing.  I've blogged before about my struggle between the young adult and mainstream adult literary worlds.  I'm attending a fab conference at Rutgers next month for children's writers (scholarship to boot!) which is gently nudging me back into the young adult world.  But that's actually not what this blog is about.  Instead I'm facing an organizational issue of sorts.  I wonder if it's permissible to start at my destination and walk backwards through my story.

Am I wrapping a straight jacket around my narrative by sussing out the outcome first?  This certainly wasn't my original intention.

Normally I don't work this way at all.  I begin with a vague at best understanding of where I'm headed.  The protagonist is ironed out for sure, maybe with a few other characters sketched in.  To be honest many, many times I start with a first line and go charging off into the darkness with a foolish optimism that things will just, for lack of a better word, happen.  The story grows and thrives or dissolves on the paper.  The strong stories survive.  It's a Darwinism fiction thing, I'm fairly certain.

In the past when I've tried outlining or doping out the entire piece before plunging into the execution of it, the story feels more like drudgery than fun.  And yes, I demand that writing feel fun.  Perhaps I should treat it more like a profession, and I do work exceedingly hard when I write.  But the best and most successful stories never feel like work.  They write themselves (start to finish in a neat chronological order), which is why I'm at a loss.  This story, this idea that started out as a strange little drawing of crooked houses on a piece of scrapbooking cardboard already has an ending, and I'm racing like a madwoman to keep up.

When it first reared its ugly head, I tried to put the ending out of my mind.  For days.  And days.  My husband's been traveling (back recently, and I am tickled pink.  It may be horribly cliched, but he is indeed my other half and his presence is sorely missed) but while he was gone I often woke up and wrote in the middle of the night.  Two a.m.   Four a.m.  Once our psychotic dog's barking woke me.  Another night had an odd dream.  The next a creak in the basement unsettled me.  Regardless, I couldn't help myself and wrote the ending in the pitch black of night.  The last chapter, more accurately, wrote itself.  Vaguely fantasy, vaguely a throwback to the 80's teen movies that always satisfied me with their honest, sincere closing scenes, the ending emerged raring to go in all its unusual glory.

This should be great news, right?  I have the beginning and the end.  Isn't the middle simple, like pouring a filling into a pie and packing it in to ready it for the oven?  Not really.  I fret, now, that the story is a maze and every phrase or motion needs to definitively move the reader towards that ending.  I worry that those light moments, those quirky sidebars, aren't happening so much anymore.  Instead the narrative is a machine with a mechanically clear purpose, an assembly line chugging right along without me.

Even worse, I'm afraid the final pieces won't fit.  What if I hit the end and it doesn't make sense and suddenly the ending, which I love, won't work.  I know I could change it, but I don't want to.  (Please imagine me stomping my feet and sticking out my tongue.)  I'm a fickle writer, and I frequently ignore the advice I give my creative writing students and dig in my heels when I shouldn't.  But I love my ending.  The heroine's life is made better.  Bottom line it makes me feel good, too.  Sometimes I think we've become a ghoulish society dining on the ashes rather than building anew from them.  Without getting too deep or existential (as Cher from Clueless might say, twirling her hair and eating chips), I'd like to think whatever I write, whatever genre, will be a positive contribution to the world.  Full of sarcasm and such, but positive at the end.

I guess I ought to stop worrying and start filling in those missing pieces.  As I've said before, if my worst worries are how and what to write, I'm pretty darn lucky.    

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

It's all about me...

Actually, it's all about 'I'.  And that's the problem.  I'm sort of drowning in a first person narrative this evening, and I've made up my mind not to go to bed until I manage to reconcile myself with a point of view I rarely use or stick with.  (Does this mean that I'll watch the sun rise?  Those who know me well realize I'll probably throw in the towel around 11.  Unless of course the rain continues and the house may just float away.  Counties nearby are already in states of emergency.)

Normally I'm a third person omniscient  or third person limited kind of gal.  I enjoy stepping back and setting up my fictional worlds as I see fit.  With a critical eye.  And let's be honest, it's much less risky than first person.  Crawling solely into any character's brain  and adopting the 'I' risks over-indulgences and blinders galore.  Why plant myself in there when instead I can construct all of the characters with an even hand, push and pull all of their emotions and actions like clay until everything grinds together?  Third person gives me a distinct level of control.  

First person, on the other hand, can (and I say can because for many authors this isn't an issue) but it can cause the other characters in a narrative to wither and suffer.  The focus  of the 'I' is a laser.  And when an authors shines the floodlight on that that one character, he or she must be spot on.  He or she either has the voice that pulls readers in and grips them by their collars for the ride of the novel, or else the voice is mediocre and no matter how masterful a setting, how intriguing a storyline, how compelling the conflicts, it's nearly impossible to reel the reader back in once a lame voice has reared its ugly head.

And maybe that's where I'm struggling.  I am bound and determined to write a young adult novel.  Something about the genre has been calling to me for a long time, and even though I've been published more in the adult arena, I've snagged a few scholarships and awards for my young adult literature, spurring me along.  It's absolutely time to take the plunge, and while my husband is traveling with his uber cool band Alarm Will Sound, I am determined to get it done.  The entire novel.  Beginning to end.  That may be insane in just under two weeks with a full-time job and two children at home, but if not now, when?

I'm working on embracing my teenage angst, my general feeling of not knowing anything and knowing everything all at once, the absolute brilliance that I swear we lose the older and more cynical we get.  It's fun.  It's refreshing.  But it only works in first person.  The 'I' is the best way for me to intimately portray the character even though my inner critic incessantly reminds that that I am knee deep in the voice and it's make or break.  It also probably doesn't help that there's an element of magical realism already placing a twinkle on the heroine.  Sixteen.  Vaguely supernatural.  Distinctly confused and lost.  How do I avoid the 'I' trap and make sure the rest of the novel's world is fully formed and beautiful?

If I had an answer, this probably would be a blog about something else.  But as writers, I think we're always supposed to bring up more questions than answers.  We're supposed to move outside of our comfort zones and hopefully get our readers thinking outside of theirs as well.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

May I Have Some Wine To Go With That Cheese?

First and foremost, I would not mind a glass of sweet Riesling after a full day back at school.  Summers are beautiful and evil devices that trick teachers into forgetting the regimented working world waiting for us from September through June.  But that's not really what this post is about.  Feel free, though, to grab a glass of wine before you continue reading.  

Instead let's talk about the super fine line between deep, pithy moments wrought with emotion and those horrid, Danielle Steel-like lines that leave most readers and writers rolling their eyes for mercy or a vomit bag.  How do we, as authors, peer down into the emotional chasm and craft the keystone scenes of our works without plummeting into the world of cheese and cliche (and men with thick flowing hair who just long to be, well, longing?)  

Romantic relationship drama always creeps into my stories.  And the relationships never quite fit.  Someone is a few degrees out of tune with the other, and often that minor slip ends in a declaration of how unlivable the relationship has become.  I arrive at those scenes, those statements, and I wonder how much do I need to tell the reader without becoming preachy or predictable?  Should the hero, or often in my case heroine, stand at the door of her apartment flushed and screaming from the top of her lungs 'I'm free of you, scumbag?  And yeah, never date me or my sister again!'  

Or is that too much?  Um, yeah.  Probably.

And if the reader was playing close enough attention to what had preceded the moment of heartbreak, shouldn't he or she have already gotten what was going on internally? Instead is it enough for her to slam the door and sigh, head against the door frame, the air in the room taking on a pleasant chill while the stairs groan under the weight of scumbag's self and baggage dragging to the exit?  (As I'm writing, I realize that this blog is far more question than opinion, but that's ok.)

In fact to be more precise, this isn't really about overly cheesy scenes but instead overly overt scenes.  How much do we spell out for the reader of the emotional inner workings of our characters so that he or she gets it?  One of my favorite books (and authors - shout out to Maeve Binchy) Circle of Friends finds a way to express all of the stress, misery, love, and friendship a group of girls offer to one another without long stretches of sappy dialogue.  Or hugs and embraces every other page.  By no means is it a high literary romp, but the book's heartfelt and warm.  And never once did I shake my head and think, wow, that didn't really need to be said.

In my own works I try very hard to leave the payoff sentence to the last paragraph.  Perhaps that placement in and of itself is cliched and doesn't need to always be at the end, but I don't like dialogue or statements of summation for the reader during the core of the story.  I want the readers to figure it out from the quiet, tiny moments.  My characters don't reveal their feelings often in dialogue or grand sweeping motions.  And that's great, right?  Show, don't tell?

Well...not always.

Think about Poe and other drama mavens brave enough to make those overly emotional, brooding statements.  It works for those authors.  It sets a mood and tone the resonate with readers and linger well past when the cover of the book shuts.  As with most of the writing issues I approach, studying the masters will help.  And studying the non-examples, the awful Twilights of the world (ha, got in my digs for the blog) will help, too.  

I wish there was a simple test.  A stick I could insert into each sentence that would emerge with a clear label to let me know if I've gone too far or not nearly far enough.  I tell my high students daily to avoid drama at all costs, but maybe going too far to avoid drama in a story sterilizes it from the gritty goodness of a good brawl and a few nasty names screamed in the heat of the moment.  

My goal this evening?  Start a story for the Good Housekeeping Fiction Contest with pure drama.  A full paragraph of over-the-top-ness that ends in a scumbag and at least something being thrown.  Not a glass vase, though.  Now that would be just too cheesy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Liar Liar Pants on Fire

My son is going through a lying phase.  Relentlessly.  As he breathes.  I'm fairly sure that if I creep up next to him while he sleeps, he's lying between snores.  (It's funny.  I just read a friend's blog on the violent honesty of her little one, and I am missing those days like crazy right now.  The days where my son would point at women's bellies and say baby when clearly nothing was percolating inside.)

And then I think about being a writer, and that we are paid to lie.  Encouraged to lie.  And I'm trying to remember when I was little if I did the same thing.  Is he a creative genius trying out so many different stories in his head that sometimes they blur the lines between fiction and reality and it's impossible to give a straightforward answer?  Or is he an evil mastermind planning to take over our house and rule with an iron fist?  Nah, most likely he's ten and a kid and all the wonderful and bad things that go with that age.

It did, however, make me smile because as fiction writers we are not liars.  We are embellishers.  We are exaggerators.  We take the truth and twist it like a pretzel, shake some salt on top, and sell it as fiction. I've blogged before about borrowing other people's lives.  But in any reliable fiction class we are told to thumb our nose at reality.  Connect with the reader, but take reality and push it two degrees to the right where it is recognizable but not the same. Subtly blow your reader's mind.  I think that's why I like Neil Gaiman so much.  (Who doesn't?)  Take Coraline, for instance.  All children want to escape to an other reality where parents are better, but then Gaiman does the button eye thing and Coraline's world goes wrong.  It is terrifying.  But man, is it great.

Do we, in our stories, lie about reality?  Do we take a man and woman who would normally be sitting in LL Bean monogrammed robes drinking coffee and talking about the weather every morning and instead make one of them OCD while the other is clearly having sexual relations with the apartment super who smells like seafood and visits all the ladies in the building?  Of course we do.  Because no one reads stories, or books, or comics, to get a big old dose of reality.  We read to step inside of other people's brains.

I tell my students this constantly, and I hope that some of them believe me.  Read The Crucible because if you do, you'll know what it's like to be called a witch.  Jump into The Great Gatsby and you are magically an overly-moneyed twit running the show.  (I will at some point blog about how Daisy is one of the greatest villains in literary history.)  At any rate I don't want to read a book about me, because I live with fabulous  me every day.  I want someone to lie to me and tell me that things always end in fairy tales.  Or nightmares if that's your cup of tea.  But please, if you are a good writer, lie like a rug to me.  I prefer it that way.

The beautiful thing about writing is that our own personal truths are often lies to someone else.  They're wrapped up too neatly, even when mired in despair and destruction.  I want to be entertained, enlightened, but never bored.  Do not tell me the truth, because the truth is often something I am already quite aware of.  Tell me your truth and it's a shiny new toy to me, and while I'm being entertained secretly I'm learning something.  A new bit of my brain is crawling over the new idea and trying to figure it out.

Tell me the truth to my face, but if you're a writer, please lie to me.  I'll never hold it against you.  

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dream a Little Dream

I had this dream the other night.  There were talking cats.  An airplane.  Several reams of blue tissue paper draped across a grand piano.  And it gets weirder from there.  Coincidentally I just inserted a dream into my latest short story, and I'm dancing around the strangeness of it all.

Just how odd can a dream be in a story before you completely lose the reader?

In a story dreams ought to have meaning, right?  They should push forward the plot or reveal a snippet of the primary character that perhaps remained hidden from the reader.  Freud will turn in his grave when I type this, but sometimes dreams don't make sense or hold a deeper meaning other than their cushy face value weirdness.  They can be the fantastical, nutty, Lady Gagas of our mind that leave us with a beautiful yet unimportant image rattling around our brain for days.  The fun ones are so vivid they wake us up in a cold sweat, and we have no idea which world is real.  Or in which world we'd prefer to reside.  Dreams in stories rarely function for the fun of it.  If they do, they often see the business end of a red pen and never make it to the final draft.

Are dreams worth it in a story?  First person dreams are mildly easier, but I'm writing in third person limited which in my opinion makes it trickier.  How can I truly represent how the heroine is feeling in a dream sequence where I'm not using the 'I' and on top of that I have to leave out the flying hammers?  I don't want this to turn to a point of view discussion.  That would take multiple blogs and several days to deal with.  I'm just wondering why the dream is there.  Was there a gaping hole begging for an information dump?  And who ever wants to admit that there are gaping holes in your story?  In this particular case I neatly wrapped up the teacher's (yes I'm writing about a teacher, but it's elementary so not autobiographical at all :-) fears and determinations and duties and miseries in a few paragraphs from dreamland.  I'm just not that fond of the word dream and neat living together in the same sentence.

Anyway, after I inserted the dream, I went back.  I carefully walked through the story and planted details to ensure that the dream made sense.  But then the scene stopped being, well, dreamy.  I'm not unhappy with it.  I guess I just hate editing dreams.  Crafting them is fun.  It's like flying around in a room with no gravity.  Who doesn't love to write when there are no limits, except then reality slaps you in the face and the story has gone drastically off track.  It's a dilemma, for sure.

Probably best to go back and study dream sequences that I really admire from my favorite authors.  I know that there are people out there who do it just right.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

One is the loneliest number...

A former student dropped me an intriguing note, and only with her permission and a promise of anonymity do I share it.  

"No wonder so many writers used to off themselves.  It's so lonely to write.  Sometimes I feel like I've dropped in a black hole when I do it.  How do I cure this?  I've been writing to a lot of other writers, but it doesn't always help.  What do you do?"

In response I simply told her thank god for technology.  How amazing is it that we can critique each other's works from across continents, post blurbs that receive dozens of instant responses, and speak to industry giants or minimally gather their tweets like gold and tuck them away for future knowledge.  There is also a vague comfort in heading online to see other writers locking themselves away to work on projects or edit or revamp (or vamp depending on the genre they specialize in :-)  I wonder, though, if losing all the solitude is necessarily a good thing.  Does surfing the web and connecting to hundreds and thousands of friends and fans and peers dissolve the writer's mystique?  Is there a magical spark when we are left absolutely and entirely alone in our own heads to trip around and find our muse?

By no means do I think we should all vanish into the wilderness Thoreau-style, but the virtual noise can be too much at times.  I know, I know, turn off the monitor.  It's that simple, right?  No.  Not to anyone who knows the siren call of the various social networks, blogs, and websites.  Writers, for the most part, are collectors.  Think A&E Hoarders but with ideas which frankly can be far worse than a stack of 1934 album covers or antique phone parts.  (I haven't graduated to Animal Hoarders yet.  Too traumatic.)  But we stack and sort and dump new books, new words, new authors, new ideas into our heads with a dedication and frequency that I don't think the rest of the population has.  And when you place the internet in the hands of people like us, it's unfair.  Heck, it's downright dangerous.

I describe a typical computer session for me and only me, although I'm betting a few of you might relate.

I will stop writing only momentarily to check Facebook, and then I notice someone tweeted something interesting.  I head to Twitter where they've referenced a brand spanking new blog post.  Well the blog post can't be missed.  If I don't read it this instant and instead bookmark it, I'll likely never come back.  To the blog post, Batman.  Wait.  The blog post references four websites I have somehow never come across and need to visit.  And man is there a profound comment from an author in Anchorage who I must now follow on Twitter, and then I spy it.  I have no choice but to follow the cat with three legs, Tripod Kitters, who is not only tweeting but has 800 more followers than I do.  How did this cat manage it?  Well of course by reading his recent thirty tweets I too will grow my following.  I wonder.  Does Annie Lamott tweet?  No?  What about every other favorite author I have.  I better investigate.  

And so on.

And so on.

And I'm lost.  Wasn't I doing something a few hours ago?  Oh, that's right.  I was writing.

Again, I am a huge fan of the power of critique and connection that the internet offers writers.  A very social creature by nature, I don't want to think of myself as pursuing a profession that banishes me to a tiny tower that I will never escape from unless I get a book published and attract a million or so fans.  But lately I've been struggling to sort out how to balance my time and how to gain a bit more of the writing mystique.  I still love late night moments where I scribble a few things down and listen to the silence that surrounds those words.  I also admire the writers who maintain studios without anything other than a pen and paper or simple word processor.  And maybe a fish. A beta fish.  

Although I hear that fish have started Tweeting.  It's the thing to do.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pardon me. May I borrow your life?

As I sit devouring the new anthology Stories, edited by king of kings Neil Gaiman, I keep coming back to one of the shorter and more thought provoking tales, "A Life in Fictions" by Kat Howard.  The heroine's boyfriend happens to be a writer (poor gal) and whenever he writes he scoops up her life as fodder for his work, and she loses track of time and reality as she is sucked into his stories.  Each time she emerges from one of his narratives, she has lost a slice of her own identity.  Not to ruin the ending, but she ultimately sacrifices herself to exist in a good story.  The entire anthology has a vaguely creepy and haunting tone, most of the stuff beautifully written.  But as I begin a new story, I realize that the plot and idea are precisely taken from a moment in my son's life. And I wonder if this is always the case.  Do we forever borrow or snatch the details and lives of those around us for our works?  And if so, are there any dangers in doing this or ultimately should we always write we know?  Fact of the matter is, we intimately know the people in our lives.

Borrowing is natural.  We watch our crazy uncle Bob who insists on making balloon animals after family funerals to lighten the mood, and of COURSE it will translate into a story.  There is a woman down the street who only jogs in three-inch heels and it's impossible not to devour the details.  The people will never read the stories and connect that it's them, right?  I once saw an interview where JK Rowling mentioned that she'd unconsciously stolen names for her characters in Harry Potter, only realizing afterwards that they were living, breathing individuals now forever preserved in her series.  (If there is a Dolores Umbridge out there, yikes, and sorry!)  As writers we are natural vacuums who suck up details to populate our works, no matter how great our imaginations may be.

Then we cross the line and put something more intimate in.  We divulge someone else's personal moments or feelings, someone who absolutely will read our work and slap us for it.  Even if it's flattering, it's still inherently someone else's emotional property.  Or alternately we put our own perspective in, and suddenly we're very naked in front of our readers.  It's a moment that can't be taken back.  And if our perspective changes, if we feel differently down the road, there is no erasing written history.  Not all stories get published, of course, but the ones that do will find you again, even fifty years down the road.  As a teacher I do take pause from time to time as I write and wonder what would happen if a student read what I'm working on.

My children are still very young, but as a parent I wonder, too.  Will my son pick up my latest story and question if in fact I'd managed to grab his life for a minute and use it to further my writing.  It's touchy business.  There are published stories of mine that contain characters I would rather forget, feelings I'd like to toss away, and details that were just plain stolen.

That being said, I also infuse my stories with the best of my friends and family.  I listen to what they say, I think to myself how beautiful and intelligent they are, and I devise characters who can only hope to live up to them.  I am deeply touched by things my son says late at night when I tuck him in, things that only a child could say.  I am humbled when my husband makes an observation that is quiet and intuitive, and I discreetly hand it off to a character to make the internal dialogue stronger.  When my parents are gone, something that I hope will not happen for a very, very long time, I will take comfort in the memories I've snatched and saved.  Maybe stealing the details is a very selfish process, one that helps us preserve that in life that is too incredible to just let slip away.

Of course harvesting these details can be a dangerous practice.  But it's one nearly impossible to avoid, and the benefits, I believe, far outweigh the hazards.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Inspiration Tonight (Coincidentally the Opening Night of HP)

As I sit here with two children asleep, a laptop raring to go, and writing ideas spilling out of my head, I can't help but reflect on the thing that has most recently inspired me to write harder.  Not a poetic, solitary stroll through the woods.  Not the deliciously eccentric grandmother draped in maroon wool in 90 degree weather I met on my afternoon walk through downtown.  It wasn't even curling up in bed with my latest obsession, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, while battling a sinus infection with hallucination-inducing meds.

Visiting the Wizarding World at Universal did it.  Yup, a theme park.

Maybe it's the butterbeer and pumpkin juice talking, but to physically walk through the intricate world Rowling created was absolutely spiritual.  It moved past the book to film experience.  The fact that an author created something so utterly alive that it willed itself into physical form just rocks.  My family and I stepped into her world and prowled the dark corners of Hogwarts and sat inside the Three Broomsticks. It solidified in my mind that writing is a hefty, important venture.  Through sheer force of mind and imagination, an author brings into existence possibilities, experiences, and places that might never have existed otherwise.  I think all writers at one moment or another need to be reminded of frankly how cool it is to write, whether the writing is published and read by millions or tucked into a pocketbook (or man purse, gentlemen) and toted around.  I think back to navigating the Wizarding World, and my fingers are itching to work.

By no means am I comparing my writing to Rowling's works.  Nor do I think anyone will take my short stories and morph them into amusement parks.  Or if they did I don't know how the rides would work.   (I personally am in favor of the Sarah-coaster.)  I still find myself inspired by the love people have for the HP world and the inviting, intimate details that live inside those books.  We've all felt that absolute yearning to step inside a character's life.  To touch the light post in Narnia.  To sit and braid Anne's red hair and tell her secrets.  And most likely we've felt that yearning because our own lives momentarily exhausted or disappointed or bored us.  It may be disgustingly cliched, but books are a natural high unlike others.  We can do absolutely anything through them, and when we shut the pages we have enriched our lives by extending beyond the scope of our own experiences.

I love hearing people talk about those beautiful moments.  I wanted to share a few of my own, but time's slipping by and I need to write.  I'd like to think I'm building the foundation to create a few of those magical moments for a reader to get lost inside.  It's a nice hope for the evening.

Friday, July 1, 2011


After almost a week of sun, loveliness, and the Wizarding World in Orlando, I am struggling to regain writing composure.  I'd gone down with a beautiful plan.  Nonsense and goodness during the day, writing at night.  Unfortunately our hotel, complete with a water park for our son, also came with delightful evening activities (and pina coladas!) for the adults.  Alas I came back still only 2/3 finished with the book I'm working on.  1/3 doesn't sound like a lot.  But it is when you're not in the mood to write.

This brings me to my writing question of the day.  Is it ok to write when you just don't feel like it?  Don't get me wrong.  I love to write.  My short stories are really my babies.  They've been published, won awards, made me exceedingly happy with their compact packages of plot, conflict, and character.  But they're easy.  I'm in the mood to write, I sit down with pen or laptop in hand, and I build an entire universe in ten pages.  Then I cross the finish line and I'm, well, finished.  I can also sit back down and edit in a day, slave over the words the way I like to, but see the end in sight.  The book-length stuff is so much more of a marathon.  I find myself aggressively staring at the computer monitor wondering if the simple act of unloading words is a good exercise to keep me moving.  Or am I better off doing other things to put me back in the writing mood?

When I write in the wrong mood, the words aren't great.  They're ok.  They're fine.  They're all the synonyms for mediocre that I implore my students never to use because they are blah words.  Imagery feels contrived.  The voices of the characters run flat.  Nothing turns out the way I'd like.  But isn't writing like swimming, running, or any other sport?  Shouldn't I build up my writing endurance no matter what?  Who cares what they are as long as words are flowing.  How many writing instructional manuals from heavy hitters such as Stephen King give just that advice!

But then I'm not happy when I'm doing it, and I value happiness greatly when it comes to my writing.  Sure, I hope to publish books and do all the professional stuff down the road, but above all else I write because it makes me smile.  And if I'm not smiling, am I doing the craft justice?  Often I question if perhaps the project isn't engaging enough to keep me going, but I don't necessarily believe that either.  I'm knee-deep with a character I love who is out in the woods undergoing survival training.  Does it get more fun than that?

I wish I could devise a recipe to get me in the writing mood.  Two cups of this.  A dash of that.  Possibly stir or stand on my head.  Clap my hands three times?  I doubt if it would work, but it sounds like fun.  I guess there isn't one formula for everyone, and I need to strike when the iron is hot and let my brain wander when it chooses to do so.  After all, I consider myself awfully lucky to be a writer.  The fact that these characters grace me with their presences at all is a gift.  I'll cut myself some slack today.  I'll play with baby Sophia, take a trip up to Wegmans, and throw my laptop in my purse.  Just in case.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Barnum and Bailey, Here I Come

I learned how to juggle as my plan B.  I was ten, vaguely secure in my academic skills, and absolutely confident that my clumsiness would exclude me from a career in organized sports.  When people asked me what my plans were for the future, I could say anything really, because in the back of my mind I knew I had an ace in the hole.  I could juggle.  Well.  Extremely well actually, better than any of my friends or even my parents knew because I practiced in private.  I learned how to juggle quietly in the middle of the night and cushion the beanbags when they hit the floor.  I now know that I was drawn to juggling because it fit the way my mind works.  I feel the best when nothing is concretely in my hands.  I toss up thirty ideas in the air and manage to keep them all moving and flowing in a relatively smooth path with only the occasional fail where everything tumbles down around me.  I haven’t juggled (seriously) in some time, but I remember my juggling days when I think of all the characters I create.
My characters are kind enough to let me keep them up in the air at all times.  I have to, or else they start to read like mundane, everyday folks.  It’s risky.  I can lose characters for pages and have to fight to bring them back to the ground.  They reappear not quite kosher, with different hair colors or a limp.  But it’s worth it.  I carry the characters with me wherever I go.  They fall into my fingers at odd moments.  My husband and I were driving down the street and a large but not giant turtle crossed at a leisurely pace.  A car stopped and put blinkers on to slow everyone down.  An older man scooped up the turtle and placed him safely in a neighbor’s yard.  I realized pretty quickly that the father in my new story would do that.  He’d take the time, because he always took the time to move his daughter out of harm’s way, even to the detriment of his job or his new relationship.  He was that man saving the turtle.  And whoosh, he vanished just like that back up into the air when he was done reminding me just what he’d do.
As a teacher I tell my students to be organized.  Buy binders with labels.  Sharpen pencils before class begins.  Know where you are going when you write!  The truth is I think the best moments in writing are those that fall down from the sky and boldly claim their places in our writing.  I never want to know exactly where any of my characters are going.  If I do, they’ve lost their sparkle and suddenly writing becomes a burden.  An arduous journey where I’m going through the motions and don’t believe in where I’m heading.  We’ve all done it.  We’ve outlined plots or decided firmly that this character will die, that one will fall in love, and another will ruin that love and then die, or thrive.  Regardless of the situation, once in awhile we need to throw our characters up in the air to expand and grasp at things that we might not have originally conceived.  At least I do.
Today I’m much more confident in my academic talents, although I still wouldn’t be the girl you’d want on your volleyball team.  With a summer ahead of me, I’d like to try my hand at juggling again.  Maybe I can teach my son or at least amuse his friends when they storm the house for play dates.  Maybe in the process of relearning the art of juggling, a few characters may stop in to take a look.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Twilight makes me cringe.  Any of my students, family, friends, strangers stuck in an elevator with me, all know how much I detest it.  Not because vampires shouldn't glitter.  Or sparkle.  Or shimmer.  Not because the same seven words are repeated so often that my mastery of the English language begins to fail me.  (I say this knowing that Stephanie Meyer likely sell more copies of the dreaded text in a year than I might in my entire lifetime.  I do give credit where credit is due.)  I can't stand Twilight because of the message.  It advises young women to obsess, to change themselves, sacrifice anything they have for the man they love.  It promotes digging ourselves a lovely hole in the leafy ground and staying there until love returns or else there is nothingness.  A cliff and an abyss begging us to throw ourselves in.

I study my current project and ask myself, what message am I sending forth?  What do I know about life that is worth spreading and infusing my characters with who might otherwise run around the book knocking into each other like meaningless bumper cars?  Love is a sticky subject to approach.  Experience enhances and taints our perspectives.  Career and education goals are often utterly subjective and individualized.  I could talk about shoes.  I've got some good ideas about shoes, but I doubt the Newbery Medal will be knocking down my door to commend me on educating today's youth about blowing out their Achilles tendons in favor of jaunty little wedges.  So what's left?  What can I teach?

Forget it, I tell myself.  I don't need a message.  I've got strong characters.  They do things.  Interesting things.  And there are pretty or desolate landscapes thrown into the mix.  My readers will stay with me for the sheer joy of reading.  They don't need a message.  Except some of them will ferret around and find one regardless.  They'll point to the character who smokes on the pier.  The girl who sleeps with someone and regrets it, except they may not see the regret.  They see the girl who is liked by a boy for a brilliant shining moment.  And before I can race around and FIND that girl, hit her over the head with my book and say it is fiction and don't you dare use it as a role model for your life, the damage is done.  A message has scuttled its way out there.  And I am responsible.

I believe that writers (successful or no) carry with them an unbelievable responsibility.   It is their jobs to study what they write, find the kernels of truth that occupy even the silliest pieces, and make sure they are intended or at least palatable.  I often write and make the message so obvious it is bigger than the characters surrounding it.  Or I forget altogether that the messages are lurking and create lascivious characters who ought to watch themselves more carefully.  What a responsibility but what a thrill to decide what in our lives is worthwhile, valuable to share, and toss it into the wind, reaching maybe a few.  Maybe many.

What a privilege it is to be a writer.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Editing Etiquette

I like to edit.  Like may not be a nearly intense enough word.  I LOVE to edit.  Insert my ten-year-old son’s on the cusp of mastering a sarcastic voice saying “If you love editing so much, why don’t you marry it?”  Well were I not married to an incredible man, I’d have to give it serious consideration.  Mrs. Sarah Edit.  Perhaps. 
My red pen gives me chills.  There’ve been numerous studies that show humans (and particularly adolescents) do not respond well to papers corrected with red ink.  I wholeheartedly believe those studies, except they don’t apply to me.  I’ve brandished a red pen since I was six.  It was my mother’s, felt-tipped with a curved red cap, and when I held the point too long on one spot in my teddy bear picnic rip-off story, it looked like it was bleeding across the page.  The visual made a deep impression upon me.  Good writing hurts.  It bleeds.  It takes time and tears to perfect.  The rush of writing may be the creative buzz we get from the ideas scampering across the page, but for me the sustained thrill is the hours of editing to hone my craft and get the piece just right.  Lately, though, I do find myself asking one question over and over (and over) again.  Do I edit too much?
Editing does not have hard and fast rules.  How many times are you allowed to change a word before it’s so different from the original intention that it doesn’t count anymore?  When does a page become so familiar we lose any hopes of truly affecting change?  On average I read each of my pages ten or so times.  I have never in my life once read a page and found it perfect.  Even after publication I often see things that might be tweaked or polished or cut all together.  At that stage in the game it’s too late, thankfully.  But now as I work on a novel-length project, I find myself starting at Go and rarely making it past Baltic Avenue because the damn hotel could always use a face-lift.  Add a flowerbox.  Polish the handrail.  Except with Monopoly I can put all the pieces back in their slots in the box and call it a night.  My story, though, does not fit so neatly in its case.
I probably worry about the same things many writers do.  Are my characters speaking in unique voices?  Have I provided enough description without robbing the reader of the imagination latitude that we all delight in?  Ultimately did I strike the perfect balance between nouns, verbs, and adjectives to move the piece along?  The questions start to cloud my decisions.  The red pen flies around on its own.  I squint my eyes and try to rediscover things lost seven edits back but realize that some misplaced things stay misplaced.  And how do I move forward to page two when the voice in my head says there are still jobs to be done on page one?
The best analogy I can draw brings me to my closet of all places.  Every morning before teaching I pull out a dress.  Or seven.  A few skirts make their way onto what should be my writing desk.  T-shirts and blouses clamor on top.  All in all I’ve excavated ten to fifteen outfits and the mixing and matching begins.  The first outfit may have been the best but until I try every piece, strap on every shoe that might work, I can’t be at peace with the day’s clothing.  I feel this way about my stories.  There are always possibilities, and if I don’t explore them, I could be sending my story out into the world in tacky heels and an outfit none too flattering.
Over-editing can certainly be detrimental to one’s mental health, but if we don’t give ourselves the leeway to dig in and play around with both the mechanics and bigger issues, how can we be sure that the final product is truly what it should be?  Don’t be afraid to change but more importantly change back.  Often we don’t know it looks right until we’ve first seen what it looks like when it’s wrong.    

Monday, May 16, 2011

Emulation, Exultation, and Exasperation

My alternate title for this post was 'Why does reading other writer’s work sometimes drive me insane?'

I consider myself well-read.  Although in the past nine months or so with a baby underfoot I haven’t had quite the chance to read as much as I’d like.  (My new goal is a book a week.  We’ll see how that pans out.)  I read a wide array of works from comic books and graphic novels to classics.  I don’t particularly enjoy Westerns much, and Romance novels often leave me cold.  I’ve even waded through Twilight, TWICE, despite my issues with its plot, characters, and repetition of the same seven words, but I digress.  With my latest venture of writing a young adult novel, I’ve put a special focus on reading excerpts, if not whole volumes, of as many award winners and well-received ones as possible.

My  conclusion?

They are all incredible and beautifully written, and I don’t write a thing like any of them.  So I race back to the drawing board and add waterfalls of detail in the style of the book I just finished where the characters drown in adjectives.  Nope, in my story it sounds awful.  The characters prefer not to have the hair on their arms described as little black soldiers standing on edge when they get scared.  It’s vaguely like watching a favorite movie on a big screen, high def television where you can see the chip in the actor’s tooth or one eye that droops a smidge.  Too much detail can kill the fantasy.

On to action then.  My characters are moving.  Dancing.  Fighting.  Spinning.  Twisting.  Ok, not only are they dizzy, but there’s no room to breathe on the page.  I’ve forgotten how to keep track of the characters when they all appear to be scattering in entirely different directions.  Sorry Jackie Chan et al., but action-packed does not work for me.

One last try.  Bring on the internal monologue.  Now my characters are full of angst.  They think and speak to themselves in Shakespeare-worthy rants.  Forget to be or not to be.  My lovelies agonize over how their lives will be deeply and profoundly affected by wearing the blue as opposed to the red shirt.  What harm will befall their worlds should they dare to choose the wrong outfit.  The tragedy.  The humanity.  The miserable writing.  Excuse me while I go cry for a few minutes and find preemptive Tylenol for the impending migraine.

I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson.  I need to be confident in the choices that I make for my characters and my writing.  I would argue that artistic folks are a terribly self-masochistic group who often rake themselves over the coals for not finding the right word or placing the correct brushstroke on the page.  Emulating someone else’s style is like sliding on jeans that are not only two sizes too small but also the wrong color, the wrong style, and the wrong species.  I’m not advocating ignoring other works or influences.  We study the masters for a reason.  Rather it’s best to take these works for what they are, other peoples’ things.  Look at them.  Turn them in your hand and appreciate their shiny newness, but remember that at the end of the day the writing needs to be yours.  It should be as familiar as an old friend and rarely, if ever, make you feel like a stranger to your own creation. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why villains break writers' hearts.

Why do villains give us such head and heartaches?

I'm nearing the end of my young adult novel.  (Actually I've finished a rough draft and am now dropping in the details that managed to escape the first time round.)  And it reminds me how awful it is to dispense with the villain or villains at the end.  Rarely are they truly dreadful creatures.  They have redeeming qualities.  Wait, we GIVE them redeeming qualities and dimensions so they aren't lightning bolts of bad who storm through our stories spreading the nasty.  Don't we all want to trick the reader into believing they can be good?  But once we do that the questions start to nibble in the backs of our brains.  Can they be saved?  Will they really pull the triggers at the end of our stories?  Or can everyone find his or her aha moment and walk out of the book unscathed.

The answer, of course, is not a chance.

My two protagonists are a pair of misguided young girls coerced to the dark side by a friend and social torment.  I feel for them.  At times they say nice things.  They remember their please and thank you's.  One of them cries.  Often.  But I know they have to go.  The story won't ring true if the end is littered with sunshine and rainbows.  In essence I've already dropped the axe.  I've written the ending, so maybe it's the redeeming details that I'm struggling with.  I want to save them from being mean girl stereotypes, but in doing so, I waiver.  The nice touches come too easily.  As a writer, hurray.  It means that my characters have come to life in a way that we hope and pray for whenever approaching new projects. 

As a human being, not so much.  I'd like to believe that the daily coins of kindness we drop in the karma bank pay off in the end.  Why not give them a chance to liberate themselves from the tag villain and rival the hero of the book in their worthiness?  Can't the novel survive without its teaspoons of evil stirred in?

Nope.  Time to get out the red pen.  Sorry girls.