Thursday, May 30, 2013

Measuring growth

"So in actual written artifacts from my past, I sound way less smart than I tend to recall having been."
--Mary Karr, Cherry

At least our writing keeps getting better. ;-)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Social networking considered

Over at YA Outside the Lines, I posted about planning ahead with social networks. A sample: "By the time I started Twitter, I was able to foresee many of the decisions I would have to make ... I had developed a set of questions that helps me frame a personal online policy for any new network. ..."

I would say I'm also more cautious now about joining new networks. The thought of having to create any more profiles or set any more passwords is daunting. My favorite online hangouts are still blogs, Twitter, and the blue boards. I also like my Goodreads presence, because from the start I planned the very specific way in which I wanted to use it. When it comes to social media, I now know what I like, and I have some idea of how many sites I can really keep up with (hint: it's a lower number than the number of sites I actually joined). Have you found yourself setting policies for yourself, whether formally or informally?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Valuable writing tip

I wanted to post something about inflexibility. At least, that is what my notes indicate. I have a notebook next to my keyboard in which I jot ideas for stories, blog posts, etc. And in the place where I remember writing down an idea for my next blog post, I find this: "inflexibility." Okay. What about inflexibility? What profound thoughts did I have to share on that topic? I cannot remember. Which just goes to show that sometimes one word is enough as a memory-jogging note, and sometimes it is not.

Below "inflexibility" I have this word: "ghazal." I remember exactly why I wrote down "ghazal." Alas, it has nothing to do with a blog post. It was because someone online mentioned ghazals and I want to look them up sometime and see how they are written, because I think it might be a fun exercise for myself to try writing one. (This is how writers par-tay.) In that case, one word was sufficient as a note. But you, my blog readers, are probably thinking, as well you might: That's all very nice for you, going off to write your fun ghazal sometime, but what does it do for me? What does it tell me about inflexibility? Nothing! And I'm sad to say: If that is what you are thinking, you are right.

Writers are advised to have notebooks with them at all times to catch the ideas they will want to remember later. Here is my writing tip for the day: Make sure your notes in that notebook are both legible and of sufficient length to capture whatever it was you wanted to remember.   ;-)

Friday, May 24, 2013

The stars of our own dramas

There are a couple of tropes that have long bothered me--not necessarily in each instance of their use, but I wish those uses were less frequent. One is the character whose unrequited love persists for decades; the character forgoes all other chances at happiness and clings to the love that can never be. Now, this story line can be done well, and it has been ... but in real life more often than not, people get over it. Even if they carry a small torch somewhere in the backs of their minds for a lost love, they still find new relationships and happiness. As my friend Kelly Fineman has pointed out, Jane Austen knew this--her Rakes who Didn't Get the Girl did not pine away for the heroines forever. Mostly, they married others and had lives of their own. I find the unrequited love especially annoying when it's a minor character who seems to exist solely for the purpose of having a futile crush on the main character (and sometimes, to cheer on the main character's successful union with the main love interest).

The other pattern I dislike is the one where only the main couple in a story gets to have a love life, and all the minor characters are window dressing with no romances of their own. One reason I liked the TV show The Office was that the secondary characters, like Phyllis and Erin and Angela and Oscar, got to have their own love lives. (Although it bothered me that Toby ended up falling into the other trope, with an endless unrequited crush on Pam.) The rounded secondary characters in that show delighted me, and I've always wanted to recommend it to writers for that reason (and now the show is ending. But hey, it lives on in syndication.)

In reality, we're all the stars of our own dramas, and not likely to sacrifice our love and all our hopes and dreams to the interests of some other "main character." In our own minds, we're the main characters. Every side character in a story is the main character of his own life, and his actions should happen accordingly. If he helps or hinders the story's main character, it should be because his own interests happen to intersect (or conflict) with the main character's interests.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I've always loved the "Author Insight" feature at the Wastepaper Prose blog. This week's question is "How do you make yourself write when you aren't in the mood?" The answers ranged from people who take a break and don't force it, to those who push on through, reasoning that this is a job and sometimes you just have days like that.

I've approached it both ways. Part of developing a writing process is knowing when to push through a "block" and when to step back and take a rest. Sometimes reluctance to write is a sign of burnout, but other times it's a sign that we're nearing a scene we need to write that will be emotionally or technically challenging, and sometimes it's a bit of laziness that dissipates once we start writing. Sometimes the subconscious needs more time to work on the story, and other times sitting down at the keyboard is the act that unlocks a new plotline.

I show up almost every day at the keyboard. I usually get at least a few words, often many more. Sometimes I can hear the wheels in my head creaking while the muse strains to come up with something, anything. It's kind of comforting to know that not all writers race to the keyboard and type as if they're taking dictation. I've been reading Sylvia Plath's journals, and she records day after day of struggling, doubting, wondering if she really has what it takes, feeling unmotivated. In other words, sounding like practically every writer I know.

Monday, May 20, 2013

I'm still reading a lot, and writing, and thinking.

For those in the Lehigh Valley area, or willing to travel there, I'll be on a panel this weekend to talk about writing for young adults:
Saturday, May 25, 11 AM - 1 PM: Panel on Young Adult Books. Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group. PALMER LIBRARY, 3 Weller Place, Palmer Township, PA. Appearing with Alissa Grosso, Nicole Zoltack, and John Evans.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Guilt and social media

In response to my last post about phases of being quieter online, two people (one on Blogger, one on LiveJournal) commented about feeling guilty when they withdraw from social media. The second time someone mentioned guilt, I decided I want to say more on this subject.

Why should anyone feel guilty for stepping back? I wondered. After all, blogs and Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are all optional; most of us are not paid to do them and make no promises about when we'll post. Nobody's going to die over whether we post or not. (OK, if you see a tornado coming and tweet about it, you might save someone's life. But that's an exception!)

But entering the online world is entering a community. Most of us interact with a core group regularly, as well as with whomever else clicks on by. We have a horror of being thought of as the writer who became "too good" for her old blog buddies once she signed a book contract. We hate the idea of losing touch with friends once we tie the knot or have a baby. We don't want to disappear when we change jobs.

We like our friends and don't want to lose touch with them.

There's also the fact that sometimes when people disappear, it's because they've had a crisis, and we know people may worry. I can think of one writer I used to see on LiveJournal. Our relationship was at the "acquaintance" level, and many people migrated from LJ to other platforms, so it wasn't until I heard of her untimely death (from another social-media site) that I remembered her and realized I hadn't heard anything about her in a long while. It made me wonder about all the other people I used to see online but don't anymore. I assumed most of them just got tired of blogging or moved over to Facebook, and I know some of them went back to school or got new jobs or simply got so swamped by book promotion that they stepped back from the blogosphere--but now I wonder. Are they okay? I may never know.

So in one sense, I understand the desire to explain our absences from social media. And I think it's a nice idea to say, "I'm going offline for a while" if that's what we're doing. But I don't think we owe anyone an explanation. I don't think we have to justify our absences. Although I've been disappointed when my favorite bloggers stopped posting, I don't believe they owed me anything. They put up a bunch of free content that I enjoyed; we had some fun interactions; how can I complain about that?

Most of all, I don't think social media should have to be a chore. I do think it's important for writers to have at least one place online where readers can find them if they want, one place that provides a bio and author photo and a list of their books. But that can be a single page and doesn't have to be updated too often. Beyond that, it's all icing on the cake. It's about having fun and connecting with people, and if we're not getting that fun and connection here, or if we simply need to focus attention elsewhere, it's natural to step away. The Social Media Police will not come after us. :-)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Quieter times

There are times when I'm engaging more with the people around me, active on social media, speaking more, writing short pieces. I think of those times as more outward-directed.

And then there are times when I'm reading more, and listening more, and spending more time writing long fiction. Or even just planning, outlining, drafting. In these times, the pull is inward.

I'm in the latter type of phase right now. I've been reading a lot. I've been writing a lot of stuff that is not yet fit for other people's eyes. (Or even decipherable by them, probably.)

It's all good. But I feel as if I've been relatively quiet lately. So this is me just poking a hand above the surface to wave hello.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A first draft is like ...

A first draft is like jigsaw puzzle pieces spilled onto the ground. There's a lot of material there, but it's hard to believe it will ever fit together, that it will ever make sense.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I think we can conclude that writing isn't easy

"... I'm always complaining about how hard it is to write or how much I suffer when I'm writing--that almost every song I've ever written has been absolute torture. .... I always think there's nothing there ... this is garbage ... and even if it does come out, I think, 'What the hell is it anyway?'"

Reading these words from an interview of John Lennon (as reported in Jonathan Cott's Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono), I had to laugh. Lennon had one of the most successful songwriting careers of all time. It's somehow comforting to know that it didn't come any more easily to him than writing comes to the rest of us. That even with legions of adoring fans screaming when he sang and longing to tear the very clothes from his back--he still struggled with self-doubt, still wrestled with the muse.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Avoiding info dumps

One thing writers often struggle with is how to convey information without big blocks of exposition (more bluntly known as an info dump). "But how will people know what I'm talking about if I don't explain?" the writer asks. "Readers have to understand the rules of this fantasy world." Or, "I need to explain this character's history."

A good example is how Neal Shusterman introduces the concept of "clappers" in his book Unwind. (Interestingly, Unwind begins with an expository document called "The Bill of Life," but this is barely more than 100 words. And it's clear from how Shusterman handles other details of this future/alternate world that "The Bill of Life" was a deliberate choice--not something he used because he didn't know any other methods for introducing backstory.)

I use the "clappers" example because of its subtlety. Shusterman never gives us an info dump on this topic. "Clappers" is just one of those terms that we figure out from the context. It first appears in this exchange between one of the main characters and his father:

"His father sits in a chair, watching the news as Connor enters.
'Hi, Dad.'
His father points at some random carnage on the news. 'Clappers again.'
'What did they hit this time?'
'They blew up an Old Navy in the North Akron mall.'"

We get a hint of violence, but we still don't really know who clappers are or why they are called "clappers." It's easy to overlook this bit of dialogue anyway because of what else is going on in this scene; Connor has recently learned that his father is sending him away to a grim future (as one does with rebellious teens in this dystopia). The next time we hear of clappers is about 80 pages later:

"The last time there were policemen in the school, someone called in a clapper threat. The school was evacuated ..."

Again, there's no explicit explanation. We're getting that clappers are dangerous because we hear all about the response to them, but we still don't know who they are, or how they operate, or why. We finally learn more not because Shusterman tells us, but because of what he shows us--first in chapter 17, and then later on in the book.

For an even more extreme example of introducing information through context rather than info dumps, check out Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The very slang that the narrator uses is invented (though based partly on Russian, so readers familiar with that language do have an edge). Here is a sample from the first page:

"Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog and All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe ..."

Because Burgess uses "milk" first, we know "moloko" is milk, and it's easy to figure out that vellocet and synthemesc and drencrom are all drugs put into the milk because they can't legally buy alcohol. We figure out the drug part because it's clear that this is a substitute for liquor, and because it induces visions of angels and saints in your footwear.  (And also because "synthemesc" in particular sounds like the names we still give drugs now.) At first, it's slow going, but it's amazing how possible it is to figure everything out from context, and not with a lot of conscious parsing either. I always find myself drawn so naturally into Burgess's world that when I think back on this book, I remember the story clearly but often forget about the language.

It works this way in real life, too. People around us don't stop to explain every little thing, every piece of their history, every allusion they make. We are used to gathering information and piecing it together ourselves. My suggestion to writers would be to skip the exposition and write a draft assuming that readers will pick up the important points and bits of backstory. Then use critiquers to find the places where exposition is absolutely necessary, and insert hints and bits of explanation only to the extent necessary for the reader to figure things out. Readers don't have to know everything about the book's world, just enough to follow the story.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Goofing off

So, ordinarily today I would've put up a blog post to which I had given a lot of thought, and I would've crossed several things off my to-do list. I always have a to-do list. I have writing goals. I come home from my day job, have some dinner, and start on the list. That is how I get things done.

But tonight I wasn't feeling it. I got caught up in reading something interesting, and just for a change, I let myself do that instead of tackling my chores. Heaven knows the chores will still be there tomorrow.

I goofed off for an evening. And I'm blogging about it not by way of apology or excuse. Rather, I'm hoping to set an example.

Goofing off: because sometimes you just need to.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Facing fear: Storms

My blog series about fear continues with this post by Nancy Viau:

I’ve never been frightened by the usual suspects: spiders, ghosts, strange places, large crowds, or even public speaking. But give me a booming, crackling, spine-tingling thunderstorm and you’ll see anxiety written on face as if in permanent marker. (As you can imagine, I am not the parent who calls her kids to the window to gaze at the wonder of a storm.)

My fear dates back to my camping days where only a tent protected me from electric bolts streaming from the sky. My dad shuffled the entire family into the station wagon on these nights. The message was clear: Storms. Are. Dangerous! A later run-in with lightning convinced me. It happened when I was a lifeguard. Seconds after I got the swimmers out of the water, a bright bolt hit the high dive and landed within several feet of me. And if that wasn’t enough, when living in Florida, I met a man who was actually struck by lightning, twice! (Are you kidding me? Yikes!)


During a particularly scary storm in 2009, I remembered how I handled this fear as a child. As soon as I saw lightning, I counted the seconds until the thunder. And so on that evening I counted, but I did something else, as well. I listened—really listened—to the storm. It was intense and oh, so loud, but it also had an unmistakable rhythm. And in that rhythm, my story was born.

Thunder claps outside the door.
Boom. Boom. Bang!
Rumble, rap, roar!

To make STORM SONG appealing to children, I focused on the comfort found inside a home. When the electricity goes out, the children play games, eat snacks, and pass the time cuddling with Mom and the family pet. If my book puts children in a happier place when threatening weather moves in, I will have made something good come out of my fear. And the best part? A storm, like all songs, eventually comes to an end. (Thank goodness!)

Storm soon roams across the hill.
Sprinkle, splash…

Nancy Viau is the author of three nature-inspired books: Look What I Can Do! (about sweet animals from the forest who are not at all scary), Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in her Head (about an out-spoken, rock-loving scientist), and Storm Song (which Nancy will read to herself at the first flicker of the lightning).

Friday, May 3, 2013

Project: Boy Next Door

L.K. Madigan won the William C. Morris award for her debut YA novel, Flash Burnout. She followed that up with The Mermaid's Mirror. Coached by an imaginary version of Tim Gunn, she continued to write, but cancer cut short her life in 2011. She had a way of mixing humor with darker, heavier material that was wonderful to read.

Her voice lives on in many ways, and it's an honor to give you a sneak peek at her YA novel, Project: Boy Next Door, which will be released next week:


Being the son of a mega-famous mogul isn't all it's cracked up to be, which is why super-smart but socially awkward teen Melvin Pepper wants to try something new: anonymity. To attend a regular high school, get a normal job, meet real people. A break from the pressure and facade that come with crazy wealth and a world-renowned last name.

But Mel quickly realizes that being Mike, his alter ego, isn't as easy as he'd assumed. He gradually makes friends at work and school and becomes involved in the radio club, plus navigates the rocky waters of first crushes and first kisses. However, he discovers someone out there is on to his secret and is threatening to expose it.

And that's not all. One of Mel's new work friends is hiding a dark secret of her own, and Mel feels helpless to make things better for her. He struggles with juggling two very different identities, balancing jealous old friends and nosy new ones. Yup, Mel's in way over his head...and the only chance he has to make everything right is to be true to himself.

The book is currently on Goodreads, and the sales links should be available next week.