Friday, December 31, 2010

Of resolutions, candybars and gnomes

I hardly ever write short stories, but Lisa over at Paranormal Point of View held a writing prompt contest. I want to thank her for all her paranormal insights that have provided humor, unusual food for thought and sometimes even inspiration over the past year.

What better way to end 2010 than with a story?


The Three SweetTooth Gnomes

Once upon a time there were three gnomes, Doorknob, Chuckle and Cane, who lived in the old Agriculture building at the University of Wyoming. These were staircase gnomes, which are a different variety from your common garden gnome and do not wear red caps. In fact, Doorknob always wore a brown hat, Chuckle wore a pink hat, and Cane wore a white hat, except on Sundays when he wore a tie-dyed cap.

The old sandstone building had two staircases, one at either end of the terrazzo halls. Doorknob was the keeper of the west staircase and Chuckle was the keeper of the east staircase, and Cane split his time between them. He suffered from a terrible case of bitterness because he did not have a staircase of his own.

Most of the students and faculty did not realize that gnomes lived under the staircases but the janitors did and were always careful to leave a candy bar on the last step on the last hour of the last day of every month to keep the gnomes happy. Otherwise odd things would happen like a small puddle appearing on the second landing for the dean to slip on, or chewing gum stuck under the staircase railings.

Eventually the powers that be at the College of Agriculture decided to have an elevator installed because the building was not up to code. The gnomes were very disturbed by the construction but when the elevator shaft was complete and the elevator installed, Cane capered in delight. Now he had his own domain to keep.

Unfortunately, the janitors were not aware there was a third gnome who had taken over the elevator shaft. When they failed to leave a candy bar out for him, the elevator began to stop at random locations between floors every other Tuesday, trapping people for hours at a time. The faculty and staff soon figured out that the elevator was not safe on Tuesdays. But many of the students, who only stopped by the building for classes, became Cane’s victims. He especially enjoyed piping Muzak into the elevator to torture his captives.

One Tuesday, which happened to be the last day of the month, a researcher who worked in the building decided to take the elevator up to her office, even though she knew it was a risk. She was 7 months pregnant with twins and climbing the stairs had become very difficult. But sure enough the elevator jammed between the second and third floor, and just as soon as it stopped the mysterious Musak started playing even though there were no speakers in the elevator that she could see. She pressed the emergency button and someone from engineering promised they would be over to help her just as soon as they fixed the flooding toilets in the Business building (most likely the bathroom sprites in that building had not been appeased for some time).

So she sat down to wait. Because she was carrying twins she was always hungry, and because she was always hungry she always carried a candy bar in her purse for emergencies such as this. But when she pulled out the candy bar she realized she had picked a Mounds by accident and she could not abide coconut. She would starve to death before she ate a coconut candy bar.

But then a useful thought occurred to her (perhaps prompted by her baby twins, because it is quite true that twins are much more prescient than singles and even more so when they are still in the womb). She decided to leave the candy bar in the elevator for the next poor hapless soul who got trapped inside of it.

So that is what she did. An hour later she was rescued. The next day one of the janitors discovered the candy bar wrapper tucked into a crevice below the emergency call button. He had a lightbulb moment. Ever since then the elevator gnome has been well supplied with candy bars and there have been no troubles with the elevator. Everyone lived happily ever after in the Agriculture building except for the butterflies pinned in the display case outside the entomology lab.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Trees

Normally I take the easy route when it comes to picking a Christmas tree… I trot down to the corner store at the end of our street that sells spruce trees every year. This year however my husband, Bill, wanted us to go up into the mountains and pick out our own tree and cut it down.

Even without four kids in tow, this is no easy adventure: all the trees along the roadsides have already been picked over, and the snow gets awfully deep when you try to trek into the forest to find a handsome tree. But Bill had a great idea: “we’ll take the horses. They can plow through the snow for us, and we can cover more ground.” Okay, so what about the kids? "Easy," he says. “The oldest can ride her own horse, and the other three I’ll pull along in a sled behind me, and you can pull the Christmas tree behind you after we cut it.”

Sounds simple. But of course it was not. First of all, Bill got this bright idea around 2 pm in the afternoon, so by the time we’d loaded the horses and hauled them up into the mountains (a 45 minute drive), unloaded them, saddled them, and got all the girls trussed up like goose-down sausages, it was already 4 pm and we had about 45 minutes of daylight left in which to find a tree.

As our horses started plowing through snow we soon encountered another problem. Riding horses through the mountains means going up – and what goes up, must eventually come down. That means a heavy sled holding three girls comes down rather FAST – right into the heels of the horse pulling. Riding behind Bill and the girls, I saw the sled starting to gain on him and called out a warning. I figured he’d just drop the rope and pull the horse to the side, but instead he kicks his horse into a gallop to keep ahead of the sled. Which turned out to be the best thing to do because otherwise the sled might have crashed into a tree. Regardless as anyone who has ever gone hill sledding knows, all the kids eventually flipped out of the sled, but they were all giggling and crying out “do it again Daddy, do it again!”

Well, our 45 minutes sped by before we found a good tree, so we ended up backtracking and hunting for trees by flashlight. We cut down two trees we thought might be decent specimens (one for us, one for my parents), but when we got them home and into some proper light, we realized they were perfectly pitiful, skinny, sparse things. I am not a tree snob but I just couldn’t see how there were even enough branches for half my ornaments. Then, I had a light-bulb moment. “Let’s wire them together and see how they look.”

Bill thought I was crazy but he’s a wise man and knows better than to argue with a woman in a Christmas-decorating mood. So he helped me wire the two skinny trees together and lo and behold – a real Christmas tree emerged. I still had to help my mom get a Christmas tree for her house, but I was tickled about our two-tree Christmas tree. You can’t even tell unless you stand up right next to it!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Christmas Horse

I'm sure we all know someone who has the perfect child. Gets straight A's in school, excels at sports or music or both, never seems to give their parents any trouble (at least that they tell us about).

My kids all have problems of some sort - nothing major (thank heavens!) They require help like speech therapy, or physical therapy (for one of my preemie twins), or vision therapy for dyslexia. My oldest girl is borderline A.D.D. at school, is a very reluctant reader, is 9 years old but already has a 13 year old attitude. But when an idea takes hold of this girl, she takes off! This Christmas, entirely without prompting, she wrote and illustrated a Christmas story, and of course being a proud mama I have to share it (adorable spelling errors and all)

The Christmas Horse

A young horse was a good horse but the hrose did not have any friends. One night the horse was sleeping and a nois woke her up. The hores saw a man in red and white. The horse was scard. "I do not want to be stolen!" said the horse. "Stop! Stop!"
"I will not hert you, girl," the man said.
"Then who are you?" said the horse.
"I am Father Chrismis," said the man.
"Then Farthe Chrismis why did you come?"
"I came because you would like a friend."
"Yes!"
"Well come with me!" So they went into the night.
Father Chrismis said "do you want to fly?"
"Yes!"
"Well, I lost my slay [sleigh] so I cannot get home." Then Father Christmas grapped a bag and said: "Let the horse fly." and the horse floo off with Father Chrismis and they became best friends forever."

My daughter doesn't realize that she just gave me the best possible Christmas present she could possibly give!

What's the best "home-made" Christmas gift you've ever received?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Inspiring articles by Holly Black, John Green, Lemony Snicket and more

Seriously, it took me this long - almost two weeks! - to recover from thirty days and 50,300 words of writing during NaNoWriMo. This was the hardest NaNo of the four I've done so far. I have (what I feel) is a great book, great characters, a detailed outline to follow... and yet the older I get, the slower I write. I've heard a lot of other writers say when they get focused they can write upwards of 2000 words an hour. I wrote an average of 600 words an hour. So my progress was slow, and I built up a huge sleep deficit.

But I had a wonderful time! I love how NaNoWriMo allows me to immerse myself in my alternative worlds where I discover new things every day. I feel so ALIVE during this month, like I'm living to my fullest potential.

I have about 2/3 of my YA novel written... 1/3 to go. Problem is that Christmas season follows right on the heels of NaNoWriMo, and with four kids in various Christmas programs and concerts, not to mention Christmas cards and shopping and mandatory parties to attend (yeah, it's rough, MANDATORY parties) and I still have a day job with projects that didn't get proper attention during November so now I had to get them back up to speed.... the excuses pile up I haven't gotten any writing done since November ended.

And I miss all my blogging buddies! So I am going to wrap this up with links to some inspirational writing talks from authors that kept me going during NaNoWriMo. Then I'm visiting all my favorite blogs and see what ya'll have been up to since I disappeared!

Famous authors inspire NaNoWriMo participants:

Lemony Snicket - author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. This article will have you scratching your head with delighted confusion and reverse psychology


Holly Black's article - author of Tithe and co-author of the Spiderwick Chronicles

John Green's article - author of Looking for Alaska and co-author of Will Grayson, Will Grayson


Find other recent amazing author articles here and more from 2007-2009 here, with a stellar list of authors including Meg Cabot, Gail Carson Levine, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey, Piers Anthony (REALLY! PIERS ANTHONY!), Tamora Pierce, Brian Jacques, Phillip Pullman, Jonathon Stroud, and more.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

NaNoWriMo - I'll be back in December

Before I sign off for a month, I have few awards I've been hordeing, and I need to say thanks and spread the love. But first, a few words on my November plans - at midnight tonight I will be starting my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project, a YA fantasy called A Handful of Scars. This will be my fourth year participating in NaNoWriMo and hopefully my third "win" - if I can produce 50,000 words in 30 days!

I am so excited! This is seriously my favorite time of year. This month is intense, but AMAZING! If you're curious to see what intense pressure brings out in your writing you've got to try NaNoWriMo (in my case, about half of what I write gets trashed, but the other half - WOW!) And then, for a reward when I finish up on Nov. 30 (hopefully), I get to dive into the Christmas season - my second most favorite time of the year.

My strategies for keeping up with the daily word counts, in previous years, is... staying up an extra hour every night and then writing pretty much all day on the weekends (my kids get away with MURDER during November. The junk food I let them eat! And I let them watch WAY too much TV and movies). I've also found writing motivation tools like Write or Die are very helpful - and this year I have a local friend participating as well, so we plan to get together and have "word wars" (who writes the most words in a given period of time, we like to work in thirty minute intervals).

I won't be blogging at all during November, so I encourge you instead of leaving a comment on this post, to skip over to some of the blogs I've listed below and comment on their posts.

I won't admit how long ago, but Stina at Seeing Creative gave me the Beautiful Blogger award. Stina's blog is has a series called Cool Links every Friday that will keep you busy with all sorts of helpful writing advice, plus she's an amazing photographer and provides lots of tips for seeing creatively for photos (and writing).

Susan Fields gave me the Happiness award
Medeia Sharif gave me the Who's Awesome Award
Laurel at Laurel's Leaves and Quinn at Seeing, Dreaming, Writing gave me the One Lovely Blog award
Joanne at a ZigZag Road gave me the Sweet Friends award

These are all fellow writers and excellent bloggers with all sorts of helpful and fun posts. If you haven't discovered them yet, you are missing out.

I'm passing the awards on to some other great blogs that I enjoy on a regular basis - and all of these bloggers that I mention are just wonderful about returning comments, too.

I didn't post pictures of all the awards, 'cause see, I'm being tricky, I'm making you go visit other blogs to find them - because the blogs are worth visiting. Go forth and choose your favorite award:

Pick up the Beautiful Blogger award at Stina'a blog
Pick up the Happiness award at Susan's blog
Pick up the One Lovely Blog award at Laurel's blog or at Quinn's
Pick up the Who's Awesome award at Medeia's blog
Pick up the Sweet Friends award at Joanne's blog

That's all for now and I will catch-up with you all in Decemeber. Wish me luck with the 50,000 new words!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Men ask for directions (and other signs of the apocalypse)

Which stupendously popular middle grade author uses the funniest chapter titles?

"Man ask for directions (and other signs of the apocalypse)" is a chapter title from The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan. Just one of many amusing concoctions that entice you to read one more chapter late at night. The Red Pyramid is the first book in his new series, switching from the Greek collection of gods in the Percy Jackson series to the ancient Egyptian set of psychos. I mean gods.

While the new cast of gods and mythic creatures is probably less familiar to most readers, there are still a lot of familiar elements: a pair of kids accompanied by a not-quite-human sidekick, trotting around the globe to various fascinating places (Paris, Cairo, Washington DC, Phoenix) and being pursued by various frightful monsters. And also, lots more of the humor we loved in the Percy Jackson series.

For instance:
Carter pulled out several lengths of brown twine, a small ebony cat statue, and thick roll of paper. No, not paper. Papyrus. I remembered Dad explaining how the Egyptians made it from a river plant because they never invented paper. The stuff was thick and rough, it made me wonder if the poor Egyptians had had to use toilet papyrus. If so, no wonder they walked sideways.
Our pair of heroes in the Red Pyramid are Carter and his sister, Sadie. They've been raised separately, but are thrown together in a quest to find their father after his rather explosive disappearance at a museum early on in the story. Carter is 14 and a couple years older than Sadie, but she has more than enough attitude to hold her own with him. The book alternates between their points of view, and they have different enough "voices" to be distinct (and quite quarrelsome). Sadie was raised in London, and has some delightfully British habits and mannerisms, and Carter is basically American, though he's been dragged all over the world by his archaeologist father, and as a result he's an Egyptology nerd. To make the sibling rivalry a little more interesting, Sadie takes after her white mother, and Carter takes after his African-American father. Here's just a sample of how Riordan captures the voice of the two siblings, and the tension between them:
I’d been to the British Museum before. In fact I’ve been in more museums than I like to admit - it makes me sound like a total geek.

[That’s Sadie in the background, yelling that I am a total geek. Thanks, Sis]

Anyway, the museum was closed and completely dark, but the curator and two security guards were waiting for us on the front steps.

“Dr Kane!” The Curator was a greasy little dude in a cheap suit. I’d seen mummies with more hair and better teeth. He shook my dad’s hand like he was meeting a rock star. “Your last paper on Imhotep - brilliant! I don’t know how you translated those spells!”

“Im-ho-who?” Sadie muttered to me.

“Imhotep,” I said. “High priest architect. Some say he was a magician. Designed the first step pyramid. You know.”

“Don’t know,” Sadie said. “Don’t care. But thanks.”

The basic plot is our heros must team up with an Eygtian goddess, Bast, to find their father and along the way also save the world from the destructive plans of another god, Set. In the process, Carter gets googly-eyed over a beautiful Egpytian magician, Zia, and Sadie - well, Sadie has the misfortune of having the hots for the god of the underworld, Anubis (yeah, it's a long shot). The plot also meanders a bit at times as the author tries to tie in various other ancient Egpytian myths, but he did the same thing frequently in the Percy Jackson series and still kept us entertained.

One thing that I think was overdone, though, were all the dream sequences, where either Carter or Sadie's soul, or ba, would travel outside of their body and convienently get to overhear critical conversations between other characters. Okay, Riordan used that technique with Percy quite a bit, too, but maybe he needs to find a new technique: this one is feeling too overdone.

However, here's a couple things that really stood out to me in this book, in a way that I haven't yet seen in the Percy books. There were some lyric-ly beautiful descriptions, such as this description of the sky goddess Nut:

... her skin was dark blue, covered with stars. I don’t mean painted stars. She had the entire cosmos living on her skin: gleaming constellations, galaxies too bright to look at, glowing nebulae of pink and blue dust. Her features seemed to disappear into the stars that shifted across her face.
Another thing I think was really well-done was the interplay of the spiritual elements of ancient Egypt into the plot. The Egyptians viewed the world at various levels: the regular physical dimension, and several spiritual dimensions, one of which is called the Duat. The different levels are beautifully and frightfully described here:

The scene would’ve been frightening enough, but now I saw it as Isis did. Like a crocodile with eyes at water level - seeing both below and above the surface - I saw the Duat intertwined with the regular world. The demons had fiery souls in the Duat that made them look like an army of birthday candles. Where Carter stood in the mortal world, a falcon warrior stood in the Duat, no avatar, but the real thing, with feathered head, sharp bloodstained beak, and gleaming black eyes. His sword rippled with golden light. As for Set - imagine a mountain of sand, doused with petrol, set on fire, spinning in the world’s largest blender.

Another part of ancient Egypt that I really like how Riordan embellished was the use of hieroglyphs. In the Red Pyramid, hieroglyphs are not just written characters; they sort of have life and a magic of their own, that really puts a new spin on "the power of the word

For writing techniques, I admire how Riordan can turn description into humor with his quirky anologies. Here's one of them:
Far far below, red liquid bubbled. Blood? Lava? Evil ketchup? None of the possibilities were good.
Finally, how can I end without mentioning Bast? - the cat goddess that befriends Carter and Sadie. She was my favorite character from a great cast of colorful, quirky, scary, unusual characters such as an albino crocodile, a basketball-playing baboon, an animated clay doll (sort of the Egyptian version of a voodoo doll, with its own attitude) and many others.

But Bast, like a cat, is part fickle and part loyal; part haughty and part foolish; part noble and part coward; and always entertaining. Here's a snippet of Bast that doesn't really do her justice, I'm afraid:
“Oh, you two look delicious,” Bast said, licking her lips. “No, no, er - , I mean wonderful. Now, off you go!”

I spread my majestic wings. I had really done it! I was a noble falcon, lord of the sky. I launched myself off the side walk and flew straight into the fence.

“Ha ha ha” Sadie chirped behind me.

Bast crouched down and began making weird chittering noises. Uh oh. She was imitating birds. I’d seen enough cats do this when they were stalking. Suddenly my own obituary flashed in my head: Carter Kane, 14, died tragically in Paris when he was eaten by his sister’s cat.

Tell me if you've encountered any other characters (including your own) that have an interesting play on animal qualities? I'm sure it's a frequently used technique in the fantasy/paranormal realms (werewolves would be expected to have some rather wolfish qualities, but wouldn't it be fun, for a twist, to have a leopardish werewolf?). Anyway, I'd love to hear of some more specific examples.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A great writer and a controversial subject

The controversial subject: is the Internet dumbing us down? In the respect that it allows us to selectively choose material that pertains to our interests, instead of exposing us to broad range of topics and issues.

The great writer I'm referring to is Mark Jenkins, a travel writer with numerous awards, currently a contributor to National Geographic and author of three books. He's from my adopted hometown, Laramie, Wyoming and I got the wonderful opportunity of hearing him speak last night at a local writer's event.


So we've been hearing for decades now about how T.V. is dumbing us down, and now, the Internet? Mark's argument is that people are turning more and more to the Internet as their source of information, rather than newspapers. To paraphrase him, "If your interests are in horses or snowmobiling, the Internet allows you to selectively choose articles that pertain to your interests, and you are less likely to seek out a broad range of news or issues such as provided by a newspaper or news show."

In other words, while the Internet provides us with access to the broadest range of information we've ever had before, at the same time it allows us to stay focused on our narrow area of interests.

His observation hit me head-on because I don't subscribe to a newspaper and I don't regularly watch TV news shows. I get most of my news from the Internet (usually just a quick scan of headlines) and then I focus in on what's of primary interest to me - writing and publishing-related material.

On the other hand, I'm also a voracious book reader, so while I may lose some of the broad exposure to the world via news articles, I feel I gain it back via a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. For instance, no series of news articles could have apprised me of all the cultural richness and issues related to Afghanistan and Pakistan as Khaled Hosseini's books the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, or Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea.

What do you think? Is the Internet helping us narrow our focus, instead of broadening our minds?

Postscript: "news" is hardly ever objective, of course. Mark has a great article called Seeing the World As It Is, and I had to include this excellent quote:

Americans by and large don’t really understand what’s happening in other countries. And when you go out there on your own two feet and have to buy food from the local market, and have to find of a place to stay and talk to locals, you start to understand how the world is put together. Because if you just stay home and read your local newspaper, you’re not going to have a clue about the rest of the world. The news here is very slanted, and is not representative of the complexities and passions of the rest of the world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

10 essentials for an inspired author's life

My first guest post ever. Isn't the image of the goldfish in the lightbulb delightful? Please welcome K.M. Weiland.

K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.


10 Essentials for an Inspired Author’s Life

The romance of a tortured artist’s life aside, all writers are in search of the secrets that will allow us to keep the inspiration flowing through our lives. In my recently released CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration (http://www.kmweiland.com/books.php#conquering), I discuss the best ways to keep Madame Muse at your beck and call—rather than the other way around. But, today, let’s take a look at ten essentials (some more essential than others) for any author wanting to live a consistently inspired life.

1. Coffee and chocolate: What’s a writer without a little caffeinated energy? There’s just something comfortable about any routine that includes two of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. Plus, they’re always good for self-bribery.

2. Music: As a breathing of the soul—a wordless story—music is an inspiration to all of us, no matter our calling as artists. Writers listen to music to calm themselves before jumping into a tough chapter, to jack up the adrenaline before writing battle scenes, or even just to catch a random bit of inspiration for that next story.

3. Effective and personalized tools: No two writers work in exactly the same way, so it’s no surprise we all prefer different tools. My tools of choice are a handful of notebooks, a scratchy pen, and a laptop. Whatever tools you choose, invest in something you’ll enjoy using. Writing can be tough enough without fighting an old clunker of a computer that freezes up every few weeks and endangers your work.

4. The arts: Artists of every stripe feed off each other. We refill our creative wells from the offerings of others. Don’t let your well go dry! Pile your nightstand with good novels, watch every good movie that comes your way—and don’t neglect other art forms, such as painting, singing, and even cooking. Absorbing this wealth from others is invaluable for any writer, but don’t be afraid to delve into other art forms for cross-pollination in your writing.

5. Strong goals: The occasional drudgery of writing can become overwhelming if we don’t have a strong focus on what we’re trying to achieve. Decide what it is you want to accomplish with your writing—whether it’s publication, becoming a bestseller, or even just finishing a story to share with family and friends—and keep that goal firmly in sight, especially on the tough days.

6. An encouraging atmosphere: We can’t always choose the kind of atmosphere in which we write; sometimes we just have to write whenever and wherever we can. But, whenever it’s in your power to do so, try to surround yourself with an atmosphere that encourages your writing. That might mean isolation, or it might mean a cheerful, busy bistro. It might mean a quiet office filled with your favorite things, or, like Hemingway, it might mean your kitchen table, surrounded by your children.

7. Acceptance of interference: Much as we might like the idea of retreating to our ivory towers to write in solace for twelve hours straight, we all know that real life doesn’t quite work that way. It’s best we learn early to accept the inevitable interferences (our day jobs, our kids, our plumbing emergencies) that thrust themselves into our writing days. Otherwise, we’re sure to go crazy!

8. Habits of consistency: The most important skill any writer can have—even more important than writing superb prose and gripping plots—is the ability to be consistent. Don’t allow yourself to get away with excuses. Don’t let your writing slip to the bottom of your to-do list every day. If this important to you, then prove it to the world by consistently giving it precedence.

9. A cat: What’s a writer without a cat? We all need a warm, furry body twining around our ankles, jumping onto our keyboards, and occasionally giving us supercilious looks to remind us that we are not, after all, Margaret Atwood or Stephen King.

10. Imaginary friend: Is it even possible to be a writer without invisible people running amok in our brains? Keep those special, magical people close by your side, and you’ll never lack for characters to write about!


Come back next week for my review of the CD "Conquering Writer's Block and Summoning Inspiration" as I soak up inspiration via my iPod for the next couple days. That goldfish in the lightbulb has me completely intrigued! 
 
What animal would you pick to symbolize inspiration?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Paranormalcy versus the Iron King

Just finished reading these two very different YA books, both largely about faeries (the fey). Now, I'm not brave enough to pit the ultimate YA bestsellers, the Twilight series against the Hunger Game series. But I'll give it a go with these two: Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White, and The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa.

Okay, I admit I wrote the title and the first line as an attention grabber. I don't actually compare books like I compare clothes while shopping (or while watching the Academy Awards).

Well, maybe just a little bit with my best friends over coffee.
But regardless, on Goodreads, I gave both Paranormalcy and the Iron King five stars and lengthy reviews.

I was struck by the very different tone of the two books, both written in first person.

In Paranormalcy, you have sixteen-year-old Evie, with all her vampire and gremlin ass-kicking attitude, her personality perfectly defined by her blinged-out pink taser that she uses for a weapon.

In the Iron King, you have sixteen-year-old Meghan, who has almost no attitude at all, except maybe a sort of brave stubbornness.

In Paranormalcy, the story is built around the main character and her Buffyish look on life. The paranormal elements and world-building feel more like tacked-on ornaments (though certainly very interesting ornaments, don't get me wrong).

In the Iron King, the story is built around the fey world, and Meghan sometimes just feels like a vehicle to move us through it. The emphasis is totally different, as is the tone. Paranormalcy: despite some tension, insecurity and tragedy, the tone of this book is pure fun. The Iron King's tone is deadly serious, with a occasional sprinkles of humor to keep it from being too dire.

Here's an example of character-centric, voice-centric Paranormalcy:
He [the vampire] hissed. Just as he reached for my neck, I tased him. I was there to tag and bag, not to kill. Besides, if I had to carry separate weapons for every paranormal I took out, I'd be dragging around a full luggage set. Tasers are a one-size-fits-all paranormal butt-kicking option. Mine's pink with rhinestones. Tasey and I have a lot of good times together.


Here's an example of world-centric Iron King:
We walked for hours, through a forest that seemed to be constantly closing in on us. In the corners of my eyes, branches, leaves, even tree trunks moved and shifted, reaching out for me. Sometimes I’d pass a tree or bush, only to see the same one farther down the path. Laughter echoed from the canopy overhead, and strange lights winked and bobbed in the distance. Once, a fox peek at us from beneath a fallen log, a human skull perched on its head. None of this bothered Grimalkin, who trotted down the forest trail with his tail up, never looking back to see if I followed.


I want to emphasize that while Iron King the focus is the strange and fantastic faery world, from the twilight shadows of the Wyldwood, the troll-kitchens of a faery court, a dance-club portal, and the steampunky world of the iron fey, there are also great characters in this book. Puck and Ash are well-developed opposites of impish fun and icy reserve. Grimalkin is a sly reinvention of the Cheshire Cat. A book can't make five stars on world-building alone: it must have a great plot (in this case, a harrowing quest) and great characters. But the world-building is still the core of this book. Even the main villain is defined by world-building, in a sense. Here's an amazing description of the Iron King, Machina:

The figure on the throne stood tall and elegant, with flowing silver hair and the pointed ears of the fey nobility. He faintly resembled Oberon, refined and graceful, yet incredibly powerful. Unlike Oberon and the finery of the Summer Court, the Iron King wore a stark black coat that flapped in the wind. Energy crackled around him, like thunder with no sound, and I caught flashes of lightning in his slanted black eyes. A metal stud glittered in one ear, a Bluetooth phone in the other. His face was beautiful and arrogant, all sharp planes and angles; I felt I could cut myself on his cheek if I got too close.


In Paranormalcy, you get some world-building as Evie describes how she sees various paranormal characters. Her description of the shapeshifter, Lend, is wild and beautiful. But it's all very much filtered through her voice, as opposed to the characters being filtered through the fantastic settings of the Iron King.

I loved them both. Though if you really pressed me, the Iron King feels like it has a slightly wider range, because everything isn't filtered through one super-distinctive voice, like in Paranormalcy.

Which do you like better? Hearing a story entirely filtered through one strong voice? Or do you prefer a slightly less dominating voice that lets you see the world-building and characters more through your own eyes?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Word clusters

I've been reading Les Edgerton's book Finding Your Voice: How to put Personality in your Writing. And I just couldn't resist sharing a little snippet from this great book.

Finding the right word - your first tool shouldn't be the thesaurus. To keep your voice authentic, you have to choose words that are organic to you and natural to the context in which they are used. You don't want a word that draws attention to itself. One way of finding the right word is clustering.

Write the word that needs replaced in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Draw a short, straight line out from the word, and quickly jot down the next word that pops into your mind. Do the same with that word. Do this for at least sever to eight words, then sit back and look at what you have. Oftentimes, the word you need emerges.
So I gave it a try with a heavily cliche'd sentence: 'She batted her eyelashes at him." The offensive word: batted.

Batted - fluttered - flitted - fanned - bowed - dipped - ducked - deepened - flared

Kind a fun seeing where each word would take me next. Obviously, not all of them would work. But it's a start.

I think I'd pick "She fanned her eyes lashes at him."

What word(s) would you add to this cluster?

Friday, September 24, 2010

What makes a compelling character?

A sidekick, an unusual appearance, an odd habit or two, and a few magic tricks up the sleeve.

Just kidding.

Instead of looking up some great character building advice from one of my thirty-odd writing books that collect dust on my shelves, or visiting a few famous writing blogs and spouting off great terms like "character arc", I decided to wing it with just a little help from one of my all-time favorite characters, Gandalf.

This post is part of Elana Johnson's Great Blogging Experiment, wherein she theorizes that given the same topic, such as "Writing Compelling Characters", all participants will manage to produce very different results.

Seriously, do I need to introduce Gandalf? If you don't know what books he was in, and who the author was, you are not old enough to be reading blogs and I'm going to tell your mother that you are sneaking around on the internet again. (Just kidding. Skip to the end of the post for the details if you need them).

You know when you fill out profiles about yourself and the "who is your hero" question comes up? Well - I list Gandalf here. The "If you could meet any person in all of history" question? - I've answered "Gandalf" to that one, too. Even though he isn't historical. But he is iconic.

I digress.

What makes Gandalf a compelling character?

I wish I had time to re-read a certain trilogy overnight to answer this question (one can never re-read these books too many times). But here's a few ideas.

He is powerful, but disguised. Only a select few realize his greatness... the rest admire him merely for his firework shows. His gray robes are not kingly or dazzling, but at the same time his wide-brimmed wizard's hat, ash staff, pipe and impressive knack for producing smoke rings hint at his fascinating personality.

He is wise, but flawed. He speaks in riddles and rarely gives a straight answer. He knows how to break spells that bind kings, and yet none of his spells could open Moria's gates. For that, he had to wait until his common sense finally kicked in.

He is mysterious, and he has a temper. We have no idea how old he is. We have only a vague idea where he comes from. Small eavesdropping hobbits are afraid he will turn them into into toads or worse things. He can wield both a staff and sword and face demons and wraiths with heartbreaking bravery. He can rage "You fool of a Took!" and it makes us smile.

The guard still hesitated. "Your staff," he said to Gandalf. "Forgive me, but that too must be left at the doors."

"Foolishness!" said Gandalf. "Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another. I am old. If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here, until pleases Theoden to hobble out himself to speak with me."
Compelling characters engage you emotionally. They make you care about them. Sometimes they make you laugh, sometimes they frustrate you with their stubbornness, sometimes they keep you guessing. But the GREATEST characters are those who will give up everything for what they believe in. Gandalf, with Aragorn and a few other leaders, stood in front of the Black Gate, their forces hopelessly outnumbered by Sauron's, in the slim hope that the distraction would buy Frodo and Sam the time to accomplish their quest.

The greatest characters are faithful to the end, and though they may not start out on the right track or they make a few wrong turns along the way, by the end you are 100% behind them because somehow you know they'd be 100% behind you.

Who's your favorite compelling character?

For those of you who haven't googled him yet, Gandalf is one of the main characters (though the not the primary hero) in both the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Btw, Wikipedia has some interesting facts about where Tolkien got his idea for Gandalf, where the name Gandalf comes from, and what his original name was before it was Gandalf (thank goodness he changed it).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The magic of reading outloud

What magical force draws kids from all four corners of the house, almost as reliably as the crinkly sound of a candy bar wrapper? What same magical force can an also infuse a jaded writer with new creative energy? I'm convinced there is something wonderfully powerful about reading out loud.

This post is mostly about reading to kids, but I believe there is also an important component to reading out loud that matters to writers, too, so skip down to the "for writers" section if you're interested in that.

Every time I start reading a book out loud to one of my kids, within seconds the other three (age range 3-9 years) gather round with whimsical smiles and dreamy looks on their faces. When my 15 year old stepdaughter is around, she won't act like she's listening, but I can tell she is. There is something magically drawing about hearing a story told out loud.

One of my favorite bloggers and MG/YA author Susan Kaye Quinn has written a great post called Twelve Tips for Reluctant Readers and reading out loud to kids is one of those tips.

In a recent interview at the Writer's Alley she says "kids will do just about anything to get you to spend time with them, including tolerating that paper book thing you insist on reading. Eventually, they’ll get caught up in the story – they can’t help it. Stories are like air for kids; they need them to exist and grow."

Jemi Fraser has another great blog post about how she reads out loud to kids in the grade-school classes she teaches. She specifically says she reads to them for pleasure, and not for some ulterior educational reason (though I think one of the best and lasting ways kids learn is through stories). She says "I've had students come and talk to me years later about their favourite books."

Strangely enough, I don't ever remember my mother or teachers reading out loud to me. But my mother did tape herself narrating a story about her childhood on a farm (I was a city kid, so her farm stories fascinated me), and I must have listened to that tape a hundred times, or more. I'm sure I had it memorized - I can still remember large parts of it.

For writers:

At another one of the blogs I read, like, religiously - Lisa Gail Green's Paranormal Point of View, she had a series of vlogs about developing voice in your writing. And one of her suggestions was to pick up a favorite book and read a scene out loud in character. "Getting into character" - can give you a feel for voice. Is there a particular character that you really enjoy reading out loud, or a particular part of scene that is really easy to "act out"? Those are the parts where the "voice" is coming out nice and strong. Then, Lisa points out the next logical step is to take your character worksheet, write yourself a scene with that character, and then read it out loud. Sometimes the way you end up reading it will not exactly reflect the character you first envisioned - but that's all right - "the character is trying to tell you something and you need to listen to them."

Okay I tried this and at first I felt kind of silly. In fact I purposefully did it after the kids were in bed (and the husband) so I didn't inadvertently collect a crowd. But I have to say, once you start relaxing, this "getting into character thing" really works, and it gave me some fresh ideas to develop my character's voice.

I tell you, reading out loud really is magic.

Recently I've had a blast reading The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, and How to Train Your Dragon, translated by Cressida Cowell, to my kids. The kids especially love it when I get into character for them. My favorite characters to read from these books were Ares, god of war and Harley bike dude, and the Green Death, an awesome Smaug-like evil dragon.

Do you have any favorite read-out characters or books?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A short intermission from the writing life: VEGAS

Yeah, I admit, I've been lousy with my writing/blogging schedule lately. I just finished an intense train-the-trainer course in Las Vegas. I dare YOU to try to stay on top of your writing schedule when you have to travel to Las Vegas for 4 days of work. After 8 hours on the computer in a stuffy hotel conference room, I had to get outside!

Now, I am not a gambler, and I am on a tight budget ($150 to see Cher in concert was not an option), so this is my CHEAP tour of the Las Vegas strip - also known as Disney World for adults.

Imagine small-town Wyoming girl on Las Vegas Boulevard with eight lanes of traffic, surrounded by huge crowds and flashing lights and billboards in every direction. It was an adventure just going for a walk. I stayed at the Flamingo hotel which is notable for its courtyard full of palm tree and pools with giant koi fish and, of course, live flamingos.

Directly across the street (except you don't actually cross the street, there are massive stone pedestrian bridges at every intersection), is the Bellagio hotel and casino, with a lake in front of it to mimic Lake Como in Italy. Every fifteen minutes, hundreds of fountains in the lake are synchronized with music and lights to create a mesmerizing ballet of moving water. Inside, the Bellagio also has beautiful colored glass sculptures, and a very surrealistic conservatory with giant insects all made out of flowers. And I can't even begin to describe the chocolate fountain that was, um, like 15 feet tall.

Next door to the Bellagio is Caesar's Palace, which is actually four or five different palaces/towers, hundreds of massive Romanesque statues, gardens, fountains, and probably more marble than the actual city of Rome. I was even more impressed by the Forum, Caesar's Palace version of a mall. Again, think acres of marble, gigantic fountains and statues, a simulated sky to make it feel like an outdoor mall, and shops like Tiffany's, Gucci, Versace... you get the idea.

To avoid temptation, I stayed out of those shops and visited the art galleries instead. If you've never seen artwork by Vladimir Kush, by all means check out the link. His paintings are like a cross between Salvador Dali and Thomas Kinkade - my favorite was the tall-masted ship with butterfly wings for sails.

I also adore nature photography, and Peter Lik's glowing photographs are absolutely stunning. His website simply can't do them justice - get yourself to a gallery as soon as possible.

Next door to Caesar's Palace is the Mirage, and after the graceful and cool dancing beauty of Bellagio's fountain show, the Mirage's volcano show is a perfect opposite: all power and fire. The volcano mountain is not very impressive (looks freakishly fake) until the show starts. I imagined that the volcano eruption would be just light and sound effects, but while there are plenty of those, there was also a serious amount of real fire - enough that ambient temperature went up by at least twenty degrees, and the gas fumes made you want to hold your breath. In addition to all the fire exploding out of the fake mountain, the pool surrounding the volcano also sprouts multiple gas jets that go off in synchronized patterns. 

My last stop was at Treasure Island for the famous Pirates of the Caribbean show, which was recently replaced by the new Sirens show. Again, the special effects were pretty cool - simulated canon shots and a ship that completely sinks - but the singing and dancing were pure Vegas: loud, flashy, corny, and lots of bare skin. I happened to be standing near a security guard who told us that each Sirens show (which is free for anyone to view) costs $30,000 to put on, and Treasure Island has three shows a night, every night, all year long. More than the show, I loved the contrast between the glossy marble grandeur of Caesar's and the intricate woodwork and frontier feel of Treasure Island.

Even if there weren't these free shows (and I only mentioned three), the sidewalks themselves are pure entertainment, between the people-watching (the fashion! the outfits! the giant margarita glasses!) and the sidewalk performers. The casinos also send out people in costumes (Jack Sparrows, storm troopers, show girls) for photo ops and people with macaws perched on their heads, or pythons curled around their shoulders. 

Bottom line: you can enjoy Las Vegas without spending a penny, except for your lodging and food, of course... which don't come cheap. Simple necessities are outrageously priced - a simple bottle of water costs three times as much as it will at home, and there are no drinking water fountains. The other downside, at least for me, were the crowds and cigarette smoke. Still, for a two-mile walk, I'm not sure if you can find any other place with as much cram-packed free entertainment.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Agents and dragons

Re-read that title again just to make sure you read it correctly, and not "agents are dragons" because that would be very, very wrong. More on dragons in a moment. A word on agents first.

Since I'm not at the querying stage, I have no personal experience with agents yet, though I am regularly terrified by the QueryShark and Slushpile Hell. But then I am also encouraged by the friendliness and helpfulness of agents - see this very interesting dialogue that occurred between four agents that accept YA/MG (Mary Kole, Anica Rissi, Joanna Volpe, Suzie Townsend) on WriteOnCon's live industry panel. They talked about "writing voice" and if I appear to be slightly obsessed about voice (or my lack thereof) it's only because agents appear to be obsessed with it too.

This obsession has led me to studying every book of fiction I pick up now, and trying to pick out the distinctive voice. In some novels (e.g. Diary of Wimpy Kid, or anything by Rick Riordan) you don't pick out the voice - it pretty much assaults you. In other books it's much more subtle and makes me feel like I'm on a treasure hunt.

So here's where the dragons come in. Yeah, I'm a sucker for dragons. About every fifth book I pick up has something to do with dragons. Right now I'm analyzing the Dragon of Trelian (upper MG), by Michelle Knudsen, for voice and any other writerly bits of craft I can glean.

Here's yet another book that alternates between two first person Point-of-Views, like Shiver and the Red Pyramid and several others I've read lately. Switching first person is apparently more acceptable these days, though you always see reviews from people who say this confused them because it was hard to tell as a new chapter begins who's POV you're in. If you are going to tackle two first person POVs you need two distinct voices to distinguish the characters. Perhaps more so than in third person where the more frequent use of names helps the reader distinguish the POV.

Here you've got Princess Meg and mage's apprentice Calen, both fourteen years old. It took me a while to find distinct examples of their voices. Maybe I'm too focused on the plot when I read it the first time- I could tell they had a different voice but I couldn't pinpoint the difference. Had to skim back through to find actual examples of it.

Just for fun, I've underlined parts of the following snippets that I think are distinctive voice. Do you agree, disagree?

Snippet #1
Something in his face must have reflected his thoughts. Meg stopped walking, her eyes wide and concerned. “Well, what? What is it, Calen?"
He shook his head. “I don’t really know.”
She poked a finger at him angrily. “Don’t do that,” she said. “You do too know, and you’re going to tell me.” She poked him again, harder. “Right now.”
Calen rubbed his chest. Did she always have to be so violent?
Meg, who is bossy and brash, uses short sentences often punctuated by aggressive motions.

Snippet #2
Calen backed away from the chair and resigned himself to leaning against a wall instead.
After a while, Serek looked up.
“What have I taught you about divination?” he asked.
“That it’s difficult, dangerous, not always reliable, and that I’ll learn more about it when and if you feel I’m old enough to handle it,” Calen said. “Why?”
Serek’s lips twitched slightly into what might have been a smirk. “I suppose I’ve just decided you’re old enough. Come here.”
Calen, who is analytical and careful, tends to string together several thoughts into long sentences.
 
Snippet #3
“What exactly are you doing?” Serek’s deep voice spoke suddenly from the doorway behind him.
“I am looking for that stupid – uh, for Lyrimon,” Calen said. “I know he’s in here. I can feel him watching me.”
One corner of Serek’s mouth turned up slightly. “Oh, he’s watching you, all right.” He jerked his chin toward the window. Calen whipped his head around to look. Lyrimon was sunning himself idly on the stone wall that ran through the yard. He was watching, though. Even from this distance, Calen could see the evil glint in the gyrcat’s eyes.
“How do you do that?” Calen asked plaintively.
“Do what?”
“Find him like that. You always know where he is. You can see him even when he’s practically invisible. Why won’t you teach me how to do it?”
“Now, what fun would that be?” Serek strode forward into the room.
Serek, Calen's master mage, is utterly devoid of emotion, except for the occasional sarcastic remark, and is characterized by abrupt, purposeful movements. (His gyrcat, though it never says a word, is such a distinct character he almost has a "voice" too). Highly recommend this book for many reasons, but Serek is a big one - I think he has potential to be one of the great fantasy mages, just a step below Gandalf and Dumbledore.

After a while I started to see distinct examples of the author's voice, too - in the descriptive parts.

Snippet #4
Calen was perched on the edge of a table. The chair across from the mage was occupied by Lyrimon, and Calen was too tired to fight him for it. As they talked, Calen fished black olives out of a jar and ate them. He had never cared much for olives, but he was so famished that he would have eaten almost anything at this point, and all Serek seemed to have on hand was jar after jar of olives. Perhaps, once he’d finished the current jar, he’d try some of the green ones.

At this point, if you are still reading yet another one of my idiotically long posts (will I NEVER learn?), you may be wondering where in the world the dragon is in this book.

I wondered the same thing. The dragon doesn't have a big role, most likely because he doesn't speak at all, though he is unique enough to be very pleasing. He shows up in odd spots just often enough to keep you wondering about him.

Another snippet that isn't so much about voice, as world-building and beautiful description. The mages in this story are marked on their faces (I kind of envisioned them like the marks/tattoos on the Romulans' faces in the 2009 Star Trek movie. Oops, just revealed that I'm a trekkie).  The marks end up being crucial to the story's plot, which was kind of cool:
“May I ask – is an appointment such as this one, an honor like this – is it recorded in your marks? Forgive me, but I’ve never understood the full scope of what a mage’s marks include.”

That was an interesting question. Meg had wondered about the same thing herself. Calen’s face was barely marked, just a few lines and small shapes under his left eye, but Serek had delicate black lines spiraling across both sides of his face, with tiny symbols and dots of color worked into the design at various points.
Serek shook his head. ‘No.” For the first time, Meg thought she detected the barest touch of emotion in his voice. “No, the marks are given for years of study, fields of expertise, and accomplishments of that nature, Sen Eva. A mage may serve many masters in his lifetime, but it is the work and the study of magic that defines his life and purpose. Those are the things that set him apart from others, and the reason why no mage may go unmarked, as they show what he is capable of.”
And because I've already violated the rule of short posts beyond repair, and because I loved this book, one last snippet full of voice:

Calen had never been to a wedding before. Of course, he guessed that even if he had, it wouldn’t have been anything like this one. At first it had all seemed rather boring. There was a lot of watching the members of the different families standing around repeating things back and forth to each other, and about a hundred different people got up to read long passages from various books, and then there were songs, and then possibly some other part he missed because he dozed off, but then finally people were shouting and cheering and he woke in time to watch Prince Ryant lean forward to kiss Princess Maerlie in full view of every living person that had been crowded into the enormous grand hall. Calen wondered if the Prince was nervous. He’d certainly be nervous if he had to kiss a girl in front of an audience! Well, he’d probably be nervous about kissing a girl in any event, he supposed. But the audience would make it even worse.
So, if you've managed to make it through this monstrosity of a post, what book have you read lately with a strong voice - and was it a particular character with a distinct voice, or was it the author's overall voice that was more apparent?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Guess-that-character - REVEAL

Jenn at unedited came up with this Guess-that-Character idea: "Post a snippet of the character you'd like to be identified. Try and make sure there are no descriptions of what they might look like. This blog fest is based purely on voice, action and personality."

I must have done a good job (pats on back, blushes) because a lot of you nailed Tara pretty darn close! I also really enjoyed those of you who suggested a young Jodi Foster, AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn Dixie), Lindsay Lohan (Parent Trap), or a young Hayden Panettier.

But the truth is, I modeled her after a young Scarlett Johannson, specifically from the character Grace in the Horse Whisperer (1998). All attitude on the outside but a softie inside. Here she is from 1998 and then all growed up and gorgeous.

I picture Tara with the same long dark blonde hair (but in a ponytail), gray eyes, and even the same tilt to her head that says "yeah? So what!" 

Here's some of my favorite descriptions - thanks everyone!
From our hostess, Jen: Her Uncle sounds like mine, he calls my sister Koala bear all the time. I really connected with the character! My Guess: I think she's small and petite. Possibly even a little small for her age. Freckles on her face with light brown hair that falls just above her shoulder. I think she has hazel eyes as well!

Jemi Fraser: Okay, she's braver than mom, so let's say athletic, but not too strong - that pack was heavy! So maybe a little short. Hair in a pony tail - maybe brown hair.

Amie McCracken: Long, dirty blonde hair that's probably in a ponytail (and greasy from all the camping). A very athletic body, but not too tall. Blue eyes, a wide face. For some reason I'm also picturing elegant hands.

Brenda Drake: I have a niece named Tara so I'm going to try to not describe her ... well, heck ... she is just like her. Athletic, confident, lanky, brown hair, green eyes, freckled nose, and sarcastic.

Meredith: I see her as on the shorter side for her age, with dark curly brown hair and a whole lot of freckles. She's got dark brown eyes, teeth that are just a little bit crooked, and always dresses casually.

And the WINNER IS (closest description overall, except for the green eyes):

Victoria Dixon: I'm seeing a fit, but not necessarily athletic girl. She's self-confident, but not in a jerky, preppy way. I think I'm describing her instead of her appearance. LOL. I suspect she's got her hair up in a pony tail, but it's a lazy 'do and has strands falling around her face already. I like the green eyes, Hanna. I'll go with that. She's wearing hiking books and bug spray. Oh, and her Uncle is my husband. :)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guess-that-Character blogfest

Jenn at unedited came up with this Guess-that-Character idea: "Post a snippet of the character you'd like to be identified. Try and make sure there are no descriptions of what they might look like. This blog fest is based purely on voice, action and personality."

So read my snippet (350 words), tell me what you think my character looks like. She's from my MG fantasy novel, Refuge, and she's 12 years old. Tomorrow I'll post who had the closest description, and I'll post two pictures - the child actress she looks like (and kinda acts like a little, too) and a picture of the actress now that she's an adult.

We crest a steep ridgetop, panting from hauling our huge backpacks, and I get my first indication that maybe my uncle is half-crazy. He points down the hill. “Look, our first grizzly.”

My uncles smiles like we’re at a zoo or something, not out in the wilderness with nothing between us and the largest bear I’ve ever seen.Mom makes some sort of squeaking sound and I feel like my pack just got ten times heavier and my legs ten times weaker. “Got your camera, Tarzan?” Matt asks me, in a freaky calm way.

My name is Tara, but my uncle has a million 
nicknames for me. At any given moment I can be Tarzan, Tango, Hobbit, or Terrapin. At the moment I sure don't feel like Tarzan. I've been camping enough times that I can deal with the whole squatting-behind-a-bush and sleeping-on-lumpy-ground thing, but the giant-bear-not-behind-a-fortress-fence is definitely a new experience for me.

The bear is standing half in, half out of a stream. The breeze blows us the rankest wet-dog scent I’ve ever smelled. He’s looking at us, but his lower lip is hanging, like he’s too busy or lazy to straighten up and give us proper attention.
My mom grabs my arm and I feel her nails dig in.

“Don’t panic,” Matt says. “He’s not startled by us, I know he heard us coming.” I thought he was joking about the bear-bell tied on his backpack, earlier. “Just stand still and enjoy.”

Enjoy? By my mother’s rapid breathing and death-grip, I can tell she’s sure not enjoying herself. After a moment, the bear lumbers across the stream, gives us another look, and disappears into the aspen grove on the other side.I take a deep breath. “Okay Mom, you can reattach my arm now.”

“You see,” my mother says, in her classic I Am The Mom, I Know Best voice. “This is exactly why we need to go back. I am not comfortable putting Tara in danger.” She’s not letting go of my arm, but at least I can feel some circulation again.
 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why I love werewolves

How do I love thee, oh beautiful wolves of Mercy Falls? Let me count the ways....

But first, here's why I'm gushing about wolves.

The amazing Lisa Gail Green of Paranormal Point of View is having a contest - she's giving away copies of Shiver and it's sequel Linger, by Maggie Stiefvater. The contest ends tonight! Even if you already have these books, stop by her blog anyway because if you love any mythical critter, this is the place for you. She currently has posted the most hilarious ABC rhyme about vampires. I'm so forwarding that on to everyone I know!

Lisa also posts "Monday Madness" where she'll study a blogger friend or author and give insight on to what type of paranormal personality they have. I was curious about myself, so I asked her for an analysis. She pinned me perfectly as a gnome, not the red-hatted variety (thank goodness! - I don't want my name to be synonymous with the Travelocity gnome) but the intellectual Gnome that loves nothing more than to bury itself in a big library and study.
Oh, so me!
This girl is accurate, I tell you. You should see how well she's pinpointed the paranormal side of Liv Tyler and Miley Cyrus, and Lindsey Lohan and Robert Pattinson.

Okay, so I fully admit to being a gnome, but here's what I wish I was more of: a werewolf. Because werewolf books top my list of favorite books:
  • the later books in the Twilight series (and NOT just because of Jacob, I love Seth and Leah too)
  • the yummy Lord Macon from Soulless and its sequel by Gail Carriger
  • the angsty Daniel and Jude from Bree Despain's the Dark Divine
  • and my all time favorite, Sam's pack of wolves in Shiver
Why is Sam's pack my favorite of the fictional furries? Simply, they are the most wolf-like. And the story is beautifully written. And it's a love story. It has intense parts, and it has funny parts. If you aren't convinced about Shiver yet, here's my review/analysis of it.

I have loved real wolves starting when I read two classics, Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf and Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves, when I was 11 years old.
My love of wolves intensified when a conservation group showed up at my college to give a talk, while a young wolf roamed around the auditorium (okay, he was on a leash, and we weren't allowed to touch) but he came close enough that I could look right into his yellow intense eyes and realize that this animal was still wild, even though he'd been raised in captivity.

Ever since then wild and wolf have been two interchangeable words for me. The wolf so perfectly defines the spirit of the wilderness. And in werewolves, humans can sort of borrow that spirit of true wildness for themselves, through the wonders of storytelling.

So I'm in love with wolves and werewolves and I'm howling to read Linger, I was just about to buy it when Lisa offered this contest so I thought I'd use the opportunity to gush about it and maybe win it! And by the way, Lisa, my raving about your vampire ABC's and Monday Madness is not a ploy to win that extra 25 points. Those are rave worthy, regardless of any darn points!

So what's your favorite paranormal critter and why?

PS. I moved to Wyoming just when the wolves were first released to repopulate Yellowstone in 1994, and lived through the intense controversy it aroused, and understood both sides of the debate. I understand the ranchers' concerns, but they do get reimbursed for their losses, and I love it that the wolves are flourishing and are spreading across my state.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How writers found their voice: real examples

8/11 update - TH Mafi just posted on voice! I knew she felt my desperate call at some deep inner level. Or perhaps she just graciously heeded my recent question in a comment about how she found her marvelous voice.

I've been collecting any articles I find on voice because of all the aspects of writing craft, this one is the most mysterious to me. I also struggle with the difference between writer's voice vs. character's voice. Writer's voice makes more sense to me with non-fiction; in fiction, your main characters' voices should be more of the focus, right (unless you are writing in the omniscient point of view, which is apparently out of style these days, unless you're Grisham, maybe). Is your writer's voice crucial to pulling off realistic character voices, too?

Here's an excerpt from the most recent article on writer's voice I've run across, from agent Rachelle Gardner's What is writer's voice?:
Your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.... It's a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you're-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self.
Rachelle asked "what are some ways you find your unique writer's voice?" From the comments, I found some patterns pop out with the methods that people use. Here's what I learned. I hope it's okay to reprint some of the comments (attributed, of course) and to give them my own labels!

The brute force method:
Finding your voice is a lot...(a LOT) of really, really, really bad free-writing and first drafts. (Kellye Parish)
Write. Everyday, all the time. Write about the weather, the funny man on the corner, your boss. Write about that idea where people's heads turn into eggplants. Write articles, diaries, fiction, poetry. (Mesmerix)

The "go back to your roots" method:
When I reach back to the unique events that defined me, my voice comes roaring back. Because I'm already so familiar with what happened, I can use this writing to push my voice to the forefront. This allows me to go back to work with my voice all warmed up. (Ida M. Olson)

The "love that feeling" method:
As my husband or critique partner read my manuscript, I notice when they love certain chapters or sections of the story and when they don't love certain sections as much. And when I go back through those sections, I realize that those chapters sound like... well, me. This goes for blogging as well. I think the blog posts that are an honest portrayal of me and my passions, I hear my own voice. The trick, now, is to make sure that passion and self comes out in everything I write not just certain sections of it. (Heather Sunseri)

I know that I have found my voice when I re-read what I have written and it makes me laugh, cry, or feel some sort of emotion. (Teenage Bride)

The "experimental" method:
One thing that helped me find the voice I didn't know I had was writing in a different tense. When I switched to present tense, what a difference! For other writers, it might be a change of genre that brings out their voice. I think it might be like using a different filter in photography. Sometimes the one you use the least can make the colors pop. (Debbie Maxwell Allen)

The "find your vision/view" method:
Voice... is about two things: your vision of the world (that is, what's outside of you), and your ability to communicate that vision in language. You can find your vision of the world by doing a lot of writing, even more reading--and by thinking about how you see things. (Barbara Baig)

If we describe our mind's view in words, then we have found our voice. (David Amburgey)

The "non-conformist" method:
We all have a somewhat unique voice, but for it to be unique enough to stand out comes from the attitude of the author. If you want a unique voice you’ve got to blow everyone else off and be a nonconformist. (Timothy Fish)

Here's a bunch of other articles on voice I've collected over the past few months.

the Write Power: Finding your voice Helpful variations of the ones described above.

Livia Blackburne: Voice finding techniques. More suggestions.

Janice Hardy (Storyflip): some simple help for voice. This one helps you strengthen voice while you are editing.

Chip MacGregor: Finding your writing voice. Suggests imitating others to start with (though most will tell you NOT to do this!)

Men with Pens: Finding your writing voice. Includes nine different exercises to try! I'm slowly working my way through them.

Nathan Bransford: How to craft great voice. In response to one of the comments, Nathan also gives good advice on how you know WHEN you've found your voice: "I think voice is there when it's adjustable. Can you dial up or down certain elements? Can you hear it in your head? In other words, is it enough of an entity that you can think of it apart from the elements it's describing?"

So now that I've regurgitated all sorts of information I've discovered, here's my one teeny tiny experience with searching for voice that actually resulted in success.

Diaries.

Go back and read the stuff you never intended for anyone to read. The parts where I'm venting about something are the best, and likewise when my character is venting about something that's when I get the strongest voice.

Ha ha, not sure what that says about me as a person? Never mind. In my next blog, I'm going to VENT!

And if that doesn't work, I'm going to over-caffeinate myself into hyperactivity and then strap myself to my chair and see what happens if there is a keyboard close enough to reach. I like to think that's how T.H. Mafi developed her voice.

Planning to post more on character voice soon. In the meantime, if you've made it this far through my writing voice voyage, I plead with you, I BEG of you, if you have any opinions on voice (the written kind), please share them with me!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Analyzing Ever, by Gail Carson Levine


Ever is a young adult fantasy, love story and quest. I liked it even better than Levine's more famous Ella Enchanted.

Elana Johnson posted a link to a great writing resource, Seven Points of Story Structure (Dan Wells), and showed how you can write a seven-sentence synopsis using this technique. So I thought I'd give a stab at it for Ever, just for fun.

1. Hook - A young god, Olus, falls in love with a mortal girl, Kezi.

2. Plot Turn 1 - introduces the main conflict. Kezi accepts a sentence of death to prevent another family member from receiving that sentence.

3. Pinch 1 - introduces the villain/pressure to force action. Olus wants to save Kezi, but the only way to get around her honor-bound commitment is to turn her into a god, too, an immortal who can't be killed.

4. Midpoint - Olus and Kezi must each must undergo a test: her to become a heroine worthy of becoming a god; he to become a champion worthy of taking her before the gods.

5. Pinch 2 - more pressure/problems, so many that the situation appears hopeless. Both Kezi and Olus fail their respective tests

6. Plot Turn 2 - the MC has what they need to overcome the main conflict. After both reaching a point of despair, Olus and Kezi determine to keep trying even though they think they've failed. Their enduring love conquers all.

7. Resolution - sorry, you'll have to read the book to hear what happens.

Amazing! This book perfectly fit the seven point story structure. I'm going to have to try this some more (with my own three books too, of course)

A few other notes about this book:

Olus is god of the winds, and this was what make this book so much fun. He can command wind to do all sorts of things for him. He has a strong wind, a clever wind, a comforting wind, even a herding wind - and of course he can use his winds to fly. I love the scene where Olus whisks Kezi off on one of his winds, before she's aware that he's a god.

Kezi is a fun character, too. She's a dancer and a weaver, and if these don't sound like very exciting character traits, what is exciting is seeing how her talents and her passion aid her in her quest to become a heroine, and again during her final test to become immortal. She is asked what she would like to become a goddess of. There's already a goddess of dance and of weaving, so she has to think of something else that's important to humans that there isn't already a god of. She comes up with something clever and beautiful, but of course I won't say what it is.

The quest part of the book reminded me of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, particularly the Silver Chair. It has the same effortless story-telling in a magical world, and I can never resist a quest. The only thing I didn't like was that Olus and Kezi were tested separately. I wanted more scenes with them together.

Levine's writing style is spare and lyrical. The point of view is first person and shifts between Olus and Kezi with each chapter. The first two chapters were a little hard for me to get into, but this book is definitely worth the effort it takes to get into.

This excerpt is from Kezi's last day before her final test to become a god. If she fails, she'll die.

The twelfth day we spend riding a single-masted boat down one of Akka's rivers. The banks glide by, while I clasp Olus's hand and try to hold back the minutes. I want the river to stop flowing. The sail can continue to billow, but we must not move. Olus's winds must blow time itself away and stretch this moment into eternity.
Haven't we all felt that way, about certain precious moments in time?

I never could figure out where the title, Ever, came from. If anyone else has a clue, let me know! Have you ever finished a book and scratched your head, wondering what hat the author pulled the title out of?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lucid dreaming


Dreams have a part in shaping my stories. It's a mysterious process that I have no control over, and I was curious if other writers out there ever experience this. I have two sorts of dreams - random and strange dreams I have no control over, and lucid dreams, a sort of half-conscious state where I'm dreaming about my stories.

My first semester in college was a huge transition - as it is for most people. Being away from home for the first time. Adjusting to new friends, a new lifestyle, many demands including developing study habits (I had an opportunity to transfer to Cornell, an Ivy League school, but I had to pull straight A's that first semester in order to qualify). I remember many nights after I finished studying I would fall asleep thinking about my first story, as a sort of escape from the rote work of calculus and chemistry. This wasn't really dreaming, just a pleasant way to send myself off to sleep. One morning though I woke (or sort of woke) in the middle of a powerful dream about my characters in Refuge (a story about a hidden refuge for unicorns). I remember looking at the clock and thinking, I should get up and go to class. And then, never mind, skipping one class won't hurt anything, and I stayed in bed and kept on dreaming. ALL DAY. I didn't get out of bed until nearly dinner time. I think that was my first lucid dreaming experience. And shortly after that, I started writing again because I had so many ideas (I hadn't worked on my book at all since starting college).

Many years later, after college and then grad school and then moving to Wyoming and starting a my first real job, I finished that first book (well, at the time I thought it was finished - hadn't yet realized that a first complete draft is far from finished!) and started really brainstorming on another book idea. My parents came out to visit me and I took them on a driving tour of all my favorite beautiful places in the Rocky Mountains. We were staying the small, beautiful town of Lake City in southern Colorado, and for some reason I couldn't sleep that night in our hotel suite. There was a couch in the suite and decided to try sleeping on the couch instead of in bed. And I fell into another powerful lucid dream about my new story (the one that eventually turned into Handful of Scars). I dreamed the whole night - I know because I was lucid enough to check the clock several times - and also because I was lucid enough to feel giddy about being immersed in the story and all the terrible and wonderful things that were happening. It was such a powerful dream that it stayed with me, because we were traveling I didn't have time to write anything down until almost a whole week later.

Each of my story ideas (I have four well developed ones at this point) has been accompanied by at least one and sometimes several lucid dreams. I have no idea when they will come, or what triggers them. They never come until I have some initial ideas about the story and the characters, and then when the dream comes it always shows me the way the book should go - sometimes drastically changing the plot, and always giving me ideas that fire me with passion.

I've looked at some articles on the Internet about lucid dreaming and how to induce it or prolong it, but they seem kind of hokey or forced to me. Mostly I am curious to see if any other writers out there have experienced lucid dreaming in relation to their writing. If you have, please share!

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