picking apart the writer.

| Monday, May 31, 2010
Today's Tune: The Calculation

I was reading a post by a popular blogger, as I am wont to do, (maybe you've heard of her?), and some of the discussion in comments led me down my Musing Path, which is what I call it when I zone out and let my mind roll around a topic.

Anyway, I got to thinking about something that probably plagues many aspiring authors. It's also entirely possible that I'm super weird and like to put my cart way in front of my horse (which is a unicorn, in case you were wondering), but I digress. The topic! I was thinking about!

I have dreams. One of those dreams is to finish my book (which I should really get on, I know), find someone who wants to represent/publish it, have people read it, and receive maybe some modicum of recognition for it. Money wouldn't hurt, either. Maybe. Someday. Hey, it's a dream, right? Alongside this dream is the occasional daydream about how I'll get sort of well-known and I'll have fanboys and fangirls and they'll have megadeath debates (minus the death) about my book.

But, being sort of a realist, somehow the haters weasel their way into my daydream. I know, WTH, I can't even keep people that don't like my work out of my daydreams? But this is a fear I have, and probably a lot of other writers have. I'm writing something that is going to be close to my heart, and there are people out there who aren't going to like it. Who may pick it apart.

One of my bigger concerns is that they'll pick me apart. This is where the blog entry I mentioned at the beginning of this post comes in - the blogger I linked to talks about being Mormon, and one or two commenters brought up people picking books/authors apart (one big author in particular whose name we all know) over that influence. Whether or not it's fair to do this is another issue, but the issue I was thinking about is how we, as authors, can protect ourselves from our personal beliefs, politics, actions and personality being projected onto our writing by those analyzing our work.

Here's what I came up with: we can't. If a book receives any sort of national recognition, it's very likely that it will inspire discussion, especially if it's somewhat "controversial" or has an overt leaning (religious or otherwise). It may come to pass that a group of people who don't like our particular brand of whatever (religion, political leaning, blah blah) will use that as a springboard to discount or ream our writing.

And you know? Let them. Doesn't really matter what you do. I mean, you could be a Christian and write a wildly popular fantasy series about wizards and friendship and love and overcoming evil, and people want it banned for promoting the "Occult." Or you could be an atheist and write a wildly popular fantasy series about daemons and friendship and love and overcoming evil, and people want it banned for "pushing an atheist agenda." You can't win.

People are judging judgers who judge. The fact that they sometimes have a point doesn't change the fact that sometimes they don't. All we can do is write the story that speaks to us, and if by some miracle it gets popular, enjoy the good and take the naysayers in stride. Hopefully they don't attack us personally, but if they do... well, that's on them.

Wow, I liked my parenthetical asides on this one, didn't I? (I did).

character tweaks and traits.

| Friday, May 28, 2010
Today's Tune: Soledad

It's hard to make a character interesting, isn't it? It's difficult to shape a person from the clay of your imagination and have them MATTER. How many heroes and heroines have we read over the years who just lay on the page, limp and flat like paper dolls?

Okay, that was a seriously creepy paper doll. But you get my point.

One of the most recommended ways of bringing a character to life (besides, you know, avoiding painful cliches that will make readers throw your book down a well) is to incorporate unique personality quirks. This is easier said than done, naturally, but there are resources you can draw on.

Watch people. I mean, not in a totally creeptown way, but just... people watch. Pay attention to the people you encounter every day, especially people you have a relationship with and can "monitor" over an extended period of time. You'll start to notice their habitual movements, phrases or actions. Take note of them and store them in your brain box.

You'll begin building a filing cabinet full of individual quirks that make people different, and can later be incorporated into your writing to give your character a little oomph of personality. Granted, it's still up to you to give them a FULL personality, but the quirks will help flesh them out and make them more real, more memorable.

Once you get into the habit of doing this, you'll notice little things all the time. From my own personal "filing cabinet," I'll give you a list of examples.

Hops a little when excited
Always laughs at own jokes
Taps nail on teeth
Exceptionally and unapologetically flatulent
Bounces leg up and down when inactive for too long
Jokingly threatens violence, but only to people they know well
Remembers names, but forgets faces
Gives directions by landmark, not street name
Says "I'm serious" during every pause while recounting a story
Hates having their face touched
Asks people if they want a drink when a situation is tense
Rocks back and forth from front foot to back while speaking
Always smiles, never laughs
Develops many superficial crushes
Writes letters because they can't articulate feelings while speaking
Cries at commercials involving families or animals
Closes eyes and shakes head when offended, but doesn't protest

... and many more. The possibilities are endless, really. And the best part about selecting these personality tweaks for your characters? You can easily link them to their deeper core personality. For example, if a character always clams up when someone begins talking over them, it can be because they're insecure. If THEY always talk over OTHER characters, it can be because they're confident... or arrogant, depending on how you want to portray them.

Someone who can't sit still for very long might have health issues, or just be exceptionally nervous. Painting one's nails a different color every day may signify either vanity or an artistic nature. An aversion to having their feet touched may stem from a traumatic experience.

See, this exercise can be extremely helpful! If you flesh your character out with unique habits and sayings, the rest of their personality may very well write itself.

If you want to go really nuts, try figuring your very own actions out. What are your personal quirks? And why do you have those particular traits?

and the winner is...

| Thursday, May 27, 2010
Yesterday was the last day for my contest, so I've gone ahead and selected a winner.

The tension in the air is palpable, I know!

So without further ado...

In just a moment...

Drumroll please...

The envelope says...

The winner is...


Congratulations! Please send your name and address to the email address I have provided on the sidebar beneath my picture, and I'll get your goodies out to you as soon as I can.

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in my first contest! I got a big kick out of all the paranormal haikus. Well done!


| Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Today's Tune: City of Angels

Today is the last day to enter to win a signed copy of The Summoning, so make sure you post a comment on that entry if you haven't already!

Once upon a time, I took AP English in high school and my teacher had a unit on utopias and dystopias that has stuck with me ever since. He actually divided the section into three parts:

Utopia: An idealistic society where there is socio-politi-religious harmony and very little suffering.

Anti-Utopia: A society that seems ideal at the surface, but is masking at least one fatal flaw. Think A Brave New World - the various classes seem happy and satisfied on the surface, but really they're just doped up and/or complacent.

Dystopia: A visibly flawed society, usually presided by a fascist or totalitarian government that rules its people via tyranny. Think 1984 or V For Vendetta.

I am a huge dystopian literature fan. Huge. Many of my favorite kidlit and adult lit books feature a desperately broken society. One might assume that this means I'm some sort of jaded misanthrope that enjoys a depressing novel, but I'm actually quite the optimist. A somewhat cynical optimist, but an optimist nonetheless.

So what does someone like me possibly find to like about the bleak cruelty of a dystopian novel?

I'll tell you: HOPE.

That's right - hope. Not every dystopian novel displays this theme (1984 specifically is pretty brutal), but many do, especially the middle grade and young adult versions. Yes, dystopian worlds are tragic, ruined, even horrifying, but the human spirit can never be destroyed. The protagonist always fights on, always rails against the tyrants, always seeks love and beauty.

Creating a terrible society is obviously a great way to give your protagonist instant obstacles, but it's also a very fertile ground for showing both the depths to which humanity can sink and the heights to which it can soar. There is one true goal for anyone mired in such a desperate situation: rise above. Strive to be better. Go, fight, win.

Picture Jonas from The Giver, struggling through extreme weather and hunger with his small companion, and the glowing light waiting for them at the end of their journey. The crowd at the end of V For Vendetta coming together to show the government that they will no longer stand for its tyranny. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, allowing love, and later rebellion, to fuel her every action.

These characters show us that even in the most dire straits, even when all hope should be lost, the fire of the human spirit refuses to be extinguished.

And that's why I dig dystopias. Just, you know, FYI.

TV tropes.

| Monday, May 24, 2010
Today's Tune: Broken Heart

There's a... what? A contest? That ends on Wednesday? You don't say! I should check it out!

Oof, I'm late on today's post because I stayed up reeeeaaally late last night watching the finale of LOST. Talk about an emotional climax. I may have to do a breakdown of the thematic elements in a week or so after everyone's had time to see it if they're going to see it.

For today, I'm going to link you on over to TV Tropes, which a friend of mine recently introduced me to, and I was subsequently sucked in. If you are at all interested in exploring the themes and tropes that appear in your favorite books, TV shows, comics and movies, this site is a must read. They have a breakdown of virtually every trope used by everyone everywhere. You'll even be able to spot some you recognize from your own work.

They have plot devices, characterization and setting, all in the same place. Designated Protagonist Syndrome, Something Only They Would Say, The Chew Toy, Sadist Teacher, Wangst... it's all there. Go on, try it out. I dare you not to get sucked in for several hours, so do it when you have some time. I warned you!

#100 - Save This Character!

| Friday, May 21, 2010
Today's Tune: Gives You Hell

Do you like werewolves? Sorcerers? Zombies? References to film? In that case, you should definitely enter to win a signed copy of The Summoning! PLUS SNACKS.

Happy 100th post to me! I feel a bizarre mix of pride and geekiness that I have posted 100 entries in this blog so far. Hopefully there are many more to come!

For my 100th entry, I thought I'd turn one of my regular segments on its head. Instead of a Kill This Character! entry, I'll be doing a special Save This Character! post. JOOOOOOOYYY!

What makes a quality, lovable, close-to-the-heart character? That's the $1,000 question, isn't it? If only there were some formula we could all follow that would guarantee us a protagonist that everyone in the world would want to be best friends with. Alas, there is no such formula, but there are a number of options you can draw on to greatly improve your character's anti-hateability. Yes, I just made up that word.

Because it's multitudes more difficult to create a beloved character, I'll be setting this post up as a more generalized list of character traits to shoot for, rather than giving specific character "cliches" like I do with Kill This Character. After all...

1.) Save The Characters! who break the mold. The ones who take a cliche, punch it in the face, and yell "YOU DON'T CONTROL ME!" Those precious, brilliant beings who may display comfortable and "safe" characteristics, but somehow twist their existence into something new and fresh.

2.) Save The Characters! who are flawed, but not broken beyond repair. They're flawed, sometimes deeply flawed, but they have the inner strength and wisdom to grow into a better person because of those flaws.

3.) Save The Characters! who have motivation and goals outside of external factors. Those who can define themselves. It may take them a little bit of pushing to get to that point, but they eventually get there. They're not propelled by everything and everyone around them - they control the action of the story, the action doesn't control them. Even at their most powerless, they display a glimmer of personal strength.

4.) Save The Characters! who display emotional turmoil, but not unrepentant wallowing. Every novel contains stakes and conflict. It's very likely the conflict will illicit gut-wrenching emotion from a character, and that character will react. Violently, explosively, shamefully, painfully. But a good character builds a bridge and gets over it eventually, because no one likes a whiner.

5.) Save The Characters! who are NOT universally beloved by everyone in their universe. No one is blindly adored by everyone. Sometimes people don't like a person just because they're too loud. Too quiet. The new kid. The know-it-all. More talented. Less talented. Too nice. No reason at all. And likewise, we all have people who get under our skin, for whatever reason. Nobody likes everyone. Realistic characters reflect this. They have people who don't think they're awesome, and they have people they'd rather not be around.

6.) Save The Characters! who think about people other than themselves. More often than just in passing, a la "Oh gosh, my dad would be so disappointed in me if I did this. Oh well! Doing it anyway!" This is tricky. Sometimes we think we're showing that a character Really Loves Someone, while the character actually comes off as fretting about how THEY are going to live without Someone. What will CHARACTER do without them? How will CHARACTER ever be whole again? CHARACTER'S life is totally meaningless if Someone isn't in it. Taken to such an extreme, this is selfish. And whiny and irritating.

7.) Save The Characters! who display growth. People are constantly malleable. Every day, our experiences change us. If we refuse those changes, we don't grow. We remain stagnant. Boring. Making the same mistakes over and over again, all because we won't move forward. Do not sentence your character to this prison.

8.) Save The Characters! who have quirks. They love bad B-movies. They play Sudoku every chance they get. They rub their arms up and down even when they're not cold. They used words like "precipitation" in the third grade. Real people are unique - their hobbies, likes, dislikes, habits and tweaks make them that way. Good characters are as three dimensional as possible, and believable quirks help them leap off the page.

9.) Save The Characters! who have reasons for their actions. They don't run into danger for a weak reason, or make decisions that don't make sense based on their personality. Every choice they make can be traced back to their personal psychology. Even if their reason isn't known to them at the time (boy misdirects anger with his father at a teacher, for example), they eventually "get it" and learn from it.

10.) Save The Characters! who fail, and then try again. Never give up, never surrender. Good characters WILL fail - it's necessary to hurt our darlings. But then they get up and keep on keepin' on.

What say you, readers? What characters would you save?

YA pitfalls.

| Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Today's Tune: Ghosts

Oh hai don't forget to enter my contest to win a signed copy of The Summoning!

All right, I think it's about time for me to get back to writing real entries, shyah? Shyah. But first, I'd like to direct you to Natalie Whipple's post on How to Blog Like a YA Author, because it is so very, very true. I have been known to do... well, just about everything on the list. YAWESOME 2 LEGIT 2 QUIT.

Right. So. I may have mentioned I saw Kelley Armstrong? Something like three times in a row now? Well, I did. I hadn't known much about her prior to her reading, so I didn't realize that she originally wrote adult fiction, and that this was her first YA series.

I will admit up front that this sort of thing typically makes me nervous. There's a somewhat prevalent attitude (mostly among non-writers, but occasionally even among professionals) that writing for children and teens is easy. Silly. Fun. Something to do on a lark. That you just dumb everything down, or write any old nonsense because kids make goofy stuff up all the time. WRONG.

Luckily, Ms. Armstrong is a Professional Who Does Her Research, and she did an amazing job transitioning from adult fiction to teen fiction. She mentioned during her Q&A session that she wanted to make sure she did it right, so she took it seriously. She did her research. Studied teen behavior. Really took into account the story she wanted to tell, and how she had to shift her mindset to write as a teen. She didn't want to write something that read like it was written by someone's mom. This is an awesome attitude, and I was so pleased that she felt this way.

Unfortunately, many people don't feel this way. Young adult literature is "hot" right now (bleh, I hate saying something is "hot." It reminds me of this, only less funny and more lame), so a lot of people jump on that bandwagon - celebrities, adult writers - with the presumption that they can just write some silliness in teenspeak with lots of angsty romance and call it a day. And for those of us who take writing YA seriously, that's beyond irritating.

I'm trying to avoid the whole "blah blah blah WRITING IS ART blah" thing, because not all writing IS art, and that is (sometimes) okay. However, I will stress that you have to know a genre and an audience until I'm blue in the face. I couldn't just sit down and write a hard crime novel for funsies, and I'd pretty much expect lovers of the genre to be annoyed if I did.

I'm meandering from my point. Sorry.

Writing for children and teenagers isn't something you do on a whim because you have this really cute idea about a squishy bug book. Preaching to the choir, I'm sure, but seriously. There's a mentality, a voice, a spirit to it. It's not just taking adult characters and making them younger and stupider "more innocent." Plus throwing in a bunch of LOL OMG LIKE TOTALLY THAT IS SO CRAZY ROFLCOPTER :D :D :D

When I'm reading over writing samples, it's usually pretty easy to tell who's writing YA, and who's writing What They Think YA Is. There are pitfalls to watch for:

1.) Making your characters adults reflecting on their teen years. Or adults trapped in teen bodies, literally or figuratively. Teenagers are not adults who are not adults yet. Even the most mature teenager is still a teenager. It's a different mindset.

2.) Other side of the coin: teenagers are not head-in-the-clouds "la la la the world is shiny and perfect" children. Puberty changes things, physically and mentally, whether you like it or not.

3.) Teenagers are not carefree and without "real" problems, and if you write from a place that says you think teendom is a skip through a park filled with cotton candy and pink purses, you're going to read as insincere.

4.) Alternately, filling a novel with every "issue" you can think of in order to be "real" is also - gasp! - insincere. Gratuitous swearing, sex scenes, parties, rape, eating disorders, drug use, suicide... these are all things that affect teenage lives, but can be done very, very poorly. If you do it, do it well. Do it with purpose.

5.) Being disconnected. If you know nothing about youth culture, you're going nowhere. I don't mean putting The Hills on your Netflix queue. I mean involving yourself in what teens want, what they're interested in, what they care about. And actually caring about it yourself.

6.) Understanding (remembering, even) teenage mentality. As teens, we didn't do stuff "just because." We had reasons. Reasons that may have been silly in retrospect, but were important at the time. Even if we said we did it "just cuz," we didn't mean it.

7.) Like, omigawd, please do not, like, try to use a voice that you, like, totally think sounds like a teen, but like, completely does not, dude. For seriously. Because, like, even people who totes seriously talk like this, like totally do not want to read it.

8.) Teens angst. We know. But mind the angst, because even teenagers will find too much angst whiny and boring.

Probably the most important point of all, though, is RESEARCH. PLEASE. Don't just think "oh ha ha I can write a book for teens, how hard could it be." HARD. VERY HARD. I SWEAR UNTO YOU.

win a signed copy of The Summoning!

| Monday, May 17, 2010
Today's Tune: People Are Strange

Okay, so, I might have blown through the entire Darkest Powers trilogy in one weekend. Maybe. It was just my kind of series - lots of action, suspense and adventure, a hefty dose of paranormal/urban fantasy, a group of likable characters, a dash of romance, and a strong-but-not-unbelievable female protagonist. All factors that combine to produce a series that makes me go "yay!"

Chloe is clever, resourceful and driven with her own personality and goals (she wants to be a screenwriter and direct action/adventure films). A little meek and shy at first, she overcomes her tendency to be a doormat and learns to stick up for herself. She's not helpless, but she's not superwoman, either. In my opinion, she displays just the right amount of angst appropriate to her situation without making me want to throw the book across the room while I yell, "OMG. STOP. WHINING." A sweet girl who wants to please is ripped from her normal life and slammed with the responsibility of seeing and raising the dead, and she handles it admirably.

This series is fun, fast, and full of adventure. The splash of romance is just how I like it - slow will-they-won't-they tension that stretches for almost the entire series with a pleasing culmination, but isn't the main concern of our protagonist because she's kind of, you know, running for her life for the majority of the story. But still, butterfliiiieeeesssss.

Anyway! I'm sure you're wondering when I'm going to shut it and tell you how you can win the signed copy, amiright?

Firsties - You will be entering to win the following goodies:

A signed copy of The Summoning, of course! This is the first book in the Darkest Powers trilogy, signed by author Kelley Armstrong.

Also, to keep your energy up while you power through it:

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Powerberries, which are flavored fruit pieces (acai, pomegranate, cranberry and blueberry) dipped in chocolate. I hear they're addictive like hard drugs, but thankfully much better for you.

Also! While you're hanging out with all of our spicy-sweet characters:

Chew on some Ginger Chews candies! Yum!

Second(ies?) - How do you win? I'm going to be doing what seems to be the blog standard draw-a-name-from-a-virtual-hat method of selecting a winner for this contest, but you do have several ways of getting an extra entry into said hat.

To enter this contest, you must comment on this entry with a non-anonymous account or name. Here is the point scale:

Comment: 1 point
Being an old follower: 2 points
Being a new follower: 1 point
Mention this contest on your blog (let me know in a comment, please!): 1 point
Mention this contest on Twitter (again, let me know you did this!): 1 point
Mention this contest somewhere else: 1 point

And there's one special way to earn a bonus 2 points - write me a paranormal/fantasy-based haiku poem and leave it as a comment! A haiku is a three-line poem that follows the build of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. So something like this:

The dead do not sleep
A girl traps their spirits here
Then she feels like crap

And that's all she wrote. This contest is open to THE ENTIRE WORLD, so feel free to enter even if you do not live on the North American continent. It will be open until May 26th! Have fun!

signed book giveaway previiieeeeew!

| Friday, May 14, 2010
Today's Tune: Jesse's Girl

Yes, I have Jesse's Girl stuck in my head. THANK YOU VERY MUCH, GLEE.

I'm sure you've noticed that I've still been somewhat absent. Running around like a chicken with its head... why am I saying that; I hate that analogy. But you get what I'm saying.

Getting settled in is proving to take a little longer than expected, but I'm going to try to be back to regular updates next week. In the meantime, I have a little preview for you! Guess what I haaaaave?

I have a signed copy of The Summoning - the first book in Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers series! I was at Ms. Armstrong's reading last night (she just released the final book of the trilogy a month or so ago), and she was a very funny and classy lady. You'd like her. And she was kind enough to sign an extra copy of The Summoning for me to give away here on the blog, which I will be doing sometime next week.

So stay tuned! Tell your friends! Any followers I have before I officially announce the contest next week will get bonus points toward winning it :D

slight insanity over'd. for now.

| Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Today's Tune: Jenny

Oh! Hello, blog!

So you all may have heard from my, uh, associate, that I've completed my move and now reside in mostly-sunny-sometimes-rainy-but-that's-cool Northern California. Right smack in the middle of Sonoma county and near-ish to Napa, actually. Which you may have heard of? Because those places produce wine? Like, a lot of wine?

This place holds a special... um, place... in my heart. I went to college here (Sonoma State, home of the Cossacks Seawolves, WHAT), and it's breathtakingly beautiful. Also, you know, wine. And farms. Organic farms that produce a big bunch of awesome and then sell it every weekend at Farmers Markets. Seriously, we've been here just over a week and our fridge already boasts a few bottles of wine and a selection of local goods. ILU SONOMA COUNTY.

Ahem. Aaaaanyway.

I thought about trying to tie this back around to something at least in the ballpark of literary by mentioning that I finished two books on my trip out here (Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which was mentioned last entry. Zombies FTW.). Both were wonderful reads I enjoyed for their portrayals of kickass female leads who pwned the undead like woah, and you should pick them up. There you have it! Literary tie-in!

Unfortunately, that's all I've got for you for now. It's been an exhausting week, and is likely to get a little more crazy as Robot Boyfriend (not actually a machine) and I amp up our job search. I had every intention of taking a bunch of pictures on the drive out and creating a superquirkyfun storyline to go with it, but driving for three days straight looking at a lot of this:

and this:

kiiiiind of takes it out of you, actually. What, operate a camera while driving? No, I certainly didn't do that! That would be CRAZY.

But the cats are still fat and happy, so all is well.

I'll try to get back to a semi-regular update-ish schedule sometime soon. In the meantime, you know, zombie fiction FTW. Get some.

a notice for your perusal.

| Thursday, May 6, 2010
Dear The Internet:

This notice is to let you know that Steph is alive and well, having survived a seven-state drive in spite of a few snow showers, lots of windy mountain roads, and two very stir-crazy cats.

She is now enjoying the full extent of her Mexican food/seafood/wine coma, and will be back to her regular shenanegans very soon.

Preferably after the moving company delivers her desk and a chair to sit in, because sitting on the floor to type, as she says, "blows."

In the meantime, she suggests everyone read the zombie-induced awesome that is The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, as well as the recently released companion novel, The Dead-Tossed Waves. They totally "rock sauce" (again: her words).

The Management

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