Friday, September 28, 2012

The bullet that kills writer's block

Here's a little tip that has helped me with writing lately. It may sound like I'm talking about an office job, but bear with me, I think this can also be used with fiction.

At work when I have to summarize information for a report, I've learned the best way to communicate summaries is with bullet lists. Are there four key points I need to share? I put them in a bullet list. Recently I've also learned that information in resumes and cover letters is also better "showcased" when it's set apart in bullets, rather than as complete sentences in a paragraph.

The other day when it was time to start a new scene in my story, I froze up because I didn't know how or where to start it.  I thought to myself, "if only I could make a bullet list like I do at work."

Eureka! Why not start out with bullets? So I listed three or four things that I wanted to happen in the scene. Then I added a couple more things to the list as reminders, like "what's her goal in this scene?" and "make sure to add sensory details".

And then, lo and behold, I was past my writer's block and happily writing that scene (with full sentences).

I think this may be the SHORTEST blog post I've ever written (I'm famous for long, rambling monstrosities of posts). But hopefully someone may find it useful.

What do you do to kick-start your writing?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The power of a four-stage critique

by Kalexanderson on Flickr (cc)
Over at Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing they have a free month-long First Five Pages Workshop I went through THAT IS AMAZING!

At the beginning of each month, they take submissions for the first 1250 words from the beginning of a YA or MG novel. They accept the first five entries that submit with all the required formatting. Each entry critiques the other entries, and there are two other critiquers, usually at least one a published author. This month's workshop details were posted here, and the next round will start in October, in case you're interested.

Each week you make revisions based on the suggestions and resubmit. And that's what so cool about this, not only do you get feedback on your original, you get feedback on your revision. And then your second revision - and then your third.

Here's what I learned from this powerful  four-stage critique on the first five pages of my YA SF novel, Star Tripped:

1) The first set of comments helped me rewrite to show and not tell. Yeah, I know, the most basic storytelling rule! - show don't tell! And I had completely fallen into the trap. I can catch "telling" immediately in other people's writing, but not in my own. The critiques also helped me tighten my writing. The original 1250 words got pared down to 1100.

2) After revising, the 2nd set of comments helped me zero in on what was confusing to my readers. It's amazing what seems perfectly clear to the writer can come across as something totally different to the readers. Comments also resulted in more tightening, down to 1000 words (cutting the fat by 20%!)

3) With my 2nd revision, the comments helped me load more impact into my first paragraph, fix passive usage, and remove overused or weak words like "but" "just" "feel/felt/feeling".

4) With my 3rd revision - well I'm waiting to see. It's posted here (gulp). Anybody else feel like they can't stand to look at their writing one more time after multiple revisions? You start to feel like it's been written to death. And if you can't stand to read it anymore, you think no one else will be able to either.

I learned so much from the comments received on my own writing, but also taking time to think through what worked and what didn't work with the other four submissions, not to mention reading other critiquer's comments for each submissions.

This four stage critique process is a brilliant method for providing feedback... now, if only it could be used for more than just the first 1250 words!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

5 ways to create contrasting characters

Ever heard of the literary term "foil" before? It doesn't have anything to do with fencing, or headgear worn by alien conspiracy theorists. The word foil comes from the old practice of backing gems with foil in order to make them shine more brightly, and in stories, foils are characters that contrast with the main character to emphasize their traits. In the Shrek movies, Donkey is a perfect foil to Shrek's character.  Donkey is small, talkative, optimistic and annoying, a perfect contrast to Shrek's brawny appearance and cynical personality.

 Julie Kagawa had so much fun with contrasts and foils in her Iron Fey series, my most favorite YA fantasy series.   She used contrasts EVERYWHERE, and I think they are a big reason for the success of this series. And the books are full of mythical creatures, some traditional, some original - which makes me very happy. Yes, if you haven't figured out by now, I'm a little mad about mythical creatures.

The very premise of the Iron Fey is a contrast: the fey are ancient, immortal, beautiful, and heartless. The Iron fey are a new type of fey that are modern, bizarre, and techy, the opposite of the traditional fey in almost every way.

And then there are the character contrasts! In all four books, Puck is a vibrant, fun-loving, irreverent contrast to Prince Ash's cold, noble reserve, a great example of a foil.

In the fourth book, the author created two more great foils: Grimalkin is a clever, smug,  know-it-all fairy cat. What's the opposite of a cat? A dog. What's the best foil for a fairy cat? The Big Bad Wolf! He creates a powerful, dangerous, primal contrast to Grimalkin's cute smugness.

The fourth book also creates a foil to Meghan, half human-half fairy, practical, loyal, blundering into all kinds of mistakes and problems as she tries to navigate the world of the fey. Her foil is another girl with all the opposite attributes - but to give anymore details about Meghan's foil would be a major spoiler.

Here's five tips for creating character contrasts that I learned from the Iron Fey series and other famous foils (Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson, Shrek/Donkey)

1. Physical contrast:  Shrek is huge and brawny, Donkey is small and wimpy. Other basic examples: tall and thin/short and fat. Fair-haired/dark-haired. Agile/clumsy.

2. Emotional contrast: if your main character is moody and rebellious, highlight these traits with a foil character that is sunny-tempered and always goes "by the book".  Find your character's primary attitude and then create a character that is the opposite.  Flighty/dependable. Possessive/careless. Prideful/humble. Thrill-seeker/cautious. I actually have a list of almost 100 attitudes and their opposites that my old writing group put together - I'd be happy to share it if anyone's interested.

3. Background or experience contrast: if your main character comes from the wrong side of the tracks, make a foil character from a rich, snobby background. Or naive, inexperienced character can be paired with a wise, experienced mentor character. Even  better, after establishing the inexperienced/experienced characters, create another fun contrast in the second half of a story by switching the scenarios so your main character is on familiar ground where they are experienced, and your wise mentor is now on unfamiliar ground!

4. Cliche contrast: Dogs and cats are traditional enemies. A great contrast in themselves, you can extend the contrast by forcing them to be allies instead of enemies. One of the great twists in the Twilight series is when  traditional enemies vampires and werewolves were forced to become allies to defend themselves against a greater foe.

5. Your main character(s) should occasionally show contrast in themselves too, especially in the second half of the story to emphasize character arc. You don't want them to always act predictably!

After googling for some more famous foils, I came across this fantastic list from (and kudos to them for also reminding about foil hats and alien conspiracy theorists).

And for more reasons why you'll love the Iron Fey series, here are  my gushing reviews: The Iron King, The Iron Daughter, The Iron Queen, The Iron Knight.  And oh, I can't resist: here's another simple but effective contrast from the Iron Knight:  "The dragon snorted, filling the breeze with the scent of fish and cherry blossoms."   Fish and cherry blossoms? Talk about contrasting smells!

Do you have a favorite pair of characters that contrast each other?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Top Ten fiction books that made me stop and think

Top Ten Tuesday is  an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish blog with a different top ten list theme (all related to books) every Tuesday (see the full list here).

Next Tuesday, I'll be taking a break from top tens for a while and posting on contrasts in characters. 

Here's the top ten books that made me think about life and even contributed to how I try to live my life.

10. Feed by M.T. Anderson
I just read this book recently, and it really made me think about our current addiction to the internet and smartphones, not to mention consumerism. 

9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Atticus' lesson to Scout is one that has helped me think through some difficult relationships I've faced with this excellent advice: "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it."

8. Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
When I was 14 and 15, I devoured these books, multiple times, just soaking up the details of Middle Earth and the epicness of it all; wondering why I was so swept away. Maybe it was because it's about how small, insignificant people can do great things. But I also wondered why the elves longed for something even Middle Earth couldn't give them, and I still ponder that to this day. It wasn't until a couple years ago when I read Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis (this book would be #1 on my list except that it's not fiction) that I finally understood why Lord of the Rings had such an impact on me. Except I still can't explain it, not in one paragraph at least! 

7. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti
Always a huge fan of fantasy, this book shook me to my core, realizing the possibility that some elements of fantasy could actually be real and that many of us are part of an epic fantasy taking place just outside our realm of senses. 

6. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle
I never thought about stars the same way again after reading this book as a child; it made me realize that ordinary things we see every day in our lives (or every night) might have implications that our limited senses cannot fully perceive. Quotes like these really make me ponder, even to this day, our limitations with communication and perception. 
"Oh child, your language is so utterly simple and limited that it has the affect of extreme complication."
From a blind character: "We do not know what things look like. We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing." 
This cover is so amazing I almost need to go buy myself another copy!

5. A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers
This story of a girl torn between love and duty, faith and fear, made me think about my own struggles of faith. It's also marvelously entertaining with gladiators and parties set in Ancient Rome.

4. The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
All of Lewis' books, both fiction and non-fiction, have stretched me to think in new ways - I would love to list a dozen more by him. This is my favorite of the Narnia series, but if I shared the aspect of it that really got me thinking about why terrible things sometimes happen and what possible purpose they could have, it would be a total spoiler. This book also got me thinking about pride vs. humility. 
One of my all-time favorite covers, so I had to display it large!

3. The Mitford series by Jan Karon
As I mentioned earlier, I'm a huge fan of fantasy. But what I loved about these books is they taught me that wonderful things don't have to be epic. Wonder and majesty can also be found in ordinary places. Many things to ponder in these books: uncovering buried fears, putting up false fronts, everyday temptations. Wrapped and delivered in delicious humor. 

2. My Friend Flicka series by Mary O'Hara
Though technically classified as children's books, there's a lot of stuff in these three books that I still ponder over as an adult, too. Complications of responsibility, dealing with disappointment, letting go of beloved things/people, wanting something so bad that it crushes your world when you don't get it - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. 

1. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
I still love re-reading this story (actually, all the books in the Austin series). As a teenager, it was the first time I pondered the mysteries of how life is entangled with death, beauty with darkness, joy with sorrow. 

What book(s) made you stop and think about life, society, relationships, etc?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Making and breaking character rules

When I read books I'm always looking for how the author "did it" - how they developed memorable characters or great setting or exquisite plotting. But sometimes a book is just so darn good that I get so sucked into it I can't analyze it.

 I love that total immersion, but at the same time I wish I didn't have to go back and re-read it to figure out specific techniques the author used, so I can steal them utilize them in my own writing. 

That was the case with Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, a new YA fantasy that is really the most original story about dragons I've yet encountered. And I make a point of reading every dragon book I come across (I'm crazy about mythical creatures... just discovered that the new release, Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff, has a griffin as a principal character in a Japanese-style steampunk story - I am SOOOOOOO reading that book next!!!) (had to include a larger image of the cover so you could see the griffin). 

Ah, but back to Seraphina. I talked my longtime writing buddy, code name Lorvallis Scholar, into reading it so we could discuss it afterwards. We talked about the specific character-traits of these dragons: they are like winged versions of Vulcans, emotionless, intellectual, mathematical creatures, not so much obsessed with logic as with knowledge in general (and, unlike Vulcans, also have the tendency to bite off heads. Literally). 
This is who I'm voting for this year

Here's my favorite quote from Seraphina, that sums up the "rules" that define these dragons so well (I need to preface this by explaining that dragons can transform into a human body): 
Orma moved a pile of books off a stool for me but seated himself directly on another stack. This habit of his never ceased to amuse me. Dragons no longer hoarded gold; Comonot's reforms had outlawed it. For Orma and his generation, knowledge was treasure. As dragons through the ages had done, he gathered it and then he sat on it.
The dragons see no point in polite actions such as saying "hello" "good bye" "how are you" or "thank you." These a just a few examples of the rules that define dragon behavior. They are carefully constructed and adhered to throughout the book -

- until the last third of the book, when the main dragon character, Orma, proceeds to break the rules. Turns out, he really does have a heart that he tries to hide under his scaly hide. He's like a maladjusted Gandalf of dragons. 

And alongside Seraphina's character arc, Orma's character arc, developing from a cold, emotionless, loveless intellectual into a creature with a touch of compassion (and the first ever recorded dragon attempt at sarcasm), is one of the magnificent things about this book. 

So, my lesson learned from Seraphina:  make "rules" for your characters and spend the first half or two thirds of your book reinforcing them. And then have glorious fun breaking them! 

Oh my gosssssssssssssssssssssshhh (forgive the storm of s's) I loved this book!!! (even despite a few of its flaws - too many "garden of grotesques" scenes).  I want to include my entire Goodreads review here, but it is over 3000 words long! Will some of you PLEASE read this book so I can have more people to talk about it with????? (I promise I'll return the favor with one of your favorite books). 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Top Ten books on my fall must-read list

I promise, my next post (this Friday) will finally be something other than a top ten list.  I learned a really powerful writing technique from a book I read recently, I can't wait to share it! 

But today I couldn't resist posting again for  Top Ten Tuesday,  an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish blog with a different top ten list theme (all related to books) every Tuesday (see the full list here).

Next Tuesday, the topic will be Top Ten Books That Make You Think (About The World, People, Life, etc.)    

Here's the top ten books I can't wait to read this fall: 

10. Ironskin by Tina Connolly
A re-telling of Jane Eyre with a bit of fey mixed in - and steampunk - that's a strange and irresistible trio to me.  This book will be available on October 2. 

9. What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang
Two souls trapped in one body - what an interesting premise. Can't wait to see how this one plays out.  Available September 18.

8. Nerve by Jeanne Ryan
A game of dares - broadcast online. I'm not even a reality-TV fan, but this sounded intriguing to me, and very high stakes. Available Sept. 13. 

7. Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger
What intrigues me about this one is that no reviewer is willing to give details (for fear of spoiling) the "places" in this book, and it's got a special school that some reviewers compare to Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Available October 2. 

6. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand.
The main character, Victoria, is already famous and the book has only just released. I love an eccentric, opinionated character.  Apparently this character is so over-the-top that she's even got book reviewers talking in her voice. 

5. Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers
Okay, this one has been out since this spring, but it just came across my radar. One reviewer says "Do you love historical mysteries? Court intrigue? Romance? Light fantasy? Do you love Juliet Marillier? Sherwood Smith? Do you wish that The Queen’s Thief series read a lot more like a romance novel? Then this book is absolutely for you."  

4. The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna
What if parents could pay for a copy of their child, as a backup? What intrigued me to buy this just-released book is that its  told from the copy's perspective, and her longing to be her own person instead of the echo of another. 

3. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Just released in June and already a NYT bestseller, all I had to hear were the words "Russia" and "fantasy" together to intrigue me. 

2. The Lost Prince by Julie Kagawa
Another Iron Fey novel oh I'm sooooo happy, except for the fact that I have to wait until Oct 23. This is my MOST FAVORITE YA series, though this book starts a new series (same world, different characters). 

1. ????? Because I'm sure as I read other top ten lists I'll discover more books I absolutely must read this fall. 

Late breaking news: after reading a dozen other top ten must-read lists, I have a book to fill the #1 spot!!  Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff.  A girl and a griffin team (love me some mythical creatures) in a Japanese steampunk setting. Irresistible!!! Just released September 1st. 

So many books, so little time... what are you looking forward to reading? 
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