Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Writers, are you running in circles?

Do you ever feel like you're running in circles? Like you're stopping at the same Gatorade stations and passing the same landmarks without gaining any traction? Well, me too.

Maybe it's because we're so focused on what's in front of us--the current rewrite, the plotting snag, or runaway characters. Or maybe it's because something happens that makes us feel as if we're back at the starting line. Whatever the reason, here's what I try to do when I feel like I'm running in circles:

When we slow down or stop, we're able to see that these landmarks aren't the same after all. Our battle with exposition or telling aren't what they used to be. Our character development is no longer flat and uninspiring. Our skills are improved. Not perfect, but better. With each rotation we're widening our circle and gaining knowledge.

We need to remember where we were last week, or last month, or last year. What's happened since then? How have we improved in that short time frame? We may not think it's a lot, but it is. Even if we're still frustrated by lack of polish, representation, or a contract, it's important that we pat ourselves on the back for all that we've accomplished.

Start running again
Once we appreciate our growth, hopefully it'll give us the extra boost we need to keep racing toward that finish line. We can't win if we don't play, so we must guzzle the Gatorade, shake the sweat off our limbs, and run another lap.

Encourage fellow runners
How many times did you feel like quitting until someone shouted at you from the sidelines? That's what we can do for each other. Each runner shares the same worthy goal, and it's fun to cheer each other on as we race forward.

It's easy (and I think normal) for us to get caught up with frustration and worry. But in my opinion, we need to remember that life is short, and to be thankful we're in the race.

Do you ever feel like you're running in circles? And if so, how do you handle it? We could all use some tips!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Writer Rewind--Remembering Friday Night Lights

I had the pleasure of hearing Libba Bray speak at a local conference. One of the many wise things she said still stands out in my mind--when writng for teens, it's important to remember. Remember how we felt as we navigated those tricky social waters. The fears, the angst, and the drama. And remember the good times, too.

Some of my favorite memories of high school are the Friday night football games. Now that my son plays on the high school JV team, I get to take a walk down memory lane each Friday night.

Kenny Chesney's song "Boys of Fall" opens with these words: "When I feel that chill and smell that fresh cut grass, I'm back in my helmet, cleats, and shoulder pads." For me, that sums up autumns during my high school years. Not because I played football, but because um, I was a cheerleader (no hating, please).

Here are some of my vivid Friday night memories:
  • Doing an offense cheer when we didn't have the ball. #fail. Sorry to say, I still don't understand the game completely. You could explain it until you're blue in the face and my eyes would still glaze over. But the atmosphere is fun!
  • My boyfriend (now husband) argued with players from the opposing team and got kicked out of the game. Hey, those players ran through our players' banner at half time, and that is a hangable offense in high school.
  • Fellow students talking trash about our team, no matter how well our guys played.
  • The marching band and drill team performing at half time.
  • Students hanging out beneath the bleachers doing who-knows-what (well, I know, but I don't really want to know).
  • Piling into the local pizza place after a home game.
  • The rides home from an away game were rowdy when our team won, and somber when they lost.
One of my characters is on the football team, and I hope I successfully infused some of my fond memories of Friday night lights. But no matter what, it sure is fun to remember those days, and to watch my son experience it for himself.

What's one of your best high school memories? And if you're still in high school, do you enjoy going to the football games?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Avoid Avoidance

My home isn't spotless...I think I've made that clear on this blog. But each room is tidy except for two--our kids' rooms. When I walk by their rooms I'm struck with conflicting desires...one, to step inside and tidy it, and the other, to close the door and pretend it doesn't exist.

Guess which one wins? Yep, I close the door. After all, if I can't see the mess, it's not really there, right? *head in sand*

Sometimes I experience these same feelings with messy parts in my manuscript. It could be a scene that needs tweaking, or an entire section might need reconstruction. When it's the latter, I tend to shut the door for a little while.

I'm no expert on this stuff, but when I catch myself avoiding a difficult writing task, here's what's worked for me:
  1. Acknowledge the problem. It's a huge step in the right direction if critique partners, beta readers, or editors noticed a troublesome section or a tricky character issue. At least you have the benefit of focus. If you know something's not quite right, but can't pinpoint the problem, try running your manuscript through a scene grinder. I talked about how I accomplished this in my post about Performing Plot CPR.
  2. Stew over multiple solutions. James Scott Bell talks about this a lot in his craft books. We need to give ourselves down time in order to work solutions out in our heads. Closing the door on my mess wasn't necessarily a bad thing as long as I kept my mind working on solutions. When ideas popped into my head, I added them to a growing list and chose my favorites.
  3. Formulate a plan. How will you tackle the problem? Big issues first, then the smaller problems? Smaller problems first, just to get you warmed up? One pass each for characters, transitions, or weak verbs? Knowing the plan ahead of time can help keep us focused when we ... SQUIRREL! (you know what I'm talking about!)
  4. Dive in. This part is where I've struggled. I get myself psyched up about needing to make it right this time around. My husband gave me some great advice, even though he's not a writer. He suggested I not worry so much about making it right, but focus on making it better with each pass. That freed me up to dig in and make changes, knowing this revision wasn't the revision.
So there you have it--my tips for avoiding avoidance. What works for you when you want to close the door on your messy manuscript?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Teens, dialogue, and TMI

I participate in two carpools with two families involving six kids from the ages of 11-14. It's all I can do to remember whose turn it is to pick up whom at what time. You should see my calendar...it's crazy.

But I wouldn't trade those moments in the car for any amount of money. My sons are growing way too fast, and I gobble up those concentrated moments between here and there.

The most tender moments are those between me and my 14-year-old son, just the two of us, discussing life, girls, classes, dreams. The craziest moments? When I've had six JV football players stuffed in my car, gear bags and all (pre-practice, so my nose was lucky).

Real conversation, I kid you not:

"Dude, are you wearing your cup?"
"Yeah, you?"
"In your strap?"
"Nah, in my girdle."
"Dude, it'll move around in there."

*invisible mommy driver blushes*

As a YA writer, this type of dialogue is the treasure Indiana Jones would wrestle snakes for. And it's interesting to hear how different the boys talk when girls are in the car--and how much Axe body spray is used in the process.

Carpooling reminds me that today's kids have many of the same concerns we did:
  • Capturing the attention of the person they're crushing on
  • Peer pressure/trying to fit in
  • Worries about homework
  • Balancing the precarious social life at school
It's also interesting to note the things modern teens worry about that we didn't:
  • Will that embarrassing text be forward to everyone?
  • How could she post that on Facebook? Doesn't she realize it's now public?
  • I'm only 14, do I really need to know what I want to do with the rest of my life?
As a writer, my ears are perked up and listening. As a mom, I'm enjoying every mile.

Can you add something that today's teens are concerned about? Or have you overheard some funny/interesting/crazy teen dialogue? Please share!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Studying Mr. Darcy--the likable unlikable character

My husband and sons were gone on a scouting trip this past weekend. In their absence, I got lots of writing done, but can you guess what else I did?

a. Frolicked at clubs late into the night
b. Threw a wild party at home until the cops broke it up
c. Watched Pride and Prejudice, in my jammies, for the 112th time

No contest--Mr. Darcy will always win. My favorite is the Colin Firth version...tall black boots, breeches, the damp white shirt clinging to his skin after he swims in the lake...

Now where was I?

Ok, this time my indulgence was work-related. Seriously. I'm studying unlikable characters, and although Mr. Darcy is one of my favorite characters of all time, he starts out as a real jerk. This time I paid close attention to how the lovely Ms. Austen turned a real cad into the dreamboat we know and love.

When we first meet Darcy, here is how I'd describe him:
  • Cold
  • Moody
  • Snobbish
  • Contemptuous
  • Vain
  • Cynical
  • Proud
We don't feel this way for long, though. Austen provides little nuggets early on, which helps the reader/viewer question this original impression. We learn from others that Darcy is a loyal friend to Bingley, and that he's devoted to his little sister, Georgiana. He can't be all that bad, right?

And then Elizabeth Bennet throws him off his game. She doesn't cling to him, trying to catch his attention. Instead she's independent, opinionated, and she laughs at him. She doesn't like Darcy at all, and this tilts his privileged world off balance.

Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth, but when he pronounces this love, he botches it. Big time. We feel sympathy for him, especially when Elizabeth rejects him. And as the story unfolds, we learn the following about Darcy:
  • He is honorable (respected his dying father's wishes)
  • He's been betrayed (darn you Mr. Wickham!)
  • He is silently generous (rescues the Bennet name, despite Lydia's ruinous actions)
  • He loves deeply (wants to marry Elizabeth, despite her embarrassing family)
So there you have it--my thoughts on how Darcy goes from bad to rad at lightning speed. Do you have a favorite unlikable character? And if you're a fan of the Pride and Prejudice movies, which version is your favorite?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Talent vs. Hard Work

Terri Guiliano Long wrote a wonderful post that really resonated with me. If you haven't read it yet, I strongly urge you to jump over and read Why Work Matters More Than Talent.

*elevator music plays*

In summary, she asks these questions:
  1. What is talent, anyway?
  2. If we can't define talent, how can we possibly know if we have it?
She makes an excellent point that with writing, we control how hard we work. We each have varying levels of talent, and yet it's the hard work that makes the biggest difference. An incredibly talented writer won't get very far if she fails to produce pages or improve her skills. Likewise, a s0-so writer can work hard, learn new things every day, and spring ahead. I find that comforting.

It's fair to say that most of us probably have days when we feel like talentless hacks. (Or is that just me?) Feeling that way on one day doesn't mean we don't have talent. It just means we're having an off day. We have the choice to either quit or keep working, and I know most of us choose to keep working.

Long quotes Stephen King's yardstick for talent--"you wrote something for which someone sent you a check...you cashed the check and it didn't bounce." Even if you've never received money for your writing, have you improved with each piece you've written? Has an online magazine published your work? Has an agent requested a partial or full? Doesn't this prove you have talent?

We can't control what other people think of our words, but thankfully we're blessed with the opportunity to nurture our talent through hard work.

If you read Long's post, were you inspired? And what's your opinion on talent vs. hard work? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

And if you need additional inspiration, be sure to read Tahereh Mafi's post Don't Be Afraid to Write a Bad Book. It's amazing.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

One Teen Reader's Thoughts About YA Literature

Friends, I have a special treat for you today. My beautiful niece, Amanda, has agreed to answer some questions about books on my blog. She's 17 and a senior in high school. I thought it would be fun to get an honest snapshot of one teen reader's opinion of YA literature. Whether you write young adult fiction or not, it's fun to see what's on a teen's mind. Here goes:

Amanda, what genre of books do you like to read?
"I like romance novels, and dystopian. I read Two Way Street, which was really good. I loved Hunger Games, and I'm now reading Catching Fire. I'm so nervous for Katniss!"

What types of books do your friends like to read?
"They also like romance books, like guy meets girl stories. And they also love a good mystery."

Can you tell us what draws you and your friends to these types of books?
"We get to live vicariously through the characters. It's fun to see ourselves in the character's lives, instead of going back to our own, less exciting lives."

What do you like and dislike in romance novels?
"It's exciting to read about romance, and experience it along with the characters. Graphic sex can ruin it, though. We want to use our imaginations. I like it when the writer outlines what's happening, without going into too much detail."

What's something you don't like in YA novels?
"A bad ending. Like, when an important character that you love dies. If the book doesn't end well, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

What might surprise writers to learn about teen readers?
"Maybe it's that teens do love to read, but it takes a special spark to get us hooked. All through school we have books forced onto us that really don't interest us at all. A book needs that certain catch. For instance, a book the school makes us read catches the attention of an adult but not necessarily a teen. Our minds work differently, but if you hit it just right it'll spark our interest. Don't think so much like an adult."

What would you like writers to know about teens?
"We're deep thinkers. We pick up on details and connect them to other parts of the story. We get it."

Amanda, thank you so much!

Writers, did Amanda's answers surprise you? How did they compare with what you already knew about teen readers?

If you'd like to ask Amanda more questions, feel free to do so in the comments. We could do a follow-up post on another date!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Writing lessons learned from A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL

BAD BOY, by Tanya Lee Stone, was a quick, powerful read. I blew through it in one afternoon. This is the first novel in verse that I've read, and although it took me a few pages to get used to the style, I soon became comfortable with it and enjoyed the story.

From Goodreads: Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva all get mixed up with a senior boy--a cool, slick, sexy boy who can talk them into doing almost anything he wants. In a blur of high school hormones and person doubt, each girl struggles with how much to give up and what to ultimately keep for herself. A bad boy may always be a bad boy, but this bad boy is about to meet three girls who won't back down.

Here's what I learned from this book:
  1. Economy of words = major impact. The book begins, "I'm not stuck up. I'm confident. There's a big difference." So much voice and character in those three lines. The author didn't waste words on unnecessary scenery or backstory.
  2. Choose a title that asks a question that begs to be answered. Throughout the entire book I kept wondering how in the heck a bad boy, this guy who is awful to these girls, could possibly be good for them. That alone kept me glued to the pages, and the ending didn't disappoint.
  3. Tie a current book into the plot. In this case it was Forever by Judy Blume. One of the scorned girls uses the pages of this book to warn other girls about the bad boy, which I think is something teens can relate to. And besides, I've never read Forever and now I must!
  4. If done right, sex in YA can be a powerful tool. (Insert sex joke here). But seriously, in this book, sex serves a unique purpose. I'd imagine many teen readers related to what these characters went through.
Libba Bray wrote the following: "Meet Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva--three girls who've got something to tell you that you definitely want to hear. Tanya Lee Stone has written a book that's crawl-under-the-skin true, filled with humor, hope, and a little heartbreak, and the kind of tell-it-like-it-is wisdom that comes from your best girlfriends. It's irresistible."

What do you think of the above points? And if you've read this book, what was your opinion?