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Friday, April 27, 2012

It's Fiction, I SWEAR!

I went out with a friend for dinner last night. Said friend had recently finished reading Searching the Skies, and I was eager to hear his thoughts. Part of the book deals with the main character's issues with her parents, specifically her mother. In our discussion of the book, my friend told me he had been wondering if my writings had granted him an insight into the relationship between me and my own mother.

It didn't. In fact, I think my words to him were, "No, I pulled that bit of plot out of my butt." (I'm a classy woman.) My mom and I are actually really close. Don't get me wrong, we've had our screaming fights before (find me one mother/daughter duo who hasn't), but we usually get along very well. I am extremely lucky in that both she and my father have always been 100% supportive of everything I've done.

In thinking it over more, I guess it was a pretty awesome compliment. Apparently, I wrote this strained relationship so well, my friend thought it was based on truth. In the past, I've been asked how much of the characters I write is based on myself, and the answer varies. I think it's inevitable that some of the author will leak out into the characters/plots/situations, but I can clearly recall plenty of occasions where I've written a protagonist I don't think is anything like myself, or times when my main character reacts in a way that is the opposite of what I would have done.

Don't get me wrong. I think I'm awesome. I like myself (probably a bit too much, no self-esteem problems over here). I think I lead a pretty decent life. All these things are good, but where's the fun in writing about that? Even if I like being myself, it's a good challenge to imagine being other people, people who are nothing like me in places that are nothing like my own little bubble of a world. Regardless of whether they're suffering through drama or living happily ever after, stabbing an enemy in the face or sipping tea by the fireplace, the different personality traits are what makes it interesting. If I'm really lucky, it's not only interesting to me, but the readers as well.

I've written characters with a large number of siblings, yet I'm an only child. I've written from the point of view of men, yet I am decidedly female. And let's be honest here - while I like writing about strong, ass-kicking women, were I in some of the positions I've put my characters into, my reaction would be to hide under the couch. Tears and pants-wetting would probably be involved.

Maybe, as is frequently the case, I'm approaching this the wrong way. Maybe instead of writing who we are, we write who we want to be. We write about the places we'd like to find ourselves in and the people we want to surround us. Not all the time, of course, as I think that could also get dull. Plot thrives on conflict and drama, and if our own idea of utopia is set up from the first page and stays perfect, I doubt readers would want to continue reading. Perhaps it's in the responses to and handling of that conflict in which we project how we want all our problems to be solved.

My next project is going to have a lot of shady characters and not very likable people. The heroes may do some not-so-nice things. I don't really want to be any of them. (I know, I just contradicted a lot of the previous paragraph.) Even so, there's bound to be a little "me" in there, even if it's just in how a character faces adversity in an admirable way, because that's the way I want my world to work. Not everything's going to have a happy ending, but if I write about the realists accepting that simple fact, I've already inserted myself into the story.

Oh, and any time a character says something especially witty or snarky? That's me all over.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This is My Descriptive Title

Writing is an art. Our words are our tools in our chosen medium, and we slave over picking the perfect combination to convey what's been bouncing around inside our heads. Sometimes we strive to find the appropriate prose to describe our humanity, the heart-rending emotions that either make us grateful to get out of bed every morning or chip away at us until we want to slit our wrists. Other times, we just want to find another descriptor for "cock" in an alien threesome scene. There's lots of middle ground, of course.

In the never-ending quest to clean up my writing and embrace the philosophy of "less is more", I've started wondering - can there be too much description? We want to paint a vivid, accurate picture of what's happening in our stories. We want the readers to see what we see when we close our eyes. We want to breathe life into our characters using only letters on a page.

On the flip side, we also don't want to treat our readers like idiots. If we leave a little wiggle room in our descriptions, it's possible that the reader is able to imprint his/her own ideas, and become more immersed in the plot and invested in the characters. Perhaps they even want to become our heroes and live vicariously through our tales of triumph.

To repeat my previous statement: there's lots of middle ground. We all fear the dreaded purple prose. We don't want our points to get bogged down in a lot of frills. There's probably a cake/icing analogy in here somewhere, but I'm the person who will scrape off the icing with my finger to eat it and leave the cake behind, so I'd better not go there. At the same time, we don't want our prose to be dry and boring (much like cake!). There has to be something in there that grabs the readers and draws them in to our fictional worlds.

So far, I've been trying to keep a few "rules" in mind. Don't ask me who wrote these rules, these are just some suggested guidelines I've picked up here and there along the way. I used to have an untamed love for adverbs, but I'm finally realizing how useless most of them are. Snip! Only when a verb actually needs to be emphasized, or if the adverb changes the likely interpretation of the verb, do I dare to throw in one of my beloved -ly words.

I've been trying to cut down on a lot of adjectives, too. Very rarely does a noun need a whole slew of descriptors. I'm trying to limit myself to one or two per sentence (if that), and I think it really does help the rhythm of my writing.

Dialogue tags have been covered by a lot of other people in a lot of different places. I won't try to re-invent the wheel. But yeah, I try to use "screamed", "whispered", "said adverbly", etc. in moderation now. The more you use something, the less effective it becomes, so I figure if someone only whispers something once in two chapters, that's got to be a big deal, right? (Maybe.)

This is just the dangerously pointy tip of the cold, jagged, unforgiving iceberg. (Gotcha!) There's no "right" way of doing things, nor is there some magical formula that will give us the perfect level of description. And as always, this is completely, totally, 100% subjective. One man's trash is another man's brilliantly sparkling treasure.

Check this out!

I'll write a longer post later tonight or tomorrow, but in the meantime, go entertain yourselves with the Voices of Fiction project. The first of my answers is featured today, and there will be more to come! Thanks, Cher!

Friday, April 20, 2012

All the Voices in Our Heads

I've frequently been told I write the way I talk. I've also been told that "the way I talk" = "never shutting the hell up, ever". Some people have speculated that I have gills to assist me in breathing, because I never, ever stop.

It's a fair assessment. I don't argue it. In some ways, it made it easier for me to start writing. If I just write down what's in my head, I can fill pages. Sure, a lot of it would be meaningless crap, but hey! There's got to be a few diamonds in there somewhere.

In addition to blathering on and on without ever taking a breath, I'm also a bit of a smartass. Sometimes that works to my advantage in my writing. Other times, I want to turn off the smartass switch and find it difficult. I almost feel like there's an element of my "haha, I can't believe people are actually reading this smut" voice that I don't know if I'll ever get rid of. (Note: Thank you for reading. I really do love you all, and I will strive to bring you all the smut you could ever want.)

Toning down my speaking voice was also a challenge when I really got down to cleaning up my prose. An anecdote that will lend a little backstory to my life's woes: One night in college, my two friends and I left a party (kind of drunk) to walk back to our respective dorms. One friend's dorm was closest to the party, followed by mine, followed by the other friend's. When we got to the first friend's dorm, the two of them decided to have sex with each other. Okay. Why the hell not. I didn't want to walk back to my dorm alone, so I decided to wait out in the hallway. (Ah, college.)

Unperturbed, I sprawled out on the hallway floor and grabbed my cell phone to call my best friend. I then proceeded to talk his ear off for at least an hour until my battery died. According to him, I stopped talking exactly twice - once when I got up to go to the water fountain, and once when I forgot to breathe and ran out of air. True story.

Getting to the point: I speak in run-on sentences. I never reach a period. I just keep going, and going, and then I see something interesting over here, and I talk about that, and then I want to tell you about this really cool thing that happened to me on Saturday night, but first, in order for you to understand it, I need to tell you about the friends I was with for you to truly understand, and it's a really funny story, and you should imagine me making all sorts of excited gestures and silly facial expressions as I speak, because I like to be the center of attention and I enjoy putting on a show.

Being my friend can sometimes be exhausting.

My next book has reached the final editing stages. One of the things I've learned since I've started pursuing writing more seriously, especially since I had the opportunity to work with professional editors, is that short sentences are okay. Not everything needs a conjunction. One should not abuse the comma. Periods are your friends!

Even as I read for pleasure, I can't help but take notes about what works and what doesn't. I think I've finally learned that sometimes, the old saying is true: less is more. Short sentences can carry a great impact. They can build tension.

Any technique can be abused. I'm not going to always write like this. It would get boring. It isn't me. You'd get annoyed. There is no variation. Thea yawned.

After my first book went through the rigors of editing, I found it a little difficult to get back into writing. I had all this NEW INFORMATION crammed into my head, and I was afraid of making "mistakes". I wanted to follow the rules, but I didn't want to lose my voice. There's a balance in there somewhere. I just needed to find it.

I'd like to think I'm getting better. I think I came closer to striking that balance in this upcoming book. Whether or not I'll ever completely reach it remains to be seen. For now, I just have to decide which voice in my head to listen to more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Let's Have a Heated Discussion! - When to Edit

I finished writing the epilogue of my latest book last night. Obviously, I was overjoyed and felt an overwhelming sense of relief. The celebrating was, however, tempered by knowing what's coming up next: editing. Lots of editing. A shitload of editing. Editing.

I have a confession to make: I'm one of those people who edits as she goes. *ducks for cover* For this book, there are five parts and an interlude (Part Five is very short). Whenever I reached the end of a part, I would go through and do a light edit. Also along those lines, I'm one of those people who, when stuck on a particularly irritating line, paragraph, or even scene that just isn't coming together, I will stay there until I can pick it apart and work it out. I know myself, and if I say "Oh, I'll just deal with it later"...I won't. I will gloss over it and it will be crap, and I may not have the ability or drive to un-crap it later on.

I know that there are writers out there who are clutching their pearls at my grave sins. I know a lot of people suggest, or even recommend, just sitting down to writewritewritewritewritewrite and just get the damn words out, and you can always fine-tune it later (or trash chunks of it completely). It's not a bad plan. If it works for you, awesome! It's not my style. While I'm always looking to improve, and I'm not opposed to forcing myself to break bad habits, for now, I'm going to stick with this routine. And if that sometimes means I'm going at a snail's pace when it comes to my writing, I can live with that for now.

Those of you who read that blurb to your right will see that I'm a knitter/crocheter. Years ago, I read in some knitting book or magazine that it was a good idea to take the time to take a good look at your work-in-progress every now and then. Sometimes, it's just to say, "Wow, this is nice! I'm so talented!" Sometimes, unfortunately, you notice something that just isn't working and needs to be fixed or changed before it has a negative effect on the whole project. Sure, you can always fix that ugly ribbing on your sweater later, but doesn't it sort of bug you knowing that it's there?

That said, I know that doing some editing as I go along doesn't really cut down on the editing I'll have to do now. I know my aforementioned bad habits. I half-joke that my final word count will go down by about 10,000 due to all the unnecessary words I'll cut. I'll probably have to go to the fridge and grab a beer for at least one brutal "what the FUCK was I thinking when I wrote that?!" moment.

Editing is rarely fun. It's usually an ego-deflating pain in the ass. (I'll do my best to remain chipper here, though!) But I owe it to my characters to make sure their story is told to the best of my ability. Considering that some of them have the ability to smite me without breaking a sweat, I'd better do a good job.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Infinite World of Possibility (or, Video Games! Woo-Hoo!)

If you owned a computer in the 1990s, chances are you heard of a little game called Myst. I won't go into details as to how wildly popular it was, or how it changed the face of gaming, as all that's already been well-documented in various places. However, it's important to note that there were a bunch of sequels, and, perhaps more importantly, three tie-in novels. All of this is incredibly relevant when discussing the development of a cute little girl with blonde pigtails.

I'll admit to not completely loving the game at first. To be fair, I was probably too young for it when I first started playing it, and I relied heavily on the guidance of my neighbor (who had been the one to introduce me to gaming). Also, I was a rather neurotic child (who grew into a rather neurotic adult), and even though dying is pretty damn difficult in Myst games, parts of it scared me a little.

A few years later, I was able to appreciate it more. Around the same time I got older and wiser (or at least graduated to middle school), I learned about the books and devoured them. By the time both the long-awaited sequel and the third book came out, I was completely enamored with this series, and wanted to immerse myself in this fictional world.

I had a friend who was just as much of a fan as I was. (Here I'm going to out us as total nerds.) We developed a code language based on symbols from the games. Our nicknames for each other were from characters in the books. And in our truest moments of hard-core geekery, we would sit up in my room and pretend we were writing the books that would link us to new worlds of our own imagining (and a little part of us would be disappointed when they didn't work).

Well over a decade and various sequels later, I still love it. I really do. I'll admit that I haven't played the last two games yet (still waiting for the price to come down...) and I am sorely disappointed that there were never any more novels, but the series still holds a certain magic for me. And now, as I write my own stories, I think the influence is blatantly obvious if you know what you're looking for.

This scene inspired the setting for an interlude in my second book. Also, I really do look like that.
Now that I'm even older and even wiser (maybe), I'm trying to figure out what made that series so special. What grabbed hold of my imagination and refused to let it go? What made a part of me truly believe, as I sat in my room with my friend, that the simple act of putting words on a page could unlock a portal to the other side of the universe, a place only I could see?

In discussions on writing fantasy, there is much talk of "world-building". What sort of society are you creating, how does the environment of your world affect the people, what laws do they have, what are their morals and values...I could go on for pages. The creators of Myst took it a step further: they built a world about world-builders. Ooh, meta. By writing descriptive books, the characters would link to other worlds. Writing was a highly-respected art form, and with that skill, they could literally travel anywhere they could dream up.

There were rules, of course, and one had to be responsible and treat the worlds that were created with respect. But I think the concept seared in my mind forever was the idea that nearly anything is possible. Want to create a world with three suns, two moons, and a purple sky? Go for it. How about a planet three times the size of ours, with various races and cultures? It's all yours. Some of the worlds were quite complex - that screenshot up there was grabbed from a world with wildly different rotating phases, created by a man who wanted to convince people that he had the ability to control the passage of time. I say again: anything is possible.

I know a lot of people roll their eyes at fantasy as a genre, but that endless possibility calls to me. It's a great exercise in creativity - how far can I push the boundaries of believability? How can I make a wild, surreal idea the most natural thing ever for a reader? How can I not only show someone what's inside my head, but drag them into it and make them never want to leave?

You know, as I try to wrap up this blog post, it occurs to me that I'm probably waaaay overthinking things. Maybe the point the creators were trying to drive home is quite simple: Books are awesome. Books will take you places. Love books, and they will love you in return.

Even as an adult, there's still that teeny tiny part of me that thinks every time I open a new book and touch the page/screen of my e-reader, I'm going to hear the "linking" sound effect and be physically whisked away to a different time and place. It could happen one day. Anything's possible, right?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Pirates vs. Vampires vs. Vikings (vs. Zombies?)

Sometimes pop culture trends surprise me. I admit that the element of surprise may come from me occasionally having my head up my butt when it comes to "popular" things, but I think it's safe to say that no one really knows what's going to take the world by storm next. Every now and then, the trends actually seem to make sense. Other times, I'm left scratching my head, saying, "...buh?"

Back in the day, I went to a midnight screening of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie with my friends. I'd seen the first movie and liked it well enough, so I didn't kick up a fuss when this outing was planned (I'm not really a movie person). Women of all ages (and hell, men too) were going crazy for Johnny Depp/Captain Jack Sparrow, from buying posters to sleeping/making out with cardboard cutouts of him, and more.

I didn't get it. Pirates are cool from an action/adventure standpoint, I guess, but as sex symbols/love interests? Ergh. Perhaps it's just me being my overly-analytical Type-A personality self, but the hygiene alone is enough of a turnoff for me. Pirates were dirty (in the "unwashed" way, not the "naughty" way). Their hair was likely greasy. Let's not talk about their teeth. And if we're not talking about their teeth, then a conversation about their breath is RIGHT OUT. I know, I know, everything was cleaned up and romanticized for the Hollywood blockbusters, but my mind just refuses to go there. I know that in some circles, pirates are still quite popular, but regardless, there will be no pirate lovin' for me. Next!

As we sat in the theater waiting for the movie to start, we wondered if the next big thing to take off would be vikings. I mean, why not? Vikings are sort of just angrier fur-wearing pirates with blond hair, right? You could even throw some hot little mermaids in there for extra interest and sex appeal, and it would be a jolly good time.

We were wrong. To my knowledge, vikings have yet to experience the great surge in popularity that some other character types have seen. (I know there are romance books out there involving vikings, but as far as I know, none of them have really hit it big. Then again, I refer you to my previous statement of being blissfully ignorant to a lot of pop culture.) Even as I think about it now, I'm not really sure why. Many ladies out there seem to love an alpha male, and vikings do have the reputation for pillaging. I was going to say that maybe it was a question of geographic location, but that doesn't make sense. Sure, a pirate ship near a desert island may seem like the sexier setting on the surface, but after thinking about it some more, wouldn't you rather cuddle up to a burly viking to ward off the chill as you cruise around the icebergs?

Mark my words: Sooner or later, there's going to be a wildly popular viking book or movie going mainstream, and vikings will be all the rage. There's a lot of potential. (Me? I'm not going to write it. I'd have to actually do research and read about history and stuff, when I could just be making up shit as I go along while writing smut in outer space.)

After the pirates, there were the vampires, and I think we all know which series helped kick that into gear. From the limited research I've done, vampires have shown no signs of dying out just yet (har har har). On a purely logical level, I can understand the vampire craze, especially when compared to pirates. Vampires are clean and cultured. They're well-dressed, and when they're awake, they have access to showers and soap. Some of them even have sexy accents. And without divulging too much about my personal life, I can get behind the whole neck-biting thing.

I'm a little lukewarm about the whole undead thing, though. Sex should be hot, steamy, and sweaty (even if you're cuddling under a fur blanket on a viking ship near the coast of Greenland). Cold, clammy vampire flesh doesn't seem all that appealing. Drinking In the world of fiction, I am not morally opposed to it, especially if it's the only thing keeping your lover alive, but I can't really see how it's supposed to be a great turn-on.

While we're on the topic of the undead, zombies have always sort of been around. At the risk of sounding like a bigot, I sleep better at night due to not being aware of any sort of serious zombie romance (as in, a romance between a living human, and a zombie). I'm not even going to run a google search for "zombie romance novel", as the law of the internet demands it exist, and I'd really just prefer not to know. Let's not go there. Really. Call me a prude, but I can't think of a situation in which it would realistically be a charming love story and not just really gross. (Ghost sex, however? I am all over that.)

If a situation presented itself where I was forced to choose a sexual partner from one of these groups, I actually think the vampire would win out. So I guess I'm fine with vampires still being all the range these days. It does sort of make sense. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go fire up the electric blanket.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Good Habits, Bad Habits, In-Between Habits

To kick things off for the OFFICIAL BLOG (yay), I might as well engage in some self-awareness and self-critique. I firmly believe that being able to laugh at oneself is a great trait to have, and I do like to laugh. Besides, if we weren't laughing, we'd be crying, right? Right.

As every writer develops his or her distinctive voice, certain patterns are bound to come out. If we're lucky, those patterns will add a memorable quality to our writing and bolster the value of our work. Sometimes, that's easier said than done. (And by "sometimes", I mean "approximately 95-99% of the time".)

Let's get the bad habits out of the way first. I always say that having the opportunity to work with a professional editor was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Not only did I learn a lot, I was forced to clean up a lot of naughty things that had crept into my prose. (Not the good kind of "naughty".) I knew that some things I'd been doing were bad, and to be honest, I was just being really freakin' lazy. For example, my work was riddled with comma splices, and I couldn't care less.

Guess what? That shit doesn't fly in the real world. (Yes, I know, we could argue for days about what the "rules" are, and why some are good, and why some suck, and when/how/why to break them. Let's leave that alone for now.) Seeing the red pen around every single one of them was enough to get me to shake that habit. I also learned more about commas in the editing process than I ever cared to know (I thought I did pretty well in the punctuation department; I was WRONG), and all sorts of other educational information. The next time I sat down to write, my mind was filled with all sorts of newly-acquired data about the millions of mistakes I could possibly make, and it was definitely slow-going at first. It did get easier, though, and while I am always striving to get better, I like to think my "voice" is stronger because of it.

Now onto more fun occurrences. Over on the Absolute Write forums the other day, someone asked a question about repeated traits, habits, etc. (I'm too lazy to look up the exact wording.) I'd actually been thinking about this for a while - it had been pointed out to me a while ago that a lot of my female characters, at one point or another, bite their lower lips. At first, I freaked out and tried to eliminate it from all future writing, but then I decided that it wasn't the end of the world (obviously). As long as I vary the characters and situations enough, I don't think it's a mortal sin, and I'd rather be getting all worked up over comma splices.

I also noticed that a fair number of my characters wind up in a tree in some way or another. Whatever. Trees are nice. I'll let it go. Others like to eat sandwiches. Why not? A sandwich makes an excellent, convenient meal!

There's always worry about falling into the dreaded trap of the cliche or overused trope. I have mixed feelings about how much time should be devoted to said worrying. Of course we all want to be original and have the world marvel at our astounding creativity, but if you think about it, how many different basic plot lines are there, really? If the writing is good enough, any plot can shine, even if it's a plot that's been done a million and one times before. (If it's a well-known plot, and the writing isn't that great? Sorry, I may not finish reading.)

So what should our focus be when it comes to the little things that keep creeping up in our writing? Beats the hell out of me. (I sometimes like to navel-gaze, I don't claim to have all the answers!) I'm glad that people won't pick up my books and think, "Geez, another comma splice? What the hell is wrong with her?" If I wind up being known as "that woman who writes about sandwich-loving tree dwellers"...well, I think I can live with that.