Saturday, June 30, 2012

iTunes University for Writers

Have you been to iTunes University yet? It's a cool app where lectures by university professors are available for free. Here's the description from Apple:

The iTunes U app gives you access to complete courses from leading universities and other schools--plus the world's largest digital catalog of free education content--right on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch. Whether you're majoring in molecular biology at a university, taking Spanish in high school, or just interested in European history, you now have a valuable tool to help you learn anytime, anywhere.

When I first heard about iTunes U, I wondered if there were any goodies for writers. And yep, there are! All you have to do is download the free  iTunes U app.

Here are some podcasts that might interest you (BTW, I couldn't bring up links on my Macbook, only on my iPhone. Operator error? Perhaps!):

Search Results for "Writing"
Writing Creatively: Fiction
Writing Creatively: Plays
Writing Creatively: Poetry
Mass Communication Writing (Blogging, Advertising)
Advanced Research and Writing
Criminal Justice Research and Writing

Search Results for "Literature"
Postcolonial Literature for Children
History of Children's Literature
Studies in World Literatures
Genres in Children's Literature
12th Grade British Literature

Search Results for "Storytelling"
Using Digital Storytelling to Facilitate and Inspire Student Learning and Creativity

Search Results for "Characterization"
Literary Concepts Made Easy

Search Results for "Books"
Classroom Applications for Media-rich Interactive Books

Search Results for "Book Publishing"
Continuing Studies: Writing

Search Results for "Book Marketing"
Stanford Professional Publishing Courses

And just because she's awesome...Search Results for "Austen"
The Novels of Jane Austen

The course list is huge! It was fun to search and search and search and see all that's available out there for us. Not only for writing, but for anything else that interests us. Cool, huh?

Have you heard of iTunes U? Have you listened to any of the podcasts? Or studied the course material? I'd love to hear your opinion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Writing lessons learned from MATCHED

I finally read MATCHED, by Ally Condie, and once I finished the first chapter, I couldn't stop. I dragged that book with me everywhere. And, wow, wow, wow. I totally loved it all--the story, the characters, and most of all, the writing style. Ally Condie won a new fan.

From Goodreads: Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate...until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

I have a long list of writing lessons learned from this fabulous book, but I'll list my favorites:

  • Give readers time to know the MC before "the change"--Too often I think we have to jump directly to the time where things change for our main characters. MATCHED begins with action, since we meet Cassia on the way to her Match banquet. We're given a chance to know her, and how she views her world. We get to know her best friend, Xander, and how he fits into her life. I was entertained from the start, and began liking each character right away. By the time of the inciting incident, I cared.
  • Give characters a job that matters to the story--Cassia is an expert at sorting data and finding patterns. Her dad sorts through material at an old library. Her mom works at the Arboretum. I had a feeling that each of these vocations would play a part in the story, and the author didn't disappoint.
  • Make the MC uncomfortable--Cassia is forced to not only sort data, but eventually sort people. This made Cassia, and me, the reader, totally uncomfortable. She knew her sort would impact the lives of real people, and the stakes were high. My stomach tightened during this entire scene...a sign that it was well-written and well-paced.
  • If a rule-follower will later rebel, show early signs that it's possible--Cassia learned that she's not the first rule-follower in her family to show signs of rebellion. Her grandfather slipped her a forbidden poem. Her father broke the rules for people he loved. This showed us that Cassia had it in her, so when she took her turn breaking the rules, it made sense.
  • Give the main characters a shared secret--Cassia and Ky, the boy who is not her Match, share secrets that connect them. Ky knows about Cassia's forbidden poem, and she catches him writing in script, which is also forbidden. They conspire to keep these secrets between them, and this small seed shows they have it in them to break the rules.
  • Create sympathy for an antagonist--During one scene, Cassia's artifact, her most prized possession, is collected by an Official. The Official is the antagonist in this scene, but Cassia noticed the Official had a band of white skin where her ring had been. This Official had also lost something valuable, which made it difficult to hate her. We learn that Cassia's father is also an Official, and she knows her father is only doing his job when he enforces the rules. Quite a predicament.
  • Use a poem or other written work to enforce a theme--Cassia's grandfather gave her a gift in the form of the Dylan Thomas poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night." Such a cool link to the past for a futuristic story. The words "do not go gentle" became part of the bigger theme of the story, and perfectly described Cassia's character arc from rule-follower to someone who did not go gentle.
Have you read MATCHED? Have you seen these writing tips in books you've read, or have you used them yourself? Any great tips you can share from your favorite book?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Challenge & Satisfaction

Right now I'm really struggling through a revision. I love the story, and I know what I want the end product to be. But getting from here to there? Oy.

The other day I thought to myself, Self? Why do you bother? If you close this laptop and stop knocking your head against the wall, it will not cause a ripple in the real world. 

But then I remembered why I bother. I remembered the readers I'm trying to reach, and how they deserve a worthy story. But on a personal level, I remembered the joy of the challenge, and the blissful satisfaction I feel when I get it right.

The Challenge

I liken my current manuscript to a cotton shirt that's been sitting in the bottom of the laundry basket. A shirt with nooks and tucks and crevices, with wrinkles big and small. I have a warm iron, and I press, press, press that shirt. Some of the wrinkles soften, but don't disappear. But if I adjust that iron, amp up the heat, that will help. If I add water for steam and press harder, that will help. More than anything else, I need to take my time and work out the wrinkles.

The Satisfaction

I also need to remember that my last book used to be a wrinkled mess as well. And I need to remember how much time it took to smooth out the rough spots and add interest. And I need to remember how awesome it felt when I read the final passages and thought, Wow, I did it.

We can all remember this: our story worlds, our characters, our plots were created by us. They wouldn't have existed otherwise, and the exact books won't exist again. Our story wrinkles are temporary, and if we're willing to take the time to smooth them out, we'll be glad in the end.

Writing good fiction is quite a challenge, but we can focus on those times when we're inspired and the words flow. Or even when we aren't inspired and we write anyway. And we can focus on the times when we tweak and tweak and tweak until the sentence works so well you get that squishy feeling in your stomach, or your eyes well with tears. 

Yep, that's what I'm focusing on now as I struggle through this revision. How about you? Have you ever wondered what's the point? Do you then remember the challenge and satisfaction?

photo credit

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Writing lessons learned from THIS BURNS MY HEART

I won This Burns My Heart, by Samuel Park, on Sarah Skilton's blog, and enjoyed it every bit as much as I thought I would. From the reading group guide:

Set in South Korea during the 1960s, This Burns My Heart centers on Soo-Ja, an ambitious young woman who finds herself trapped in an unhappy, controlling marriage. She struggles to give her daughter a better life and to overcome the oppression of her husband, while pining for the man she truly loves. Ultimately she must make her own way in a society caught between tradition and modernity.

Here are some writing lessons I learned from this book:

  • Give a logical reason why the MC makes a life-altering decision: Soo-Ja's poor marriage choice changed the course of her life. Why did she make this bad decision? Ambition. She married a man she didn't love, thinking he was her ticket to Seoul. She believed he'd allow her to be a diplomat, which was her goal in life. 
  • Cultural details add flavor: I know almost nothing about South Korean culture, and I was fascinated by well-placed details. The wife of the oldest sibling must take care of all the other siblings. Parents of marriage-aged children paid a matchmaker to iron out details of marriage ahead of time, including finances. Sons were coveted, and women went to great lengths to conceive a boy, such as not running, not walking up stairs, and not talking about "serious matters." I felt like I was learning history while also enjoying a captivating story.
  • Cultural realities add conflict: in Soo-Ja's world, honor and respect were at the top of the priority list. This dictated what decisions were made, despite the consequences. The duties of each character--daughter, father, elder, and first son--were made clear. 
  • Use a child as leverage: not only a child, but anything or anyone who matters most to the main character. In Soo-Ja's case, she knew the law would side with her husband and force her to relinquish her daughter if she sought a divorce. This kept her tethered to her husband. As parents, we understand why Soo-Ja would do anything to stay with her child. Freedom at the expense of your child? Unthinkable for most parents. 
  • When it comes to romance, keep the main players at arm's length: without giving too much away, I'll just say that Park did a great job of keeping Soo-Ja and her true love apart. Not always geographically apart, but they were far apart from what they really wanted, which was to be together. This kept the tension high. All the way until the end, I was rooting for Soo-Ja and Yul to find happiness.
What do you think of these writing lessons? Do they ring true for you? And have you read a book which highlighted a different culture? What cool things did you learn?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day Inspiration

Tomorrow is Father's Day here in the U.S., and although every day is truly Father's Day, this holiday is a great reminder to cherish dads and let them know how much we appreciate them.

One of my favorite memories of my dad, who died seven years ago, is how he loved terrible candy. He liked orange slices, Jujyfruits, and those fake orange peanuts. Could this be why I love candy too much? Perhaps :) I used my dad as inspiration for a dad in an earlier novel. Maybe no one else besides my betas will ever read it, but still, it was cool to memorialize him this way.

One of my favorite memories of my husband as a dad is watching him trudge through our house wearing all three boys. Arms and legs stuck out at odd angles, like a walking tree with knobby branches.

If you're a dad, I hope you spend the day doing what you love most. Kick back in a hammock, drink a cold one, and let everyone spoil you. But before you do that, take a moment to enjoy these quotes about dads:

"My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say, "You're tearing up the grass." "We're not raising grass," Dad would reply. "We're raising boys." -- Harmon Killebrew

"A truly rich man is one whose children run into his arms when his hands are empty." -- unknown

"It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons." -- Johann Schiller

"A good father is one of the most unsung, unpriced, unnoticed, and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society." -- Billy Graham

Ok, your turn. Care to share your favorite dad memory? And have you written about your dad, whether it was about good or bad memories?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

WHAT? Writers Must Be 3 Amigos At Once?

I'm reading "Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress, and I'm lovin' it. Will it become my new obsession, like Plot & Structure? Time will tell! But I'll be sharing some of the cool tidbits from this book.

Nancy Kress points out that the most important aspect of creating great characters, even more important than craft, is that " must learn to be three people at once: writer, character, and reader."

Hmmm. Sounds intimidating at first, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I've done a bit of this naturally, but it was great to be reminded of why we need to switch sombreros.

(1) Writer

Obvious, right? We're thinking about pacing, word choice, mood, and dialogue. We're referring to our plot notes (if you're a plotter) or capturing ideas as they come to you (if you're a pantser). We want to be sure our spelling and grammar are correct.

We might even be thinking ahead to markets, and what our agent or editor will think of our story. This is our Writer sombrero, and it's totally important that we wear it. Cuz you know, otherwise stuff won't get written.

(2) Character

Here's where we step into our character's skin. We draw from past experiences so we can add depth and authenticity. Like, when our character is embarrassed, and we remember our most shameful moment, and our neck burns. We're inside our character's head and imagining what she'd say.

Even with our villains, there's that little evil side of ourselves who comes out to play when we're setting up failure for our MC. Happiness, frustration, shame, fear...we've experienced these emotions ourselves, and we empathize, and hopefully succeed in transferring emotions to the page.

During these moments, we are the character. This is our Character sombrero, and it's important that we wear this one, too. It makes our characters real.

(3) Reader

Ahh, this is where we step back and view our work as an outsider would. The reader doesn't know all the details we've worked out in our heads. She doesn't know that we've drawn upon real experiences to add authenticity. She isn't aware of the steps we've taken to foreshadow future events. She doesn't even care. All she cares about is what's on the page.

Kress points this out in her book, and it was a lightbulb moment for me. It doesn't matter if I think my character is the most lovable person in the world, and that everyone should root for her. If I didn't build that up properly, it's my bad. But if we step back and read like a reader, and not the writer who already knows every intimate detail of the story, we make progress. This is our Reader sombrero, and as avid readers ourselves, we can relate to how important this step is.

Are you worried about switching sombreros and remembering to do it all? Me too. But Kress reminds us: "Your ability to inhabit all three mind-sets grows with practice. Experienced writers do this without ever thinking about it. Even beginners do it part of the time."

And why go through all this trouble? Kress says: " focusing on character, by making craft choices that build character, by becoming that character, and then by ensuring that all your choices and emotion actually have been translated to the page--by doing all that, you give readers what they want."

And that's what it's all about, right?

Have you ever heard of the three mind-set? Do you do this naturally, or do you force yourself to stop and switch sombreros? I'd love to hear how about your process.

photo credit

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Writing Short Stories & Publishing an Anthology

My talented beta buddies, Lisa Gail Green and Leslie Rose, have teamed up with author Ian Kezsbom and published a cool anthology, Journeys of Wonder (edited by Deborah Pasachoff).

Most of you already know Lisa and Leslie, and their awesomeness is worth soaking up. So I thought we'd ask them a few questions about writing shorts stories and publishing an anthology.

Ready? Here goes: *dons Barbara Walters hat*

Me: How is writing short stories different and similar to writing full-length novels?

Leslie: If I may whip out a theatrical analogy - a short story is a one-act play and a novel is a piece long enough to require an intermission for a bathroom break. I find the immediacy of short stories much more intimidating. You have to do everything you do in a novel: craft fully realized characters, create conflict, build a world, toss all the chess pieces into action, and complete their arc in a compressed storytelling format. I appreciate the way a short story focuses on one strong thread, but I do miss the weaving of multiple layers/subplots that the length of a novel allows for.

Lisa: I started out writing short stories and poetry, so for me it's natural. It was the novel that scared me - until I did it! Nothing compares to the feeling of actually finishing a real book. But short stories are fun, they allow you to explore ideas and characters you might not otherwise take on. You have to get to the point and you can't really deal with subplots (though sometimes I sneak them in) and you are limited to how many characters you can really get into. But there have been several short stories that have given me ideas that later turned into full fledged novels.

Me: Did writing short stories beef up your novel writing skills? If so, how?

Lisa: ANY writing helps beef up novel writing skills. Not only does it force you to focus on streamlining plot and character, the publishing experience itself is an AWESOME lesson for any aspiring novelist. You work with editing and copy-editing, acquisitions, and even marketing.

Leslie: Oh, for the love of my grandmother's headcheese sandwich, yes. Talk about raising the stakes of accountability for every word. No slop, filter words, or superfluous adjectives allowed within the succinct form of a short story. They've given me a sharper eye to delineate between fluff and substance in my novels. The engine of a short story must keep revving through every word. I now refuse to accept anything less than that energy level in my novels.

Me: You both write for the Young Adult market, and this anthology is marketed toward adults. Was it tough to put on your "grown up" hat?

Leslie: I don't own a "grown up" hat. In fact the only hat I own is a Star Wars baseball hat. I'm too immature to cross all the way over to adulthood. My story would fall into the "new adult" category which is the transition from YA to adult.

Lisa: It was kind of fun! Though many of the stories in the anthology could be considered YA or YA crossover. My characters tend to be on the younger side (early twenties for example in BLACKOUT). But it's also neat to not hold back AT ALL. I never realized that I actually did until I wrote that one. But adults deal with issues that teens may not be so concerned with yet and vice versa. Though obviously there are many issues that overlap.

Me: What is your overall impression of crafting and publishing your own anthology? Any advice you can offer other writers?

Lisa: It was tricky at times, though Ian (Kezsbom) and Deborah (Pasachoff) did most of the hard stuff (formatting, etc.). We learned a lot from the experience though and I think the coolest part is actually having access to information I never get from other anthologies I've participated in. Things like sales numbers and where we are on the charts. I guess in retrospect I could have looked up at least the latter! But I was clueless. This forces me to take more of an active interest. Advice?? If an opportunity comes along - take it. It can only be a learning experience. But with self-publishing as a project on your own, I'd still caution that you have to do it right. Have a plan and make SURE it's edited appropriately and that you've taken the time to put in as much work as you would have with a published novel. You want your best work out there.

Leslie: We were fortunate to be a part of a talented team in creating Journeys of Wonder. My jaw is still dragging along the floor at the huge amount of work that goes into self-publishing. We used a professional model for the process. It was never about just tossing something out there. It was always about quality and excellence. As for advice, I'd say make sure you don't skimp on any part of the process, either creative or technical. Align yourself with people who are serious and professional about turning out a product comparable to the best that's out there.

Are they amazing or what? Blogging buddies, have you ever published in an anthology? Or have you self-published your work? If so, is there anything else you'd like to add?

Interested in owning a copy of Journeys of Wonder? Here are the deets:

Journeys of Wonder--A new Anthology of Genre Fiction

Journeys of Wonder is a new anthology of genre fiction. We've assembled three talented writers to bring you five chilling tales that are guaranteed to keep you up at night - or at least make you turn on the lights.
Featured in Volume 1, June 2012:
1. The Door by Ian Kezsbom: Six people are stuck in a room with no memory of how they got there while a fear of the unknown keeps them from opening the only exit they have.
2. Blackout by Lisa Gail Green: A terrifying tale of a young woman whose memory is shattered and a creepy neighbor who is not all that he seems.
3. Infinity by Ian Kezsbom: Two brothers, forced to travel through time to save the world from an unspeakable evil, have little idea of what they have actually gotten themselves into.
4. Eye of the Wolf by Lisa Gail Green: A young girl struggles against the power of the full moon as she tries to hide her deadly secret from her family.
5. Afterdeath by Leslie S. Rose: In a future where our journey beyond death is no longer a mystery, the promise of eternal love waits, unless you break the rules.

On sale only at now! $.99 or free through the Amazon Prime lending library!

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Writing About Painful Memories

When my son was three years old, he burned his foot on the motor of our ATV. Specialty doctors treated the 3rd degree burn with a painful skin graft, and the wound took several months to heal.

As parents, we wish we could absorb our child's pain and anguish. Each time I changed my son's bandages, I experienced shame and guilt. How could I have let my son wear sandals that day? What kind of parent was I? These are strong emotions, and I still struggle with them.

As writers, we have a unique outlet for painful memories. How do we channel that emotion? For me, it came out in story form. It wasn't intentional, it just happened. One of the characters in my story sustained severe burns in a California wild fire, and my main character was at fault.

I related to how my main character felt--horror, regret, shame. I related to how he wished he could go back in time and erase that event from their history. I related to his desire to make things better for the burn survivor. The fictional event was different from our real-life event, but the emotions were the same.

I'm not qualified to give advice on this subject, but I can offer my thoughts. When we write about a painful memory, here are things we can consider:

Pain Level--There's no denying that there are some memories too painful to write about.

Time--I wasn't ready to write about the event soon after it happened. I was too caught up in the current situation. I didn't even journalize it. With time, the emotions were less raw, but still strong. Time tempered the severity, but not the impact of the event itself. We can write about the subjects that trouble us, and hopefully this will aid in the healing process.

Healing--Has any healing taken place? If so, it seems to me that it's a good time to write about it. The writing will take us deeper into the pain, and then help bring us out. My hope is that my experience brought authenticity to the manuscript.

Let it Come--I didn't set out to write a burn story. My plan wasn't to dump all that baggage into a manuscript. It just happened naturally, and to me, it seems this is the best way. If we set out to write a fictional account of a painful event, maybe we don't have enough space or clarity to make it readable for others.

Hope--For me, the timing was right because my son's injury was healed and almost forgotten by him. By then we'd connected with other burn survivors from the Grossman Burn Center. We knew that life goes on after a severe burn, and that there are other families out there who help each other. This gave me perspective.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King wrote this:

"You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being...You should use them in your work."

The scar on my son's foot is light and barely visible. Same with the scar on this mother's heart. But it is there. Writing about a painful experience, even in a blog post such as this, is one way to turn a negative into a positive.

Have you ever written about a painful experience? Was it in fiction, nonfiction, or in a journal? Did it help you sort it all out? What else should we consider when doing this? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

photo credit

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Need Inspiration Today?

A young boy in Ohio ran one of the most inspirational races I've ever seen. He has spastic cerebral palsy, and could've sat out the race. But he didn't. If you haven't viewed this yet, and if you have a couple of minutes, I encourage you to watch this won't regret it. (Read the full story here.)

Matt totally inspired me. You know who else inspired me? His classmates, who ran alongside him, cheering him on as he crossed the finish line. It reminded me that we don't have to finish first, or even finish the strongest. We need to enjoy our own journey, and cross our own finish lines the best that we can.

Need more encouragement and inspiration today? Check out these quotes:

"The more difficulties one has to encounter, within and without, the more significant and the higher in inspiration his life will be." -- Horace Bushnell

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened." -- Helen Keller

"Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can't be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people." -- Lee Iacocca

"Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us." -- Samuel Smiles

"When the best things are not possible, the best may be made of those that are." -- Richard Hooker

If you watched the video, did you need a tissue? And who or what has inspired you lately? Please share!