Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Favorite Things Round-up

I've been reflecting on the past year. It's been stagnant in some ways - I've continued writing (a lot), but have no significant milestones to mention - but eventful in others, e.g., Derek and I bought our first home and my little sister got engaged! I suppose I should call 2013 The Year of the House because renovations have dominated our time and attention. In between home improvements, there were several new things I enjoyed this year, and I thought I'd share them with you. (Note: Nobody is paying me to sell things here. It's all strictly my opinion.)

1. Birch Aquarium
I had the pleasure of visiting this San Diego aquarium twice over the past year, and each trip was fascinating. I love how the aquarium focuses almost exclusively on sealife native to the California coast. Plus, the view of the ocean from their tidepool deck is unbelievable. 
(Image is my own.)

2. Arrested Development Season 4
The latest season of this show is weightier than the original three, but it's got the entire original cast with many beloved former guest stars ("It's a Bob Loblaw law bomb!"), and after a few viewings, it's feeling like it's part of the canon. It's only available on Netflix right now, but I'm hoping there will be a DVD set soon.

3. BlackMilk Leggings
Crazy designs, crazy fun, crazy comfortable. It took me a while to figure out how to wear these weirdos (I like tall-sized tamis from Old Navy and tunics from Athleta), but once I did, I get compliments all the time. The only downside: Hand-wash only. Here's a cool video of an artist designing for the company.

4. Donner Purse
I've been wanting a good travel purse since the one I use day-to-day is open-top. I found this OverLand Equipment one on Pinterest (of course) and got it on sale (Shh!) on Amazon. It feels super secure for flying and walking around in the city. I've even started to use it for hiking in lieu of a backpack.

5. Tieks
These ballet flats are a splurge, which is why I have only one pair and they're basic black. But oh, how I love them! I wear them with everything from dresses to yoga pants. And if you look at the shoe on the right in the picture, you'll see that they fold up (!) which makes them perfect for travel or for going out when you have to do some walking to get there but want to wear heels at your destination.

6. Socially Progressive Toys!
I first heard about GoldieBlox when I saw this video on YouTube. I am beyond tired of the gender segregation of books and toys. There's more variety of interests within genders than there is between them. I haven't personally used GoldieBlox since I'm an adult and they're sold out anyway, but the concept of the company is to make toys that enable girls to think like engineers and play in ways traditional toys don't encourage. Another cool company that makes future-engineer toys is littleBits. Their kits look like fun for adults, too, but they're pricy. (Sidenote: There is some controversy regarding copyright in regards to the song in the video I linked to above. I'm making no comment about that, only about how cool the concept of the company is.)

7. Favorite New Board Game
Derek and I had heard of Ticket to Ride from Wil Wheaton's Tabletop show, and we easily found a copy at our local game store. The employee there recommended the European board as the best, and now that I've played several versions, I agree. There are also iPhone apps for the US and European versions. I play those so I get better at beating Derek at the real-life version. *cackle, cackle*

8. The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Series
I have loved every book in this series by Laini Taylor: the titular first novel, the sequel (Days of Blood and Starlight, which I blogged about here) and most recently and to my absolute delight, the companion novella Night of Cake and Puppets, which is a charming piece of fiction all on its own. I can't wait until April 2014 when the final book in the trilogy comes out. (No, really. I can't wait that long. I'm going to have to figure something out.)

9. Pasadena Parrots
I bet you didn't know there were parrots in Pasadena, huh? I sure didn't, and when we moved into our new house and heard flocks of them squawking as they flew overhead, I didn't know what was happening. These guys are so loud and obnoxious it's hilarious, and they're so out of place that it feels magical whenever I see them, like there was a tear in the fabric of space and some parrots flew through. (You can read about the parrots' theoretical origins here. It's believed they escaped from an aviary, but I like my tear-in-the-fabric-of-time theory better.)
(Image is from Wikipedia)

10. Petunia Picklebottom Grocery Bags
I can honestly say these grocery bags have made my life easier. In LA, plastic bags are being banned everywhere, and if you don't bring your own bags to the store, you have to pay for paper bags. I've gone through a few types of reusable bags and these Petunia ones are my favorite. They're cute and sturdy and they fold up like envelopes until they're as small as my wallet! (Hint: There are usually a few of these in the sale section of Petunia's website.)

There you have it! I'll close with some pictures of Derek and I taken by our dear friend Cynthia for our Christmas card, and I will say Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanza, and New Year! Whatever you celebrate, may your holidays be merry and bright.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Inevitability of Good Plot

Trigger/Spoiler Warning: This post is about plot in YA novels, but it includes a reference to fictional sexual abuse. It also includes SPOILERS about the novel Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor. Read with caution.

My Path to Reading Days of Blood and Starlight
Last night my husband and I went on a long walk. As usual, we started the walk by talking about his work and ended talking about mine, which is to say, we talked about what I've been reading and writing. I told him about Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight, which I finished yesterday afternoon. This book had been tormenting me since I finished its predecessor. Wondering if the sequel would be as good as the first book in the trilogy (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) I perused Goodreads for clues. Reviews were great, yet I kept coming across a single word that gave me pause: brutal. A few days later I was walking past a favorite bookstore and I stopped in to ask if they had Days of Blood and Starlight and to get the booksellers' opinions on it. I was disappointed on the first count, but on the second, I got a response eerily similar to what I'd read on Goodreads:
"The book is incredible, but brutal."
I asked, "Emotionally brutal, or does it describe physically brutal events?"
The answer I got: "Yes."
I spent a few more days debating whether I should read a book with such a frightening universal epithet. In the end, I caved. I was really doomed from the moment I opened Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I loved Karou and Zuzana and Akiva and Issa and all the rest. I missed them, which may sound crazy to non-readers, but it's an all too familiar feeling to booklovers. I missed Harry and Ron and Hermione like crazy when I finished Book VII of that series, and every time I finish one of my own books (there have been three to date) I have missed my characters to an even greater degree, more like mourning than missing. The point is, I missed Karou and the gang, and I decided I would rather endure this vague "brutality" than never read about them again. And to put the nail in the coffin: Vroman's had the book on sale.

The Dreaded Scene
While reading reviews for Days of Blood and Starlight, I had come across a warning similar to the one at the top of this post. The review following the disclaimer described an incident in the book in which the villain attempts to rape the main character, Karou. The review stated that the villain did not succeed, which was pivotal in my decision to read the book. I do not like to read about rape. That  sounds stupid, because what kind of maniac does like to read about rape? What I mean is that if I read about sexual abuse, I will stay up at night thinking about it, then fall asleep only to have nightmares. I am sensitive, to put it lightly. I knew I would be upset by even an attempted rape, so as a defense mechanism, I skipped ahead and read that scene first. It was rough, but I could handle it, and once I knew I could handle it, I felt confident reading from the beginning.

Yesterday afternoon was the point at which I reached the dreaded scene after reading from the beginning, and it was interesting seeing how I felt about it the second time around. The first time, I had only one question: Will this give me nightmares? The answer was a soft no. But the second time around, I processed the scene in the context of the entire novel, and it bothered me a lot less than I expected. Here's why:

It wasn't a trope.
The MC's thoughts during the scene rang truer than many similar scenes I have read. The way she realized what was happening, her revulsion (to say the least), her promise to herself that she would never stop fighting, and her ultimate defeat of her attacker. Even though she stopped him (and thank goodness), it wasn't one of those "girl power!" moments where the would-be-rape was set up just so it could be avoided and the MC could seem heroic. I've read those, and they ring false because they usually end with the MC kicking the downed villain, proclaiming something along the lines of, "Take that!" Nobody would blame an almost-victim for kicking their attacker, but my point is this: Attempted abuse is upsetting and not easily forgotten. Karou did not claim victory after she killed her attacker. She was shaking violently and crying and had to mentally scream at herself to do things just to summon the will to do them. That rang true.

On a side note, I'm also grateful this wasn't the worst type of almost-rape scene, which is the kind when the girl is almost raped but the "hero", who up to that point had been completely lame, saves her just in time. I hate those scenes, and not just because it removes power from the woman and puts it into the hands of the two men, making her a ball in their game rather than a player herself. It's also not because I think women should save themselves; stop the abuse by any means, for god's sake. I hate these scenes because they are written solely so that the "hero" could look heroic. It's weak, weak writing. If you want your hero to look heroic, make him a hero who acts, not just a "hero" who reacts. That's what these rape-preventing heroes are: They are reactors, and they are praised as heroes because they save the women they love from a terrible fate. But here's what pisses me off about that: Of course they saved her! She's the woman they love! You want to make him a real hero? Have him stop an attack against a woman he doesn't know, someone who's ugly or kind of a bitch, someone he himself would never love. That's a hero. The wannabe heroes who get there just in time are tropes, and destructive ones at that.

Days of Blood & Starlight
Why It Worked
Now back to the dreaded scene in Laini Taylor's book. The second reason I was unexpectedly un-bothered by this scene was a testament to Taylor's incredible writing and the subject of this post:  
The scene felt inevitable.
The way she had written the MC and villain, it felt unavoidable that their characters would ultimately clash in this exact scene. And that got me thinking about all the books that readers get up in arms about. I won't name them because I'm not looking to hurt anyone's feelings, but in all of the disappointing books I could think of, the author failed because the interactions between characters - usually at the end of the book - did not feel inevitable. Bad writing creates interactions that feel artificial or forced, like the author thought of a plot first and then tried to tailor characters to make it happen.

The villain in Days of Blood and Starlight was wounded by the MC rejecting him in the past. He was a control-freak who was used to getting his way, and he was temperamental, AND he was egotistical to the max. He had a thing about controlling the MC that we saw in dozens of scenes before the dreaded one. We knew his temper flared if he even thought she might oppose him, so when, in the chapter preceding the dreaded scene, the MC stood up to him in front of everyone he knew, it was clear. The engine lights were on and the train was hurtling down the tracks with broken brakes. After the MC stood up to the villain in such a powerful way, I would have cried "False!" if he didn't do what he did, because what he did was the natural conclusion of his character. He'd been written so well up to that point that I knew he was incapable of any other reaction.

The Writing Lesson
I thought about how this idea of inevitable plot relates to my own writing, and I realized, happily, that I'm not in a bad position. I have always written characters first and plot second, probably as a result of four years of college in which my professors praised authors for doing just that. My plots are the natural conclusions of my characters interacting in the settings I put them. However, I do have something to work on, and that is communicating to the reader how the major points in my plots are inevitable.

Here's an infuriatingly vague example: In the book I'm revising, my villain does something terrible to one of my other characters. To any normal (i.e., non-maniacal) reader, it should be clear that the villain in this situation is 100% in the wrong. However, in order to show how his actions were inevitable, I need to actually look at things from his perspective. How would he justify his actions? Obviously he thought he was right to do what he did, but I need to make the reader see that. I need to show the reader what the victimized character did to "provoke" the villain, even if his response to the perceived provocation is irrational and cruel. If I don't do this, the villain's actions may seem arbitrary, and an arbitrary plot is the opposite of an inevitable one.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I spied...

Well, hello, hello, blogosphere! It's been a while, and life's been busy on my end. My little sister is getting married, I'm planning the bachelorette party (with a literary bent - more to come on that later), CHRISTMAS (enough said), and some effort at personal growth, i.e., my empathy organ overreacts to everything and the effect can be debilitating, so I'm trying to get on top of that.

Last weekend, Derek and I took a last-minute trip down to San Diego. He had to be there for a day for work, so we dropped the pug at the kennel and headed down the night before to avoid driving at the crack of dawn the next morning. We made it just in time to freeze our butts off running to the outdoor hot-tub at the hotel, take a leisurely walk back once we were thoroughly overheated, and crash in bed.

The next morning, Derek headed off to his meeting and I did my weird wife-on-quasi-vacation thing: I got coffee at a little place I like in Point Loma, took a windy walk around Shelter Island, checked out of the hotel, and proceeded to find things to occupy myself for the rest of the day. Of course, the first thing I did was drive to Birch Aquarium. It's not Monterey, but it's a lovely little place, beautifully maintained with tons of exhibits dedicated to local sea life. I snapped dozens of pictures on my phone, but the best ones are included below with a cutesy bent I hope you'll forgive.

I spied, with my little eye, at Birch Aquarium...
(roughly top left to bottom right)

All photos © Danielle Behr 2013
An exhibit I had all to myself
A sea cucumber doing gymnastics (1)
A jellyfish nursery
A fish with huge teeth next to a shark with none (2)
Chestnut cowries cute enough to eat
A giant sea bass that could swallow my arm whole
Surfers braving frigid temperatures
Rockfishes as big as my hand
One of the strangest jokes natural selection ever played
A wolf eel who had her babies (3)

(1) Suspended between two rocks, center of photo
(2) The shark in the foreground is a leopard shark, and it actually does have teeth (see pics here) but there are no recorded incidents of leopard sharks biting people. On the other hand, while I don't know how often fish like the California Sheephead in the background actually bite people, they do have mouthfuls of chompers that give me nightmares (click here 
or here to see, if you dare).
(3) When I saw this couple last September, they looked like this:

All photos © Danielle Behr 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

To Putting Out the Fire and Climbing Down the Tree

First, some lovely pictures. I was in San Diego last week, having followed Derek down on a business trip. He worked 12-15-hour days, so I had lots of time, and I used some of it to visit UCSD's Birch Aquarium. Here's a collage of some of the pictures I took:

Exterior, Clockwise from Top Left: Pregnant wolf eel, bubble coral, sea lettuce in outdoor tidepool exhibit, moon jellies (I touched these at the Long Beach aquarium!), moray eels, a cute fish whose name I didn't catch, giant black jellyfish, view of the ocean from outside the aquarium, coral reef exhibit, Garibaldi, vermillion rockfish, giant seabass; Interior, Clockwise from Top Left: sea nettles, sardines, hermit crab, kelp forest exhibit
All photos © Danielle Behr 2013

I am in Revision Mode. I finished my novel a few weeks ago - for the second time, by the way. I started sketching out ideas for Safira's story in 2009, while I was still teaching. I finished the first version (beta-read, revised and everything) in April 2012. But I knew there was something off about the MS. It was the story I wanted to tell, but it was like Frankenstein's monster before the electricity - there was no life, no spark. A lot was lost in translation between my mind and the page. So I worked on something else. I got half of a new book written.

Image Source: Wikipedia
Then last May I read a news article that made me remember Safira's story and I decided to re-write the whole thing in a new narrative voice because I LOVE THIS STORY. And I know it's love because sometimes it scares the crap out of me. I wrote scenes in this book in which my characters realize some of MY worst fears, and while that sucks for them, it's also tricky for me because I have to think deeply about things that terrify me. And then there's the guilt over what I do my characters. I've always loved the adage, "Chase your main character up a tree, then light the tree on fire." Everytime I come across that saying I think of the chapter "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire" from The Hobbit. The dwarves, with Bilbo and Gandalf, just escaped from Goblin Town, only to be chased by wargs. They seek shelter in the tops of trees, which works well until the goblins catch up and light the trees on fire. What follows next is what Tolkien coined a eucatastrophe - one of my favorite words ever.

Right now I feel like I've chased myself up a tree and lit it on fire. My anxiety is through the roof. I feel pressured to query this fall. From careful observation of the writing world over the past few years, I have concluded with considerable certainty that fall is the best time to query. The deadline is the holidays - Thanksgiving, then Christmas. By mid-December, most agents are closed to queries until after the new year.

What's pulling directly against the time constraint is my fear that this book needs time. I've been reading lots of books - some about writing, most just examples of great writing - and with every new thing I read, I gain an insight into my book and a few more ideas for how to make it better. If I kept reading, how long would this go on? Please don't say indefinitely because that is my fear. Yet I know it's true. Practice leads to improvement. With every new thing I read and every new thing I write, I am convinced that I will become a better writer.

So when agents say "Show me your best work," if I take that literally, then they're in for a long wait, because I wouldn't be able to query until I'd spent a lifetime writing. I'm sure you can see the practical implications of this plan. While a lot of writers hit their peak with their first book, I know I'm not one of those people. I'm the kind whose future work will be better than what I write now, even if the ideas aren't necessarily better. And a huge catalyst toward making me better is publication. Having professionals and countless unknown readers give my book a chance and react to it, that will give me feedback unlike anything I can get from the small circle of well-loved beta readers I have now.

I feel frenetic - another favorite word, although not a nice feeling - like my muscles are itching under my skin and there's a tornado in my brain. I'm alternating between research, reading, planning revisions, reading notes from betas, and doing comforting things to ease my anxiety. I've probably spent 30% of my time lately just coping with the stress of whatever this phase of the writing process is. I've downloaded some new music (and I've been playing it as LOUD as possible). I've napped when I can, done my make-up for no particular reason (I usually don't unless I'm leaving the house for something other than groceries), watching movies - which feels just like reading and gives me the same number of new ideas for my book.

I've also played hours of Plants vs. Zombies 2 and I've been coloring (see above). Yes, my name is Danielle Behr and I color. I got the idea from a dear friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher. She suggested colored pencils and Dover coloring books - cheap yet fancy "grown-up" coloring books - for stress relief. And god is it relaxing! There is something so pleasing about staying within the lines, shading and blending colors, and filling in a white space until it's exploding with color.

I think what this all comes down to is the idea of giving order to chaos. Chaos is an inevitable result of the passage of time. Right now my MS is chaotic because the margins are filled with notes telling me to revise. I know that if I can just focus on those notes, incorporate them into the book (i.e., REVISE) then the notes will go away and order - in the form of prose - will reign again.

To putting out the fire and climbing down the tree. Cheers, my friends.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Moment of Victory Before the Fear Sets In

I finished my complete re-write of Safira's story on Labor Day - very appropriate, don't you think? Derek had promised to take me out for "fancy drinks" to celebrate once I was done, but it was late by the time I finished on Monday, so we went out last night, on Tuesday.

We went to the shmanciest place we know - the Langham Huntington. Gorgeous old hotel with a really cool bar. That's what I love about fancy hotels - even if you can't afford to stay there, you can usually afford a drink or two and you still get to enjoy the ambiance!

It is such an ordeal to finish a novel - to get through the conception, sorting your ideas, outlining, developing characters, researching setting, writing and re-writing and re-writing some more. In my case, I re-wrote an entire book that I finished over a year ago. I switched the mode from 3rd-person omniscient to 1st-person with three narrators. I'm so happy with the result. With the 3rd-person draft, I felt like a lot was lost in translation between my head and the page, but with 1st-person, the reader is so up close and intimate with the narrators, they get to experience the emotions and the chaos, it's wonderful. And here's another clue that I made the right move: I cried when I wrote this draft. Not all the time, of course, but during the scenes that I meant to be sad, boy, did I cry! And it's not like there was anything else going on with me at the time, so I was definitely crying about the story. I still feel terrible for what I did to some of those characters.

The point I was trying to make above is that, since it is such an ordeal to finish a novel, it's important to celebrate. Finishing a novel is a momentous achievement, and something for which I am very proud of myself. Especially because I have so much faith in this novel. So while my temptation was to type the last word, send it off to my beta readers, and immediately jump into pre-query mode, I resisted. I took the rest of Monday night off. I got into that research mode Tuesday morning, but we still went out and celebrated the book itself. But by that point, my ability to celebrate was already compromised. THE FEAR had set in. I had spent the day researching agents and reading advice for querying.

What I love about writing is that I have total control. I can put my characters through hell or I can send them on vacation. I can let the villain win or I can cut off his head. But after the book is done, I lose control. I have to send off letters and hope beyond hope that the agents who read said letters like my pitch, that they don't have something like it already on their list, and that they believe it can sell. There seems to be so much luck involved in this phase of the game and that makes me nervous. I have no fear of hard work. But I have great fear of things that I can't attain even with all the work in the world. And querying feels a little like that.

While I was writing, I did an excellent job of avoiding distractions. I didn't draft query letters or synopses or check in on agents on Twitter or read any of their blogs. Doing that stuff plays tricks on my mind, and I know that my story is the product, so it deserved my full attention while I was crafting it. Of course, as soon as I was done, I headed for those sources that would have been distractions before but are now my job. And they still play tricks on my mind. I read agents' advice for writing a good story, I read the reasons why they pass on a hundred books, and I wonder if my book will fall into those categories. It will inevitably fall into some, sure, but will it fall into all of them? Is my setting great and the pacing good but my narrators' voices weak? Will the agents be able to connect with my characters? Will the book push the boundaries of the genre and make agents doubtful they can sell it? Will they think the writing is decent but that the story needs more work?

My FEAR has set in. I fear the answers to the above questions, and my only hope now is that my two trusty beta readers will send me back buckets of criticism that will help me make the story even stronger. Until then, I will try to gather data on agents without getting bogged down by the fear, and I will try to look at this picture often and remember that no matter what happens with querying, I still have something grand and dandy to celebrate:

Photograph by a lovely couple from New Zealand

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Thoughts on Not Writing

I've been writing for three years now, and in that time I've come to learn a few things.

Namely, what not to do when you should be writing:

I've also learned which kinds of procrastination can be useful:

Enjoy the fruits of my mistakes :-)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dealing with Boring Chapters

I don't say this often, but I'm glad the weekend is over. This particular weekend was plagued with family drama, but the important thing is that Derek and I talked and talked and talked some more and we handled the issues like a team. I am endlessly coming up with reasons why I'm happy I married that man. And here's another: This weekend he got the flooring in our closet almost completely installed. It was tough work, given that we've never dealt with flooring before, but it's coming out beautifully. It's a cork floor, which we chose because it's soft, warm, and unique:

I also finished a major house project on Friday: stenciling a giant panel of birch trees in our living room. See, one wall on our living room spans the entire depth of our townhouse without a clear divider between the living room and dining room. We've tried to create dividers ourselves - a rug in the living room, big art in the dining room, bookcases marking the border. But the distinction wasn't clear enough, and what's more, it was driving us crazy that the space around our TV was so empty. We love filling walls with art, but we couldn't put art anywhere near the TV without creating a scene that felt busy. Enter the stencil! It was subtle enough not to be busy but wild enough to to make that wall anything but boring, plus we now have a greater distinction between our two rooms that are really just one room but we'll keep that between us.

Here's the finished product with a few in-progress shots along the way (don't mind the pug):

In the end, Derek loves it and everyone who's seen it loves it, but my feelings are mixed. I love the idea of the stencil, especially the birch trees, and I thought the empty wall with them looked great. But when we put our furniture back, all of a sudden the space felt very...*shudder*...70s. I've pinpointed what I think are the reasons why: the yellowish fabric on the lamp, the fake wood-grain covering on the speakers, and the fact that we use an antenna. The antenna needs to stay because we don't have or want cable but I do like to watch things like Parks & Rec and The Big Bang Theory on the basic channels. I'm going to work on fixing these suspected problem areas and see if the wall clicks better for me.

Despite the odds (the family drama, the housework, oh and the fact that Plants vs. Zombies 2 came out and I beat it in two days) I did revise two chapters this weekend. I'm still not thrilled with one of them, but they are both a lot better than they were before. The problem with the first chapter (the one that doesn't thrill me) is that it's sort of plot filler. My characters arrived in a new place where they're going to stay for a while, and in upcoming chapters, they demonstrate great familiarity with this setting. But how did they get to that point? You don't move to a new town, make friends, learn everything about your house, and establish a list of local businesses to patronize in a day, do you? To imply that my characters did that felt like cheating.

I can't tell if this chapter will feel boring to the reader or if it's just boring to me. See, I know about the exciting things that happen later, so it pains me to spend time on this little stuff now. But at this point in the book, the reader won't know what's coming, and they may enjoy learning about how people live at this new - and very unique - setting. J.K. Rowling could have spent FIVE chapters writing about Hogwarts and I wouldn't have made a peep. I do not have the hubris to say that my setting is comparable to Hogwarts, but like I said, it is unique, so I revised the chapters and am letting them be to see what my betas have to say about them later.

Here are a few techniques I used to make a potentially boring chapter move along:
  1. I infused otherwise boring exposition with banter or tender talk between characters so the emotions between them would shine through and those relationships could stand as motivation for characters' actions later in the book.
  2. I was careful not to expose everything. As my characters talked amongst themselves, I thought it would be realistic (and hey, maybe a little suspense-building) for them to reference a person or event with a pronoun instead of identifying it by name, especially if that person/place/thing clearly had significance or posed a potential threat. It's like with eavesdropping: you may hear everything that's said but not understand it all. (Not that I have any experience eavesdropping *cough cough*.)
  3. I condensed my "view into life in the new place" chapter from several scenes that spanned multiple days to two vignettes that each spanned one day. I was able to spend more time on the scenes that way and to me, the chapter felt less rushed and less like a cheap montage.
  4. While my characters were talking (or my narrator was thinking) I tried to make them always busy, and not just with a mundane task (okay, one time they drank coffee) but with something the reader might like to learn about, like spear-fishing.
Today's goal is to revise two more chapters, and I'll have a fresh one to write tomorrow. Onward!

Monday, August 12, 2013



(from Wikipedia)
They look like those parasitic alien invaders from the Star Trek Next Generation episode when most of Starfleet command gets body-snatched and Riker has to pretend to be one of them so he can take out the "queen" by setting his phaser to kill and exploding the chest of the guy who's the main host. As far as Star Trek goes, that is one of the more horrifying episodes.

See that orange? ALL LICE. (from Wikipedia)


Monday, July 29, 2013

Confessions of an Oceanophilephobe

I'm in San Diego this week, piggy-backing on a business trip of my husband's so that I can write in a hotel with a view of the ocean. It's just across the street outside my window, deep blue, mysterious, and awe-inspiring as ever. But there's a reason why I love to look at, read about, and watch movies about the ocean - as evidenced by this post, this one, this one, this one and . . . this one . . . and this one . . . I should start using an "ocean" tag, shouldn't I? - while I refuse to go in it more than a few feet. Actually, there are hundreds of reasons, but I feel justified with only a few.

You see, my fascination with the ocean has led me to research it extensively. As I've written before (also here), aquariums are one of my favorite places to visit. But I think I know too much. I know about sharks: great whites and lemons and tigers - all the usual suspects who could eat me* - but I also know about the smaller, sinister looking mako, with its huge black eyes, and the harmless but terrifying basking shark. I know about goblin sharks, frilled sharks with their countless rows of teeth, and the 30-foot-long oarfish, the long-suspected "sea serpent" of nautical mythology. I know about hagfishes and lampreys and moray eels and wolf eels, which aren't even technically eels, but they are very likely the most hideous creatures on the planet. I know about vampire squid and humbolt squid and giant squid and COLOSSAL squid (seriously, those are two different things).

*Before you give me statistics on the likelihood of such a shark making a meal out of me, let me say that I am aware that most sharks bite only to "taste", that they rarely finish humans off, and that of the few victims of shark attacks who die, most do so from blood loss. Statistics, however, are of little comfort to someone who is afraid of everything other than the garibaldi.

I've read about happy incidents where dolphins saved divers from shark attacks, but I've also read about dolphins killing harbor seals for no apparent reason (best theory: food competition) and seen pictures of orcas pummeling sperm whales to death. I've seen a live barracuda in the water (the one and ONLY time I snorkeled) and have a friend who's dumb/brave enough to dive and narrowly escaped being electrocuted by a torpedo ray on an easy dive off Catalina. A few weeks ago I saw giant isopods up close for the first time at the Long Beach Aquarium. If you've never seen a giant isopod, picture a rolly polly (those innocent garden bugs), but make it white and as big as a human head; that's a giant isopod, the albino cockroach of the sea.

I've seen elephant seals fighting for mates on the beach north of Malibu, and you can't tell me there aren't great whites in that water because Google Earth shows me the routes of tagged specimens that swim right along the coast.

My second greatest fear is dying in the ocean. Not drowning. That doesn't even make my top ten. If I were stranded in the ocean, I only hope I would drown before I see anything that would eat me. Remember that movie from a few years back about the couple that got left in the water on a SCUBA trip and died overnight from being slowly eaten by sharks? I didn't see it, but the memory of reading the plot summary and filling in the rest with my tortured imagination has kept me up at night more often that I can say.

When I tell people I write fiction about the ocean, they usually ask if I dive, to which I respond with an appalled, "NO! Why would I do that??" This leads to some confused looks and if I'm lucky, Derek will be there to explain as well as he can that I am both religiously fascinated and deathly terrified by the ocean. I can't explain it, but it's been that way for as long as I can remember. My dad has these giant atlases that are so old they still show the Soviet Union, but all I ever did with them is study the ocean maps, the topographical ones that show the various marine layers with pictures of sample creatures that live there. There's a drawing of an anglerfish in one of those books that's haunted me since I was a kid. I wish I could say there was some traumatic childhood event that caused this bizarre relationship between me and the sea, but there isn't. I remember being a kid and almost touching a dead jellyfish on the beach before my dad yelled at me not to, but I'd hardly call that traumatic.

So what's the point of these confessions? I don't know. The only message I can send you away with is, "People are weird." I'm weird. I don't think my paralyzing fear of the ocean is justified, even though I just wrote a whole post doing exactly that. My real problem is my imagination, not the sea. I suppose I wrote this because I looked out my hotel window and saw the ocean, but I also wrote it to explain myself a little. Derek isn't always there to make my fears sound charming and quaint, so to anybody who's heard me talk about ocean phobia, maybe reading this will help you understand where I'm coming from, or at the very least, convince you that I'm too far gone to save.

Oh, and if you are interested in developing an unhealthy fear of the ocean, this should help*:

Lamprey mouth (it's basically a giant leech)
Basking shark (eats only plankton, but COME ON!)
Giant isopod (ew!)
Giant squid (not even colossal!)
Wolf eel
*All images from and linked to Wikipedia

Friday, July 19, 2013

Kaijus and Writing Tools

Spoiler Alert: This post contains very vague spoilers about the film Pacific Rim.

In case you missed it, some people have complained that women were underrepresented in Pacific Rim. I caught the movie the second night it was out in IMAX 3D with my husband and while I loved it, I have to say, the people complaining are right. A common response to the complaints has been, "but Mako Mori is a female character and she was one of the stars of the film!" Here's where I'd like to offer my two cents:

Mako was a main character of the film, but she was the only female character with a speaking part aside from one other woman who I'm pretty sure was just cussing in Russian. The golden roles of the movie all belonged to men, and it's not like there were only a few golden roles to pass around:
  • Raleigh Becket
  • Stacker Pentecost
  • Newton Geiszler
  • Hermann Gottlieb
  • Chuck Hansen
  • Herc Hansen
  • Hannibal Chau
So there's that. But the bigger point I'd like to make to those who hold up Mako Mori as the thing that should silence the complainers is this: Mako had no agency. She made no decisions, was responsible for none of the plot, did nothing to change her world. Raleigh disobeyed orders and saved lives. Stacker held Mako back. Newton acted like a jackass. Hermann ultimately decided to help said jackass. Chuck started fights. Herc ended them. I'm still not sure what Hannibal Chau was doing, but whatever it was, he was following his own orders. As for Mako, she followed Stacker and Raleigh's orders, performed admirably when told to do so, was sheltered and saved by men, and that was it.

I loved Pacific Rim, but it is indeed guilty of under-representing women.

But now, on to something more exciting...

I found a new writing tool! In the most unlikely of places, too. And it's going to sound really esoteric and maybe even trivial, but I have found it to be very useful in creating visual aids to help me really see my characters.

The tool is an app that allows you to assemble a wardrobe collage on Polyvore. Polyvore is sort of an online shopping meta-store. You can search for "black tank top" and get results from department stores, chain stores, everything down to online-only boutiques based all over the world. I've found it useful because it's allowed me to take a scene from my book and dress up the characters in that scene. The process forces me to consider things like the practicality of what they're wearing (is it weather appropriate?) and what it says about them as a person (what kind of image are they trying to project to the world?). For some of my characters who don't ever wear outfits that are fully described, I've made collages of "daily wear" - things they wear on a normal basis, basically a 2D version of their closet.

Since my book is still a WIP, I'm going to hold onto my character collages for now, but I'll share with you a "set" I drew up of what I'm wearing today (roughly - only one of the items is exact):
In my character collages, I put the character's name where my name is in the collage above, and where it says, "Sitting at my desk" I write the chapter number and/or the scene where the character is wearing the outfit being shown. You can upload the completed collages to Pinterest, drop them into Scrivner, and reference them as needed. Pretty cool!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Busy Behr

I often feel like instead of having right and left hemispheres of my brain, I have two personalities with very different agendas. My writing personality wants me to become one with my desk chair and write and write until my mind is quiet and I'm so exhausted that I can fall asleep and by the time I wake up, all of my query letters will be answered. (And since we're dreaming here, the answers would all be positive. Of course.)

My other personality is the one that is a normal human being with relationships and a home and a dog and a real life to attend to. Most of the time, Real Life Dani trumps Writing Dani, but sometimes, like this morning, Writing Dani wins. I woke up today and even though I have a list of things to do on my calendar, I just had to sit down and re-write a chapter. I'm in the process of converting Safira's story from third to first person - a HUGE endeavor, especially since I don't have one but THREE first-person narrators. I got through most of my chapter this morning and had so much fun, but this is the first time in over a week that I've worked on my book. Here are some of the things I've been up to:

A few weeks ago was my birthday. My sister was in town at the time, which was really one of the best gifts I could have gotten. Also while she was here, we went to Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands where my book takes place. I've been to Anacapa Island before and wrote about it here. Santa Cruz was so much better, though, because we actually got off the boat and roamed around the island for a few hours. You would not believe the views from there. Those islands will forever be one of my favorite places in the world, matched only by Monterey and Big Sur, which are just across the water on the coastline the islands face.

Derek gave me some coral charm peonies for my birthday - my favorites - plus he got me a really unique gift. You see, there are these parrots that live in Pasadena. They're the farthest thing from native. In fact, there isn't even consensus on where they came from. It is bizarre to be walking the dog and sometimes see bright green parrots flying and squawking overhead. The best theory is that the birds are a hybrid species created by a group of tropical birds that were released into the wild after a local zoo closed in the early 20th century. The point is, I love them. They're adorable and strange and I feel happy whenever I see them. So Derek found an artist on Etsy who makes needle-felted birds. Derek sent photos of the parrots to the artist - in England - and she custom made me a Pasadena parrot, which Derek gave me for my birthday.


On the housing front, I ripped out a crappy linen closet in the downstairs bathroom and then painted the whole thing a deep ocean blue. I'm also re-painting the handrails on our two staircases. The rails themselves were a dirty beige color and the bars supporting them were shiny black - ech! I painted the railings a crisp white enamel - so they won't chip and will clean up easily - and the bars a dark gray called Dragon's Breath. And finally, we got back a piece of art that we left at a local shop to get framed over a month ago. It's a letterpress map of the Channel Islands - you can at least pretend to be surprised - and it is glorious. The fireplace is now my proudest corner of our house.

And finally, last weekend my sister and I flew from opposite sides of the country home to Michigan to surprise our mother. My parents have been married for 35 years now and my dad decided not only to throw a huge party, but to make it a surprise for my mom. I panicked like crazy before surprising my mom, but I was actually calm during the party and had a lovely time.

*holds up mug of coffee*
A social life is good, but here's to a long summer in which Writing Dani wins most days.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Feminism is for Everyone

This post is about strides forward for feminism, but I really meant the title of this post when I wrote it. It boggles my mind when men are critical of feminists not just because those men usually have no idea what feminism is about (if you don't know: it's about women having the right and the freedom to make their own choices), they are also oblivious to the fact that feminism benefits them. Feminism benefits everyone because it's about tearing down gender stereotypes and expectations and freeing people up to be whoever they want to be. If you're a guy and you dislike the fact that most women expect you to hold open the door for them, feminism is for you. If you're a guy who dislikes the expectation that you play and enjoy watching sports, feminism is for you. If you're a guy who gets mocked for being too feminine for any reason at all, feminism is for you.

Feminism is for everyone. It destroys nothing but cruelty and oppression. If you want to be a classically masculine man, feminists won't stop or mock you. One of the manliest characters I know is Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec. Not only do a lot of feminists like him - including moi - he himself is a feminist! It's actually more difficult to be a classically feminine woman in a world where feminists are making progress than a classically masculine man. Some feminists judge women who like to cook and clean and wear high heels and change their last names and have babies and be homemakers. But that's wrong because feminism is about choice and as long as women are the ones who are deciding what to do with their lives, it shouldn't matter to anyone else what they choose.

I have been happy to see that 2013 has so far been a good year for feminists, especially in regards to publishing. I can't say I've seen a whole lot of change, but I've heard a lot of good conversation, and that's the first step. Below are two of the wonderfully hopeful things I've read lately. Maureen Johnson's article in particular made me feel like I could hang up my feminist shoes because she's got everything under control. (I didn't hang up my shoes, but it was wonderful to have that feeling.)

Maureen Johnson's grand experiment with gender and book covers

Delilah S. Dawson's blog post about sexism in sci-fi/fantasy publishing

Narrative Modes

I've been going kind of bonkers lately in regards Safira's story. A while ago, I decided to re-visit it because I read some things that made me think the market might be more ready for this story than it was a year ago. Of course, I didn't intend to query again without massive revisions. I read through the story and identified its weak points and the things I wanted to change. But before I actually start revising/re-writing, I need to make a decision:
Do I tell this story in first-person or third-person?
The internal debate regarding this issue prompted me to make a pros and cons chart. Ta-da:

The examples in the table are some of my favorite books and/or some of the books I've read most recently, i.e., I didn't think very hard about them. Of the examples, The Night Circus is the book whose structure I think would most naturally fit Safira's story. However, I've heard complaints from more than one reader that they found that book to be confusing because of the structure. Personally, I loved it because you got to see the action from the right angles at the right times, but the purpose of this debate is to make my book fit well within the market for which I'm writing it, and that's YA.

There are a few interesting things to note from my chart. One is that the examples of 3rd person multiple narratives I came up with are mostly adult SFF books. Actually, all of them are with the exception of His Dark Materials, and that series kind of defies classification.

It seems to have become a trend for some YA books to be written with two alternating 1st person narrators, e.g., Legend and Across the Universe. Ally Condie's latest work Reached - the last in the Matched series - even alternates between three narrators. I've been told many times that the preferred voice of YA is 1st person because teenagers like to relate intimately to the main character and they have difficulty juggling multiple perspectives. I've always had my doubts about the latter of those arguments, and the trend with multiple perspectives suggests either that teenagers are getting better at juggling multiple perspectives or, as I suspect, they were quite good at it all along.

Another trend I've noticed in YA literature is that many YA writers whose books are single first-person narratives have been writing novellas within the same world as their novels but from a different character's perspective. They often call these "Book 1.5 of the series". Here are just a few examples (images will take you to Barnes & Noble's website):


What this tells me is that either the author has a desire to switch perspectives to show the reader things they couldn't show from the original perspective, or that readers have a growing desire for this type of narrative. If these authors are writing novels and novellas that alternate between first-person perspectives, then what's wrong with just including multiple perspectives within the same book?

The crux of my fear is that the examples of alternating first-person perspectives I have given have almost all dealt with only two different characters' perspectives. However, Safira's story will require three at the very minimum, and I would like to write up to five. Granted, five isn't half as bad as Game of Thrones, but that book was written for adults, and I do think George R.R. Martin's tendency to have a dozen or more focal characters in one book would test the patience of many teenage readers.

Here are my options as far as I see them:
  1. Write in third-person and dance around between focal characters as much as I want, but sacrifice voice and intimacy with narrators.
  2. Write in first-person with five different narrators, a risky method for which there is no precedent in the YA market (that I know of).
  3. Condense my narrators' chapters into "Books" a la Breaking Dawn or The Mists of Avalon. It should be less confusing to remember who the narrator is if they only narrate once or twice within vast sections of the book instead of jumping around between chapters, but it might be difficult to create a good, linear narrative with this restriction.
  4. Cut out two of my focal characters and narrow it down to three first-person narrators - this is the absolute minimum for Safira's story because of simple geography. This method should make the book more palatable to the YA market, but while I wouldn't miss one of the narrators I would cut, I would really miss the second one because she's a hot mess and so much fun to write. However, among my beta readers, she was only perceived as a so-so character, and her portion of the story is small enough to narrate through one of the characters I would keep.
It's been good to write this post because I've managed to get all of my thoughts about this debate on one page. I've been going back and forth on this for days. My CP Poppy read two version of the same chapter written in different modes and she liked both. My husband Derek says all of my proposed modes would work and I just need to commit to one and start revising :-/

I'm going to keep thinking.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

bird by bird

I finally finished reading an aspiring author's staple:
bird by bird by Anne Lamott
I've read other books like this - guides to being a writer and whatnot. Stephen King's On Writing is a classic. King's guide was great, but it was a bittersweet read. There were joyful parts (buying his wife the hair-dryer on Mother's Day - *tear*) but there were also really tragic parts, and not much humor. Plus, I'm  sensitive to horror, and even the brief descriptions King gave of his own books kept me up at night. I haven't read Cujo or seen the movie, but after reading On Writing, I am terrified of being trapped in car with a rabid dog clawing at the door. *shudder*

I would say that King and Lamott provide equally good advice for aspiring authors, but they have very different approaches. Anne Lamott is hysterical and shameless. She admits to things like wanting someone who's rambling about their success to just shut up already - the kinds of thoughts we all have, but few of us admit.

Writing is a lonely pursuit. Most of the time that suits me just fine, but sometimes it feels like my mind is starting to unravel. You can only have so many conversations with fictional people in your head before you start to wonder about your own sanity, you know? What I loved about bird by bird is that it reminded me that I'm not alone, and that even when I think I might be acting lazy or neurotic, I'm really being perfectly normal as far as writers go. I love that idea not just because it means I'm not crazy, but because it means that I'm on the path of the writer, which is exactly where I want to be.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

First Chapters

I had to make a tough decision lately in regards to the first chapter of one of my WIPs. The story is written from a third-person limited perspective, and for a long time now, the first chapter "looked over the shoulder" of my story's villain. I loved this because it gave the opening of the story an ominous feel. The exposition didn't feel forced because it's reasonable for the villain to discuss and work on his master plan, especially since he's "winning" at this point in the story. Comparatively, the hero of the story isn't such a reliable source for exposition as there isn't as strong a motive for her to give it; she's not even entirely aware of the villain's plans. And finally, in this particular story, my MC is beaten down at the beginning. She's kind of a ghost of her former self, with all of her strength and talent eroded by years of abuse by the villain. Because she has no agency at this point in the story (of course, her agency only increases after Chapter 1) it made sense for the villain to be the one to introduce her, rather than have her introduce herself.

Here's the problem with my method: anybody - be it a prospective reader or agent - who picks up the book is going to judge it within the first few pages. I don't expect them to feel invested in my villain and keep reading for his slimy sake, plus the story isn't about him anyway. But a wisp of a young woman suffering from Stockholm Syndrome probably isn't going to hook many readers either.

I discussed this problem with one of my fellow Big Sur attendees and she pointed me toward a fantastic resource, which I'm going to share with you right now:

In the above video, agent Lara Perkins discusses how to write a gripping first chapter. She reinforced a lot of things I already knew, like the narrator should be assertive and confident, but she also had some great suggestions that hadn't occurred to me, like using a puzzle or a mystery in the first chapter. By raising questions in the reader's mind, you're compelling them to read on and get answers to their questions. As an avid reader myself, I love this method. It's like creating a contract with the reader:  
You have a bunch of questions which you're dying to have answered, and if you read on, I promise to give you answers. 

After watching the video, the solution to my problem finally arrived. I didn't want to start the book with a browbeaten protagonist, but she hadn't always been browbeaten. Before she met the villain she was vivacious and lovely and definitely the kind of person a reader wants to root for. So that's going to be my first chapter - how did the villain and the MC meet, and how did the MC get to the point where she is now. This seems logical anyway because I want the reader to know that the MC's behavior is not a reflection of her natural state. She wasn't always like that, and she's capable of becoming herself - becoming better than her original self - again.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Saw My MC Dancing on TV

Perhaps because I've grown up surrounded by movies as well as books, I'm very visual when I'm writing. Even before the revolution that is Pinterest, I searched for images of my characters and settings using Google. I've heard people complain that a lot of new fiction is too "cinematic", but given how much authors who are writing today watch movies (even if they don't love them, they have access, and it's hard to avoid movies completely in our culture) and how many books are turned into movies, I don't find that surprising. I don't even find it objectionable. It combines two things I love!

One thing that thrills me as a writer is finding real-life images of things I've already imagined. Here's an example: Ever since I started writing my current WIP, I have used this image as inspiration for my main character. But last Monday night I was exhausted and found myself lying on the couch, practically catatonic, looking for something to watch on TV. Now, don't fall off your seat when I tell you this: Derek and I don't have cable. Aside from Game of Thrones and HGTV (which I eat up at other people's houses), everything I want to watch is on one of the basic channels.

While I was flipping through the 5-6 channels we pick up with our antenna (that's right, don't judge), I came across Dancing with the Stars. This is the kind of show I've only seen at my parents' house when my mom is watching it. But I caught this girl Zendaya Coleman dancing. I thought she was great, but it wasn't until I looked her up on YouTube later and saw her previous dances that I thought, This Girl is Amazing. And what's more: I felt like I knew her. It took me a while to realize why.

She is my MC.

If my book is ever turned into a movie, I would faint from overwhelming joy if Zendaya Coleman played the role of my main character. It's not just because she's gorgeous - I almost hate her for how perfect those eyebrows are - it's the expressions she makes, especially when she's being serious, and it's her dancing. You see, in my book, the MC dances. It's not a central part of the plot, but it's something she's done since a kid as part of her heritage. The dance in the video below reminds me of exactly the way my MC would dance. I particularly love how Zendaya smiles when she's dancing, not like she's being seductive or sexy, but like she's feeling real joy.

And that's how I saw my MC dancing on TV.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New House, Feminism & World Building

Hello, writing world! How are you? I've been away for so long! It's been almost two months since I blogged, and even longer since I've worked on my manuscript. But I have got THE BEST excuse, which you already know if you read my last post: My husband Derek and I bought a house. We've been here for three weeks now. I can't decide if that's a long or short time. It's a long time to not be writing, but it seems short given how much work we've done to this place. Derek and I have been  working our butts off. I cleaned the garage, which took a full day, given that the previous owners left us all sort of "goodies". Derek installed two toilets! He's like Mario, but much taller and with red hair and without the creepy mustache. (I guess he's not much like Mario.) We've hung artwork, painted a dozen walls, got laundry machines (my first!) and cleaned and cleaned.

Changing gears, I've been happy to see lately how much the news has been focused on feminism. Actually, this is a bittersweet sort of thing. I've been talking about women's issues since I was a teenager. I've always been the most convicted feminist I know - although my sister is a wonder to behold - and the only one of my friends to identify as such. Having feminism be suddenly in the news is sweet because finally people are addressing serious problems of women being harassed, under-represented, and flat-out oppressed. But it's also bitter because in my opinion, it's long overdue, and it brings to the surface painful thoughts that are usually brewing down by my sub-conscious. Now that I'm reading about women's issues every day on Twitter and the like, I've become more sensitive.

Here's an example:

Anita Sarkeesian recently started publishing videos about female characters in video games (see her first video below). She used Kickstarter to fund the production of these videos. If you didn't hear about the unfathomable harassment she faced for her Kickstarter campaign, read about it on Wikipedia. I can't handle summarizing it. Luckily, her first video seems to have been generally well received. I've read a lot of tweets by men quoting the line, "In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They're the ball." It's wonderful to hear men embracing these ideas, especially smart men who will set the trend for others.

Now let's move on to something happier. After I went to Big Sur in December, upon the suggestion of another writer I met there, I joined SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). I'm so glad I did because I got invited to a workshop that took place four miles from my new house. I attended said workshop on Sunday. The track in which I took part was led by author Malinda Lo, who I was thrilled to meet. The topic was diversity in world-building, something in which I am profoundly interested because in my writing, I try to build the kind of gender-equitable world in which I wish I lived. The workshop was full of other friendly writers and it was so much fun to be surrounded by people who shared my passion for writing and science fiction.

Malinda Lo started by dismantling a lot of the assumptions that people make when they're building a world, like the idea that the only normal/acceptable sexual orientation is straight (heteronormativity) and that female characters can't be their own agents. She brought up The Lord of the Rings, and while I agreed that Tolkien was, to a degree, a misogynist, I disagree with the claim that orcs are an attempt to villify dark-skinned people. I don't recall if Tolkien described orcs as being dark-skinned in the books. I've seen lots of visual representations of orcs, and they're not at all consistently dark-skinned. Lots of them are green! There are certainly tons of pale-skinned orcs in the LOTR movies and in the online game. The author who originally made this claim said something about orcs being created so that people could gleefully slaughter them. Slaughter them? Yes. But gleefully? Well, sometimes. But that's what's great about fantasy. Until the real world, in a fantasy world, the line between good and evil is much clearer. So yes, the orcs were created to be slaughtered because they're evil incarnate. They're like demons or zombies - unnatural, unkind, having none of the emotional complexity of humans. I'm not completely rejecting the idea that orcs are a manifestation of racism, but I'm struggling to see clarity in the argument.

The biggest thing I learned from the workshop was that I already know a lot about world-building just from my own experience. More than that, I already did everything Malinda Lo suggested when I wrote the first half of my current manuscript. This fact didn't make the workshop feel like a waste of time or money. It was good for me to go and socialize with other writers, and it was a good confidence boost. I felt like an intermediate aspiring author instead of a beginner.

I'll leave you with some fun pictures. Last Friday we had a bunch of friends over for a housewarming party. We needed art for a big empty wall in our dining room, so we decided to do DIY Jackson Pollocks. I bought and base-painted some canvasses and picked up a dozen 8-oz. paint samples from Home Depot. Using popsicle sticks and painter's suits (to protect our clothes) we had our friends throw paint at the canvasses. It was SO much fun and although we plan to do another round of painting to round out the colors, etc., the canvasses turned out far better than I expected.

Clockwise from top left: pic from our moving announcements, ice cream cone cupcakes, me painting, party favors, finished paintings, party decorations

Friday, January 18, 2013

You said it was in Escrow? I couldn't even find that on the map!*

Derek and I bought a house!

It's wonderful and SO excited, but boy is it a lot of work! More work than planning a wedding, but less work than grad school. Of course, grad school almost killed me (not a metaphor), but that's a story for another day.

Here's a little history about our house hunt:

We started back in the fall. Right now we live in a lovely little valley north of LA, and we were determined to stay here. But the volume of homes for sale in our price range is LOW. We made offers on three homes over a period of three months and got rejected each time. Our offers were good, but every time a place came on the market, it was like a piranha feeding frenzy! Dozens of offers, tens of thousands of dollars over asking price, and people who behaved just terribly. Eventually we accepted the fact that we'd have to widen our net. Once we did so, it took exactly three days to find our new home, make an offer, and get accepted without a single hitch.

Welcome to my desk.
A friend of mine who recently bought a house told me that when she and her husband finally found their home, it was like the stars aligned. And the same thing happened with us. Our realtor knew the sellers' realtor, and after we made the offer, we realized that WE know the sellers! And they're lovely people, which is a welcome change from some of the people we dealt with before . . .

I'm immensely grateful that the pieces are falling into place, but I'm also exhausted. This process has become my full-time job. I read and research and call people and email and run back and forth between the bank, our lender's office, and lots of other places. I fill out paperwork and read the fine print and calculate expenses and call my mother about once a day to be reassured that I'm doing this all right. She keeps welcoming me to the adult world and I keep thinking, Thanks, but haven't I been here a while?

Writing is an unfortunate casualty of this process. It's going on the back burner until we're fully moved in. But when I start writing again, in a new home, ahh, that'll just be the best :-)

*FYI, the quote that is the title of this post is from Friends.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stages of Writing a Book: Pros & Cons

Lately I've felt torn between writing Vix, revising Safira and writing an outline for another book that's so new it doesn't even have a code name yet. This dilemma has forced me to think about the various stages of book-writing, and I've decided to put down my thoughts here. Disclaimer: This is how I write, and as far as I can tell, every writer has a different process. Mine is no better or worse than anyone else's. It's simply mine, and here it is:

Stage 1: Conception

PROS: Conception is an exciting stage because you're dealing with something brand new. It's like getting a new haircut and being surprised and fascinated every time you spot yourself in the mirror. (Or is that just me...?) This stage is also fun because you're not committed yet. Aside from my husband, I don't talk to anybody about books that are still in this stage. And that's nice, because you get to keep the idea all to yourself. You're not under pressure to explain it to people, you don't have to worry about their judgement and you certainly don't have to deal with their input. New book ideas are escapes and welcome distractions.

CONS: It can't last forever.

Stage 2: Research
A blueprint from my first novel.
After a few weeks of thinking about a new idea, my thoughts get too complex and I have to start putting thoughts to paper - or screen - in order to sort things out and get into more detailed brainstorming. The word "research" may be misleading here because it doesn't always mean losing hours on Wikipedia, reading similar published books, or checking out big stacks of non-fiction from the library (because yes, I still use the library). Research can mean all of these things, but for me it also means drawing maps of towns and blueprints of homes, profiling my characters and looking for pictures of people to inspire their looks.

PROS: You're building a new world that nobody gets to live in but you, at least for now.

CONS: It can be overwhelming. This stage can become a trap for me. I'm a completionist, and research is a nebulous thing, so it's hard for me to know when I've done enough.

Stage 3: Outlining

PROS: You get to take all of your research and put it together into plot lines.

CONS: I know I'm going to deviate from the outline eventually, so it feels a little futile.

On the Plotter vs. Pantser (or is it Plottster vs. Pantster?) line, I'm a Plotter. I've tried free-writing in the hope that something concrete will come out, but I end up writing little summary paragraphs and fleshing them out once I get the main plot points arranged. That's just my nature.

Unfortunately, I don't write perfect outlines. Does anyone? By the time I began my third novel, I had learned enough to avoid outlining the whole book before I began writing. I figured out where I wanted the story to go in a vague sense, i.e., I know what my MC was going to accomplish, where she was going to go, and where she was going to end up. Before I began drafting this book, I wrote a pretty solid outline for the first third it. (I thought I'd try it Suzanne Collins' style and write this book in three "acts".) My first third turned into my first half, but otherwise, this method worked out well. As I drafted, the second half of the book became clearer and I outlined that little by little.

Stage 4: Drafting

PROS: Ah, now we're back to the good stuff. Drafting! That delightful phase of book-writing in which you take all your brilliant ideas, fictional conversations, and contentious relationships and bring them into being.

My custom outline labels in Scrivner
CONS: One of the trickiest parts of drafting for me is figuring out where to put everything. From the very beginning, the plot has to get moving, but I also have a big bag overflowing with exposition. Exposition has to be placed meticulously so that it won't slow down the story or make the reader feel like I'm going to give them a pop quiz at the beginning of the next chapter. I like to break down my exposition into tiny pieces, sometimes as small as the color of a character's hair or the rotational direction of Venus. (That last one will probably apply only to my current book and maybe five others, ever.) Doing it this way takes the pressure off. I don't have to worry about the reader learning everything because I've distributed the exposition and I know I'll get to it eventually. This is also a helpful method because some kinds of exposition have to build, e.g., you have the know that my characters are on Venus - and preferably know why they're on Venus - before the reader will even care that Venus rotates backwards.

More CONS: Drafting is exhausting. When Derek gets home at the end of a day in which I've written 4,000 words, I am spent. I've used the excuse, "I made up 16 pages of stuff today!" to get out of making dinner more than once. (Not that Derek has ever complained about ordering pizza for dinner.) Drafting is also the phase of book-writing in which I'm the most insecure. Until I have a solid draft in hand, I don't know for sure if the story is going to work. I could get all the way to the end only to find out that there's no possible way for my plot to coalesce. That insecurity can lead to some trouble starting. The final disadvantage of drafting is that it's too early to share your work with anyone, and the temptation can be high. I used to get so excited about certain passages I wrote and I would ask to read them to Derek out loud. Unfortunately, those "brilliant" passages often got edited out later and I regretted my impatience.

Stage 5: Revising

PROS: Revising is great because you've had some time away from the earliest stuff you wrote and you get to re-approach it with fresh eyes. It's easier to see what's good and what's bad, and you get to polish the words until you can say with a degree of objectivity that they're pretty good.

Stats of my WIP in Scrivner
CONS: This is a tedious stage. I have no rules for how many times I revise a single chapter because that depends wholly on the chapter. Revising for me often means re-writing. I've re-written every single word of chapters that were perfectly decent because who wants perfectly decent? I don't. I bet agents and editors want it even less, and readers want it least of all. Revision can mean tweaking a few words to re-writing a chapter several times. Because of this, it's hard to estimate how much time I need to revise. (I can usually draft a chapter in 1-2 days, so if I'm working off an outline, it's simple math to figure out how long it'll be until I'm done.) Unlike the drafting stage, in which everything is fresh, revision can require re-reading the same passage a dozen times, which gets boring. Plus when you're re-writing, you're basically making stuff up all over again, in that sense, revision can be as tiresome as drafting.

More PROS: The big benefit of revising is that you get the thing you long for during the previous stage: security. Once a scene or a chapter or a whole book has been through the revision wringer and you know that you've done everything you can for that book, it's a bit easier to sleep at night. There are no worries about the booking falling apart because it's already standing. Now all you need to do is make sure you're looking at it through appropriately critical eyes. That's where beta readers come in.

Stage 6: Critique

PROS: The critique stage is awesome because for the first time, people are reading your words. You get to see if your intentions for your characters are clear. Is the hero likeable? Does the villain make people's skin crawl? Is the setting as beautiful or as tragic to readers as it is in your head? For each of my consecutive books, my feedback from beta readers has gotten better. It's incredibly fulfilling to hear that someone likes your book, and it's even more exciting when they give you suggestions for how to make it better.

My feeling on positive vs. negative criticism may sound a bit acerbic, but here it is: Positive feedback is worthless. It's nice to get a confidence boost, and praise can be helpful when someone is pointing out a strength, i.e., something you should do more, but otherwise, positive feedback is a waste of my time and my reader's. If I'm asking betas to read my book, it's because I already know it's good, because I love it and I trust my judgement. As much as it may seem like writers are the last people who should be judging their own work, writers are actually very harsh critics. I write because I love to read, and because I've read so much, I know what's good and what's not. I'm not going to let anybody read something if I know it's crap, so giving me comments like, "This is SO not crap! Good job :-)" are worthless.

On the other hand, constructive criticism is gold. Here's a tip for people trying to find good beta readers: Pick people who are good readers, the kind of people who read all the time and have lots to say about what they read. My sister, despite the fact that she has nothing to do with literature professionally, is my best reader because she loves to read and she thinks hard about what she reads. She applies the same level of thinking to my WIPs, so when she gives me comments about characters feeling flat or plotlines feeling heavy, I run with it. That's my favorite part of this stage: getting the feedback and applying it to the work.

CONS: While the book is out with beta readers, you have to leave it alone, and if you've written good characters and you're like me, you'll probably start to miss them. For this reason, it can be helpful to give beta readers a deadline: certainly long enough for them to read comfortably, but short enough that you're not twiddling your thumbs, mourning your characters, and considering querying the thing before you actually get feedback.