Thursday, October 28, 2010

Interrogation 101: Writing Workshop

This semester, I'm required to take a writing workshop wherein I transform a lame seminar paper into an awesome article which dozens of academic journals will be dying to publish. (That is to say, if I'm lucky, one academic journal will consider publishing it after I've implemented their extensive revision sections.)

And I have to say, it's been torture.

It's not that I've never experienced critique before. I've gotten back about a gazillion papers with professor comments on them, and I've also submitted my creative writing to various readers for their feedback - some gushing, some harsh, most of it very helpful.

But what all these experiences had in common was that when I handed them out, they were in some stage of completion. That is, I felt I had gone as far as I could on my own, and it was time for outside input. In fact, with creative writing, I've discovered that if I don't do this, that if I send out things too early, while I'm still working on them, while I've still got tons of my own ideas that I need to put in place, then the early critique actually blights my creativity. If I get outside opinions while the writing is still tenuous in my own head, then I am besieged by doubt and, to quote the Apostle James, I and the paper become "like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind." Eventually, I lose the desire to create.

Which is primarily why this class has been so wretchedly hard. I have to turn in a draft every three weeks. This is quite a lot of writing (especially academic writing) in the first place, and then to have all the weak places prodded and diagnosed by a classful of critics - the whole production process has been very difficult.

And, let me emphasize, not because of any failing in my classmates or professor. They've been great. The paper was weak, and it needed to be prodded and diagnosed. It's a matter of being able to survive as a writer inside of (in spite of?) the structure of the class.

On the whole, however, I suspect that learning to write under what seem to me very adverse circumstances will be far more valuable to me even than producing a publishable article. Forging ahead, writing, even when I feel like I've lost my faith in what I'm doing - I think it forges a kind of strength, the ability to perform a difficult job (writing is certainly the hardest thing I've ever done) without any comforting emotional support. And hopefully, I'll also learn the ability to pick out my own idea in the midst of a flood of suggestions and good advice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Romanticists wear striped socks

I kid you not. It's apparently a kind of secret sign.

Last year, I took a class with the new Romanticist* in our department. He's what would I would call a preppy dresser: pressed dress shirt, cuff links, shined shoes. Always. In a department where some faculty rarely aspire beyond shorts and flip flops (and I am so okay with that), it sticks out, which is probably why I noticed his socks. Bright. Stripes. I actually looked forward to seeing what pair he'd be wearing every class. I took it as a kind of private rebellion against his own self-imposed dress code. (Romanticists are complicated people.)

And then, this last weekend at a nineteenth century conference, I overheard the following exchange:

Visiting Romanticist: I see you wear striped socks. You must be a Romanticist.

Our Romanticist: Oh yes!

Both: [lift pant cuffs to display brightly striped socks]

(*Romanticist - scholar who studies literature more or less written between 1750 and 1850.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Back in the Saddle

A packed and stressful month at school caused me to drop the ball on both this blog and my WIP. However, after an inspiring Houston YA/MG authors group meeting yesterday (read about it here, and having survived the first month and a half of the semester, I am back in gear!

In one way, my forced hiatus from the WIP may have been a good thing--I'd written myself to a standstill, and needed a break and some fresh perspective to figure out how to take the story to the next level. Hopefully, I've gotten that, so here's to draft five!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mockingjay *SPOILERS*

At last, my long overdue post on Mockingjay!


Now that it comes down to it, I find I don't actually have as much to say about this book as I thought I did. Essentially, I thought it was a terrible book with a beautiful ending. I'll try to briefly sum up why I feel this way:

1. Although Collins claims she's trying to portray the true horror of war, her violence is video game violence. Machines spit out deadly things and slaughter characters in excessively gory ways. Over and over and over. It's simultaneously revolting and boring. And because she dwells on the sci-fi gore rather than the human element, I have difficulty making a connection between the book and the real wars going on in our world right now. (For example, she does a wonderful job developing Finnick's character - I really cared about him. But he died in two lines, and Katniss never has an extended moment of reflection on what that means. Because she never has to deal with her grief, we, the readers, never deal with it. And shouldn't that be the point of a didactic fictional book on war? To point out how many people die and are never mourned, and then show the terrible waste of those lives and teach us how we should mourn and, ideally, reform?)

2. Collins switched boats mid-stream. I don't know this - it's just a hunch - but I feel as though after book two, Collins suddenly looked at what she'd done and wanted to make the series more meaningful, more emotionally wise, more profound. But because the first two books were pretty basic thriller + satire (the Juvenalian kind that runs on anger rather than laughter). I found them both highly entertaining, and I thought they had some good things to say about reality tv. But I didn't find them profound. I don't think it would have been impossible to make book three profound, but I think it would have been very hard. And I feel like Collins kept shooting herself in the book. For the aim of the series to change, Katniss needed to change. As I see it, there are two characters who could have helped Katniss grow - Cinna and Peeta. Cinna, she killed in book two. And Peeta, she used as a tension heightener by making him lose his mind for most of the book. Again, this could have been the key to Katniss's FINALLY maturing emotionally, but instead she reverted to the old survival instinct, and learned nothing.

(One side note: I will say I thought she closed the love triangle perfectly. Of course it had to be Peeta. And making Gale the inadvertent cause of Prim's death was the perfect way to get rid of him. Of course, I was so emotionally detached from the book at that point that I felt almost nothing when Prim went up in flames, but that's a different issue.)

And YET, that ENDING! That beautiful, sad, eloquent ending. I wish the book had made the ending inevitable. Instead, I feel like the ending was a glimpse of what the book COULD have been. As it is, Katniss's character development simply couldn't support it. But, it made reading the book almost worth it. So, I will end on a happy note by quoting the final paragraphs where Katniss contemplates how she will explain her violent past and its memories to her children, an ending I wish I had written:

I'll tell them how to survive it. I'll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I'm afraid it could be taken away. That's when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I've seen someone do. It's like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.

But there are much worse games to play.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Wednesday WIP update

This week I realized that because of insufficiently clear character motivations, I wasn't going to be able to finish the draft. I'm trying to write a very tightly woven plot, but the problem with tight plots (which I hadn't realized before) is that if the setup isn't right, the ending, where all the strands are supposed to fall perfectly into place, won't happen. So, I'm back at the beginning, and hopefully this time, I'll get things right enough to make it to the end! I'm very hopeful, since I feel like I have the clearest view of the story as a whole that I've ever had.

And, in joyful news, a character was born tonight! In my previous draft, I had a character who was a sort of stock elderly mentor type with a small role. Hoping for something a little less like cardboard, I poked him vigorously, and he suddenly metamorphosed into an utterly different personality - younger, fatter, and bubbling over with resentment. I have to admit that I wasn't entirely pleased at first - the initial wash of his personality was so strong that I thought he would try and elbow his way into a larger role in the story, and there is no room! But once I stopped yelling at the computer screen and settled down to work, he slipped into his niche and transformed a wobbly, melodramatic scene into something that I think is very solid. Huzzah!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Anecdote on a Tuesday

This is my favorite joke from junior high. It is a two person joke, so you may need to try it out on an innocent bystander.

Me: Ask me if I'm a tree.

Innocent bystander (looking dubious): Are you a tree?

Me: No! (hysterical laughter)

I don't understand why I still find this so hilarious, or why I'm laughing as I type it out. Most innocent bystanders do not find it amusing. It's a lot more fun to be Me ;)

Monday, September 6, 2010

New Schedule and Writing Excuses

Ah, Resolutions! And it's not even New Year's. This whole blog is an experiment, and now I've decided to experiment with themed blogging on a schedule (along with my new blogger buddy Rachel, who came up with the idea). The schedule is as follows:

Mondays - writing advice or ponderings on writing in general, my own and plugs for other people's
Tuesdays - crazy things going on in grad school/kung fu/life
Wednesdays - update on my WIP
Thursday - book review
Friday - free write of some sort

In my last post I said that I would be blogging about Mockingjay tonight, but, as you can see, it's no longer on this evening's schedule. (I will throw my two cents into the arena on Wednesday.)

For my first official Monday post, I've got to plug the absolutely fabulous podcast Writing Excuses. Hosted by three sci fi/fantasy writers, each episode is 15 minutes long ("because you're in a hurry and we're not that smart") and full of concentrated discussion on writing topics such as pacing, creating a villain, and pitching an editor. The guys are frank and down to earth, their advice is concrete and pragmatic, and listening makes doing laundry an absolute pleasure. What more could a podcast need? All past podcasts are in their archives, so first time listeners can enjoy a marathon listening session! (And my bedroom is cleaner than it's been in weeks.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010


On the recommendation of a friend, who insists that he must "get me into graphic novels," I read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and finished it last night. (Today I read Mockingjay, but I'm still processing. Will probably review that in the next post.)

Overall, I enjoyed it. The Iranian history is fascinating, and viewing it through the lens of a personal memoir is doubly so. (I did think the section that takes place in Vienna dragged a little.) However, I confirmed what I already suspected - I'm not really a graphic novel kind of girl.

It's not that I think they're a lower literary form or any nonsense like that. It's just that my little brain can't handle text and pictures at the same time. Pictures alone, great (art museums!). Text alone, great (books!). Both together - too much to process. When I'm really into a story, I can't bring myself to slow down and look at each panel. Plus, I'm so used to making up my own pictures to go along with the story, that I feel frustrated by the author's attempt to tie me down to pre-chosen images.

BUT I think it says a lot for Satrapi's writing that I could get so into the story even without paying much attention to the illustrations. Her space was so limited that she couldn't afford to waste a word, and she didn't. In almost every panel, she hit exactly the right tone, chose exactly the right details, maintained an optimum balance between inner narration and outer dialogue. It's brilliant.

I think that if I was forced to put my stories into comic strips, I'd learn an awful lot about my writing, really fast: Where am I most likely to waste space? What do I avoid cutting at all costs? And is my voice strong enough to ring clearly through only a handful of words?

While I'm not going to sit down and write a graphic novel, Satrapi's work is a wonderful model of tight writing, and reading Persepolis has encouraged me to keep polishing my own prose, until every word pulls it own weight, and more.

Friday, September 3, 2010


The contest. Not Dickinson.

I'm getting ready to submit the first 7,000 words of my novel to the new YA category in Houston's RWA annual Emily contest. I'm pretty excited about this, as it will be the first "serious" writing contest I've ever entered. It will be great to get some feedback from utterly unbiased readers - judges who have no idea who I am and who have no stake in making me feel happy :) Of course, this could also be painful, but no pain, no gain I guess!

The down side is that I recently had a revelation about my novel's opening, and while I'd originally planned to submit as is, now that I have a completely new beginning in mind, it doesn't make sense to submit the old one. But now that the contest is open to submissions, and they limit the number of entries in each category, I'm feeling a time crunch. I guess I ought to stop blogging and start novelizing!

But before I do, I'd like to leave you all with a little ditty I composed in honor of Emily. Dickinson, not the contest:

Emily! Emily Dickinson!
Emily! My brain is so sick that on
Saturday night, I find myself thinking of you.

Your poetry! Is full of obscurity!
Your poetry! It's driving me nuts, you see
My head might explode! But that was your goal from the start.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A WIP seen through a glass darkly. Very darkly.

I'm happy to report that yesterday's writing went very well (I'm relieved too - I'd been stuck for a couple of days, and at this late stage that makes me very anxious). I ended up creating a brand new scene with one of my favorite characters and even throwing in a little romantic tension (ooooooh).

Come to think of it, I haven't explained my creative project in the context of this blog, so I suppose I should do that to give some sort of face to these writing updates. I'm working on a YA fantasy novel of approximately 100,000 words. I've recently learned that you are not supposed to post plot details about WIPs (works in progress) online, because of one in a million plagiarism concerns. So I guess I'll just say that if you crossed Eragon with A Wizard of Earthsea, set it in the middle of The Secret Garden, and dusted it with a pinch of The Queen of Attolia, you'd come up with something that's more or less unlike my book. :)

Here's hoping this blog post will launch me into another successful writing session! (Got to write yet another sword sparring scene. Why do I do this to myself? Why?)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Scaredy Cat on the Block

I've recently been discovering that at the root of much of my bouts of writer's block is fear. This is actually a discovery I make periodically, and then somehow manage to forget. I suppose this is because I don't like the idea of myself trembling in front of my own keyboard as Dorothy's new companion, the cowardly novelist! But deep down inside there's always a little nibbling voice: What if my story's not good enough? What if my story's good enough, but I'm not good enough to write it? And I find that these fears get worse the deeper I get into editing. During the first draft, one can always say to one's self, "Self! It's ok if it sucks. First drafts are SUPPOSED to suck." But that mantra doesn't work so well by draft four.

There are a couple of strategies I've found for silencing this block inducing scaredy cat. One is to acknowledge that I'm afraid, remind myself that courage doesn't mean a lack of fear but going forward in spite of it, and shoving forward as hard as I can. Sometimes this works. Sometimes not.

Much more helpful is remembering I am my primary reader. As long as I write a story that makes me happy, everything else is secondary. A very big, very important secondary, yes, but if my book makes me happy, then I'm ok. And that lets me step back, forget the imaginary hordes who will someday line up to buy my bestseller (maybe), and ask, "What would *I* like to see happen next?"

So, all that to say, I'm trying to write a brand new chapter for the draft tonight, and I'm feeling a little nervous about it. It has the potential to be very cool, but also to go absolutely nowhere. So, tonight I am trying to ask, "Self! What would you like to see happen next?"

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Geriatric Jive

The other day, I spotted this old guy at the gym. Actually, he was kind of hard not to notice. He would plant his cane in front of him, and then shuffle up to it in time to the peppy beat pounding down from the sound system. And I thought, that’s who I want to be when I grow up. The old lady doing the electric slide with her walker.

Groove on, old guy.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Learning is like a giant paper-mache doughnut

First things first. Here is a link for Maggie Stiefvater's blog which I forgot to add after raving about it in my last post, just in case anyone wants to check it out.

On to the topic of the day: LEARNING!

The other day, my totally awesome kung-fu teacher (and you thought I was kidding about going to school while standing on one leg) was trying to help us understand the value of daily practice, even when it doesn't seem to be making any difference in our performance. She said it was like a tree with life-giving sap creeping up inside. At first, only the very bottom of the trunk is alive, but over time the sap inches up until even the highest branches are vibrant with life. In other words, every practice is another inch.

But did I see myself as a majestic oak, spreading its mighty branches to the sky? No. Being me, I imagined a plastic palm tree with a bicycle pump attached.

So, as I searched for an image that did work for me, I remembered a giant paper-mache doughnut I made in art class my junior year of high school. First, I twisted newspaper into a general doughnut shape and wrapped it with masking tape. Then I spent weeks coating it in dozens of layers of newspaper. Apply a layer, let it dry. Apply a layer, let it dry. Apply a layer, let it dry -- until I never wanted to read a newspaper or eat a doughnut ever again. I could have slacked off halfway through, and slapped on a lot of glossy paint the first time I got bored. The result might have been pretty, but it would have collapsed the first time a seventh grader stole it off the display shelf and punted it across the library. Instead, I stayed the course and got something that could have been a Blunt Object in an Agatha Christie novel.

And I've realized that this is the way I learn. I never get it right the first time. I had to read Romeo and Juliet five times before I got what all the fuss was about. I had to write three dozen school essays before I realized that I had things to say that hadn't already been put into books. And I had to practice approximately 7,978 palm strikes in kung-fu before I even came close to getting them right. But now, not only can I do those things, but I can do them well, so well that when a seventh grader takes them and punts them across the library, they don't fly into pieces.

Finally, I think that writing a novel works that way too. The first draft is really just an idea, with characters who behave in more or less consistent ways as they stumble through a landscape that changes every time you see a new special on the travel channel. Second draft, your characters begin to figure out who they are, only unfortunately, you don't like your heroine--in fact, you can't stand her. Third draft, you kill your baby and replace her with a much more engaging (hopefully) twin, who (you discover one day while missing your exit on the freeway) has a brother. Fourth draft, you've finally got characters you wouldn't be ashamed to introduce to your mother, although your plot is sort of like pastry when it hasn't got enough water and refuses to stick together. Fifth draft - well, I'm not sure what happens in the fifth draft, but when I find out, I'll let you know :)

Monday, August 23, 2010

An Introducion and Maggie Stiefvater

I've never been any good at journaling. I always get bored after a couple of weeks at most, probably because whenever I open the cover of a new journal, I feel compelled to write something like "Resolutions" or "Expenses." No wonder I never make it past page four.

Nevertheless, after a long period of resistance, I am at last sticking a toe (although I do have very big big toes) into the world of blogging. I wish I could say this stemmed from some noble resolution to develop a healthy habit of self-introspection or a desire  to connect with my fellow human beings, but really, it's because Maggie Stiefvater is SO COOL.

Maggie is a YA urban fantasy author, whose most recent novel, Linger, debuted as #1 on the NYT bestseller list. But this is not why she is SO COOL (although it doesn't hurt). Maggie (I'm pretty sure she won't mind me calling her Maggie) has a blog, the first blog I've ever followed with any kind of sustained interest, and I find it perfectly awesome. It's upbeat, it's varied, it's lively, and I always come away feeling more cheerful about things in general. She also gives great writing advice, which I, as an aspiring novelist, really appreciate. In short, she showed me that a blog doesn't have to be a slog (there's a slogan for you), and thus was born my ambition to be Just Like Maggie. (Well, not really. I don't want her kids, or her husband, or her dogs, and I'm happy living in Texas instead of Virginia, and I don't really want to write about werewolves, either, although I did enjoy her book. But you know what I mean.)

This blog exists in two places: and livejournal. It is exactly identical in both places, but since the cool people I know in real life are on blogger, and the cool people I wish I knew (Maggie, and the fabulous Megan Whalen Turner Sounis community for starters) are on livejournal, I decided to split the Gordian knot and do both. You can friend me on either site without missing anything.

Thus, my experiment in blogging begins. Here we go!