Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Thanks

I am thankful to live in a country where I can write the stories I want to tell without fear of losing my life or liberty because the government doesn't like my ideas.

I am thankful to live in a country where I can choose what my life will become.

I am thankful to live in a country where I can be free to attend the religious institution I choose.

I am thankful for my freedom, for my country, for the rights I have as an American citizen.

I am thankful for the thousands of men and women who sacrifice and have sacrificed so much to make that freedom possible.

I am thankful for the individual men and women I know who serve or have served in the United States military.

I am thankful for the families of those who serve and for how much they give as well.

God bless America.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Recommendation: The Book Thief

This post was supposed to go up yesterday, but I couldn't log in to Blogger until today. Sorry for the delay!


Somebody (I wish I could remember who) recently pointed me in the direction of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Others may have given it glowing reviews as well, because I know I had high expectations for it going in.

To be honest, I didn't really like it at first. The voice was very strong and felt a little fake (though by the end I loved it). The structure was choppy because section breaks come frequently and with narrative side notes (but I grew to love those too). The one thing that really pulled me along was the uniqueness of the imagery. I doubt the book had a single cliché.

But as the story progressed I became more and more involved. I read the first 6th of it over several days and then finished the rest in a single day.

At the end I cried more than I've ever cried before over a book. For some people that might not be saying much. But I really don't cry very often—almost never at movies and only rarely at books. This book, however, didn't just make me cry while reading; the tears kept on falling later when I went to curl up on the sofa with my hubby. (His words: “So you do have a heart.” Yes, I have that much of a reputation for dry eyes.)

So what's the book about? It's about a girl who goes to live all alone with a foster family because her mother is forced to give her up and her brother is dead. (She never knew her father.) It's about a girl who steals books and understands why words are important. It's about a girl living in Germany during World War 2, and it's narrated by Death.

Three things this book taught me:
-How to insult people in German
-How beautiful a narrative can be when the descriptions are totally unique
-What life might have been like for people in Germany during the war

The hardest thing about the book is that so much of it really happened. It's still very fresh in my mind, so I don't know if I can say much more than that. Remembering the brutality that people are capable of is important but painful. But this book is a reminder that even in the midst of great evil, people are capable of much goodness too.

The book has a lot of happy moments in addition to the sad ones. It's not so heavy that it's impossible to read. And I really would encourage anyone who can to read it. I'm certainly glad that I did.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dirty Little Secrets

Last week I wrote the following in an email to my dad:

In many ways writing is its own reward, but at the same time it's still work, and on top of that it's work without many tangible benefits so far. I can see that I've made progress over time and that I'm closer to publication than I was five years ago, but I also recognize that publication isn't the jackpot. I've learned a lot about what writing is and what it isn't, and generally I accept every facet of the writing lifestyle. But there are times when I reevaluate and I ask myself whether I really want to keep living with the uncertainty and keep adding layers to that thick skin I'm supposed to have. Then I'll hear people say 'real writers write because they just can't stop' or 'real writers write every day' and I think, 'well gee, am I not a real writer?' So at times I feel like I'm carrying around this dirty little secret...”

Writers have a lot of insecurities. Those of us who have never finished a book wonder if we'll ever be able to. Those of us who have never queried an agent wonder if we'll ever get a positive response. Those of us with an agent wonder if we'll ever have a publisher. Those of us publishing a book wonder if any readers will ever like it. Those of us writing a second book for publication wonder if it will ever live up to (or make up for) the first. And so on.

We have wild imaginations. We're really good at making up things to worry about. The last thing we need to do is give ourselves yet another reason to be insecure. And yet we do. We're so so good at making ourselves feel like frauds.

But we don't want anyone else to know! Everybody else has the writing process so put-together. Right? Only I'm becoming more and more convinced that none of us really are that put-together. The only reason we look like we are is because we're deathly afraid of admitting otherwise.

So let me tell you a few dirty little secrets.

Sometimes I don't write every day. I write regularly, and I have a schedule, but I don't create new words every day. Will you hate me if I tell you I don't think it's healthy? I need rest... don't you? But don't let me tell you what makes you a writer! If you write every day, I respect that, and I respect you. (And I'm secretly a little jealous of you, too.) But I won't let anyone knock down the career I'm trying to build just because I don't operate like I'm “supposed to.”

And here's a dirtier secret: sometimes I don't even like writing. I don't want to do it. I look at the empty page and then I look at all the other things I could be doing and I think, “Hey, nobody's actually making me write.” I think about how the words don't want to come, and how I will never be a perfect writer, and how I'm never going to please certain people with what I write. I think about how much uncertainty is involved, and how no matter the thickness of my skin some critiques still sting, and how this is a choice that I'm making. Sometimes I flirt with the idea that I could still choose something else.

And isn't that terrifying? Have you felt that way before? Have you thought about the fact that you've spent so much time on this thing that you both love and hate, to the point that you wonder whether it's becoming your whole identity?

Some people say writers write because they can't stop, but I think sometimes that I could stop. I could walk away. I choose not to... but I could. And I'm not going to let anyone tell me I'm not a real writer because of that.

I'll tell you why I choose to keep writing. It isn't because of the romance of writing. That used to be why—back when I read a quote from Madeleine L'Engle about how the story chooses the writer and doesn't let her go until she puts every beautiful word onto the page. And I thought, “Yes! Please let me be chosen.” The idea seemed so glamorous.

But not any more, because now I know that the romance of writing doesn't always last through all the editing... or even through the first draft. Now I write because I believe that writing is still the most complete form of story-telling. And I love stories. If I'm going to devote myself to one work, despite whether I “want” to do it all the time, this is the work I choose. There's nothing else I'd rather do.

But just because this is my reason for being a writer, that doesn't mean it has to be yours. Maybe you really do love writing itself. Maybe you love the words so much that you can't live without them. Or maybe you have another reason altogether. Whatever it is, don't let anyone take it away from you. Don't let anyone make you think you're a fraud.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What I Learned Last Week

Two weeks ago I was facing some unmistakable signs of approaching burnout. Having been there before with my math degree back in college, and knowing the consequences, I knew that I don't want to get to that point with writing. So I powered through to the end of the week (and the end of the first section of Unmade), promising myself to take the next week off anything writing-related in order to pause and push the reset button.

And that's where I was all last week. I stayed away from blogs, Twitter, Unmade and anything else that fell under the umbrella of “writing.” Instead I did errands, cleaned the house, visited with family, played computer games and finished a few books. Most importantly, I used the time to evaluate the causes of my threatening burnout and figure out some changes to make.

Three Major Causes:

The Forest for the Trees – Social Media

The social media roller coaster is an interesting ride. I started following blogs around a year ago, and I got into Twitter eight or nine months ago. My involvement in each gradually increased to the point that I was “reading” a few hundred blog posts every week and trying to keep up with every single tweet from every single person I follow.

The results? Disastrous. I was skimming, not reading. The point of following blogs and tweets was to connect with people and make the internet my digital classroom, but neither of those were really happening any more. And what's worse, I hit some major media fatigue. So I've cut back and given myself some boundaries now.

Divided Efforts – Querying

I have to say that I have no complaints about the query process. So far it's been a positive experience. The problem is with me and my divided focus. Some of that is necessary, of course, because I need to put thought and energy into researching agents and sending strong queries. What isn't necessary is investing thought and energy into keeping Olympus Gate in the front of my mind or feeding my impatience by checking my email constantly. All that energy should go into Unmade. So I'm letting go and redirecting my attention.

Out of Focus – Unmade

In part due to the above, I haven't given Unmade the proper treatment it needs. I set unrealistic expectations for a stellar first draft and then didn't even spend the appropriate amount of time preparing for an average first draft. So I have several frustrations with the characters and the voice and several of the scenes, because they aren't as sharply in focus as I'd like.

This week I'm hoping to work on those issues. I have a lot of research to finish before I can start into the next section of the book, and some of that research is on hold while I wait to meet with a contact, so in the meantime I'll go back through the first section and find some clarity.


So that's where I was last week and what I'm doing now. How do you handle the threat of burnout?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Quick Update

Just a brief note to say that I will be taking a week-long break from the blog.  Be back next Monday!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Recommendation: The False Princess

Current YA trends don't include much high fantasy, but it's fun to read when it comes around. As is fitting for YA, the books that do succeed are often focused more on self-discovery and interpersonal relationships than magic and epic battles.

That's certainly the case in The False Princess by Eilis O'Neal. The story is about a sixteen-year-old princess who has just been told that she's not the real princess after all. Instead she's a stand-in, swapped at birth for the real princess in order to ensure that any plots against the throne would not succeed. After learning the truth, she is cast from the palace and sent far away to figure out how to live a life she was never prepared for.

I enjoyed the premise of the story. The plot was fun to follow, as were its twists. There were a few moments of minimal conflict in the first half during which I wondered where the story might be going, but I still always felt compelled to turn the next page. The overall path of the book was worth every minute of reading. Once the twists started coming, I thought that they were handled well.

The characters were easy to relate to and fun to spend time with. The romance wasn't surprising in any way, but it was very sweet. (The one small issue I had with it was that the characters had spent nearly all of their time together growing up, meaning they would be more likely to view each other as siblings and thus predisposed to avoid a romantic relationship. But the “practically siblings” → romance trend is common in high fantasy, so I wasn't shocked to see it.) The secondary characters were distinct and interesting. Altogether a well-rounded cast.

I would really love to see more novels like this. I'm a big fan of high fantasy, and this one is a credit to the genre. Worth picking up if you like fantasy!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shiny New Toys

As a child, did you ever get a toy that you really really wanted, only to get another toy right away that you didn't even know you were going to love? Which one did you play with first? Or were you unable to choose?

This happened to me a few weeks ago, actually. I discovered a gift card left over from Christmas that I had forgotten about and used it to buy a new Sims game. (Yep, I play the Sims. Apparently so do a lot of the authors I follow on Twitter. It must be a Thing.) But I also got Portal 2 right around the same time, and since my husband wanted to play it with me, I got into it before I was “finished” playing the Sims, at least to the extent that I had seen everything I wanted to see.

So I had a dilemma (though admittedly a small one): which game should I play? Not a big deal, right? But what happens when, instead of shiny new toys, we have shiny new novel ideas?

Step 1: Rationalization

Well, of course we're going to get new ideas. That's one of the biggest joys of writing! And the new ideas are just so marvelous, we really shouldn't let them slip away. We have to write them down or we'll forget the crucial details, and then where would we be?

So look, I'm only going to jot down the basics of this shiny new idea in my notebook here, and then I'll leave it alone and get back to the novel I'm supposed to be work on, and... What's that?


I just had the best idea for this one scene where ___ will do ___! Oh, and that means the book should be set in the 1840s, and hey, wasn't that the time of the Irish Potato Famine? So maybe character X should be an Irish immigrant...

-Wait wait wait wait. Wasn't I in the middle of a novel already? I can't switch gears now.

Except I have to record all these ideas or I'll forget them!

-But, but, the novel...

I'll get back to it. Really. I mustn't lose these details!

Step 2: Cheating on the Novel

Only the details just keep coming, and I can't write them down quickly enough. And each one is better than the last. And wow... this book could be truly amazing.

Oh shiny new idea, how perfect you are! You're the one that's going to take me places! I just know it!

So what else have you got for me? A murder mystery? That's fantastic. What else? Assumed identities? Love it!

I'm telling you, this is it. No other idea has ever compared to you. I'm serious. We can do this! Forget everything else, it's you and me now. We'll dive right in and create the best thing ever and people will go dancing in the streets after they read it. You just watch. I'll write like mad until it happens.

Hm? You were saying? Oh... the other novel? Well, yes, erm, hm. We did sort of leave off at rather an important place, didn't we. I suppose maybe that ought to be remedied. And I don't want to be totally fickle. The other novel's got a very good idea too, with just as much potential. Yes, it does deserve my attention...

I guess...

Step 3: Compromise

Very well, here's what we'll do then: I'll keep writing the novel I should be writing, but I'll let myself daydream about the new one from time to time. How's that?

After all, I don't know that much about the mid 19th century, and I should probably read a few books written around that time to get a feel for the language. Plus, looking at pictures of clipper ships on Wikipedia isn't exactly adequate research for day-to-day life aboard one. So fine, I'll put all this aside for now and focus on the current book.

But I won't forget about you, shiny new idea! And I won't make myself stop thinking about you, because I don't want to stifle your brilliance!


So that's what's happening with me lately. I had a fantastic shiny new idea over the weekend (while driving back and forth to a wedding, a memorial and a family gathering). I'm still phasing out of Step 2 into Step 3. But I plan to finish the first section of Unmade this week, so I'm certainly not giving up on it!

What's new with you?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Book Recommendation: Divergent

Sometimes when I bring home half a dozen books from the library, they all turn out to be incredible. Other times, I can hardly finish any of them. Recently I've dealt with a lot more of the latter than the former. So the other day when I saw that Divergent by Veronica Roth had been released, I decided to take a chance and buy it. I'm so so glad I did.

Divergent is a dystopian book, and that's hot right now, but for me this is a book that transcends the trend. I will want to reread it long after it's out of style. For me it has everything I love about good YA fiction.

If you don't know anything about the book, it's about a girl named Beatrice who grows up in a society that is divided into five factions, each based on what the members believe is the best path toward peace: the Abnegation faction (peace through selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Erudite (knowledge), Amity (kindness) and Candor (truth). Beatrice is sixteen, and now the time has come for her to choose which faction she will call her own. She has lived all her life in Abnegation, but she feels drawn to Dauntless.

Even from the beginning I was pulled immediately into this set-up. There's something very powerful about stories in which the characters have to choose their group identity. Just think of how many times you've seen “Which Harry Potter house are you?” quizzes. We like categorizing ourselves. Divergent holds that same appeal. Which faction would I be? (Personally I think I'd be either Erudite or Amity.)

But the story doesn't end with this one good idea. Once she chooses her faction, Beatrice (now calling herself Tris), must prove that she belongs there. And here again we find another scenario that I love reading about—the unskilled going through rigorous training to become skilled. Divergent has some of the draw of Ender's Game: high stakes (if Tris doesn't make it, she'll be cut out of the faction), dangerous competitors, and tests that are both physical and psychological.

But even that isn't the full story. There are hints of dystopian elements throughout the book, and finally in the end all those hints add up. What really made me happy about this book was that it wasn't one of those dystopians in which, if the character would just follow along and be a sheep like everyone else, everything would be fine. The entire world of this story is changing, and Tris doesn't have the option of life as usual.

And still this isn't the full scope of the story. It has a very well-developed romance between two strong characters. The romance is deep and comes out of the individuals' passions, not just their attraction. The book also has a lot of hard choices, especially at the end. The final chapters have some truly heart-wrenching moments.

All in all, I LOVE this book. Definitely one of the best so far this year.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

First Draft Anxiety

Lately I've been having high school nightmares. You're probably familiar with at least one of them: the one where you bring your math notebook to history class, maybe, or the one where you're late to class but you're stuck at your locker because you forgot the combination. The one where you're sitting in French and you realize there's a test and you haven't been attending class all year. Or perhaps the one where Mrs. North turns into your grandmother and they're both mad at you and you hate hate hate disappointing them, but you don't what you did this time or how to fix it and why are you burying your math book in the garden anyway? and now you're crying in your sleep, you silly dork... No wait, maybe that last one's just me.

Well anyway, I hadn't had dreams like that in a long time until recently, but I guess there's something in the air (it is exam season, after all) or, hmm, I suppose the fact that my characters go to a high school similar to mine might be to blame. (What's that? I'm writing a book set in high school and now I'm dreaming about it? Shocker!) Or maybe, just maybe, the dreams are coming out of the fact that I have first draft anxiety, which feels an awful lot like I've just gotten a D on my physics test and now I'm desperate to bring up the grade.

Raise your hand if you've ever wanted to flush a first draft down the toilet. That's where I am right now. Is there a twelve step program for perfectionists? Even if there is I wouldn't join—I'd be too afraid of botching one of the steps! For all the excitement of writing a new story, I keep seeing all the flaws in it. And now I'm fighting first draft nerves.

What do you do when...
-You have a totally flat beanbag character flopping around in your scenes?
-Your dialog is way out of proportion with the rest of the writing and it's throwing your pacing all off?
-Instead of an arc your plot line looks like a rocky financial chart?
-Your main character's voice is growing stale?

I guess there's only one thing to do: suck it up, keep writing, and if you're really desperate, quote some Anne Lamott: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” Fixing the issues is what the second draft is for. And besides, that bad character just balances out the really great one, that dialog is pretty decent, the plot is going somewhere, and at least the main character has a voice to begin with. There's always a silver lining.

Anyone else going through first draft blues?

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Joker

Last night I finally saw The Dark Knight for the first time. I guess I'm a little bit (way) behind on that. If it so happens that I'm not actually the last person alive to see it, anyone who hasn't should stop reading because there may be some spoilers ahead.

As someone mentioned today in discussing The Dark Knight, the movie really wasn't about Batman but about the Joker. He was the star of the show. And that got me thinking, what makes the Joker work in this movie? And there were two pieces that immediately came to mind:

The Acting. The one thing I'd heard over and over before watching the movie was how stellar Heath Ledger's acting was, and everyone was right about that. The way he moved, the way he talked, his presence... all spot on. The portrayal of the Joker was the biggest part of what made him such a spectacular villain.

But without good writing the acting could have only gone so far...

Consistency vs. Inconsistency. For me this is the heart of character. The Joker remained consistent in ways that mattered. His outlook on life never wavered. He worked through complex plans in order to create chaos. He was unhinged but logical. He was always perfectly balanced between methodical and spontaneous. Those character traits never changed.

And yet he was also inconsistent in the right ways. Specifically: he lied. He told different stories about his past. He manipulated people by telling them whatever was necessary to make them do as he wished. The inconsistency between what he said and what was real drove many of the scenes in the movie.

So I think the writers did a fantastic job showing so many complex sides to this one character.

One thing I did wish... There was one part of the movie that I would have liked to have seen happen differently. All the way through the majority of the movie the plot had never hesitated to “go there” into dark, dangerous conflict. Important characters died. The Joker manipulated Batman into saving one character instead of another. So I was expecting even more grit right at the end.

In this particular scene, the Joker has placed explosives on two ferries, one containing a group of prisoners, the other a group of ordinary civilians (including children). Each group has the trigger for the explosives on the other ferry. If neither group pulls the trigger on the other by a certain time, both will go off. Both groups end up waiting, neither killing the other, and Batman stops the Joker before he can detonate the explosives.

I found that outcome a little unbelievable. I kept expecting the civilian group to pull the trigger on the others. (Surely one of the parents would do that to save his or her child.) And I thought that, in keeping with the Joker's nature, he had lied and actually given each group the trigger for their own boat. I was almost sure the civilian ferry would pull the trigger and unintentionally kill themselves.

That's not how the story turned out, and probably for several good reasons. I still thought the Joker was very well-crafted and the highlight of the movie.

What stands out about the Joker for you?