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?