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.
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