Friday, January 31, 2014

When I first heard about Pharrell Williams's 24-hour long video of his hit song "Happy" I thought it sounded like a unique, new form of torture. This went way beyond earworms.

Boy was I surprised.

Opening image from the video
The video is one continuous shot of one person or small group after another lip synching to Williams's song as they move/dance through various locations in and around Los Angeles. Williams himself appears once an hour on the hour, for 24 appearances. In between, if I've done the math right, are 14 unique performances each hour. And the performers? A huge range of ages, ethnicities, and level of fitness and ability. There are amazing break-dancers and a wheelchair-bound granny. Goofy toddlers and very dignified middle-aged folks. Ballet dancers and Lindy Hoppers. Self-conscious, awkward teens and insanely unrestrained college kids. Big folks and slender ones. Black, white, Asian, Latino, and all sorts of multi-racial mixes.

A number of the voice actors from Despicable Me 2 (the song was in the sound track) and some random minions also make appearances.

Just as fun as the performers are the reactions of the people on the street watching someone dance through their neighborhood shopping district.

This is honestly people-watching gold.

You don't have to sit through the entire performance of each person to get a feel for his or her character. Navigation on the side of the page lets you skip ahead or back from one performer to the next.

You can view the video HERE.

Where you drawn to certain kinds of performers? Were your prejudices about certain groups affirmed or challenged? What would the protagonist of your story do if invited to appear in the video? 
Friday, January 31, 2014 Laurel Garver
When I first heard about Pharrell Williams's 24-hour long video of his hit song "Happy" I thought it sounded like a unique, new form of torture. This went way beyond earworms.

Boy was I surprised.

Opening image from the video
The video is one continuous shot of one person or small group after another lip synching to Williams's song as they move/dance through various locations in and around Los Angeles. Williams himself appears once an hour on the hour, for 24 appearances. In between, if I've done the math right, are 14 unique performances each hour. And the performers? A huge range of ages, ethnicities, and level of fitness and ability. There are amazing break-dancers and a wheelchair-bound granny. Goofy toddlers and very dignified middle-aged folks. Ballet dancers and Lindy Hoppers. Self-conscious, awkward teens and insanely unrestrained college kids. Big folks and slender ones. Black, white, Asian, Latino, and all sorts of multi-racial mixes.

A number of the voice actors from Despicable Me 2 (the song was in the sound track) and some random minions also make appearances.

Just as fun as the performers are the reactions of the people on the street watching someone dance through their neighborhood shopping district.

This is honestly people-watching gold.

You don't have to sit through the entire performance of each person to get a feel for his or her character. Navigation on the side of the page lets you skip ahead or back from one performer to the next.

You can view the video HERE.

Where you drawn to certain kinds of performers? Were your prejudices about certain groups affirmed or challenged? What would the protagonist of your story do if invited to appear in the video? 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

While doing a filing cabinet purge, I came across a year-in-review letter from one of the most difficult years of my adult life, 1993. I was a young, post-college girl in my first job as a reporter and editor on a trade publication for the natural gas industry. Go ahead. Laugh. The third grader inside is surely thinking about beans and bodily processes, not drilling, pipelines and seasonal fuel price spikes.

This particular year, I experienced in a somewhat literal way the effects of being "refined by fire." The now cliche phrase comes from goldsmiths who purify gold by burning away the impurities.

= = =

The Monday following the worst blizzard of winter, I was scheduled to fly to Houston to attend a trade show, The Houston Gas Fair. With every major road closed and the airport congested with three days' worth of stranded travelers, I was still able to make the flight within five minutes of takeoff [this was long before 9/11 and any airport security]. Not bad considering I had to dig my car out of 18 inches of snow, drive an icy circuitous route, pick up my boyfriend who could drive the car home, and dash like O.J. Simpson through the terminal with a suitcase, briefcase, and 2 huge displays.

Once I arrived and set up the booth, it was great fun to meet in person all the industry people I'd regularly interviewed over the phone. But as they spread the story of how I miraculously escaped the snowed-in East coast, my booth had a steady stream of new visitors wanting to hear my story. Apparently almost no one else coming from Philly, D.C., Baltimore, New York, Boston, or any other points northeast had made it to the trade show. I was feeling like the miracle girl. It wasn't until I returned to Philadelphia that I learned just how much.

The day after I returned from Texas, a high school friend called to ask how my parents were doing. I was a bit taken off guard. Was something wrong?

Yes, she informed me. Didn't I know about the two-alarm house fire?

WHAT?????

Photo credit: taliesin from morguefile.com 
It took about twenty four hours to locate my parents, in part because their home phone wasn't working and I had to rely on my high school friend to help me get phone numbers for the neighbors and my parents' pastor. [How we suffered before cell phones and the Internet!] The next-door neighbors had taken my parents in, and eventually I got to hear details.

My mother had been out of town on business and my retired father was home alone working on a project in the basement when the fire broke out. He heard a loud noise, went upstairs to investigate and immediately saw the smoke. Had it not been for that noise, he might not have escaped the fire alive.

Dad ran to neighbors' house and called the fire department. Two squads came out to put out the blaze. In the fire marshal's subsequent investigation, he concluded that arcing at an electrical outlet (when something is only partially plugged in) was crossed by a long curtain and it caught on fire. The blaze spread from there. The heat was so intense that the porcelain of the master bath toilet exploded, shoes in the closet melted, many of the windows burst.

I drove back to my hometown and spent a week helping my folks assess the damage and getting them back on their feet again. About a third of the structure sustained heavy damage and more than half of the contents were destroyed. During my time home, we dug through the sooty rubble in 30-degree temperatures and inventoried as much as we could of the destroyed contents. We also found a rental house for my parents and hired a contractor to repair the house.

The response from the neighbors and my parent's church was overwhelming. Food, clothing, household items and cash poured in. New church attendees my parents had never met appeared with casseroles and yet more clothing. Countless people pitched in with salvage, cleaning, and laundering.

Sometimes it takes a disaster to show you just how much your community loves you. That alone is priceless.

Being well insured was another gift in this particular experience. I hadn't taken all my belongings to Philadelphia with me. I lost thousands of dollars worth of books, clothes, and personal effects. The insurance payout for it became my sustenance later in the year when I got laid off from the natural gas publication and spent two months on unemployment.

Because of the fire money, I was able to move from the suburbs into the the city. I landed a far better job with excellent benefits, including tuition reimbursement. [Hello, free master's degree.]

Looking back on all this twenty-one years later, I come to a question. When things happen in your life, how do you decide whether they are good or bad?

I didn't mention that the fire, yes the fire, led my boyfriend to break it off with me because I wasn't giving him enough attention. It seemed like adding insult to injury at the time. But in hindsight, I'm glad to have gotten free of a guy who was clearly not for me in any sense.

I can see now that the persistence I learned trying to get on that plane to Houston served me well when helping my mom wade through the waist-deep charred remains of their coat closet, seeking a few less-burned fibers to identify each lost coat.

This experience helped me learn to accept the help and embrace of others. Letting others be strong for you is a gift to them. Generosity has a funny way of expanding everyone's hearts, both the receiver and the giver.

But most of all, I don't look at my circumstances now and assume they're the last word. The good times are a gift, but so are the hardships. Hardships are where real growth happens.

How have hard moments in your past shaped you?
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 Laurel Garver
While doing a filing cabinet purge, I came across a year-in-review letter from one of the most difficult years of my adult life, 1993. I was a young, post-college girl in my first job as a reporter and editor on a trade publication for the natural gas industry. Go ahead. Laugh. The third grader inside is surely thinking about beans and bodily processes, not drilling, pipelines and seasonal fuel price spikes.

This particular year, I experienced in a somewhat literal way the effects of being "refined by fire." The now cliche phrase comes from goldsmiths who purify gold by burning away the impurities.

= = =

The Monday following the worst blizzard of winter, I was scheduled to fly to Houston to attend a trade show, The Houston Gas Fair. With every major road closed and the airport congested with three days' worth of stranded travelers, I was still able to make the flight within five minutes of takeoff [this was long before 9/11 and any airport security]. Not bad considering I had to dig my car out of 18 inches of snow, drive an icy circuitous route, pick up my boyfriend who could drive the car home, and dash like O.J. Simpson through the terminal with a suitcase, briefcase, and 2 huge displays.

Once I arrived and set up the booth, it was great fun to meet in person all the industry people I'd regularly interviewed over the phone. But as they spread the story of how I miraculously escaped the snowed-in East coast, my booth had a steady stream of new visitors wanting to hear my story. Apparently almost no one else coming from Philly, D.C., Baltimore, New York, Boston, or any other points northeast had made it to the trade show. I was feeling like the miracle girl. It wasn't until I returned to Philadelphia that I learned just how much.

The day after I returned from Texas, a high school friend called to ask how my parents were doing. I was a bit taken off guard. Was something wrong?

Yes, she informed me. Didn't I know about the two-alarm house fire?

WHAT?????

Photo credit: taliesin from morguefile.com 
It took about twenty four hours to locate my parents, in part because their home phone wasn't working and I had to rely on my high school friend to help me get phone numbers for the neighbors and my parents' pastor. [How we suffered before cell phones and the Internet!] The next-door neighbors had taken my parents in, and eventually I got to hear details.

My mother had been out of town on business and my retired father was home alone working on a project in the basement when the fire broke out. He heard a loud noise, went upstairs to investigate and immediately saw the smoke. Had it not been for that noise, he might not have escaped the fire alive.

Dad ran to neighbors' house and called the fire department. Two squads came out to put out the blaze. In the fire marshal's subsequent investigation, he concluded that arcing at an electrical outlet (when something is only partially plugged in) was crossed by a long curtain and it caught on fire. The blaze spread from there. The heat was so intense that the porcelain of the master bath toilet exploded, shoes in the closet melted, many of the windows burst.

I drove back to my hometown and spent a week helping my folks assess the damage and getting them back on their feet again. About a third of the structure sustained heavy damage and more than half of the contents were destroyed. During my time home, we dug through the sooty rubble in 30-degree temperatures and inventoried as much as we could of the destroyed contents. We also found a rental house for my parents and hired a contractor to repair the house.

The response from the neighbors and my parent's church was overwhelming. Food, clothing, household items and cash poured in. New church attendees my parents had never met appeared with casseroles and yet more clothing. Countless people pitched in with salvage, cleaning, and laundering.

Sometimes it takes a disaster to show you just how much your community loves you. That alone is priceless.

Being well insured was another gift in this particular experience. I hadn't taken all my belongings to Philadelphia with me. I lost thousands of dollars worth of books, clothes, and personal effects. The insurance payout for it became my sustenance later in the year when I got laid off from the natural gas publication and spent two months on unemployment.

Because of the fire money, I was able to move from the suburbs into the the city. I landed a far better job with excellent benefits, including tuition reimbursement. [Hello, free master's degree.]

Looking back on all this twenty-one years later, I come to a question. When things happen in your life, how do you decide whether they are good or bad?

I didn't mention that the fire, yes the fire, led my boyfriend to break it off with me because I wasn't giving him enough attention. It seemed like adding insult to injury at the time. But in hindsight, I'm glad to have gotten free of a guy who was clearly not for me in any sense.

I can see now that the persistence I learned trying to get on that plane to Houston served me well when helping my mom wade through the waist-deep charred remains of their coat closet, seeking a few less-burned fibers to identify each lost coat.

This experience helped me learn to accept the help and embrace of others. Letting others be strong for you is a gift to them. Generosity has a funny way of expanding everyone's hearts, both the receiver and the giver.

But most of all, I don't look at my circumstances now and assume they're the last word. The good times are a gift, but so are the hardships. Hardships are where real growth happens.

How have hard moments in your past shaped you?

Friday, January 24, 2014


In my previous posts in this mini-series, I discussed why insta-love is an ineffective way to build a romance plot, and suggested some alternate first-meet reactions other than immediate true love.

Today I'd like to append that list with three more creative first-meets to add to your romance toolbox.

Insta-awww

image: www.prevention.com

In the novel Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell sets the scene of schoolbus heirarchy, and the hero Park's tenuous position within it. She then introduces Eleanor as someone whose total lack of fashion sense will make her an easy target for bullies. Park studies her, describing her not in a cruel way, but with a kind of softly analytic approach. He sees vulnerability and worries for her: "She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn't survive in the wild" (Eleanor and Park 8).

You might say his first impression is concern, compassion, or even pity. Feelings that make you say "Awww."

This kind of first-meet is often instrumental in friendships. Think of how Buffy first meets Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Queen Bee Cordelia has taken Buffy under her wing, and walks her through the school, pausing to bully Willow at a drinking fountain. Buffy stands by, helpless, as Cordelia spews a snotty put-down at the brainy nerd girl. But as a vulnerable outsider herself, Buffy connects with Willow in that moment and later seeks her out for friendship.

Insta-aww was a fairly common  first meet emotion for the nurse romance genre, in which the spunky caregiver would fall for a brave patient. Today you're most likely to find it in Christian fiction, especially historical settings where the heroine is struggling through some kind of hardship. The hero will see her plight, worry for her, and want to help.

Fish-in-a-bucket


Pull two "fish" out of their natural habitat and toss them into the same "bucket" and they are likely to bond with one another. The shared sense of being outsiders, and shared experience of trying to survive hardship will create connection. Think of the romances that develop on reality TV competitions like Survivor. Think of Anne Frank, hiding from the Nazis and pining for the boy she left on the outside, stuck for years in a tiny, hidden apartment with Peter Van Daan. It's no surprise the two develop a romantic attachment.

You, too?


Sometimes the "out of water" isn't quite so extreme as fish-in-a-bucket scenarios. Two characters might both be new arrivals at a venue that offers a benefit, such as drama club or Narc Anon or the honors dorm. The location will indicate that they have some similarity, such as thespian leanings, a desire to overcome addiction, or top marks, in the cases of my previous examples. Knowing that the other has at least one shared value removes a barrier and can open the way for other kinds of attraction.

What are some of your favorite books, films or shows that portray insta-aww, fish-in-a-bucket or "you, too?" first meets?
Friday, January 24, 2014 Laurel Garver

In my previous posts in this mini-series, I discussed why insta-love is an ineffective way to build a romance plot, and suggested some alternate first-meet reactions other than immediate true love.

Today I'd like to append that list with three more creative first-meets to add to your romance toolbox.

Insta-awww

image: www.prevention.com

In the novel Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell sets the scene of schoolbus heirarchy, and the hero Park's tenuous position within it. She then introduces Eleanor as someone whose total lack of fashion sense will make her an easy target for bullies. Park studies her, describing her not in a cruel way, but with a kind of softly analytic approach. He sees vulnerability and worries for her: "She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn't survive in the wild" (Eleanor and Park 8).

You might say his first impression is concern, compassion, or even pity. Feelings that make you say "Awww."

This kind of first-meet is often instrumental in friendships. Think of how Buffy first meets Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Queen Bee Cordelia has taken Buffy under her wing, and walks her through the school, pausing to bully Willow at a drinking fountain. Buffy stands by, helpless, as Cordelia spews a snotty put-down at the brainy nerd girl. But as a vulnerable outsider herself, Buffy connects with Willow in that moment and later seeks her out for friendship.

Insta-aww was a fairly common  first meet emotion for the nurse romance genre, in which the spunky caregiver would fall for a brave patient. Today you're most likely to find it in Christian fiction, especially historical settings where the heroine is struggling through some kind of hardship. The hero will see her plight, worry for her, and want to help.

Fish-in-a-bucket


Pull two "fish" out of their natural habitat and toss them into the same "bucket" and they are likely to bond with one another. The shared sense of being outsiders, and shared experience of trying to survive hardship will create connection. Think of the romances that develop on reality TV competitions like Survivor. Think of Anne Frank, hiding from the Nazis and pining for the boy she left on the outside, stuck for years in a tiny, hidden apartment with Peter Van Daan. It's no surprise the two develop a romantic attachment.

You, too?


Sometimes the "out of water" isn't quite so extreme as fish-in-a-bucket scenarios. Two characters might both be new arrivals at a venue that offers a benefit, such as drama club or Narc Anon or the honors dorm. The location will indicate that they have some similarity, such as thespian leanings, a desire to overcome addiction, or top marks, in the cases of my previous examples. Knowing that the other has at least one shared value removes a barrier and can open the way for other kinds of attraction.

What are some of your favorite books, films or shows that portray insta-aww, fish-in-a-bucket or "you, too?" first meets?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Photo credit: jpkwitter from morguefile.com
First impressions can be powerful, but having a character go from never-seen-you-before stranger to die-for-you, head-over-heels, true love in under sixty seconds isn't terribly realistic. Nor is it the most effective way to build a romantic plot line. There's too little room for escalation, for change and growth.

One instance where Insta-love can be effectively used is when the character's fatal flaw is being naively trusting and having no filters. Think of Anna in Frozen, who's ready to hand over her heart--and her family's kingdom--to the first guy who turns on the charm. This type of character flaw is common for an education plot, in which the character must, through trial and error, become more wise.

With that caveat out of the way, let's look at some other approaches to that all-important first meeting, and types of first impressions beyond insta-love.


Intrigue


When the characters first meet, the protagonist might find the potential love interest unusual in some way. Immediately questions arise about this person. Perhaps his reputation precedes him, and the heroine suspects the whispers and rumblings might not be true. Or there are small details he notices about this woman that indicate she'd be fun to get to know better. Beginning at piqued curiosity can lead all sorts of interesting directions.

Admiration


Characters meet in such a way that an admirable trait is revealed, whether big heroics like a fire-fighter rescue, or more ordinary positive interaction, such as a store clerk who's especially kind and helpful. Being drawn from a distance to someone who is exceptionally talented (a musician or athlete for instance), intelligent, or generous might also stir up initial feelings of attraction.

Annoyance


Characters meet in such a way that one causes the other an inconvenience or hardship. The first feelings might be simply annoyance. How the harm is dealt with can make for continued interactions for the better--or for the worse. Either way, an accidentally bad first impression is a tension-building obstacle to overcome.

Enmity


Characters from opposing sides, when thrown together, are more likely to feel insta-ugh than insta-love. This representative of the enemy team, social class, political party, competitor business, family, what have you, will be perceived negatively at first, even if he or she displays admirable traits or is physically attractive. Undoing the protagonist's prejudice will require a multi-pronged approach.

Dismissal


When the characters meet, one might not particularly register the other's presence. He might be distracted by other difficulties and challenges; she might be paying more attention to an already-known person in the scene. This kind of non-impression gives you excellent space to escalate. Clearly a big obstacle to overcome is the character's inability to get out of his own head and engage with others.

Secondary characters will play a large role in helping along a connection. The buddy might have to point out her good qualities, the BFF might find him drool-worthy in a way your heroine was too distracted to notice.

Physical attraction


This person is just so H-O-T. It's like a magnetic pull....

Yawn. Far too many book romances begin with only physical attraction, especially to another's appearance. Besides being cliche, it also makes your protagonist seem extremely shallow.  It's far more interesting to have a character register attraction after having other impressions--she's smart and kind AND pretty. He's self-effacing and well-read AND has great hair. Mixing in other senses, like sound and smell, can make the experience of attraction more interesting to read. He has a honey-smooth voice; she smells fresh-scrubbed and sunshiny.

Of course, when setting up a love triangle, many writers choose to have the heroine make one connection that's only skin-deep, and another that's multi-faceted, with more growth potential. Just keep in mind that this kind of unsubtle approach may strike readers as predictable. Triangles are most effective when a protagonist has to choose between two good options.

What are your favorite first-meets in books or film that took an approach other than insta-love?
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: jpkwitter from morguefile.com
First impressions can be powerful, but having a character go from never-seen-you-before stranger to die-for-you, head-over-heels, true love in under sixty seconds isn't terribly realistic. Nor is it the most effective way to build a romantic plot line. There's too little room for escalation, for change and growth.

One instance where Insta-love can be effectively used is when the character's fatal flaw is being naively trusting and having no filters. Think of Anna in Frozen, who's ready to hand over her heart--and her family's kingdom--to the first guy who turns on the charm. This type of character flaw is common for an education plot, in which the character must, through trial and error, become more wise.

With that caveat out of the way, let's look at some other approaches to that all-important first meeting, and types of first impressions beyond insta-love.


Intrigue


When the characters first meet, the protagonist might find the potential love interest unusual in some way. Immediately questions arise about this person. Perhaps his reputation precedes him, and the heroine suspects the whispers and rumblings might not be true. Or there are small details he notices about this woman that indicate she'd be fun to get to know better. Beginning at piqued curiosity can lead all sorts of interesting directions.

Admiration


Characters meet in such a way that an admirable trait is revealed, whether big heroics like a fire-fighter rescue, or more ordinary positive interaction, such as a store clerk who's especially kind and helpful. Being drawn from a distance to someone who is exceptionally talented (a musician or athlete for instance), intelligent, or generous might also stir up initial feelings of attraction.

Annoyance


Characters meet in such a way that one causes the other an inconvenience or hardship. The first feelings might be simply annoyance. How the harm is dealt with can make for continued interactions for the better--or for the worse. Either way, an accidentally bad first impression is a tension-building obstacle to overcome.

Enmity


Characters from opposing sides, when thrown together, are more likely to feel insta-ugh than insta-love. This representative of the enemy team, social class, political party, competitor business, family, what have you, will be perceived negatively at first, even if he or she displays admirable traits or is physically attractive. Undoing the protagonist's prejudice will require a multi-pronged approach.

Dismissal


When the characters meet, one might not particularly register the other's presence. He might be distracted by other difficulties and challenges; she might be paying more attention to an already-known person in the scene. This kind of non-impression gives you excellent space to escalate. Clearly a big obstacle to overcome is the character's inability to get out of his own head and engage with others.

Secondary characters will play a large role in helping along a connection. The buddy might have to point out her good qualities, the BFF might find him drool-worthy in a way your heroine was too distracted to notice.

Physical attraction


This person is just so H-O-T. It's like a magnetic pull....

Yawn. Far too many book romances begin with only physical attraction, especially to another's appearance. Besides being cliche, it also makes your protagonist seem extremely shallow.  It's far more interesting to have a character register attraction after having other impressions--she's smart and kind AND pretty. He's self-effacing and well-read AND has great hair. Mixing in other senses, like sound and smell, can make the experience of attraction more interesting to read. He has a honey-smooth voice; she smells fresh-scrubbed and sunshiny.

Of course, when setting up a love triangle, many writers choose to have the heroine make one connection that's only skin-deep, and another that's multi-faceted, with more growth potential. Just keep in mind that this kind of unsubtle approach may strike readers as predictable. Triangles are most effective when a protagonist has to choose between two good options.

What are your favorite first-meets in books or film that took an approach other than insta-love?

Friday, January 17, 2014

As a writer, should you be especially careful about what you read?

It's a question that's been plaguing me recently, as my reading binge continues (thanks to a respiratory infection I can't seem to shake that leaves me with little energy for much else). My current read isn't an identical scenario to the one I'm currently writing, but there are numerous points of intersection. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will continuing to read help me work out my own story, of will it derail me?
Photo credit: dave from morguefile.com

In her nonfiction book on writing, Escaping into the Open, Elizabeth Berg makes an interesting assertion about influence I've never seen anywhere else:

"While drafting, avoid reading books on the same topic as yours." 

Her reasoning? "...no matter how aware or sophisticated or experienced you are, no matter how determined to write your own story, there's a very real danger that you will start to copy. It may be unconscious, but it can happen. And if that happens, it's a shame...because it denies the reading public the pleasure of your originality."

Part of me disagrees. If I don't know how others have tackled this topic, how do I know if my ideas are original? How do I avoid just repeating what has been said before if I'm ignorant of it? How do I not end up leaning on tired clichés? Berg seems to argue here that clichés crop up because you read others' takes on your topic. You can't help but copy.

The funny thing is, I could argue the opposite.  Knowing how others have treated a topic might constrain me to try too hard to take a new direction in order to seem original. In so doing, I risk creating an inauthentic experience with inauthentic emotion.

But either way, the conclusion would be stop reading that similar book.

But other possible good lessons could come from continuing. I can have distance from another's story I can't yet have from my own. I can more easily sense the kinds of details I might include as a writer that as a reader I find superfluous or boring.

Similarly, this other author could open my eyes to dramatic possibilities I'm not yet exploring in my work: places where conflict might erupt or alliances could form; ways of delivering, delaying, or withholding information. Berg would likely say I should learn these latter lessons from books on topics quite different from mine.

What do you think? Is it a help or a danger to read books on a similar topic?
Friday, January 17, 2014 Laurel Garver
As a writer, should you be especially careful about what you read?

It's a question that's been plaguing me recently, as my reading binge continues (thanks to a respiratory infection I can't seem to shake that leaves me with little energy for much else). My current read isn't an identical scenario to the one I'm currently writing, but there are numerous points of intersection. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will continuing to read help me work out my own story, of will it derail me?
Photo credit: dave from morguefile.com

In her nonfiction book on writing, Escaping into the Open, Elizabeth Berg makes an interesting assertion about influence I've never seen anywhere else:

"While drafting, avoid reading books on the same topic as yours." 

Her reasoning? "...no matter how aware or sophisticated or experienced you are, no matter how determined to write your own story, there's a very real danger that you will start to copy. It may be unconscious, but it can happen. And if that happens, it's a shame...because it denies the reading public the pleasure of your originality."

Part of me disagrees. If I don't know how others have tackled this topic, how do I know if my ideas are original? How do I avoid just repeating what has been said before if I'm ignorant of it? How do I not end up leaning on tired clichés? Berg seems to argue here that clichés crop up because you read others' takes on your topic. You can't help but copy.

The funny thing is, I could argue the opposite.  Knowing how others have treated a topic might constrain me to try too hard to take a new direction in order to seem original. In so doing, I risk creating an inauthentic experience with inauthentic emotion.

But either way, the conclusion would be stop reading that similar book.

But other possible good lessons could come from continuing. I can have distance from another's story I can't yet have from my own. I can more easily sense the kinds of details I might include as a writer that as a reader I find superfluous or boring.

Similarly, this other author could open my eyes to dramatic possibilities I'm not yet exploring in my work: places where conflict might erupt or alliances could form; ways of delivering, delaying, or withholding information. Berg would likely say I should learn these latter lessons from books on topics quite different from mine.

What do you think? Is it a help or a danger to read books on a similar topic?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

During my blogging hiatus, I went on a big reading binge, gobbling up six books in under three weeks. I largely was catching up on recommendations and newer books by favorite authors including: Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins), Where She Went (Gayle Forman), Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein), The Story of Us (Deb Caletti), Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell), and The Future of Us (Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler).

image by paulabflat, morguefile.com
These books had some love triangles, some shaken long-term relationships and some beginning tingles, but happily no insta-love. You know what I mean by that term, don't you? It's an overwhelming die-for-you passion ignited by a single glance. I'll spare you a rant on why it makes me crazy. Suffice it to say it's not only an emotionally unhealthy way to approach romantic attachment, but also poor storytelling. 

Giving characters instant whammo-connection cuts in half the size of your emotional arc. There's little room for the characters to change and grow over the course of the story. Just like with conflict, romance needs space to escalate as the story progresses. (For more on this idea of escalation, see my post Emotional Arcs: the teaspoon problem.) Without escalation, the romance plot will be largely static. You'll be tempted to throw a lot of melodrama at the couple just to keep yourself from becoming entirely bored with them.  

There are a number of techniques one can use to widen that arc. In the coming weeks I'll share some of the best tips for slow-build romance I picked up from analyzing works that did it well.

What are your thoughts on insta-love? What are some of your favorite stories with dynamic romances?
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 Laurel Garver
During my blogging hiatus, I went on a big reading binge, gobbling up six books in under three weeks. I largely was catching up on recommendations and newer books by favorite authors including: Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins), Where She Went (Gayle Forman), Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein), The Story of Us (Deb Caletti), Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell), and The Future of Us (Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler).

image by paulabflat, morguefile.com
These books had some love triangles, some shaken long-term relationships and some beginning tingles, but happily no insta-love. You know what I mean by that term, don't you? It's an overwhelming die-for-you passion ignited by a single glance. I'll spare you a rant on why it makes me crazy. Suffice it to say it's not only an emotionally unhealthy way to approach romantic attachment, but also poor storytelling. 

Giving characters instant whammo-connection cuts in half the size of your emotional arc. There's little room for the characters to change and grow over the course of the story. Just like with conflict, romance needs space to escalate as the story progresses. (For more on this idea of escalation, see my post Emotional Arcs: the teaspoon problem.) Without escalation, the romance plot will be largely static. You'll be tempted to throw a lot of melodrama at the couple just to keep yourself from becoming entirely bored with them.  

There are a number of techniques one can use to widen that arc. In the coming weeks I'll share some of the best tips for slow-build romance I picked up from analyzing works that did it well.

What are your thoughts on insta-love? What are some of your favorite stories with dynamic romances?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Photo credit: cesstrelle from morguefile.com
Reflecting on the state of blogging over the past year, I've seen an unprecedented number of blogging friends abandon their blogs in 2013. They've fled to other platforms, or are focusing on other things.

I'm finding it harder and harder to stay motivated to post. Thanks to Twitter, my posts are garnering more hits than ever, but interaction? Well, that seems like a thing of the past.

 Because of that trend, I did a redesign last fall and turned my focus to craft topics and helping friends promote their work. Those posts seemed like what readers wanted. But I have to admit it feels like all dressage all the time for me (to use an equestrian metaphor), when sometimes I just need a relaxing trail ride. Or a quick and sloppy barrel race here and there.

Obviously, this is MY blog, so no one is forcing me into the "keep it professional, never personal" mold. It's simply a habit I drifted into, and now it feels strange to talk so very first-person to whomever might stumble across this post.

Perhaps I'd feel more comfortable putting myself out there if I had a better sense of who IS stumbling across my posts.

How did you get here? Why do you read blogs at all? Is it largely for information? To network and talk shop? To connect and build community? 

Do YOU blog? Do you find it easy or difficult to post regularly? What are your thoughts on the state of blogging in 2014?

Friday, January 10, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: cesstrelle from morguefile.com
Reflecting on the state of blogging over the past year, I've seen an unprecedented number of blogging friends abandon their blogs in 2013. They've fled to other platforms, or are focusing on other things.

I'm finding it harder and harder to stay motivated to post. Thanks to Twitter, my posts are garnering more hits than ever, but interaction? Well, that seems like a thing of the past.

 Because of that trend, I did a redesign last fall and turned my focus to craft topics and helping friends promote their work. Those posts seemed like what readers wanted. But I have to admit it feels like all dressage all the time for me (to use an equestrian metaphor), when sometimes I just need a relaxing trail ride. Or a quick and sloppy barrel race here and there.

Obviously, this is MY blog, so no one is forcing me into the "keep it professional, never personal" mold. It's simply a habit I drifted into, and now it feels strange to talk so very first-person to whomever might stumble across this post.

Perhaps I'd feel more comfortable putting myself out there if I had a better sense of who IS stumbling across my posts.

How did you get here? Why do you read blogs at all? Is it largely for information? To network and talk shop? To connect and build community? 

Do YOU blog? Do you find it easy or difficult to post regularly? What are your thoughts on the state of blogging in 2014?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Thank you, Laurel, for hosting me!

 I tend to be a bit of a goofball, so it may have escaped those of you who know me that I know some stuff. Writing mysteries has some tricks to it... which is GOOD, as the GOAL with genre mystery is to both give your reader everything they need to solve the mystery AND not make it too easy to solve—keep them guessing up until the end, but in such a way that they look back and think I SHOULD HAVE SEEN THAT!
 
One of the primary tools of this mission is the Red Herring. What IS a red herring? you may wonder (if mystery isn't something you've dabbled in). They are the clues leading the reader (and sleuth) directly to the WRONG conclusion.

Genre mystery tends to have a couple things and I am working with these as an assumption, so you should probably know what they are: a dead body, a sleuth trying to solve the mystery (with an amateur sleuth this tends to be because somebody she cares about is either dead or implicated), and suspects. I should emphasize that. SuspectS. More than one. The sleuth goes through the evidence and looks at the possible people, and generally changes her mind as she goes (most often because the clue that links them, turns out to have an alternative explanation, or the suspect is proven impossible (or turns up dead)...)

So how do I plot my herrings?

I generally start with my list of suspects and give ALL of them a motive to kill the dead guy. I like to draw this... 4 or 5 suspects is sort of the sweet spot with cozy mysteries, fewer in some of the darker sub-genres. But the point is, the SLEUTH at least can see a reason ALL of these people might want the victim dead. THEN I come up with the ways the sleuth might learn of those motives... the clues, all but one strand of which are herrings.

With so many suspects, it is best if a couple of them are connected to each other and those herrings are somewhat related, too. Otherwise the book can feel sort of 'listee'. (this is one of the reasons I like to draw this--I can link all the related pieces visually to help me make sense of it for plotting.)

So what ARE these?

Sometimes this is physical evidence [in my first cozy mystery, The Azalea Assault, the sleuth finds a CD proving two of the characters were formerly in a band with the dead guy, so it gives a history to look into], it could be a witness account, or gossip, or some other dug-up information (via internet or public records maybe) or perhaps it's a character acting 'out of character' (sneaking around). These can even be combined. I have a second tier character who is a police officer and his girlfriend is my sleuth's best friend, so sometimes what we are working with is rumors about physical evidence.

And a trick I learned from Elizabeth Spann Craig, which I find helpful... have ALL your suspects tell at least one lie... could be for as simple a reason as they are embarrassed, or as complicated as they think a loved one did it (whether they DID or not), but it is helpful to have the reader not 100% trust what ANYBODY says, not to mention the lie itself can be a clue or herring.

One of the tricks here is to mix it up—if you have an entirely gossip based fact-finding mission... *yawn* Another is to have a couple multi-pronged herrings (herrings that LOOK like they mean one thing, but ACTUALLY mean another... in fact maybe it isn't a herring AT ALL but a halibut leading you in the right direction, once you wipe off all that herring oil... or something.

Is the fish analogy going too far? Sorry about that. Seriously, though. The OTHER things herrings need are the REAL explanation. One by one all those herrings must be picked up and sniffed and if they ARE herrings, they need to be identified as such—it is unfair to the reader to just leave them out there unclaimed or unexplained.


Hart Johnson works as a social scientist at a large midwestern university by day, and by night plots grand conspiracies, life angst and murder. As a writer she suffers multiple identity disorder, writing cozy mysteries as Alyse Carlson, suspense and conspiracies under the name Hart Johnson, suspects she will need a new name when the young adult begins to be published, and blogs as The Watery Tart.

Hart's Books The Garden Society Mystery Series (by Alyse Carlson) feature Camellia Harris, the 30-something public relations guru, her best (zany) friend Annie, and assorted other friends and family.

The Azalea Assault and The Begonia Bribe are available through typical bookstores, and Keeping Mum will be released March 4. (All are also available through B&N or Amazon, but my local Indie bookstore has been so amazing, that I always suggest checking there first) A Shot in the Light: Hart is also serially releasing a flu conspiracy thriller tale, 100 pages at a time. The first six are available (about half). New episodes come out about once a month.
Tuesday, January 07, 2014 Laurel Garver
Thank you, Laurel, for hosting me!

 I tend to be a bit of a goofball, so it may have escaped those of you who know me that I know some stuff. Writing mysteries has some tricks to it... which is GOOD, as the GOAL with genre mystery is to both give your reader everything they need to solve the mystery AND not make it too easy to solve—keep them guessing up until the end, but in such a way that they look back and think I SHOULD HAVE SEEN THAT!
 
One of the primary tools of this mission is the Red Herring. What IS a red herring? you may wonder (if mystery isn't something you've dabbled in). They are the clues leading the reader (and sleuth) directly to the WRONG conclusion.

Genre mystery tends to have a couple things and I am working with these as an assumption, so you should probably know what they are: a dead body, a sleuth trying to solve the mystery (with an amateur sleuth this tends to be because somebody she cares about is either dead or implicated), and suspects. I should emphasize that. SuspectS. More than one. The sleuth goes through the evidence and looks at the possible people, and generally changes her mind as she goes (most often because the clue that links them, turns out to have an alternative explanation, or the suspect is proven impossible (or turns up dead)...)

So how do I plot my herrings?

I generally start with my list of suspects and give ALL of them a motive to kill the dead guy. I like to draw this... 4 or 5 suspects is sort of the sweet spot with cozy mysteries, fewer in some of the darker sub-genres. But the point is, the SLEUTH at least can see a reason ALL of these people might want the victim dead. THEN I come up with the ways the sleuth might learn of those motives... the clues, all but one strand of which are herrings.

With so many suspects, it is best if a couple of them are connected to each other and those herrings are somewhat related, too. Otherwise the book can feel sort of 'listee'. (this is one of the reasons I like to draw this--I can link all the related pieces visually to help me make sense of it for plotting.)

So what ARE these?

Sometimes this is physical evidence [in my first cozy mystery, The Azalea Assault, the sleuth finds a CD proving two of the characters were formerly in a band with the dead guy, so it gives a history to look into], it could be a witness account, or gossip, or some other dug-up information (via internet or public records maybe) or perhaps it's a character acting 'out of character' (sneaking around). These can even be combined. I have a second tier character who is a police officer and his girlfriend is my sleuth's best friend, so sometimes what we are working with is rumors about physical evidence.

And a trick I learned from Elizabeth Spann Craig, which I find helpful... have ALL your suspects tell at least one lie... could be for as simple a reason as they are embarrassed, or as complicated as they think a loved one did it (whether they DID or not), but it is helpful to have the reader not 100% trust what ANYBODY says, not to mention the lie itself can be a clue or herring.

One of the tricks here is to mix it up—if you have an entirely gossip based fact-finding mission... *yawn* Another is to have a couple multi-pronged herrings (herrings that LOOK like they mean one thing, but ACTUALLY mean another... in fact maybe it isn't a herring AT ALL but a halibut leading you in the right direction, once you wipe off all that herring oil... or something.

Is the fish analogy going too far? Sorry about that. Seriously, though. The OTHER things herrings need are the REAL explanation. One by one all those herrings must be picked up and sniffed and if they ARE herrings, they need to be identified as such—it is unfair to the reader to just leave them out there unclaimed or unexplained.


Hart Johnson works as a social scientist at a large midwestern university by day, and by night plots grand conspiracies, life angst and murder. As a writer she suffers multiple identity disorder, writing cozy mysteries as Alyse Carlson, suspense and conspiracies under the name Hart Johnson, suspects she will need a new name when the young adult begins to be published, and blogs as The Watery Tart.

Hart's Books The Garden Society Mystery Series (by Alyse Carlson) feature Camellia Harris, the 30-something public relations guru, her best (zany) friend Annie, and assorted other friends and family.

The Azalea Assault and The Begonia Bribe are available through typical bookstores, and Keeping Mum will be released March 4. (All are also available through B&N or Amazon, but my local Indie bookstore has been so amazing, that I always suggest checking there first) A Shot in the Light: Hart is also serially releasing a flu conspiracy thriller tale, 100 pages at a time. The first six are available (about half). New episodes come out about once a month.