Monday, January 31, 2011

Welcome to the Next Level!

Reading Elana Johnson's blog on feeling left out today, especially the comments, I was struck that a lot of people are looking for crit partners, beta readers, etc. So, today I'm opening the floor to you guys.

What do you write (genre/word count/20-30 word blurb)? What kind of feedback are you looking for?

I've found it helpful to trade small samples of writing- a query letter plus ten pages or so and see how things go instead of jumping in with a crit partner that you may not "get" and may not "get" you.

I don't remember when I found out that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were friends, but it still surprises me (in a good way) that two of my favorite authors were in the the Inklings, a writer's group that met weekly in The Eagle and Child, a pub referred to as The Bird and Baby. Fyi- I'd like to rename my blog Bird and Baby, but it's kind of an obscure reference, so I'm holding off...for now;)

Would they have become as good as they were without that friendship and the feedback? Or were they two great writers that would have been just as good without their association? I don't know.

None of our crit partners are going to be perfect- Tolkien told Lewis that the Narnia series would be never sell, after all, but it is my opinion that if we keep trying, we can find writer friends that will help us reach the next level by encouraging us to produce the very best that we're capable of. And maybe we can help them, too.

In the comments, please tell us what you write. If you're looking to connect with some fresh faces, let us know.
Glutton for Punishment?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Aslan's Land, The Other Place, Foo and The Grey Havens

When a writer attempts to describe an "Otherworldly" world, it can be difficult not to sound like the description of just another foreign city. There has to be something unique beyond sights, sounds and accents.

Okay, usually accents aren't our first thought. But what would the accent in Heaven sound like? Brittish? Americans love an English accent.
"G'day, Guvna," the firey angel said. "Just mopped that bit of Golden Street. Kip around that puddle." 
Irish would be even better (If you don't believe me, watch "P.S. I Love You"), but they wouldn't say "Guvna."

Sailing to The Grey Havens. It is shockingly easier to find LOTR art in comparison to my other examples.
You'd think Narnia would have some art, but I couldn't find any.
So, straight from some of my fav books, scenes from other worlds:

From "The Last Battle"-
"Those hills," said Lucy, "the nice woody ones and the blue ones behind--aren't they very like the Southern border of Narnia?"

"Like!" cried Edmund after a moment's silence. "Why they're exactly like. Look, there's Mt. Pire with his forked head, and there's the pass into Archenland and everything!"

"And yet they're not alike," said Lucy. "They're different. They have more colors on them and they look further away than I remember and they're more...more...oh, I don't know..."

"More like the real thing," said the Lord Digory softly.
From "Ptolemy's Gate" by Jonathan Stroud-
She found herself in--well, in did not seem quite appropriate: she found herself part of a ceaseless swirl of movement, neither ending  nor beginning, in which nothing was fixed or static. It was an infinite ocean of lights, colors and textures, perpetually forming, racing, and dissolving in upon themselves, though the effect was neither as thick or solid or as a liquid nor as traceless as a gas; if anything it was a combination of the two, in which fleeting wisps of substance endlessly parted and converged.
Scale and direction were impossible to determine, as was the passing of time-since nothing remained still and no patterns were ever repeated, the concept itself seemed blank and meaningless. This mattered very little to Kitty and it was only when she attempted to locate herself, with a view to establishing her place in relation to her surroundings, that she grew a little disconcerted. She had no fixed point, no singularity to call her own; indeed, she seemed often to be in several places at once, watching the whirling traces from multiple angles. The effect was most disorienting. 
I love this cover and these books. I think the swirls might be essence from the Other Place?

From Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo-
The front door to Amelia's house opened without anyone touching it.
"How did--?" Leven asked.
"Doors know what to do here," Geth explained.
Leven slipped out of the house and into Foo and knew, without a doubt, that he was dreaming. He had never seen anything like what he saw now. Not only that, but he could see it clearly; his sight was perfect. Mountains and Valleys and rivers and foliage filled his view, but they were nothing like what he had left behind in reality. The sky was bright yellow near the ground and purple at its crown. Creatures he had never seen, and would have been unable to imagine, ran across prairies of long orange grass that blew in the wind. He could see incredible darkness to the north, and behind that, thin pointed mountains that loked as if they were moving. A river of deep blue water spilled across his view, creating waterfalls in at least twenty different places. The clouds were shaped differently, the air seemed to glisten, and if Leven wasn't completely wrong, he could have sworn he saw a person flying at a distance. 
"Wow,"he gasped.
...Leven went back into Amelia's house and to a short couch that sat in front of a roaring fire. The fire was not only burning but singing softly...The fire sang softly and the windows dimmed nicely as Leven experienced his first dream in a place where there was nothing but.
You miss a lot of the detail in this small file, but this cover is gorgeous. The drips of water running out of Leven's hair are amazing, as is little monkey guy on his back. I love this book, and sadly, book two was on the floor in the bathroom during our recent flood. :(

And from "The Return of the King"-
The sails were drawn up and the wind blew, and the ship slowly slipped away down the long gray firth; and the light of the glass of Galdriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
I don't know about you, but I've got some goose bumps. The thing that struck me about these examples is how different they are, in purpose and in description.

Stroud's description's of the Other Place make it seem kind of scary, an alarming place to be, while Lewis' description of the New Narnia reminds the reader of the longing that is still felt even in your favorite places in this world. Foo is a land of dreams and infinite possibility, a place where the ridiculous must be accepted. And The Grey Havens is a place of endless rest for the weary.

The hard thing about describing other worlds is that we are limited to the words that apply to this one. Often authors will refer to dreams- either to say the new world is the dream, or to say that the world they left was the dream and the new world is reality. Or they will compare it to sublime experiences in this world- to moments of disorientation like waking from sleep. In the New Testament, Paul gives a beautiful description that is too perfect not to bring to your attention:

1 Cor. 13:9-12
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

I love that.

A key to selling a new world to the reader is the character's reactions to it. All of these characters have deep reactions to what they are experiencing, and their reaction becomes the reader's reaction. I'm right there with Frodo, longing for peace and a good nap!

What have I missed? And what's your favorite "Other World?"

Glutton for Punishment?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Kiss to say Goodnight

Last night as Nathan and I were going to sleep, I realized we hadn't kissed all day. We're an affectionate family, and it's rare for us to walk by each other- including the kids- without some kind of squeeze, so I was bothered, as much as you can be when half-awake. Nathan falls asleep really fast, and he was already on his way out, but I said, "I don't think we kissed today."

No answer.

Then he sat up and kissed me, a sweet kiss that he put some thought into. It was like our first kiss all over again. Except better, because our first kiss was actually kind of awful. (I claim responsibilty for that- I was so nervous! This amazing guy actually wants to kiss me?)

Then he laid back down and was totally out in thirty seconds.

Yesterday we sopped up gallons of water off our floor together without a harsh word, I watched him hold our feverish youngest as I ran out the door to go to my Cub Scout meeting, and he hardly even got mad at me over a $40 library fine (I'm still going to find that missing book, so it's actually half that!). Four kids, eleven and three-quarters years of marriage later, we're still capable of a "first kiss".

As a writer, I'm always on the look out for what makes strong emotions, the tics people have, what motivates them. We can only write what we understand, after all. But I won't be writing about that moment and turning it into someone else's scene. It's all ours.
Glutton for Punishment?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sitting on my hands

So, I'm waiting. I hate waiting. And I haven't even started the querying yet- I've got a few typed up and I'm waiting to hear back from a few crit partners (This post is not a subtle shove in the back, critters. I really, truly want you to take your time.) I just want my book to be free of those nagging issues that bother a reader after they finish a book.

It was a good book, but...

...the MC had to be an idiot to go back for the cat.

...what about the giant squid in chapter 3? Did it make it back to the aquarium in time? (Disclaimer- there are no actual squid in my book, although they are mentioned. Did you know squids change color based on their emotional state?)

...that ending was all wrong! Wrong, I say! I wanted to rewrite the end of "Graceling" for that reason. Give me a happy ending and no loose ends!

I woke up this morning (in our upstairs bedroom) and the carpet was squishy. I vaguely remembered my little guy crying a few minutes before, so I thought, in a dream-like stupor, that he must have spilled some water in my room. And the I took another step into the bathroom and the bathmat was under water. Oh, schnikeys.

(Quick explanation: We've purchased the house from our inlaws, but they're not closing on their house until later this month, so until then we're cruelly denied use of the master bedroom. *wink* Thus, we share a Jack-and-Jill bathroom with our kids.)

It's one of those things where a few small errors add up into a big error.

Error 1- the flapper in the toilet doesn't always seal. I keep meaning to replace it, because it wastes water, but it never made it to the top of the list.

Error 2- The toilet has stopped up a few times recently for no good reason. We thought it was just a weird thing, I added more salad to everybody's plates, and thought we were good. So wrong.

Error 3- Not sure what the third error was. Nathan kept saying he should have gotten up to work out and then this never would have happened, but I think that's not really an error as much as a lucky break missed.

I think this flood was the universe telling me to get back in line or it'll give me something to really be worried about.

The kitchen ceiling is damp, but I think it's going to be okay with some paint. And the carpet is unfortunately surviving, too- I've used our spot remover vacuum to suck about three gallons of water out of it. I'm going to buy some Kool-aid for the kids and start shopping for hardwood floors.

Anyhow, between the flood and my poor kids with their raw noses and sicky-coughs, I'm not getting too much done. Oh, well. Distraction is good today! I'm going back to sitting on my hands!
Glutton for Punishment?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

This Old House and Goals

Recently, Donna left a question in the comments.
I am desperate to finish a goal, I almost never set a goal because I fail every time....any ideas?
When we were renovating our former house, it was a bit overwhelming to think of ALL of the things that needed to be done. I learned that if I broke it down into little steps, I wasn't so nervous about it.

For instance, "Renovate the bathroom" is a lot more likely to give me heart palpitations than "unscrew the old toilet paper holder and throw that piece of chipped chrome junk away." I also found that when I had a Dumpster delivered, it was easy to find old paneling and carpet to fill it with;) Maybe the same part of me that loves my prybar loves to cut ten thousand words. 

For those of you who would like info about how to set goals, I'd recommend your goals to be S.M.A.R.T.

T-Track Results

I could describe all of this here, but you can read about it at Goal Setting Guide. I don't have much to add to that (I found this website when I was checking my acronym.) Instead I'll share the little steps that turned me from a dabbler in writing into a writer and some links to resources that helped me.

I started writing a little most days. Sometimes I wrote a hundred words, sometimes four thousand. But working consistently got me a rough draft 110,000 words in length in four months.
At that point I realized I didn't know how to turn my ugly manuscript into a polished novel, so I found a critique group. I tried the Online Writer's Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, mainly because it had a free month trial period, and at the end of that time, I was very happy with the critiques I was getting, so I paid something like $40 to become a member. I've heard good things about Backspace, and Nathan Bransford, an ex-agent and blogging demigod, has a forums area on his website with critiques and helpful info.

A critique group is a great thing because then you can set regular goals for submitting (a chapter a week, or whatever), plus reading and critiquing other's submissions develops your inner editor. The best thing I did was to read the crits other writers wrote, especially for submissions that I thought were in good shape. It helped me to take my own writing up a notch.

I started a blog, and this led to friendships with other writers. It seems simple, but leaving comments on blogs eventually led to making online friends. This site doesn't get a million hits a day, but it fills my need to have contact with other writers, plus blogging has led me to some excellent beta readers. Beta readers are daring folks who read your manuscript and critique the whole entire thing, bless their souls! ;)

I also tried the local writer's group, but it wasn't very active, so I'm grateful that the online writing community is so welcoming. Maybe your area has a rocking writer's group, so do an internet search for writing groups or writing conferences.

The next thing I did was to go to a conference or two, and at the Atlanta Writer's Club I was able to pitch to an agent, which led to a partial submission and two referrals for my manuscript. I studied blogs on querying and sent out a few query letters. That led to some feedback from agents, which I have finally finished addressing.

A good way to find agents is the Querytracker website. The basic agent search services are free and they have a great tracking tool so you can stay organized and know who you've contacted, how quickly they typically respond, etc. I also follow agents on Twitter, and I highly recommend this. Blogs and agency websites have great information, but it is often heavily edited. Twitter is more relaxed, so you can get an idea of an agent's personality and personal life. Like if they're always talking about what jerks people are, you might want to know that they're negative going in, right? Also, check out Predators and Editors to find out if your agent or publisher is legit. There are a lot of scammers out there, so be careful.

It still seems like a huge goal to get an agent- I'll have to send out dozens, if not fifty to a hundred query letters, and this book may or may not get picked up. If it does, there may (lol!) be revisions before I even get an agent. Then more revisions, then my agent will submit to publishers and then contracts, publicity and more.

It's a lot. Focus on what you will do today to reach your goals, what you will do over the next month, the month after, the month after.

And don't be discouraged if it takes longer than you planned. After my first draft, I thought I would need a few months to get it in shape and then I'd be ready to query. Boy, was I wrong. I spent twenty seven months actively writing and editing my first novel. If I'd given up at seven months, I would have missed the lessons in craft I needed to learn. I'm still learning.
Finally, Donna, I saw all of the Christmas decorations in your pictures on your blog. Anybody that has enough patience to put that much garland up can write a book. Some dreams take longer, but they can still be reached. In the case of my old house, we reached our goals right before we sold it! May the same thing happento our stories, right?

May I suggest a book called "Writing Down the Bones," by Natalie Goldberg? It's a collection of essays about how writing can help you be a whole person. It's very inspiring and makes you want to grab a pen and get to work. I read it in college (and I've heard of many people using it in highschool writing classes) for a creative writing class, which was about ten years ago now. The goodreads blurb on it says it is borderline erotic, but I don't remember that. I remember the "live in the now", "Write because you are alive and the world is beautiful" kind of feel to it. She brings Buddhist philosophy into it a lot, and I thought it very helpful. So, I cautiously suggest that book.

Any other suggestions? How did you change from dabbling to being a writer? Or were you always a writer?
Glutton for Punishment?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flashback Folly

This reminds me of that time, shrouded in the mists of memory...Had enough?

There are some mixed feelings on flashbacks.

Flashbacks Suck Because They:
-break the narrative flow
-slow down the action
-are a sign of lazy storytelling. See also Dream Sequence, Prologue

Flashbacks Rule Because They:
-give backstory depth
-can double the impact of the climax

I've been studying a few books that do flashbacks well, Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker, Fire by Kristin Kashore, and The Sword Edged-Blonde by Alex Bledsoe.

I wrote this post, and then decided a summary at the top would be helpful. Details from the books are below.
  1. The information must be extremely important to the main story. No distracting the reader!
  2. Don't flashback until the reader absolutely is dying to know what happened to caused the character's present situation.
  3. Anchor the reader in place and time. Be very clear when you leave the present time.
  4. Be smooth. Use details form the present to carry the reader into the flashback.
  5. Once the necessary information has been presented, get out!
  6. Flashbacks can be more effective if the story arch of the flashback and the main plot climax at the same time.
My example books present flashbacks differently, but all are well done.

In Fire, Lady Fire is a Monster, a person with bright, unnaturally red hair that draws people in like moths to a flame. Her father, Cantrell, was also a Monster, and he used this power to control the king and nearly destroy the kingdom. As a result, Fire's history with her father is very involved, affecting the way people in her present time interact with her and how she makes decisions. This is key. You can't have flashbacks just to have them. They have to matter to the reader in the present moment.

In Fire, these flashbacks were integrated into the narrative, little chunks anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages in length. Kashore always set up the reader with hints, miniflashes and hooks that prime the reader.
Remember, lead the reader to ask questions, then answer them just enough in the flashback.

Here's an example of how to lead the reader into a flashback from The Sword-edged Blonde:
Eddie LaCrosse, a sword jockey with a lot of facial hair, is asked to investigate a missing persons case in the country he voluntarily exiled himself from twenty years previous. Eddie doesn't yet know what the case is about, but he's been brought to a castle and is being ushered to an audience with the king when one of the guards at the gate "started to say something, then stopped and stared as if I'd grown another nose. Then he turned to Anders. 'Is that--?'
'Yeah,' Anders said quickly"... "'And we don't want to keep the king waiting.'
Then they assure Eddie they'll take good care of his horse, and adds, "Sorry about that 'fuzzy' crack. No harm done, right?" and the door is shut behind them.Then Eddie turns to his guide, Anders and says,
"What the hell was that about?"
"They knew who I'd been sent to fetch. People stil talk about you here."
"They do," I repeated. My stomach fell into a pit and I was suddenly queasy. "What do they say?"
A spark flared to life in the darkness, and then a torch burst to life. Anders held it at arms length while the harsh residue burned away. "They talk about that day at the lake, when you fought all those guys," Anders said as he waited for the flame to settle. "Whenever someone's facing odds like that, they call it 'getting LaCrossed.'"
"I can think of a few better words for it." Failure came to mind.

Okay, none of this is a flashback, but it's raising questions for the reader. There are repeated mentions of that day, clues about how he failed, but we don't get the larger picture until page 147, and we don't the full picture of why Eddie left Arentia until page 197, right at the climax of the book.

In "Possessing the Secret to Joy", a woman is haunted by the life she left behind in Africa. She's a broken woman, and the reader can guess pretty early in the book that some terrible tribal initiaion ruined her, but we don't know what happened, not exactly. Walker writes in first person, and shifts between Tashi, her husband Adam, plus some scenes from his son by another woman, and the other woman. Then Walker also shifts back in time, although the flashbacks are mainly in Tashi's POV (if not all; I've already returned the book to the library so I can't double check that. Sorry!)

This is a lot for the reader to orient to, and Walker does some interesting things to help. She labels each chapter simply with the perspective character's name. No chapter title, just the name. And she is very careful to hook the reader at the end of the present scene, then use that hook to pull the reader into the flashback. Like with a chicken that Tashi is terrified of. She paints the chicken on the wall and collapses. Her psychiatrist and husband have no idea why she's painting this bird and they talk about how they're stumped. So the reader wonders, too. Then you see what happened from Tashi's eyes. It's a great technique, because it makes the past seem so real.

I learned a lot studying these books, but I want to throw a word of caution out here. "Possessing the Secret of Joy" was a tough tough read. I was depressed for a few days afterward. It was that awful. Not that Walker was out of line, it's just such a disturbing topic and she made it feel so personal. Also, I caution sensitive readers that "The Sword-edged Blonde" is not a church book club nominee because of the ribald humor and some sexual situations. It's well-written and funny, and the flashbacks are amazingly well done, but if that sort of thing makes you uncomfortable, then I'd keep looking. There. I'm done.  

Anything to add? Any other great flashback books?

Happy writing!
Glutton for Punishment?