don't forget you're more than a writer.

| Friday, July 29, 2011
Today's Tune: Untouchable Face

I've been taking it easy this week. Relaxing, allowing myself to do all the goof-off things that I feel like I never have time for, spending time with friends and family. This little bit of distance has given me breathing room and a little perspective.

It's really easy to get lost in the "Serious Writer" mentality. It's a weird balancing act, because on one side, you have the people who go, "Oh wow, you're a writer! That's so amazing! I don't have that kind of discipline." On the other side, you have the people who are like, "Um, that's nice, but what do you do REALLY?" One side pumps you up, the other makes you feel like you have to defend your legitimacy.

Which can occasionally lead to us getting too insular. We can crawl inside our Internet bubble and find hundreds (thousands, even) of like-minded writers or writer wannabes or published authors. These are our *people*. They *get it*. The blinders go on, and we're surrounded by support and people who will talk about writing with us until we're blue in the face.

When we self-identify as "serious writers," sometimes I feel like we lose ourselves. Writing is our hobby, or our passion, or our profession, or all three. But it isn't all of who we are. None of us can be boiled down to any one thing. If we can be, we're a pretty one-dimensional and, dare I say, boring person. If we're not careful, it can become an obsession. We turn into that person that only ever talks about their work, their journey, their experiences.

This is part of what I love about the Internet -- it encourages sharing and community. However, it's also a conduit for people who like to talk about themselves. On the Internet, everyone gets a voice. Because everyone gets a voice, everyone usually feels like they deserve to be listened to. That's okay. It's a very human desire. The problem comes in when we forget that everyone around us shares this desire, too. We can't stand alone and talk about only ourselves and expect people to care. Well. Some people can, but only if they're incredibly interesting and also reasonably entertaining.

I'm totes rambling. MY APOLOGIES.

What I'm trying to say is that we can get a little one-note. We feel like, in order to prove how *serious* we are, we have to talk shop all the time. Every once in a while, it's a good idea to step back and be all of the non-writer parts of ourselves. So much of our little corner of the Web is dedicated to this fevered obsession with proving we're something different, something special. Our work will scale the odds. We'll get the recognition, the publishing deal, the popularity.

And sometimes we just need to chill, I guess. If it's going to happen, it will. In the meantime, we should enjoy the fact that we are writers, and we are more than writers.

See, this post? This is why I usually plan my posts ahead of time. When I don't, RAMBLES HAPPEN.

What does "in media res" really mean?

| Friday, July 22, 2011
Today's Tune: Radio Bye Bye

First things first: hello, new followers! I'm very excited to see you! Thanks for following :D

Next: today's topic is a little spiel on a very common writing term, and what it really means. Onward!

In Media Res

If you've studied writing for any length of time at all, you've probably heard the term "in media res." You're probably also aware of its translation ("into the middle of things") and what it refers to (beginning a scene in the thick of already-occurring action). You know that it's one of the oldest tropes in written history, and that it's preferred by many as a novel opener.

But what does "in media res" really mean?

Oftentimes it seems this technique is employed very narrowly. We hear "start with an action scene" and assume that means to start with a battle. A gunfight. A car chase. Something big and explosive and exciting. The word "action" puts us immediately in mind of action films. Unfortunately, such scenes don't always work. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Open with a plane crash, and readers are going to expect certain things from your story. If they don't get those things, they're going to be confused and annoyed.

Beginning "in the middle of things" does not necessarily have to mean a big, bloody, explosive action sequence. It only means to start later in a scene, after certain things have already occurred. A "media res" beginning can be quiet and nuanced. An argument between lovers. An in-progress funeral. A student stressing out in the middle of an exam.

This type of beginning must also be appropriately balanced in order to work. Starting things in the middle of a scene always carries the risk of leaving readers confused or wondering why they should care about the POV character, since they don't know anything about him/her yet. If you're mindful of your language and the groundwork you lay, a "media res" opening can be incredibly powerful. It can contain a great hook and plenty of tension to propel the reader forward while also planting the seed of future plot developments and dropping hints of character.

"In media res" is a classic technique, and it's more than a one trick pony. Let your mind branch out. Play with language and characterization. Have fun with it!

YA Common Clichés series: YA Romance

| Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Today's Tune: Love Song

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 #4: YA Romance

This series may overlap my paranormal romance series a bit (since both contain, you know, romance), but for this series I'll be focusing on contemporary romance. That is, romance that takes place in the real world, minus the paranormal elements. One requirement I wanted to touch on: for a novel to be considered a romance, it must have a "happy" ending. The couple must end up together. Otherwise, it may be a novel with romantic elements, but it's not generally considered a Romance with a capital "R." Just so you know.

Romances are primarily geared toward a female audience. This is just a fact of the trade. Women read the most romances. Women also read the most YA. This is not a secret. Therefore, most romances are told from a female perspective. If they are told from the male perspective, it is heavily influenced by the female readership. That is, the male protagonist's voice is often pitched in a way that will appeal to women. He's wired for wooing, not for realism. This is an understandable cliché -- after all, the audience must be taken into account. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to write a "male" romance, or to try to create a realistic male romantic interest. Which brings us to...

The male lead is Mr. Perfect McPerfectson. It's like the guy was engineered in a lab for optimal female seduction and romance. He's over-the-top and unrealistic. I do not mean to imply that teenage boys cannot be sensitive or romantic, because that is far from the truth. However, a common pitfall is to put too much effort into making sure the romantic interest is SUPER hot, SUPER sexy, SUPER sensitive, SUPER intelligent, SUPER romantic, and SUPER *insert ideal quality here*. It leaves the male lead feeling like a cardboard cutout. It's more well-rounded to ensure that he has some flaws.

Alternatively, the male lead is the Baddest Boy Who Ever Bad'd. We know this guy. He's an asshole. An un-subjective, complete, utter asshole. He's a jerk to our female lead, he's full of himself, he's insulting, he's crude, he's mean. But somehow, mysteriously, our female lead finds him incredibly attractive. Even when he tells her that her friends are stupid and that she should totally be into him because he's, like, so amazing, she eats up every word. This isn't your typical tortured soul with a heart of gold, which is actually one of my very favorite tropes, not gonna lie. He's more jerkass than white knight in disguise. Beware of this guy.

The couples are cisgender and/or heteronormative. Duh, right? The shelves are lined with male-female romances. Romances in which the girl acts feminine and the boy acts masculine. In which homosexual relationships aren't highlighted. This is slowly changing, but the fact still remains -- the bulk of romances come in pre-packaged "normal" gender roles. I'm not denouncing heterosexual romances, because that would be silly. Still, that doesn't mean we can't branch out. Romances depicting alternative sexualities are valid and necessary. If not homosexual/bisexual/pansexual relationships, than differentiated gender roles. Maybe the female takes a more stereotypically masculine role, or vice-versa.

In-text comparisons to classic romances abound. Your couple is on par with Romeo and Juliet. No, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. No, Catherine and Heathcliff. Helen of Troy and Paris. Their love is so epic, so star-crossed, so powerful, that it can be compared to these timeless classics. Look out... danger ahead. It's always problematic to allude to a tried-and-true classic in your contemporary romance. First, it immediately sets you up for an unfair amount of scrutiny. Second, your story better be something incredible to live up to the comparison. It's a recipe for extreme criticism. Reimaginings of classic tales aside, it's better to let your characters' romance speak for itself without the troublesome comparisons.

Love at first sight. We all know this one. In the metaphorical three seconds since they met one another, they're in love. They've had maybe one or two brief conversations, but they can't stop thinking about each other. The pull is electric, immediate, and powerful. Unfortunately, it's also usually unbelievable. There's no doubt that attraction at first sight happens. Chemical and physical attraction is a powerful thing. Still, it may be prudent to allow your romantic leads to get to know one another before the confessions of love set in.

Kissing and making goo-goo eyes come before all else. What's this about friends, family, and prior obligations? Don't people know that making out with the romantic interest is so much more important? No, it isn't. Even in a romance, the characters still have lives beyond their significant other. Allow them some space to be themselves, not just half of a couple.

The Love Triangle. Yeah, I went there. And yeah, everyone does this. It's an easy way to create conflict. Unfortunately, it rarely works. Mainly because it's almost always obvious from the start who the protagonist will end up with. It can be done successfully, but as with anything in fiction, must be executed well.

The Bitchy Competition. She's mean, she's vapid, and she has her eyes on the female lead's boy. Female degradation and competitiveness over male attention ensues. This is somewhat realistic, certainly, but that doesn't mean it's not demeaning. It's okay for the "other woman" to be painted as another whole person, rather than a one-dimensional, jerkwad antagonist.

What other clichés have you come across in YA romances?


a status update: musing on revisions

| Monday, July 18, 2011
Today's Tune: That Home

I'm waist deep in edits right now. Which is very cool and exciting for me! I'm finding I enjoy revising a lot more than drafting. It seems once I get the story out and into a form I reasonably like, I feel a lot more stable and motivated to make it shiny and fix all the bugs. It's a great feeling.

Surprising no one, I'm also finding the drafting and editing process to be very personal. Over the years, I've read all sorts of tips for writing and revising. In the end, none of it mattered. The only thing that matters is what works for me. It's kind of cool to do something where you always feel like you're learning something new about yourself while doing it.

Critique partners are also proving to be an interesting experience. I consider myself a pretty savvy reader/writer, and even so, it's still amazing what you miss in your own work. BLIND SPOTS, I HAVE THEM. I'm incredibly glad to have found some CPs who really know their stuff, and who aren't afraid to tell me when something isn't working or could be stronger.

I feel like The Tick-Tock Hearts is finally getting there. Not quite yet, but soon. Very soon. It fills me with a weird combination of excitement and panic.

How's everyone else doing? What writing/revising techniques have you found work best for you?

What to do about reluctant readers?

| Friday, July 15, 2011
Today's Tune: My Favorite Accident

I've posted about this site before, but it's still awesome, so I thought I'd post about it again since my topic today kind of ties in. If you have a reluctant boy reader -- or really, just a reluctant reader in general -- you should check out Guys Read. It has some wonderful suggestions and a lot of great advice for reluctant readers.

Which brings me to today's topic: what do we do about reluctant readers? Not just boys, but any reluctant readers? As someone who writes for young people, it's kind of a big deal to me that young people are reading. Many are, but there are others out there who WOULD read, they just can't seem to find the books that are right for them.

When I saw Jon Scieszka at the SCBWI summer conference last year, he introduced me to Guys Read, along with a lot of great insight into why some kids are reluctant readers. When we're young and beginning to form our lasting relationships with books and the written word, we sometimes get mixed signals. Those mixed signals often take the form of, "Some books count as reading. Others do not." The books that "count" are often forced on kids (classics, non-fiction, historical novels) while the "others" are discouraged or even taken away (magazines, comic books, certain genre novels).

This forcing of "good" literature and discouragement of "bad" literature can set up a block for some kids. They don't want to read stuff they find boring or painful. They want to read about things they like; things that interest them. I can totally relate to this. I love many of the classics, but I will forever loathe The Scarlet Letter because it was forced on me even though I found it painfully dry. Might I have a different opinion of the work had I picked it up of my own free will as an English major in college? I guess I'll never know.

We place value judgements on where kids get their words. Graphic novels and magazines are considered fluff. Filler. Not real. And that's not fair or right. I mean, I don't recommend letting 8-year old children read Maxim or Cosmopolitan, because there's no way that can end well for anyone. But if a child is genuinely enthralled by a story in a comic book, or an article in a car magazine? How is that a bad thing?

Not every child has the same reading interests or capabilities, and that's okay. Kids with dyslexia or other learning disorders may feel less pressure when faced with a story in a different medium, like a graphic novel. Some kids may be bored to death by The Hobbit and Hamlet, but get totally into the Percy Jackson series. It's not about forcing the literature we think is the highest quality or the most educational. It's about establishing an early and positive relationship with the written word in whatever form it best speaks to each individual child.

Reluctant readers are reluctant because something about literature has turned them off. They've had experiences with it where they found it too boring, too difficult, too forced, too whatever. Time and time again we hear stories of young people who rarely read anything at all until someone convinces them to try this book or that series, and then they're hooked. After that, they'll gobble up anything along those lines because they've finally found the story that speaks to them and they want more. It's a gateway to similar books and, hopefully, a more positive relationship with literature as a whole.

Don't belittle a child's reading choices because they don't align with what you feel is "appropriate" literature (appropriate in the sense of quality, not necessarily of content). If a child is reading at all, explore what it is about their selected reading material that appeals to them. Do they like dragons? Fairies? Cars? Explosions? Superheroes? If they're not reading, ask them about their usual interests and help them find suitable literary alternatives, in whatever form that content may come.

We can help kids find the right stories. It's just a matter of listening to what they want from their literature.

IT'S A TRAP: Opening With a Nightmare

| Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Today's Tune: Wake Up

Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.

But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.

IT'S A TRAP! - Opening With a Nightmare

When I'm critiquing work, time and time again I come across opening chapters that start out in media res with lots of high tension. But then, around the end of the chapter, all of that tension is completely lost. Why?

Because the character wakes up. It was all a nightmare.

This beginning rarely, if ever, works for me. It leaves me feeling cheated and annoyed. What about all that great tension and action? Now I'm watching a character get out of bed? UGH.

The reason this trope rarely works is because it immediately evaporates any and all danger. Yeah, sure, the monster was good and scary when we thought it was REAL, but now we realize the character was in no real danger the whole time. Sure, you could pull a Freddy Krueger or Dream Spying later, but if your character wakes up unharmed, you risk a big ol' eye roll from your audience.

In as much as you can notice a pattern when reading/critiquing, I've noticed this technique is usually a way to inject some excitement before things slow way down for some "boring" set-up chapters. It's similar to the technique of creating a prologue from an action-packed scene that happens much later in the manuscript (often at the climax) in order to have something to hook the reader in before feeding them the slower stuff.

Also: this is one of those dreaded CLICHÉ things.

How To Avoid This Trap

Generally speaking, it's usually best to figure out how to inject more tension and action into the "slow" chapters, rather than relying on a scary dream to grab the reader and then leave them hanging. Better yet, don't rely on a scary dream at all. Start with actual action.

It's not impossible to successfully open a book with a dream sequence or nightmare, but you have to play it carefully. Make sure the character doesn't get off scott-free. Also, don't attempt to trick your audience. Try letting them know, up front, that we're in dream territory (Lisa McMann does this in the opening of Wake). Don't try to pull a fast one and get them all wound up only to go, "Haha, just kidding, it was only a dream!" Readers don't like being jerked around.

This technique is sometimes, sometimes, used more effectively later in the manuscript. Once the audience is aware of the basic rules for the world you've built, they'll likely be able to tell that the character's dreaming and will feel less jarred when they wake up. Of course, you could always just call a dream a dream instead of trying to be sneaky.

Have you seen this technique used successfully, readers? Where?

book review: Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

| Monday, July 11, 2011
Today's Tune: Hurt (cover)

I'm going to try and sneak back into blogging on my regular schedule. Today, I'm starting with a book review. I found this book incredibly cutting. I wouldn't say I "enjoyed" it, because it's not the kind of book you enjoy. It's the kind of book that gets under your skin and stays there. Here's my review. Warning: graphic content and child abuse. Just so you know.

How does one appropriately rate this book? It took me a while to decide. Ultimately, I decided to rate it (5 stars) on its quality of prose and how well it succeeded in what it set out to do.

Living Dead Girl is a visceral, brutal, emotionally difficult novel. If Scott set out to portray the emotional and mental destruction of a young victim of severe abuse, she succeeded. The prose is tightly written and sparse, and Scott incorporates a method of hurrying the internal monologue and blurring words/phrases to signify the narrator's anxiety and terror. Our protagonist, "Alice," is uneducated and severely abused, and this comes across appropriately in her vocabulary. She doesn't speak like a child, but she speaks like someone who has learned most of what they know via television. In many ways, her mindset is still very childlike (symbolic of the fact that her abuser purposely keeps her in a childlike state), but she's clearly a teenager.

I have a personal distaste for novels that use sexual violence as a superficial method of raising stakes or making their protagonists sympathetic, but I didn't find that to be the case here. Alice's mentality reflects her abuse, and although there is no shying away from abusive content in this novel, I never felt Scott was being exploitative or trying to titillate/entertain. This is a raw portrayal of the hopelessness and destructiveness of this level of abuse. The ending did leave me feeling gutted and angry, but even so, I couldn't fault Scott for going in that direction.

I'm wary about recommending this book across the board. I thought Scott's storytelling and prose were very well done, but there's no getting around the fact that this is a book portraying pedophilia, rape, and severe emotional/physical abuse. The physical abuse is described. There are no blow-by-blow accounts of the sexual abuse (no detailed description of what's occurring), but the implications leave no doubt in the reader's mind as to what Alice is being forced to do. Readers should use their own discretion when deciding whether or not this book is for them.

guest post over at Wicked & Tricksy!

| Friday, July 8, 2011
Today's Tune: Broken Arrow


Actually, it's just a post to let you know I'm a guest blogger over at Wicked and Tricksy today! It's a post about world building in speculative YA fiction and a few tips on building a great setting even if you're on a tight deadline. Which many YA authors are!

As for a status update, I am working on the last 1.5 chapters of my current draft. The end is in sight. VERY EXCITING. After that, I'll be working with some new critique partners and beta readers to polish the sucker up, and then QUERYING TIME. Which terrifies me. But I'll deal with that hurdle when it comes.

How are you, writer friends? I hope to be back to regularly blogging and reading all your lovely posts soon!


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