Monday, January 28, 2013

It's All About The Story

Have you ever put down a book after reading it and asked yourself, “How did this ever get published?  And where was the editor?”  Have you ever said, “I write so much better than this.  My dog writes better than this.”  Have you ever wondered how these books, and these authors get published, while you’re sitting there with a technical masterpiece that no one shows the slightest interest in?  If that’s the case, you may want to look over your masterpiece one more time with an eye not on the writing, but on the story.
Most readers, adult or children, do not read books because they can’t get enough of wonderful metaphors.  Those who do are probably picking up literary novels, not commercial best-sellers.

Most people read for story.  They want to be able to fall into the life of someone doing something exciting, or different, something they would probably love to do themselves, but never will.  People who read romance are in it for the romance.  People who read historicals want to be brought to another place and time.  People who read horror want to be scared.  And people who read adventures want the adventure.  Your job as a writer is to give them what they want, in whatever genre you choose to write in.

So what is your story about?  Is it something new and exciting, or is it the same old stuff writers have been writing about for ages?  If it is the same old stuff, have you given it an original and exciting twist, something that makes it stand out from the rest?  Does it contain tension and suspense?  Is there conflict, a reason to keep turning the pages?  Do you make your reader feel what the main character feels?

Look at the success of the Eragon and Twilight series.  Neither is particularly well written, but each writer told a story that worked for millions of readers.  Millions, not thousands.

Eragon was a hero’s story, a boy goes on a quest.  It’s been done a million times.  Why was Paolini’s such a big success?  Because everybody dreams of being a hero, everyone wants to win, and he gave them that opportunity in the pages of his books.  And there is something about dragons that appeals to so many.  But the biggie, I think, is because he followed a formula that so many best sellers seem to have - the chase, the escape, then rest, think, regroup.  The chase, the escape, more rest, rethinking, and regrouping.

Paolini’s characters do this continuously throughout the story until the climax.  It’s Tolkien’s formula in Lord of the Rings.  It’s the formula used in so many suspense thrillers.  The tension and suspense never let up, and the conflict continually grows bigger and bigger.

Was it a conscious decision of Paolini’s, or had he simply learned it through osmosis while reading others?  I don’t know.  But it’s there, and it works.  For millions.  Constant action, constant movement, and always a new problem.  The reader has to turn the page because they’re involved in the story, and they don’t care if Paolini used lay instead of lie, or if his infinitives are split.

Meyer also used an old story that’s been done a million times – boy meets girl – a typical romance.  But she gave it a great twist.  The boy her heroine falls in love with is a vampire.  And she didn’t stop there.  She didn’t make her vampire a typical vampire.  She reinvented the vampire to suit her story.

So, how many teenage girls are there who don’t love a romance?  And how many romance readers, teen and adult, are there in this great big world of ours?  Enough to keep Harlequin in business for years and years and years.  And how many of them are going – A romance with a vampire?  That’s different. I gotta check that out.

Then there are the horror readers.  A vampire falling in love with a human?  And a love triangle between a human, vampire and werewolf?  I gotta see what that’s all about.

And let’s not forget the paranormal readers, who like to delve into the lives or vampires and werewolves and anything else unexplainable.

Meyer gave readers something they hadn’t seen before, something that appealed to a broad range of people - people who bought the book on just the promise of a story, and once they started reading, they didn’t care about her overuse of adverbs and bad dialogue tags.

Now this isn’t to say you should just write your story and forget about the quality of the writing.  I believe Paolini and Meyers were writing to the best of their abilities at the time they wrote their books.  It seems evident when reading the sequels, where the writing gets progressively better.  The point is it really is all about the story.  If no one is interested in what you have to say, the fact that you say it in a lovely way doesn’t matter.  Put a very well-written, okay story on an editor’s desk, along with a badly written but fantastic story, and I think an editor will choose the better story every time, regardless of the writing, because the writing can always be made better, and it can be done easily.  It takes far more work to make a dull story exciting.   

So what’s the lesson here?  Well, there are several.

Even if you’re a beginning writer, if you have a great story to tell, you can get published.

If you’ve been writing for a number of years, and your writing skills are pretty good, but you still can’t seem to sell anything, perhaps you should reconsider what you’re writing about.

And when you do write that great story that everyone wants to read, take the time to rewrite it as well as you can because, if a great story, badly written, can sell a million copies, imagine how many copies a great story, wonderfully written, will sell.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Poetry Friday--"Days"

On a January Friday, I thought "Days" would be particularly appropriate.
by Billy Collins

Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your waking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.

Today begins cold and bright,
the ground heavy with snow
and the thick masonry of ice,
the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.

Through the calm eye of the window
everything is in its place
but so precariously
this day might be resting somehow

on the one before it,
all the days of the past stacked high
like the impossible tower of dishes
entertainers used to build on stage.

No wonder you find yourself
perched on the top of a tall ladder
hoping to add one more.
Just another Wednesday

you whisper,
then holding your breath,
place this cup on yesterday's saucer
without the slightest clink.

From The Art of Drowning.

It's always good, when you're balancing on a ladder, to have someone standing below to catch you!
Rung Out

one hand
                        s t r e t c h    i    n    g

Got it!

I come down
gingerly placing
a spent bulb
in your open palm
while your other
hand, at last,
lets go.

© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.
Tabatha Yeatts: The Opposite of Indifference is where you'll find the Poetry Friday Round-Up for this week.


Photo by elycefeliz.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Technology dependence

Confession and excuse time, and a recommendation.

It was my turn to blog this week, and  I dropped the ball. And I'm not even going to try to pick it up now. But I am going to make of myself a cautionary tale for writers in the modern age.

Don't disrespect your computer.

I love my laptop. It's red and shiny and not too heavy and we've been through a lot together. But in computer years, it's old. It's official date of being placed in service is only March 31, 2009, but I'm hard on my electronics, stuffing them in bags and hauling them everywhere.

And it has been dying a slow, painful death for several months now, a cascading failure that was exacerbated when I spilled a glass of delicious hard cider in its vicinity, a fair amount of which apparently found its way in through the side ports. Now it runs painfully slowly (it has taken me 12 minutes to type this much of this post). A significant number of its keys don't work, so I keep the character map open for copy and pasting things like the dash, the underscore, and a few numbers. Every once in a while I'll discover another dead key. Sometimes the battery will charge, often it won't. You get the picture.

But I didn't want a new computer. I love my computer. I hated Vista when it came out, but I really don't want to be forced to go to Windows 8. I didn't want the hassle of transferring files. I didn't want to spend the money. And so I put it off. And when I did finally give in, I ordered a computer running Ubuntu. Thus condemning myself to a longer, slower learning curve. And then, the first day of the weekend that was to have been "move to the new computer time," its hard drive failed.


I do have Carbonite, of which I am very glad. (That's the recommendation.  It doesn't need to be Carbonite, but have an automatic backup.) I will, eventually, get my new computer in service, and be able to work at a more normal pace. The nice young technogeek came Monday and reseated the hard drive. Maybe this weekend I'll try it again.

The moral of the story is, in this time, in this profession, your computer is not a luxury or a toy, it's an essential tool, like a truck is for a driver. Keep it tuned up, and know when it's time to retire it. This is no place for sentiment. It's not a child, or even a pet. It's a machine. . . even if we do name them!

Did Louisa May Alcott or Jane Austin mourn the wearing out of a pen, I wonder?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Poetry Friday--"Soap Bubble"

If you're not familiar with the poems of Valerie Worth, then rush right down to your local public library and pick up one her volumes of poetry for kids. Worth has the power to give even the tiniest of things significance. Take for example, "Soap Bubble."
The soap bubble's
Great soft sphere
Bends out of shape
On the air,
Leans, rounds again,
Rises, shivering, heavy,
A planet revolving
Hollow and clear,
Mapped with
Rainbows, streaming,
Curled: seeming
A world too splendid
To snap, dribble,
And disappear.

from More Small Poems.
Here's a talented bubble performer to show us all that art can be made from almost anything!

Drift on over to Violet Nesdoly/poems for this week's Round-Up.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mentor Monday: Strengths and Weaknesses of the First Person Narrative

            Over the years, it has become common for YA authors to use the first person when writing young adult novels. Using first person brings readers into the story in a “You are there” way. First person can be limiting, however, and if you’re thinking of writing your story in first person, read some novels that use this technique before you start. I’d also like to recommend finding a copy of Sherry Garland's Writing for Young Adults. It’s a very good introduction to the YA genre. Garland is well-read and uses many examples of fine YA literature to illustrate points in each chapter:
"Some examples of excellent first person YA novels are Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers and S.E. Hinton's books, The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now."(p. 106)

Hinton sold The Outsiders, her first novel, when she was around sixteen years of age. The book, Garland says, ushered in a new type of YA:

"Many authorities believe that the YA literature revolution erupted in the late 1960's. In a turbulent social and political climate young adults adopted the war cry "tell it like it is," and authors like S. E. Hinton (a teenager herself) emerged, creating fiction with realistic adolescent characters in realistic situations."  (p. 8)

The Outsiders is the story of fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, his brothers (Sodapop and Darry) and their gang. The Curtis brothers have been on their own since the death of their parents.
"Since Mom and Dad were killed in an auto wreck, the three of us get to stay together only as long as we behave. So Soda and I stay out of trouble as much as we can, and we're careful not to get caught when we can't." (p.11)

Garland suggests "part of the process of developing characters is giving them appropriate names. . ." (p.124) In an on-line interview S.E. Hinton said she felt the teen years are ". . .an age when you would like to have an unusual name. It helps establish identity."  (Barnes and Noble Chat Transcripts, December 3, 1997)

I didn't feel Hinton's characters' odd names added anything to our ability to understand who or what the characters were. "Ponyboy" and "Sodapop" would have been more believable as nicknames. But the author says these are the boys’ legal names, given to them by their father:

"My dad was an original person," I said. "I got a brother named Sodapop, and it says so on his birth certificate." (p.30)

I found the idea, that an adult would saddle children with such names, distracting when I first read the book. Then Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. But I digress…
Sometimes I got lost in Hinton's novel and other times I was thrown so far out of it I wondered why she bothered to use first person at all. Author intrusion is prevalent. I am amazed Hinton's editor let so much of it pass:

"Soda is handsomer than anyone else I know. . .He's not as tall as Darry, and he's a little slimmer, but he has a finely drawn, sensitive face that somehow manages to be reckless and thoughtful at the same time." (p. 16, italics mine) 

I could not imagine any fourteen-year-old describing a sibling in that way. S. E. Hinton may have been a well-read teen, but Hinton was not being true to Ponyboy's character with such flowery language. I will even risk being politically incorrect when I say that I was also not convinced this was language a boy would use—at least not the boy she was trying to create.

Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels makes a useful counterpoint. Compare Myers' protagonist, Richard Perry, describing a soldier just arriving in Viet Nam:

"One of the new guys who came in was from Fort Dix. He looked like one of the characters in an Archie Andrews comic, but he was so scared it wasn't funny. He told us his name was Jenkins." (p. 20 Fallen Angels)

            In Fallen Angels, Myers' character, Richard Perry, tells about his tour of duty in Vietnam. Perry is educated, and, like Ponyboy Curtis, well-read, yet his description of the new guy in the platoon, while sparse, accomplishes a great deal. Reference to the Archie comic books not only brings readers into the 60's with Perry but allows us to participate in the description of the character. We add our own details to Jenkins with our own mental references to Archie, Reggie and Jughead.

Sherry Garland suggests that dialogue can be used to convey the setting of a novel:
". . .dialogue is a shortcut that eliminates the need for long passages of description." (p. 133) 

Both Hinton and Myers present their novels' settings through the use of dialogue. Myers sets his novel's scene in the first two pages, preparing the reader in a matter of three sentences:

                        "Somebody must have told them suckers I was coming."
                        "Told who?" I asked.
                        "The Congs, man. Who you think I'm talking about?" (p.3)

I read thirty-one pages of The Outsiders before I realized that the setting was not New York City:
                        "Didn't he use to ride in rodeos?  Saddle bronc?"
            "Yeah. Dad made him quit after he tore a ligament, though. We still hang around rodeos a lot. I've seen you two barrel race. You're good." (p.31)

            Now I can't say that Hinton misleads her audience with suggestions that the setting is specifically New York, but neither does she indicate until the sentences above where the story is set. Bits of description spread throughout the book hint at least at a Big Apple-type setting until suddenly, rodeos are part of the conversation. Once again, I'm catapulted right out of the story while I let my brain process this new information. The knowledge essentially becomes a red herring. Rodeos, horses, and riding are barely mentioned again and have no place in the plot. In an interview, Hinton mentions that she is from Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Write what you know?"  Maybe, but the section reads like an afterthought ("Oh!  Maybe I ought to put something about the setting here.")

            Myers writes what he knows, too. Richard Perry, like the young Walter Dean Myers, is from Harlem and is in the Army. The difference is Myers doesn't ever pull me out of Viet Nam when he is providing this background information.

            Hinton's novel was published in 1967 and is supposed to deal with contemporary themes. Myers' Fallen Angels was published in 1988 but deals with the Vietnam War during 1967-1968. I would have been within the same age-group as the protagonists in both novels, yet I could not relate to the characters in The Outsiders. It was not because I had never been a member of a "greaser" gang. I never fought in Vietnam either. It shouldn't matter. Myers’ book does a better job of "You are there."

            That’s what you want to accomplish, too.  You want your first person story to take the reader intimately along for the protagonist’s ride.  Without throwing the reader out of the story.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Women of Wednesday - Gerda Lerner

Gerda Lerner died this past week on January 2.  She was 92 years old.  If you’re asking yourself ‘Who is Gerda Lerner?’ she was the person who brought Women’s Studies (the history of women) to the world.

Gerda was born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein in Vienna, Austria, on April 30, 1920.  She grew up in a wealthy family and noticed the inequities of life even as a child.  In a house full of servants, she watched her mother drop her books, newspapers, and clothing where she pleased while the servants picked them up.  She didn’t think it was very fair.  And then there was the bat mitzvah incident.  As she prepared herself for the ceremony, she realized Judaism did not allow girls and women to achieve the same positions as men.  She announced she did not believe in God and refused to take part in the ceremony.

As she grew into her teens, Adolph Hitler was growing his Nazi party and, by the time she was 17, he had annexed her homeland.  Her father, a pharmacist with several drug stores, heard he was to be arrested, and fled to Lichtenstein.  The Nazis arrested Gerda and her mother instead.  For six weeks she languished in jail while the Nazi’s hoped her father would return and sign over all he owned to get them back. 

Jail wasn’t easy.  Gerda believed she would either be killed or sent to a concentration camp.  Along with the mental stress, there was also little to eat.  Food for prisoners was minimal, and Jews received even less than others.  But Gerda was lucky.  Two other prisoners - gentile women, arrested for their underground work with the resistance - shared their food with her and her mother.  When Gerda asked them why, they replied, “We’re Socialists.”

Eventually, Gerda was released and joined the resistance.  In 1939, she and her boyfriend escaped Austria and immigrated to America.  They married but the relationship didn’t last.  Gerda was alone in a New York.  She took odd jobs while she learned the language, and wrote stories about the Nazi takeover and occupation.  By 1940, she had met Carl Lerner, a communist and theater director.  They married and moved to California.

Gerda began working with CAW, the Congress of American Women, and by 1946, had helped found the Los Angeles chapter.

“In Vienna, all the people I worked with were women: the people in the jail, the people in the underground . . . I saw women being active in every levelexcept the executive level.”

She continued to write, producing a novel and a musical, and co-authored the screenplay, Black Like Me, with her husband.  She was active in the causes of trade unions, civil rights, anti-militarism, and McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist.  She was also a founding member of NOW, the National Organization of Women.

In the late 1950’s, she decided to go back to school.  She attended the New School for Social Research and went on to get an M.A. and Ph.D from Columbia University.  When she told her professors she wanted to study women’s history, they laughed at her.

 “They made me a laughingstock.  They thought I was crazy.  Graduate school was not a happy experience for me.  I was presented with a narrative of the past in which women did not exist.  I kept saying, ‘Where are the women?’  I was told they were having babies.”

Gerda studied women’s history anyway and wrote her dissertation, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967.)   She found their story to be so fascinating she decided to teach a course on them.  Once again, the men she had to deal with made that difficult.

In 1968, she became a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and started the first program ever to offer a Masters degree in women's history.  She also worked in the civil rights movement, which led her to write Black Women in America:  A Documentary History.

“ . . . when I worked with black women, I was overwhelmed by the talent and persistence of their effort—and their total invisibility.  I was told they left no record.  I knew that to be a lie.  My experience told me that.  This was the first collection of primary sources by black women at a time when everybody told me that it was impossible to do that.”

In 1980, she created the nation's first Ph.D. program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  From 1981 to 1982, she served as president of the Organization of American Historians and helped make women's history accessible to leaders of women's organizations and high school teachers.  In 1993, she wrote The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, which deals with how exclusion from the historical record affects women.  In 1997, she published two more books – Why History Matters:  Life and Thought, and The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke.  In 2002, she published Fireweed:  A Political Autobiography.
Gerda stayed active and involved until the end.  It’s said she ‘even agitated at the Oakwood retirement center in Madison Wisconsin’ where she lived her last few years.

“It’s such a total absurdity that one half of the human population had accrued to itself the pretense that what it did was significant and what the other half did was insignificant.  The emancipation of women is irreversible. You can’t wipe women out.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mentor Monday on Tuesday - Conquering Writer's Block

Most of us have probably experienced writer’s block at one time or another, that frustrating inability to make the words come.  As a beginning writer, I faced it often, but as I learned more and more, the problem arose less and less, and eventually disappeared altogether.  And that has led me to the belief that writer’s block is, perhaps, simply a state of unpreparedness. 

As a beginner, I was a panster.  I made it up as I went along.  I got an idea, played it out in my mind a bit, and started writing.  There was no plotting for me, no outlines, and while I finished several novels, they were long, hard hauls because, sooner or later, I always hit the point where I didn’t know what came next.  I would go for months unable to write a word.  At the time, I didn’t know why.  I knew where I wanted the story to go.  Why couldn’t I make it go there?

Well, now I know.  I didn’t prepare.  I didn’t make the map that would take me from the beginning of my novel to the end, so I had to sit there for days, weeks, months, until I figured out the next part of my story.  Once I did that, the writing came easy again until I got to the next part of my story that I hadn’t figured out.  I wrote five novels that way, and they’re decent, but they’re not good enough to sell.  I call them my learning novels.

 And then I wrote novel number six, which I still didn’t plot or outline on paper, but I did have it all in my head.  I wrote 50,000 words in four days.  No writer’s block.  And it was a much better novel than any I had previously written. 

Now, I still don’t do outlines because it’s my nature to add way more than I really need, and my outlines turn out almost as long as the novel, but I do plot.  On paper.  It’s not one event after another.  It’s the opening, the inciting incident that gets the ball rolling, and then the major events along the way, until I reach the climax and ending.  Then I flip the paper over and do the same thing for the internal plot.  It’s generally only 7-10 lines each, and when I’m done, I throw it away because it stays in my head.  It takes me from beginning to end, and I have never had writer’s block since I started doing that. 

 It seems a no-brainer now.  Plan ahead.  But when you’re just starting out and you think you’re doing the right thing, you’re not looking for a different way.  What I did worked for me.  Sure, I had those bouts of writer’s block to deal with, but I was completing novels.  Why would I do anything differently?  I thought that was just a normal part of writing.

What I’ve since learned is that it doesn’t have to be.  It’s like driving from Boston to L.A.  If you have a map, whether on paper or in your head, and you’re aware of all the detours and construction along the way, you’re going to get to your destination quicker and easier than someone who doesn’t.  They’ll eventually get there, too, but it won’t be as easily or as fast. 

So take the time to make the map.  It doesn’t have to be my way or someone else’s way.  Maybe a synopsis will work for you, or a chapter by chapter outline.  Whatever it is that works best for you, do it.  Yes, it’s tedious, especially when you want to just dive into the writing, but in the end, it pays off.  You’ll always know where you’re going, and you’ll eliminate all the logic problems and dead ends before you start.  And it’ll be a much smoother ride.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Poetry Friday: Dark Birds

All the dark birds,
but one,
rush from the river
leaving only the stillness
of their language.

                 -- Anita Endrezze, Yaqui

You can check out more great poems at Matt Forrest's blog, Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Women of Wednesday: Lucretia Mott

Tomorrow (Jan. 3) is the birthday of Lucretia Mott, one of the better-known heroes of the woman’s suffrage movement. Write Sister Janet Buell profiled Lucretia in the Massachusetts volume of the America’s Notable Women Series, Women of the Bay State. She was in many ways similar to many of the other women suffragists, and yet, of course, unique. Two hundred and twenty years after her birth, she continues to inspire those who seeing wrong, try to correct it. We can best honor her, and the many others who worked with her, by identifying the injustices in our own world, and working to eliminate them.

Born to Quaker parents in Philadelphia at the end of the eighteenth century, Lucretia Coffin grew up on the island of Nantucket. At 13 she was sent to boarding school off-island, to a Quaker school in the Hudson valley region of New York. The school had been coeducational from its founding in 1797, and it was there that Lucretia met her future husband, James Mott. Her family moved to Philadelphia while she was at Nine Partners, and when Lucretia and James married, they settled in that city as well. Lucretia was very active in the thriving Quaker community there, especially in the rapidly-developing abolitionist movement. Even while her children were small she held leadership positions in Philadelphia, as they became independent she traveled across the northeast, organizing and speaking at anti-slavery events.

Many of the women who worked to outlaw slavery in the mid-nineteenth century developed a parallel interest in woman’s rights. Their experience in leadership among the abolitionists gave them the confidence to turn their considerable expertise and passion to the cause of their sisters. Lucretia met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, when the women attendees were forced to sit behind a screen! Eight years later, of course, the seminal Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls marked the beginning of the struggle for suffrage for women in the United States (although voting rights resolution was the only one of the original eleven that the convention did not pass unanimously). Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the Declaration of Sentiments and Lucretia Mott was the first to sign it. Until the Civil War, most of the women continued to divide their efforts between abolition and women’s rights. In 1866, Lucretia was elected to be the first president of the Equal Rights Association. For the remainder of her long and active life, she campaigned for the rights of women, not only to vote but be educated, to own and inherit property, to have custody of their children, and other basic rights so fundamental that we sometimes forget they were once denied to us.

Only one of the signers of the 1848 Declaration (Charlotte Woodward) lived long enough to vote in the federal election in 1920. The example of Lucretia Mott and her sisters reminds us that “justice for all” is worth the struggle, even if we personally will not reap the benefits.

Happy Birthday, Lucretia.