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1. The Sound of Things to Come

Last week at the book festival was so much fun. The venue was gorgeous – one of the best libraries I’ve ever visited – and the organizers were so thoughtful and generous. It was definitely my favorite festival so far. Plus, I got to meet some awesome authors who’ve written some great books. Thanks to […]

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2. Characters Who Care

This post is a continuation of my previous week’s discussion of stuck emotions. When a character feels inadequate or down on himself, it’s very hard to get a character who cares about themselves or the story. Another alternative to this situation is a character who doesn’t want to be involved in their particular circumstances–they couldn’t care less about taking over the family business, for example–and so they try very hard to convince themselves and the reader that they simply don’t care.

This is very difficult to forge into compelling fiction. After all, I hold that the basic aim of any writer is to make the reader care. So if a character doesn’t care, my first objection is that they’re making it that much more difficult for me, as a reader, to get invested in the story. It feels a little unfair. After all, I’m working so hard to get into the book, suspend disbelief, latch on to a character, inhabit a point of view, hear a voice…that I want the protagonist to be in the same boat. You’re ideally creating someone the reader can get invested in. And if it’s an anti-hero type or someone stewed in apathy, who won’t invest in herself, that’s a tough sell.

It’s realistic, sure. It happens in life, and it’s very full of deep and real emotions. But it’s hard to pull off well. So if your particular writing challenge is creating a compelling character who just so happens to be detached, pent up, hidden behind defenses, or just a straight-up nihilist, you need to crack those walls at some point, and soon. Even if it’s for a minute, even if only the reader can see it because it happens in interiority…some measure of vulnerability needs to happen.

And then, there needs to be something that compels the character to move forward. Whether it’s a very personal motivation, a private objective, a small bit of light at the end of a dark tunnel, whatever, it needs to pull them forward into the story. One thing I won’t do as a reader is suffer through a manuscript where it seems like the protagonist is being dragged along, kicking and screaming. Facets of this idea are discussed in my post on “character buy-in,” which becomes an important concept here. It doesn’t just have to do with suspension of disbelief, it has to do with the character finding their own reason to engage with the story.

Finally, if your character really does care but they say they don’t care, it better not last too long, because ain’t nobody got time for that! Protest less and get into the real telling of the tale!

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3. Monday Mishmash: 1/26/15


Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. Scholastic Book Fair  I'm working the Scholastic Book Fair this week at my daughter's school. I know Stephanie Farris's book will be there, so I'll be talking it up to the kids. Anyone have a book that's part of the fair? I'll be sure to showcase it if so. :)
  2. Editing  I'm working on client edits this week.
  3. Snow  This stuff needs to go away for good. I'm done with winter.
  4. Drafting  I'm doing something I rarely do. I'm slowly drafting a book here and there between other projects. I don't really like to work like this but sometimes it's necessary, and to be honest, I love what I've written so far, so maybe this is what this book needs.
  5. Looking For Love Cover Reveal Signups  I'm looking for people to sign up for the Cover Reveal of the final installment of the Campus Crush companion series (New Adult contemporary romance). Interested in helping out? Oh, and the form has a spot if you're interested in reviewing an ARC. Sign up here: 
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    That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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4. Interview with Grammarly


I recently received an offer to try out the grammar correction program called Grammarly. On their website, Grammarly claims to make you a better writer by finding and correcting grammatical mistakes.

I downloaded the software and tried it out, but instead of reviewing it, I thought it would be interesting to interview a representative of the company by email. Mr. Mager, an online marketing analyst, agreed to my request. Before he sent his answers, he said he checked them with a colleague to verify that they were accurate.

JG: Would you briefly describe how Grammarly is different from other grammar-checking programs?

Grammarly offers automated grammar, spelling, and plagiarism checking. Its technology catches 10x more mistakes than Microsoft Word, while also offering unique features such as writing enhancement and citation suggestions. Grammarly regularly conducts tests to compare our algorithms against our competitors including Google. Our continuously improving machine learning algorithm always wins. A more recent defining element of Grammarly is its Chrome extension that will soon be available for Firefox and Safari later this year. The extension allows our users to have a grammar checker wherever they go on the internet from their emails to Facebook comments.

JG: Do you recommend a different prose style for print settings than you do for online settings?
Our linguists approach Grammarly with a classical, academic approach. We realize that context is vital to proper communication. A properly written sentence or paragraph can make the difference in receiving a passing or failing grade, job offer, or a good story. When writing with Grammarly, we offer seven categories and 32 different document types that range from short stories to business emails. With each document type, Grammarly applies different grammar rules and suggestions.

JG: How does the reading experience differ when we read text on a computer screen?
Last year, the Grammarly team ran a survey to get more information about this topic from our community of word nerds about their reading habits. We found that out of 6,744 responses, 79% preferred to read printed books versus e-books. Another survey showed that of 1,929 responses 39% would prefer their children read printed books while 11% preferred e-books and 34% of respondents simply wanted their kids to read! It is clear that there is a more positive experience with holding a paper book than looking at a screen.

JG: Should those differences change the way we think about writing for the computer?

The most important thing, about writing for the computer or print, is that we write with clarity and creativity. If readers can’t understand what we are writing, then our message is lost on them - no matter what we’re saying. What I have personally noticed is that writing in print is often more formal than online writing and written in long form. Online writing tends to be more succinct, with more paragraphs and bullets to break up thoughts. This is likely due to our shorter digital attention spans.


JG: I allowed Grammarly to evaluate the first paragraphs from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. According to Grammarly, each of them has issues with wordiness. Is that a false positive, a change in historical standards or a valid objection to their style?

Grammarly is not meant to critique works of art or classic literature. It is built around a powerful and an ever-evolving algorithm designed to provide students, professionals, and advanced language learners with an automated, cost-effective, accurate, and always-available online tool to help improve their written English skills. Through contextual guidance, users are empowered to make the final assessment of whether the feedback they’ve received fits the material being reviewed, enabling them to learn from their mistakes.

JG: How has using Grammarly changed your personal experience as a writer?
For me, Grammarly serves as an extra pair of eyes on my work. It keeps me aware of some common issues that I have with my writing and explains the grammar rules that I miss. This feedback has been helpful with the accuracy of my writing even when Grammarly isn’t available. I find when I write to my boss, family, or friends I can have more confidence and credibility behind my message.

JG: Given that you work at a web company that ferrets out mistakes in writing, do you find that your friends and family give you a hard time every time you make a mistake?
Yes! So much so, in fact, that one of us wrote a blog post about it: http://www.grammarly.com/blog/2014/email-presents-major-challenge/

I appreciate the challenge though. My writing wasn’t the best in school so as I pay more attention to how I speak and write, I see my communication improving every day.

JG: Forgive me, but you did make an error in your cover letter to me, saying, “stuck a chord” rather than “struck a chord.” That’s a hard one to catch given that you spelled each phrase correctly, and it was grammatical. Would Grammarly be able to find such a mistake if it used the kind of statistical algorithms that Google uses when it prompts alternate search phrasing?

Grammarly is able to pick up “stuck and struck” a chord and other contextual errors such as “there, their, they’re”, however we are still adding to the contexts that they can be found in. Our program is constantly learning, similar to the way Google uses its statistical algorithms, and while Grammarly is not yet perfect, we are still the leader in writing enhancement software.

JG: What thinking did you give to the manner in which Grammarly points out issues to the writer? I notice that it has a polite and helpful demeanor. If you had designed it differently, it might have appeared obnoxious or pedantic. What thinking went into that interface?

Grammar rules can be confusing to many people and are constantly evolving. Grammarly was created to provide an easy way for students, professionals, job seekers, and English language learners to become better, more accurate English language writers and help them learn and understand the rules of grammar. We’re not here as a grammar judge; rather, we want to be a resource. Our world-class designers and UX experts have played a big role in this as they obsess over every detail to create an easy, understandable interface for our users.

JG: What happens behind the scenes when the little Grammarly logo starts spinning around? Is the text being uploaded to your computers? Do you keep a copy of the writing? Do you ever share it with anyone else?

Our policy agreement provides detailed information about how Grammarly stores text, but I can tell you that we never share any writer's text publically. Behind the scenes, Grammarly's learning algorithms are constantly reviewing whether our tool is being applied in the right context or not -- that is how we can make continuous improvements.

JG: Do you worry that the reliance on machine-based spell-check or grammar-check programs will blunt the attention that you devote to your writing or that it might sand off the corners of your personal style? (Grammarly didn't like me using the word "sand".)

Nice imagery. No, the great thing about Grammarly is that it was developed alongside English professors to be a passive learning tool. For each potential issue flagged by Grammarly’s algorithms, users receive a detailed explanation so they can make an informed decision about how, and whether, to correct the mistake. Our positive reviews from professional writers really speak for itself.

JG: How would you envision Grammarly five years from now? Please describe the kind of writing partner you’d like to see it become.

Grammarly’s core mission is improving lives by improving communication, and there is a lot in store over the next few years. One part of this is improving Grammarly’s algorithms to the level of a human proofreader. Every day, we get a little closer to that goal. The other part is integrating Grammarly more into people’s lives. This new plugin we recently launched for Chrome, and soon other browsers, is a big step to bringing our advanced grammar checker to where a majority of the world writes most. It is an exciting time to be here!
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0 Comments on Interview with Grammarly as of 1/25/2015 9:53:00 AM
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5. Words Fail Me

I groan when they show writers in movies or TV shows worrying about word choice, as if all writing is poring through a thesaurus trying to find just the right word. That almost never comes up for me. I worry a lot more about characters and story than whether I describe a thing as “shiny” or “glossy,” and find these depictions irritating.

But that’s where I’m at right now. Two sisters in my story-in-progress are arguing about something (actually multiple things at once, like arguments often go) and one [verbs] at her sister and [verbs] out of the room. The girl groans and stomps, or she growls and storms, or she exhales in frustration and clomps… but none of these sentences capture her vocalization the way I hear in my head, or the way a small body exits a room in anger. (I cringe at the word “flounce,” though it may be technically accurate, it seems to be in the realm of “spunky” and “sassy” for words that delegitimize the way girls act and feel).

Allegedly any language has the ability to express any idea, despite Sapir, Whorf, and Orwell’s claims to the contrary, but I’m not convinced. The word “march” makes me visualize the rigid gait of a soldier; words like “stomp” and “clomp” suggest a heavy-footed oaf, and “storm” seems fast-moving, not a furious exit with time for smoldering sideways glances.

As for the first verb, I don’t want her to come across as a pig, or a dog, or a dragon, with the huffing and snorting and growling.

If I don’t get a grip on this sentence soon I will expel my breath in an annoyed manner and leave the manuscript in a brusque manner.

 

 


Filed under: Miscellaneous Tagged: alex irvine, words, Writing

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6. The Power of Reading Aloud

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YOUR MIND WHILE LISTENING TO A BOOK

 

I have always loved reading books aloud. When I was a teen I spent an awful lot of time on the phone. Actually talking . . . it was a landline phone. And it was in my room. With unlimited local calling for $17 a month. I held down a few babysitting jobs so I could afford that phone and one of the magical things I did on it was read books, aloud, to my friends.

I know right? I have great friends. They would humor me as I did different voices for all the characters. I remember reading Stephen King’s Night Shift to one friend in particular, story by creepy story, until one night my friend casually asked, “How about you read something that won’t prevent me from sleeping after we hang up?”

Reading aloud continued through my adult years except my new captive audience was my kids. From Sandra Boynton to EB White, I was the one who had a hard time stopping so the kids could finally go to bed. My oldest, bless his heart, let me read the entire Harry Potter series to him, even though the last book was published the year he turned eleven and he was fully capable of reading it on his own. BTW, I do a horrifying Voldemort and a kick-butt Hermione.

Now I have a new reason for reading aloud beyond the entertainment factor: EDITING my own WRITING. There is nothing so powerful as stumbling over your own words to make you realize more polishing is required. Reading aloud forces my mind to slow down and see each and every word. When I read silently, I miss typos, grammar errors, and missing words becuase my mind will fill in the gaps– it just hums along without recognizing I just had my protagonist pee around the corner instead of peek around the corner.

Even better, is listening to someone else read your words to you. My very first novel, the one that garnered me two offers of representation and an agent, was read to me by my son. He would stop and tell me when he didn’t understand something so I could put it into simpler language. I would stop him when I heard a sentence fail and fix it before he went on. It was a great partnership, but alas, he is eighteen now and has a life.

However, I have discovered how to let my computer read my words to me. Granted, my lovely Macbook can’t put the emotional nuance into the words that a human being can, but hearing someone else’s voice (Okay, someTHING else’s voice) read my work back to me continues to be eye opening. And I have become very fond of “ALEX”, especially when he reads one notch above Normal speed.

This is how you do it on a Mac:

  1. Open the system preferences
  2. In the System grouping, open SPEECH
  3. Click on the Text to Speech tab
  4. Choose your system voice with the drop down arrow, male or female (I prefer Alex or Kathy depending on if I have a male or female POV)
  5. Choose the voice speaking rate
  6. Test your choices with the Play button and alter as needed
  7. Click the check box for “Speak selected text when the key is pressed”
  8. Click the set key button to set up a keyboard command, I use Command + H which means to get Alex talking I press the Command key and the H key on my keyboard at the same time, but you can choose any combination of keys that makes sense for you that isn’t already in use, you know like CTRL + P which sends your work to the printer…
  9. Click the OK button
  10. X out of the System Preferences window and you’re good to go

Now when you have your book open in Word or Scrivener or whatever program you use, you’ll need to highlight the text to be read (click your mouse button at the top of the passage, hold the mouse button down, drag through the selection, release the mouse button) and then press Command + H.

Oh, make sure your speaker is turned on too!

What are the directions for doing this on a Windows-based computer? Why would you want to write a novel on anything but a Mac? :)

Photograph © Ruslana Stovner

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7. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e January 23rd 2015



Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last week:

Working from Home as a Writer—Some Truths (Elizabeth Spann Craig)
http://elizabethspanncraig.com/2718/working-home-writer-truths/

The Holy Trinity of Character: Goals, Obstacles and Stakes (Art Holcomb)
http://storyfix.com/holy-trinity-character-goals-obstacles-stakes

What Makes a Good Podcast? (Jeremy Szal)
http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/what-makes-a-good-podcast/

First Steps: Situation or Story? (Diana Hurwitz)
http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2015/01/first-steps-situation-or-story.html

Do You Have Impostor Syndrome? (Rachelle Gardner)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/impostor-syndrome/

Forthwringing Tonguishness (Dave King)
http://writerunboxed.com/2015/01/20/forthwringing-tonguishness/

Stuck Emotions (Mary Kole)
http://kidlit.com/2015/01/19/stuck-emotions/

Should You Set Limits with Your Readers? (Jan O'Hara)
http://writerunboxed.com/2015/01/19/should-you-set-limits-with-your-readers/

Dealing with Publishing Blues (Stina Lindenblatt)
http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2015/01/dealing-with-publishing-blues.html

10 Common Fiction Problems and How to Fix Them (Jack Smith)
http://elizabethspanncraig.com/2715/10-common-fiction-problems-fix/

The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader (James Scott Bell)
http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-5-laws-of-fiction-reader.html

If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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8. I answer your burning questions about authors and filthy lucre

Thanks for all your great comments from the last post. I did another post in 2010 about the economics of being a writer if you're interested. To answer a few of the questions from the comments:

 

Daniel wrote: "The only caveat I would suggest is that it might (emphasis) take the writer of the 700 page sci-fi tome a bit longer to write his book than the children's author's book, which I suspect is substantially shorter (not to diminish it's value, at all, based on size...just that it's not apples to apples in value returned to the author for their time at the book signing)."

In response, Sage Blackwood wrote: "The shorter the book, the longer it takes to write."

This is often very true. THE PRINCESS IN BLACK is 2500 words. If a writer of a 300k book took as much time working on every 2500 words as we did in PIB, it would take 23 years to complete a book, and not the 6 months-a year that many such writers take. I have often written 300k word books and whittled them down to 90k words. You can't judge by a book's length how long the author spent on it. Besides, it's irrelevant, as we're not paid by the hour.

Alysa also responds: "Re: Daniel "might take longer to write...the 700-page book" -- it might or might not, but I don't think that should enter into the equation.

"Time spent writing could well be figured in to other places (book price, advance amount, etc) but the time spent on the signing itself is equal for both parties. It is a speaking event, they are hired to speak and to sign for a certain length of time.

"They are not being hired to write during this time, so how long it takes them to write the book doesn't really factor in, the way I see it. I think it's a case of children's authors making smaller commissions per sale than adult authors for no reason other than precedent."

Allison writes: "As a amateur writer, I'm curious: would you say new authors get less royalties than well-established authors like yourself? Is the difference significant(such as 5% vs. 20%), or do most authors get an average of about 10% or 15% but established authors make more simply because they have a bigger fan base (aka more sales)?"

If you have an agent (a legit agent who knows her stuff) and you sign on with a legit professional publisher, you're going to get about the same as everyone else. There might be slight differences. Maybe a freshman writer would get 6% on a paperback, and a sophomore author get 6% to 25k copies sold at which point it escalates to 7.5%, for eg. Really, really big authors maybe work out super sweet deals, but I wouldn't know.

Kathy asks, "I'm finally a stay home mom just this month, and I'm also an unpublished author. I want to publish traditionally, but I'm worried about how it'll affect my family when it happens (one day!). What's been your experience as you raise young kids and work in the published world? Are you away from them a lot?"

This is a big question. I love being a mom and I love being a writer, so I wouldn't trade in either. But I'll warn you that it's very, very hard to balance. After you're published, guarding your writing time gets increasingly difficult. My advice: don't do it if you're looking for a hobby or a simple way to make part time dollars. Do it only if you can't live with yourself if you don't. I've written at length on writing and mothering here.

See also Nichole Giles and Jacqueline Garlick's comments on indie publishing, as their experience has been different than the example I gave.

PJ writes: "If children's author's make around 10% and adult authors around 15%, where does YA fit in? It is the fastest growing market in publishing isn't it? They should make more than adult authors I would think. Why do children's author's make a smaller percentage anyway? That seems especially unfair since there books usually cost less anyway."

YA is considered part of the children's field. As far as I've seen, the numbers are the same in YA as in picture books and middle grade. People just don't want to pay the same for kids' books than adult books. Everything kid is expected to be less: admission, food, clothing. It doesn't matter if it takes as much work, skill and time to create a kids' book as an adult book, the market just won't support it. I wish it were different. Maybe it could change, but would you spend $35 on a YA novel? $25 on a picture book? In general, anything to do with children is valued less than anything to do with adults (think of kindergarten teacher vs college professor. Has a children's movie ever won Best Picture? etc.) Publishers and agents would have better insight into this discrepancy than I do.

Jessie asks, "I have an author money question I've been curious about, I read a lot of eBooks, and have been wondering about the Kindle Unlimited program. Since I get to read those books, practically for free, I was wondering how authors get paid for them. Do you get a small percentage? Is it worth it at all?"

I know next to nothing about this program. It's sort of like Spotify is for music. I don't think my books are a part of it? But I'm highly suspicious that it would be at all profitable for the majority of authors.

Petunia Krupnik asks, "Just a question, are you going to Salt Lake Comicon again this year?" I'm planning on attending the September one.

Emily asks, "How can I convince my friend to read a different genre?" I have a random idea. Introduce her to a good graphic novel or two in her favorite genre. After she reads those, introduce her to a couple of other graphic novels in other genres. People are more likely to read GNs outside their genre comfort zone. It's a great way to discover new genres they didn't think they liked. They are then more likely to go on and read other prose novels in different genres. Any other suggestions?

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9. Writer Wednesday: Writing Vs. Social Media

We all know that part of what we do as writers is interact on social media. We need to be available to our readers so they are aware of when our next book comes out or when we get a new contract and of course so they can get to know us as people and readers, too. I'm going to admit that lately, I've been so busy that I haven't been online much.

Yup. I've been a bad social media author. Here's why. Over the past month, my husband and daughter have been home a lot. A lot. I've always tried to balance my writing life and my personal life. So when my family is home, I like to spend time with them. Nothing unusual there, right? Right. So that means my time to actually work is cut down significantly. And that leads to me deciding what's more important—writing or being on social media.

I chose writing. I worked on a new novella and I revised two books. That's not to mention editing for my clients, too. So you see, something had to give. For me that something was social media, and I'm hoping you'll all forgive me for being quiet online. I'm hoping the promise of more books from me will make up for it.

Do you ever go social media quiet? Do you find you lose followers, or are they forgiving?

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10. First Chapter

How can you write the "perfect" first chapter?  


0 Comments on First Chapter as of 1/20/2015 3:35:00 PM
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11. Ending the World with Hope and Comfort


A friend pointed me toward Sigrid Nunez's New York Times review of Emily St. John Mandel's popular and award-winning novel Station Eleven. He said it expressed some of the reservations that caused me to stop reading the book, and it does — at the end of her piece, Nunez says exactly what I was thinking as I put the book down with, I'll confess, a certain amount of disgust:
If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.
I don't mean this post to be about Station Eleven, because I didn't finish reading it and for all I know, if I'd finished reading it I might disagree with Nunez. I bring it up because even if, somehow, Nunez is wrong about Station Eleven, her points are important ones in this age of popular apocalypse stories.

Let me put my cards on the table. I have come to think stories that give readers hope for tolerable life after an apocalypse are not just inaccurate, but despicable.



We are living in an apocalypse. Unless massive changes are made in the next few decades, it's highly likely that the Earth's biosphere will alter drastically enough to kill off most forms of life. At the least, life in the next 100-200 years is likely to be less pleasant than life now (if you think life now is pleasant). Writing apocalypse stories that mitigate these facts lulls us into complacency. Such stories are their own form of global warming denialism. (Of course, if you are a global warming denialist, go right ahead — write and enjoy such stories!)

Tales of surviving an apocalypse give us comfort fiction, a fiction predicated on identifying with the survivors and giving the survivors something worth surviving for.

It is highly unlikely that you, I, or anybody else would be a survivor of an actual apocalypse, and it is even more unlikely that, were we to survive, the post-apocalyptic world would be worth staying alive to see. To imagine yourself as a survivor is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy. To imagine yourself as a successful survivor — someone who doesn't suffer terribly before finally, painfully dying — is even worse.

To tell stories of apocalypse that seek to be at least somewhat realistic and yet are not as painful as stories of actual, historical catastrophes is sheer escapist fantasy. Apocalypse stories that do not want to be escapist fantasies must be as harrowing and painful as the most awful stories of the Nazi Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide.

I'd think this would be obvious, but many people ignore the fact: to tell a story of an apocalypse is to tell a story in the midst of mass death.

To tell a story of apocalypse that is not limited to a small area — to tell a story of the end of the whole world — is to tell a story about mass death on a scale far beyond the worst historical atrocities.

To tell a story of apocalypse in which people's lives are not even as difficult or painful as the lives of millions and millions of people currently alive on Earth moves beyond escapist fantasy and into the realm of idiotic irresponsibility. (This, perhaps, is why some of the better apocalypse/dystopia stories are written by people who are not middle-class white Americans.)

In Eyes Wide Open, Frederic Raphael reported Stanley Kubrick's assessment of Schindler's List: "Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t."

Obviously, the appeal of such stories is that they let us indulge in the fantasy of success. We love rags-to-riches stories for the same reason. We love stories about our soldiers wiping out lots of evil enemies because we escape imagining ourselves to be the enemy in the sniper's sights.

Who is this "we"? That's a good question for any story that aims for an audience to identify with protagonists, but it's especially good to ask of apocalypse stories. Do you read Left Behind imagining yourself to be one of the good, one of the saved? Do you read Station Eleven imagining that yes, you too could find a way to make a life for yourself in this world?

Or do you imagine yourself among the diseased, the tortured, the suffering, the unsaved, the dead?

"But," you say, "such stories offer us visions of human goodness even in the face of adversity! They alleviate pessimism. They help us to hope."

And that is why they are detestable.

The popular Anne Frank statement that Nunez alludes to in her Station Eleven review — "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart" — was not written in Bergen-Belsen. The story of Anne Frank is not complete until you tell the story of her and her family's suffering and slow death in a concentration camp. A survivor who claimed to have talked with Anne said she was weak, emaciated; that she suspected her parents to be dead; that she did not want to live any longer.

(If you want a happy ending, stop your story before the end.)

To write a story in which apocalypse is not especially awful — or is, even worse, somehow desireable — does nothing to help prevent the apocalypse we face, the apocalypse we live in.

Mass death should not be a self-help allegory.


I may feel so strongly about this because I grew up amidst (and still live around) militia culture, and militia cultists love to fantasize about the end of the world. They don't just dream; they try to live it. They stockpile food, ammo, weapons. They build shelters. They imagine all the ways they'll be heroes when the end comes. For some, it's literally a dream of The Rapture; for the less Christian fundamentalist among them, it's a kind of Rapture allegory, providing the same pleasures, the same confirmation of your own correctness. Apocalypse becomes not a horror but the opportunity to create the best of all possible worlds. Genocidaires always think their violent dreams are necessary, justified, virtuous.

The Walking Dead is popular with a lot of these folks. Step into a gun shop and you're plenty likely to hear at least one person talking about "the zombie apocalypse". It's a code phrase and an allegory: a code for the end of the boring world, an allegory for the time when the well-prepared (white, patriarchal) militia will ascend to its rightful place of honor, when the weak liberals and anti-gunners will die the sad deaths they so deserve, when it will be open season on all the zombies (read: immigrants, black people, etc.). Dreamers dream themselves among the survivors. They dream themselves into heroism. Instead of boring everyday life, they get to show their courage and strength and preparation.

Don't feel your life lets you express your inner heroism? Imagine yourself a survivor of apocalypse. Now you have a hero story.

Imagine yourself finally getting to use those tens of thousands of 5.56 rounds you stockpiled back when ammo was cheap. (You were one of the smart ones. Where are all the people who made fun of you now? They're dead, you're alive. You're the real man. Good for you. You win!)

Don't imagine yourself dying slowly, painfully. Don't imagine yourself wanting to die. Don't imagine disease, starvation, brutality.

We want stories to make us feel good about humanity, or at least about ourselves. We don't want realistic apocalypse stories.

That's what's behind so much of this dreck, isn't it? That somehow we know we're facing doom, and we don't want to feel bad about our own participation in that doom. We want doom to be on our own terms.

For the militia type, apocalypse stories are a way to imagine yourself into heroism. For the relatively wealthy and privileged, apocalypse stories are an opportunity to imagine our way out of the oppressions we benefit from.

(When I've assigned students to read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, there's always been someone who says, "This doesn't feel like science fiction. This feels real." True. And it's a real that hurts. Because it should.)

If you want to tell an apocalypse story, tell a story about well-intentioned people suffering and dying. Tell a story about people like yourself not only being helpless in the face of catastrophe, but being witless progenitors of it.

(One of my favorite apocalypse stories is Wallace Shawn's The Fever. It's a story of the apocalypse of a well-intentioned man.)

Don't tell a story about how people like yourself are such great survivors. In truth, they probably aren't, and indulging in a fantasy of your own people's survival is breathtakingly arrogant in a story set amidst mass death.

(If the effects of your imagined apocalypse are less painful than the effects of Hurricane Katrina, you are writing despicable kitsch.)

I'm not saying tales of apocalypse are inevitably drivel, or even that they have to be a parade of endless horror, brutality, and suffering (though they should probably be mostly that). I'm saying we don't need apocalypse kitsch any more than we need Holocaust kitsch.

Watch the movies Grave of the Fireflies and Time of the Wolf. One is a historical film about the firebombing of Tokyo, the other is about a near-future apocalypse, its cause unknown, its effect coruscatingly clear. It's these films' affect that is most interesting to me, the ways they show disaster and the response to disaster, the ways they make you feel, and what those feelings are. These are not nihilistic stories, they don't deny human compassion and even goodness, but they also don't soft-pedal the suffering that happens with the end of a world.

Or think of it this way: If you had a time machine and could go back to Anatolia before 1915, Germany in the mid-'30s, Cambodia in the early '70s, Rwanda in the early '90s — if you could go back to those times and write stories, what sort of stories would you write? Stories of people surviving impending apocalypse?

If you want to tell stories to help prevent the extinction of the biosphere, don't tell stories that make that extinction seem bearable.

If you want to imagine the end of the world, realize what you are imagining.

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12. 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Eric Smith

Inked by Eric SmithThis is a recurring column called “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their careers can talk about writing advice and instruction — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journeys that they wish they knew at the beginning. This is installment is from Eric Smith, author of The Geek’s Guide to Dating and the young adult novel, Inked.


1. Editing? Cut the Parts You Find Yourself Skipping. When I’m finished writing something, and it doesn’t matter what it is, a chapter in a book, a new essay, a blog post, whatever… I like reading and re-reading it, often times, reading out loud. And almost always the same thing happens. I find myself skipping over parts because I’m a.) way too excited to get to the next paragraph or b.) find that I’m tired of that particular section.

Usually, that means it’s time to make some cuts.

If you can’t even get excited about a bit of writing you’re working on, if you’re tired of that passage already… there’s a solid chance your reader will be too. You should be excited about everything you’re hammering down on the page. Leave no room for skipping. Unless, of course, it’s a victory skip in your backyard. Then, by all means, go forth and frolic. You earned it.

2. It’s Okay to Take a Break. When I wrapped up the rough manuscript of Inked, I immediately dove into working on a sequel idea while researching agents. Immediately. I got lucky, signed with a fantastic agent (hi Dawn!), and shortly after, the opportunity to work on The Geek’s Guide to Dating came up at my publisher. I worked on that book, and when that was done, went back to the sequel concept, worked on some essays, and started adfjdfgdfgsdfkl CRASH.
Burned. The. Hell. Out.

With one manuscript being shopped around and another on its way to publication, I took a breath. I went on a vacation. Not any place special. A little place called Tamriel. Lush wilderness, rushing streams, and tons of dragons. Oh, Tamriel is a place in a video game called Skyrim. I was on my couch. It was great.

Listen: It’s okay to take a break. Whether you’ve got something on submission, a book on its way to publication, or you’re just working on a bunch of fun ideas and drafts. Don’t burn yourself out. You’re no good for anyone like that. Plus, you need your energy for all that dragon slaying, Dovohkiin.

3. Save Your Darlings. I say this a lot, but when you’re busy editing and cutting, whether you’re making cuts on your own, with your peers, with your editor… save those darlings. Avoid that “kill your darlings” cliché, and open up a Word .doc, and stash those little gems off to the side.
Look, you might never use them. They might be the bits you cut out because they were boring you (remember #1?). Those couple of pages you sliced out of that manuscript, you probably cut them out for a good reason. Your agent, your editor, your writer friends… they’re a smart bunch, otherwise you wouldn’t be working with them, right? But down the line, when you’re working on a new story or idea, click on over. See what’s in the scraps. You might find something that sparks an idea, which you might have otherwise deleted.

And if not, whatever. How much space does a Word document take up? Like, a gig? Maybe? Who cares how many gigs? You have lots of gigs.

4. If You Must Read the Reviews, Learn From Them. I have a sign on my desk at work and at home that says “Don’t Read the Comments” in big bold letters. I bought it on Etsy in a fancy frame, because in my mind, an artisanal frame made out of reclaimed wood would make it work.

I never listen to it. No one does.

Look, if you’re going to read the reviews (you’re gonna), don’t lash out, don’t get upset, don’t get angry. Instead, see what you can learn from them. I love book bloggers. Love them. I follow tons of them on Twitter, read a lot of their blogs, and go out of my way to say hi to my favorites at conventions at BEA.

Because they are book lovers. They are my people.

And yes, when they write about my books, I read their reviews, the good and the bad. Why? Because these are the smartest consumers of books out there, and you can actually read what they think about your book! Your book! And if they care enough about your book to talk about it, that’s freaking awesome.

Reading reviews isn’t for everyone. Even I’m aware that I shouldn’t do it. I KNOW I shouldn’t do it. But I do. And when I do, I see what there is to learn. And I’m grateful that someone took the time to actually read my wild button mashing in the first place.

5. Find Your Soundtrack. I have a lot of friends who go running and hit the gym, and when they are busy doing this thing called exercising, they often rock out to music that gets them in the mood. Pumps them up. Gets them excited for the work they are about to do. Because hey, working out? That’s work. And so is writing. It’s just a different kind of work, with an equal amount of tears.

Writing at home? Find your soundtrack. For me, it depends on the kind of work I’m doing. Fussing over a Young Adult novel idea? I turn on the music of my youth, lots of pop-punk, power chords, and acoustic guitars, music by New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy, Punchline, Something Corporate, Saves the Day. An essay? Something that’ll calm me down. The Fray, Dashboard Confessional, Sherwood, Gin Blossoms.

Please note, I listen to my pop punk and emo on a regular basis too. Sing it, Motion City Soundtrack!

6. Find Your Peers Online As Well As Off. Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I’ve met more authors I admire and adore than… well I’m not quite sure how to finish that sentence. I’ve met so many. And the great thing about the online literary community (or “bookernet”), is that everyone supports one another. Be genuine, be kind, be excited. Find the authors who write books you deeply care for, find the writers you yourself admire. Connect with them on Twitter. Celebrate their success. You’ll learn so much from them. I absolutely have, and wish I’d been more active in seeking out writerly peers earlier on.

7. Surround Yourself With Supportive Friends. Team! Team, team, team, team, team. I even love saying the word, “team.” Having an awesome team backing you up is so very important, and I’m not just talking about professionally. Close friends that can network you, will blast your message out there… those friends are awesome, don’t get me wrong. But friends that will give that crappy rough manuscript a looks over, who will join you for coffee and listen to you ramble about an idea you haven’t quite thought out yet, friends that will look over your under-construction author website full of Geocities era animated .gifs… those are the supportive friends you need around you at all times.

Real friends. The friends that will give you a kick in the pants when you’re down and troll you a little bit when you’re doing too well. Who will keep you level. Surround yourself with those kind of friends, and it’ll certainly help your writing career.

Good luck!


Eric Smith is the author of The Geek’s Guide to Dating (December 2013), which was an Amazon Best Book of the Year in Humor and has sold into five languages. His debut young adult novel, Inked, comes out January 2015 with Bloomsbury’s digital imprint, Bloomsbury Spark. He is represented by Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary. He can be found blogging for BookRiot and The Huffington Post, and when he isn’t busy writing, he can be found tweeting and marketing at Quirk Books. Visit Eric’s website to learn more, and follow him on Twitter (@ericsmithrocks).

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13. Stuck Emotions

It’s been a difficult winter around here. Not just in terms of delving into yet another snowy Minnesota season… I’m speaking mostly about what my clients’ characters are going through. Protagonists in projects this winter seem to all have some common issues with self-worth. I’m reading so many attempts at putting difficult emotions on the page that I wanted to address them in a post. Everybody struggles, and so no protagonist should be spared from some good old-fashioned inner conflict.

As people, we sometimes hate ourselves, criticize ourselves, feel self-doubt, perform acts of self-sabotage. It’s just a part of being human. We are our own worst enemies, etc. As realistic as these feelings are, they should be treated with some caution when we try to translate them to the page.

To illustrate, let me talk for a minute about that person many of us know in life. Their Facebook feed is full of gripes about their injustice of the day. The bank closed early, ugh. The grocery clerk forgot to bag their mustard. Nobody invited them to the picnic. Their Goodreads review was ridiculed. If you know them well enough to be on their call list, it’s likely that you don’t get a word in edgewise as they detail the litany of hurts they’ve overcome…in the last 15 minutes. The point is, nobody likes a complainer. If you haven’t Unfriended them online, you may skip their calls when they come in. It can get to be too much.

One of the biggest reasons is usually that this personality type would rather complain that do anything about the problem. They are inactive in terms of overcoming their issues. If you try to help them with a perfectly reasonable solution, they probably don’t want to hear it. They just want to be heard and for someone to say, “Wow, that sucks.” But they’re stuck, and I personally find that maddening.

So a character who is full of woe or self-loathing or doubt only tends to magnify this dynamic. Fiction is an elevated version of life, where realistic things are elevated into something that can retain a person’s interest, be consumed, and ideally impart some valuable experience or lesson. As such, protagonists can’t be direct downloads of realistic people. They need to have momentum, even if they’re stuck in a rut.

If I see a character who has, for example, intense survivor’s guilt after a car accident, and they keep coming back to the point of “I don’t want to be alive. I wish I was the one who died,” that’s perfectly realistic. But I don’t want to sink four or five hours of my time into that emotional rut. There needs to be some traction and change as the plot moves along. The character needs to acknowledge their emotions, struggle with them, aim to change their situation, fail, struggle, acknowledge their new position, struggle, aim to change, etc. etc. etc. That sort of trajectory, at least, takes the reader on an emotional journey.

This is where stuck emotions and fiction are at odds. People who are stuck are…stuck. Self-loathing doesn’t lift in a week. Addiction doesn’t resolve itself because you meet a cute vampire boy. Inadequacy doesn’t fade after an amazing road trip. So there needs to be some suspension of disbelief to allow plot to act on these difficult emotions. As a result, the emotions are agitated, stretch, or grow, and there’s a level of payoff for both character and reader.

I think this is a really tough time for our culture. Since the economic downturn, kids are entering an uncertain world where they know they’ll face diminished job prospects, outstanding student loan balances, and an economy that’s far from booming. Stuck feelings, angst, and doubt are common. Issues of dreams and identity are more resonant than ever. All of these emotions deserve to be addressed. But just because a character is stuck doesn’t mean the narrative can be. If you’re working with a stuck character, make sure that their emotions still shift and change and grow over the course of the story instead of being bogged down in a rut. Some forward progress and redemption is expected if it’s going to be worth your reader’s investment of time and energy.

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14. Monday Mishmash 1/19/15


Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. Another Campus Crush  So last week I mentioned that fans asked for another Campus Crush story for Mike since he didn't get his HEA. I thought I was going to write a novel for him, but this series insists that it's made up of novellas, and that's what his story has turned into. More details to come.
  2. Friday Feature  I have some Friday Feature spots available this month and next (and beyond, actually) so if you have a new release or upcoming release and would like to be featured email me khashway(at)hotmail(dot)com.
  3. Spotlight and Giveaway  The very sweet and awesome Megan McDade is hosting me on her blog this month and in addition to interviews and guest posts, there's a giveaway (winner's choice of a paperback of Touch of Death or The Monster Within). Check it out here.
  4. Winter Ball  My daughter attended her first school dance last Friday. It was three hours of me sitting on a hard cafeteria stool, but seeing her dance and run around with her friends made it worth it. She's only in second grade, so seeing how outgoing she is really makes me happy. That girl is not afraid to be who she is. :) I'm a proud mom.
  5. Winter Blues  Anyone else have the winter blues? Some of my 2014-year-of-ickiness has carried over and I'm hoping to be finished with it by the end of the month so I can get back to life as usual. And I could really use some sunshine and warmer weather if anyone can make that happen. ;)
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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15. Italy -Images, scents, stray bits of conversation - Linda Strachan

When I am writing everywhere I go, everyone I meet and everything I hear someone say has the potential to feed into my story, particularly when it is a place removed from my everyday life and experiences.  When I travel I find images, scents, stray bits of conversation take seed and create stories of their own.


I've just returned from a week in the south of Italy where I visited family many times as a child, and over the years since but I'd not been there for a few years. 
I have returned, my head full of all the different characters and situations I encountered, conversations, tastes and sounds.


I was staying with family and that meant I was not a tourist, just skimming the surface and seeing the tourist sights.  I chatted to two different couples at the airport one the way there and the other on the way back. Both couples were on holiday to Rome to enjoy the Italy of the holiday brochures and I was aware of how different their experiences and perceptions of Italy, and the Italians, are to mine. 

I, too, enjoyed the beautiful blue skies and scenery and of course the wonderful food - a very important part of life there. I also fed my creative brain on the differences in culture, the language and particularly the use of language - the ways that expressions change from one language to another and where direct translations can be quite humorous. 

But for me there were also the discussions that happen in families and amongst friends and acquaintances about everything from Italian politics, the economy, the corruption and their perceptions of world affairs, to the moans about day to day life and memories of family who have now sadly passed away.   

I often find it frustrating as a wordsmith when I do not have quite the facility with words that I am used to in English - my Italian is conversational and my vocabulary is not really as extensive as I would wish. But thankfully, it was adequate to join in conversations and to understand most of what was being discussed, except at times when the speaker's language was thick with dialect!

I was able to spend time writing beside a cosy log fire  - it is January after all - although to me it was like a Scottish spring, bright and sunny most days with a bit of a chill in the air, but most people there thought it was very cold!


I met some people who will make colourful characters, some so 'colourful' that they and their view of life may seem hardly credible to most people. Those are the most interesting to store away for future use.
Michela

I had a horse riding lesson and I learned even more when I acted as translator for someone who only spoke English and came for a riding lesson. I found out a lot about looking after horses, too. As far as I am concerned nothing is wasted because basically everything is research! 

This is Michela.
A delightful character who was hand-reared when her mother died giving birth to her.  She appeared to have an opinion about almost everything, if only I could speak Donkey! I am sure she deserves a story of her own.

When chatting to an old aunt, I was told forcefully several times not to forget that she expected me to write the story of her and her siblings and parents, so that the future generations would not forget them all. I suppose that is the wish of many older people who see their own time and family becoming part of a forgotten past as the new generations appear. By the time the younger ones are old enough to ask questions so much is often lost and forgotten. It will be interesting to write something about the family members like my aunt and her parents, just for the family, to record these people and their lives. 

Back home now I am distilling my thoughts and memories, images and ideas.  I managed to get quite a bit of writing done while I was away and now I am keen to get back to the book again.  My head is full of memories of crisp blue skies, lovely food and strong coffee, as well as stray thoughts in Italian, as my brain tries to switch gear back to English! 



Travel, as has been often said, broadens the mind and it creates great images and ideas to feed the soul and the creative mind.  
So now it is time to get back to my desk and use all that inspiration!


------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

She has written 10 Hamish McHaggis books illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  


Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

website:  www.lindastrachan.com
blog:  Bookwords 













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16. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e January 16th 2015



Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last week (or so):

Writing a Synopsis (Janice Hardy)
http://blog.janicehardy.com/2009/04/sum-of-parts.html

How E-Books Have Changed the Print Marketplace (Jane Friedman)
www.janefriedman.com/2015/01/16/ebooks-print-market/

Remember Why Readers Seek You Out Online (Rachel Kent)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/remember-readers-seek-online/

Don't Make Resolutions. Set Goals (Terry Odell)
http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2015/01/dont-make-resoultions-set-goals.html

How Much Has Changed in 13 Years (Sophie Masson)
http://writerunboxed.com/2015/01/12/how-much-has-changed-in-thirteen-years/

Hooks, Lines and Stinkers In Praise of Great Openings (P. J. Parrish)
http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2015/01/hooks-lines-and-stinkers-in-praise-of.html

The Business of Writing, the Art of Civility (Kim Vandervort)
http://heroinesoffantasy.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-business-of-writing-art-of-civility.html

The Self-Publishing Sky is Not Falling (James Scott Bell)
http://killzoneauthors.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-self-publishing-sky-is-not-falling.html

On Perseverance (Eva Lomski)
www.glimmertrain.com/b96lomski.html


If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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17. Self-Talking Yourself Into Being a Better Writer, A Better Marketer

I’ve long believed the benefits of positive thinking and positive projection. Now, in line with these philosophies, there is positive self-talk. In an article at NPR.com, “Why Saying is Believing,” it explains the importance of not only talking to yourself, but how you talk to yourself. Researchers delved into the influence that referring to the ‘self’ has on how the individual thinks, feels,

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18. Setting the stage for writing about nonfiction

Writing about nonfiction elicits the same initial lack of enthusiasm from my students as reading about nonfiction – a nonfiction affliction that seems, at first, impossible to overcome.    It’s the “dead Presidents and… Continue reading

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19. ‘Undying Words’ Exhibit Celebrates the Writings of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnHave you ever felt inspired by the writings of the sixteenth U.S. president? The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is hosting the “Undying Words: Lincoln 1858-1865″ exhibit.

Visitors will be able to see more than 120 items on display including documents, a pair of gloves, a carriage, slave shackles, Lincoln’s death bed, and the pen he used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. A closing date has been scheduled for February 28, 2016.

Here’s more about this program: “A powerful look at Lincoln’s greatest words and how they helped end slavery in America. ‘Undying Words’ explores the most important speeches of Lincoln’s career, showing how his views on slavery evolved as he sought to hold the country together.”

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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20. Monday Mishmash: 1/12/15


Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. Editing  I've been very busy with edits, which I love. I've gotten to work on some really great manuscripts.
  2. Revisions  I finished up revisions on Out of the Ashes, and I really love this book.
  3. Drafting  Campus Crush fans have demanded politely asked for another book for Mike. ;) I couldn't say no. Mike needs his HEA. So last night I began drafting his book. And yes, I believe it will be a full-length novel instead of a novella, but don't quote me on that just yet.
  4. Balance  This month is all about finding balance as I edit, revise, and draft at the same time. Eek!
  5. Kelly's Coven Giveaways  I have an awesome street team and this month I'm rewarding them in two ways—with the opportunity to beta read Out of the Ashes AND with a giveaway for a signed book (of mine) of their choice. I've gotten several new members this month. Will you be next? You can join us here.
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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21. A Little Help From Hamlet

Before I ventured into publishing, I was a Theatre major in college. (Well, I was concurrently an English major, but I thought about theatre before I thought about publishing.) As part of my thoroughly impractical training, I bought and read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was wonderful but, at times, definitely not fun. The historical tragedies were my favorite sleeping pill after a late night performing, you know? And as much fun as it was to be a student of the thea-tah (!), I was simply terrible at it. It wouldn’t be until I started public speaking at conferences that I realized something: I am pretty good at writing and delivering my own material, but when it comes to pretending to be anybody else, with anybody else’s words, I’m pretty hopeless. That didn’t stop me from trying, but that’s another story for another day. But Hamlet was one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare works. And I’ve recently found myself citing the following quote in editorial notes:

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Wikipedia explains the meaning better than I can:

It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive.

When I give this note, it usually goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts on characters in denial, another idea that I cite a lot in my editorial work. I’m also not trying to be sexist, because both male and female characters can “protest too much,” but admittedly it does happen more often with female POV manuscripts, especially when it comes to romance. It can apply to all manner of things where the writer wants the character to stay in disbelief just a liiiiiittle while longer, but the reader is already catching on. But yes, overwhelmingly, this applies to crushes and chemistry.

Writer, please. We have all read enough romantic subplots in fiction to know that the main character and the cute new guy are going to get together at some point. That’s what makes this event so difficult to render believably and genuinely. Because we’re all waiting for it, especially if there’s a girl and a dude on the cover with their lips hovering inches apart. The challenge then becomes acknowledging reader expectation while at the same time giving your character a full experience.

My piece of advice here would be: We know where you’re going, so get there sooner. Don’t rush through the establishing parts of your plot, but don’t also dwell in the time before character buy-in by employing denial. Often, writers put off giving a certain plot component the green light until other parts of the story have caught up. This often happens with romance. They really can’t hook up until chapter seven, but the guy has been around (and brooding) since chapter one because he had to make a grand entrance to hook the reader in the first ten pages. So how do we bridge the gap?

There are two options. The first is to have your protagonist “protest too much” that there’s an attraction:

A limo has been picking me up from school every morning, my locker is stuffed with a new dozen of red roses every day, and Garrett wrote “Will you go out with me? Love, Garrett” in skywriting, but I just don’t know how he feels about me because he’s so popular, and I’m not. Plus, I have way too many freckles for anyone to find me attractive.

I don’t know about you, but I want to take a chainsaw to this particular piece of writing. It’s overly obvious to communicate a point, but even in its subtler incarnations, this type of “protest too much” rhetoric really does sound this fake to me. It’s right there in the Wikipedia definition…this sort of breathless denial manages to sound incredibly insincere, which distances us from the protagonist. We don’t want to know more or guess more about the story than s/he knows (or is willing to admit). And once we do find out something the protagonist doesn’t know, we’re just waiting for him or her to figure it out so we can be in harmony as reader/character once again.

The second option is to allow the character to admit there’s a spark but use internal and external conflict to keep the characters apart…for probably less time than you’re comfortable with. Internal conflict can go like this:

The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to date Garrett. To give in and say “yes.” But I just can’t. He’s new here. He doesn’t yet realize that he’s made a horrible mistake. It’ll be social suicide for him to be seen with me, and he’s just too nice to realize it. For his own good, I need to stay away.

There we’re layering in some self-confidence issues where she ADMITS that there’s an obvious romantic desire between them, but blocks it. Then plot can come into play as well to keep them apart. For example, she can do something really embarrassing at an assembly and this, for her, confirms how “awful” she is. So she distances herself even further.

But if the two characters are hovering around one another with steamy dialogue, nearly kissing the entire time, and then the girl is like, “Nope. He can’t POSSIBLY be into me…” Well, I find that a little hard to swallow. If there are any instances of characters protesting too much in your work, they are probably even more obvious to your potential readers than they are to you. Writers tend to over-explain a lot to make sure readers get it (they do), and especially when it’s something a writer wants to keep hidden, the tendency to deny deny deny is magnified.

If you have a writing group (and you should), and you’re worried about this issue, ask them to read your manuscript with an eye toward what was so glaringly obvious that it was frustrating until you addressed it. That might help you tighten up your work.

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22. A Peek at the Creative Space of Shallee McArthur

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is YA author Shallee McArthur. Shallee's debut novel, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, was published last fall by Sky Pony Press: 




Seventeen-year-old Genesis Lee has never forgotten anything. As one of the Mementi—a small group of genetically-enhanced humans—Gena remembers everything with the help of her Link bracelets, which preserve memories perfectly. But Links can be stolen, and six people have already lost their lives to a memory thief, including Gena’s best friend.

Anyone could be next.

Which is why Gena is less than pleased to meet a strange but charming boy named Kalan who claims that they’ve not only met, but that Gena knows who the thief is.

The problem is, Gena doesn’t remember Kalan, she doesn’t remember seeing the thief, and she doesn’t know why she’s forgetting things—or how much else she might forget. As growing tensions between Mementi and ordinary humans drive the city of Havendale into chaos, Gena and Kalan team up to search for the thief. And as Gena loses more memories, they realize they have to solve the mystery fast.

Because Gena’s life is unhappening around her.

Kirkus Reviews said, "It’s the sensitive handling of emotional details and the trauma of too much connection that make this a story of interest. . . . For anyone fascinated with thoughts of omniscience and total social connection—and who isn’t?—McArthur’s debut suggests fascinating and chilling possibilities." 

To learn more about Shallee, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @ShalleeMcArthur.





DESCRIBE YOUR WORKSPACE.

I have a whole office to myself, which is a recent development I'm VERY grateful for. I've got my desk, bookshelf, and rocking chair for reading and relaxing. I have pictures and knick-knacks that inspire me, including things I've brought back from traveling and all my "nerd cred," like a Tardis and an R2D2 on my desk. I also have a pair of zebra finch birds who keep me happy!



DESCRIBE A TYPICAL WORKDAY.

I've got two young kids, so it varies! Some days, I can get work done in the morning while they play, and sometimes I play with them or (gasp!) do housework. One thing that stays consistent, though, is that when the toddler naps and the preschooler goes to school, I write. That time is SACRED. After that, I may or may not haul my laptop into the kitchen in the evenings to write near my husband.

LIST THREE OF YOUR MOST FAVORITE THINGS IN YOUR WORKSPACE AND WHY THEY ARE MEANINGFUL. 

1. My birds! Fred and George are zebra finches, and I LOVE those little guys. They actually are doctor-recommended therapy birds. I struggle with anxiety, but I also have multiple sclerosis, and side effects from anxiety meds don't work well for me with my MS. So my birds are there to help me through panic attacks and keep my general anxiety low. They actually help a lot more than I expected-- they are low-maintenance so they don't add to my anxiety, and their cheerful chirps and energy help reset my brain when it's anxious.





2. A painting of a cabin on a lake done by my great-grandmother. It used to hang in my grandpa's cabin, where my entire extended family would gather every Fourth of July. It keeps me near to beauty and to my wonderful and supportive family-- it hangs right next to my desk.



3. My "praying woman" carving. I bought it from a craftsman in Ghana, West Africa, so it means a lot for that reason alone (part of my heart still lives in Ghana!). I'm also a very religious person, and it reminds me to pray-- not just to ask for help, but to offer thanks to the God I feel has given me so much! 



DO YOU HAVE ANY RITUALS IN YOUR WORK HABITS? 

Um...no, actually, now that I think about it! I just open my laptop and get to work. :)

WHAT DO YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU WORK? 

I don't like to listen while I work, but sometimes I listen to specific songs that fit the book I'm working on before I work.

WHAT IS YOUR DRINK AND/OR SNACK OF CHOICE WHILE YOU'RE WORKING? 

None! It distracts me too much.

WHAT KEEPS YOU FOCUSED WHILE YOU'RE WORKING? 

I have to get in "the zone." If I force myself to not jump around on tasks and just focus on one at a time, I get so zoned in on what I'm doing that hours pass before I even realize it!



DO YOU WRITE LONGHAND, ON A COMPUTER, OR ANOTHER WAY? 

Computer. I have TERRIBLE handwriting, so writing long-hand isn't a good idea for me!

HOW DO YOU DEVELOP YOUR STORY IDEAS? DO YOU USE AN OUTLINE, LET THE MUSE LEAD YOU, OR ANOTHER TECHNIQUE? 

Usually I get an idea, play around with it and toss a bunch of ideas in a document, and then start a plot outline.

IF YOU WERE FORCED TO SHARE YOUR WORKSPACE BUT COULD SHARE IT WITH ANYONE OF YOUR CHOOSING, WHO WOULD IT BE?

My friend Chersti, who's one of my crit partners. We tend to work really well together, and when we distract each other, it's fun and often even productive!

WHAT IT THE BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE YOU'VE HEARD OR RECEIVED?

My freshman creative writing teacher in college told us there are only two things that matter in writing-- have a take, and don't suck. It reminds me that as long as I'm writing a story that's got my unique take on the world, and as long as I'm writing something that doesn't suck (which takes practice and a crit group!), that's all that matters. The millions of other "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" about writing don't matter as long as I have a take and don't suck!



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23. Some “rules” to toss out the window

Sense of style coverI came across an article titled “Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice.” It’s derived from this book: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. This could be welcome news.

Pinker, a linguist, brings science to how we construct our verbiage and deflates what he calls “bogus rules” with “a brief but highly liberating list of glorious rule-breaking activities.”  Sprinkled with good examples, I was gratified to see that I already observe these new guidelines both as a writer and an editor. Fun to check out.

Here are some of the subheads:

  • Do split infinitives.
  • Do use the passive voice (at the right times).
  • Do begin sentences with conjunctions.
  • Do end a sentence with a preposition.
  • And yes, Virginia, you can even use the singular "they/their/them."

For what it’s worth.

Ray

© 2015 Ray Rhamey

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24. Writer Wednesday: Deadlines Vs. at Your Own Pace

I'm one for deadlines. Sure, I'll pull my hair out and wonder how I'll ever meet all my deadlines, but then my mom (who keeps me sane) tells me that I'll get it done because I always do. 

For me, the real problem is not having a deadline. If I don't know when I need to have a book drafted or revised by, I'm not as productive. And it's not by choice either. I find I'm just not as focused or as creative. I believe I've taught myself to be creative on command. It's a real thing. When I know I have to accomplish something, I'll do it. End of story. Tell me you'd like me to do something when I have time, and I'm lost. I need a deadline. This often means I create my own deadlines. And while I know I'm the one setting the deadline, I can still fool myself into believing it must be done. ;)

Are you like this? Do you need deadlines to motivate and push you toward your goals?

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25. The Words That Connect Us


Jennifer Wolf Kam
Words have always been my friend. From the earliest days of my childhood, when I was delighted by tales of fairies, princesses and pokey puppies, through my grade school years when I crafted my very own books out of construction paper and crayon, they have been there. In middle school, the words I penned were filled with emotion and wonder, and they sustained me through the harrowing teen years. 

I wrote my first novel inside my 8th grade wood shop notebook. On the first page of my notebook, you can still see where I took notes on how to use a T-square ruler. After that, my words—pages and pages of themhave nothing to do with 8th grade wood shop (belated apologies to Mr. Kennedy.) The novel I wrote in it, well, it was a little too similar to a book I’d just read. But it was a start, a leap actually, because for the first time ever, I’d written something longer than five pages. Remarkably, it had a beginning, a middle and an end that actually (sort of) made sense.
 
The wood shop notebook novel was messy, and in the days before most of us used computers, filled with scratch-outs and scribbles and words formed in different-colored inks. I’d drawn hearts and stars all over the front of the notebook (my first cover art?) but it was mine. And the truth is, I’d needed to write it. For years I had carried stories inside of me. I’d bottled up feelings, observations, and other worlds. I was full to bursting and finally, now, it could all be set free on the page.

I shared that first novel with very few people. My writing was for me, a private thing, a sanctuary. I wrote another book afterwards, and then another after that, gradually stacking notebooks of my words inside my desk. For the rest of high school, I wrote and played and experimented with words and formats. 

Writing was not simply fun, it was a need, in fact, a joy. Eventually, as an adult, I was ready to share my stories with a larger audience. Perhaps, even (gasp!) publish a book.
I spent hours, weeks, months at my laptop, writing and revising, creating and imagining, dipping a little too deeply into a nearby stash of chocolate. I joined critique groups, attended conferences and earned my MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. But it would be years, I mean yeeears, before my efforts led to a book contract. 

Then, one day, I received the exciting news that I’d won the Children’s Book of the Year Award from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and that my debut teen novel, DEVIN RHODES IS DEAD, would be published by the fabulous Charlesbridge.

Which is how I found myself, last month, standing in front of a class of creative writing students at John Bowne High School in Flushing, New York. My visit was part of the New York City Adopt-a-School program, which pairs authors with public schools as a means of encouraging and celebrating literacy and a love of books. The first students I spoke with were seniors, already wise and intuitive, thoughtful and oh, so very smart. And for a moment, looking around the room, I was back there with them—a student, young, passionate about writing, filled with words. So, in a way, I felt I knew them. I knew what it was like to want—no—to need to write. To put my stories down, whether or not anyone else ever read them.

I spoke to them about my experiences, my writing life. About my construction paper and crayon creations. I told them about my wood shop notebook and the other notebooks that followed. I described the many hours and years of work I’d put into developing my writing. And we talked a lot about rejection.



They listened and they responded. Their responses were insightful and sharp. They understood that, as writers, perhaps they hadn’t chosen the easiest path. I wanted to tell them not to worry, that everything would work out, even though I know that life sometimes has other plans. I wanted to, because, I think that, although there are no promises, things have a way of working out when least expected. So, we discussed perseverance and grit and never giving up on something if it’s what you love—no matter what the world tells you. The world isn’t always right, after all. But your heart usually is. 

I spoke to two more groups that day and the students impressed me with their self-awareness, confidence and energy. Each time, I was transported just a bit further, back to that place where it all began for me. Where I first found the courage to write down my words, to persevere despite everything. It was an amazing thing, I thought, that I had been invited, I imagine, to inspire these students, when so clearly, they had inspired me

They are brave and have so much ahead of them. And one day soon, I hope, their words, whatever they are, will make their way into the world…which would be most fortunate for us all.



Jennifer is the author of Devin Rhodes Is Dead
978-1-93413-359-0 HC $16.95
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