Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I love my critique group. They're gifted and enthusiastic and most of all, thoughtful. They've given me the courage to take big risks in my writing, but they also won't settle for less than the best from me.

The manuscript I've been plugging away at diligently seemed to me to hit a bump in the "break into act 2" --that moment when the protagonist moves out of the known setting and into the unknown. When my group told me this scene wasn't really grabbing them, I had to agree. It wasn't grabbing me, either.

My character walks into the setting of a grandparent who hoards. And if you've ever seen more than one episode of Hoarders, you know there's something fascinatingly pathological about the phenomenon. But random piles of stuff stacked to the ceiling  isn't actually that interesting to read about.

photo by Marcin Modestowics, morguefile.com
I needed to dig deeper. Because this grandparent is at the epicenter of a lot of family dysfunction. What he hoards (and how he hides it) needs to communicate information about the roots of his anxiety and how other family members were effected by it.

The more I've researched the psychology at play in this family, the more ideas began to suggest themselves. I have a better sense of ways to make this setting stand out, to communicate volumes with a few well-chosen details. Much of the research actually upended my understanding of this grandparent's inner workings.

If you find yourself at a loss about how to make a setting that matters, I suggest going deeper with your characters. Beyond the obvious. What drives them? What are their aspirations? How do they like to present themselves to the world? How divergent are their inner and public personas? What past wound to they expend energy hiding or compensating for?

One of the most powerful examples of a telling character/setting connection I can think of is J.K. Rowling's Dolores Umbridge. Everywhere she goes, she works hard to put forward an image of sweet femininity, dressing always in pink, wearing a girlish bow in her hair and speaking in a high-pitched childish voice. She decorates her public reception area in rose, puce, and petal, and prominently features frolicking kittens. She likes to appear tame and cute. What better disguise for an ambitious female in a chauvinistic world? She's every bit as ambitious and cunning (and sadistic) as the men around her, but she knows these traits are shunned in women. So she takes on an uber-feminine, uber-girly princess-and-tea-parties persona as a smokescreen.

Had Rowling made Umbridge a bit more like Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's Matilda, she wouldn't be quite as chilling. And certainly not sophisticated enough a villain for as grand and mature a series as Harry Potter.

Go deeper in understanding your characters' psychology, and stand out settings and details will begin to suggest themselves to you, too.

In what books or films have you found the settings and details psychologically interesting? How might you pump up your work with details that play against expectation or serve as a smokescreen?
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 Laurel Garver
I love my critique group. They're gifted and enthusiastic and most of all, thoughtful. They've given me the courage to take big risks in my writing, but they also won't settle for less than the best from me.

The manuscript I've been plugging away at diligently seemed to me to hit a bump in the "break into act 2" --that moment when the protagonist moves out of the known setting and into the unknown. When my group told me this scene wasn't really grabbing them, I had to agree. It wasn't grabbing me, either.

My character walks into the setting of a grandparent who hoards. And if you've ever seen more than one episode of Hoarders, you know there's something fascinatingly pathological about the phenomenon. But random piles of stuff stacked to the ceiling  isn't actually that interesting to read about.

photo by Marcin Modestowics, morguefile.com
I needed to dig deeper. Because this grandparent is at the epicenter of a lot of family dysfunction. What he hoards (and how he hides it) needs to communicate information about the roots of his anxiety and how other family members were effected by it.

The more I've researched the psychology at play in this family, the more ideas began to suggest themselves. I have a better sense of ways to make this setting stand out, to communicate volumes with a few well-chosen details. Much of the research actually upended my understanding of this grandparent's inner workings.

If you find yourself at a loss about how to make a setting that matters, I suggest going deeper with your characters. Beyond the obvious. What drives them? What are their aspirations? How do they like to present themselves to the world? How divergent are their inner and public personas? What past wound to they expend energy hiding or compensating for?

One of the most powerful examples of a telling character/setting connection I can think of is J.K. Rowling's Dolores Umbridge. Everywhere she goes, she works hard to put forward an image of sweet femininity, dressing always in pink, wearing a girlish bow in her hair and speaking in a high-pitched childish voice. She decorates her public reception area in rose, puce, and petal, and prominently features frolicking kittens. She likes to appear tame and cute. What better disguise for an ambitious female in a chauvinistic world? She's every bit as ambitious and cunning (and sadistic) as the men around her, but she knows these traits are shunned in women. So she takes on an uber-feminine, uber-girly princess-and-tea-parties persona as a smokescreen.

Had Rowling made Umbridge a bit more like Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's Matilda, she wouldn't be quite as chilling. And certainly not sophisticated enough a villain for as grand and mature a series as Harry Potter.

Go deeper in understanding your characters' psychology, and stand out settings and details will begin to suggest themselves to you, too.

In what books or films have you found the settings and details psychologically interesting? How might you pump up your work with details that play against expectation or serve as a smokescreen?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What's the difference between a story you poke away at aimlessly when the fancy strikes, and one that dogs you when you're going about your business, haunts your dreams and waking life alike?

The obvious answer would be passion. The stories one is passionate about may be easier to write (or harder), and they have an amazing way of grabbing readers and pulling them deep into your story world.

The funny thing is, stories that tap into our passions don't tend to just fall in our laps. At least, not very often. Passion-based stories sometimes require hunting and soul-work.

There are some great places to begin the search for your passions.
church window, Stow-on-the-Wold

1. Gather twenty of your favorite books or films. Seek commonalities among them. What made these stories resonate for you? Did they have a similar subject matter? Kind of protagonist? Emotional range? Plot set-up? Theme?

2. Write out some of you deepest beliefs. Imagine scenarios in which those values would be challenged or questioned.

   My novel Never Gone, for example, explores with how a teen attempts to reconcile her Christian beliefs about the immortality of the soul with her own very raw emotions while grieving.

3. Remember some of the most intense experiences of your life--times when you learned amazing things, faced a great challenge, overcame an obstacle, shifted your entire outlook.

4. Consider your own personal struggles. What problems do you wish could be resolved yesterday? What hardships in the past have shaped you most? What kind of topics in a bookstore's self-help section grab your attention?

5. Visit news sites. Note which stories you have a visceral reaction to, be it anger, sadness, disgust, excitement, or an itch to learn more.

If you are able to combine two or more of these areas, chances are you'll tap more deeply into subjects and themes that will grab your imagination hard and not let it go. Stories with that kind of passionate drive at their center are what readers want most.

How do you typically generate story ideas? Which ways might you try to identify subjects and themes you're passionate about?
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 Laurel Garver
What's the difference between a story you poke away at aimlessly when the fancy strikes, and one that dogs you when you're going about your business, haunts your dreams and waking life alike?

The obvious answer would be passion. The stories one is passionate about may be easier to write (or harder), and they have an amazing way of grabbing readers and pulling them deep into your story world.

The funny thing is, stories that tap into our passions don't tend to just fall in our laps. At least, not very often. Passion-based stories sometimes require hunting and soul-work.

There are some great places to begin the search for your passions.
church window, Stow-on-the-Wold

1. Gather twenty of your favorite books or films. Seek commonalities among them. What made these stories resonate for you? Did they have a similar subject matter? Kind of protagonist? Emotional range? Plot set-up? Theme?

2. Write out some of you deepest beliefs. Imagine scenarios in which those values would be challenged or questioned.

   My novel Never Gone, for example, explores with how a teen attempts to reconcile her Christian beliefs about the immortality of the soul with her own very raw emotions while grieving.

3. Remember some of the most intense experiences of your life--times when you learned amazing things, faced a great challenge, overcame an obstacle, shifted your entire outlook.

4. Consider your own personal struggles. What problems do you wish could be resolved yesterday? What hardships in the past have shaped you most? What kind of topics in a bookstore's self-help section grab your attention?

5. Visit news sites. Note which stories you have a visceral reaction to, be it anger, sadness, disgust, excitement, or an itch to learn more.

If you are able to combine two or more of these areas, chances are you'll tap more deeply into subjects and themes that will grab your imagination hard and not let it go. Stories with that kind of passionate drive at their center are what readers want most.

How do you typically generate story ideas? Which ways might you try to identify subjects and themes you're passionate about?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dear Blog,

It's not you, it's me. I've been seeing other loves. Specifically a manuscript I started in 2008 and feared I'd never finish. I've written two and a half chapters since I got back from vacation July first. 

I know. I can't believe it either. But I have fans now, Blog, and they want to read novels from me, not merely shop talk and writing tips.

There, there, Blog. I know my writing tips have fans too. And I promise we'll work together to create a book just for them. But not this month. 

I haven't been this prolific in years. And if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that you need to stay focused when a story gels and you know exactly what will happen in the next nine scenes.

So, Blog, I will be giving you a bit of a summer vacation. I'll catch you every Wednesday. In September, we'll celebrate our fifth anniversary belatedly. Because the celebration deserves some forethought, and that will have to come later.

You're the best, Blog! Have a great summer!

All best,
Laurel

=====

Yule Ball ice sculpture
And for your entertainment, a meme I picked up from Margo Berendsen (with my photos from the Harry Potter studio tour in England):

Would you rather go to prom with Harry, Draco or Ron?
Neville. Definitely Neville. The most underrated guy at Hogwarts. And forget the prom. I want the Yule Ball.

Would you rather be sorted into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin?
I usually sort as Ravenclaw, but I have Hufflepuff tendencies (liking comfort and routine).

Would you rather explore the forbidden forest or the halls of Hogwarts?
Having seen the scale model in the UK, I think it would take months to explore all of Hogwarts. I'd love meeting all the people in the portraits.

Would you rather enroll in Potions, Charms, Divination or Defense Against The Dark Arts?
Probably Charms. I'd likely do fine in Potions (chem was one of my best subjects), but I don't like the dark, gloomy lab.

Would you rather buy an owl, cat, rat or toad?
I love my kitties, but there's something magnetic about owls: so serene, so elegant. 

Would you rather have in possession: the elder wand, resurrection stone, or the cloak of invisibility?
Wizard chess, anyone?
The invisibility cloak would be nifty, but I could most use the ability to apparate. Never be late or stuck in traffic again!

Would you rather be tutored by Luna Lovegood or Hermione Granger?
Luna would frustrate me. My mind works more like Hermione's. 

Would you rather, in the final battle, fight against Nagini (the snake) or Bellatrix?
Nagini, because even if he taunted me, I wouldn't understand it. 

Would you rather fight a basilisk or a dragon?
A dragon, but only if I had Hiccup's help. Oh wait, that's another mythology. 

Fred and George at the Burrow
Would you rather be a part of the Malfoy family or Weasley family?
The Weasleys. I'm already accustomed to big, noisy families (I'm the youngest of 5).

Would you rather have a butterbeer or pumpkin juice?
Butterbeer sounds more appealing. 

Would you rather fly on a broomstick, Hagrid's motorbike or Buckbeak?
I'm torn. The motorbike seems the most stable, but Buckbeak is so beautiful.

Would you rather have a conversation with Daniel Radcliffe or J.K. Rowling?
Definitely the author. I'd love to know how she kept all these complex plot threads organized.

Feel free to do the meme on your own blog! 

===

Have you ever needed to step away from your blogging responsibilities for a while? How did you manage it?

Which of my answers to the HP meme surprised you most? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 Laurel Garver
Dear Blog,

It's not you, it's me. I've been seeing other loves. Specifically a manuscript I started in 2008 and feared I'd never finish. I've written two and a half chapters since I got back from vacation July first. 

I know. I can't believe it either. But I have fans now, Blog, and they want to read novels from me, not merely shop talk and writing tips.

There, there, Blog. I know my writing tips have fans too. And I promise we'll work together to create a book just for them. But not this month. 

I haven't been this prolific in years. And if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that you need to stay focused when a story gels and you know exactly what will happen in the next nine scenes.

So, Blog, I will be giving you a bit of a summer vacation. I'll catch you every Wednesday. In September, we'll celebrate our fifth anniversary belatedly. Because the celebration deserves some forethought, and that will have to come later.

You're the best, Blog! Have a great summer!

All best,
Laurel

=====

Yule Ball ice sculpture
And for your entertainment, a meme I picked up from Margo Berendsen (with my photos from the Harry Potter studio tour in England):

Would you rather go to prom with Harry, Draco or Ron?
Neville. Definitely Neville. The most underrated guy at Hogwarts. And forget the prom. I want the Yule Ball.

Would you rather be sorted into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin?
I usually sort as Ravenclaw, but I have Hufflepuff tendencies (liking comfort and routine).

Would you rather explore the forbidden forest or the halls of Hogwarts?
Having seen the scale model in the UK, I think it would take months to explore all of Hogwarts. I'd love meeting all the people in the portraits.

Would you rather enroll in Potions, Charms, Divination or Defense Against The Dark Arts?
Probably Charms. I'd likely do fine in Potions (chem was one of my best subjects), but I don't like the dark, gloomy lab.

Would you rather buy an owl, cat, rat or toad?
I love my kitties, but there's something magnetic about owls: so serene, so elegant. 

Would you rather have in possession: the elder wand, resurrection stone, or the cloak of invisibility?
Wizard chess, anyone?
The invisibility cloak would be nifty, but I could most use the ability to apparate. Never be late or stuck in traffic again!

Would you rather be tutored by Luna Lovegood or Hermione Granger?
Luna would frustrate me. My mind works more like Hermione's. 

Would you rather, in the final battle, fight against Nagini (the snake) or Bellatrix?
Nagini, because even if he taunted me, I wouldn't understand it. 

Would you rather fight a basilisk or a dragon?
A dragon, but only if I had Hiccup's help. Oh wait, that's another mythology. 

Fred and George at the Burrow
Would you rather be a part of the Malfoy family or Weasley family?
The Weasleys. I'm already accustomed to big, noisy families (I'm the youngest of 5).

Would you rather have a butterbeer or pumpkin juice?
Butterbeer sounds more appealing. 

Would you rather fly on a broomstick, Hagrid's motorbike or Buckbeak?
I'm torn. The motorbike seems the most stable, but Buckbeak is so beautiful.

Would you rather have a conversation with Daniel Radcliffe or J.K. Rowling?
Definitely the author. I'd love to know how she kept all these complex plot threads organized.

Feel free to do the meme on your own blog! 

===

Have you ever needed to step away from your blogging responsibilities for a while? How did you manage it?

Which of my answers to the HP meme surprised you most? 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

While copy editing at work, I came across a quote by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) that hits on something important about the intersection of setting and character.

After all anybody is as their
land and air is. Anybody
is as the sky is low or high,
the air heavy or clean
and anybody is as there
is wind or no wind there.
It is that which makes them
and the arts they make
and the work they do
and the way they eat
and the way they drink
and the way they learn
and everything.

--Gertrude Stein,
“An American and France”
(1936), n.p.; line breaks added

To paraphrase--
Where you are makes you who you are.

At a recent picnic, my friend Shareen spoke of loving to visit the American West and feeling most at home in wide-open spaces under an endless sky. She grew up in Africa's vast grasslands. And she made it sound so very compelling. But alas, I'd feel exposed and terrified in Shareen's grasslands. I grew up in a river valley surrounded by mid-size eastern mountains and lush forests. She'd likely feel claustrophobic and oppressed where I feel safe and free.

What feels safe or good or beautiful or desirable is something shaped in profound ways by setting, by milieu (that is, the larger context of social relationships within a setting). Whether your character wears her nails natural or paints them black, fire-engine red or pale mauve is shaped by where she comes from. Whether he drinks Coors or Courvoisier is likewise due in part to his milieu.

Granted, we live in a very mobile society. People often leave their home settings in young adulthood, never to return. But Stein draws us back to the truth that "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." In the best characterizations, the person's roots will show, often in subtle ways--a silent head-bow before a meal, the secret stash of CDs, an odd rock used as a paperweight.

As you develop characters, remember to think about where they come from and how the current setting fits or doesn't fit with that early experience. Let that homeland be the filter through which they imagine and make mental associations and draw colorful metaphors and similes. Let it shape their choice of housing and hobbies and confidantes.

What are some of your favorite characters shaped by their setting? How might you try to show setting shaping your characters?
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 Laurel Garver
While copy editing at work, I came across a quote by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) that hits on something important about the intersection of setting and character.

After all anybody is as their
land and air is. Anybody
is as the sky is low or high,
the air heavy or clean
and anybody is as there
is wind or no wind there.
It is that which makes them
and the arts they make
and the work they do
and the way they eat
and the way they drink
and the way they learn
and everything.

--Gertrude Stein,
“An American and France”
(1936), n.p.; line breaks added

To paraphrase--
Where you are makes you who you are.

At a recent picnic, my friend Shareen spoke of loving to visit the American West and feeling most at home in wide-open spaces under an endless sky. She grew up in Africa's vast grasslands. And she made it sound so very compelling. But alas, I'd feel exposed and terrified in Shareen's grasslands. I grew up in a river valley surrounded by mid-size eastern mountains and lush forests. She'd likely feel claustrophobic and oppressed where I feel safe and free.

What feels safe or good or beautiful or desirable is something shaped in profound ways by setting, by milieu (that is, the larger context of social relationships within a setting). Whether your character wears her nails natural or paints them black, fire-engine red or pale mauve is shaped by where she comes from. Whether he drinks Coors or Courvoisier is likewise due in part to his milieu.

Granted, we live in a very mobile society. People often leave their home settings in young adulthood, never to return. But Stein draws us back to the truth that "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." In the best characterizations, the person's roots will show, often in subtle ways--a silent head-bow before a meal, the secret stash of CDs, an odd rock used as a paperweight.

As you develop characters, remember to think about where they come from and how the current setting fits or doesn't fit with that early experience. Let that homeland be the filter through which they imagine and make mental associations and draw colorful metaphors and similes. Let it shape their choice of housing and hobbies and confidantes.

What are some of your favorite characters shaped by their setting? How might you try to show setting shaping your characters?

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Oxford, where we spent our first jet-lagged day.
We returned from our UK trip yesterday evening and soldiered on valiantly to stay awake until 8 p.m. (1 a.m. UK time). I brought back a head cold with me (thanks so much, germy London Underground), along with a handful of souvenirs, many photos and a head full of great memories of our experiences.

It will take me some time to unpack it all--the laundry, the photos and memories especially. In fact, I took so many photos, I used up the last of my available space on Dropbox to store them. If any of you aren't using Dropbox to back up your work (it's a free cloud server), let me know in the comments, along with your e-mail and I'll send you an invitation. I get a little extra space for my photos with each friend who signs up. Did I mention it's free? It also allows you to easily share data on multiple computers.

I'll have immense amounts of catch-up to do at my day job this week, so please be patient with my continued relative quietness online. In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures:

detail from a building in Oxford

Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire
Stow-on-the-Wold, another Cotswold village up the road



Church doors in Stow, looking like someplace in Middle Earth



Any tips for overcoming westward jet lag? Do you use Dropbox? If you'd like to try it, please leave your e-mail address.
Tuesday, July 02, 2013 Laurel Garver
Oxford, where we spent our first jet-lagged day.
We returned from our UK trip yesterday evening and soldiered on valiantly to stay awake until 8 p.m. (1 a.m. UK time). I brought back a head cold with me (thanks so much, germy London Underground), along with a handful of souvenirs, many photos and a head full of great memories of our experiences.

It will take me some time to unpack it all--the laundry, the photos and memories especially. In fact, I took so many photos, I used up the last of my available space on Dropbox to store them. If any of you aren't using Dropbox to back up your work (it's a free cloud server), let me know in the comments, along with your e-mail and I'll send you an invitation. I get a little extra space for my photos with each friend who signs up. Did I mention it's free? It also allows you to easily share data on multiple computers.

I'll have immense amounts of catch-up to do at my day job this week, so please be patient with my continued relative quietness online. In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures:

detail from a building in Oxford

Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire
Stow-on-the-Wold, another Cotswold village up the road



Church doors in Stow, looking like someplace in Middle Earth



Any tips for overcoming westward jet lag? Do you use Dropbox? If you'd like to try it, please leave your e-mail address.