Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Two opinions on love triangles

Has the inundation of pictures of shirtless Taylor Lautner, brooding Robert Pattinson, and half-asleep Kristen Stewart made you utterly sick of love triangles yet?

A while ago, the great blog YA Highway posted an article on Why there are so many love triangles in young adult fiction, and some good reasons why maybe there shouldn't be.  Which I sort of agree with, in this respect: without a love triangle, the Twilight series would be a pretty dead series (awful pun, sorry).

But if you took the love triangle out of the Hunger Games series, you'd still have a strong story, don't you think?

I guess that's how I like my love triangles, an interesting "bonus" feature of the story, but not something the entire plot hangs on. 

When someone says Lord of the Rings, love triangle isn't the first thing that comes to mind, is it? Even though there's definitely some added tension in the Aragorn/Arwen love story when Eowyn shows up.

Which leads to my second opinon, if you'll humor me. Arwen/Aragorn/Eowyn love triangle is the only female-male-female* triangle I've found so far... so this leads me to think a) this type of love triangle can really work and b) it certainly hasn't been over-exploited yet! Though there are really lots of other trianglish opportunities out there, as I discovered on the mind-boggling TV Tropes website.

Blast me with your opinions, please!

*another complaint I've heard related to paranormal YA a lot is the girls falling for much older "boys".  Now granted Lord of the Rings isn't YA and was written over 50 years ago, but it was breaking conventions even then: Aragorn falls for an elf-girl many hundreds of years older than him :-)

This is a really me-centered post today because first of all I have drenched you with my opinions and next I go on to say I've won a the Versatile blog award from Jenna Cooper and the Irrestisibly Sweet Blog award from Amy (Ramblings of Amy). Thank you!

I'm passing these awards on to some new friends I've made in the blogging world:

Melissa Marsh at Writing with Style - she's a fellow history lover, like me

Ghenet Mythril at All About Them Words - she writes YA and I love her YA Cafe posts

Bethany Elizabeth at Ink-Splattered - she writes fantasy and YA and she's got this great How-To-Write-Guide based on Nintendo - that has some really intereting points!

Tanya Reimer at Life's Like That - she's a fellow crusader and writes Urban Fantasy and I'm longing to find out more about her immortal "whisperers"

Lyn Kelley at Random Acts of Writing - she writes about pirates and has a treasure map as her computer wallpaper. I'm hooked. (pardon the pirate pun).

I've also been tagged by Lisa Gail Green, Julie Dao and  Sophia Richardson.

But guess what? I really don't think the world needs to know anymore about the last time we all ate chicken meat. So I have CHANGED the questions (I know! I'm probably breaking some cosmic internet rule here!) And next I'm doing something even more potentially dangerous: I'm STEALING questions from the great blog Fantastic Book Reviews, because I love the questions. But I'm giving her credit, so it's okay, I hope.

If you were given a chance to travel back in time, what year or place would you go?

Ancient Greece and Rome - ever since reading the Illiad and Ben Hur, these have been my favorite time periods. Another great book set in ancient Rome is A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers.

Describe your writing work-in-progress (Handful of Scars) in seven words or less?

End of Rome, handsome Huns, troublesome genies.

Please share with us about your favorite book and fictional crush to date?

An obscure book few have heard of: Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O'Hara. Ken McLaughlin is way too young for me, but there you go. This book is why I moved to Wyoming.

If you could be any character in fiction, whom would you be?

Carey from the above mentioned book, but since nobody knows her, my second choice is Lucy Pevensie from Chronicles of Narnia (not the girl from the movie version, though she's cute too).

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

Liv Tyler, because she's my favorite actress, though about the only thing we have in common is we're brunettes. Oh well.

How would you describe yourself in seven words?

Dreamer, writer, geographer, wife, mom, Christian, friend

Pretty much everyone I know has been tagged already! But if you are interested in answering my new set of (stolen) questions, let me know, because I'd love to do some interviews here of my friends.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Plot reversals and cliché reversals

"Storytelling is all about reversals, and we humans are drawn to them like crazies to the Bachelor house.... Tatooine farmboys become intergalactic heroes....  These reversals of fortunes are at the heart of good storytelling."

This is a snippet from the great writing advice in this article about Reversals from Nathan Bransford.

Ever since reading that article in May, I've been noticing reversals a lot in the books I've been reading. Starcrossed, by Josephine Angelini, is full of them. And not just plot reversals (painfully shy high school wall flower becomes Greek goddess...or rather, goddess descendant with amazing superpowers) but some neat cliché reversals.

Bear with me a moment here. If you check out the first review of Starcrossed on Goodreads, the reviewer shows in painstaking detail all the similarities between this book and Twilight.

 But when I read it, Twilight never once crossed my mind at all. Now yes, when someone pointed out the similarities, I couldn't deny they were there. But why didn't they jump out screaming "copy cat! copy cat!" while I was reading it?

 Because of cliché reversals.

  1. Helen is the reverse of the Bella* cliché, the weak-kneed damsel in distress. She's opinionated and strong. Very, very strong.
  2. A common parental cliché is parents always bugging kids to eat healthy or not to eat so much junk food. Helen and her father are a reversal. He's got heart problems and Helen is his food police, always after him to eat less salty stuff.
  3. A kryptonite cliché reversal: we all know that any hero with superpowers also has to have some form of Superman's kryptonite, a thing that takes away the superpowers and makes the hero weak. Oh my gosh, Helen's "kryptonite" is a completely hilarious reversal - I wish I could give it away but it's one of the best sneaky parts of the story!
Helen's and Lucas' superpowers aren't anything unique - I couldn't find a reversal there. But the author does a really great job of developing them and weaving them into the story, and the expression of the powers is just wildly beautiful. Again I can't say too much about them without giving away what they are: but let's just say the cover of the book really captures the beauty, power, and mystery very well. And the COLORS. Starcrossed is a book of vivid colors, in a way I find it impossible to describe.

My only complaint with Starcrossed? It's full of Greek mythology, but no mythical creatures! : -(

I really recommend this book, check out my full review (without major spoilers) on Goodreads for more reasons why I fell in love with it.

*Side note: to give Bella credit, she does exhibit one neat cliché reversal: she's a switch of the clichéd mother-daughter roles. Bella is the calm, practical, responsible adult and her mother is the flighty, irresponsible child.

 Have you seen any neat writing devices, like cliché reversals, in your recent reads?

Oh, and my blogging friend and fellow writer crusader Akoss interviewed me. My very first interview ever is up on her blog today!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

We interrupt this story with this important news....

"When a new story starts, it always, always, ALWAYS interrupts an older story already in progress."

This advice comes from  the latest Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine by Randy Ingermanson (famous for "the Snowflake Method" for writing novels).

Most of us have heard of this before, referred to as "the ordinary world" - the main character's life before the inciting incident occurs, the event that shakes everything up and makes us keep reading to find out what happens.

But I never realized that the ordinary world, before the story starts, so to speak, has to have a plot of its own. This is different than backstory.  My MC's backstory is that a year ago her family was disgraced and lost their noble status (my story is a historical fantasy set at the end of the Roman Empire). She's lost friends as a result of the disgrace, as well as her home and many beloved possessions.

The backstory adds lots of interesting history to the story as it unfolds and the stakes rise. Things happened to her in the past that are going to shape how she handles the rising stakes in the story. But Ingermanson's article got me thinking of how all that great backstory stuff can be amped up a lot more if instead of just referring to things that happened in the past, my story becomes a collision of new plot events with an ongoing plot.

In other words, my girl isn't just sitting around lamenting the disaster that happened in her past. She's actively planning and plotting how to restore her family's reputation and fortune. Then bam - the inciting incident occurs that throws her plans all awry. I love when I read some advice I can see right away how it will help my story.

Now for my weekly Round of Words in Eighty Days (ROW80) update. Only one week left of the 80 days! I should be REALLY motivated at this point to catch up, but complications in life have put a complete halt to my writing. Nothing disastrous, thank goodness, but there was definitely potential for disaster if I didn't drop everything and focus on fixing things before they got out of control (both work and family related).

I am so thankful to my ROW80 support team: Susan Kaye Quinn, Sheri Larsen, and C. Lee McKenzie. Their posts and tweets helped me to stay on track (or at least very close on track) for 8 weeks.
I'm not sure how long it'll take me to get life back on track, but in the meantime, writing has to take low priority. I'm kind of an all-or-nothing gal, not a very good multi-tasker. I'd love to say I could still set aside an hour a day to keep up with the writing, but with all these other pressures, I'm not adding any additional pressure to myself to meet writing goals.

But I always need to read for a half an hour or so at the end of the day to unwind, so my plan is to read the writing I've done so far, instead of other books. That way I can "stay in touch" with my story even if I'm not actively working on it.

I think I can still get "idea work" done even if I'm not actually writing, what I like to call letting "ideas marinate for extra flavor".  So I have a #mywana question this week (e.g. We Are Not Alone):  anyone else ever had to give up their beloved passion for a while to get through a difficult time?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why I write YA/MG

Ghenet Mrythil and Gabi (of Iggi & Gabbi) are hosting this blogfest, in part because of #YAsaves discussion generated by article titled Darkness Too Visible which appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Sunday.

I'm definitely in agreement with the opinion of agent Janet Reid and my blogging friend Lisa Gail Green about this article. Some young adult books do broach dark subjects, and I think they should. Everyone needs to know they are not alone in whatever troubles they face in this world, and I'm all for books that can give teens some insight into some of the darkness they will encounter sooner or later in this life.

But our hosts want to know, why do we write YA? "Why is YA so important that as writers we choose to write it above all else?"

I came up with three reasons. Though I'm sure once I've read the other responses I'll add some more to this list.

1) When I made my list of my favorite all time books a few years ago, I noticed that 9 out of the top 10 were YA/MG. These were books I fell in love with between the ages of 9-14, and I STILL RE-READ them and LOVE them as an ADULT. When I started writing, I wrote without thinking if it was for adults or for children. The list helped me realize I wanted to write for children and teens, because of those books I loved and never "outgrew". Great YA/MG books will leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. I sometimes wonder if the greatest and most lasting impressions are those that are made as children - I'd be curious to see if you agree/disagree?

2) But why specifically do I love YA/MG books? I've heard other YA lovers say it's because it's all about firsts - first fight, first love, first betrayal... this is true, but there's more to it than firsts, for me. Mike Duran wrote this great article about how as an adult, he was amazed by C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, a children's series. Lewis made the point of distinguishing between books aimed at the “childish” and the “childlike.” There is an assumption by some adults that YA is “childish,” an intellectual downgrade...but I disagree. Anyone who has read the Narnia books, or Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, or Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light,  knows that YA/MG can be just as full of depth and meaning as adult novels. But the reason why I love YA is this “childlike” quality that still comes through, a spirit of wonder, awe, imagination - that anything is possible.

3) Another reason why I write YA/MG is that I've learned some really important lessons so far in life, and I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about it all. On the opposite side, I think I managed to avoid some thorny situations as a teen because I'd had my nose in lots of books and I learned good stuff from them, stuff that I might have scoffed at if my parents had tried to push it on me. Stories are a great way to teach or to pass on knowledge and experience without being preachy or overbearing. #YAsaves - I really believe in this.

What's your favorite YA/MG book(s)? Please tell me - I love discovering new gems. And what do you think about my question above? Are the greatest/most lasting impressions of our lives made when we are children?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Surprising tools in your writer's toolbox

Inciting incidents, voice, character arc, plot twists, cliche-benders, backstory weaving: these are all fantastic tools and devices used by the fiction writer.

On the other hand, the query letter and the synopsis are like the darkside - often referred to as the "dreaded query letter" and the "dreaded synopsis."

Therefore, I avoided them as long as possible. Though I did vaguely remember a post, maybe one of Elana Johnson's (great news about her, by the way: her debut book, Possession, releases today!) that recommended not waiting to write your query letter until you are done with your novel. In fact, write it as soon as possible during your drafting process (realizing of course that it would be a work in progress, too).That kind of stuck in my mind.

Nevertheless, I put it off. I had a 9 page outline, after all, and also one and two sentence versions of my pitch or logline; I couldn't see how a query letter could help my writing process (until it was time to query, of course). It's only 250-300 words, but querying seemed like the other side of the world. I waited until I had my first draft done, but that "don't wait" advice plagued me.

So before starting my revisions, I sat down and reviewed all the query letter tips I'd been collecting from browsing the blogosphere, and had my first stab at supposedly the hardest 250 words you'll ever write.

Yes, it was hard. And yes, that advice about "don't wait" was TRUE. The query letter forces you to find the most important things about your character, the conflict, and the consequences. It forces you to find what is unique and what has that certain "zing" that will make your story stand out and be noticed, and the one or two story questions that have the greatest potential for making readers want to find out more. Identifying these things made me realize how much more I needed to work them into the story during the revision process.

Same thing with the synopsis. I think the same advice applies. Don't wait until you think your novel is finished and polished. I figured the synopsis would be a piece of cake since I already had an outline. Not so. An outline is a tool for story-building, but like the query letter, a synopsis is a tool for story showcasing. Because a synopsis also requires a beginning, middle and ending, it really helped me clarify the structure of my novel, pull out crucial plot points and tighten things up. I wish I could describe the benefits of the synopsis writing  process more precisely. You think you have it all figured out, but both the query letter and the synopsis make you ask questions of your characters and your plot that you might overlook otherwise; or they make you look at your story a little differently - from more of an outside perspective.

For writing my synopsis, I used author Hilari Bell's article and this pdf produced by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers'.

For writing my query letter, I am indebted to wonderful posts by Nathan Bransford, Elana Johnson, QueryTracker, the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment, Jackee Alston, Shelley Moore Thomas, and most of all, Janet Reid, the Query Shark herself. I've read at least 100 querys on her blog, and her comments were so insightful. Not that I claim to have a polished killer query yet. Good queries take time, brainstorming and multiple revisions, just like good novels.

Here is the BEST QUERY ever. Or at least, the funniest. Still not sure who wrote it... but that's the point (grin). The comments are worth reading too for additional laughs, especially the "is this real?" and the "it'll never sell" comments.

And now it is time once again to 'fess up to my progress on Round of Words in 80 days goals. All I can say this past week is Fail. Blog posts are the only thing that got written or revised this past week. I have no excuses (the weather was finally nice here and it distracted me? Puh-lease!) Fellow writers and ROW80 friends, don't be kind. Be blunt.

What good is a query letter or synopsis without a polished novel? Ha. Still, what do you think? Wait or not wait when it comes to the query letter and synopsis?

Links to progress for Sheri Larsen (more great re-writing tips), Susan Kaye Quinn, and C. Lee McKenzie (finished short story, but lost her desktop again, smile).

p.s. Have you heard about #YAsaves and what prompted it? This is important. Lisa Gail Green has a great post on it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Summer writing goals

Bess Weatherby at It's the World, Dear is holding her Second Summer in the City blogfest where we share our summer writing goals and encourage each other. Round of Words in 80 days (ROW80) is working well for me, but it ends June 23rd, so this is perfect timing to sign up with another great group of people to encourage each other through the lazy summer days.

I only have one goal: finish revising my YA historical fantasy. I'd like to have it polished to start querying in the fall. I'm about 1/3 of the way through revisions right now, which is behind schedule for my ROW80 goals - but definitely further along than if I hadn't set any goals at all.

For other Summer in the City blogfesters, something you should know about me: I love encouraging words, but stinging words motivate me a lot more. If you sniff and say, "ha, I don't think you have a fly under a fly swatter's chance of making that goal this summer", then by golly you can be sure I'll start busting keyboards.

Is it okay to participate in Summer in the City if I live approximately 2500 miles from NYC, in a city with population of 30,000? (that's considered BIG in Wyoming. We are big enough to actually have a Walmart). Surely my frequent visits to Weatherby's blog to enjoy her perspective of the city qualify me. Stop by and visit her, you will love NYC in new ways, I promise!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The point of no return

Life is busy. We don't have time to slog through books that don't appeal to us in some way (entertaining, informative, controversial, classic, etc). I will pass on a book if it doesn't grip me by three chapters (unless it's been highly recommended).

How does a book grip me, take me past that point of no return? I'm sure it's different for everyone, but I'm going to start analyzing some possibilities, starting with Falling Under, by Gwen Hayes, and hopefully learn something for my own writing.

Falling Under is a new YA paranormal release that triggers these words: British/Californian collision, razor-swipe writing, four-wheel drive plot, five-alarm characterization, and thrumming romantic tension that will make you feel like a guitar string being played by an expert. Trust me, the blurb for this book does not do it justice.

I read the first chapter on-line and ordered the book about 2.5 seconds after finishing it. If it had been in stock at my local bookstore, I would have packed up all the kids and gone down to buy it immediately. When it showed up two days later, I read it in one sitting (making sure I remembered to feed the kids and pets first, to minimize interruption).

The point of no return for me was  near the end of Chapter 1:
We had to wait for a pack of sneetches [Dr Suess reference], several of them in cheerleader uniforms, to file past our table. As per their social custom, they made no eye contact with those of us without stars upon thars.
When one of the varsity basketball players tried to pass without even seeing us, Donny drew the line. "Hey, Bill, did I ever tell you how much it meant to me that you made sure my needs were still met that one time you couldn't get it up? That makes you a real gentlemen."

...He grunted, someone muttered, "Bitch" and all was right in our world.
A combination of a classic Suess reference, sassing the popular crowd, and that perfect voicy ending "all was right in our world"  made me grin and say, "I'm already recommending this book."

So that was the "point" for me. But in order for a point-of-no-return to work I think a first chapter needs some good foundational stuff, too. Like one or two intriguing first sentences:

Everything changed the night I saw the burning man fall from the sky.
I'd been reading well past a reasonable hour, the white eyelet quilt tented over my iPhone to block any escaping light even though my father was already tucked away in bed dreaming of new ways to make me safer.
I highlighted the parts that add tension and make me curious. Five highlights in two sentences. Impressive. Now here is a test for anyone else who loves YA: the white eyelet reference? Did you get that? Kudos if you know what other famous first sentence that's a reference to.

A second first-chapter must: voice. Theia is a Brit transplanted in California. She's got a slightly formal British voice that's just a little self-deprecating:
Father preferred I not spend much time with Donny. Which, when I was being honest with myself, I realized was part of the appeal. Donny was irreverent and maybe a little wild.
A third first chapter must: the reader must identify with, or better yet bond with the main character. Theia's dad is controlling to the point of obsession. It's her birthday, but also the day of her mother's death (her mother died giving birth to her) which makes it hard to celebrate. She doesn't fit in at school. Things that make you sympathetic for her. But the first chapter has to also make you care, not just sympathize. Where's the "save the cat" moment? Theia is the only one present when a total stranger dies on her front lawn. She tries to help him, and when she realizes she can't - his whole body has been burn beyond recognition - she stays at his side and talks him through his last moments.

Okay, enough first chapter analysis. A bit more rave about the rest of the book (Spoiler free). For a longer and more detailed version, see my review on Goodreads.

There is so much quotable stuff from this book. Beautiful and at times gritty, almost always realistic even during its most far-out fantasy sequences. And the BEST romantic tension I HAVE EVER READ. It leaves you breathless in new ways.

The characters are very memorable, even Theia's emotionally corseted father. Her two best friends, Ame and Donnatello (Donny) are perfect opposites and really make this book delightful with their strong voices, opinions, vulnerabilities, and outrageous moments.

Theia, the main character, is a neat mix of naivete, innocence, longing, delightfully out-of-place British mannerisms in California, loneliness, and just enough rebellion and quirks to make her interesting. Haden is the epitome of a tortured soul - which could be cliche, but he's not. One hint related to Haden - he's the reason why "five-alarm characterization" came to mind in my description.

Then there is Madame Varnie - oh VARNIE!!!! - oh my gosh the most original fortune-teller/psychic you will ever meet!! A wonderful example of how this book, even though it totally capitalizes on the Twilight tropes, is also refreshingly original and unexpected.

The ending leaves plenty of open space for a sequel, but no gasping cliff-hanger: everything was tied up really well AND with one of those wonderful unexpected twists that make you go, "No way!!! How is that going to work????" but all the groundwork was so carefully laid that it really does work.

Can you think of a point of no return moment, in a recent (or favorite) read?  Or what words trigger when you think of a recent or favorite book?
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