Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Story Beats and Hooks that aren't for fishermen: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

It's Tuesday again, my fellow writing buddies! Time to talk about what we've accomplished this past week.

It was an interesting week for me. Most of it hinges on the Under Ground Writing Project meeting I wen to on Sunday.

Normally during the meetings we're critiquing one another's work - looking for stuff like plot, character, typos, that kinda stuff. This month we had a special guest critic, which we do from time to time, by the name of Jan CJ Jones. She's a producer at a local production company, Forest Rose Productions. And again, under normal circumstances, the guest critics offer their expertise as part of the larger group circle discussion.

But this time we ran it like a pitch session. As a producer, Jones is one of those people who is sitting on 'the other side' of the desk, like editors and agents and, well, movie producers. She offered to listen to all of us pitch our stories and give us pointers on the logline, the summary, and the first three pages of our novels. We took her up on her offer.

It was tiring. It was long. It was emotional. All in all, a good shake-it-up experience.

Generally I try not to focus on the marketing side of things, preferring to keep my energies on producing good language and developing a good story. However, after Sunday, I've figured out that pitching, or writing a query letter, or summarizing your story helps with the writing itself. Because, guess what, if your story is no good, your pitch material will show that. If you see a hole in your summary, there's a hole in you story. It's just how it is.

A month prior to this meeting we were given a handout that listed what we were to provide and present for our pitching session. First we were to provide information about ourselves: name, rank, serial numbers, where we are in our writing now, where we see ourselves in ten years, our writing strengths and our writing weaknesses. Then we were to give the low-down on the work we were presenting: genre, title, slugline/logline, and the 'back of the book' summary. After that, we listed the beats of our story: hook, inciting incident, midpoint, major setback, climax, denoument). Finally we read the first three pages of the book.

Let me take you through the bits that really stuck with me:

The logline:

So a few of us were whacked  on the knuckles right out of the gate (how's that for some mixing of metaphors?) with the loglines. It's one thing to know intellectually that you should be able to 'sum-up' your novel in one sentence - it's quite another to put it into practice. ***Nathan Bransford has a rockin' post on his blog about One Sentence Summaries - aka the logline - definitely check it out. He's right on the money.***

The one lesson I took out of this early section of the presentation: The Reader is Ignorant. This isn't as harsh as it sounds. Put very simply: the reader doesn't know what the heck your story is about. They are coming from a complete space of unknowing. It's up to you, the writer, to let them know what's going on. Seems obvious, right?

However, you the writer know your story inside and out - putting you into a high context relationship with your story. You can joke with your story. You can hang out and have coffee with your story. You know your story had a really hard time around chapter fourteen that you guys worked out together. How are you going to introduce this story to a person who doesn't know?

For educational purposes only, I shall share with you the logline I presented. (Those of you who know nothing about my story will see the problem immediately.) (And my goodness, you have no idea how hard this is to type, but I'll force myself...like I said it was kind of an emotional roller coaster of a day):

First: title and genre: "The Line. Dystopian."

Second: logline: "Those who fall below the Line are never heard from again. When her sister falls below, Susanna Purchase must save her before their father's actions kill them both."

Dost thou seest the issue? What the hell is the Line? Some figure of speech? A physical thing? This logline says nothing much. *Jenny bangs head against presentation podium*

The other thing Jones talked about was the set up of the logline - and Bransford talks about it in more detail and more articulately at the link I've already given you. Logline must include: main character, the MC's obstacle, and the MC's goal.

I've had a little while to come up with something else and I'll throw it out here so youse guys who haven't read my novel can tell me if it A.) makes any kind of sense and B.) intrigues at all.

Jenny's second attempt at a logline: "Susanna Purchase falls below the Line, a State developed system designed to hold individuals accountable to predetermined standards, when her sister is accused of treason. Susanna, held in a prison camp, must join an underground rebellion to save her sister before she is executed."

Meh. I'm not even done with the book yet, so I've got plenty of time to work on it.

The Beats:
Part of our assignment was to figure out the major 'beats' of our story. I'd never heard this concept before and during our discussion I thought that this was the most useful portion of the critiques. Since it's kind of like a summary, this is really helpful for character motivation and story coherence. So I thought I'd share the concept with you.

Here's what they are:

Beat 1: The Hook: This is the opening, what immediately grabs the reader's attention.

Beat 2: The Inciting Incident: This may or may not happen simultaneously with the hook. Basically, the thing to keep in mind with the inciting incident is that the main character is set on a course of action different than their everyday life. This is where the world will never be the same and the main character has to act. They 'gotta' have something, do something, etc. They are motivated to move.

Beat 3: Midpoint: Up to this point the main character has been figuring things out, trouble has been brewing, but here is where the stakes are raised. What happens if the main character fails? I'd never heard this question applied to a story before. Sure, you think about what your main character wants, what drives them, but this is the first time I'd considered what happened if they did not get it. Coming at it from the other side is a neat-o thing. What are the consequences? If there is no change because of the main character...well, that's just not a very interesting story.

Beat 4: Major Setback: Here is where the worst stuff happens. All the crutches are removed. The Bad Forces come into play. If the main character has some kind of character flaw, this is where it'll show up - and the main character will be either overwhelmed or will overcome.

Beat 5: Climax: All actions lead to this point. I think most of us understand what the climax is.

Beat 6: Denoument: Classically known as the 'falling' action. Where things wrap up, calm down, and a new order is established to the character's life.


...and that's what I learned this week. Have I gone on long enough? What'd you guys do?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Good Omens/Collaboration

*This week's Monday post is brought to you early by Really-Busy-Tomorrow Cereal!

In a post the other day, Jenny asked me what I thought of our new collaborative adventures. To Jenny, I say, Good Omens. Oh my, how I love when things sync up like that. The book in question is a delightful collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In a copy I read, or maybe an interview, Gaiman reflected on the process of collaborating. It's been a while since I read it, but the jist of what he said was that as they went along writing, their main goal was to write something that would make the other laugh. So, it was kind of like a game/conversation. I thought that was pretty cool

Now, to talk about me and Jenny. So far, we're still early days, so a lot of the collaboration is focused on questions like, "How do we want this process to work?" Piece by piece, we're working that out. For those of you who are interested, here's how we're tackling it:

In the book, we've got two timelines that relate to each other. I really liked the stuff and characters in the earlier timeline and Jenny had cool ideas about the later timeline. So, we decided to divide and conquer. We had an outlining/note making session to get on the same page about who the characters were and what our major plot points in both timelines would be. Now, we're working on the drafting stage.

For our respective timelines, each of us is responsible for writing the rough draft. Then, as we get a chapter or two finished, we e-mail the draft to each other. The other person reads the draft and tweaks it, adding what they think should be added, re-wording, etc. Then, it goes back to the drafter to review and see what they'd change about the other person's tweaks. I think the process should work well, and it'll help with things like consistency of voice & character and all the other logistical things that get tricky when you have two people driving the boat.

The blog follows a similar process. We've got an outline of mentors and we've divvied up the posting schedule and features, i.e. Tuesday Accountability posts are Jenny's domain, the Saturday Pages are my pet project. I think we're getting our rhythm, and it's fun to have someone to have a conversation with as I write. It's all about that idea of the Ideal Reader, and Jenny fits the bill nicely.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ready, Set, Leap

This week's Saturday pages is all about figurative language and taking leaps. I'm also going to offer you different levels to try your hand at - depending on whether you a lighter writing exercise or if you're game for some heavier lifting. The most important thing about today's exercise is that you shut up your inner critic and just write. Embrace the process. Hesitations are bad for big leaps.

One writer who ties in with Neil Gaiman is Terry Pratchett. Pratchett's on the mentor docket, so stay tuned, we'll be talking more about him later this year. I mention Pratchett in this post because I'm reminded of a comparison he made in one of his books which I have remembered, literally, for years. Because, when you write that Lord Vetinari, the city's ruling official, is like "a carnivorous flamingo," that's memorable.

So, go get your jumping shoes on and let's do this.

Level 1
Pick something to describe. It can be a person, an object, a feeling, or anything else you might be tempted to tack an adverb to. Feel free to use something in a piece you're working on, or take a look around the room you're in right now and do a little "eenie, meanie, minie, mo".

Take out a blank page. Number it 1-20. Stretch your writing (or typing) fingers and, as fast as you can, write 20 metaphors and/or similes about your subject. Aim for the far-fetched, the odd, the unusual. Don't over think it. Don't pause. Keep your fingers moving.

Once you've written 20, take a look at your list. Find the comparisons that you've seen before and cross them off. Likewise, take off any that are too literal, too easy. Next, cross off the ones that fall flat. What are you left with? The most awesome comparisons you've ever written about that apple.

Level 2
Now that you've got your list narrowed down to your best material, pick the comparison that seems the most far-fetched. Flip to a new page and write your comparison at the top. Your job is to take your oddball comparison and turn it into an extended metaphor. Now that you have something like, "Life is like a box of pickled sardines," at the top of your page, you're going to write a paragraph that really fleshes your comparison out.

Think of every possible point of intersection between the two things you're comparing and write those down. If you were Terry Pratchett, you'd be describing how a carnivorous flamingo walks, how it sounds, how it looks at you with pink, beady eyes that see right into your soul. Like Level 1, the key here is write fast and write a lot. That thought that just flashed through your mind that made you think, "No, that's too silly to write down"? Write it down.

Once you've filled as much of the page as you can, take a breath and look over what you've done. Right now, you probably have one of your most original descriptions. How cool is that?

Level 3
Now I challenge you to take your figurative language leap and build a short story, or maybe a poem, around it.

Happy writing!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Taking Leaps

Read a bit of Neil Gaiman and you'll quickly realize that he has flexible ideas of reality. Yeah, I know his stock in trade is fantasy. I'm not talking about that. No, what I'm talking about is Gaiman's willingness to take leaps, and his confidence that you'll leap with him.

A couple of years ago, I got to go with some friends to see Neil do a book reading in Boulder. The featured book was The Graveyard Book. Now, there is an author who knows how to read his stuff. If you think you can hear his voice on the page, it's totally a treat to actually hear him speak the words. The part of that reading that I especially love is when he was describing his inspiration. He described taking his son to the local graveyard to play, because a graveyard is practically the same as a park, and looking at his son among the headstones and thinking, "He looks so natural there." Where other people might think of that as an odd thought to have, Gaiman embraced it and wrote a whole book about that image of a boy in a graveyard. Coraline gets the creepy factor from the button eyes, and Stardust is all about a shooting star that's actually a woman. Because, obviously, that's the way it's supposed to be.

Pay attention to the language of the writing, and you'll see a man who loves metaphors and similes. Everything is something else. During the book reading, it really stuck out to me how much he uses the word "like" in descriptions. And, for most of us, that "like" is all it takes to let us take the leap with him.

One of the things I'm trying to take away from Gaiman as a mentor is that confidence and that imagination to look for the comparisons that aren't obvious. When we think of metaphors, there are the easy grabs, the "likes" that leap to your mind right away:

His face turned red as a tomato

The news fell on her like a ton of bricks

But, everyone's seen those before. They might convey an idea, but they lack oomph. Take a bigger leap, travel farther from what's easy, and you take a greater risk that maybe your reader won't leap with you. Then again, maybe you get a bigger pay off:

His face turned red as the poorly-knitted sweater his aunt had cursed him with last Christmas

The news fell on her like a drunk polar bear

Okay, so maybe you went with me on those. Maybe you didn't ;) The point is, the second set is more memorable than the first. Say what you will about the great authors, one thing they're not is forgettable.

Quick! Time to practice your leaping! Leave a comment with your own, leaping, versions of the figurative language examples above.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Week of Almost-Not-Quite: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Ah, welcome to Tuesday comrades. Time to see what we've accomplished this week.

For me:

It's the week of almost-not-quite.

1. Almost finished a new short story. I'm up to the climatic, near-end scene. The story sorta wrote itself, which is always nice, right? But it still isn't finished. Just two more scenes.

2. Worked on the first chapter of the book I'm collaborating on with Ali. (Soon she and I are going to be joined at the hip we're doing so much together.) But I didn't finish the work I wanted to do on the second chapter.

This collaboration thing is interesting. It seems to me that a lot of the decisions you make while writing are instinctive. When you have a writing partner, you have to be able to articulate - or, at least, to show - to another person what and why you're doing what you're doing. This is true both for this blog now that we're both working on it and for the fiction piece we're doing.

Ali - what are your thoughts on this work together stuff?

3. Almost hit my scheduled weekly word count for my own novel. But not entirely there. Sad faces all around. And I'm pretty sure I'm not going to hit the count again this week because I've got to prep for a presentation that my writing group is doing this Sunday. (More on that next week!) Also, I have to prep my submission to the same group - which means editing some of my NaNo pile instead of new writing. At least that is all on the same project.

4. Almost finished with a poetry chapbook on Ted Bundy that I'm going to submit to a competition. Need three more poems. I know the subject matter, it's just a matter of finding the right words. Poetry is tougher than anything when you're struggling with finding words. So it'll probably take me right up to the deadline before I finish.

5. Oh! I did finish one thing. I set up a page on Facebook for my writers' group The Under Ground Writing Project (UGWP to those 'in the know'). If you're so inclined, you can go on Facebook or go to the website and click Like. Also, feel free to join the website itself, even if you can't make the regular meetings. There are writing forums and blog posts and writing resources listed. The only thing you can't do on the site is read the group's documents. You'll forgive me for protecting our work, right? I really want to promote writerly friendships.

Now it's your turn! Tell me what you've been up to this week!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Story and Poetry - Why Aren’t They Together?

In Fragile Things, a collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, there is a wonderful poem called “Instructions.” As Gaiman says in the introduction this poem is “Quite literally, a set of instructions for what to do when you find yourself in a fairy tale.” While he might not come out and say so, I say that the poem is also a pretty clear set of instructions for what to do in life as well.

It is also a mini-story. Even though the main character is ‘you,’ there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you follow the advice throughout the poem, you will arrive safely at the end…just like a character growing through a novel.

Reading this poem got me thinking about the disconnect I sense between ‘poetry’ and ‘story’ in today’s poetry. I’m no professional poet, I haven’t had poems published in any big name magazines, and I’ve only had a couple workshops but I am a reader. I love to read poetry and short stories and plays and novels. You name it, I’ll read it. (Or at least give it a good shot.) And what I’ve noticed in a lot (not all! there are exceptions everywhere) of contemporary poetry – which I’ll call poetry after the 1920s – is that there is a horrid tendency toward, um, navel gazing.

Oh yeah, I said it.

A huge amount of the poetry I have read made me go: so what? (Again, not all! No need to list ad nauseum the exceptions – if it made you feel something, then it wasn’t a poem of the navel gazing variety, agreed?)  The poet shot a deer. Big whoop. The poet watched a baby being born. Sweet, sure, but millions of women have babies every day. Again, I say big whoop. My reaction has run the gamut between “huh, that’s okay” to “why did the poet just waste two minutes of my life with his self-satisfied, political whack job view on a subject I care nothing about?”

Then I read Neil Gaiman’s “Instructions.” My initial reaction was of the elitist, poetry workshop variety. Enter Snooty Jenny: these line breaks are sloppy, there’s not a high level of ‘telling detail,’ and so on.

But, ya know. I liked it. A lot. And I told my snooty self to shut up and re-read the poem again.

I did.

And I thought of something. Contemporary poetry, in my general unscientifically-polled opinion, does not embrace story. Sure, something generally happens – a deer gets shot or a baby gets born or whatever. But there’s not a story within it. There is no beginning, middle, or end supported by the things that make poetry work: line breaks, stanzas, meter, rhyme. The genres of fiction and poetry have gone their separate ways and it seems like it'll take a miracle to mush them back together.

It wasn’t always this way. Poetry used to be The Method for story, political essays and commentary, and a whole host of communications. Part of that is because meter and rhyme make stories, commentaries, etc., easy to memorize and repeat. (Thus easier to ‘go viral’ back in the day.)

While by no means an absolute certainty of the future of meshing the two, there are signs that story is returning to poetry with really incredible popular results – especially in the YA field. Ellen Hopkins, for example, with Crank, Impulseand her new adult release, Triangles. Karen Hesse with Out of the Dust. What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones. And the list is growing.

I think that’s good news. What do you guys think about poetry, just in general? Do you enjoy reading it or hearing it? If not, why not? Inquiring minds want to know.

Have you read any good poems that tell a story?

And now, here’s Neil Gaiman reading “Instructions” at Cody Books (Pay attention to the intro, the crowd’s reaction, and Gaiman’s questions – what do you think about that?)



Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Pages

"Somewhere in the night, someone was writing." ~Neil Gaiman, Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire

Today I bring you the first of a new feature on the blog. From now on, we're going to be giving you a writing prompt or exercise each Saturday. I hope you'll take a bit of time to stretch your writing muscles and play along. If you have a blog of your own, and post your Saturday pages there, please let us know by leaving a link in the comments. We'd love to check it out!

Without further ado, I present you with a line from a story called Closing Time which you can find in Fragile Things, a collection of stories and poems by Gaiman.

"I should have run then. My heart was pounding in my chest. But the devil was in me, and instead of running I looked at the three big boys at the bottom of the path, and I simply said, 'Or are you scared?'"

This is the start of your next story. Now, go write.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Talking to You

Hello there, reader. Here goes my first post on Place for the Stolen, and I'm thrilled to be here. Also, I'm blushing a little from Jenny's kind introduction. Jenny's one of those cool people who is wicked smart and clever. Not to mention that she can, and has, straight up told people in our writing group that, "No! Ali's totally wrong about that!" while still making me feel loved. Hard to do, my friends, hard to do. In short, there's no one whose blog I'd rather be crashing.

Now, time to spread the love a bit more. The timing of joining the blog is great, because Neil Gaiman is high on the list of people I want to be when I grow up. Okay, so maybe I'll take a pass on the hair and the part where he's a guy, but otherwise...

My favorite Neil Gaiman book is American Gods. I love it so much, I even wrote about it in part of my thesis. Tonight, I'm going to focus on voice, i.e. the thing that makes an author memorable. It's what drags us back to their spot on the shelf, eagerly scanning for something new. Voice is the thing that makes us think about what it would be like to sit down over coffee with that author and imagine, "Wow, we would get along famously!"

What I love about Gaiman's voice is that he always seems like he's talking to you. In her post about Anansi Boys, Jenny mentioned folk tales. I think it's a very apt comparison, because Gaiman, at his heart, is really a story teller in a very traditional sense. His work feels like you're listening to an actual person talk. That's why you should check him out on YouTube and watch some clips of him reading his work. And, like every person who's great at telling stories, he even does the voices of the different characters. Consider the very first paragraph of American Gods, which introduces the main character (asterisks are mine, not his):

"Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-f***-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."

It's easy to get a sense of this character, even though we've only got two sentences. Two sentences which tell you a lot of information and yet are incredibly simple. There's no beating around the bush here. Now, for those of you who haven't read the book, you should know that throughout the book there are a series of short stories and vignettes that tell of people coming to America and bringing their native folklore with them. Shadow's POV is pared down, Spartan. The "Coming to America" passages are more lush. These are the parts that are larger than life and steeped in myth. The voice reflects this. Here's an excerpt from a "Coming to America" passage The passage is dated 1721 and focuses on a woman from Cornwall who's connected to Celtic folk lore:

"Essie's eyes lighted on Bartholomew, the squire's eighteen-year-old son, home from Rugby, and she went at night to the standing stone on the edge of the woodland, and she put some bread that Bartholomew had been eating but had left unfinished on the stone, wrapped in a cut strand of her own hair. And on the very next day Bartholomew came and talked to her, and looked on her approvingly with his own eyes, the dangerous blue of a sky when a storm is coming, while she was cleaning out the grate in his bedroom.

He had such dangerous eyes, said Essie Tregowan."

See how the language changes? And yet, the one thing that remains the same is it's so easy to feel like there's an actual person telling you the story as you sit next to the fire at night.

Okay, so this first post has turned lengthy, so it's time to wrap it up. One of the things that makes Gaiman great, and one of the things that makes him work well in many different genres, is that his voice on the page feels like he's talking to you and only you.  In his poem "Instructions" he's literally talking to you. He uses his voice to create a space that's just you, him, and the story. That's what we talk about when we talk about getting sucked in.

Create the story space, my friends. Nail that, and the rest will follow.

The Edgar Nominees

Awards are so exciting. I was caught up in the tweeting and congratulations to Maureen Johnson, YA writer extraordinaire when I noticed:

Lo and Behold!

Our very own mentor for this month, Neil Gaiman, has also been nominated for his short story: "The Case of Death and Honey" from Study in Sherlock

Yay! Congrats to Gaiman, Johnson, and all of the finalists whom you can check out here.

And now, for some more mentorish action in the spirit of the awards, here is Neil Gaiman discussing Edgar Allan Poe

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

An Announcement and Mapping: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Hello my fellows, my comrades, my peeps! I hope this Tuesday finds you happily typing away on your keyboards.

These past couple weeks have calmed enough for me to post what I've actually done.

But first! An announcement!:

Considering the amount of reading and extrapolating I have to do for this blog, and considering the amount of work that I have to do on my works-in-progress I decided to recruit a partner on this blog project of mine. My good friend Ali will be popping in and taking on some mentor posts of her own. Ali has more degrees than me, an attitude that has earned her the nickname 'demon,' and is a fantabulous writer. She's got the pulse of contemporary fantasy authors down pat and has a Masters in English Lit. So she's pretty well rounded. Keep an eye peeled for her upcoming posts!

I'm hoping this addition will keep the posting consistent and less scatter-shot.

And now...here's what I've been up to the last couple weeks:

1. Drawing/sketching settings. I went out and bought a sketch book (this is laughable since I have no artistic skill whatsoever). Then I proceeded to go through and list the settings that I needed to know backwards and forwards - since my group pointed out they couldn't tell where anything was...and yeah, I had people turning left when they should've gone right. My bad. This should fix it.

Part of my setting sketches went toward a new project which I'm also working on with Ali. It occurred to me that a setting sketch would be doubly important when you're working with another writer. Not all rooms look the same to all people apparently. So we needed a base and I drew a rough one, sent it to Ali, and she had the grace not to laugh where I could hear.

Illustration 1: (Don't laugh)




2. Outlining. There's a great debate about outlining. But I have fallen on the side of outlining once I realized that an 'outline' did not mean this

Main Topic
A. Supporting Topic 1
    1. support of supporting topic 1
    2. further support of supporting topic 1
B. Supporting Topic 2
     1. support of supporting topic 2
     2. further support of supporting topic 2
C. Supporting Topic 3
     1. support of supporting topic 3
     2. further support of supporting topic 3

Etc.

My outlining looks more like this (again, don't laugh...and if you read too close you may or may not get spoilers...heaven knows what'll stay).

Illustration 2:





I know, this doesn't look like writing, does it? But I assure you, my word count will increase exponentially after doing this work. And I'm hoping it will also keep me from rewriting TOTALLY and COMPLETELY for goofy reasons like having the character in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

So...what've you guys been up to? Have you started this new year with a bang?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Neil Gaiman Selected Shorts Interview

Poking around YouTube, I found this very fascinating interview with Neil Gaiman from Selected Shorts. All the questions came from Selected Shorts viewers/listeners. Gaiman himself just pulls them from a bag and answers - you can't get any more straightforward. Whenever you have about ten minutes to spare, check it out. He talks about truth in fiction, characters, and his desire to write for the theatre (which I found particularly interesting and I immediately started daydreaming about what a Gaiman stage project would look like).



 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Expect the Unexpected: Turning

"...he could see the blackbirds, and small hedge-hopping sparrows, a single spotted-breasted thrush in the boughs of a nearby tree. Fat Charlie though that a world in which birds sang in the morning was a normal world, a sensible world, a world he didn't mind being a part of.
    Later, when birds were something to be afraid of, Fat Charlie would still remember that morning as something good and something fine, but also as the place where it all started." ~from the end of Chapter One, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

In poetry, at least in my understanding of poetry, there is the idea that each line's responsibility is to either reenforce or to alter the meaning of the preceding line - it makes the poem surprising, leading the reader in one direction and then moving it somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.

To give a far too simplistic example - Shakespeare Sonnet CXXX:
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red"

These two lines reenforce each other. The chick is not that awesome.

But sonnets hinge on a turn - the final lines switch up the meaning of all the lines that went before. The first sets of lines create this snowball effect: my mistress ain't that good lookin', she's not that sweet, and so on.

Then Shakespeare turns the meaning of the poem:
"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare."

Meaning she's the rockinest rock star because she's herself.

I think of this as a 'turn' because, well, it turns. (I'm a simple creature.) This kind of thing is easy to see in poetry because that's one of the simpler ways in which poetry works.

Fiction, by it's nature a different beast, can still benefit from turning. It's not something that a fiction writer can do with every sentence because, damn, that'll hurt a reader's neck from all the back-and-forth.

Neil Gaiman is very, very good at the fiction turn.

Take the opening quote from Anansi Boys. He talks about birds as a normal piece of the world. And they are. But then, to add intrigue, there's that awesome clause "when birds were something to be afraid of." He contradicts everything that he's describing around that. It's jolting. It's effective. I read that sentence over and over again, wallowing in the idea of birds turning into something to be feared.

You find the turns throughout Gaiman. He's all about throwing in the unexpected note. Even his main character, Fat Charlie, is not fat. There's a show dog named Goofy. Little splashes like this wake the reader up, make the reader focus. And you want your readers paying attention.

Have you guys come across any instances of turning? Any authors or stories that you remember because of the way it shifted?

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Second Reason to Read Widely: It's Probably Been Done

*The First Reason to Read Widely: because reading is fun.*

And now on to the second: because what you're writing has probably been written already.

I give you Exhibit A:

"It begins, as most things begin, with a song." ~opening line of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Seems innocuous enough, right? It's a very intriguing opening...and Gaiman riffs on for about half a page on the importance of song, the way it interacts with human emotion, the way song tells a story. All very beautiful.

So now, imagine, if you will, that you have a great idea for a novel. (I have many of these, and there's a long list of novels-to-be-worked-on.) Imagine further that you have gone so far in your plotting of said novel that you've constructed a title, an opening sentence, a final sentence, and the general structure of the book itself. You know how you want it to work - and the opening sentence and the closing sentence resonate for different reasons.

Now imagine that you're reading a book by a very famous author, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman for instance, and the first sentence of your brilliant book - which you haven't gotten to write yet because you're busy working on other novelistic projects - is syntactically identical to said famous author's opening line.

Say it with me now: AUGH!!!!!!

(By the way, I despise using exclamation points. But this feels like  the only accurate way to express my melodramatic sadness.)

I do not begrudge Gaiman his sentence. Obviously, I think opening a story with such a sentence is a good idea. Genius even. That's why I wanted it.

My planned opening sentence was this:

"It begins, as all things do, with a gamble."

Perhaps not as brilliant as riffing on song. Perhaps I could even convince myself to still use it...but I would feel like a copycat.

Because, look, though I talk a lot about stealing/borrowing bits from successful authors (even going so far as writing blogs about it) I don't actually want to lift sentences in such a direct fashion. That is not the art of concealing your source. And the art of concealing your source is important.

So, in spite of my frustration - and my frustration definitely slowed down the reading of the first pages or so of Anansi Boys as I came to grips with the opening sentence - I'm glad I've read wide enough to catch this kind of thing. Having seen where Gaiman went with his opening and having followed it all the way to it's conclusion (a.k.a.: I read the book) made me rethink what I was trying to do with my own story-to-be. (Because, oh yes, it will still be! I lost a sentence, not a book.)

Anansi Boys is a mass of folk-tale telling skill. The opening sentence is lovely and puts the reader in that frame of mind. The book that I want to write is not that, and so now I'm wondering, as I go back to the drawing board, if there isn't something a tad serendipitous to the reading widely idea - that you come across what you need, when you need it, and learn what you need from it.

So...

1. Read widely. Because your Brilliant Original Idea is not. And you need to figure that out but quick. This is important for things like plot and whatnot, that goes almost without saying. But it's also important for small things. By reading Anansi Boys I figured out something else about the story I want to tell, just from reevaluation of the first sentence; it made me think about the tone and how similar or different I want it be in relation to Gaiman's book.

2. Write fast. Because if you do have a Brilliant Original Idea, you'd better lay claim to it before someone else does.

3. You should read - because reading is fun.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chapters in Which Something Happens

My daughter, who is three, is on her way to being the next Neil Gaiman.

Bronwen likes to tell stories. The other day we were driving somewhere, the destination is unimportant, and she asked me if I wanted to hear a story. Always open to the possibility of stealing my children's ideas and using them in a story of my own, I said, "Sure."

She began like she always does: "Okay, here I go." (Because she's learned the hard way that we need to know she has started.)

She goes on for a period of time describing a situation with dragons and knights in shining armor and Peter Pan and dinosaurs before she noticeably runs out of steam. But lack of a sequential, logical plot point is not a deterrent to Bronwen, master of the first draft that she is - oh no, she says "And then something happens" and we're off to the next portion of the story in which Captain Hook saves the day when he turns into a ninja and slays Shredder.

Subject matter is not the only way she is like Gaiman. (Joking. Don't yell at me.) Note the auspicious use of ye olde literary device: And Then Something Happens.

Ah-ha!

Now we get to why Gaiman is a really kick-ass storyteller. He has embraced the Something Happens. Which means he is not a boring storyteller. To tell a good story, stuff has to happen. Whether it's in logical order or believable is beside the point at this moment. With Gaiman, just assume that it does make sense - or, rather, he will make it make sense to you (the key!).

And I knew I was in pretty darn good hands when I picked up Anansi Boys just from the chapter titles. Chapter titles are risky things, as we talked about before with Margaret Atwood - who also gets away with titles - because they can give away too much. But what's interesting about Anansi's chapter titles is that they reassure the reader that something does happen.

A sampling:
Chapter One: Which is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships
Chapter Two: Which is Mostly About the Things that Happen After Funerals
Chapter Three: In Which There is a Family Reunion 

From that tiny bit, I can assume that there is a family dynamic heavily at work in the story and that Point A leads to Point B because Something Happens. The first chapter is telling the reader who the family is, the second chapter takes place at a funeral - and I can assume that a family member has died (Something Happened), and that the family reunion after the funeral will not run smoothly because of the Something that Has Happened which will cause Something Else to Happen. It's all very dramatic.

So here's a possibly interesting way to apply Gaiman's storytelling to our own work, if you're so inclined: title the chapters "In Which __________ Happens." If nothing actually happens in that chapter, then you need to reevaluate what you want that chapter to say...and if it doesn't say anything, I think you've found some pieces to scrap/think heavily about cutting. (And don't forget to delete the chapter titles before you submit your book around - you don't want to give everything away.) Hm, come to think of it, that could be a cool way to help you write a synopsis too....

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cleaning the Closet: A Tuesday Post of Accountability and My One New Year's Resolution

It's Tuesday and time to share what we've all been up to!

I know I missed last week, but the blog page was starting to look like nothing but accountability posts and that gets boring after a while.

and I didn't do anything worth reporting...

However, on Sunday night I got a hankering to organize the writing room. Honestly it wasn't that messed up, it's probably the cleanest room in the house at any given time, but I felt the room was being utilized well enough. Ya know that feeling?

All was going fine....

And then I hit the Closet.

The Closet houses Stuff Jenny Sends To Die. There are three novels, multiple short stories, two poetry books, a play, and whatever else I might have written that needs to disappear. But I felt a certain level of guilt at allowing these things that I'd worked so hard on to just rot away in the dark - with no kind of organization. The pages were just stacked and scrambled.

So I found two plastic tubbies - the kind that hold files - and set about organizing.

I had a few moments of "Huh, that's not too bad." And other moments that were less hopeful. But overall I was stunned at the amount of pages, the quantity of work, the endlessness of it. It's about ten years worth of work and it was all staring me in the face.

Apparently I wrote my 'first' novel - a fantasy book that would have D&D fans either grinning in recognition or groaning in frustration - seven or eight times. But I never made it past Chapter Three in any given draft. Still...that's a lot of pages. And there are quite a few 'novels' that were started after that one: two serial killer novels, a novel about a writer (because we all do that at some point, right?), another fantasy novel, and something that I'm not quite sure where I was going.

Then there're the poetry books. The second one is the good one - and it's also about serial killers but it still needs work and I'm not willing to put in the time at the moment. But the first is so full of teen/young adult angst that if the pages had pores there'd be zits and broken-heart shards clogging every one.

Also in the closet are my under-the-bed novels. These are actually not too bad. The first one is impressive because not only did I pass Chapter Three...I continued for another thousand pages or so. That notebook is BIG. It takes up 1/4 of the file tubby. The second and third novels are good, for what they are. But these books are Trying Too Hard. So, under the bed/in the closet tubby they go.

This is just the stuff in the closet. This doesn't count the work currently piled in my computer, in my desk drawers, the stacks on my desk, and the work lining my bookshelves. It doesn't count the blog. It doesn't count school papers. Just the closet.

Looking at all of this, you'd think I'd be pretty proud. Among the scattered pieces were things I'd written for school, critiques, and notes-to-self.

Honestly, for a little while all I felt was disappointed.

"Look at all that work!" my head screamed at me. "Look at all that you've done! Why haven't you accomplished more!!??" And so on.

There were some frustrated tears, I won't lie.

Tucked away in the stacks were rejection letters. These letters are ten years old - which is when I started taking writing seriously. Without really thinking or knowing what I was doing, I'd sent my early short stories out to every magazine that I'd heard of. My early writing 'career' was what I considered successful. I won a small contest. I had the very first flash fiction piece I'd ever sent out picked up by the first publication I ever sent it to. I finished a thousand page novel. I was badass. But the rejection letters told me that this was HARD. This would be DIFFICULT. Being young and rather fragile, I stopped sending things out as regularly. I didn't give up, but I was more hesitant.

Sunday, I re-read those rejections.

Every single one of them was a personalized rejection letter. There were little notes - 'this one not for us, but send more.' There were mini-critiques telling me to focus on characterization or a plot point. And the piece-de-resistance? A full length letter from Weird Tales telling me that they were overstocked, so they were being super-selective, and my story fell short on A, B, and C plot points. An editor - from a well respected magazine - took the time to write a full-on letter to me. He mentioned my hometown. He asked me about Colorado.

And all my twenty-something self saw was the rejection. I actually thought it was a form rejection at the time.

The good news is that I didn't quit. I went to school. Learned more stuff. Applied more techniques. I got better.

But I haven't regained that "I own this!" attitude that I had at first. Looking through all of my work, reading those rejection letters, it occurred to me that there is no reason I can't get that attitude back.

The pages I have written are my skin - toughened by practice and experience. The letters are the evidence that what I have to say is effective. There's no reason to step back.

I will finish my work, I will submit my work. I will work more. I will finish more. I will submit more. And this time I won't hesitate. That's my resolution.

I'm going to work. And I won't stop. 

  

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year, New You, New Mentor: Neil Gaiman

To kick off the New Year, we have a new mentor (who had been scheduled late last year before I got all overwhelmed and schtuff). You may recognize the name:

Neil Gaiman!!!!!!!!!!!!

*and the crowd cheers*

And to emphasize the importance of mentors - whether the mentors know they're mentoring or not - I direct you to the dedication page of the hardcover Anansi Boys:

"Note: the author would like to take this opportunity to tip his hat respectfully to the ghosts of Zora Neale Hurston, Thorne Smith, P.G. Wodehouse, and Frederick 'Tex' Avery."

Ah yes, our mentor recognized those who had come before him...and, I would assume, influenced him in some way.

Because, as I've often said and will certainly say again, we don't write in a vaccuum people. (Unless, of course, you're a Little and the vaccuum happens to be a cozy, if hayfever inducing, location.) As writers we are always responding to the literature that has come before us, and to the literature that is coming at us.

Gaiman is an author who is coming at us. His books rest on the shelves, dominate the bestseller lists, and he is still producing. This makes him someone you, as a writer living at this point in history, will probably have to respond to at some point. So it's good that we look on him as someone to learn from, because, damn, his work has a lot of stuff to teach.

So, this blogger would like to take this opportunity to tip her hat respectfully to this inspiring and inspired author. And, dear readers, it is especially cool to be examining a living author who is so active in the world of social media. You wanna hear what he thinks? Check out his blog Neil Gaiman's Journal and follow him on Twitter @Neilhimself.

And to get this party started, I would like to end on a question: What is your favorite Neil Gaiman book?

P.S. For those who may have missed it, I did start to do some work on Gaiman, and here are the links from back in December if you'd like to see where I'm coming from:

Seeing in the Dark: The YA Novel in General and The Graveyard Book in Particular
How to Avoid Being Too Dark?
Thursday Reviews: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)
Winning the Newbery Medal: What Does It Take?