Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Writing lessons learned from 50 SHADES OF GREY

Women around the world are obsessed with 50 Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, and swooning over main character Christian Grey. I absolutely loved this book, even with its kinky weirdness. At the root of it all is a cool love story, and I'm a sucker for love stories.

From Amazon:

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana's quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too--but on his own terms.

I know this book isn't for everyone...no book is...but despite the haters out there, I learned plenty of writing lessons from this story. The list is long, so I'll choose my favorites:
  • Bestsellers get away with it: The book opens with Ana looking in the mirror, describing herself. A no-no for sure. There were plenty of other situations where I had to knock my inner editor to the curb, or else I wouldn't have enjoyed the story. The book is both beloved and blasted on Goodreads, a sure sign that it got to people one way or another.
  • Reveal main character through friends: One page 2, Ana admits that her friend Kate can talk her in to doing things she doesn't want to do. This is shown and told. This comes in to play heavily later in the story, and the author did a good job of setting up this character detail.
  • If you want readers to like the creepy guy, give them a good reason: It was difficult for me to pinpoint the antagonist in this story, but I'd say it was Christian Grey himself. Sexy, confident, powerful, and a control freak. In real life, we might not even like a guy this arrogant. But he takes good care of Ana, and I respect him for that. Even Grey calls himself "fifty shades of f-ed." Finding out why he's this way kept me glued to the pages. Like Ana, I have a love/hate relationship with Christian Grey. (mostly love <3)
  • When a character relinquishes control, it creates a strong reaction with readers: Ana definitely gave up some control of her own life in a way that makes most people uncomfortable. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine any of the women in my life handing over this much control to a guy. When Ana does this, it creates a strong, internal reaction in women.
  • Create complicated characters: Without giving too much away, Grey is kind and alluring, but has an extreme dark side. Ana is strong and independent, but she's willing to submit. These complicated characters, and the choices they make, keep things interesting.
  • Hint at a painful memory: Grey won't let Ana touch his chest, and rarely lets her see it. A story was there in those actions, and I was intrigued. His backstory is one of the reasons I couldn't put the book down.
  • Show flirty dialogue through emails: One of my favorite parts of the story was the flirty email exchanges between Ana and Christian Grey. With one short sentence, so much personality was revealed. I felt like a stalker who reads personal emails.
  • Indie authors can hit it big: We all know Amanda Hocking's story, but I was shocked to learn that 50 Shades was originally self-published. I have no idea how many times it was rejected by agents and publishers, but this is an excellent example of readers speaking with their dollars, and calling the shots. *Update: See Jami Gold's comment below. This book wasn't self-published, but it definitely didn't start out the "traditional" way.
What's your opinion of these writing lessons? And fess up, have you read this book? Know of anyone who has? If you read it, did you keep the cover hidden? (I almost did, but in a rare bout of courage, I didn't)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Teens and Required Summer Reading

My son is heading into his Sophomore year of high school, and like most high school students, he has a list of required summer reading. I picked up his books from the library, and he grumbled about spending his summer reading books he doesn't want to read. "My friends said these books are really bad," and "They even smell old." It's a big topic of discussion between his friends on Facebook.

I have mixed emotions about this.

The Positive Side

  • I can understand why teachers do this. Their teaching time has been whittled down, but their teaching requirements have either increased or remained the same. They have a lot of material to cram into each school year, and they're doing what they need to do.
  • Required reading exposes kids to books they ordinarily wouldn't read. One of the books I was required to read (during the school year, not summer) was To Kill a Mockingbird. To this day, it remains one of my favorite books.

The Negative Side

  • We consider summer to be relaxed, family time. Our kids work hard for their good grades during the school year, and we feel that summer is the time to kick back and have fun. Required reading is a summer storm cloud that hangs over my son's head. Reading is one of my favorite summer pastimes, but my son would rather be hanging out with friends.
  • If kids could read any book they wanted, and write a report about it, there would probably be a lot less grumbling. I can relate to kids wanting to read what interests them. In high school, if someone had forced me to set aside Danielle Steel novels for the summer (stop laughing), I would've been very upset. Like adults, kids have different reading tastes. 

There is a direct correlation between forced reading and my son's reading habits. He's always loved nonfiction, and couldn't get enough of it. Novels? Not so much. Besides the Hunger Games trilogy, he isn't interested in fiction.

When he was forced to read from a certain list, his interest in reading lessened, and then dropped off a cliff. Perhaps it's his age...I don't know, he's my oldest. My hope is that once he's able to read what he wants, he'll become interested in reading again.

On the one hand, as a writer and avid reader, it saddens me that my son doesn't want to read during the summer. On the other hand, I can relate to his frustration about reading books he's not interested in during a time of rest.

What's your take on this? If you're a parent and went through this with your teens, did they eventually love reading? If you're a teen, do you welcome required summer reading? If you're a teacher, am I on or off the mark about why teachers assign summer reading? Any tips for making it easier on the kids?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Writing lessons learned from SEA

I recently finished SEA, by Heidi R. Kling. Here's a blurb from the inside cover:

Despite recurring nightmares about her mother's death and her own fear of flying, fifteen-year-old Sienna accepts her father's birthday gift to fly to Indonesia with his team of disaster relief workers to help victims of a recent tsunami, never suspecting that this experience will change her life forever.

Here are the writing lessons I learned from this book:

  • Hint at history: Sienna (aka "Sea") hints at a romantic history with her bff's hunky older brother, Spider (love that name). It was just a hint, but I was curious and wanted to know what went sour between them, and why Sea now keeps her distance from the likable surfer dude.
  • Establish crippling fear early: Sienna's mom disappeared in a plane crash over the Indian Ocean, and now Sienna is terrified of flying and the sea. When her father buys her a plane ticket to visit Indonesia, we already know this is an epic fear of Sienna's.
  • Use real tragedy as a plot point: This story takes place during the aftermath of the horrific tsunami of 2004. While reading the story, I remembered the news images, and how entire towns had been wiped out. It added authenticity to the story.
  • Early empathy: In the opening pages, we learn about Sienna's mom's death. The main character doesn't feel sorry for herself, but she definitely has lingering scars. The reader empathizes with her, and wishes things were better for her.
  • Create shared experiences between characters: Sienna helps in an Indonesian orphanage, where kids who have lost both parents in the tsunami now live. Although she still has her father, Sienna relates to the orphans, and their extreme sense of loss.
  • Show character through sacrifice: Toward the end of the story, Sienna is faced with a decision--keep the truth to herself and hurt someone she loves, or share information and break her own heart. It's a tough choice, and Sienna's character is revealed when she makes her final decision.
  • Consider a story within a story: Spider and Sienna remember a story they were told as children--a story about how their town, El Angel Miguel, got its name. It begins with a sea captain in the 1800s whose "great and only love died very young. He was so heartbroken that he vowed to never step foot on land again. He'd sail the seas forever and never return to the homeland that stole his true love." For a moment I was taken out of the larger story, and enjoyed this little sidebar.
Sarah Ockler, author of Twenty Boy Summer, wrote this: "Sea is a richly woven story as turbulent and beautiful as the sea itself...A touching and romantic debut." 

I agree!

Have you read Sea? And what are your opinions of the writing lessons? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What if our publishing dreams don't come true?


How would you answer the following question?

If I never sign with an agent, or sell this book, or the next book, or reach bestseller status, I'll:

a. Jump off a bridge
b. Park my car in front of a speeding train
c. Bitterly mope through life
d. Be just fine

Hopefully no one who reads this post gets any bitter, suicidal thoughts! I'll share a secret with you: I really, really want to get published. Most writers do. We read, we learn, we write, we take a deep breath and put our work out there, and we persevere. But this I know for sure: If I never win the literary lotto, I'll still have peace in my heart.


Here's the deal: Last week, while on a cruise with my family, I sat by the pool, reading a captivating book. I had one of those light-shot-through-the-sky-and-angels-singing moments. No one saw or heard it but me, but it happened. I swear.

I'm at peace with my writing journey, no matter where it leads, because I'm counting my blessings. My family is healthy. My husband has a good job. We have a home. We have two cars that are old, but still fire up when we turn the keys. I have the ability to read great stories, and I have the skills to write my own.

While waiting in a buffet line, my husband had a conversation with a woman who was cruising with her daughter. Her 18-year-old daughter was born with Down Syndrome, and now has stage four cancer. They're at a point in their lives where they are living in the moment, and enjoying each day together.

Talk about perspective.

Wherever our writing journeys take us, hopefully we're at peace with it. We're reading amazing stories. We're writing. We're discussing books and writing with each other. Hopefully we can count our blessings along the way.

Because heck...if all our dreams don't come true, then death by train or bridge, or bitterly moping through life, would sure be a waste.

What's your take on this? If all your literary dreams don't come true, how would you feel? Does putting it all in perspective help? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What We Can Learn From Beta Reads

If you're lucky enough to have critique partners or beta readers, you know how priceless they are in our writing journeys. I've learned so many great lessons from the process, and I'd like to share a few here.

What I've learned from reading my partners' pages:

--They're extremely talented, and each time I read their work, I learn more about pacing, flow, language, and character. *waves to Lisa and Leslie*

--We all improve with each manuscript we write. The evidence is clear--the more we write, the better we become. The verdict? Keep writing!

--For me, it's easier to read a novel as a whole, instead of batches of 10-15 pages or so. I remain immersed in the story world, and feel I can offer better critiques.

--If I think it, I should say it. If I think a paragraph or word choice is brilliant, I need to let the writer know. If a section confused me, I need to say that, too. I used to remain quiet, afraid my thoughts would seem ridiculous, but now I know better. We are experienced readers, and if something jumps out at us, whether it's a compliment or a constructive comment, we need to let our partners know.

What I've learned from my partners' critiques:

--Again, they're brilliant. They catch the best stuff! Even if I've combed through the manuscript ten times, I still miss lots of things--big and small. Which brings me to my next point...

--My partners' time is valuable. I won't send them my work until I've read through it multiple times and addressed anything that caught my eye. Once I think the manuscript is clean but crappy, and I should delete the whole file, that's when I send it to my beta readers.

--Marinate on their comments. Once I receive my document back, I read through all the comments. But I don't start working right away. I gush my thanks to my partners, and then I think about their comments for several days. By the time I come back to it, the critique is much clearer and I'm ready to work out the kinks.

--Value every comment. If it caught my reader's eye, then something needs fixing. I address each point with care, and appreciate the thought that went into it.

--Can't think of an easy solution to a story problem? Don't rush it. I keep a list of points I haven't easily addressed. I'll stew over solutions for as long as it takes. No sense leaping into a solution that won't work well.

--Ask for help. I know that if I can't come up with a solution, my partners are willing and able to help me brainstorm. All I have to do is ask. And if their critiques include a possible solution to a story problem? I'm not too proud to use it!

Criticism is tough to take, and in most cases, tough to hand out--even if it's constructive. As a collective unit, we are all trying to improve, and beta reads help us do just that.

How does your critique group or beta read partnership work? If  you have helpful tips for the rest of us, please share in the comments.

Need a reading partner? Mention that in the comments, as well as what genre you write. Maybe some of you can pair up. Plus, I've heard of people meeting in the WriteOnCon and Query Tracker forums.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Writers on Vacation

Raise your hand if you can relate to the above comic...

*raises hand*

I laughed out loud when I first saw it, because yes, our writer brains rarely shut off.

On Monday, my family and I will set sail on a cruise. While I won't officially be writing, I have a feeling my write-brained self might have other plans. I'll place zero pressure on myself, but I'll bring a pencil and an empty notebook just in case I want to do the following:

  • Character sketches--Hairy dude in a Speedo doing the Limbo; whiney, tired children wearing floaties on their arms; teens flirting by the pool; multi-cultural cruise staff. We never know when we'll feature these characters in our books. Might as well take notes.
  • Scenery details--Cruise ship amenities; sandy beaches; bright blue water. Even if we never use them, it's helpful to jot down location details while they're fresh in our minds.
  • Sensory details--Coconut scented oil; reggae music; mariachi band; crusty salt on the rim of a margarita glass; sweaty neck while wearing the lifejacket during the emergency drill. If we're using location details from our vacation spots, we can't forget the senses.
  • Lessons learned from vacation reading--As usual, I will have a blank sheet of notebook paper slipped between the pages of my summer reading. If valuable lessons stand out, it's helpful to write them down.

If I do absolutely none of these things, will I feel guilty? Nope. We must remember to not only write about life, but to live it. 

What are your summer plans? Any vacations? Staycations? Do you write at all when you're gone, or do you leave it all behind?

Note: I'll skip my next two regular posting days, July 10th and 14th, and be back on the 17th. See you then!

photo credit

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Splash! Scenes From a Water Park

It's summer. We live in Southern California. We have three sons. Yep, we make trips to the water park!

If you write YA, perhaps your MC works at a water park and stalks a hunky lifeguard. If you write MG, maybe your MC visits a water park with her friends and there's drama drama drama. If you write adult fiction, your frazzled MC might take her kids to the water park so she can have peace and quiet and read a book (Not that I'm referring to myself. No way.)

If your character visits a water park, here are a few things she can expect to see:

The People
  • Barefoot teen lifeguards--girls: red one-piece bathings suits (sorta Baywatch style). Guys: red trunks; bronze chests shaved; some backne. All: blue fanny packs/first aid kits around their waists. 
  • Babies with sodden diapers
  • Tattooed dads pushing baby strollers
  • A pregnant woman wearing a two-piece bathing suit
  • 15-year-old teens making out on a lounge chair (awkward!)
  • Teen guys walking in circles around the park, swagger on full display for teen girls
  • Teen girls walking around the park, flipping wet hair
  • Middle grade kids running barefoot on the hot walkway, jumping from one shady spot to another
The Sounds
  • Running water
  • Bare feet slapping concrete
  • Babies crying
  • Conversations in Spanish
  • Whistles blown by lifeguards
  • Laughing
  • Squealing on slides
  • Thump of inflatable tubes exiting slide & landing in water
  • Horn at wave pool announcing incoming waves
The Scenery
  • Black or white tubes and slides looping through the sky, with water rushing down
  • Blue and white striped cabanas with small, sandy areas in front
  • White lounge chairs reserved with colorful beach towels
  • People walking or floating in the lazy river
  • Leaves and stray hairs floating in the lazy river (Ick! My personal pet peeve)
  • Water that gets cloudier with each hour
  • Bright blue and yellow circle tubes leaning against posts or piled high at ride exits
  • Pizza, funnel cakes, large souvenir cups
The Smells

Shelley Trammell reminded me about the smells. How could I forget that? Here are her suggestions:
  • Suntan oil/lotion
  • Sweaty bodies
  • Chlorinated water
  • Concession stand food
  • Landscaped flower beds
  • Musty locker room
Like malls, water parks are great places for people watching. Have you been to a water park lately? What details have I missed?