Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Writerly Tip #5: People Can Be Petty

A friend called today to vent about not-so-professional warfare going on at work. It's the old One Colleague Out To Get Another story. It goes something like this:

Colleague #1 is a decent person, cares about quality - and here's the rub - is better at the job than #2. BUT - Colleague #2 outranks #1, and thus is able to subject #1 to humiliating and professionally damaging experiences.  Most seem to agree #2 is the bully, but no one can - or will - do anything about it.

Didja follow all that? No worries. The synopsis: Insecure, bad people in the work place.

Anyone lived this story before? I know you have. Cause I've seen it.

My reaction when I hear a story like this is why in the world can't people learn how to do their jobs better rather than try to take down the competition? Isn't that a smarter way to compete than to kill everyone off? Then, in the end, you're ACTUALLY GOOD AT YOUR WORK.


And because I am so painfully logical, I often struggle to allow my characters to be illogical. I don't want them to be mean/quixotic/spiteful/stupid/irrational/insecure!!! Because I don't want people in general to be that way.

But the thing is, no one wants to read about perfect people.

And, ahem, I guess in spite of my high flying ideals, I am still a work in progress myself. And so I listen to my friend, let him vent, and remember the lesson: people can be petty. And I can't clean it up, even for fiction, if I want them to be believable characters.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Giver

Talking about THE GIVER today. Even though it was published in 1993, it's in the news a lot these days because it's being made into a movie. 
And because this young woman has been cast in said movie:

She's been cast in a role that has more emotional than actual presence in the book, so it will be interesting to see what they've done to expand that role.

AT ANY RATE, because this is mostly a blog about writing, I decided that instead of discussing the entire book and its many attributes, I will just note one particular thing about the way Lois Lowry crafted her story, a thing that has become a writerly tip for me and (I hope) for others:
 I aspire to her ability to reveal.


It isn't until page 94 (of a 179-page book) that we learn our main character Jonas and all his friends and family do not see colors. The Giver tells Jonas that the fleeting glimpse of a "mysterious quality" he has seen in an apple and in his friend's hair is the color red.
And wow again.
Under less skilled hands, we would have learned that fact much earlier in the book. But Lowry deftly, patiently grows her world of "Sameness" for us, establishing the concept of a one-note society in which you are assigned your family, your profession, your home. And even though, as you read about this world where there are no real animals or cars, and you slowly become horrified by the lack of choice and personality and individuality, it never occurs to you (or it didn't to me) that these poor sods can't even see the color of each other's hair, much less the sky, grass, and trees around them. And there's a brief mention of an Aryan Empire-style attempt to breed away skin color as well so that everyone is the same.
Bu they can't see color. All they can comprehend is that some people - like Jonas - have light eyes. But those people are considered "different", and thus are shamed by that quality and no one talks about it for fear of embarrassment.

So I aim to reveal as well as Lowry, and I look forward to seeing the fun they will have putting this moment on film.

And as I have done before, I encourage all the writers out there to use this talent for revealing to make your own work better.

Be brilliant! (And colorful)


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tip #4: Update

So Simon and Schuster has just launched a new imprint- dedicated to Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror.  According to Publishers Weekly, it's not even named yet, but it's got an executive staff: Jon Anderson from S & S Children's, Justin Chanda also of S & S, and Joe Monti, most recently from Barry Goldblatt Literary.

Which means, as I said in my last post, you have to take trends with a grain of salt. And maybe vampires won't completely go gently into the good night. Well, maybe they will. We'll see. It would be ok with me if they did, just for a little while, although I do love a good vampire romance.

Anyway, what this furthermore means is that while it is true (for prospective YA authors) that agents are thirsting for "real, contemporary fiction", they're also going to pay attention (and perhaps dance a small jig) when one of the Big Five publishers launches a new imprint.

So once again, the take-home is: If you're writing that real, contemporary YA book, may the gods of trend hipness and breathtaking prose be ever at your side.

And if you're not, fret not. The gods of breathtaking prose have not forsaken you -- and neither have the publishers. 

Be optimistic, be brilliant, and work hard.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Writerly Tip #4: Write it Anyway

For a while, it was vampires, werewolves, angels, and zombies. And dystopia and paranormal. And dystopia. And vampires. Have I said vampires and dystopia yet?

But as always happens, literary agents for YA fiction began to sense a weariness in the publishers. So now, much is being made lately of the new trend in agent wishlists: contemporary YA fiction. Like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, reviewed on this blog.

Where does that leave those of us would-be YA authors who do not have a contemporary novel burning in our imaginations or evolving on our computers?

Exactly where we are now.

The fact that agents are looking for fresh contemporary does not mean you should shelve your project. If it's good, they'll buy it. If it's good, and it catches their attention, which is a whole other subject, as you all well know. (Sweat pours off the brows of those of you thick in the querying process)

Listen, I'm not an agent, so I can't say I'm speaking from the horse's mouth or anything. But - like you - I read a lot of agent blogs and articles about what they want and what I am seeing is, they still just mostly want good writing. That's all any of us really want, right?
I mean, of course, they sense the trends and they are staying on top of those trends because that's their job, and we're grateful for the fact that they have their fingers in the wind.

But does this new trend mean you must now change your novel midstream? Should you shelve a great idea that burned in your soul for months before you finally decided to turn it into a book? 

No, I honestly don't think so. What I think is, Write the Book. And as I said before and of course it's a no-brainer (but not easy to accomplish), MAKE IT GOOD.
And they will come. I think.

Please note, I'm not encouraging you to buck the trend. Trends are important to pay attention to if you want to get published. But I am saying, if you're already writing, don't give up. It's not like the appetite for all the other stuff has completely disappeared.

(Well, maybe vampires really are played out. Except for the fact the The Vampire Diaries is like, the number one show on CW)

So there's that.

Anyway, I say, just finish writing the thing. If it's good, (sometimes even if it's not) people will read/watch it.  They just do - the genre never really seems to disappear completely.  Especially if there's a romance angle. (Again - Vampire Diaries. And Walking Dead, although the latter isn't YA)

 Anyone out there struggling with the fear that your ms is out of step with the current trends?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Writerly Tip #3: Foil the Freeze

This is what came up when I googled images of brain freeze. This and a whole bunch of icee- and slurpee-related things, but well, this was just so much better. 

I get brain freeze sometimes when I'm trying to find the right word. Or phrase something exactly, or describe a thing. I'll be happily trundling along, my story unfolding before me as I wish it to, and BAM. 

I can no longer articulate.

I spend some time on the Thesaurus; it helps a little but still, not quite. Because you know what? My brain sometimes protests. 
"What, you want me to come up with the perfect word/phrase/feeling all the time, exactly when you want it? In spite of the fact that you have a million things on your mind all the time and you're almost always very, very tired? "
 Well, yes.

But, as I said, my brain doesn't always cooperate in spite of how reasonably I talk to it.

Here's what I do then: put the word/phrase/concept in (parentheses) or italics and come back to it later.
Because otherwise the flow, the groove is interrupted by the search for the word/phrase/concept and I almost never actually find it at that moment.

So here's my tip: Foil the brain freeze. Just move on, keep writing, and come back to it later. Don't let it derail you. This is not the time to check Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, shop Zulily,  and then get a snack and then, whatever. Keep writing. Finish the section you planned to finish.

Then take that break.
And then come back to it.

*Cue Angels Singing* 

In spite of its protestations, your brain actually will keep secretly ruminating,and when you come back to it, the word/phrase/concept is usually right there, like there was never a problem in the first place. Along with a few more ideas for how to make that section perfect.

And let's face it, you're going to be editing a million times more anyway, so the idea really is just to get it down on paper as a place to start, right?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Writerly Tip #2: Since Feeling is First

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

e. e. cummings

So, as I said on my Twitter page (#cuewritingmuse), I use this poem as an example of what TO do and also what to be careful of.
Cummings, of course, is brilliant, and uses syntax perfectly to make his point, every time.
But we're not all as brilliant as he, or at least not yet. And so we must be careful not to try so hard to be clever and different , and the current favorite, ironic, that we blow through some very smart rules.
It took me a long time to remember the rules of grammar. When you write for TV, it only matters how something SOUNDS. And so I forgot the lessons of my early visual writing life in in favor of learning the lessons of auditory flow.
And let me just digress a moment to note that sound is truly important - we should all definitely care about how words "hear" when strung together. Do you mean to be dissonant or interrupt the flow with lots of hard consonants? That's a deliberate decision.
But when you're writing for the EYES as well as the ear, you have to pay attention to those commas and those conventions, because if you don't, you obscure your own brilliant creativity.
And I know you're all brilliant, or almost there. We all are.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Writerly Tip #1: No Sledgehammers, Please

I am obsessed with clarity (perhaps a relic from the TV news days) - and thus sometimes I over share, over explain, overdo. 
Reveal, I must remind myself.
Too many facts all at once equals sledgehammer, not story telling.
I have to remember, and I think it bears consideration for others as well, that in real life we don't learn it all, all at once, right?
We reason step by step through problems - and don't always think of the right answers right away, or even come up with the right answers at all. We discover things about other people a little at a time.
Our lives happen one moment at a time, and while sometimes we reflect on past moments that brought  us here, most of us don't live in constant recap mode.
So, I say to myself and suggest to other writers, hold back a detail here and there - save it for later. Let characters and plots build block by block rather than laying it all out at once.

I love these writing rules from Elmore Leonard:

  1.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  2.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  3.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

#writingtips, #cuewritingmuse

Thursday, October 17, 2013


So I think I'm probably the last person in the country to read THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

And to be honest, that was on purpose because I knew it was going to hurt. 

I was right.

Excruciating. And because I have children, beyond that, even. And rife with the fear that just reading it might give the wrong idea to the gods of health and that one day I might be the parents in the book.

I hope I don't sound shallow when I say that. I'm especially sensitive to sounding shallow right now because Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are the least shallow people you might ever meet. And the smartest. They inspire a lot of adjectives they themselves would hate: brave, inspiring, resilient. They meet in a support group in the Literal Heart of Jesus, fall in love, and use Gus's dying Wish to travel to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten, who wrote a book they love (another cancer story). They're determined to get answers from Van Houten, who ends his only book with too many loose ends. Van Houten disappoints them terribly, but they rally because they're in love and together and alive. But of course we know because they're both terminally ill that this won't always be the case.

Which is why I mostly tried to remind myself as I read that my purpose here was to read good books and be a better writer. And learn more about things I know little about. Because make no mistake, I am LUCKY that my personal experience with cancer is limited. So far. (Still trying not to piss off the gods of health)

I don't think I can heap any more praise on John Green's head than has already been heaped, and I don't think it's necessary. But I do think I need to acknowledge, to myself and whoever else is still on the haven't-read-it-yet precipice, that it's really, really worth reading. It's a lesson in creating characters you can't get off your mind, show-don't-tell, and voice.


The one criticism I had was that after Augustus dies, I didn't want to keep reading. I almost wanted the book to end mid sentence the way their book, Van Houten's IMPERIAL AFFLICTION, did. Of course, that would have been predictable, but still.

We know Hazel is going to die, and when we discover that Augustus is also going to be "taken out of the rotation", it's just a countdown to the end of this sad, beautiful love.

Perhaps there was something insightful I missed here, but I couldn't appreciate the reappearance of Peter Van Houten, especially at Gus's funeral. I didn't think it added anything to Hazel's process of coping with her loss or her ongoing life as a Professional Sick Person - even the knowledge that she reminded the alcoholic Van Houten of his dead-from-cancer daughter.

Anyone else have issues with the final Van Houten scenes?