Lenny Kravitz & White Privilege.

| Friday, May 27, 2011
Today's Tune: Are You Gonna Go My Way

Photo from LaineyGossip
Okay, so could we talk about Lenny Kravitz being cast as Cinna in The Hunger Games and the inevitable white privilege fallout without it being, like, A Thing? Because that would be awesome. I guess my asking if it can't be a thing while bringing up the very thing that makes it A Thing is probably cutting my own feet out from under me, but really.

Most Hunger Games fans have taken this casting choice in stride, citing Kravitz's appearance in the movie Precious, or saying "AWESOME. I totally pictured Cinna as non-Caucasian anyway, because Lord knows a white dude would look WEIRD in gold eyeliner."

But, as these things usually tend to go, Cinna was never specifically indicated as anything other than Caucasian in the books. Thus, many people just assumed he was Caucasian and are apparently put out about the fact that his role has been cast to a non-white actor. Which is crappy.

Some are citing his hair and eye color (brown and green with gold flecks, respectively) as "proof" that Cinna is Caucasian, completely disregarding the fact that these superficial features are not exclusively available to people of European-only decent. It's also possible to get it from the Word of God herself, though to my knowledge no one has tried that yet.

Ultimately, though, I ask this: what does it matter?

It matters because in a majority-privileged society (Caucasian, in America's case), there's a natural inclination to default to white. If an author does not expressly state that a character is not white-skinned, the vast majority of readers will assume they are. This has a lot to do with our culture, a lot to do with unconscious psychology, and a lot to do with the fact that publishing overwhelmingly leans toward publishing and promoting white authors and "white" stories. It's the reason why cover whitewashing happens. Most readers are assumed white. It's assumed white people are the biggest purchasing audience (which may very well be true, I don't know). It's assumed that white buyers will not pick up a book with a non-white person on the cover.

So, Suzanne Collins did not say in her description of Cinna that he was not white. Therefore, he was assumed to be white. I find this duality intriguing, because fans of the books (myself included) made it very clear that they would be REALLY UNHAPPY if Rue and Thresh, who were described as "dark-skinned," were cast as white actors. Yet when a character who was not described by skin tone was cast as a black actor, some people took issue with it.

Personally, I think this casting choice was fabulous, because seriously look at that picture. Cinna incarnate? I THINK SO. But I'm curious about your thoughts, readers. What was your reaction to this casting decision? Why? I would absolutely love it if we could keep discourse civil and free of wankery, though. I am perfectly open to hearing from people who thought Cinna would be more appropriately cast as a different actor so long as the argument is logical. For instance: some people have mentioned that they think Kravitz is a bit old to play Cinna. I think this is fair commentary, as Cinna is described as a "young man" in the books. Not that Kravitz is OLD by any stretch of the imagination, but he's certainly not a 20-30 something anymore.

I'm quite interested in the perception behind assuming everyone is a white default and breaking down that assumption. This is an area of particular interest to me because 1) I am white, and 2) while I consciously try to break down this barrier for myself, I'm also mindful that I cannot fully comprehend the experience of people of color. So I'm curious about any and all reactions. Thoughts?

stop procrastinating!

| Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Today's Tune: Bandages

Behold: a scientific explanation for why we procrastinate! As told amusingly by a cheeky-cute young British man named Charlie!

Enjoy. Today, I will be taking my own advice and not procrastinating.

YA Common Clichés series: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy

| Monday, May 23, 2011
Today's Tune: Little Boxes

One of the best bits of advice you will hear as a writer is to read, and to read a lot. Particularly within your genre to familiarize yourself with its tropes, clichés, and what's currently selling/being published. So, I read a lot of young adult literature, which is kind of its own beast. It's a specific genre, but within that genre are any number of subjects. I'm hoping to break them down and highlight some of the more common clichés (read: stuff that is so overdone it's boring and predictable) within each area.

The goal with this series is not to ridicule, but to inform and inspire a break from the usual in today's literature. Also, clichés do not automatically make a manuscript or novel junk. If used sparingly and mindfully, they can work.

Subject #3: Fantasy and Urban Fantasy

I'm sure the fantasy purists kind of want to kick me for lumping these two together, but I find it necessary. High fantasy isn't very common in Young Adult literature right now -- there are a few instances of pure fantasy worlds (Eragon, Graceling, Ash), but current YA tends to err toward the side of urban/blended fantasy. There may be a shift back to high fantasy in the future, but for now many readers seem to like their fantasy in a modern/urban setting.

The Chosen One. This is perhaps the most common trope in fantasy literature: the hero or heroine of the story is Chosen. Special. A savior. Their destiny, either by birth or prophecy, is to save a world/society/something from The Big Bad. They're often physically marked to illustrate their Chosen status (scar or birthmark). This trope is archetypal in fantasy, and in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing (Harry Potter was a Chosen One, Aragorn was a Chosen One, etc.). It does tend to become a problem when the Chosen One is TOO special -- when they're good at everything, they easily learn things that should take them years, they always win conflicts, they're beloved all around, etc. Another angle to try is opting for a hero/ine who makes the conscious choice to put themselves on the line, rather than being prophesied to do so.

Protagonist is half-human, half-something else. Half-god. Half-elf. Half-faerie. Half-witch. Something like that. Whichever way you slice is, this is a tactic that is often used to 1) make the protagonist rare and/or persecuted, and 2) give them special, unique powers. They're typically raised in the human world by their human parent or foster family, only to later discover their true history, which CHANGES EVERYTHING.

They're actually a prince/princess, but they don't know it yet. Another common twist is for them to be Secret Royalty -- either an illegitimate child or heir to the throne put into hiding for their protection.

Talking animals. Especially talking animal sidekicks. Either the protagonist has the special ability to hear their animal companion, or talking animals are commonplace in their particular fantasy world.

Different fantasy societies reflect our typical, familiar society. Alternatively, they are so far to the other end of the spectrum that they're unintentionally comical. Both instances are cases of weak world-building. A fully-realized fantasy society (besides our own or the protagonist's own) will probably have different customs, histories, philosophies, religions, and ideals. Sometimes writers will go to the other end of the spectrum and create a boorish, offensive-to-our-sensibilities caricature as a way of making a statement. Unfortunately, it's usually just gross.

The Wise Old Sage mentor. Another archetype that is constantly present in the genre, but can be played with to find a slightly different angle. Try a mentor who isn't a crotchety old man -- maybe a middle-aged woman or even a mischievous child-character. If you are going with the Wise Old Sage, make him a little different. Give him a light-hearted attitude, a zest for life, and maybe a little weirdness, a la Dumbledore.

Magical creatures exist in plain sight, they're just in disguise unless you have special senses. Common in Urban Fantasy. Often the protagonist will be able to see/sense these creatures. They've either been able to do it all their life, or it's a sudden onset that leaves them confused and wondering if they've gone insane.

Also, it's very important to keep the rest of the humans from finding out about their existence. They wouldn't understand! Panic! Chaos! Persecution! Secret must be kept! We'll kill those who threaten to reveal us!

Special powers are released at the onset of puberty or coming of age. Our protagonist is living an average, daily, human life until they reach puberty (often shown by menstruation in females) or they achieve a milestone birthday. After they hit this milestone, their latent abilities are released, often to much confusion.

Magical objects. The protagonist must find some ancient, special, magical artifact in order to progress the story. A ring, a key, a talisman, a book. Often it's an item that could cause mass destruction if it fell into the wrong hands.

Villains are maniacal, insane, and power hungry. They're the "just plain evil" to the hero's "just plain good." Because fantasy often deals with the duality of good versus evil -- black versus white -- it's easy to pigeonhole the villain into the power-crazed madman (or madwoman) role. With some tweaking and appropriate backstory, villains can be fleshed out and made relateable. A villain with a calculated motive is almost always more interesting than the guy that just went mad and decided to take over a kingdom.

Super-powered twins. It's a thing. Maybe there's something about the mysticism surrounding twins that makes them such an appealing inclusion in fantasy novels.

What are some of the other common tropes and clichés you find in YA fantasy?

softening up wooden dialogue.

| Friday, May 20, 2011
Today's Tune: Heartbeat and Sails

So, dialogue.

Some writers are gifted with an natural ear for snappy dialogue that doesn't weigh down the narrative. Lucky them. Unfortunately, many of us have to work at it for a while before we develop that ear. In the meantime, we end up with stilted, boring, overdone, or unbelievable dialogue. I used to write terrible dialogue. Just awful. I've improved a lot, thank goodness.

How do we find that natural "spoken" voice for our characters that doesn't sound totally scripted? Here are a few things I've learned over the years.

- People don't usually call each other by name several times in a conversation. Many newer writers feel the need to have their characters address each other repeatedly by name in casual conversation. Real people don't do this, especially not with people they're familiar with. They know each other's name. Listen to the way you speak to your spouse, your children, your friends. You call them by name when trying to get their attention, when you're angry with them, when you're introducing them, or to emphasize a point. When you're the only people speaking, you don't say, "Wow, Tom! Wasn't that game amazing?" "Totally, Sarah. I couldn't believe the score was so close."

- Differentiate between your characters' voices. Not literally -- you don't have to specify what each character's voice sounds like. However, they should all speak a little differently, based on their background and personality. We all have certain words or special turns of phrase that pepper our speech. We have regional accents and terms. One great tip I heard a long time ago: your reader should be able to tell who's speaking without seeing a name attached to the dialogue.

- Writing historical speech patterns does not always mean elevated terms and getting rid of contractions. I'm not sure what it is about writing out contractions that a lot of people seem to feel goes hand-in-hand with the speech patterns of yesteryear. There's also a lot of terminology that people think someone from the Victorian era would have used, but it actually ends up sounding wooden and scripted. Depending on the time period, many people actually spoke similarly to how we speak today. Minus our modern-day slang and terminology, of course.

- Be aware of the region your character hails from. British English is different from American English which is different from Australian English. New English speakers may have a different pattern to their speech because they're used to their native language (different pattern as in they place words differently; I'm not referring to accent). If you have a character from an area you're not familiar with, brush up on the local slang and phrasing, but don't go crazy. Nothing's worse than an (unintentionally) overblown caricature. 'Allo, Govnah!

- Don't use dialogue to convey information a character already knows. You see this tip everywhere. Character dialogue isn't intended to be a tool to talk to the reader, it's meant to talk to other characters. So avoid stuff like, "You know that last time we were here Old Man Rutherford chased us off with a shotgun" or "It's Monday, which means we have Debate Team after school."

- Leave out the boring stuff. Easier said than done. What's boring? Lots of "um" and "like, totally" and general filler. Meaningless side-conversations that don't serve the story. Your dialogue should have a purpose, whether it's to establish personality, give information, or enhance the plot. Don't ramble unless you have a point.

- No drastic changes. Sometimes we change the way we speak when we're in different environments or around different people. You don't swear around small children, you adopt a more professional tone for work, etc. Characters can reflect this. However, there shouldn't be an unexplainable change in your character's "voice." They shouldn't be completely swear-free for the first half of the book and then start swearing like a sailor halfway through unless there's a good reason.

- If you're writing kids, let them sound like kids. I don't mean turning them into slang machines. Like, totally, for sure. One: because you will probably mess up the slang and it will be embarrassing. Two: it is goofy-boring filler. What I mean is to keep in mind that they're not adults. That doesn't mean you have to dumb down their speech, but they shouldn't be speaking like a 26-year old graduate student. No matter how smart and precocious they are.

- Watch out for long blocks of speech. It's not often that someone resorts to a monologue unless they're giving a speech or lecture. Even someone telling a story is often interrupted by gasps or laughs or questions. If your character is going to launch into long, uninterrupted block of dialogue, it better be good.

- Think about what you're writing. Would a real person actually say this? I was recently watching Bleach and there were a few lines so awkwardly scripted that I laughed. Something like, "I'm going to be the one that kicks your ass now." Granted, Bleach is anime and there were probably some translation issues (I watch the dubbed version), but man, how awkward. Seriously, read your dialogue aloud. Is it something you could really, honestly hear a person saying? If you're stumbling over it or it rolls off the tongue weird, work on it.

- Practice. Ultimately there's no easy solution to writing good dialogue. You just have to practice. Listen to real conversations. Try and distill dialogue down to something bigger than life, but still believable. Make it count.

What do you think makes good dialogue, reader pals?

the problematic nature of niceness.

| Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Today's Tune: Dammit (cover)

First: one of my flash fiction pieces should be posted over at Glass Cases today! Yay! You should check it out. If you've been following me for a while, you've probably seen it before (it's the one with the hot Italian boy and the kissing), but maybe it's worth another read amiright. You should also follow that blog because it's run by wonderful literary agent Sarah LaPolla and is full of great advice and fun snippets from up-and-coming authors.

Next: let's talk about niceness and the YA community. FUN.

The kidlit community as a whole is one of the warmest, kindest, most helpful and welcoming groups of people that I've ever come across in my life. There's a genuine desire to support each other and be one another's sounding boards. We want to lift each other up and plug each other's books and talk about how awesome so-and-so is. And it's a wonderful thing.

It's also occasionally a little naive and possibly damaging to our credibility and/or ability to take legitimate criticism.

DO NOT GET ME WRONG, I'm definitely not saying the kindness and warmth of the YA community is a bad thing. Not at all. I'd much rather rub elbows with cool, sweet people than wanky jerks who belittle my work so theirs can pull ahead. However, there's no doubt that YA writers as a whole tend to be a little, er, soft on each other. It's intended as encouragement and support, but sometimes it comes off as treating someone with the "kid gloves."

I've often wondered if this is one of the core reasons why there always seems to be a minor explosion every time a YA author gets blasted in reviews. Granted this occasionally happens with general fiction as well, but it seems particularly pervasive in the YA community. A lot of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" and "she worked SO HARD on this, how DARE you criticize her" and "you really can't talk until YOU'VE written and published a book" seems to get bandied about, both from fellow writers and from the audience (teens) themselves. Is this a factor of the supportive/nice environment? Is it because YA authors generally tend to be a little more internet savvy and thus have larger internet followings? Or is it because the teenage audience is quicker to bristle at perceived slights on books they enjoyed?

Maybe it's all of the above. Perhaps more than in many other genres, YA authors consider themselves friends rather than colleagues. We want to stick up for our friends and protect them from the bad things that might make them cry. That's what friends do.

But sometimes I worry that this attitude is a little damaging to our genre. If we can't take the slightest bit of criticism, no matter how legitimate, without our friends rushing to our defense, does that make us look less credible in the eyes of other authors? Kidlit already gets kind of a bum rap from literary authors -- the ones who are supposedly writing the classics of our age. It's taken less seriously, treated as something simplistic that's meant to fill children's heads with candy fluff until they're old enough to read "real" books. So how does it look when we cringe away and yell, "Why can't you just be nice? Why do you have to tell everyone why you didn't like my book?"

Yes, criticism can hurt. Bigtime. Especially when it's snarky or completely unfair (I mean, really, the person who drops a star off their rating because you used like two adverbs in the entire book and they're anti-adverb? Weak.). But we can learn to roll with the punches. We write legitimate fiction, right? Our work has a place beside any other novel, right? Then we can take our licks. We can become better, stronger.

Another worry I have is that the inability to take criticism often stems from not getting serious criticism before publication. Maybe we need to find more people who DON'T lavish us with praise and tell us how cool we are. Maybe we need to find that person who will look at our manuscript and go, "Dude, no, you can't do this. You will get snarked at so badly. Your main character is being a whiny brat. Fix her."

Hopefully we can all find someone like my amazing critique partner Kim, who is both my cheerleader and the person who's willing to say, "I have no idea what you mean here" or "WTF is going on" or "this character would totally not act this way."

The YA community is amazing, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's so hard to find kind, helpful people. We can continue getting stronger and better so long as we don't mistake "niceness" for "saying what you need to hear to make you feel better." Sometimes we need the tough love, too.

Who better to give tough love than the people who'll give you a hug afterward, right?

using named characters well.

| Monday, May 16, 2011
Today's Tune: Boys of Summer (cover)

When I'm reading a novel, sometimes I'll come across a large number of named characters in a short time and become confused trying to figure out who's who. Usually the author smooths this out and I'm up to speed by the end of the book. Sometimes, however, I'll reach the end of the story and still find myself struggling to remember a certain character's name or why they were important.

This is problematic.

Named characters should be individually recognizable and play a specific role in the story. Even in an epic series like Harry Potter, which has over 200 named characters, I could still tell you what role each named character played. Why is that? It's because J.K. Rowling is incredibly skilled at characterization. She has the ability to quickly infuse each one of her characters with a unique personality and/or memorable trait. She named several characters in her first book that she ended up reusing in her later books rather than letting them go by the wayside never to be heard from again (such as Blaise Zabini, who was mentioned in the first book and not again until the sixth). Nearly every character had a place, a purpose, a history. Even some of the filler characters had elaborate backstories, though they were never used in the books.

How can we make sure our named characters are equally memorable and don't leave our audience going, "Uh, you know, the one that gave them the map. Whatshisface?"

- Don't overload on named characters. Do you really need that many characters? Does each one have both a fully realized personality and a legitimate role to play in the narrative? As Donald Maass recommends in his Writing the Breakout Novel exercises, write out a complete list of your named characters, along with the role they play in the story. Look closely. Which characters perform similar roles? Which are performing almost the same role? Combine them. Yes, seriously. Nix one character and merge it with another. Don't think about how much you love each of your babies, think about whether or not they're taking up unnecessary room in your reader's head. Only keep the characters that enhance the story.

- Have others read your work and ask them about the storyline and characters. Can they remember who everyone is? Are you hearing from multiple sources that they kept confusing one character for another? Is a particular character not leaving any impact? Anyone telling you so-and-so felt flat? Might be time to slash and/or combine.

- Make sure everyone has a memorable personality or trait that will stick in the reader's mind. This is dependent on how detailed you want to get. Rowling had sprawling family trees and complete backstories for nearly every one of her characters, even those mentioned a mere handful of times. Doing so clearly helped her write fully-realized, complete characters with believable personalities. Short of this, you should explore the background of each of your major and secondary characters, at least enough to flesh out their personalities. Notable quirks and physical traits (candy-floss hair, silver eyes, overlarge glasses, always wears orange) are another way to make a character stick in a reader's mind, but don't use these as a crutch and skimp out on real personality.

- If at all possible, make your characters multi-functional. In the first act of your book, you have a teacher, Mr. Smith, give your protagonist a good bit of advice. Then he disappears from the narrative and your readers promptly forget all about him. What if you give him a dual role? Instead of introducing another mentor character later in the novel, what if you made Mr. Smith fill that slot? Reuse him! If a character can fill multiple roles, that's a plus. It both makes the character multidimensional and gives them a more important place in the narrative. Obviously you should only do this when it makes sense (Mr. Smith probably shouldn't be both the teacher AND the teen love interest).

- Not every character needs a name. Sometimes we have one-off characters that really do only serve the function of walking onto the "set" of our novel, performing one action or saying one line, and walking off into the metaphorical sunset. The taxi drivers, pizza guys, acquaintances at school... they don't all need names. You can have them fill their role and move on. That way there are no extra names floating around to potentially confuse readers and make them mistakenly believe a bit character is important.

How do you make sure your characters are both functional and memorable?

YA Common Clichés series: Dystopian

| Friday, May 13, 2011
Today's Tune: Daisy Bell

One of the best bits of advice you will hear as a writer is to read, and to read a lot. Particularly within your genre to familiarize yourself with its tropes, clichés, and what's currently selling/being published. So, I read a lot of young adult literature, which is kind of its own beast. It's a specific genre, but within that genre are any number of subjects. I'm hoping to break them down and highlight some of the more common clichés (read: stuff that is so overdone it's boring and predictable) within each area.

The goal with this series is not to ridicule, but to inform and inspire a break from the usual in today's literature. Also, clichés do not automatically make a manuscript or novel junk. If used sparingly and mindfully, they can work.

Subject #2: YA Dystopian

Dystopian novels are “the big thing” in YA right now. We’ve just come down from our Hunger Games high and are finding more and more dystopias lining the shelves every day. There’s a timeless appeal to this genre, based mostly on societal commentary and the future of humanity steeped in layers of human struggle and triumph. However, as quickly as they’re being churned out these days, there are bound to be some clichés to watch out for.

The “dystopian” setting isn’t really dystopian at all. When writing a dystopia, it’s important to understand what a dystopia is and where the idea comes from. It’s a foil to a utopia, or ideal society. A dystopia, or anti-utopia, is a broken, dysfunctional society. It can be obvious, as in the starved, war-torn districts of The Hunger Games, or it can be couched in a false-utopia; a society that seems perfect on the outside but is oppressive and flawed beneath the surface, as in Ally Condie’s Matched. The key to dystopia is some element of larger societal commentary. It’s not simply a ruined futuristic world. Some people miss this key point while writing what they believe to be a dystopia. What is your dystopian world trying to say?

Totalitarian government. ‘Nuff said. You will find the presence of an oppressive, totalitarian government in nearly every dystopia you come across. This naturally makes sense, as a dystopia portrays a society we would fear, and totalitarianism is certainly something most people fear. This makes it a common trope, but not necessarily cliché. It becomes cliché when the government is a one-dimensional bad guy that just likes to torture its people. As with any villain, it should be more nuanced than that – the government leaders should genuinely believe they are doing what’s best for their people. They may believe it in an incredibly twisted way, but they believe it. There’s also the option of going against the grain and creating a dystopia based on something other than an evil, overreaching government. There are other social avenues to explore.

The protagonist is the leader of a revolution. Again, this is a trope that makes sense for the genre. Naturally things need to change, and big change often means revolution. However, writers risk stretching believability a little thin if the teenage protagonist is “overpowered.” A brilliant speaker, a skilled fighter, an intelligent tactician, and enough charisma to lead a revolution as a teen? Unlikely. Katniss of The Hunger Games was certainly a strong fighter and reasonably clever, but she was crap at public speaking and charisma. This kept her character believable, even as she became the figurehead of the rebellion. The protagonist can also work on a smaller scale – a powerful personal victory rather than bringing down an entire regime.

The society is focused around One (and only one) Very Important Point. War is bad. Choice is good. Love conquers all. Women aren’t just baby machines. Guns kill people. Drugs will destroy society. Kicking puppies is mean. Whatever. Sometimes dystopian stories get a very narrow focus and end up putting too much emphasis on hammering the author’s pet issue home. Be careful not to make the “message” too blatant or one-dimensional. It’s a novel, not an after school special.

Free will is bad, m’kay. Our leaders will make your decisions for you. Another very common dystopian trope: the leaders of the society make all decisions pertaining to a person’s career, living situation, life partner, how many children they’ll have, etc. Usually pitched in a “we know what’s best for you because we know everything” sort of way. Everyone is compliant except for the protagonist and a small band of friends. Bucking the system ensues. It’s an overdone trope, but it can still be played with to try and find a new angle.

MIND CONTROL DUN DUN DUN. Citizens are kept compliant via hypnosis, drugs, brainwashing, or some other method that renders them docile or makes them forget what they’ve seen. Very common. Treat with care and see if you can think of a new way to spin it (what’s up, Tracker Jacker venom?).

Love doesn’t exist anymore. When you’re living in a society where emotions are quashed and mates are paired via lottery/selection/assignment/whatever, there’s no more romance. Enter the protagonist, full of passion and brimming with love. Now enter Love Interest, who either sparks these feelings or responds to the protagonist’s Overpowering Love. They make out in the metaphorical bushes and are torn away from each other only to fight back FOR LOVE. Common in dystopian romance.

History is dangerous! Anything from the past is strictly controlled or destroyed entirely. There’s something about the past that the government/leaders want to stay hidden because they feel it could be dangerous to them. Alternatively, they think their people are too delicate to handle the information overload and they’re trying to “protect” them.

Genetic manipulation. People or beasts are genetically engineered for practical or nefarious purposes. This can be a method of controlling the public. Or just control in general. Also often used to serve the message that “natural” biology or “children of love” (thanks Gattaca) are better than genetically superior but “soulless” creations.

What other common tropes and clichés have you noticed in YA dystopias?

keep the boring out of your backstory.

| Monday, May 9, 2011
Today's Tune: The Cave

Integrating backstory into a storyline can be a daunting task. It can feel info-dumpy or grind a moving plot to a halt. So what do you do when backstory is essential to your story but you don't want to make your audience feel like you're dragging them through a boring-but-necessary lecture?

Here are a few tactics for incorporating backstory without taking the reader out of the main plot.

- Think beyond dialogue. Dialogue is the easy go-to for backstory -- you have one character tell another character about past events. This can be done well, but it has a tendency to get unwieldy and boring unless it's really riveting stuff. Unfortunately, the delivery doesn't tend to leave much room for tension. If you're sticking with sharing backstory via dialogue, find ways to break it up or make the scene more interesting. Have the characters talk while performing a relating action. Don't let someone blather for large blocks of text without a break. Break up the blocks with action or other character comments. Keep the backstory firmly rooted in the current story.

- Careful with flashbacks. Yes, they can be done well, but more often than not they're just a convenient way to introduce information. If you utilize them, try to find a unique way to do so. Something beyond *poof* convenient memory-sharing time.

- Feed the audience backstory in bite-sized increments. Only give them the information they absolutely need in order to feel grounded at any given time. Don't dump it all in one long rush. Do this at points where it feels natural and organic. Keep dialogue trimmed down and to the point. Avoid explaining something into the ground. You need to reveal enough to avoid confusion, but trust your readers to be able to work out the more obvious points for themselves.

- Involve the protagonist directly in the backstory. Don't literally send them back in time unless that's how you want to roll, but create a way for them to "live" the backstory. An excellent example of this comes from Harry Potter: the Pensieve. A device that stores memories and allows people to literally immerse themselves in and view said memories as if they were there? Brilliant. Harry not only got his backstory, he got to be involved in it.

- Let it come out via action or discovery. They're exploring and come across a diary detailing the sordid history of the family they're staying with. The creepy spaceship has a holographic log of past events to look through. Video surveillance. Tape recording. Webcam. Tear in a painting that reveals a map behind it. A favorite of mine from Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes: the protagonist gets fed one tiny bit of backstory at a time via letters she's not allowed to open until she performs a certain task. The possibilities are endless. It's just important to make sure that whichever discovery/action you choose genuinely makes sense within your plot and isn't a mere coincidence/convenience.

- Somebody heard an urban legend/scary story/old wive's tale that's eerily pertinent to the current situation. Okay, this one can very easily become cliché, but it can also be done well. Things to avoid: cultural appropriation for the sake of mysticism, a story that's too convenient, a story that's so ambiguous it doesn't make sense, half-assing a story for the sake of making it fit into the plot. If you're going to do this, put thought into it and develop it well.

- Make sharing the backstory integral to the plot. Does a detective need to interview someone to get the details of a cold case? Does this information need to come out in order to make the plot move? Make the backstory and its delivery so important, so interesting, and so full of tension that the audience can't help but be glued to the pages waiting to hear about it.

Can you think of other instances of backstory introduction that you felt worked really well? Why?

Kill This Character: Paperdoll Male Love Interest

| Friday, May 6, 2011
Today's Tune: Renegades of Funk

One of the more important ideas to remember in characterization is to avoid cardboard, stereotypical characters. The same old character we’ve seen a hundred times could become someone new and interesting with some artful tweaking. Here I’ll talk about a character that doesn’t work for me, why I wasn’t taken by them, and what would make them more appealing to me. By way of a disclaimer, let me add here that this is only my opinion, of course, and is colored by my own preference. But you should still listen to me because I'm VERY SMART. Onward!

Kill the Paperdoll Male Love Interest!

Who this character is: He's the love interest whose sole purpose is to make goo-goo eyes at the heroine. He's STUNNINGLY good-looking. He's like, the babeliest babe who ever babe'd. He has all kinds of stereotypical "ideal man" traits, like carrying her away from danger and buying her things and writing her poetry and staring deeply into her eyes and telling her he'll never let anything hurt her because SHE IS HIS ROSE AND HE IS HER THORNS or whatever. He doesn't even LOOK at girls until the protagonist comes onto the scene. As soon as he lays eyes on her, she's the center of his world. Nothing is as important to him as being with her and making sure she's safe.

Basically, he's like a life-sized cutout of various male actors and models cobbled together and pasted to a wall so the author/reader can project all kinds of hyperbolic "dream man" traits onto him. They can dance around him and swoon and make kissy faces. He has no functionality or personality beyond being the "perfect" mate to the female protagonist.

Why this character doesn't work for me: I should hope it's obvious, but I'll elaborate anyway. This character is practically a literal cardboard cutout. He might as well be a sexy, sexy robot. He is flat, predictable, and has had his humanity stripped away from him in order to fuel the vehicle of wish fulfillment. I know, I know, sometimes wish fulfillment is what people want. But that doesn't make him a strong character.

In YA, this character can take many forms: dangerous bad boys who are sexy and wild, sweet boys next door, roguishly handsome exchange students, beautiful and wounded artists... whatever. No matter what form they take, they have one thing in common: they don't act like teenage boys. They act like a fantasy, which is what they are. They exist to be sexy and romantic and tell the reader the protagonist how pretty she is.

How to make this character work: Let the guy be a guy, man. And I don't mean that in a stereotypical gender roles kind of way. Don't take this as me saying he has to fart and look at swimsuit calendars and play punching games. But let him be a person with his own interests that aren't intended to make him more romantically appealing. Just like we like to see our heroines be independent and strong, we need that from the guys, too. He should have a life beyond the heroine. Although that life shouldn't involve him getting to do everything while she sits around and pines, but that's another post. Also, sometimes it's okay for him to look like a regular guy instead of having a face/body cut from the marble of the gods or whatever.

Let him make mistakes. And by mistakes, I do not mean, "I'M SO SORRY I LEFT AND/OR BROKE UP WITH YOU, I'LL NEVER DO IT AGAIN." I mean let him forget her birthday. Let him be imperfect and human and multi-dimensional. Let things happen in the story that don't involve their relationship. Your characters should ALL have more than one motivation. Make sure you figure out what that motivation is.

There's also the option of writing a non-heteronormative story, JUST SAYING.

book review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

| Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Today's Tune: High School Highway

I don't tend to do many book reviews, but when I read something that's really well-crafted and that I feel is a great example of what YA is capable of, I like to gush about it.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is, for better or worse, a wonderful addition to the Young Adult section. It's not perfect, (few books ever are), but it does many things, and it does them well.

Sam, the protagonist of this novel, dies in the opening. She then spends seven days reliving her last day over and over, and the character growth she experiences in one week is pretty astounding. Sam is a popular girl -- one of the four senior girls who rule her school -- and she's, as another character puts it, a bitch. She's not a nice person.

But she is human. Believable. Real. And in just one week, she goes from being a pretty unsympathetic, Bratty McBrattyBrat character to one the reader can really root for and get behind. This is a difficult balance to maintain, especially as a new author, but Oliver does it incredibly well. Read and take notes on how to make a flawed anti-hero of a character into someone your audience can get behind.

The story itself is balanced very well. It's hard to write the same day over and over again without it becoming repetitive and boring, but Oliver (mostly) manages. There are a few scenes that drag a little, but overall the pacing of this story is superb. The blend of contemporary with a hint of the paranormal is well-balanced enough to make this interesting and different than your typical Mean Girl Learns the Error of Her Ways story, but not edging into This is Too Weird territory.

Other characters are handled with the same care as the protagonist. I'm having trouble thinking of a character that came off as flat to me. Each character I came across had a background, a personality, a motivation. I felt a little bit overloaded with names at the beginning, but I eventually hit the stride of the novel and could remember who was who. Difficult themes like death and suicide are treated well here. I especially appreciated the treatment of suicide, which didn't allow for an easy solution. There is no "quick fix" for a suicidal person. You can't just tell them not to do it or change one thing about their day to make everything okay. It's so much deeper than that.

Overall, Before I Fall is an example of a good teenage voice, sharp prose, great pacing, believable character growth, and just the right touch of speculative and dark. I recommend it as an excellent example of YA genre fiction. If you are the sort of person who worries about content, this book contains swearing, sexuality, and drug/alcohol references and use. And, of course, teenage death.

self-editing spotlight: looking around.

| Monday, May 2, 2011
Today's Tune: Dark Halls

Self-Editing Spotlight: Look Up, Down, All Around

Now that I'm rapidly approaching the nitty-gritty editing stages of my current draft, I've started really noticing my bad habits, even as I'm writing them. Once such bad habit is having my POV character (and other characters) do a lot of "looking." As in, the actual action of "looking" at something.

I looked behind me. I looked at my mother, who was reading. I heard a sound and looked around to find B sneaking up on me. I looked out to find the lake choppy and gray. He looked back at me with tired eyes. She looked for signs of entry. I looked at the shelves on my wall and tried to find the book I wanted.

During drafting, this sort of phrasing serves a (sort-of) purpose for me. It allows me to orient myself and let myself know what's around my character. It's a little thing, but it's a weak, unnecessary action that can easily get repetitive if left unchecked. When I go back through to edit after being in drafting mode (also known as "just write just write just write and get it out" mode), I really notice how often I fall back on this particular action.

While it seems harmless enough, it's actually bogging down my writing and making it boring. It's also stating the obvious. If I'm following the Point-Of-View character as a reader, then I can safely infer that anything they're telling me about is something they can see or otherwise sense. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to tell me about it, right? So it's pretty redundant for the reader to be told the character can see it because they're looking at it.

When you're editing your work, if you come across any instances where a character is "looking" at someone or something, ask yourself if the phrasing is necessary. If at all possible, cut the use of the phrase "I/she/he looked" and revise to create a stronger action.

For example, instead of, "I looked at the shelves on my wall and tried to find the book I wanted," which is over-wordy and weak, I could revise to, "My fingers skimmed the shelves until I found the book I wanted" or something similar. Something that makes my character more active, rather than passive. You don't have to cut every instance -- sometimes the phrasing is necessary -- but most of the time, it can go.

Aaaaaand that's your self-editing tip for the day :) What words/phrases/oopsies do you find sneak in to your drafts?


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