August 31, 2011

Acting Out

I usually keep my office door closed when I'm writing. It's not that there's too much noise from the rest of the house. It's that I'm often making too much noise inside.

I read my work aloud frequently. Reading aloud is a great way to check that your sentences flow, that dialogue sounds lifelike, and that you haven't accidentally left out any words.

But when I'm writing a big emotional scene, as I so often am lately (this series of confrontations between my characters may drag on forever), I don't simply read the words. I act them out, speaking with the appropriate tone of voice and even the appropriate volume if nobody is in earshot to be disturbed. I wave my hands and stomp around the room and occasionally grimace at myself in the mirror.

There is, I think, a point to doing this. A line of dialogue that sounds perfectly reasonable in a calm conversation might be too long to believably shout in anger. In acting out an argument, I might decide it needs more sputtering and interruptions to convey the level of the fury the characters have worked themselves into. I might realize that a fight fizzles out too suddenly or that the characters have been shouting long enough to make themselves hoarse (I can end up quite worn out after one of these writing sessions).

In all kinds of scenes, I find myself needing to position my body parts in the same way as my characters in order to accurately describe how that looks or feels. (Do I really mean "all kinds of scenes"? That question is left as an exercise for the reader.) How exactly do you explain that hand gesture that means "so-so"? What precisely happens to the eyebrows in a worried expression?

For a few years in high school and college, I wanted to be an actor. I was only so-so at it (that's: "I held out a flat hand and waggled it"), and the desire passed. Now I'm happy to do my acting behind the privacy of my closed door.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mary Robinette Kowal describes her clever strategy for avoiding anachronisms in a novel set in 1815: "I decided to create a Jane Austen word list, from the complete works of Jane Austen, and use that as my spellcheck dictionary. It flagged any word that she didn’t use, which allowed me to look it up to see if it existed."

August 29, 2011

Be Careful What You Repeat

I was sending email to a friend about a book we'd both read and both found problematic. The book had an exciting plot that was bogged down by unnecessary description and repetition.

As I was listing my complaints to my friend, I realized that too much repetition doesn't only leave readers bored and wishing the author would hurry up and get to the new stuff. An even more serious problem with repetition is that readers might be led to incorrectly believe that an oft-repeated detail has some important significance that will be revealed later.

In this particular case, the narrator frequently remarked on the oddness of a certain phenomenon. I spent the whole book waiting to find out the secret cause of the phenomenon and coming up with various theories of my own. At the end, it remained unexplained. This was apparently just an odd occurrence after all.

If the detail had been mentioned only once, I wouldn't have expected it to mean anything extra. The multiple repetitions made it appear highlighted for a reason, but I now think it was just another instance of sloppy writing and editing. Grr.

Writers, take care that what you include in a story, and especially what you repeat, doesn't result in readers focusing on the wrong points -- unless you're doing that deliberately and carefully. Once again, this is one of those areas where getting feedback from early readers is crucial, because it's very difficult to spot in your own work.

I repeat: Get feedback on your work from early readers! There is no substitute for an outside perspective.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins on Obsession: What’s Healthy, What’s Not: "The key to transitioning from one type of obsession (destructive) to the other kind (productive) is very simple: write anyway. Find the doubt, the discomfort, the anxiety, and write anyway."

→ Livia Blackburne dissects the Anatomy of a Death Scene: "Then I started thinking. People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate’s death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings."

August 26, 2011

I'd Rather Be Reading

I've been spending a lot of time writing lately, which is great. As tends to be the case, when the writing is going well, there doesn't seem to be as much time left in the day for reading. This week I had more than the usual number of errands and appointments to run around doing and waiting for, so most of the reading I got done was in five or ten minute increments between other activities.

I love when I manage to carve out an hour or two simply to sit and read. But whenever I do, it feels so decadent. "Surely I should be doing something else right now!" I always find myself thinking. "This purely pleasurable activity can't possibly be a legitimate part of my work day!"

Every good writing guide out there instructs writers to read as much and as widely as possible. That means as a writer, I can justify reading time as work time. But it feels so much like cheating, like declaring a totally bogus tax write-off.

It's a tough life, isn't it?

I hope to find more time to read soon. I'm looking forward to making more progress on this month's books and sitting around feeling naughty.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jon Gibbs guest posts at Nathan Bransford's blog with the brilliant An Agent Responds to Paperback Writer by The Beatles: "You say your plotline is based on a book by another author -- a Mr. Lear as I recall. You should be aware of the potential for a lawsuit if you've used characters created by another writer without his or her express permission."

August 25, 2011

We Have Ignition!

I know you've all been at the edge of your seats waiting to hear about the progress on my tricky pivotal scene. This morning I finally found that spark I needed to set the climax in motion, and I hope to travel smoothly and swiftly to the end of the story.

Which might lead you to think that I'm almost done revising, but whoops, I still have two more storylines to revise. In defiance of the obvious math, I will optimistically predict that in terms of time, I'm about halfway done. The reason for this apparently delusional forecast is that I ended up completely rewriting the vast majority of this storyline because the last draft just had so many things that didn't work. But my planned changes for the other storylines are much smaller, and the plots will mostly stay the same.

Yes, you are all authorized to laugh at me in a few months when I'm forced to admit that my estimate was utter fantasy once again.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alicia Rasley at Edittorrent writes a thoughtful post on what writerly shortcomings might reveal about our personalities, the problem of creating believable motivations for character actions, and the process of growing as a writer.

August 24, 2011

Just the Right Spark

I thought I'd give you an update on the progress of that pivotal scene I was planning the other day. No earthshaking news, ha ha. I wrote up to a certain point and have gotten temporarily stuck.

Turns out that while planning, I didn't actually decide on the exact spark that sets off the whole confrontation. I guess I hoped it would come to me in the process of writing the first part of the scene. So I got up to where the spark is required, and now I'm stopping to muse again.

It seems kind of silly, because what I'm stuck on is just a sentence or two of dialogue. It shouldn't be hard to come up with a sentence. But this bit of dialogue has to perform a very important, specific function. It has to believably cause my protagonist to say, "Here's what I've been so upset about for so long!" He's not going to blurt that out in response to just anything. That would be ridiculous:

"I like your new shoes."

"I want you to know that this is what I'm angry about! I've been keeping it bottled up inside for years and haven't been able to say it until now!"

"Wow, I never knew you felt that way. In fact, I interpreted your behavior as an indication that you felt quite differently, due to my own issues that I've never been comfortable talking about."

"But that means this whole time, I've been misinterpreting your behavior, too! How can that be what you really feel?"

"Ah, it's because of my deep and shameful secret."

Obviously, if my characters were this forthcoming in their communication, they wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place, and I wouldn't have a story. So a lot hinges on that crucial bit of dialogue which is going to subtly provoke my protagonist into letting slip the revelation that will serve as the catalyst for the whole big confession scene.

Man, is he going to be surprised when he finds out that secret.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Becky Levine offers great advice about Unkilling Those Backstory Darlings: "Your readers do need some information about the characters and the world they're moving in. It's a rare novelist, and I can't name one off the top of my head, who can give the reader everything through dialogue and pure action. As you cut and cut, you’re also going to be trickling. A line here. A few words there."

August 23, 2011

A Message from Earthquake Country

I'm obsessed with earthquakes, and so I'm writing a novel that involves a major earthquake, and so I'm even more obsessed with earthquakes.

I've lived in the Bay Area for 14 years. I can remember about half a dozen specific quakes with enough magnitude to cause that adrenaline rush of excitement and terror. None did any damage where I was, and at most they knocked things off shelves closer to the epicenter. On maybe twice as many occasions, I've felt a small, questionable tremor that sent me to the USGS site to check, or I've learned after the fact that I failed to notice a quake while I was in a car or asleep.

The earth moves a lot in California, relatively speaking. Today a rare significant earthquake hit Virginia and was felt along most of the East Coast. Twitter went wild with quake reports, along with a certain amount of ribbing from Californians saying that a little shaking was nothing to get worked up about. I think most California residents aren't as jaded as they might pretend to be. A little shaking is still grounds for posting to the internet out here, even when nothing's damaged.

It's likely that I'll eventually experience a destructive earthquake, but so far I have no first-hand experience. Which I'm glad about, as the owner of a creaky old house built on a liquefaction hazard zone. (Apologies to my parents, who just had a collective heart attack reading that.) As a writer, though, I do have a morbid desire to know what it would really be like if it happened here and now.

(On the other hand, if the Big One happens here and now, that breaks my entire story, in which a massive quake strikes here and at a specific point in the near future, with a clear implication that it didn't also happen a few years earlier. Fortunately or unfortunately, I get no say at all in the real world timing.)

I've done a lot of research into past earthquakes and projected quake scenarios for the Bay Area, and I expect to do another round of research before the manuscript is finished. The destruction caused by even a very large earthquake in modern California would be far, far less than what occurred in places like Haiti, thanks to our much better building standards, living conditions, and infrastructure.

I'm trying to keep the effects of the earthquake in my novel realistic and to portray a likely quantity of destruction, fatalities, and so on. Since writers are sadistic, while doing my research, I frequently had thoughts like, "Only that many deaths? That's not very dramatic." Optimistic projections are good news for reality, not as good for fiction. I went with the worst-case scenario.


UPDATE, 11:55pm: The eastern part of the Bay Area just experienced a 3.6 quake, and Twitter is abuzz over this minor shaking. Incidentally, I didn't feel it in the South Bay.

August 22, 2011

Puzzling Things Out

As I've noted before, there's more to writing than writing. I didn't write during today's writing session. Instead, I mused on how exactly I'm going to fit together the pieces of a pivotal scene so it doesn't fall flat.

I've maneuvered my characters just about into position for the big, climactic confrontation in which everything is revealed. Tension is high, and everyone is at risk of saying things they wouldn't otherwise. For maximum effect, I've chosen a more dramatic and public moment for this scene than in the previous draft.

I need to pay attention to character motivation and create a spark that will believably ignite a showdown that should have happened years ago. I also have to keep in mind what each of the different characters knows, incorrectly believes, and is in the dark about, as well as what the reader knows. Significant parts of the backstory are different than for the last draft, so the nature of big revelations has also changed.

It's a complicated puzzle that I've been working toward solving throughout this revision. Tomorrow I'll try writing the darn scene and see if I can get all the pieces to snap into place.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Leslie Greffenius at Beyond the Margins discusses How to Begin a Story: "I've found that, when I begin a tale, I have to write a provisional beginning until I've written an entire first draft. Then, after I have an idea of the shape of the whole piece, I go back and re-write a beginning that will draw readers in -- if not now, then soon, and for the rest of their lives."

→ Kiersten White offers a tongue-in-cheek Guide to Genre Within YA: "Dystopian: Must have a main character with the letter X or Z in their name. If you have no characters with Xs or Zs, you are doing it wrong and you have not written a dystopian." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

August 18, 2011

On Writing Buddies

This afternoon I met up with my friend Anna, the one who recently started self-publishing. While we've been in frequent contact through blogs and email, we hadn't seen each other in person for over a year, and we had a lot to catch up on.

We talked for hours about the writing life, time management, where our stories come from, revising, NaNoWriMo, the changing realities of publishing, and families. It was great to sit down together and prattle on about the big and small issues that fill the wacky world of writing.

It's always great when I get to talk to my writing buddies about writing. I'm fortunate to have a large number of writer friends both in the real world and online. We're at all different points on paths heading in many directions, and that means a lot of opportunities for both teaching and learning. It's wonderful.

To all my writing buddies: This would be both lonelier and more bewildering without all of you. Thanks for being there.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Steve Himmer shares a touching story at The Millions about young people yearning to read: "One recent morning, my almost four year old daughter started crying out of the blue. I asked her what was wrong, and she wailed, 'I don’t have a library card!'"

August 17, 2011

More on Writing Miserable Characters

I posted yesterday about making a character's frustrating behavior more palatable by having another character express impatience on behalf of the reader. Today as I continued revising the section that caused me to dwell on this issue, I discovered that in my previous draft, a character exactly echoes the language from that post and says "Is it possible you're blowing things out of proportion?"

I was amused. I also cut the line, because I didn't really like it and the scene changed enough that no longer needed someone to lose patience with my main character right then.

Writing a troubled, depressed character doesn't only run the risk of the reader wishing they'd hurry up and get over it. The reader may be unable to sympathize with the character in the first place, or may find it too unpleasant to spend time in the character's head.

I want to avoid this reaction from my readers, so I always pay attention to writing advice about how to successfully portray a character of this type. Last year I attended a workshop with agent Donald Maass, and he covered this topic. Looking over my notes from that part of the workshop, I can summarize the advice in a couple of points:

1. Show from the beginning that the character has a desire to get out of his unhappy situation. Establish what he has to learn or let go of (for example) and why he is currently powerless to change. This gives the reader a feeling of hope, and they'll be rooting for the character rather than giving him up as a lost cause.

2. Provide the character with some admirable quality that will make the reader care about him right away. Sympathetic, likable traits make it easier for the reader to cope with the otherwise potentially distasteful experience of being in an unhappy character's head.

Maass has further discussion of what he calls "dark protagonists" in his book THE FIRE IN FICTION, which I recommend.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Linguist Ben Zimmer writes in the New York Times Book Review about computer analysis of the language of fiction: "'Bolting upright' and 'drawing one's breath' are two more fiction-specific turns of phrase revealed by the corpus. ... The conventions of modern storytelling dictate that fictional characters react to their worlds in certain stock ways and that the storytellers use stock expressions to describe those reactions."

→ Michael MacLeod from the Guardian share his notes from Neil Gaiman's talk at the Edinburgh Interational Book Festival: "For several years I read the children's library until I finished the children's library. Then I moved into the adult library and slowly worked my way through them. With the kids' library I did it alphabetically but I discovered I couldn't do that with the adult one because there were too many big boring books to read, so I did it by interesting covers."

August 16, 2011

When Your Character Needs to Get Over It

I'm losing patience with my main character. This is probably a bad sign. Because if I want to yell, "Oh, stop whining and get over it already!" even though I have a thorough knowledge of his backstory and every nuance of his current situation, then it's a good bet that a reader will have even less sympathy.

This character has been a tricky one to write. He's depressed, he's at a bad place in life, and he's justifiably pessimistic about his future. Less justifiably, he's uninterested in accepting the support that's offered to him. I've set up the reasons for his refusal in his history and personality, and hopefully readers will buy the flawed logic behind his choices. The plot depends on it. But I worry that my character is spending too much time wallowing in self-pity.

The readers of the previous draft were extremely helpful in pointing out where they felt sympathy for my character's problems and where they thought he was only feeling sorry for himself. (I have one early reader who can always be counted on to tell me when she thinks a character deserves to be slapped -- and I seem to write a lot of slapworthy characters.) This is supposed to be the improved, less whiny version of the character, but I'm not sure I've got it right yet.

A couple of weeks ago I linked to a post by Theresa Stevens on avoiding melodrama by having another character point out when a character's reactions are out of proportion. That second character acts as a proxy for the reader, who is probably thinking the same thing, and provides an opportunity to explore the motivations behind the response.

Along similar lines, Robin Black suggests in a Beyond the Margins post:

Let a secondary character express impatience with the character's stuckness before your reader does and odds are your reader will never feel the need to express it. And this is a technique with broader use than just stories about loss. There are many times when having a supporting player express a frustration that is in some ways a near inevitable byproduct of the story, will take pressure off the reader who may well be feeling the same thing.

So I've had quite a few other characters tell my main character that he needs to get over himself. Maybe it's too much, and maybe I need to more quickly get to the point in the story when he actually does. I'm confident that the readers of the next draft won't be shy about letting me know.

August 12, 2011

It Takes Time

This morning when I sat down to write, I was at the beginning of a chapter. I had a new scene planned to open this chapter, a scene that didn't occur in the previous draft, so I was writing from scratch, not working with existing material.

I decided that most likely the first word of the first sentence was "I". I typed that to get myself going. Fifteen minutes later, I was still staring at that "I", all alone there on the page.

Half an hour into my writing session, I had a few sentences. After 50 minutes, when I took my 10-minute break, there was half a page.

I'm careful about what I do during the breaks in my writing session. I get up from my desk to stretch and refill my glass of water. I check my email and look at Twitter, maybe skim an article someone linked to. Nothing too involved, nothing that pulls me out of my writing zone.

And that's good, because when I came back from my break, the scene really started moving. The writing was going so well that I even skipped my second break. I had an excellent writing session today, ending up with a long new scene that I really like. On Monday I'll probably hate it, but for now, I'm pleased.

That's not what I expected when I stared at the word "I" for what felt like forever. This is usually how it goes, but I'm always quick to forget what it was like the last time.

Many writers don't have the luxury of the quantity of time available to me. Maybe they only get half an hour a day to write, or less than that. Some of them do remarkably well within those constraints. Others try and fail to make progress, then beat themselves up over not taking advantage of those small chunks of time the way some writing guides advise.

As my experience demonstrates, it's not an easy thing to get a good quantity of writing done in a single half hour, compared to what you might get out of the next half hour, and the next. Some people are better at it than others, and the same person can have different results day to day, but in general, it takes a bit of time to ramp up into the creative zone. I'm not the only one who thinks so. This essay by Paul Graham on the subject of creative time has always stuck with me, though it's targeted at programmers and their managers.

If you've been trying to write a little every day and it's not working for you, experiment with finding a longer block of time once a week and see if you get more done. And don't feel like you're wasting time when you stare at a single word and nothing else comes out. The rest of the words are still making their way to the surface.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black continues an insightful series on forty-five flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience.

August 11, 2011

The More Things Change

Today I looked over my outline -- a set of virtual index cards created in SuperNotecard -- to consider whether the sequence of events in my story still makes sense. As I've revised over the last couple of weeks, I've ended up rearranging scenes and writing some unplanned new scenes, so the outline needed review.

I was relieved to conclude that the basic order of events is still logical. With the recent changes, there are even parts that work better than before. Since my novel involves three separate storylines, the idea of doing any more serious restructuring is daunting. I'm glad that I get to keep the chapters in the order I decided on months ago, but I really wanted to assure myself that I wasn't just avoiding change because it's the easier option.

I get kind of exasperated that at this stage I'm still sitting down and writing scenes that take the story in a different direction than I planned. By now, I want the story to be settled.

During my more reasonable moments, I realize that this is a very silly thing to want. It's awesome that without even meaning to, I keep coming up with ideas that make the story better that I thought it was going to be. Oh yeah, duh. As I've written about before, it's crucial to get the story right, and I'm just going to have to make as many changes as it takes until that happens.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michael Agger at Slate investigates the science behind the question of how to be a faster writer: "It's no secret that writing is hard ... but why can't I be one of those special few for whom it comes easily? What am I doing wrong? Why haven't I gotten any faster?" (Thanks, Edittorrent!)

August 10, 2011

Forcing Time to Write

For a control freak, I'm surprisingly bad at managing my time. During the years that I've been writing "full time," I've repeatedly set up a writing schedule, stuck with it for perhaps as long as a month, and then regressed to my normal inclination to do anything other than write.

You see, I very much enjoy having written. More often that not, I enjoy writing while I'm in the process of doing it. But I almost never believe that I will enjoy writing. As a result, my struggles with writing are largely struggles against avoidance.

I've blogged before about using a timer to trick myself into writing. Part of my latest productivity scheme involves scheduling blocks of time for writing and breaks. I write -- and only write -- for 50 timed minutes, take a break for 10 minutes, and repeat. So far, it's working well (I say with complete awareness of the pattern discussed in the first paragraph).

I'm using a Mac application called Alarms to keep track of the 50/10 sessions. It's a neat little app, and I recommend it, but of course there are plenty of options for timing yourself. What I like about Alarms is that it easily lets you schedule multiple alarms at once.

I've found that if I know the clock is already running on the next block of time, I'm less likely to bargain with myself for "a few more minutes." With all the alarms pre-set, I stick to breaks of only 10 minutes. I also stop writing after 50 minutes so that I won't lose my break. This means I'm more likely to leave off in the middle of something interesting, which improves the odds that I'll pick right up with typing once the break is over.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond the Margins shares passages from writing guides that contributed to My Homemade MFA: "On my bookshelves are over 90 books on writing... I read all, highlighted most, and drove the facts into my brain by writing papers (for myself) on them."

August 8, 2011

The Choreography of Motivation

At some point in the past, I noticed that one of the trickiest things about writing is the choreography. I was writing a scene that took place during a party, and I needed the main character to talk to first one set of people and then another overlapping set, and later to be alone with somebody. Something like that.

My challenge was figuring out how to get the right characters into the right combinations and places so that the scene read naturally, without anyone saying anything so blatant as, "Well, I'm going to go talk to those other people now." (Okay, I'll admit I may have tried that tactic once or twice at an actual party.) Compared to the work of managing these logistics, writing the dialogue in the scene was downright easy.

I've tackled countless other choreography problems since then. Today, I was struggling with a scene because of another familiar issue, and I realized it's sort of a variation. I started thinking of the problem as "the choreography of motivation".

In this case, I had a character who did not want to have the discussion that his family members were trying to have with him. The character's goal was simply to leave. But as the author, I had a different agenda: I needed a certain amount of discussion to take place so that crucial pieces of information could be revealed at this point in the story.

The author doesn't get to take part in the scene, so I had to carefully choreograph my character's motivations throughout. His overall desire was still to get out of there, but on a moment-by-moment basis, the other characters said things that believably kept him around and talking a little longer. "Believable" is the key issue here. If the character just sat down and agreeably participated in the discussion he'd been avoiding since the beginning of the book, the reader would find his behavior false and inconsistent.

I may not have gotten it right, and there may not be enough justification for the character's actions in this scene. When I eventually seek feedback on this draft, I'll be counting on my readers to point out the places where I've inadequately choreographed my characters' motivations.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lauren Schmidt at the Effectivism blog looks into how to buy a greener book: "What has a lower carbon footprint — buying a book from a local store or ordering it online? What about buying your books via a Kindle or other e-reader?"

→ Rebecca Joines Schinsky of the Book Lady's Blog offers her Mid-Year Reflections on Book Polygamy: "I was skeptical at first, not certain that reading more than one book at a time would mean that I read more books overall, but it’s shaking out to look that way."

August 5, 2011

I'll Get There Eventually

Thanks to everyone who contacted me with encouraging words in response to yesterday's whining and venting. I decided to post about the frustration I was feeling because, hey, what's the point of having a blog if you never use it to complain? And I also wanted to express that writing is often unpleasant and tedious, just like any other kind of work, and that's no reason to give up on it.

In terms of focus, this week has the been the best one I've had in a long time. I'm holding myself to a new schedule that I think I'll be able to stick with, and I'm getting a lot of work done. "A lot" is still only a very few pages each day, and as I said, that makes me impatient. However, it's significantly more progress than I'd be making if I wasn't buckling down, and it doesn't look as though writing any faster is going to be an option, so this is the rate of progress I have to live with.

Some day that's not as soon as I'd like, I will get to the end of this draft, and it will be the story I want it to be. And then, yes, all you people who have been eagerly asking when you can see the manuscript will get your chance to tell me what I still don't have right.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Diversity in YA Fiction blog, Laura Goode discusses considerations for writing characters with A Skin Not Your Own: "I think it’s this anxiety about imagining a racial experience not your own that leads so many white authors to write one-dimensional BBF (brown/black best friend) characters, who only show up to support the white protagonist in a time of need, ask exposition-inducing questions, or basically prove that the protagonist is not a BWP [Bad White Person]."

→ William Skidelsky at the Guardian Books Blog investigates the true price of publishing: "I have always assumed – like, I imagine, most people – that the high cost of hardbacks is down to the fact that they are much more expensive than paperbacks to produce. But in fact this isn't the case at all."

August 4, 2011

Are We There Yet?

I'm really tired of writing this novel. I get up every morning and sit down at my desk, and when I finish for the day, I'm a few pages closer to the end of what may be a viable manuscript. But only a few pages, and the end is still very far away. And I've already written this novel twice, and it's taking too long, and I'm not having any fun, and whine whine whine.

I've never been particularly patient. Some might say that can't be true and that nobody impatient would have the discipline to write for years with little external motivation or reward. Still, I maintain that I'm not very patient. I get bored easily, and I tend to give up on activities when I didn't quickly show aptitude or improvement.

I guess the reason I haven't given up on writing is that I really, really, really want to attain success and I'm convinced I have a good shot at reaching my goal. The journey has been long, and there's a long way yet to go. I understand that the journey is what makes the goal possible, because I've only become a competent writer by writing and revising and sitting down at my desk every morning.

But how much longer is it going to be? I'm ready for this journey to be over. I'm really looking forward to the day that the navigation system announces, "You have arrived at your destination."

Good Stuff Out There:

→ A wonderful, painfully familiar essay by Dani Shapiro about the struggle of writing while the internet beckons: "In the time it has taken me to write these first two paragraphs, I have had the impulse to check email. I have had the impulse to look up the year that voice mail was invented." (Thanks, The Millions!)

→ Wendy MacNaughton researches and illustrates Snacks of the Great Scribblers. (Thanks, Louise!)

August 3, 2011

Remembering William Sleator

William Sleator, author of dozens of science fiction novels for kids and teens, died yesterday. When I was young, I read every book of his that my library had, often more than once. That was in the late 1980s. I see that his list of works continued to grow steadily in the decades since then. I'm going to have to catch up.

In most of Sleator's books, regular kids encounter some science fictional phenomenon or artifact that messes with their life. The stories were often scary in the same way as my nightmares about infinite numbers. I still get chills thinking of SINGULARITY, in which twin brothers find a room where time passes much faster than outside and one twin makes himself older so that he can overpower his dominant brother. Maybe I have unusual fears. William Sleator clearly had similar ideas about what was creepy.

Sleator once paid a visit to my middle school, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet one of my favorite authors. He told us some amazing true stories from his life. The one that made the biggest impression on me was about the manuscript of THE GREEN FUTURES OF TYCHO that he submitted to his editor. In the published book, there's an early scene where Tycho's siblings torment him. In the draft that Sleator submitted, during that scene, the siblings tie Tycho to a tree, put kindling underneath, and threaten to set him on fire. Sleator's editor said he had to tone that down because it wasn't believable for kids to be that cruel. Sleator disagreed, since it was an event taken directly from his real childhood. Nonetheless, the scene was changed. Reality can be less credible than fiction.

Thank you, William Sleator, for filling my early reading years with wonder and terror.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Becky Levine offers advice on Creating Space for the Lightbulb Moments: "I do believe inspiration exists. I also believe there are things we can do to help it along."

→ Darryl Campbell suggests Book Review Clichés I’d Like To See: "Borrow Buzzwords From Other Industries: For example, turn bestsellers into 'results-driven novels,' and debut authors into 'entrepreneurial writers.'" (Thanks, The Millions!)

August 2, 2011

August Reading Plan

The first book on this month's list is a holdover from the previous list. I'll just add two more this time.

36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - This didn't end up being my vacation reading, so I'm looking forward to diving into the story now. I've been told it's a fun and funny book about philosophy.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - This month I move on to the final installment of this trilogy. I'm eager to see what's next for life on Mars.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I have an ongoing feeling of inadequacy about my lack of familiarity with the classics. I also have an ongoing habit of buying the paper versions of books despite wanting to have something to read on my phone. Many classics are in the public domain, meaning that digital editions are available for free, so I can deal with both my issues at once. I've heard good things about JANE EYRE. It's about an orphan or something.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Theresa Stevens at Edittorrent offers strategies for cheating melodrama: "If the response is larger than the stimulus, we say that it's melodramatic rather than dramatic. Melodrama is all about exaggeration, spectacle, and sensationalism."

August 1, 2011

June/July Reading Recap

Due to one thing and another, I skipped a month in my regular book roundups, so this recap covers both June and July. During these two rather busy months, I read:

THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Miéville - This book is astounding, and I can understand why I've heard so much about it from so many people. The premise is a difficult one to wrap your head around, and even after finishing the book, I'm not done musing about the concept: Somewhere in Eastern Europe, two cities occupy the same physical location. It's an idea from the realm of the imaginary, but Miéville presents it so carefully, and with so many mundane and realistic details of the logistics of life in the cities, that the book mostly doesn't feel fantastical at all. This is by design, because the story is a pure police procedural that just so happens to occur in this unusual setting.

I highly recommend THE CITY AND THE CITY. It's a challenging read, with a lot of invented terms that the reader often has to figure out from context. The premise is a bizarre one, and it won't appeal to all readers, but if you're intrigued by the idea of two cities co-existing, you won't be disappointed.

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - After several months, I'm nearly finished with this second book of the trilogy. I'm enjoying it just as much as RED MARS, and I continue to be impressed by how much research and world-building Robinson had to do for this trilogy. Like the first book, GREEN MARS has fascinating characters grappling with the problems of building a civilization on Mars. The book contains a lot of politics and a lot of descriptions of geology and machinery. If you're excited by that combination, then this is the trilogy for you.

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman - If I'd realized that this is a collection of related short stories rather than a novel, I might not have picked up this book. Each story features a different staff member of an international newspaper based in Rome. Early in the book, there wasn't much connection between the stories, and the characters weren't holding my interest, so I was considering abandoning it (which I hardly ever do). I kept reading, though, and by the end I had a more positive feeling. The later stories drew me in more, and the book did form a coherent whole, though not in as satisfying a way as a novel with a unified plot. A well-written book that didn't match my tastes very well.

DEADLINE by Mira Grant - The recently released second book in the Newsflesh trilogy. I previously posted my opinions about the first book, FEED, and I feel the same way about this one: It's an exciting, compelling story with a writing style that constantly drove me crazy. While the first book is roughly a political thriller with zombies, DEADLINE is a medical thriller about the zombie disease, and that aligns even better with my interests, so I was hooked even as I imagined taking a red pen to the text. Recommended according to your tolerance levels.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell - I'm in the process of listening to this as an audio book along with my family. We started it during the long car rides of our recent vacation, and we're now a few chapters from the end. The story is about the discovery of intelligent life on a not-too-distant planet and a first contact mission organized by the Jesuits. At the start of the book, we learn that the mission was ultimately a disaster, and the story revolves around trying to understand what happened and what went wrong. I like the characters and much of the story, though there are certain parts I think are too drawn out. I'm eager to find out how it ends. The narrator of the audio book, David Colacci, does a good job portraying the many different accents of the characters.

I didn't end up getting around to one of the books I announced at the beginning of June, 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, so I'll put that on my August list.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ian M. Dudley asks, Are You Critiquing My Novel, Or Do You Just Hate Me?: "Given the level of impersonal rejection that an author faces when attempting to find someone to publish their book, you need to have a pretty thick skin to succeed in this racket. Thick enough to endure that rejection, and thick enough to not only face down this sort of critique, but to say 'Thank you!' afterwards, even if you're choking on your own bile as you say it."

→ Julie Isaac finds an 1893 article on The Writing Method of Louisa May Alcott: "Not only did she make do without a computer, but her most famous work, Little Women, was published two years before the first typewriter was sold commercially."