character overload.

| Monday, January 31, 2011
Today's Tune: Horchata

I'm going to tell you guys a STORY!

When I was in college, I had these roommates, right? Their names were Annie, Melissa, Amy, Lexie and Kandice. We all lived together in this great suite apartment. Melissa and I were in the same bedroom. Annie rode a motorcycle and Amy played tennis. Kandice was an amazing knitter, Melissa was obsessed with The Beatles, and Lexie was really good at math. The six of us cooked meals together, had movie nights, and got along pretty famously for college roommates.

Yesterday, Kandice and I went to have sushi and we talked for two hours, because we are still very good friends and see each other on a regular basis. The end.

Okay, now I'd like to ask you guys something. Out of all these names, which was the only name you probably care about? Are you confused by all the names and wondering why I introduced so many characters/names when only one reappears? Do you feel like you had to go back and reread because you weren't sure which one Kandice was?

Granted, this is a very abbreviated "story," so it may not illustrate my point as well as I'd like, but the concept is there. Character overload. Introducing a lot of names in a short amount of time with little context and expecting your reader to remember who the heck you were talking about when you reintroduce someone later.

This can be managed if every character has a functional role to play in the story, but many characters show up to serve some sort of one-off filler function, and then we never hear about them again. That only really serves to fill up space in your reader's memory banks and confuse them later. "Okay, which character is Steve again?"

Character overload isn't unusual during the drafting process. We usually end up with way more characters than we actually need. Usually you can cut several second and third-tier characters and combine their role with another character. The goal is to make sure every named character serves a memorable function in our story.

Think about it. Do you really need to have a random girl named Carol warn everybody that the Monster of the Week is coming, or can you have one of your established characters do that? Do you need to introduce a new guy named Ted to ask your character out on a date, only to never use him again?

Named characters should be memorable. If you're planning on using a Random to serve a function in the story but don't plan on using them again, don't name them. Take a leaf out of J.K. Rowling's book -- even small characters served functional roles within her storyverse. Nearly every character served an integrated role in the story, or they had a distinguishing and memorable characteristic. We know exactly who Colin Creevy, Lavender Brown, the Patil sisters, Aberforth Dumbledore, and Bathilda Bagshot are, even though they serve relatively small roles in the Harry Potter series.

Your reader should never feel confused or like they have to go back and read an earlier passage to remember who a particular character is. Much in the same way every word should count, every character should count. Cutting beloved side characters is hard -- believe me, I know -- but ultimately might be necessary to strengthen your story.

It's Friday. How are you?

| Friday, January 28, 2011
Surprise, it's Friday and my brain feels like puree! Woo!

So let's take it easy today. How are you, dear reader? What are you up to? How's your current project going? What have you read lately? Do tell.

I'm currently reading Ally Condie's Matched. It has a definite vibe of The Giver about it, which I appreciate.

Tell me about your week!

Also, here is a silly picture.

can fan fiction improve your writing?

| Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Today's Tune: Everybody Wants to Rule the World (cover)

Fan fiction. Man, are there some stinkers out there. Mary-Sues, thinly-veiled attempts at inserting oneself into a fandom universe, totally inappropriate and/or non-canon sexual relationships, cringe-worthy grammar and purple prose... fan fiction has it all.

So, is it all just unoriginal emo-vomiting and bad erotica? Can fan fiction actually be good? Better yet, can writing it actually help improve your craft?

Yes. I believe it can be good, and I believe it can help you improve. To a point.

Confession: I used to write fan fiction, way back in my early writer days. Dawson's Creek, Roswell, and Harry Potter fan fiction, to be specific (SHUT UP RIGHT NOW). Many of us start out that way, even if it's not consciously fan fiction that we're writing. My first forays into writing were mimicries of some of my favorite stories - Bruce Coville's aliens, Tamora Pierce's magical girl protagonists, a splash of Lois Lowry's The Giver. I wasn't copying storylines verbatim or anything, but I was borrowing. Heavily.

These writing experiments are either long gone or ferreted away in boxes, but they were valuable to me. They helped me learn the structure of a story, and they got me writing. I could hone my writing ability within the framework of a universe that had already been created for me. I already knew the characters, so their personalities and actions came naturally. No complicated world building or extensive from-scratch plotting involved -- only creating new adventures for beloved literary (or cinematic) friends and the freedom to just write.

This is where fan fiction can help us improve. While writing, we (hopefully) improve our craft. We (hopefully) learn to draw a character with words. We (hopefully) learn how to describe a world and submerge ourselves in it. Even (hopefully) some basic plotting practice while we create an entirely new storyline that is our own, though it's usually still connected to the author's original universe.

It's nice, playing with someone else's creation. There's no real pressure there. Unless you decide to share it with the rest of the fandom, anyway. Then they'll tell you exactly how you screwed it up, but that's not important. It's fun. It's practice. And it can actually be very, very good. Plenty of Big Name Authors have played with retelling a popular story (how many Pride & Prejudice remixes have we had now?) or writing a "tribute" to another author by borrowing their characters (Neil Gaiman's short stories featuring H.P. Lovecraft's universe come to mind).

However, there is a point where we have to branch out from the sort-of crutch of fan fiction and stand on our own two feet. Writing within the safety lines of an already-built universe can be fun, but it's not your own. Once you have the building blocks, it's time to take off the training wheels and create something that is 100% you. If you do write fan fiction, enjoy it for what it is, but use it as a tool to help improve your craft and not just as a "guilty pleasure."

Did I use enough childhood/growing up metaphors in this post, do you think? Yeah. Do you write fan fic? What are your thoughts?

taking our YA to the next level.

| Monday, January 24, 2011
Today's Tune: Grace Kelly

I read a great guest post over on The Rejectionist from her good friend Chérie this week. It was musing on why the adolescent/coming of age story for males has made the branch to the more literary and accepted "adult" literature, but young women's stories are still largely relegated to the YA section. A lot of excellent points were made, and I wanted to expand on the idea.

Chérie states (accurately) that women and men both still feel some connection to their adolescence, whether it be bigger-than-life emotions or just generally feeling like we don't know what the hell we're doing. However, somehow this is considered a universal trait in men that they can connect with even as adults, but women are expected to be the more mature and put-together sex. Specifically, she says, "The intimation, of course, is that there are aspects of the teenage boy experience that can resonate with everyone, but the stories of teenage girls will be of interest only to other teenage girls."

She also goes on to say (paraphrased, naturally) that a lot of the books in the YA section are considered "issue novels," which is something I've heard before. A lot of the books are about Struggling With and Overcoming Something. Some books go about this in a very superficial way (This Thing Is Bad, Don't Do It) and some are treated with care and genuine emotion. But the point is well taken. Issue novels can speak to us, but they're not necessarily about the emotional and psychological connection we have to adolescence.

Another quote from the linked post: "Being a teenage girl is not all about your fucked-up relationship with food or losing your virginity to the wrong boy. The strange and romantic world of female friendships, falling in love with science or art or music, the slow discovery of the things you’ll be passionate about for your whole life--these are the stories that are woefully absent from those shelves."

Here is another place where I agree. I read a lot of YA, and there's no question that it's overwhelmingly female-centric. Written by females about females and the female perspective. Don't get me wrong; there are many great YA novels out there and several options for males, but this is statistically speaking here. And I am loathe to admit this, but while I read and enjoy a lot of YA novels, there aren't that many I come across that I connect with on such a deep level that 1.) I want to read them over again or 2.) they make me think, "Wow, this could be a new favorite book." Not favorite YA book, but favorite book period.

I'm not saying that I don't like or enjoy most of what I read, because I genuinely do (or else I wouldn't read it, AMIRITE). And this goes for literature as a whole -- I'm picky, and a novel has to really take me somewhere special for me to count it as a favorite. Even so, I feel that we can reach further with YA. We can tackle more complex themes. We can go beyond falling in love and having our heart broken and dealing with drugs. Those can all still be at work in our books, but we can stretch even more.

And I'm not trying to get all intellectual elitist and say that ALL BOOKS NEED TO BE LITERARY MASTERWORKS TO COUNT, not at all. I don't want to make anyone feel that they have to do their thing a certain way, because it is of course THEIR thing. I'm just saying that clearly there is something about being a teenage girl that continues to connect with adult women, and maybe we can keep that in mind. And maybe we can stop belittling adult women for connecting with that part when we think it's no big deal that men continue to connect with their adolescence well into manhood.

Let's challenge ourselves to see if we can find that bridge between YA that realistically connects with teens and the experience that still sings to adults. We can do it.

rut rut rut rut NARF

| Friday, January 21, 2011
Oh hey, it's Friday. And yep, brain is still feeling mushy. So here's a Friday video for you to watch instead of listening to me try to string together a coherent thought!


(Warning: video is amusing, but contains lots of F-bombs. So, you know, bear that in mind.)

The Darling Budds by Johnny Dale

| Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Today's Tune: Good Intentions Paving Co.

I'm sure this is completely unheard of, but I'm a little burnt out today. Excuses about life and work here, etc. You know how it goes.

So I'm going to direct you to something else to read today: The Darling Budds, a YA serial "novel" by Johnny Dale. This is quality YA, dudes. It's posted in one-chapter-per-week format, for free, on the internet. But more importantly, it is good. Johnny is a skilled writer and a very nice, cool guy.

If you're interested in writing well-executed and fleshed-out YA fiction, this is a prime example. The teenagers are clever and interesting, but still genuinely teenagers. With teenage feelings and teenage imperfections. No forced witty comebacks, no jaded too-cool-for-the-world outlook, no superficial vapidity.

Other things I appreciate about the novel: it sticks to the story and doesn't ramble. There's enough lush description and setting to give you a genuine feeling of place without blahblahblahing on for way too long about The Very Important Lemon Tree In The Garden and stuff. The cast is incredibly diverse without feeling like the author was going for a diverse cast, if that makes sense. Race and sexuality are well-represented, but not forced down your throat like, "Hey, look, I have a token XXX character!" It feels natural to the environment and the story. The student-adult relationships are varied and realistic.

There's intrigue. Embarrassment. Growth. Love. Crushes. Teenagerdom. It's great.

And now that I have TOTALLY embarrassed Mr. Dale, I'm going to say again: go read. Go go go.

See you Friday.

listen, don't defend.

| Monday, January 17, 2011
Today's Tune: Howlin' For You

Question: Are you a Listener or a Defender?

Critique groups are, as we all know, a valuable tool in improving our writing. They're often our first audience and our first feedback. But they're not support or accountability groups. Those are something very different.

We can't write in a vacuum. If we'd eventually like to achieve publication on some level, we're going to have to deal with criticism. Some of it is probably going to sting. Even so, it's important to learn to take it in stride and learn from it.

All criticism isn't good criticism. A reader may suggest something to you that you completely disagree with, and ultimately that is your right and privilege as the author of the work. Sometimes things ARE a matter of personal artistic choice. And sometimes they're legitimate criticisms that we'd do well to consider, even if we don't agree with the suggested alternatives.

When your work is being critiqued, do you find yourself having to jump in and explain exactly why you made that choice and why it's okay for this particular story? Are you hearing the same criticism from multiple sources, but insisting that they just don't understand what you're doing? Do you ever pause to at least consider that a critique partner may have a point, even if you don't agree with their solution?

This happens for any number of reasons. We're the creator, so we know exactly why we made the choices we did. We're close to the story and can't imagine changing or cutting something. We're tired of editing and just want it to work. There's always a reason. But here's the thing: once our work is out of our hands, there are no more explanations. No more sitting beside the reader and telling them that no, really, they just don't GET what you're doing here, but it will make sense later. There's only acceptance or rejection.

Being a Defender doesn't do you any favors. If you're looking for nothing but praise and reassurance, that's a different group. You may as well not participate in a critique group if you refuse to actually listen and consider any critiques. As always, you must consider the source before choosing to take any suggestions or advice, but don't do the fingers-in-ears-lalalalalala thing. If people you know to be good readers find things that aren't working for them, then heed. You don't have to go with their suggestions if you don't agree with them, but at least listen.

Also, word to the wise: don't talk over and interrupt your critique partners when they're giving you their thoughts. It's super rude. Just sayin'.

seriously, why is your mean girl mean?

| Friday, January 14, 2011

Today's Tune: All I Want Is You

Okay, slightly-embarrassing confession time: I am an unadulterated Mean Girls fan. It may not be alterna-cool-edgy of me to admit that sometimes I enjoy pop culture, BUT I DO AND I DON'T CARE IF YOU JUDGE ME FOR IT. Ahem.

Nevertheless, I have paused to think about why I enjoy the film so much. The most obvious reason is because it's funny. Really funny. So many repeatable lines. I WANT MY PINK SHIRT BACK.

Delving a little deeper, I enjoy this movie because it both pokes fun at and revels in the Mean Girl stereotype. We all know this character. She's beautiful, she's popular, she's rich, and she is an epic bitch. But this movie goes beyond just making her into the villain, and the protagonist into the poor, sweet, nerdy outcast who destroys her and Stands Up For Unpopulars Everywhere. This movie flips roles. The Mean Girl becomes the victim of cruelty, and the Nice Girl becomes the thing she's supposed to hate. Mean Girls isn't really about "the good girl" and "the mean girl." It shows us the bullies as main characters. It shows us we're all capable of nastiness, and we're all capable of getting over it.

The Mean Girl is a stock character in YA fiction. She's the character we toss into the mix to make our protagonist look better by comparison, to cause instant tension, and to give our readers someone to hate. There's rarely ever a good reason for her to act like such a raging hosebeast; she just does. She's overused. She's boring. She's flat. And she deserves better.

If we decide to use a Mean Girl in our fiction, we have to ask ourselves one question: why. Why is she mean? What is her motivation? Human beings don't exist in the black or the white. Even the biggest jerk you knew in school had more going on in the background than met the eye. And please, please, let's find a reason other than "she's mean because she's sooooooo jealous of the pretty, smart protagonist." So overdone.

This is part of fleshing out our characters. It's not enough to have a three-dimensional protagonist if the other characters only serve as props. Why is your mean girl mean? If you want to create a truly memorable character, create a bully that people can actually sympathize with. That's powerful writing.

this is why i hate math. (flash)

| Wednesday, January 12, 2011
“What happened to Mr. Matthews?”

The question shimmered in the air, breaking into pieces as it registered with the twenty-five students in Mr. Matthew’s Advanced Trigonometry class.

Kaci turned in her front-row seat and stared at the rest of them with wide brown eyes. “What happened to Mr. Matthews?” she repeated.

A series of shuffling noises and confused “huhs” chorused from around the room. Richie sat in the back with his graphing calculator in his hand and a pen dangling from his slack mouth. It detached itself from his lip and clattered onto his desk.

When no one responded with a suitable answer, Kaci said, “I just put my head down to write some notes, and when I looked up, he was gone. No one saw where he went?” As if to illustrate her point, she looked back to the whiteboard. A half-completed exercise stared back at them. It looked like Mr. Matthews had stopped writing in the middle of SOH-CAH-TOA.

In answer, Gina shrieked. It was enough to get everyone moving.

“Jesus, Gina, shut the hell up!” Chris yelled as he leapt from his desk. Papers scattered. No one noticed a few sheets shred into nothing in midair.

“She disappeared!” Gina said, pointing with a shaking hand to a desk two rows from her own. “Ashleigh! Didn’t anybody else see? She got all fuzzy and then she was just gone!”

“Fuzzy like unfocused, or fuzzy like a bunny?” Sean said, forcing a laugh. A few others joined him, too loudly.

“I’m not stupid,” Gina said. “She --”

Gina’s skin paled, faded, and vanished. Kaci burst into tears.

“Oh man, what the hell. What the hell?” Chris said. He ran his hands through his product-heavy hair, leaving it sticking up at odd angles. No one laughed at him.

“We have to go. We have to get out of the room.”

“The main quad. We’re supposed to evacuate to the main quad, right?”

“Didn’t you people read Left Behind?”

“What’s happening? Oh God, this shouldn’t be happening.”

“God damnit, move!”

“Richie, will you get off your ass? We’ve got to go!”

Richie remained seated at his desk. He stared at the screen of his graphing calculator, oblivious to the chaos around him. Sean grabbed him by the arm and yanked him along.

If the classroom had been chaos, the hallway was pandemonium. Teachers screamed instructions, but no one listened. Several students had given up and sat against the walls away from the surge, sobbing. Even as Mr. Matthews’ class pushed their way through the thick crowd, it seemed to thin. Doors disintegrated. Panels of the linoleum floor flickered in and out of existence.

They burst into the main quad, sprinting for the lone tree in the center – an old pink peppercorn tree, tall and twisted. Its branches whipped through the air, although the students felt no wind. The stinging smell of pepper and sap permeated everything. Leaves kept breaking off and falling toward the ground, but none ever landed.

They stopped beneath the tree, doubled over and panting. When they looked up, they could see half of the main building was gone. Not blown up, or bashed in. Gone. Like someone had taken a giant eraser and rubbed out part of a drawing. Even as they watched, it continued to erase itself, brick by brick.

More students and teachers poured from the doorway, but they twisted and cried out and were gone in a blink. Only Richie, Sean, and Kaci were left.

“What is this?” Sean said, turning in place like his current patch of grass was a safe zone. “This doesn’t make sense. It’s not real.”

Kaci had stopped crying. “Are they dead? They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“It’s fine. We’ll be fine. It’s not real.”

“Why are you comforting me if I’m not real?”

Sean swallowed hard. They watched the sky open. It didn’t turn white, black, or even gray. It was the color of nothing.

“It’s my fault.” The whisper filled the empty space. Kaci turned to look at Richie. They were all that was left. Him, her, a patch of grass, and a vanishing peppercorn tree.

“What?” she whispered.

He held up his calculator. The screen glowed and swirled. Numbers and curves pulsed within, drawing her eye.

“It was an accident,” he said. “I was just messing around. Trying to program a game to pass the time. They were just random numbers. It lit up, and there were words.”

“What words?” Her voice split and scattered.

“The System. It said I’d cracked it.”

He waited for her response, but it didn’t come. He stood alone.

The calculator fell from his hand. There was no sound. No ground to hit anymore.

“God, I hate Trig.”

Words Matter.

| Monday, January 10, 2011
I rarely get political on this blog, because I think there's enough of it out there and that's not really what I'm about here. But sometimes things happen that hit me so powerfully that I feel compelled to say something. Don't worry, I'm not going to wank about my personal politics, I'm just going to say one thing.

Words matter.

I'm sure you're going to read blog posts similar to this one all over the place in the next week, but there it is. No matter who you are or what your personal beliefs and politics, when you are in a position of fame or power, you have responsibilities. (Insert Spiderman quote here, yeah yeah). One of those responsibilities is to mind your words and the rhetoric you choose to use when you're in the public sphere.

I think we can very easily tie this into our own lives as weavers of the written word. Every word, every phrase, that we choose to express our ideas is important. They hold power. If we're writing with the goal of our work being read by the general public, we have a responsibility to choose those words with care. This is our communication. This is how we send our message to the world.

What do you want your message to be? Something that gets you lots of attention and pats on the back? Something that gets your face on the news because it's so outrageous? Or something that betters discourse and moves people in a positive way?

There's really nothing more for me to say that hasn't already been said a hundred different ways. So I'll leave you with this piece by Keith Olbermann. I admittedly have my issues with Olbermann because I feel even he hasn't been as mindful of his discourse as he should have been in the past, but in the linked video, he admits to this and summarizes much of my feelings about the events of the past weekend.

I'll just end by expressing my sorrow over the victims killed during the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords this weekend, and my sincere hope for the speedy and complete recovery of the survivors.

YA and the Sarcastic Teen Girl Voice

| Friday, January 7, 2011
Today's Tune: Use Somebody

I don't really keep this a secret, but in case you weren't aware: I watch YA discussions pretty closely. Mostly because I'm intensely interested in the genre, but also because I write it, and keeping an ear to the ground on your potential future career is generally considered an intelligent thing to do.

There's something I've seen come up in discussions from agents and editors pretty regularly, and I thought I'd bring it to the table.

Here it is: the Juno-esque sarcastic teen girl voice is getting way old. Some feel the voice is just too common -- it seems aspiring YA writers tend to fall back on it as the "expected" voice for a teenage character. Others feel it's an unrealistic voice. Yes, teens can be sarcastic, but the cynical, lightning-quick quips sound scripted, not real. They're more jaded 20-something and less teenager.

Okay, so, yikes. What does this mean for YA writers? Do we need to reel in the sarcasm and make sure our characters don't sound like we pulled them out of the Dawson's Creek pilot? (Aside: seriously NO ONE TALKS LIKE THIIIIIISSS but I still totally loved that show, not going to lie.) Does this mean we have to nix witty dialogue? ALL THE SADFACES.

My take: yes and no. Yes, I think there is definitely a valid point in the opinion that the Juno-style is overdone and trying too hard. Part of the teenage experience is that they can't always think of the scathing quip at just the right moment, even if they'd like to. And the appreciation of sarcasm and dry wit does have a limit. If we're too heavy-handed with it, it grates.

But does this mean no sarcasm or wittiness at all? I definitely wouldn't take it to that extreme. We just have to learn 1.) moderation and 2.) how to explore different voices. Every teen character doesn't need to be a whipcrack smartass who views everything through the I Am So Worldly And Jaded At Sixteen filter. The issue with this voice is that it's just too cool. It's almost a throwback to not making your character perfect: don't make them the perfectly confident superior kid who has a comeback for everything.

Let them stumble. Let them get embarrassed and stressed and pissed off and tongue-tied and awkward. Don't try to make them into a polished, witty adult-in-a-teen-body. Doing so causes you to miss out on one of the core tenants of teenagerdom: we had no idea what the hell we were doing. Talking back and being a smartass were defense mechanisms, not our core personality.

Characters, not caricatures. Something we'd all do well to keep in mind.

seven things blogging has taught me.

| Monday, January 3, 2011
Today's Tune: Tighten Up

I've been blogging for about a year and a half now, and I've come to some conclusions about it. SURPRISE.

1.) It's enjoyable. A great way to organize your thoughts and maybe even give a little bit of your personal brand of knowledge back to the world.

2.) You can meet some really great, clever, funny, amazing people. There's a blog out there for just about everything you can imagine.

3.) It's exceedingly difficult to keep up a set schedule, but necessary for maintaining a blog that invites readers back. Life gets in the way -- it happens to all of us. Sometimes the blog just has to take a backseat. But there's little doubt that your audience loses interest when you're not regular about updating. Trace your blog in Google Analytics if you know how. The numbers don't lie.

4.) It's a two-way street. Comments and blog friends are a big deal. You can't bank on the fact that you are just SO AWESOME that people will keep coming back if you don't visit their blogs or respond to their comments. Unless you really ARE that awesome. Then you might get away with it, but it's still a little rude to never respond or interact with the people who follow you. I have gotten REALLY, REALLY BAD about this, and I apologize. I need to make the time to get back in with all of you.

5.) We put too much emphasis on follower numbers. I won't lie... it does matter, to an extent. If you have a low number of followers, people judge. You judge yourself. It makes you feel like kind of a loser. At the same time, what do big numbers really mean? What does it matter if you have 1500 followers that came from "follow me" contests or free giveaways? How many of those people actually READ your blog and interact with you? Ultimately, Follower Count is just a number. The people who actually read and care are those who matter.

6.) If blogging starts becoming a chore rather than an enjoyable outlet or fun interaction, maybe it's not the best way to spend our time. If it's taking away from our work, our play, or our writing, it's not worth it. There's no shame in hanging up the blogging hat if it's just not working out.

7.) You can't do everything. Don't feel bad if you can't read every entry, follow every worthy person, or craft an entry for every blogfest. It's okay. Stretching yourself too thin is a fast path toward feeling like the joy is sucked out of blogging.

Aaaaand seven is a totally weird number to end on, but that's what I'm going with.

What have you learned about blogging, compadres?


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