Friday, December 31, 2010

As 2010 draws to a close, so does my countdown of top blogposts of the year. The post below original appeared in April. I was pleasantly surprised that Mr. Maass himself stopped by to chime in on the topic. (Don't believe me? See the original.)

Have a safe and Happy New Year, friends!

= = = = =

In my post about setting, many of you commented that you don’t feel comfortable writing about setting and that setting descriptions are what you’re most likely to skim when reading.

Why is that? Perhaps you haven’t seen it done engagingly often enough. It's easy for setting descriptions to simply be an “establishing shot,” to borrow a film term. Image without meaning.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass argues that one "is at a distinct disadvantage by feeling indifferent to the time and place in which one's story takes place." Whether it's a foreground or background concern, stories that succeed don't ignore setting. But how do you keep them lively? The key, Maass says, is not how a place looks, but its psychological effect on characters.

I’ve had to conquer some dull description in my work and found Maass's observations really helpful. However, he stopped at diagnosis and didn't include treatment, so I thought I'd dive in and explain some the techniques I tried. Here is an example I most recently revised:

==============================

Uncle Philip’s tires grind across cobblestones as we enter Ashmede. The main street, lined with quaint shops and pubs, is holiday-quiet. We stop to drop off my grandparents at the rectory, a tall, narrow stone house beside a twelfth-century church and a graveyard full of ancient, mossy tombstones.

==============================

As we enter Ashmede, Uncle Philip’s tires grind across cobblestones, making my clenched teeth rattle. The main street, lined with quaint shops and pubs, is scary quiet. Like a monster ate everyone. We stop to drop off my grandparents at the rectory, a tall, narrow stone house beside a fortress-towered church and its graveyard full of ancient, mossy tombstones. In just days, a new granite slab will appear out there, marking the hole in my universe.

==============================

Which version do you prefer? What’s the difference between the two?

The first is shorter, certainly. And that can be one way to establish setting—keep it brief. Drop in just enough “telling detail”: cobblestones, pubs, twelfth-century, mossy. Give the readers enough information to co-create this world with you in their imaginations. Provide parameters, but refrain from naming every shop, or including overly technical details that don’t link to the story at large, like the church being built from hand-quarried limestone.

I’d argue that example one suffers from the “why should I care?” factor. And that’s what makes readers skip your descriptions. Your protagonist must engage with the setting, or your readers won’t.

In the revision (example two), I looked for ways to make this description less passive or static. It needed as sense of motion and emotion. Here are some areas to address to achieve that.

Physical effects
Whatever your setting, include a detail about how the protagonist is bodily changed within it. Twigs snap under your protagonists’ feet. The damp air makes her shiver. His stomach roils when he smells rot. Her ears pop while riding up the incline. In my example, driving over cobblestones makes Dani’s teeth rattle.

This roots characters in a scene, and gives a sense of realness to your story world.

Opinions
Engagement with setting will involve your character’s value system and expectations. When she comes across something familiar, she will judge it as “safe.” If it’s unfamiliar, she will find a way to categorize it.

In my example, Dani judges the small town to be “scary quiet.” The lack of New York hustle and bustle is unfamiliar and frightening.

Associations
In the process of judging and categorizing an environment, your character will call upon his memories, experiences and cultural influences. He’ll seek to find parallels with what he already knows to make sense of the data. Associations might be expressed as a snippet of back story, a cultural reference, or as a simile or metaphor.

In my example, Dani associates the quiet town with a horror film scenario and expresses it in a simile: “…scary quiet. Like a monster ate everyone.” In doing so, I’ve communicated something about her frame of mind and her frame of reference.

Another character would have seen the quiet and thought, “…is peaceful. Like the ease of sleep.” Or perhaps “…is dull as paste. Nothing exciting has happened here since the Viking invasion.”

Ties to the story problem and plot arc
A description that really pulls its weight will connect to the larger story arc. The setting your character is entering will either help or hinder her in her quest. It might present physical danger or shelter. It might make her let her guard down. It might remind her of the challenge she cannot avoid.

In my example, Dani sees the graveyard and predicts “In just days, a new granite slab will appear out there, marking the hole in my universe.” She is reminded again that her deepest problem—wrestling with grief—can’t be easily escaped by a simple change in venue. That connection to the larger arc is two-pronged: a direct association she makes with the setting and her declaration of meaning.

It’s a powerful question to ask when you approach any setting: What does this place mean to my character?


What writers do you admire who infuse their setting descriptions with meaning?

How might you add physical effects, opinions, associations and story-arc ties to your setting descriptions? Which of these is easiest? Hardest?
Friday, December 31, 2010 Laurel Garver
As 2010 draws to a close, so does my countdown of top blogposts of the year. The post below original appeared in April. I was pleasantly surprised that Mr. Maass himself stopped by to chime in on the topic. (Don't believe me? See the original.)

Have a safe and Happy New Year, friends!

= = = = =

In my post about setting, many of you commented that you don’t feel comfortable writing about setting and that setting descriptions are what you’re most likely to skim when reading.

Why is that? Perhaps you haven’t seen it done engagingly often enough. It's easy for setting descriptions to simply be an “establishing shot,” to borrow a film term. Image without meaning.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass argues that one "is at a distinct disadvantage by feeling indifferent to the time and place in which one's story takes place." Whether it's a foreground or background concern, stories that succeed don't ignore setting. But how do you keep them lively? The key, Maass says, is not how a place looks, but its psychological effect on characters.

I’ve had to conquer some dull description in my work and found Maass's observations really helpful. However, he stopped at diagnosis and didn't include treatment, so I thought I'd dive in and explain some the techniques I tried. Here is an example I most recently revised:

==============================

Uncle Philip’s tires grind across cobblestones as we enter Ashmede. The main street, lined with quaint shops and pubs, is holiday-quiet. We stop to drop off my grandparents at the rectory, a tall, narrow stone house beside a twelfth-century church and a graveyard full of ancient, mossy tombstones.

==============================

As we enter Ashmede, Uncle Philip’s tires grind across cobblestones, making my clenched teeth rattle. The main street, lined with quaint shops and pubs, is scary quiet. Like a monster ate everyone. We stop to drop off my grandparents at the rectory, a tall, narrow stone house beside a fortress-towered church and its graveyard full of ancient, mossy tombstones. In just days, a new granite slab will appear out there, marking the hole in my universe.

==============================

Which version do you prefer? What’s the difference between the two?

The first is shorter, certainly. And that can be one way to establish setting—keep it brief. Drop in just enough “telling detail”: cobblestones, pubs, twelfth-century, mossy. Give the readers enough information to co-create this world with you in their imaginations. Provide parameters, but refrain from naming every shop, or including overly technical details that don’t link to the story at large, like the church being built from hand-quarried limestone.

I’d argue that example one suffers from the “why should I care?” factor. And that’s what makes readers skip your descriptions. Your protagonist must engage with the setting, or your readers won’t.

In the revision (example two), I looked for ways to make this description less passive or static. It needed as sense of motion and emotion. Here are some areas to address to achieve that.

Physical effects
Whatever your setting, include a detail about how the protagonist is bodily changed within it. Twigs snap under your protagonists’ feet. The damp air makes her shiver. His stomach roils when he smells rot. Her ears pop while riding up the incline. In my example, driving over cobblestones makes Dani’s teeth rattle.

This roots characters in a scene, and gives a sense of realness to your story world.

Opinions
Engagement with setting will involve your character’s value system and expectations. When she comes across something familiar, she will judge it as “safe.” If it’s unfamiliar, she will find a way to categorize it.

In my example, Dani judges the small town to be “scary quiet.” The lack of New York hustle and bustle is unfamiliar and frightening.

Associations
In the process of judging and categorizing an environment, your character will call upon his memories, experiences and cultural influences. He’ll seek to find parallels with what he already knows to make sense of the data. Associations might be expressed as a snippet of back story, a cultural reference, or as a simile or metaphor.

In my example, Dani associates the quiet town with a horror film scenario and expresses it in a simile: “…scary quiet. Like a monster ate everyone.” In doing so, I’ve communicated something about her frame of mind and her frame of reference.

Another character would have seen the quiet and thought, “…is peaceful. Like the ease of sleep.” Or perhaps “…is dull as paste. Nothing exciting has happened here since the Viking invasion.”

Ties to the story problem and plot arc
A description that really pulls its weight will connect to the larger story arc. The setting your character is entering will either help or hinder her in her quest. It might present physical danger or shelter. It might make her let her guard down. It might remind her of the challenge she cannot avoid.

In my example, Dani sees the graveyard and predicts “In just days, a new granite slab will appear out there, marking the hole in my universe.” She is reminded again that her deepest problem—wrestling with grief—can’t be easily escaped by a simple change in venue. That connection to the larger arc is two-pronged: a direct association she makes with the setting and her declaration of meaning.

It’s a powerful question to ask when you approach any setting: What does this place mean to my character?


What writers do you admire who infuse their setting descriptions with meaning?

How might you add physical effects, opinions, associations and story-arc ties to your setting descriptions? Which of these is easiest? Hardest?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The new year will soon be upon us, so I'm doing a little year-end retrospective on my top blogposts of 2010. Today's post appeared in September and was composed for Elena's blog hop.

= = = =

The most compelling characters seem to have a life outside the confines of your story. They're not like those animatronic beings on Disney World rides that are switched on and come to life only when there's an audience to observe them.

Giving a character that life might entail developing backstory. But more importantly, it involves giving every character things to do, places to be, relationships, worries, plans and goals that engage them during the "here and now" of your story. Much of that present life may take place offstage (or "off page"). But it should leave traces--evidence apparent in the details you sprinkle in.

Those details might support what we already know about a character. A nice guy might show up late for a formal date with wheel grease on his knees. And we know he's the type to stop and change someone's tire, even if it's inconvenient.

The details might play against type. She's a tough girl from the 'hood, but that strange indentation under her chin...well, it looks like the mark of hours of practicing violin.

When details play enough against type, you can end up making a powerful social commentary. Think of Rowling's Dolores Umbridge, the sadistic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her office is decorated with pink and lace and collector's plates depicting frolicking kittens. It's absolutely chilling, because Rowling has deftly shown you the heart of evil--one that perpetuates wrong in the quest for building a comfy utopia.

How you work in those details could take a volume to explore. But I'll give some broad-strokes ideas, followed by examples.

Physical traits
~Peculiar calluses on his hands from rowing crew
~Terrible haircut from her kid sister who's attending beauty school
~Incongruous tattoos
~Signs of past injury like limping and scars

Actions
~Hand placed always on his beeper, as if expecting an emergency at the hospital
~Fiddling with a charm bracelet that seems to tell a story
~Humming music from a peculiar venue -- hymns, show tunes, Wiggles songs

Objects
~Powdered sugar traces on the dieter's sweater
~Moth-eaten woman's coat still hanging in the bachelor's closet
~McDonald's uniform stuffed in the bottom of her locker
~Collection of knickknacks from around the world

The best sort of details to include are ones that hint at a character's values, passions, commitments and priorities. That, to me, makes a fictional being more than a cardboard cutout taking up space--it makes him have a life that means something.

What are some of your favorite characters who seem to have a life outside the novel? What resonates with you about these concepts of "life outside" and "life that means something"?
Thursday, December 30, 2010 Laurel Garver
The new year will soon be upon us, so I'm doing a little year-end retrospective on my top blogposts of 2010. Today's post appeared in September and was composed for Elena's blog hop.

= = = =

The most compelling characters seem to have a life outside the confines of your story. They're not like those animatronic beings on Disney World rides that are switched on and come to life only when there's an audience to observe them.

Giving a character that life might entail developing backstory. But more importantly, it involves giving every character things to do, places to be, relationships, worries, plans and goals that engage them during the "here and now" of your story. Much of that present life may take place offstage (or "off page"). But it should leave traces--evidence apparent in the details you sprinkle in.

Those details might support what we already know about a character. A nice guy might show up late for a formal date with wheel grease on his knees. And we know he's the type to stop and change someone's tire, even if it's inconvenient.

The details might play against type. She's a tough girl from the 'hood, but that strange indentation under her chin...well, it looks like the mark of hours of practicing violin.

When details play enough against type, you can end up making a powerful social commentary. Think of Rowling's Dolores Umbridge, the sadistic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her office is decorated with pink and lace and collector's plates depicting frolicking kittens. It's absolutely chilling, because Rowling has deftly shown you the heart of evil--one that perpetuates wrong in the quest for building a comfy utopia.

How you work in those details could take a volume to explore. But I'll give some broad-strokes ideas, followed by examples.

Physical traits
~Peculiar calluses on his hands from rowing crew
~Terrible haircut from her kid sister who's attending beauty school
~Incongruous tattoos
~Signs of past injury like limping and scars

Actions
~Hand placed always on his beeper, as if expecting an emergency at the hospital
~Fiddling with a charm bracelet that seems to tell a story
~Humming music from a peculiar venue -- hymns, show tunes, Wiggles songs

Objects
~Powdered sugar traces on the dieter's sweater
~Moth-eaten woman's coat still hanging in the bachelor's closet
~McDonald's uniform stuffed in the bottom of her locker
~Collection of knickknacks from around the world

The best sort of details to include are ones that hint at a character's values, passions, commitments and priorities. That, to me, makes a fictional being more than a cardboard cutout taking up space--it makes him have a life that means something.

What are some of your favorite characters who seem to have a life outside the novel? What resonates with you about these concepts of "life outside" and "life that means something"?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Welcome back to the final week of my countdown of top blog posts of 2010. This one appeared in January and generated some great discussion. I'd love for my new readers to chime in.

= = = = =

What’s the deal with adults in books for teens? Seriously? Is there some rule I don’t know about that says the grownups need to disappear or your teen readers will? If there is, I’d like to know how it came about, when and why.

The more YA I read with absent, distracted or downright neglectful parents, the more this bothers me. It’s not realistic, especially for the Gen-Y millennials. If anything, these kids are overparented. The term “helicopter parent” came into vogue while today’s college students and their younger teen sibs were growing up. Why isn’t fiction reflecting this reality?

I wonder how much the absent parents thing is us Gen-X and Boomer writers assuming that adolescence hasn’t changed that much from when we were kids. Because it has in some pretty surprising ways. We were expected to learn to adapt to adult ways of doing things. The parents and their marriage were the center of the family. That’s not the case with the parents of today’s teens. Whether it’s because of the skyrocketing divorce rate, or the culture of achievement or the increasing influence of “child-rearing experts,” parents’ lives revolved around their kids, especially in the 1990s. (The trend is swinging away from this, I think, based on the advice I hear child-rearing experts spouting now: nix the family bed, put a lock on your bedroom door, have a regular date night, vacation sans kids.)

The teens I know have tighter relationships with their parents than I had with mine. They respect and even like the adults in their world who treat them fairly and care about them. It bothers them deeply when adults aren’t fair or don’t care. They don’t just shrug it off as normal.

On the college campus where I work, I often see an extreme result of overparenting: enmeshment and immaturity. These 18-23 year olds call mom the moment they leave class. They can’t make decisions or do scary adult things like job hunt without a lot of hand-holding. They expect to be rescued when they screw up. Cell phones have added to this culture of learned helplessness.

Are we removing authority figures from our stories thinking this will open the way for the most high-stakes, zowie-wow plots kids will love? But is this merely laziness? Have we assumed that the only way to show kids learning to grasp their own competence is to remove all other sources of competence from the picture?

What does adult-less fiction do for overparented millennials? I’m not sure if they think it sounds cool or find it deeply terrifying. I suspect the latter. The process of individuation is going to look different for them than it did for a Gen-Xer like me. What they could probably use is more fictional pictures of cross-generational relationships that are balanced—not one extreme (the orphanhood and neglect they see in books) or the other (smothering enmeshment they experience in life).

J.K. Rowling is one of the few YA authors I’ve read recently who incorporates adults well in her stories. I think the balance of cross-generational relationships is an aspect that resonated with Gen-Y and made the Harry Potter series such a phenomenal bestseller. Sure, Harry is an orphan, but he craves parenting. Ron is a bit of a doofus, but his parents love him so fiercely, he never falls into despair about it. Harry’s maturation process is one of learning to trust the caring adults around him, to lean into their strength, to use their wisdom and make it his own, to follow their example and to innovate, building on their knowledge. Rowling is never preachy about it, but it’s clear that she understands kids have to be equipped to face real, adult challenges. This equipping process is a prime task of adolescence.

Tell me what you think of portrayals of adults in YA. Who do you think does it well, or not, and why? What’s your take on the “adult-less world 'rule'”?
Tuesday, December 28, 2010 Laurel Garver
Welcome back to the final week of my countdown of top blog posts of 2010. This one appeared in January and generated some great discussion. I'd love for my new readers to chime in.

= = = = =

What’s the deal with adults in books for teens? Seriously? Is there some rule I don’t know about that says the grownups need to disappear or your teen readers will? If there is, I’d like to know how it came about, when and why.

The more YA I read with absent, distracted or downright neglectful parents, the more this bothers me. It’s not realistic, especially for the Gen-Y millennials. If anything, these kids are overparented. The term “helicopter parent” came into vogue while today’s college students and their younger teen sibs were growing up. Why isn’t fiction reflecting this reality?

I wonder how much the absent parents thing is us Gen-X and Boomer writers assuming that adolescence hasn’t changed that much from when we were kids. Because it has in some pretty surprising ways. We were expected to learn to adapt to adult ways of doing things. The parents and their marriage were the center of the family. That’s not the case with the parents of today’s teens. Whether it’s because of the skyrocketing divorce rate, or the culture of achievement or the increasing influence of “child-rearing experts,” parents’ lives revolved around their kids, especially in the 1990s. (The trend is swinging away from this, I think, based on the advice I hear child-rearing experts spouting now: nix the family bed, put a lock on your bedroom door, have a regular date night, vacation sans kids.)

The teens I know have tighter relationships with their parents than I had with mine. They respect and even like the adults in their world who treat them fairly and care about them. It bothers them deeply when adults aren’t fair or don’t care. They don’t just shrug it off as normal.

On the college campus where I work, I often see an extreme result of overparenting: enmeshment and immaturity. These 18-23 year olds call mom the moment they leave class. They can’t make decisions or do scary adult things like job hunt without a lot of hand-holding. They expect to be rescued when they screw up. Cell phones have added to this culture of learned helplessness.

Are we removing authority figures from our stories thinking this will open the way for the most high-stakes, zowie-wow plots kids will love? But is this merely laziness? Have we assumed that the only way to show kids learning to grasp their own competence is to remove all other sources of competence from the picture?

What does adult-less fiction do for overparented millennials? I’m not sure if they think it sounds cool or find it deeply terrifying. I suspect the latter. The process of individuation is going to look different for them than it did for a Gen-Xer like me. What they could probably use is more fictional pictures of cross-generational relationships that are balanced—not one extreme (the orphanhood and neglect they see in books) or the other (smothering enmeshment they experience in life).

J.K. Rowling is one of the few YA authors I’ve read recently who incorporates adults well in her stories. I think the balance of cross-generational relationships is an aspect that resonated with Gen-Y and made the Harry Potter series such a phenomenal bestseller. Sure, Harry is an orphan, but he craves parenting. Ron is a bit of a doofus, but his parents love him so fiercely, he never falls into despair about it. Harry’s maturation process is one of learning to trust the caring adults around him, to lean into their strength, to use their wisdom and make it his own, to follow their example and to innovate, building on their knowledge. Rowling is never preachy about it, but it’s clear that she understands kids have to be equipped to face real, adult challenges. This equipping process is a prime task of adolescence.

Tell me what you think of portrayals of adults in YA. Who do you think does it well, or not, and why? What’s your take on the “adult-less world 'rule'”?

Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Christmas Eve, so my countdown of top 2010 blogposts brings you a gift--some romance. This was originally posted on Valentine's day for the "Love at First Sight" blogfest hosted by Courtney Reese.

It's my first attempt at writing male POV and was composed purely for fun. I thought it might be entertaining to explore the guy's viewpoint on an interaction with my MC Danielle, which she describes only briefly in flashback in my novel.

= = = = =

Fletcher never told me there’d be girls at his church thing. I’d only gone along to escape another of Mom’s epic custody flip-outs after Dad announced he was moving to Switzerland with skank number 26. I thought chilling with hippie-dude Jesus sounded soothing. Mellow. Almost as good as hiding in a closet with my blanket. Not that I do that wussy baby stuff anymore, mind you.

Anyhow, I followed Fletch to this Hogwarts kind of room where it seemed like half of Gryffindor was hanging out. Well, minus the robes. Then I saw her. Art girl. One long line of lean in jeans and a snug sweater.

I knew she had a pretty French name but went by something boyish. Dom for Dominique. Mitch for Michelle. With just a plain pencil, this girl could make magic. She’d rocked the school art show with a drawing of a Central Park tree that wasn't wood, but water. It was weird. Wonderful. I couldn’t stop staring at it. The longer I looked, the more I felt sucked in. Like the real me was in there somehow, swimming in the shadows just below the surface.

At school, she was always hunched over a sketchbook, her red-brown blonde hair streaming like a waterfall across her face. Hiding away. Like Rapunzel in her tower. I’d climb a thousand thorn bushes to touch the sweep of her cheek and taste her small, soft mouth.

Art girl looked stunned at her joking friend. Then she laughed. I could feel it tug my gut with the cadence of an eight-man scull team rowing a power ten. I had to know. What was so funny? What made her happy? Would she ever smile like that for me?

I drifted across the room to the snack-laden table she was leaning against. I reached for the chips and tried to swallow back the dryness in my throat. Then something impossibly awful happened. Art girl’s redhead friend whispered in her ear and she doubled over, laughing harder than ever. The table creaked and shuddered beneath her. Then it tipped backwards. Food poured onto the floor.

I managed to grab the nearest corner and right the table before everything dumped, but the damage was done. After stunned silence would come the usual humiliation: wolf whistles, clapping and mocking laughter.

I couldn’t watch it happen. Not to her. So I knelt down and started picking up. Weirdly enough, so did everyone else in the room. Not one person clapped. The only laughter was in the group’s easy banter as they worked together. Apparently these were not your usual high school jerks.

I was scraping guacamole off the thousand-year-old church carpet when art girl scooted near me to gather scattered pistachios. She leaned so close I could smell her. Sweet and summery. Like those vines twined through our deck at the lake house. Honeysuckle.

“That must’ve been some joke,” I said.

She shook her head. “I’m such a bloody idiot.”

“You jolly well are not,” I joked, mimicking her.

“What?”

Oh crap. She wasn’t faking. That’s her normal voice.

“Sorry. I just didn’t, um, expect you to sound—” as sexy as those babes in my sister’s Regency romances. I don’t care what my stupid crew buddies say, those books are hot. “It’s not like your accent is…you know, strong or anything,” I babbled. “I mean, I barely noticed. It’s just…aren’t you the new girl who moved from Brooklyn?”

She squinted at me, suspicious.

“I’m Theo. Theo Wescott. From school? I came with a guy I row with, Fletcher Reid.” I pointed my chin in his direction, and darned if he wasn’t totally flirting with the redhead.

Art girl stared at my outstretched hand like it might bite.

“I come in peace.”

She bit her lip, trying to hide a smile. Then she grasped my hand and shook it, her strong, slim fingers a perfect fit in mine. “Danielle. Deane. But everyone calls me—”

“Dani,” I said, my voice husky. Just how I’d say it if she were in my arms.

“Yeah,” she whispered, her eyes wide. They were a soft gray, like a pigeon feather. She leaned back, wobbled, caught herself. Like she wanted to get up and run, but was too scared.

Have a very Merry Christmas this weekend! Wishing lots of love to you and yours.
Friday, December 24, 2010 Laurel Garver
It's Christmas Eve, so my countdown of top 2010 blogposts brings you a gift--some romance. This was originally posted on Valentine's day for the "Love at First Sight" blogfest hosted by Courtney Reese.

It's my first attempt at writing male POV and was composed purely for fun. I thought it might be entertaining to explore the guy's viewpoint on an interaction with my MC Danielle, which she describes only briefly in flashback in my novel.

= = = = =

Fletcher never told me there’d be girls at his church thing. I’d only gone along to escape another of Mom’s epic custody flip-outs after Dad announced he was moving to Switzerland with skank number 26. I thought chilling with hippie-dude Jesus sounded soothing. Mellow. Almost as good as hiding in a closet with my blanket. Not that I do that wussy baby stuff anymore, mind you.

Anyhow, I followed Fletch to this Hogwarts kind of room where it seemed like half of Gryffindor was hanging out. Well, minus the robes. Then I saw her. Art girl. One long line of lean in jeans and a snug sweater.

I knew she had a pretty French name but went by something boyish. Dom for Dominique. Mitch for Michelle. With just a plain pencil, this girl could make magic. She’d rocked the school art show with a drawing of a Central Park tree that wasn't wood, but water. It was weird. Wonderful. I couldn’t stop staring at it. The longer I looked, the more I felt sucked in. Like the real me was in there somehow, swimming in the shadows just below the surface.

At school, she was always hunched over a sketchbook, her red-brown blonde hair streaming like a waterfall across her face. Hiding away. Like Rapunzel in her tower. I’d climb a thousand thorn bushes to touch the sweep of her cheek and taste her small, soft mouth.

Art girl looked stunned at her joking friend. Then she laughed. I could feel it tug my gut with the cadence of an eight-man scull team rowing a power ten. I had to know. What was so funny? What made her happy? Would she ever smile like that for me?

I drifted across the room to the snack-laden table she was leaning against. I reached for the chips and tried to swallow back the dryness in my throat. Then something impossibly awful happened. Art girl’s redhead friend whispered in her ear and she doubled over, laughing harder than ever. The table creaked and shuddered beneath her. Then it tipped backwards. Food poured onto the floor.

I managed to grab the nearest corner and right the table before everything dumped, but the damage was done. After stunned silence would come the usual humiliation: wolf whistles, clapping and mocking laughter.

I couldn’t watch it happen. Not to her. So I knelt down and started picking up. Weirdly enough, so did everyone else in the room. Not one person clapped. The only laughter was in the group’s easy banter as they worked together. Apparently these were not your usual high school jerks.

I was scraping guacamole off the thousand-year-old church carpet when art girl scooted near me to gather scattered pistachios. She leaned so close I could smell her. Sweet and summery. Like those vines twined through our deck at the lake house. Honeysuckle.

“That must’ve been some joke,” I said.

She shook her head. “I’m such a bloody idiot.”

“You jolly well are not,” I joked, mimicking her.

“What?”

Oh crap. She wasn’t faking. That’s her normal voice.

“Sorry. I just didn’t, um, expect you to sound—” as sexy as those babes in my sister’s Regency romances. I don’t care what my stupid crew buddies say, those books are hot. “It’s not like your accent is…you know, strong or anything,” I babbled. “I mean, I barely noticed. It’s just…aren’t you the new girl who moved from Brooklyn?”

She squinted at me, suspicious.

“I’m Theo. Theo Wescott. From school? I came with a guy I row with, Fletcher Reid.” I pointed my chin in his direction, and darned if he wasn’t totally flirting with the redhead.

Art girl stared at my outstretched hand like it might bite.

“I come in peace.”

She bit her lip, trying to hide a smile. Then she grasped my hand and shook it, her strong, slim fingers a perfect fit in mine. “Danielle. Deane. But everyone calls me—”

“Dani,” I said, my voice husky. Just how I’d say it if she were in my arms.

“Yeah,” she whispered, her eyes wide. They were a soft gray, like a pigeon feather. She leaned back, wobbled, caught herself. Like she wanted to get up and run, but was too scared.

Have a very Merry Christmas this weekend! Wishing lots of love to you and yours.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On we go with my countdown of the most popular posts of 2010 here at Laurel's Leaves. Today's repost originally appeared in April, National Poetry Month.

= = = = = =

I've been hesitant to blog about this topic, because it's one of those things I hide in my writing, there to be found by those who look for it, but I hope not so jarring that it draws attention to itself. But every once in a while one of my critique partners will come across a passage like this in my work:

Snippets of my life appear between arty shots of hydrant rainbows and sullen subway riders. Wide-eyed child watches a huge Snoopy balloon soar past in the Macy’s parade. Skinny kid with braids pokes puddles in Prospect Park. So-serious teen perches on the Public Library steps and sketches lions.

Then come the blinks and the questions: "what is this, poetry?"

Um, yeah. See, I almost can't help myself. I'm terribly addicted to the sound toys of poets, assonance and consonance. Assonance, for those of you who've avoided lit classes, is a repetition of vowel sounds; consonance, of consonants. Alliteration is sometimes used as a blanket term for both, though it is often applied only to repeated initial sounds. Assonance and consonance are repeated sounds from anywhere in a word--beginning, middle or end.

I've decided to come clean about my addiction because A) it's national poetry month; B) I hope others find poetic devices cool rather than hopelessly nerdy; and C) I believe these devices can make anyone's writing more musical.

The thinking behind sound devices is often onomatopoetic; the sound and meaning are linked. If you want to convey a sense of something sliding, for example, you'd choose hissing, sibilant words containing "s", "sh" and "sw." For example, "In her rush, she slipped sidelong, smearing grease along one sleeve."

Have a character in pain? Choose words with lots of O sounds (both short and long) to make the passage seem to groan on the page. For example, "John groped for his coat in hopes the Tylenol bottle hadn't dropped through the hole in his pocket."

I'm not always so calculated about how I choose sounds to achieve a particular effect. It's very easy to overdo it. But I do find that playing around with word choices can yield a more aurally pleasant experience.

In the passage I quoted above from my current WIP, I paired "child" with "wide-eyed" and "kid" with "skinny" rather than the reverse because of the shared vowel sounds. The Macy's parade balloon could have been any cartoon character. I chose "Snoopy" for the double blessing of the "oo" assonance to match "huge" and "balloon" and the "s" consonance to match "soar", "past" and "Macy's". The last two sentences in my example pop with a plethora of "p" repetitions (as did that sentence. See? I can't stop myself!).

Is writing like this crazy time-consuming? I suppose it could be if you aren't attuned to the sounds of words. And if you push the technique too far, you can end up with incoherent sound experiments that seem like bad James Joyce parodies. (Does the world need another Finnegans Wake or Ulysses?)

If you'd like to try incorporating sound devices in your prose, here's what I recommend:
~Study the greats (Plath and Ginsberg are two who come to mind).
~Go lightly.
~Choose lingo that's natural to your character.
~Find ideas in a rhyming dictionary (especially for assonance).
~Play.

See if some word choice changes can make a plodding passage begin to sing.

How about you? Do you like sound devices? Never notice them? Find them gimmicky? Are they something you'd like to try in your work?
Thursday, December 23, 2010 Laurel Garver
On we go with my countdown of the most popular posts of 2010 here at Laurel's Leaves. Today's repost originally appeared in April, National Poetry Month.

= = = = = =

I've been hesitant to blog about this topic, because it's one of those things I hide in my writing, there to be found by those who look for it, but I hope not so jarring that it draws attention to itself. But every once in a while one of my critique partners will come across a passage like this in my work:

Snippets of my life appear between arty shots of hydrant rainbows and sullen subway riders. Wide-eyed child watches a huge Snoopy balloon soar past in the Macy’s parade. Skinny kid with braids pokes puddles in Prospect Park. So-serious teen perches on the Public Library steps and sketches lions.

Then come the blinks and the questions: "what is this, poetry?"

Um, yeah. See, I almost can't help myself. I'm terribly addicted to the sound toys of poets, assonance and consonance. Assonance, for those of you who've avoided lit classes, is a repetition of vowel sounds; consonance, of consonants. Alliteration is sometimes used as a blanket term for both, though it is often applied only to repeated initial sounds. Assonance and consonance are repeated sounds from anywhere in a word--beginning, middle or end.

I've decided to come clean about my addiction because A) it's national poetry month; B) I hope others find poetic devices cool rather than hopelessly nerdy; and C) I believe these devices can make anyone's writing more musical.

The thinking behind sound devices is often onomatopoetic; the sound and meaning are linked. If you want to convey a sense of something sliding, for example, you'd choose hissing, sibilant words containing "s", "sh" and "sw." For example, "In her rush, she slipped sidelong, smearing grease along one sleeve."

Have a character in pain? Choose words with lots of O sounds (both short and long) to make the passage seem to groan on the page. For example, "John groped for his coat in hopes the Tylenol bottle hadn't dropped through the hole in his pocket."

I'm not always so calculated about how I choose sounds to achieve a particular effect. It's very easy to overdo it. But I do find that playing around with word choices can yield a more aurally pleasant experience.

In the passage I quoted above from my current WIP, I paired "child" with "wide-eyed" and "kid" with "skinny" rather than the reverse because of the shared vowel sounds. The Macy's parade balloon could have been any cartoon character. I chose "Snoopy" for the double blessing of the "oo" assonance to match "huge" and "balloon" and the "s" consonance to match "soar", "past" and "Macy's". The last two sentences in my example pop with a plethora of "p" repetitions (as did that sentence. See? I can't stop myself!).

Is writing like this crazy time-consuming? I suppose it could be if you aren't attuned to the sounds of words. And if you push the technique too far, you can end up with incoherent sound experiments that seem like bad James Joyce parodies. (Does the world need another Finnegans Wake or Ulysses?)

If you'd like to try incorporating sound devices in your prose, here's what I recommend:
~Study the greats (Plath and Ginsberg are two who come to mind).
~Go lightly.
~Choose lingo that's natural to your character.
~Find ideas in a rhyming dictionary (especially for assonance).
~Play.

See if some word choice changes can make a plodding passage begin to sing.

How about you? Do you like sound devices? Never notice them? Find them gimmicky? Are they something you'd like to try in your work?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Welcome to my countdown of my most popular posts of 2010. The entry reposted below originally appeared in March.

= = = = =

We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Acceptance hungry, and willing to do anything to get it
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near, or might drop him at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Caring to the point of being invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attach when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or vegetarianism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds of villains and antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
What other traits would you add to the list?
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 Laurel Garver
Welcome to my countdown of my most popular posts of 2010. The entry reposted below originally appeared in March.

= = = = =

We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Acceptance hungry, and willing to do anything to get it
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near, or might drop him at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Caring to the point of being invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attach when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or vegetarianism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds of villains and antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
What other traits would you add to the list?

Friday, December 17, 2010

I have just seven more scheduled posts till year's end, so I thought it would be fun (and frankly more sane for me) to repost my seven most popular blogposts of 2010, minus the contests and the blogfest entries (except one as a holiday treat).

The repost below appeared in October 2010 and according to my stat counter got more pageviews than comments. Which of you had been googling "unitards"? Huh? Huh? (FYI the unitard requirement for the acting class I describe below was FAR worse for the guys than for us girls.)

(I really need to break this parenthetical asides habit....)

= = = = =

One surprisingly helpful class from my undergrad days was a theatre course I took called "Basic Movement." In it, we learned some of the tools of the trade of acting--stances, carriage, gestures, playing to the audience, and of course, choreographed violence.

An ongoing assignment throughout the semester was keeping a "movement journal," in which we recorded observations about how certain body types move, motions unique to certain activities, and how people express emotion through movement. The goal of all this analysis was to build up our own repertoires of motion, so that we could embody various roles.

I've at times joked here about "stalking" students who remind me of my characters. These motion studies are particularly what I try to do. Once I've found the right body type, I've got the perfect model from which to get the data I need. I observe his stride--smooth, bouncy, swaggering, trudging? What's his usual posture? Is he apt to smile at strangers, or have a more closed expression? How does he hold objects? Ham-fisted? Gently by his fingertips? Loose and relaxed? Precise and uptight?

Emotional exchanges go on all the time on the college campus where I work. Because of that movement class, I now watch for the postures and gestures that make up the physical expression of those emotions. You don't even need to be in eavesdropping range to discern the kind of emotions people are expressing. Their bodies shout them.

A particularly powerful lesson from that class was our focus on the body rather than the face as an expressive vehicle. We had to wear dance unitards to every class, and did most of our in-class exercises and performances wearing masks. In many classes we did charades-like exercises: a pair would act certain emotions toward one another without speaking and in masks, and our classmates would have to guess what we were expressing. Those who'd put in the time researching for their journals usually won big time.

If you struggle with "talking head" dialogue, I recommend spending some time people watching and gathering data on how they move. Watch not only faces, but necks, shoulders, spines, hands, legs and feet. An acting class can be surprisingly horizon broadening, too.

Any of you also have some theatre training? How might a "movement journal" help your writing?
Friday, December 17, 2010 Laurel Garver
I have just seven more scheduled posts till year's end, so I thought it would be fun (and frankly more sane for me) to repost my seven most popular blogposts of 2010, minus the contests and the blogfest entries (except one as a holiday treat).

The repost below appeared in October 2010 and according to my stat counter got more pageviews than comments. Which of you had been googling "unitards"? Huh? Huh? (FYI the unitard requirement for the acting class I describe below was FAR worse for the guys than for us girls.)

(I really need to break this parenthetical asides habit....)

= = = = =

One surprisingly helpful class from my undergrad days was a theatre course I took called "Basic Movement." In it, we learned some of the tools of the trade of acting--stances, carriage, gestures, playing to the audience, and of course, choreographed violence.

An ongoing assignment throughout the semester was keeping a "movement journal," in which we recorded observations about how certain body types move, motions unique to certain activities, and how people express emotion through movement. The goal of all this analysis was to build up our own repertoires of motion, so that we could embody various roles.

I've at times joked here about "stalking" students who remind me of my characters. These motion studies are particularly what I try to do. Once I've found the right body type, I've got the perfect model from which to get the data I need. I observe his stride--smooth, bouncy, swaggering, trudging? What's his usual posture? Is he apt to smile at strangers, or have a more closed expression? How does he hold objects? Ham-fisted? Gently by his fingertips? Loose and relaxed? Precise and uptight?

Emotional exchanges go on all the time on the college campus where I work. Because of that movement class, I now watch for the postures and gestures that make up the physical expression of those emotions. You don't even need to be in eavesdropping range to discern the kind of emotions people are expressing. Their bodies shout them.

A particularly powerful lesson from that class was our focus on the body rather than the face as an expressive vehicle. We had to wear dance unitards to every class, and did most of our in-class exercises and performances wearing masks. In many classes we did charades-like exercises: a pair would act certain emotions toward one another without speaking and in masks, and our classmates would have to guess what we were expressing. Those who'd put in the time researching for their journals usually won big time.

If you struggle with "talking head" dialogue, I recommend spending some time people watching and gathering data on how they move. Watch not only faces, but necks, shoulders, spines, hands, legs and feet. An acting class can be surprisingly horizon broadening, too.

Any of you also have some theatre training? How might a "movement journal" help your writing?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Tuesday post, "No Mary Sues: operating at maximum capacity," was intended to get you all thinking about ways to keep your characters perpetually striving towards goals, or at least pondering them, worrying them, feeling strongly about them--rather than letting characters give up and walk away too quickly when conflicts arise.

I'd used the term "Mary Sue" in my title, believing this to be the proper term for the coddled character. I linked THIS "Mary Sue litmus test" which seemed to take the term in a somewhat different direction. The testmakers identified Mary Sue as a "wish fulfillment character" who is not only coddled, but also too precious by half--too much fantasy, not enough reality.

Turns out this link was only very peripherally connected to my point, but it did generate some intriguing concerns and questions in your comments.

Susan Kaye Quinn @ Ink Spells said:

"I think you have to be a little careful with the Mary Sue generalization (like any sweeping definition, especially one with so many requirements). It is undeniably true that Mary Sue characters exist, just like any stereotype. But just because your character may have a "Mary Sue" type characteristic doesn't make them an egregious thing that must be banished from the face of the earth (I think the authors of the test even say this).

Ex:
Question 1.e. Does your character's name ...
Involve a noun or verb not usually used as a name, spelled normally or not?

Tally - MC in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. Um, that's a verb (and a noun) normally not used as a name. It's a FANTASTIC name. Also a best selling series.

Question 54: Does your character have the ability to shapeshift?

Never mind that this rules out any story about werewolves, but Modo from The Dark Deeps is a a shape shifting quasimodo character in a steampunk setting. TOTALLY original, fun, and one of the most sympathetic characters I've seen in a while.

So.

The Mary Sue phenom is real, but also a trope itself...."


I think Susan brings up a very helpful distinction--trope versus cliché.

Here's a useful definition:

"Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means 'stereotyped and trite.' In other words, dull and uninteresting."
--TV Tropes wiki homepage

Think of a trope as a genre rule. An element your audience expects to be present to make your work a fit for the genre.

For example, it is a trope for YA novels to feature a teenaged main character. No one would dream of calling it cliché to have your protagonist be 16, even if ten million other YA books do. Make your protagonist 47, however, and you're going to have problems convincing anyone your story is YA.

I think one could easily go through the "Mary Sue litmus test" and find some aspects that the testmakers labeled "Mary Sue" traits are actually EXPECTED in some genres. To not include these tropes would put your work out of synch with the genre and make it harder to sell.

What do you think? Which elements labeled "Mary Sue" in the test would you argue are viable tropes and for which genres?

Are elements of wish fulfillment part of audience expectation for your genre? How so?
Thursday, December 16, 2010 Laurel Garver
My Tuesday post, "No Mary Sues: operating at maximum capacity," was intended to get you all thinking about ways to keep your characters perpetually striving towards goals, or at least pondering them, worrying them, feeling strongly about them--rather than letting characters give up and walk away too quickly when conflicts arise.

I'd used the term "Mary Sue" in my title, believing this to be the proper term for the coddled character. I linked THIS "Mary Sue litmus test" which seemed to take the term in a somewhat different direction. The testmakers identified Mary Sue as a "wish fulfillment character" who is not only coddled, but also too precious by half--too much fantasy, not enough reality.

Turns out this link was only very peripherally connected to my point, but it did generate some intriguing concerns and questions in your comments.

Susan Kaye Quinn @ Ink Spells said:

"I think you have to be a little careful with the Mary Sue generalization (like any sweeping definition, especially one with so many requirements). It is undeniably true that Mary Sue characters exist, just like any stereotype. But just because your character may have a "Mary Sue" type characteristic doesn't make them an egregious thing that must be banished from the face of the earth (I think the authors of the test even say this).

Ex:
Question 1.e. Does your character's name ...
Involve a noun or verb not usually used as a name, spelled normally or not?

Tally - MC in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. Um, that's a verb (and a noun) normally not used as a name. It's a FANTASTIC name. Also a best selling series.

Question 54: Does your character have the ability to shapeshift?

Never mind that this rules out any story about werewolves, but Modo from The Dark Deeps is a a shape shifting quasimodo character in a steampunk setting. TOTALLY original, fun, and one of the most sympathetic characters I've seen in a while.

So.

The Mary Sue phenom is real, but also a trope itself...."


I think Susan brings up a very helpful distinction--trope versus cliché.

Here's a useful definition:

"Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means 'stereotyped and trite.' In other words, dull and uninteresting."
--TV Tropes wiki homepage

Think of a trope as a genre rule. An element your audience expects to be present to make your work a fit for the genre.

For example, it is a trope for YA novels to feature a teenaged main character. No one would dream of calling it cliché to have your protagonist be 16, even if ten million other YA books do. Make your protagonist 47, however, and you're going to have problems convincing anyone your story is YA.

I think one could easily go through the "Mary Sue litmus test" and find some aspects that the testmakers labeled "Mary Sue" traits are actually EXPECTED in some genres. To not include these tropes would put your work out of synch with the genre and make it harder to sell.

What do you think? Which elements labeled "Mary Sue" in the test would you argue are viable tropes and for which genres?

Are elements of wish fulfillment part of audience expectation for your genre? How so?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In How to Write a D@mn Good Novel, James N. Frey says many plots lack integrity because the author doesn't have her characters acting at their maximum capacity.

What does he mean exactly? When a character hits a problem, some roadblock keeping him from his goal, he should do everything in his power to reach the goal. Characters who become easily stymied by their problems lose readers' sympathies and their desires and drives won't seem particularly compelling.

The Harvard-educated investigator, for example, won't just sit around wringing her hands when she doesn't immediately understand something--she'll make use of all the intellectual tools at her disposal to research and probe. Likewise, even the "cannon fodder" expendable characters should go to a lot of trouble to avoid dying, unless the author has characterized them as suicidal or deeply stupid or proven some motivation for a death wish. "Maximum capacity" will, of course, vary from character to character. A nine-year-old protagonist in a middle grade adventure will have fewer resources than the Navy SEAL/brain surgeon in a techno-thriller. The trick is to know one's characters thoroughly.

In every scene, Frey says your character's actions and reactions have to pass the "would s/he really ____ ?" test. Does the action/reaction fit her personality? Is he making full use of his personal resources, know-how, experiences? These lines of questioning can open up plot to intriguing new possibilities.

For those unfamiliar with the term "Mary Sue," see THIS Wikipedia article. Worried your character might be a Mary Sue? Try THIS "Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test."

How might "maximum capacity" make your plots more compelling? In what circumstances do you think Frey's "rule" might not be the best way to go?
Tuesday, December 14, 2010 Laurel Garver
In How to Write a D@mn Good Novel, James N. Frey says many plots lack integrity because the author doesn't have her characters acting at their maximum capacity.

What does he mean exactly? When a character hits a problem, some roadblock keeping him from his goal, he should do everything in his power to reach the goal. Characters who become easily stymied by their problems lose readers' sympathies and their desires and drives won't seem particularly compelling.

The Harvard-educated investigator, for example, won't just sit around wringing her hands when she doesn't immediately understand something--she'll make use of all the intellectual tools at her disposal to research and probe. Likewise, even the "cannon fodder" expendable characters should go to a lot of trouble to avoid dying, unless the author has characterized them as suicidal or deeply stupid or proven some motivation for a death wish. "Maximum capacity" will, of course, vary from character to character. A nine-year-old protagonist in a middle grade adventure will have fewer resources than the Navy SEAL/brain surgeon in a techno-thriller. The trick is to know one's characters thoroughly.

In every scene, Frey says your character's actions and reactions have to pass the "would s/he really ____ ?" test. Does the action/reaction fit her personality? Is he making full use of his personal resources, know-how, experiences? These lines of questioning can open up plot to intriguing new possibilities.

For those unfamiliar with the term "Mary Sue," see THIS Wikipedia article. Worried your character might be a Mary Sue? Try THIS "Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test."

How might "maximum capacity" make your plots more compelling? In what circumstances do you think Frey's "rule" might not be the best way to go?

Friday, December 10, 2010

My hubby and I have been geeking out big time on the latest season of Dr. Who, which at last became available on Netflix in November.

How badly are we geeking out? Check out the themed snowflakes hubby created (from scratch, I might add, using an exacto knife and a hole punch). He is the awesomest!


































Can you recognize the iconic Dr. Who images in each?

Posts of Note
Talli Roland, who's e-book version of her first novel The Hating Game released December 1, has two amazing posts with how-tos on marketing your work:

The Web Splash: How I Organised It explains how to harness social media in a launch.
The Behemoth explains how to work with amazon.com.

Think I'll keep it short and sweet today. We're in full-on holiday hustle at my place.

Any other Whovians out there?
Have you ever made fan art? Ever tried cut paper creations?
Does marketing your work excite or scare you? Why?
Friday, December 10, 2010 Laurel Garver
My hubby and I have been geeking out big time on the latest season of Dr. Who, which at last became available on Netflix in November.

How badly are we geeking out? Check out the themed snowflakes hubby created (from scratch, I might add, using an exacto knife and a hole punch). He is the awesomest!


































Can you recognize the iconic Dr. Who images in each?

Posts of Note
Talli Roland, who's e-book version of her first novel The Hating Game released December 1, has two amazing posts with how-tos on marketing your work:

The Web Splash: How I Organised It explains how to harness social media in a launch.
The Behemoth explains how to work with amazon.com.

Think I'll keep it short and sweet today. We're in full-on holiday hustle at my place.

Any other Whovians out there?
Have you ever made fan art? Ever tried cut paper creations?
Does marketing your work excite or scare you? Why?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dear Editor-on-Call,

My critique group always argues about how you should write time. 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out numbers, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000 (in fiction?)

Yours truly,
Counting on you
a.k.a. Margo Berendsen of Writing at High Altitude


Dear Counting,

Unfortunately, there isn't one hard and fast rule for this. These sorts of decisions are what industry pros call "style." Every publisher has its own style guide dictating its preference for handling things like numbers. No one will expect you to know this information ahead of time--they'll likely just ask for changes during the editing phase if you chose something other than house style. However, if you don't handle numbers consistently, you won't be making fast friends with the editorial department.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had that pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more right for some genres than others.

Clock time
AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.) If your story is, say, a mystery, thriller or SciFi full of time references, this is the format to go with. It's pithy and official looking.

In most other fiction, I typically see times written out as four o'clock or eight-thirty or half past two. For occasional references, spelled out numbers read more fluidly. The a.m. and p.m. distinction can be handled better through descriptors like morning, afternoon, evening, night.

I'd recommend against combining the two formats. Both "four forty three a.m." and "5:02 o'clock" just look stupid.

Quantities, amounts and ages
AP style says to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for everything else. I can't think of a single novel that follows that rule. Quantities should be spelled out. Hyphenate a compound number when used as an adjective.

He came in sixth place.
Joyce won fifteen million dollars.
The kidnappers are demanding thirty grand.
I can give you twenty-two reasons to stay home. (note hyphen)
When Kit turned twenty two, she bought an electric bass.
The victim was an eleven-year-old male. (note hyphens)
I haven't been back to Viperville since I was eleven years old.

Dates
Calendar dates are another sticky area you didn't mention. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2004. Commas are used only between day and year. Ordinal numbers are a no-no (notice it's NOT June 13th in AP).

I haven't seen any clear preference in fiction for how one handles numbers for the purpose of naming a date. Obviously spelling out the year will be too wordy, so I'd avoid that. As far as using the word or numeral, go with whichever looks better in context. Ordinal numbers will generally look better spelled out--and sound more like natural speech.

Kyle left for camp on June 23.
Which day should we go, the sixth or the seventh?
Joe-Bob remembered that awful lynching in April 1952.
Who wants to hike on February third?
The ambassador's letter was dated September 9, 2002.

The most important thing is to pick a style and follow it consistently. I'd suggest making an index card with your personal "style guide" and posting near your computer for quick reference.

If anyone knows of a definitive style guide all the major houses use, please me know!

Which of these areas have tripped you up? Would you argue against any of my recommendations? Why?
Thursday, December 09, 2010 Laurel Garver
Dear Editor-on-Call,

My critique group always argues about how you should write time. 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out numbers, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000 (in fiction?)

Yours truly,
Counting on you
a.k.a. Margo Berendsen of Writing at High Altitude


Dear Counting,

Unfortunately, there isn't one hard and fast rule for this. These sorts of decisions are what industry pros call "style." Every publisher has its own style guide dictating its preference for handling things like numbers. No one will expect you to know this information ahead of time--they'll likely just ask for changes during the editing phase if you chose something other than house style. However, if you don't handle numbers consistently, you won't be making fast friends with the editorial department.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had that pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more right for some genres than others.

Clock time
AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.) If your story is, say, a mystery, thriller or SciFi full of time references, this is the format to go with. It's pithy and official looking.

In most other fiction, I typically see times written out as four o'clock or eight-thirty or half past two. For occasional references, spelled out numbers read more fluidly. The a.m. and p.m. distinction can be handled better through descriptors like morning, afternoon, evening, night.

I'd recommend against combining the two formats. Both "four forty three a.m." and "5:02 o'clock" just look stupid.

Quantities, amounts and ages
AP style says to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for everything else. I can't think of a single novel that follows that rule. Quantities should be spelled out. Hyphenate a compound number when used as an adjective.

He came in sixth place.
Joyce won fifteen million dollars.
The kidnappers are demanding thirty grand.
I can give you twenty-two reasons to stay home. (note hyphen)
When Kit turned twenty two, she bought an electric bass.
The victim was an eleven-year-old male. (note hyphens)
I haven't been back to Viperville since I was eleven years old.

Dates
Calendar dates are another sticky area you didn't mention. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2004. Commas are used only between day and year. Ordinal numbers are a no-no (notice it's NOT June 13th in AP).

I haven't seen any clear preference in fiction for how one handles numbers for the purpose of naming a date. Obviously spelling out the year will be too wordy, so I'd avoid that. As far as using the word or numeral, go with whichever looks better in context. Ordinal numbers will generally look better spelled out--and sound more like natural speech.

Kyle left for camp on June 23.
Which day should we go, the sixth or the seventh?
Joe-Bob remembered that awful lynching in April 1952.
Who wants to hike on February third?
The ambassador's letter was dated September 9, 2002.

The most important thing is to pick a style and follow it consistently. I'd suggest making an index card with your personal "style guide" and posting near your computer for quick reference.

If anyone knows of a definitive style guide all the major houses use, please me know!

Which of these areas have tripped you up? Would you argue against any of my recommendations? Why?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

One of my CPs is a big advocate of experimentation to get through blocks when you're drafting. She says to keep trying things until something works. On its face, this idea sounded like a huge time suck to me. Draft ten versions of the same scene? Ugh.

While thumbing through an old favorite reference to help a different CP, I found a great way to adapt Jenn's advice. In Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, he suggests you "think in film" to improve your plots. In other words, play a scene in your mind as if it were a film. Now imagine you're the director, and your characters are an improv troupe. As you vividly imagine a scene playing, give the characters freedom to improvise. If you don't like what they come up with, rewind and try something else.

In another chapter, Bell mentions "unanticipating" as a way to avoid plot cliches. By this he means going for the unexpected--taking a typical scenario and letting it veer off in a new, interesting direction. Instead of going with the first character reaction that pops into your head (the cliche), you brainstorm five to eight alternate "and then what?" scenarios.

To take Bell's ideas to the next level, I suggest combing "unanticipate" with "think in film" to help you make the most of your drafting hours. Rather than painstakingly write out every possible permutation of your scene, brainstorm some alternate ways to play the emotion, action, motivation, conflict. Jot a few notes, then let each scene alternative play in your mind like a film.

Which version grabs you? Which feels right for your characters? Which opens the most interesting possibilities for your story to move forward? That's your winner.

Run to the keyboard or notebook and get down as much as you can, quickly.

How might these techniques help you draft more effectively? What other tips do you have for avoiding stuckness and cliches?
Tuesday, December 07, 2010 Laurel Garver
One of my CPs is a big advocate of experimentation to get through blocks when you're drafting. She says to keep trying things until something works. On its face, this idea sounded like a huge time suck to me. Draft ten versions of the same scene? Ugh.

While thumbing through an old favorite reference to help a different CP, I found a great way to adapt Jenn's advice. In Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, he suggests you "think in film" to improve your plots. In other words, play a scene in your mind as if it were a film. Now imagine you're the director, and your characters are an improv troupe. As you vividly imagine a scene playing, give the characters freedom to improvise. If you don't like what they come up with, rewind and try something else.

In another chapter, Bell mentions "unanticipating" as a way to avoid plot cliches. By this he means going for the unexpected--taking a typical scenario and letting it veer off in a new, interesting direction. Instead of going with the first character reaction that pops into your head (the cliche), you brainstorm five to eight alternate "and then what?" scenarios.

To take Bell's ideas to the next level, I suggest combing "unanticipate" with "think in film" to help you make the most of your drafting hours. Rather than painstakingly write out every possible permutation of your scene, brainstorm some alternate ways to play the emotion, action, motivation, conflict. Jot a few notes, then let each scene alternative play in your mind like a film.

Which version grabs you? Which feels right for your characters? Which opens the most interesting possibilities for your story to move forward? That's your winner.

Run to the keyboard or notebook and get down as much as you can, quickly.

How might these techniques help you draft more effectively? What other tips do you have for avoiding stuckness and cliches?

Friday, December 03, 2010

So many of my lovely blog pals keep a nice, consistent schedule. I haven't yet found one that works 100% for me, but I'm leaning towards T, Th, F. My Tuesday, Thursday posts would be the more practical and meaty ones you all keep coming back for, and the Friday posts would be lighter.

So today I'm going to share some linkage and wish you all a splendid weekend.

Posts of Note
In the querying dumps? I urge you to go read Sherrie Petersen's latest post at Write About Now, Sometimes You Just Give Up. It has an amazing twist ending sure to delight.

At Roxane Salonen's blog Peace Garden Writer, she discusses the very essential work of being dreamy and giving your mind space to develop ideas deeply in Let the Tortoise Have His Way.

Michelle Gregory at Beautiful Chaos encourages us to walk away from the "shoulds" that don't fit our lives in true to who i am.

And just for fun, see Diana Paz's Ten Signs You *May* Be Procrastinating on Revisions.

Friday Follow
If you write PB, MG or YA, your should be following Casey McCormick's very awesome blog Literary Rambles. Her site will help you tremendously with agent research. Tremendously! She has two new agent spotlights up this week alone. And the information is beautifully organized and cogent. She also offers a forum to have your query and/or opening pages critiqued.

Contest alerts
C.A. Marshall is offering a free manuscript edit, up to 100K words, to one lucky winner!

Lisa Galek at Read. Write. Repeat. is giving away a copy of Dirty Little Secrets.

Jessica Bell at The Alliterative Allomorph is giving away a signed copy of Someone to Blame.

Warm up your flash fiction muscles--Hairnets and Hopes is hosting a blogfest and contest December 15 on the theme "Truth is Stranger Than Fiction."

Do you blog on a set schedule? How did you decide? What has worked or not worked for you?
Friday, December 03, 2010 Laurel Garver
So many of my lovely blog pals keep a nice, consistent schedule. I haven't yet found one that works 100% for me, but I'm leaning towards T, Th, F. My Tuesday, Thursday posts would be the more practical and meaty ones you all keep coming back for, and the Friday posts would be lighter.

So today I'm going to share some linkage and wish you all a splendid weekend.

Posts of Note
In the querying dumps? I urge you to go read Sherrie Petersen's latest post at Write About Now, Sometimes You Just Give Up. It has an amazing twist ending sure to delight.

At Roxane Salonen's blog Peace Garden Writer, she discusses the very essential work of being dreamy and giving your mind space to develop ideas deeply in Let the Tortoise Have His Way.

Michelle Gregory at Beautiful Chaos encourages us to walk away from the "shoulds" that don't fit our lives in true to who i am.

And just for fun, see Diana Paz's Ten Signs You *May* Be Procrastinating on Revisions.

Friday Follow
If you write PB, MG or YA, your should be following Casey McCormick's very awesome blog Literary Rambles. Her site will help you tremendously with agent research. Tremendously! She has two new agent spotlights up this week alone. And the information is beautifully organized and cogent. She also offers a forum to have your query and/or opening pages critiqued.

Contest alerts
C.A. Marshall is offering a free manuscript edit, up to 100K words, to one lucky winner!

Lisa Galek at Read. Write. Repeat. is giving away a copy of Dirty Little Secrets.

Jessica Bell at The Alliterative Allomorph is giving away a signed copy of Someone to Blame.

Warm up your flash fiction muscles--Hairnets and Hopes is hosting a blogfest and contest December 15 on the theme "Truth is Stranger Than Fiction."

Do you blog on a set schedule? How did you decide? What has worked or not worked for you?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

When you hit a place where you just can't move your story forward, it's frustrating in the extreme. It's not like you have nothing to say, but rather that the next plot action seems to be on the other side of a deep chasm.

At times, you might be able to brainstorm the perfect narrative bridge to get you across. Or perhaps you can jump cut past potentially boring filler actions that can be summed up in a sentence or two of narrative summary.

But many times, hitting this place is a sign you've taken a wrong turn somewhere and plowing ahead will only get you more lost. That's when you need to stop and rewind. Find the last place where you thought the story was working at its full potential, then slowly read on in search of the wrong turn.

Here are some common culprits:

Characterization
~Main character loses sight of his/her objective

~Character desire or motivation shifts unexpectedly

~Character does something with no logical motivation

~Character doesn't do something s/he'd logically be motivated to do

~Character overreacts and conflict escalates or resolution happens too soon

~Character underreacts and forward motion doesn't happen

~A secondary character or subplot suddenly steals center stage

Structure/pacing
~You have no subplots

~Early information dump leaves too little surprise to be revealed later

~You've withheld information that would enable forward movement

~You've introduced too many characters--some aren't important or interesting

~You need to introduce a secondary character sooner

Whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven, emotions are the real energy behind it all, so developing characters' emotions well and "on pitch" is the core challenge. Thus, it's very often characterization issues that get us off course most frequently.

Every time I've made a wrong turn with plot, there were seeds of off-pitch emotions behind it. Those off-pitch moments can start very, very subtly--a yelp when a gasp would do, an analytical thought in a moment of panic.

Don't be surprised when you rewind to discover a seemingly nothing moment that inadvertently set the wrong tone, which then snowballed all other emotions in the wrong direction. Tweak that moment, and you'd be surprised how quickly you're back on course again.

How might the rewind concept help you?
Thursday, December 02, 2010 Laurel Garver
When you hit a place where you just can't move your story forward, it's frustrating in the extreme. It's not like you have nothing to say, but rather that the next plot action seems to be on the other side of a deep chasm.

At times, you might be able to brainstorm the perfect narrative bridge to get you across. Or perhaps you can jump cut past potentially boring filler actions that can be summed up in a sentence or two of narrative summary.

But many times, hitting this place is a sign you've taken a wrong turn somewhere and plowing ahead will only get you more lost. That's when you need to stop and rewind. Find the last place where you thought the story was working at its full potential, then slowly read on in search of the wrong turn.

Here are some common culprits:

Characterization
~Main character loses sight of his/her objective

~Character desire or motivation shifts unexpectedly

~Character does something with no logical motivation

~Character doesn't do something s/he'd logically be motivated to do

~Character overreacts and conflict escalates or resolution happens too soon

~Character underreacts and forward motion doesn't happen

~A secondary character or subplot suddenly steals center stage

Structure/pacing
~You have no subplots

~Early information dump leaves too little surprise to be revealed later

~You've withheld information that would enable forward movement

~You've introduced too many characters--some aren't important or interesting

~You need to introduce a secondary character sooner

Whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven, emotions are the real energy behind it all, so developing characters' emotions well and "on pitch" is the core challenge. Thus, it's very often characterization issues that get us off course most frequently.

Every time I've made a wrong turn with plot, there were seeds of off-pitch emotions behind it. Those off-pitch moments can start very, very subtly--a yelp when a gasp would do, an analytical thought in a moment of panic.

Don't be surprised when you rewind to discover a seemingly nothing moment that inadvertently set the wrong tone, which then snowballed all other emotions in the wrong direction. Tweak that moment, and you'd be surprised how quickly you're back on course again.

How might the rewind concept help you?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Today is the last day of November and as I look back over the past 30 days, I'm SO glad I skipped NaNoWriMo in favor of NaBalWriMo (national balanced writers month).

I had a number of goals for myself and accomplished a few of them, as well as a few things that should have been on the list. Highlights for me include:

More exercise.
Committing to regularly walking the dog also got me pumped to bike more often. Hobbit girl and I have found some great places to ride and we've had a blast.

Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.
I've been decluttering the house like crazy and donating stuff whenever possible. During one drop off, hobbit girl wanted to pop into the thrift shop to look at books and videos. She found some Harry Potter stationery and I got a freaking miracle. There was a Maytag portable dishwasher (the kind you hook up to your kitchen sink for an hour) for $50, or 10% of what the machines cost new. At last I could be free from my 10 years of sink slavery without having to spend a fortune to redo the entire kitchen. We removed one cabinet and voila, I now have an extra hour a day of not doing chores!!! Woo hoo!

Reaching out.
I participated in Harry Potter week with some old and new blog friends and had so much fun! After nearly a year and a half of running this blog, it was great to rekindle my enthusiasm for it. I also finally got an author page for myself up and running on Facebook. It's been great connecting with people there and that's helped tremendously with query jitters.

Refreshing.
Letting myself off the hook to produce has been a mixed blessing. While not writing has loosed the grip of perfectionism that had been so immobilizing, I also began to feel lonely not hanging out with my characters. I missed them and yesterday dove back in to work on plot knots.

Movies, I found, were wonderful for restoring my courage and sense of play, perhaps because it's a different medium. The documentary American Teen is one I'd recommend to my YA writing friends if you ever need to remind yourself why reaching out to kids this age is your passion. Disney's Tangled will instill you with hope that old things can be refreshed and made stronger. If you're bogged down in revisions, this is the flick for you. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instilled in me once again that evil wins when good people do nothing and that pursuing a calling can be hard and thankless at times, but support is near and abundant.

How was your November? What things have refreshed you during dry times? Have you ever taken a break from writing? What brought you back to the desk?
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 Laurel Garver
Today is the last day of November and as I look back over the past 30 days, I'm SO glad I skipped NaNoWriMo in favor of NaBalWriMo (national balanced writers month).

I had a number of goals for myself and accomplished a few of them, as well as a few things that should have been on the list. Highlights for me include:

More exercise.
Committing to regularly walking the dog also got me pumped to bike more often. Hobbit girl and I have found some great places to ride and we've had a blast.

Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.
I've been decluttering the house like crazy and donating stuff whenever possible. During one drop off, hobbit girl wanted to pop into the thrift shop to look at books and videos. She found some Harry Potter stationery and I got a freaking miracle. There was a Maytag portable dishwasher (the kind you hook up to your kitchen sink for an hour) for $50, or 10% of what the machines cost new. At last I could be free from my 10 years of sink slavery without having to spend a fortune to redo the entire kitchen. We removed one cabinet and voila, I now have an extra hour a day of not doing chores!!! Woo hoo!

Reaching out.
I participated in Harry Potter week with some old and new blog friends and had so much fun! After nearly a year and a half of running this blog, it was great to rekindle my enthusiasm for it. I also finally got an author page for myself up and running on Facebook. It's been great connecting with people there and that's helped tremendously with query jitters.

Refreshing.
Letting myself off the hook to produce has been a mixed blessing. While not writing has loosed the grip of perfectionism that had been so immobilizing, I also began to feel lonely not hanging out with my characters. I missed them and yesterday dove back in to work on plot knots.

Movies, I found, were wonderful for restoring my courage and sense of play, perhaps because it's a different medium. The documentary American Teen is one I'd recommend to my YA writing friends if you ever need to remind yourself why reaching out to kids this age is your passion. Disney's Tangled will instill you with hope that old things can be refreshed and made stronger. If you're bogged down in revisions, this is the flick for you. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instilled in me once again that evil wins when good people do nothing and that pursuing a calling can be hard and thankless at times, but support is near and abundant.

How was your November? What things have refreshed you during dry times? Have you ever taken a break from writing? What brought you back to the desk?

Monday, November 22, 2010

You might read my blog title in a Kenau Reeves way or as a reins-tugging command to Nelly. This post is a little of both.

HP 7.1
I went to a morning showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 on Saturday, thankful that the film is popular enough for theaters to open before lunchtime. I have to say, I felt emotionally walloped by this film. In compressing the story to work on film, some of the very, very few moments of light get short shrift--Bill and Fleur's wedding, for example. What slow moments there are felt all the more oppressive and tense because of it.

I thought the Ministry of Magic sequence was one of the better adaptations--paced well and still as tense and scary as in the book. I also liked how the screenwriter handled the camping scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione. You get the sense of their aimlessness and frustration without belaboring the point.

I was really impressed with Tom Felton's fairly cameo appearance as Draco Malfoy. He has almost no lines, but his expressions and postures shout his fear and misery. The sets and cinematography were also truly superior in this penultimate film of the series.

Friend me!
You might have noticed that late last week I added a Facebook badge to my page. I now have a page up for my writerly self, and if I haven't yet found you and sent a friend request, please take a moment to friend me--I believe you can do so through the badge. I've also registered my blog with the networked blogs widget, so feel free to follow using that widget as well. I'm happy to return the favor.

Blog un-plug
I'll be focusing on Facebook this week and unplugging from blogging.

Have a fabulous Thanksgiving, American friends (and a lovely normal week to my international friends)!
Monday, November 22, 2010 Laurel Garver
You might read my blog title in a Kenau Reeves way or as a reins-tugging command to Nelly. This post is a little of both.

HP 7.1
I went to a morning showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 on Saturday, thankful that the film is popular enough for theaters to open before lunchtime. I have to say, I felt emotionally walloped by this film. In compressing the story to work on film, some of the very, very few moments of light get short shrift--Bill and Fleur's wedding, for example. What slow moments there are felt all the more oppressive and tense because of it.

I thought the Ministry of Magic sequence was one of the better adaptations--paced well and still as tense and scary as in the book. I also liked how the screenwriter handled the camping scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione. You get the sense of their aimlessness and frustration without belaboring the point.

I was really impressed with Tom Felton's fairly cameo appearance as Draco Malfoy. He has almost no lines, but his expressions and postures shout his fear and misery. The sets and cinematography were also truly superior in this penultimate film of the series.

Friend me!
You might have noticed that late last week I added a Facebook badge to my page. I now have a page up for my writerly self, and if I haven't yet found you and sent a friend request, please take a moment to friend me--I believe you can do so through the badge. I've also registered my blog with the networked blogs widget, so feel free to follow using that widget as well. I'm happy to return the favor.

Blog un-plug
I'll be focusing on Facebook this week and unplugging from blogging.

Have a fabulous Thanksgiving, American friends (and a lovely normal week to my international friends)!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter week is drawing to a close and we all know how hard it is to say goodbye. So I'll leave you in the vast forest of story and image being created by those who also want to keep making magic in Rowling's fictional world.

Fan Fiction
Fans who write creatively have long been weaving new tales to fill in backstory for minor characters, explore wizard subcultures only briefly mentioned, speculate what might have been, or practice a little wish fulfillment. Here are some of the big catch-all sites where fans post their Harry Potter-inspired fictional creations

Harry Potter Fan Fiction
Mugglenet Fan Fiction page
Fiction Alley
The Quidditch Pitch

There are dozens more sites, most dedicated to a group of characters or to taking the stories beyond the PG-13 realm into less kid-friendly territory, if you get my drift. These sites above all appear to keep the adult material separate and well marked as such.

Fan Art
There are galleries galore that illustrate the books scene by scene ("canon" artwork), and plenty more that reach beyond the parameters of the book--imagining extensive happenings for characters during their lives off the page.

Fanart at the Leaky Cauldron
Mugglenet Fan Art page
Harry Potter Companion (all "canon" artwork)

I'll leave you with a few of my favorites.


Neville being as awesome as I always hoped he would be.


Many fan fic artists take this sort of comic-book style approach.


Fawkes in flames


From this artist's amazing blog


This was created in a wholly digital environment. Pretty impressive.












Hogwarts by moonlight


This piece was made with traditional art methods.

You can purchase a fine art print of this piece HERE.






Ron and Hermione


Isn't this sweet? I like how the artist aged them, too. You can see more of this artist's work HERE.


Don't forget to visit the rest of the Potter Week sextet:

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen


What aspect of fan fiction and art intrigues you most? Backstories of characters? Taking the characters into the future? What might have been? Cross pollination with other fantasy worlds?
Friday, November 19, 2010 Laurel Garver
Harry Potter week is drawing to a close and we all know how hard it is to say goodbye. So I'll leave you in the vast forest of story and image being created by those who also want to keep making magic in Rowling's fictional world.

Fan Fiction
Fans who write creatively have long been weaving new tales to fill in backstory for minor characters, explore wizard subcultures only briefly mentioned, speculate what might have been, or practice a little wish fulfillment. Here are some of the big catch-all sites where fans post their Harry Potter-inspired fictional creations

Harry Potter Fan Fiction
Mugglenet Fan Fiction page
Fiction Alley
The Quidditch Pitch

There are dozens more sites, most dedicated to a group of characters or to taking the stories beyond the PG-13 realm into less kid-friendly territory, if you get my drift. These sites above all appear to keep the adult material separate and well marked as such.

Fan Art
There are galleries galore that illustrate the books scene by scene ("canon" artwork), and plenty more that reach beyond the parameters of the book--imagining extensive happenings for characters during their lives off the page.

Fanart at the Leaky Cauldron
Mugglenet Fan Art page
Harry Potter Companion (all "canon" artwork)

I'll leave you with a few of my favorites.


Neville being as awesome as I always hoped he would be.


Many fan fic artists take this sort of comic-book style approach.


Fawkes in flames


From this artist's amazing blog


This was created in a wholly digital environment. Pretty impressive.












Hogwarts by moonlight


This piece was made with traditional art methods.

You can purchase a fine art print of this piece HERE.






Ron and Hermione


Isn't this sweet? I like how the artist aged them, too. You can see more of this artist's work HERE.


Don't forget to visit the rest of the Potter Week sextet:

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen


What aspect of fan fiction and art intrigues you most? Backstories of characters? Taking the characters into the future? What might have been? Cross pollination with other fantasy worlds?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's day four of Harry Potter week, and today my compadres are all getting geared up for the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1. Go check them out for more Pottermania:

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen

Sadly, I can't get childcare to join the opening night festivities--that whole pesky school night thing. Sigh. We will be seeing the film, without Hobbit Girl, sometime over the weekend.


A big part of HP fan culture is dressing in costume for events, especially launches of new books and films. The elaborateness of costumes runs the gamut, from a simple themed t-shirt or house scarf accenting mugglewear to full head-to-toe character impersonations.

You have a range of options for dressing magical.

Licensed costumes
Warner Bros., the studio that produces the films, has an entire line of official costumes. This is your no-fuss option, but prices can be a bit steep.



































Adapt mugglewear
This is a good budget option, but it may require some legwork on your part. Hogwarts uniforms are perhaps one of the easiest options to adapt. Look how cute the Wizard Rock duo The Moaning Myrtles look in their easy costumes: white blouse, blue striped tie, grey pleated skirt and knee socks.

Or stretch your creativity a little farther, like this awesome librarian who added badges to graduation robes, made a uniform with simple black slacks and sweater, then added accessories: gardening gloves, a whistle, (swim) goggles and a craft-store broom. Viola! Madame Hooch, ready to coach quidditch.












Custom design
If you have some skills with sewing, you can take your costumes to the next level. Here are some particularly awesome character impersonations:

Stand up straight! Here comes Dolores Umbridge, the wizard facist that made us all seethe through Order of the Phoenix.













Watch out boys, it's one of those classy girls from Beauxbatons.
You can read how this talented crafter made the outfit HERE.















And who's to say the family pet can't be in on the fun? Check out this fabulous canine costume of Fluffy from Sorcerer's Stone.

Have you ever dressed up for a Harry Potter event? What did you wear? What's the best costume you've ever seen?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 Laurel Garver
It's day four of Harry Potter week, and today my compadres are all getting geared up for the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1. Go check them out for more Pottermania:

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen

Sadly, I can't get childcare to join the opening night festivities--that whole pesky school night thing. Sigh. We will be seeing the film, without Hobbit Girl, sometime over the weekend.


A big part of HP fan culture is dressing in costume for events, especially launches of new books and films. The elaborateness of costumes runs the gamut, from a simple themed t-shirt or house scarf accenting mugglewear to full head-to-toe character impersonations.

You have a range of options for dressing magical.

Licensed costumes
Warner Bros., the studio that produces the films, has an entire line of official costumes. This is your no-fuss option, but prices can be a bit steep.



































Adapt mugglewear
This is a good budget option, but it may require some legwork on your part. Hogwarts uniforms are perhaps one of the easiest options to adapt. Look how cute the Wizard Rock duo The Moaning Myrtles look in their easy costumes: white blouse, blue striped tie, grey pleated skirt and knee socks.

Or stretch your creativity a little farther, like this awesome librarian who added badges to graduation robes, made a uniform with simple black slacks and sweater, then added accessories: gardening gloves, a whistle, (swim) goggles and a craft-store broom. Viola! Madame Hooch, ready to coach quidditch.












Custom design
If you have some skills with sewing, you can take your costumes to the next level. Here are some particularly awesome character impersonations:

Stand up straight! Here comes Dolores Umbridge, the wizard facist that made us all seethe through Order of the Phoenix.













Watch out boys, it's one of those classy girls from Beauxbatons.
You can read how this talented crafter made the outfit HERE.















And who's to say the family pet can't be in on the fun? Check out this fabulous canine costume of Fluffy from Sorcerer's Stone.

Have you ever dressed up for a Harry Potter event? What did you wear? What's the best costume you've ever seen?

It's day three of Harry Potter week, and I'm teaming up with five fabulous women to celebrate all things Harry. Swing on by the blogs below for more Pottermania!

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen

Do you ever wish YOU could play quidditch? Good news--now you can!

Muggle Quidditch, my friends, is the awesome new sport sweeping high school and college campuses. To see a game in action, check out this video:



Last weekend was the Muggle Quidditch World Cup in NYC. The International Quidditch Association hosted 46 teams playing off for the world cup title. Middlebury--the team featured in the video above--took the 2010 championship.

More on the World Cup madness from New York Magazine is HERE.

What do you think--is this fandom gone too far (and too silly)? Or are you off to find your local club or varsity team to cheer them on (HERE is the link)?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010 Laurel Garver
It's day three of Harry Potter week, and I'm teaming up with five fabulous women to celebrate all things Harry. Swing on by the blogs below for more Pottermania!

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen

Do you ever wish YOU could play quidditch? Good news--now you can!

Muggle Quidditch, my friends, is the awesome new sport sweeping high school and college campuses. To see a game in action, check out this video:



Last weekend was the Muggle Quidditch World Cup in NYC. The International Quidditch Association hosted 46 teams playing off for the world cup title. Middlebury--the team featured in the video above--took the 2010 championship.

More on the World Cup madness from New York Magazine is HERE.

What do you think--is this fandom gone too far (and too silly)? Or are you off to find your local club or varsity team to cheer them on (HERE is the link)?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My brainy Ravenclaw friends, you'll be pleased to know that muggles in academia are giving Rowling's fictional world very serious study.

Literature
The first professorial types to bring Rowling into academia were the literature buffs. Some, of course, approached the popular series with suspicion and snobbery. Others saw the richness of Rowling's world and her engagement with existing tropes: the orphan story, the hero's quest, the boarding school adventure, kid sleuth mystery and dark humor ala Roald Dahl. Others delved deeper and saw exciting things in Rowling's narrative technique--especially narrative misdirection and the limited third person perspective as tools for educating the reader while Harry also learns.

Some, like John Granger, found Rowing engaging with mythology, alchemy and (gasp!) even allegory. I HIGHLY recommend his books for exploring the deeper layers of the series (written for a general audience--very readable). And check out his fabulous blog, too. A new generation of scholars is subjecting the series to existing schools of literary criticism: archetypal criticism, feminist readings, psychoanalytical readings, reader-response, Marxist crit, etc. To give you an idea of the sorts of scholarly interest the books have generated, see a call for papers for an academic symposium HERE.

If you're toying with getting a PhD in English, know that yes, you can write your dissertation on Harry Potter!

Philosophy and Social Sciences
Literature profs. aren't the only ones taking Harry seriously. Philosophers have also been intrigued by the deeper questions Rowling's work explores. The difference between rule-following and virtue is one of many aspects of moral philosophy explored. The ethics of enslaving house elves, of oppressing centaurs, and other such questions are also of interest to philosophers. So is the epistemology (how we know what we know) at play when our hero's perspective is often limited and wrongheaded.

These are questions that intrigue my husband and led him to create a course called Harry Potter and Philosophy at his university. He also contributed a chapter to this fun collection of "philosophy for beginners" essays that engage Rowling's world--The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles. It was published by Wiley-Blackwell, an academic press!

One of the guest speakers he's brought in for the course is Potter specialist Travis Prinzi whose work Harry Potter and Imagination: A Way Between Two Worlds also engages philosophical ideas in Rowling's work. Travis also runs a fabulous blog, The Hog's Head and does a series of podcasts.

Social scientists have also been exploring the cultural and psychological implications of the books. Media studies experts study the films, fan fiction, fan art, Wizard Rock and other phenomena surrounding the series.

Don't forget to visit the others celebrating Harry Potter Week!
Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen
What do you think of academia's embrace of the Harry Potter series? If you could take a college course on HP, which discipline would you choose: literature, philosophy, sociology, media studies?
Tuesday, November 16, 2010 Laurel Garver
My brainy Ravenclaw friends, you'll be pleased to know that muggles in academia are giving Rowling's fictional world very serious study.

Literature
The first professorial types to bring Rowling into academia were the literature buffs. Some, of course, approached the popular series with suspicion and snobbery. Others saw the richness of Rowling's world and her engagement with existing tropes: the orphan story, the hero's quest, the boarding school adventure, kid sleuth mystery and dark humor ala Roald Dahl. Others delved deeper and saw exciting things in Rowling's narrative technique--especially narrative misdirection and the limited third person perspective as tools for educating the reader while Harry also learns.

Some, like John Granger, found Rowing engaging with mythology, alchemy and (gasp!) even allegory. I HIGHLY recommend his books for exploring the deeper layers of the series (written for a general audience--very readable). And check out his fabulous blog, too. A new generation of scholars is subjecting the series to existing schools of literary criticism: archetypal criticism, feminist readings, psychoanalytical readings, reader-response, Marxist crit, etc. To give you an idea of the sorts of scholarly interest the books have generated, see a call for papers for an academic symposium HERE.

If you're toying with getting a PhD in English, know that yes, you can write your dissertation on Harry Potter!

Philosophy and Social Sciences
Literature profs. aren't the only ones taking Harry seriously. Philosophers have also been intrigued by the deeper questions Rowling's work explores. The difference between rule-following and virtue is one of many aspects of moral philosophy explored. The ethics of enslaving house elves, of oppressing centaurs, and other such questions are also of interest to philosophers. So is the epistemology (how we know what we know) at play when our hero's perspective is often limited and wrongheaded.

These are questions that intrigue my husband and led him to create a course called Harry Potter and Philosophy at his university. He also contributed a chapter to this fun collection of "philosophy for beginners" essays that engage Rowling's world--The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles. It was published by Wiley-Blackwell, an academic press!

One of the guest speakers he's brought in for the course is Potter specialist Travis Prinzi whose work Harry Potter and Imagination: A Way Between Two Worlds also engages philosophical ideas in Rowling's work. Travis also runs a fabulous blog, The Hog's Head and does a series of podcasts.

Social scientists have also been exploring the cultural and psychological implications of the books. Media studies experts study the films, fan fiction, fan art, Wizard Rock and other phenomena surrounding the series.

Don't forget to visit the others celebrating Harry Potter Week!
Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen
What do you think of academia's embrace of the Harry Potter series? If you could take a college course on HP, which discipline would you choose: literature, philosophy, sociology, media studies?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The interwebs are all abuzz about this week's release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film. Many other bloggers are writing Potter posts on topics big and small. Here are some lovely gals I'm joining for Potter Week, including some new friends:

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen

If you aren't deep into Potter lore, you might be surprised to know that this book series has spawned all sorts of cultural phenomena. I'll touch on a number of them throughout the week--a kind of intro to Potter Fandom.

Wizard Rock/Wrock
Since 2000, hundreds of bands have been spawned that do nothing but Potter-inspired songs. Here's a quick documentary to give you a feel for the genre:



Philly is one of many hotbeds of Wizard Rock. An annual Yule Ball is held in the Philly suburbs. I heard my first all Wizard Rock concert at the Free Library back in 2007, featuring The Moaning Myrtles, The Whomping Willows and the Remus Lupins. Since then, we've purchased or downloaded dozens more songs. I adore The Ministry of Magic, which does techno-pop. But all sorts of styles are represented, from country and adult alternative to rap and punk.

The most common venue for these groups to perform? Libraries. Most groups have literacy promotion as a core goal. But most of all, these groups are a kind of fandom that buys into Rowling's imagined universe and creatively makes it their own. How awesome is that?

Just for fun, go google your favorite HP character and find the band created in his or her honor. What did you find?

Have you ever attended a Wizard Rock event? Visited the Myspace Wrock community?
Monday, November 15, 2010 Laurel Garver
The interwebs are all abuzz about this week's release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film. Many other bloggers are writing Potter posts on topics big and small. Here are some lovely gals I'm joining for Potter Week, including some new friends:

Jen Daiker
Lisa Galek
Renae Mercado
Colene Murphy
Melissa Wideen

If you aren't deep into Potter lore, you might be surprised to know that this book series has spawned all sorts of cultural phenomena. I'll touch on a number of them throughout the week--a kind of intro to Potter Fandom.

Wizard Rock/Wrock
Since 2000, hundreds of bands have been spawned that do nothing but Potter-inspired songs. Here's a quick documentary to give you a feel for the genre:



Philly is one of many hotbeds of Wizard Rock. An annual Yule Ball is held in the Philly suburbs. I heard my first all Wizard Rock concert at the Free Library back in 2007, featuring The Moaning Myrtles, The Whomping Willows and the Remus Lupins. Since then, we've purchased or downloaded dozens more songs. I adore The Ministry of Magic, which does techno-pop. But all sorts of styles are represented, from country and adult alternative to rap and punk.

The most common venue for these groups to perform? Libraries. Most groups have literacy promotion as a core goal. But most of all, these groups are a kind of fandom that buys into Rowling's imagined universe and creatively makes it their own. How awesome is that?

Just for fun, go google your favorite HP character and find the band created in his or her honor. What did you find?

Have you ever attended a Wizard Rock event? Visited the Myspace Wrock community?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ten years ago today, my hubby and I brought home our first pet, a handsome gold and white Husky/Australian shepherd mix I'd found through the local SPCA's website. When we first met "Lucky" and learned his history--that this was his second time being sent to a shelter--I knew he was going to be a challenge. He wouldn't make eye contact. He shied away from my husband. His chart said he ate phonebooks. Something about his shiftiness suggested trust issues and possibly abuse.

So beautiful, so traumatized, so un-lucky.

We renamed him Nicky, short for Dominic, "of the Lord." We stocked up on rawhide, bought a few baby gates to contain him and hoped for the best.

The first time I returned after leaving him a few hours, he pointed his snout to the sky and sang like a wolf. It was kind of beautiful.

He's not a quiet dog. We suspect his prior owners beat him for being so talkative. He has a stunning range of vocalizations for communicating all kinds of things, from "I'm thirsty" to "I'm scared of thunder." Once we really saw that spark of intelligence--especially in his expressive amber brown eyes--we realized he could comprehend many words too: walk, treat, bath, back yard, excuse me.

Nicky never ate a phonebook. He loved his rawhide for a few months, then lost interest in chewing things (outgrew the puppy phase, perhaps). He still can't comprehend "fetching" at all. He pulls like a sled dog when you walk him. He "herds" you toward the door when it's time for a walk. But he also comes running to comfort me whenever I cry, and nothing else makes me feel so welcomed home as his wolfish song of joy.

Happy adoption anniversary, Nicky.

Tell me about your favorite pet. Do you tend to include animals in your fiction? Why or why not?
Thursday, November 11, 2010 Laurel Garver
Ten years ago today, my hubby and I brought home our first pet, a handsome gold and white Husky/Australian shepherd mix I'd found through the local SPCA's website. When we first met "Lucky" and learned his history--that this was his second time being sent to a shelter--I knew he was going to be a challenge. He wouldn't make eye contact. He shied away from my husband. His chart said he ate phonebooks. Something about his shiftiness suggested trust issues and possibly abuse.

So beautiful, so traumatized, so un-lucky.

We renamed him Nicky, short for Dominic, "of the Lord." We stocked up on rawhide, bought a few baby gates to contain him and hoped for the best.

The first time I returned after leaving him a few hours, he pointed his snout to the sky and sang like a wolf. It was kind of beautiful.

He's not a quiet dog. We suspect his prior owners beat him for being so talkative. He has a stunning range of vocalizations for communicating all kinds of things, from "I'm thirsty" to "I'm scared of thunder." Once we really saw that spark of intelligence--especially in his expressive amber brown eyes--we realized he could comprehend many words too: walk, treat, bath, back yard, excuse me.

Nicky never ate a phonebook. He loved his rawhide for a few months, then lost interest in chewing things (outgrew the puppy phase, perhaps). He still can't comprehend "fetching" at all. He pulls like a sled dog when you walk him. He "herds" you toward the door when it's time for a walk. But he also comes running to comfort me whenever I cry, and nothing else makes me feel so welcomed home as his wolfish song of joy.

Happy adoption anniversary, Nicky.

Tell me about your favorite pet. Do you tend to include animals in your fiction? Why or why not?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One of my goals this month (that I've dubbed NaBalWriMo) is to seek freedom from the things that are bogging me down--burnout, creative low-ebb, disorganization and mess.

Spend a day with me and you'd see these things are all tied. My environment could be worse, mind you, but it isn't yet the haven I and my family need. What I need it to live with less. Lots less. But then the excuses start piling up, and I let the clutter problem remain unaddressed.

Stephanie Culp's Streamlining Your Life to the rescue. Here are some of the best excuse busters I've yet come across:

Know your goals and remove obstacles to achieving them
Clutter keeps me from having the energy and time to write. It also keeps my husband and daughter from being their creative, productive best, too.

Clutter steals time
Moving stuff from here to there and there to here is a huge time suck. So is scrambling to find essentials. And we all want more time, especially to write!

Decluttering blesses others
The toys your kids aren't playing with could be blessing another family. Ditto with the toasty coat that's too snug, the magazines you've read already and the CDs you've loaded on to your MP3 player. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that not sharing from our over-abundance is a form of stealing.

If I lost this in a house fire or flood or tornado, would I really miss it?
I've been through a major house fire with my parents, and let me tell you, it wakes you up quickly to what's "just stuff" and what truly brings you joy. I find this question especially helpful for culling things that no longer fit this phase of my life.

Your clutter won't go away on its own
Ignoring accumulations won't solve the problem. You brought the stuff into the house, you have to carry it out. There is no magical solution to making clutter disappear--though such a device or power would make great fodder for spec fic. Even house fires have to be cleaned up. You can, however, hire someone to help you declutter--but you have to take the step of contacting them.

Good enough is good enough
You don't have to perfectly balance the "correct" number of possessions. This is not an algebra test with one right answer. You might accidentally get rid of something you wish you hadn't. Or you might put in the trash what might have been recycled or donated. You might not be ready to part with a boxed up collection you inherited from Grandma. It might take weeks of a half hour here, a half hour there. That's OK. Take a deep breath and remember your bigger goals--like having a streamlined life that allows time to write--and keep purging the best you can.

Which of these excuse-busters speaks to you? What dreams would you chase with a less cluttered life?
Wednesday, November 10, 2010 Laurel Garver
One of my goals this month (that I've dubbed NaBalWriMo) is to seek freedom from the things that are bogging me down--burnout, creative low-ebb, disorganization and mess.

Spend a day with me and you'd see these things are all tied. My environment could be worse, mind you, but it isn't yet the haven I and my family need. What I need it to live with less. Lots less. But then the excuses start piling up, and I let the clutter problem remain unaddressed.

Stephanie Culp's Streamlining Your Life to the rescue. Here are some of the best excuse busters I've yet come across:

Know your goals and remove obstacles to achieving them
Clutter keeps me from having the energy and time to write. It also keeps my husband and daughter from being their creative, productive best, too.

Clutter steals time
Moving stuff from here to there and there to here is a huge time suck. So is scrambling to find essentials. And we all want more time, especially to write!

Decluttering blesses others
The toys your kids aren't playing with could be blessing another family. Ditto with the toasty coat that's too snug, the magazines you've read already and the CDs you've loaded on to your MP3 player. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that not sharing from our over-abundance is a form of stealing.

If I lost this in a house fire or flood or tornado, would I really miss it?
I've been through a major house fire with my parents, and let me tell you, it wakes you up quickly to what's "just stuff" and what truly brings you joy. I find this question especially helpful for culling things that no longer fit this phase of my life.

Your clutter won't go away on its own
Ignoring accumulations won't solve the problem. You brought the stuff into the house, you have to carry it out. There is no magical solution to making clutter disappear--though such a device or power would make great fodder for spec fic. Even house fires have to be cleaned up. You can, however, hire someone to help you declutter--but you have to take the step of contacting them.

Good enough is good enough
You don't have to perfectly balance the "correct" number of possessions. This is not an algebra test with one right answer. You might accidentally get rid of something you wish you hadn't. Or you might put in the trash what might have been recycled or donated. You might not be ready to part with a boxed up collection you inherited from Grandma. It might take weeks of a half hour here, a half hour there. That's OK. Take a deep breath and remember your bigger goals--like having a streamlined life that allows time to write--and keep purging the best you can.

Which of these excuse-busters speaks to you? What dreams would you chase with a less cluttered life?

Monday, November 08, 2010

I can't be the only one whose weekends are often full of chores, chores, a tiny bit of fun, and more chores. There ought to be a way to get out from under the weekly press of it so I have more balanced weekends. I'm realizing my family members' attention deficit issues mean most of the organizing falls to me, because I'm the only one with the skill set. Let me tell you, it gets discouraging pretty quickly.

Years ago I picked up a couple of household organizing books and NaBalWriMo just might be the time to revisit them and blog about tips I learn. One's called Streamlining Your Life by Stephanie Culp and the other is Bonnie's Household Organizer by Bonnie Runyan McCullough.

The number one rule of organizing is only organize what deserves your attention. And a lot of things don't.

Tip of the week:
Don't have too much stuff.

Simple, right? We hang on to stuff we don't need or haven't used for years for one of the following reasons:

I might need this someday
It's still perfectly good
Every ____ is precious (scribble, stuffed animal)
But it's an antique!
This might come back in style
A special person gave it to me
It's a piece of my history
Someday I'll take up this hobby again

All these excuses seem on their face logical, but they're actually emotionally-based decisions. Getting rid of "perfectly good" things we "might need" scares us. But hoarding to stave off a fear of deprivation actually CAUSES deprivation. Your life becomes captive to mess. You lose time and energy when you hoard. Later this week, I'll share some of Culp's no-nonsense talk to help counteract with solid thinking the emotions that make us captive to stuff.

What are your organization battle zones? What kinds of stuff are crowding your life? What excuses and emotions are keeping you fettered to belongings you don't need?
Monday, November 08, 2010 Laurel Garver
I can't be the only one whose weekends are often full of chores, chores, a tiny bit of fun, and more chores. There ought to be a way to get out from under the weekly press of it so I have more balanced weekends. I'm realizing my family members' attention deficit issues mean most of the organizing falls to me, because I'm the only one with the skill set. Let me tell you, it gets discouraging pretty quickly.

Years ago I picked up a couple of household organizing books and NaBalWriMo just might be the time to revisit them and blog about tips I learn. One's called Streamlining Your Life by Stephanie Culp and the other is Bonnie's Household Organizer by Bonnie Runyan McCullough.

The number one rule of organizing is only organize what deserves your attention. And a lot of things don't.

Tip of the week:
Don't have too much stuff.

Simple, right? We hang on to stuff we don't need or haven't used for years for one of the following reasons:

I might need this someday
It's still perfectly good
Every ____ is precious (scribble, stuffed animal)
But it's an antique!
This might come back in style
A special person gave it to me
It's a piece of my history
Someday I'll take up this hobby again

All these excuses seem on their face logical, but they're actually emotionally-based decisions. Getting rid of "perfectly good" things we "might need" scares us. But hoarding to stave off a fear of deprivation actually CAUSES deprivation. Your life becomes captive to mess. You lose time and energy when you hoard. Later this week, I'll share some of Culp's no-nonsense talk to help counteract with solid thinking the emotions that make us captive to stuff.

What are your organization battle zones? What kinds of stuff are crowding your life? What excuses and emotions are keeping you fettered to belongings you don't need?

Friday, November 05, 2010

It's the first Friday of a new month, and that means ART, baby! Philadelphia's art galleries in Olde City hold their monthly First Friday event, with new shows opening, later gallery closing times, meet and greets and refreshments. It's a fun, invigorating environment to hop into. Buskers pop up all over the neighborhood and local artisans--especially young students--hawk their wares from rickety card tables or blankets spread on the sidewalks.

The art world is one I love exploring, so of course my MC is an artist. Some of that choice of passion/career aspiration was thematic. She mentally rearranges what she sees so she can draw it the way she wants. But she also uses art to speak truth into the world. It's a gift I admire. One I wish I had.

I've loved drawing since I was quite young and took three years of art in high school. But honestly, I was just a dabbler. I could render a likeness with some competence, but narrating the world in image? I don't have the right kind of brain for it. Not visual enough. I can't follow those Ikea directions that are all pictures--I need words.

So writing Dani is my entree into being something I'm not, but wish I were. Tonight I'll rub elbows with the cool crowd and tell my daughter what's impressive about this technique or that composition. My artist wannabe self will fill up and I'll have more to pour into Dani.

What passion or skill have you given to a character that you wish you had?

Image from Hyatt's concierge.com site
Friday, November 05, 2010 Laurel Garver
It's the first Friday of a new month, and that means ART, baby! Philadelphia's art galleries in Olde City hold their monthly First Friday event, with new shows opening, later gallery closing times, meet and greets and refreshments. It's a fun, invigorating environment to hop into. Buskers pop up all over the neighborhood and local artisans--especially young students--hawk their wares from rickety card tables or blankets spread on the sidewalks.

The art world is one I love exploring, so of course my MC is an artist. Some of that choice of passion/career aspiration was thematic. She mentally rearranges what she sees so she can draw it the way she wants. But she also uses art to speak truth into the world. It's a gift I admire. One I wish I had.

I've loved drawing since I was quite young and took three years of art in high school. But honestly, I was just a dabbler. I could render a likeness with some competence, but narrating the world in image? I don't have the right kind of brain for it. Not visual enough. I can't follow those Ikea directions that are all pictures--I need words.

So writing Dani is my entree into being something I'm not, but wish I were. Tonight I'll rub elbows with the cool crowd and tell my daughter what's impressive about this technique or that composition. My artist wannabe self will fill up and I'll have more to pour into Dani.

What passion or skill have you given to a character that you wish you had?

Image from Hyatt's concierge.com site

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Alliterative Allomorph Jessica Bell, everyone's favorite Aussie ex-pat, is having a big, shiny giveaway of amazon.com gift cards. This one's open to international entries--good thing since Jessica lives in Greece.

Click HERE to learn more and enter. Go check it out!

And don't you love her theme?

What little things do you want to celebrate?
Thursday, November 04, 2010 Laurel Garver
The Alliterative Allomorph Jessica Bell, everyone's favorite Aussie ex-pat, is having a big, shiny giveaway of amazon.com gift cards. This one's open to international entries--good thing since Jessica lives in Greece.

Click HERE to learn more and enter. Go check it out!

And don't you love her theme?

What little things do you want to celebrate?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Getting out from under a work deadline has been incredibly freeing. And so has committing myself to NaBalWriMo, my experiment in "filling up" in a period of burnout.

I got in a bike ride with hobbit girl yesterday and she was quite impressed, since I haven't ridden in over a decade. That old adage about never forgetting how to ride is totally true. My muscles were remembering all my best bike memories. The summer between eighth and ninth grade, for example, I biked 10 miles nearly every day going to visit my BF Becky and her new horse, Chess. I liked to imagine my silver 10-speed was a dapple grey gelding named Strider. Unlike Chess, he never tried to throw me. Chess was green-broke, and I don't know what Becky's parents were thinking buying such an animal for a 14-y0.

But I digress. And I have to say it's an exceptionally good sign I'm able to do so. A week ago I was so fried, I could not have called up a memory from that era.

I did some quality writing yesterday on a scene I've been stuck on for ages. As Anne Lamott said, sometimes you just have to try things. Four hundred words later, I feel like energy is coming back in this project I'd begun to despair about.

Film time with hubby was the most surprising part of the day. We'd had this Argentinian Netflix pick "The Secret in Their Eyes" sitting around for two weeks unwatched. The fact it was about a writer researching and writing a novel appealed to me. The description on the sleeve was rather offputting, though:

"A startling discovery comes to light for retired Argentine criminal investigator Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) as he pens a biographical novel about the unsolved case of a young newlywed's brutal r*pe and murder years ago. Past and present intertwine for Espósito and colleague Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) in director Juan José Campanella's Oscar-winning character study in which justice, pain and love collide."

I generally avoid movies with the word "brutal" anywhere in the description. I have to say, however, that this film approached a heinous crime with such sensitivity and emotional beauty. What matters is how deeply concerned the protagonist is with seeing justice served for the victim and the husband she left behind.

As a writer, I was especially interested in the protagonist's grappling with the aesthetic and ethical implications of fictionally "doing justice" to this case that has haunted and shaped his life.

The cinematography draws you in right away. Arty scenes suddenly cut to Benjamín crossing out lines and crumpling pages. He tries opening after opening--something I could totally relate to, even if my genre isn't crime fiction.

The film switches back and forth in time. In the present, a retired Benjamín writes and researches his novel and tries to make sense of his past. In flashbacks, younger Benjamín the legal counselor gets drawn into a case that is bungled by his superiors. He and a colleague (to whom he's obviously attracted) work to solve the crime and bring the killer to justice.

Justice, and how it is intertwined with love and fear (and love with fear) becomes the thematic thread linking the case, Benjamín's novel and Benjamín's search for meaning as he enters old age. Several very clever literary leitmotifs echo among the story lines. In the end, Benjamín must learn to reinterpret and re-narrate his own life. It's a powerful picture of how writing shapes the writer.
Have you tried something new lately? What pleasant surprises have resulted?
Wednesday, November 03, 2010 Laurel Garver
Getting out from under a work deadline has been incredibly freeing. And so has committing myself to NaBalWriMo, my experiment in "filling up" in a period of burnout.

I got in a bike ride with hobbit girl yesterday and she was quite impressed, since I haven't ridden in over a decade. That old adage about never forgetting how to ride is totally true. My muscles were remembering all my best bike memories. The summer between eighth and ninth grade, for example, I biked 10 miles nearly every day going to visit my BF Becky and her new horse, Chess. I liked to imagine my silver 10-speed was a dapple grey gelding named Strider. Unlike Chess, he never tried to throw me. Chess was green-broke, and I don't know what Becky's parents were thinking buying such an animal for a 14-y0.

But I digress. And I have to say it's an exceptionally good sign I'm able to do so. A week ago I was so fried, I could not have called up a memory from that era.

I did some quality writing yesterday on a scene I've been stuck on for ages. As Anne Lamott said, sometimes you just have to try things. Four hundred words later, I feel like energy is coming back in this project I'd begun to despair about.

Film time with hubby was the most surprising part of the day. We'd had this Argentinian Netflix pick "The Secret in Their Eyes" sitting around for two weeks unwatched. The fact it was about a writer researching and writing a novel appealed to me. The description on the sleeve was rather offputting, though:

"A startling discovery comes to light for retired Argentine criminal investigator Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) as he pens a biographical novel about the unsolved case of a young newlywed's brutal r*pe and murder years ago. Past and present intertwine for Espósito and colleague Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) in director Juan José Campanella's Oscar-winning character study in which justice, pain and love collide."

I generally avoid movies with the word "brutal" anywhere in the description. I have to say, however, that this film approached a heinous crime with such sensitivity and emotional beauty. What matters is how deeply concerned the protagonist is with seeing justice served for the victim and the husband she left behind.

As a writer, I was especially interested in the protagonist's grappling with the aesthetic and ethical implications of fictionally "doing justice" to this case that has haunted and shaped his life.

The cinematography draws you in right away. Arty scenes suddenly cut to Benjamín crossing out lines and crumpling pages. He tries opening after opening--something I could totally relate to, even if my genre isn't crime fiction.

The film switches back and forth in time. In the present, a retired Benjamín writes and researches his novel and tries to make sense of his past. In flashbacks, younger Benjamín the legal counselor gets drawn into a case that is bungled by his superiors. He and a colleague (to whom he's obviously attracted) work to solve the crime and bring the killer to justice.

Justice, and how it is intertwined with love and fear (and love with fear) becomes the thematic thread linking the case, Benjamín's novel and Benjamín's search for meaning as he enters old age. Several very clever literary leitmotifs echo among the story lines. In the end, Benjamín must learn to reinterpret and re-narrate his own life. It's a powerful picture of how writing shapes the writer.
Have you tried something new lately? What pleasant surprises have resulted?

Monday, November 01, 2010

For some of us, November isn't the month to become drafting warriors. Perhaps you're in the midst of querying and have a draft underway, or have been revising a while and need to maintain momentum. Or maybe you're just a bit tired, period, and haven't been able to write much of anything for a while.

I'm in categories A and C. And it's the latter area that concerns me. It's not block, it's burnout. What I need is time to fill up and recharge.

I propose a month of creativity-building and moving forward on existing work as new energy comes. I'm calling it

NaBalWriMo
National Balanced Writers Month
more creativity, less guilt

If you're interested in joining the fun this month, let me know. Then post your own goals and the small step you plan to take. You can read mine HERE.

What are you up to this November? Want to be my NaBalWriMo buddy?
Monday, November 01, 2010 Laurel Garver
For some of us, November isn't the month to become drafting warriors. Perhaps you're in the midst of querying and have a draft underway, or have been revising a while and need to maintain momentum. Or maybe you're just a bit tired, period, and haven't been able to write much of anything for a while.

I'm in categories A and C. And it's the latter area that concerns me. It's not block, it's burnout. What I need is time to fill up and recharge.

I propose a month of creativity-building and moving forward on existing work as new energy comes. I'm calling it

NaBalWriMo
National Balanced Writers Month
more creativity, less guilt

If you're interested in joining the fun this month, let me know. Then post your own goals and the small step you plan to take. You can read mine HERE.

What are you up to this November? Want to be my NaBalWriMo buddy?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Many of you are on board with a NaNoWriMo alternative in which we DON'T push ourselves to the brink of insanity drafting 50K words in a month (kudos to those who do--there's a great site with support and accountability all ready for you).

Rather than call it something negative, like NaNo-No, which I did jokingly in a previous post, I'd love this to be a positive, fun, relaxed, 30-day creativity-enriching experience, so I'm dubbing it:

NaBalWriMo
National Balanced Writers Month
More creativity, less guilt!

If you're up for it, please take a moment to think about places in your life that feel out of balance, and share your list of a few simple things you'd like to try to regain sanity and creative joy this month. We can cheer each other on! I'll go first.

My November goals:

-To be more emotionally present, especially to family
-To have more energy
-To recharge spiritually and emotionally
-To explore deeply some themes that I care about
-To rediscover the joy of creating
-To offer encouragement to other writers
-To maintain momentum with querying

And my "action items"
(to steal from boring corporate training I've sat through):

-Write one page a day of memories or notes or wordplay
-Watch lots of movies
-Read widely and with relish
-Have coffee with a friend
-Do a messy craft with hobbit girl weekly
-Walk the dog 4x week on the hiking trails nearby
-Blog some journal explorations and fun stuff
-Cheer on my NaNoWriMo, NaNoWraMo and NaNoRevMo pals
-Query 10 more agents

Anyone up for designing a badge? Let me know that you did and I'll send folks over to copy it and display with pride.

What do you think of the concept? Let me know if you're planning to join in NaBalWriMo!
Saturday, October 30, 2010 Laurel Garver
Many of you are on board with a NaNoWriMo alternative in which we DON'T push ourselves to the brink of insanity drafting 50K words in a month (kudos to those who do--there's a great site with support and accountability all ready for you).

Rather than call it something negative, like NaNo-No, which I did jokingly in a previous post, I'd love this to be a positive, fun, relaxed, 30-day creativity-enriching experience, so I'm dubbing it:

NaBalWriMo
National Balanced Writers Month
More creativity, less guilt!

If you're up for it, please take a moment to think about places in your life that feel out of balance, and share your list of a few simple things you'd like to try to regain sanity and creative joy this month. We can cheer each other on! I'll go first.

My November goals:

-To be more emotionally present, especially to family
-To have more energy
-To recharge spiritually and emotionally
-To explore deeply some themes that I care about
-To rediscover the joy of creating
-To offer encouragement to other writers
-To maintain momentum with querying

And my "action items"
(to steal from boring corporate training I've sat through):

-Write one page a day of memories or notes or wordplay
-Watch lots of movies
-Read widely and with relish
-Have coffee with a friend
-Do a messy craft with hobbit girl weekly
-Walk the dog 4x week on the hiking trails nearby
-Blog some journal explorations and fun stuff
-Cheer on my NaNoWriMo, NaNoWraMo and NaNoRevMo pals
-Query 10 more agents

Anyone up for designing a badge? Let me know that you did and I'll send folks over to copy it and display with pride.

What do you think of the concept? Let me know if you're planning to join in NaBalWriMo!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The interwebs are all abuzz with the approach of November, which for many will mean NaNoWriMo: an intense 30 days of drafting something completely new, very fast, with built-in support and accountability. Intense bursts can be a wonderful thing for getting a draft underway, and if you're the sort that can schedule that kind of intense creativity, kudos to you.

There are a few alternate November support/accountability groups forming for those not starting a draft from scratch.

Sara McClung is gathering writers needing an intense burst to wrap up a manuscript in progress. It's called NaNoWraMo. Go check out her site to learn more.

I've heard buzz from many quarters about spending the month revising, or NaNoRevMo. If anyone knows who's spearheading support/accountability for this, let me know in the comments.

For me, it's going to be NaNo-No. This is simply not the time to disappear from my family. Fall never is. My husband has an insane teaching load--165 students this semester, with a grading load that would make you weep. My daughter's teacher called this AM to discuss all the emotional problems hobbit girl is having at school. I can't help but think a lot more Mommy time would do her some good.

It's all about balance. I plan to go on querying my finished book and continue researching and drafting my second. I'll be blogging as I'm able and baking more cookies, building more forts, taking more hikes and playing more board games.

Anyone else saying "no" to NaNo this year? Want to be my buddy? What shall we call ourselves?
Friday, October 29, 2010 Laurel Garver
The interwebs are all abuzz with the approach of November, which for many will mean NaNoWriMo: an intense 30 days of drafting something completely new, very fast, with built-in support and accountability. Intense bursts can be a wonderful thing for getting a draft underway, and if you're the sort that can schedule that kind of intense creativity, kudos to you.

There are a few alternate November support/accountability groups forming for those not starting a draft from scratch.

Sara McClung is gathering writers needing an intense burst to wrap up a manuscript in progress. It's called NaNoWraMo. Go check out her site to learn more.

I've heard buzz from many quarters about spending the month revising, or NaNoRevMo. If anyone knows who's spearheading support/accountability for this, let me know in the comments.

For me, it's going to be NaNo-No. This is simply not the time to disappear from my family. Fall never is. My husband has an insane teaching load--165 students this semester, with a grading load that would make you weep. My daughter's teacher called this AM to discuss all the emotional problems hobbit girl is having at school. I can't help but think a lot more Mommy time would do her some good.

It's all about balance. I plan to go on querying my finished book and continue researching and drafting my second. I'll be blogging as I'm able and baking more cookies, building more forts, taking more hikes and playing more board games.

Anyone else saying "no" to NaNo this year? Want to be my buddy? What shall we call ourselves?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

We all get stuck at times, find our productivity come to a screeching--or sputtering--halt. In THIS previous post, I discussed one of the causes--hitting walls because we hadn't let our intuition guide the process and had taken the story in the wrong direction.

In the comments on that post, I got the sense that walls are not as common as desert times for making us unproductive. So what is this phenomenon--"desert" writer's block?

Image from weathersavvy.com.

Desert

"The word block suggests you are constipated or stuck, when in truth you are empty."
--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 178.


"You're blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn't abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn't stop writing. You can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance."
--Robert McKee, Story 73-74

We've all been there--somehow stuck in a place where you're plumb out of ideas. This place feels hot and parched and lifeless--desert-like. Entering a desert usually looks like the following:

- Your characters are faceless mannequins.
- The story setting is a big white box.
- Your characters slump around looking bored.
- The sound loop is your head is chirping crickets, or some really annoying pop song with unintelligible words.
- When you sit down to write, the only word that comes to mind is "waffles."
- You can't blog, tweet or update your Facebook status.
- Your house is exceptionally clean.

Lamott says that you need to accept that these desert times are going to come. In that acceptance, you free yourself to begin filling up again. When the Israelites let the pillar of cloud and fire lead them, God sent them the resources they needed--manna to fell from the sky, water gushed from a rock. The fact was, they couldn't get to the Promised Land on their own--they needed divine intervention. So do we. Call it "the muse," one's "inner light," "intuition," "unconscious mind," "talent" or "the Holy Spirit"--the sources of creativity need freedom and care and feeding.

So how do you allow the empty places to refill? Acceptance, as Lamott says, is a huge piece of it. If you try to push, "Your unconscious can't work when you are breathing down it's neck" (Lamott, 182). She suggests writing 300 words a day culling your memories--just rough journaling to keep you loose. Then seek things that feed you--walks, visits with friends, reading lots of great and terrible books, go to museums and historic sites.

McKee's advice is strikingly similar. He suggests research as a way of filling up in empty times: "No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression."

Veronica Roth had a great post on this same concept, "Not Writing, or Why Your Brain Is an Ice Cream Maker."

In other news, I just won my very own copy of Lamott's wonderful book from C.A. Marshall. Go check out her fabulous blog!

What things have helped feed you in empty, desert times? What new thing might you try based on Lamott's and McKee's advice?
Thursday, October 28, 2010 Laurel Garver
We all get stuck at times, find our productivity come to a screeching--or sputtering--halt. In THIS previous post, I discussed one of the causes--hitting walls because we hadn't let our intuition guide the process and had taken the story in the wrong direction.

In the comments on that post, I got the sense that walls are not as common as desert times for making us unproductive. So what is this phenomenon--"desert" writer's block?

Image from weathersavvy.com.

Desert

"The word block suggests you are constipated or stuck, when in truth you are empty."
--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird 178.


"You're blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn't abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn't stop writing. You can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance."
--Robert McKee, Story 73-74

We've all been there--somehow stuck in a place where you're plumb out of ideas. This place feels hot and parched and lifeless--desert-like. Entering a desert usually looks like the following:

- Your characters are faceless mannequins.
- The story setting is a big white box.
- Your characters slump around looking bored.
- The sound loop is your head is chirping crickets, or some really annoying pop song with unintelligible words.
- When you sit down to write, the only word that comes to mind is "waffles."
- You can't blog, tweet or update your Facebook status.
- Your house is exceptionally clean.

Lamott says that you need to accept that these desert times are going to come. In that acceptance, you free yourself to begin filling up again. When the Israelites let the pillar of cloud and fire lead them, God sent them the resources they needed--manna to fell from the sky, water gushed from a rock. The fact was, they couldn't get to the Promised Land on their own--they needed divine intervention. So do we. Call it "the muse," one's "inner light," "intuition," "unconscious mind," "talent" or "the Holy Spirit"--the sources of creativity need freedom and care and feeding.

So how do you allow the empty places to refill? Acceptance, as Lamott says, is a huge piece of it. If you try to push, "Your unconscious can't work when you are breathing down it's neck" (Lamott, 182). She suggests writing 300 words a day culling your memories--just rough journaling to keep you loose. Then seek things that feed you--walks, visits with friends, reading lots of great and terrible books, go to museums and historic sites.

McKee's advice is strikingly similar. He suggests research as a way of filling up in empty times: "No matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression."

Veronica Roth had a great post on this same concept, "Not Writing, or Why Your Brain Is an Ice Cream Maker."

In other news, I just won my very own copy of Lamott's wonderful book from C.A. Marshall. Go check out her fabulous blog!

What things have helped feed you in empty, desert times? What new thing might you try based on Lamott's and McKee's advice?