Tuesday, November 27, 2012

EXCUSE ME, I HAVE SIX JOBS

I'm sorry, internet friends. That title is a little hostile. And it's also a lie. I did have six jobs this summer, which was exactly as insane as it sounds, but now I am down to two. The truth is, I am a bit frustrated at how neglected this blog has been lately, because everyone knows that every time a blogger you've never heard of posts a picture of her head pasted onto a bowl of cereal, an angel gets his wings.

And look at what I was planning! The epic post that never was! I have no idea what any of those promises I made in my last post mean. All I can do is cobble together my idea of what a Paul the Psychic Octopus might look like:

SEE? I DID ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING TODAY, MR. WHISKERS. STOP JUDGING.
The long and short is that I got picked up by an agent, and now I have a two-book deal, which has kind of been running my creative life for a while.

http://cdn.cutestpaw.com
Take that cat picture. It's not even my cat. And why is it there? I envisioned it being my little kitty cheerleader, like YAY! BOOK DEAL! But the longer you stare at it the more manic it looks. Now it's kind of freaking me out.

"I'm so proud of you, I could poke your eyes out with toothpicks and suck on them like lollipops! LOL!"
Anyway, I'm in the midst of revisions and stuff. Like, literally, manuscript 3.0 is printing and I've got highlighters on deck, just like a Real Writer. HIGHLIGHTERS.

Will keep you posted.

THAT WAS A PUN.

And if you're interested in more of my rantings, head over to EMU's Debuts and peruse my debut post. I tried so hard to be more coherent than usual, and somehow still ended up pasting my head onto stuff.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Coming Soon

READ ALL ABOUT IT!
New post coming soon, guaranteed to include the following:

midnight
symphony orchestra
name tag
Paul the Psychic Octopus
bugs
Canada

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Right Word

My junior high students and I were studying IMAGINARY MENAGERIE, which is a collection of awesome poems about fantastic creatures by Julie Larios.

Go buy this book.
Each of Julie's poems in IMAGINARY MENAGERIE is named after the creature that inspired it. We went through them and underlined words we liked, like in "Dragon": air, bright, wild, arrow, sings

Then we decided we would each write a short poem based on an animal. The first step was to come up with a list of words that fit that animal. For an example, I wrote the word "whale" on the board and asked the students to brainstorm.

For the first few minutes, the suggestions went something like this: "Tail!" "Pail!" "Frail!" "Stale!" "Male!" "Snail!" "Hail!"


None of those words are remotely "whale." Except maybe "tail." Whales have tails. Congratulations, you've passed the seventh grade.

Now, this is not a slight against my junior high students, who are all brilliant and charming. It's about how we think about words (and poetry, which is a whole other can of worms). But the good news is, just as I was beginning to despair, there was a marked lull in the suggestion-shouting, and after a moment, one girl said, ". . . Bubbles."

Bubbles.


Roundish but not round. Gentle. A little unwieldy. Sounds like it's underwater.

"Bubbles" is a whale word.


Use the Words You Need

A lot of the craft of writing is finding the right words. Anyone with a dictionary can figure out what a word means, and it's usually pretty apparent what a word connotes, but what is it that makes a word right?

Agents and publishers today frequently favor simplification -- or, at least, it appears that way in their advice to prospective clients. Don't over-write. Just tell the story. Two legs Adverbs bad, four legs verbs good. But their actual client lists often boast a wide variety of voices and styles, some of which are Hemingway-spare, some of which are downright flowery. So what's the deal?

Let's look at two writers with different voices, who happen to be two of my very favorite writers -- Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge.


"She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose."

There are no extra words here; every one is pulling its weight. This is the first time we meet the (wonderful) heroine of this novel, and the picture is vivid and full of movement. If I highlighted all the words I loved in these four sentences, there would be barely any left.


"Around and through the village, water seethed down the breakneck hillside in a thousand winding streamlets. They hissed and gleamed through dark miles of pine forest above the village, chafing the white rocks and learning a strange milkiness. Chough itself was more a tumble than a town, the houses scattered down the incline as if stranded there after a violent flood."

This paragraph is also about movement, but the voice is very different. The sentences flow and turn like the water around Chough. But here, too, the words do their work efficiently -- because they're the right words. A streamlet hissing and gleaming is not the same as a streamlet frothing and shining, or bubbling and glistening, and hissing and gleaming is what Hardinge wants. So even though her style may seem slightly more elaborate than Jones's, she's not using any extra words, either.

So maybe "simplification" has nothing to do with the flavor of your voice. It's about using exactly the words you need, and using them deliberately. Another step towards the reader's immersion in the world rather than the text.

That said, are there words that are almost always "right" or "wrong," regardless of voice?

Right Words

image
Some words, according to me, are almost always right. These include:

Said (and asked). When I see these in classrooms, it makes me want to gouge my own eyes out with a red pen. If it is necessary for you to indicate that your character "screamed" or "nagged" or "purred" in order for the reader to visualize the dialogue the way you intend, you have not been doing your job in the rest of the scene. Dialogue tags should be largely invisible; they should indicate who spoke. Context, in most cases, should do the rest.

As for unnecessary "said/asked" synonyms -- unless you are contacting an agent about your novel, no one is "querying." So cut it out.

Colors and shapes. You might be more of an "azure" or more of a "bright blue." You might be a "sphere" or a "ball." But color and shape words turn your characters and settings into clear pictures. All sensory details do, including sounds, smells, and textures.

Verbs. Stories are about things that happen. Verbs indicate things are happening. Look at all the verbs in the two sample paragraphs above -- they are awesome!

Nouns. Nouns are things that do things, or things that stories are about. Yay! The more specific, the better. Instead of "car," say "Yugo" or "vicious Ford sedan" or "Popemobile."


Wrong Words


I wouldn't call any word universally "wrong," but there are a few that make me raise an eyebrow and re-evaluate what's going on in the nuts and bolts of my narrative. Here's my $0.02, because, you know, science. Or something.

Was (followed by an emotion). Your protagonist is skipping down the sidewalk singing showtunes? We know he is happy. Your protagonist's beloved dog just got flattened by a steamroller? We know she is sad. (Also, I have thrown your book into the lake.)


If you have to tell us your character is sad/happy/angry, either you have not been doing your job, or you think we are stupid.

Adverbs. OK, so I use adverbs. It's true. And I'm not on an anti-adverb crusade like some of the more militant elements in the writing community. But I think the point of the adverb-hate sweeping our nation is that in many cases, it's the verb that should be doing the work. If you have to tell us how someone is running, for instance, maybe "running" isn't the right word. Maybe you mean loping or sprinting or scampering or galloping.

To me, finding an adverb in my writing is not necessarily an instant delete moment -- it's more of a red flag indicating that maybe other words aren't pulling their weight.

Was (followed by a preposition). As with adverbs, this is more of a "check out this spot" indicator. I find that the "to be" verb in "was [preposition]" can often be replaced by a more interesting verb, adjective, metaphor, etc. For example, "The house was at the end of the street" could become "The house lurked at the end of the street" or "The house was perched at the end of the street." It's an opportunity to paint a more vivid picture.

Walked. Yes, people walk all the time. It's probably our favorite thing to do as a species after sleeping and sitting on our fesses. But "walk" is one of those words that has such a broad definition, I find it's almost always better to replace it with something more specific to the situation (or you may find yourself sticking an adverb after it!).


Finding the Right Word

Some friends and I were arguing recently about the word "decimate." They believe it should be used only as it was originally intended -- to mean the slaughter of one in ten soldiers by their own leaders. For other scenarios, one of them suggested we simply replace "decimate" with "annihilate." Sure enough, "annihilate" is the first synonym of "decimate" listed in the online thesaurus.

But here's where the idea of a "right" word comes into play. As a writer, would you use these words interchangeably? Here's "decimate," in my head:

image
And here's "annihilate":

image
Those are just the images my brain, cultivated by immersion in the living language, responds with. But there's more: Which word is more devastating? Which is more powerful? Which is a better length for the sentence I'm writing? Which is funnier? Which feels more like it belongs in the world I'm creating with my narrative? Any or all of these questions could influence which -- if either -- of these two words I choose to use.

I use my thesaurus a lot. Not because I'm looking for a fancier way of saying something, but because, even though there are many supposed synonyms in the English language, there's often only one word that really means what you want to say.

Take the word "vicious." Here are the entries under "vicious" in my thesaurus: brutal, ferocious, dangerous, violent, savage, remorseless, ruthless, merciless, heartless, callous, cruel, harsh, cold-blooded, inhuman, fierce, barbarous, barbaric, brutish, bloodthirsty, fiendish, sadistic, monstrous, murderous, and homicidal. 

image
Now go through the list and think about the feel of each of these words. None of these words are perfect synonyms for "vicious." It's not about what Merriam-Webster tells us, it's about a hundred little facets of experience, aesthetics, culture, and connotation that color our perception of each word. Some words are bloody, ripping-apart, madness words -- ferocious, brutal, savage, murderous. Some have a literary detachment, safe for sensitive audiences -- violent, dangerous, cruel. Some are cold and calculating -- ruthless, callous, merciless. Some are twisted and purposeful -- bloodthirsty, fiendish, sadistic. And within these categorizations, each word has its own sound, flavor, and shape.

So do fiction writers need to take the same care as poets when choosing words?


How about yes?

What do you think?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

THIS IS WHY VIGILANTE JUSTICE IS A THING

This week, an online friend of mine exacted vigilante justice on a stranger who threw eggs at him from a moving vehicle. While it is not my story to tell, let's just say it ended with a punch in the face.

Today, I also felt vigilante anger.

As you know, I lead a stressful and important life. On any given day, I may have to write something, get dressed, stay in a crappy hotel, or take pictures of my cat.

Sometimes I just need to get away from it all. This is why I do pencil puzzles in the bathtub. But today, internet friends, my relaxing pencil puzzle bath time was absolutely basulaned.

You see, I was working on a puzzle called "Letterbox." You're given several boxes with two letters each, and you must combine them to make words in a box shape.

Here's my progress:

I'm usually pretty good at word puzzles. Not a master, but no neophyin either, and it frustrated me that I wasn't getting this one. I puzzled and stared and rearranged and puzzled some more. The bath water grew tepid, then cold, as I made no move to remove myself to more comfortable surroundings, like a reverse lobster. The lavender bubbles died small, quiet deaths. Still I puzzled. The dog and her gas decided to keep me company, and I puzzled on.

Finally, immersed in flat, cold water and surrounded by dog farts, I decided to do something I never do.

I decided to look at the answer.

It's not that I never give up. I often come across puzzles I'm too stupid to finish, but I just leave them incompleteUtterly baffled, I turned to page 89, and the truth was revealed to me:
It's enough to make even a mild-mannered person like me go into a neckspin. Or punch someone in the face.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Indefatigability is Inspiring

As I work on my next post, in which I have, like, actual stuff to say about words, I thought I would fill you in on the heroic life I have been leading this month. First off, yes, I used the word indefatigability in the title of this post. That in itself is inspiring, even though I got it from the Thesaurus under "perseverance," which I spelled wrong. You're welcome.

I got so much stuff done this month. I did a bunch of freelance editing. I designed some ads for clients. I went through my fonts, and you should know that I have amassed awesome fonts. Don't even talk to me unless you have the Thundercats font, and we'll start from there.

I took this picture of my cat, Bert. I Gordon, who just sneezed cat boogers all over me as I typed that.
It kind of looks like he has five legs.
Then I got plague, which my body decided to fight by coughing up everything inside itself, including what I believe were a couple major organs and possibly a femur. And because comedy is everything, my body decreed that this process would be accompanied by the whimsical call of the Canada Goose, emanating from my ravaged esophagus. But fear not, dear ones -- because of half a bottle of Ny-Quil my indomitable spirit, I realized that, instead of being diseased, I was actually being enhanced.


I was being granted the powers of the Canada Goose.
Ah, the majesty.
Then Goose Plague and I went to the city to sing the Beethoven Missa Solemnis at a copyrighted location I like to refer to as "Flarnegie Hall."
It was kind of a weird couple days.
We sang in the back row of the chorus, right on top of the enormous speakers for the organ.

WE HEARD A LOT OF ORGAN.

Then home again, jiggity jig, at which point I decided to play Mass Effect 3 broker world peace, which I think we can all agree is working out nicely.

My latest triumph in the face of adversity has been dusting off my bootstraps, or whatever the young people are saying nowadays, after possibly having been rejected by my favorite blog.

That's right. I submitted a portrait to Nic Cage As Everyone, and it has yet to appear. In fact, I have yet to even receive a response to my inspiring email: "This is Nic Cage as a molecule of adamantane."

And yet, my friends, we persevere! We indefatigate! We suffer the honks and arrows of outrageous organs!

Yeah, Bert I. Gordon says it's bedtime.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Inspiration

I do most of my writing in my head as I'm falling asleep or waking up. If I come up with something particularly brilliant, I sometimes manage to muster the capacity, in my barely conscious state, to jot it down.

I thought I would share with you the results of a particularly fruitful session I had this week.

cat eyes are freaking me out


how to kill the parents. windmill?


can we use "motherf$@#er" in a middle grade?


ears


I'm sleeping with him. No, it's midnight. You have to flee.


we think we can make you a dress


rats in clothes. those are poops.


photo
Yes, literary gold. Don't you dare steal my ideas, hosers.

By the way, internet search engines, I feel it's important for you to know that when I search for "rats wearing clothes," the following things should not, in fact, be deemed relevant matches. To be helpful, I have reclassified them for you:
raggyrat
"Bunnies holding hands."
photo
"Mars rover."
photo
"Spider."
photo
. . . well-played, internet. Well-played.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Snowman for Grammie

My grandmother lives in a dark, locked house that's crouched up against a hill. Last weekend, while shoveling her driveway, my parents and I decided to make a snowman. Some sticks and leaves, a few unidentified painted wooden pieces from the garage, and a hat that belonged to my deceased great uncle, and we were done.



But why did we orient it so it's facing her tiny kitchen window instead of the road? Why did we do that?

Now, every day, when my grandmother gets up, makes her cup of coffee, and cautiously pulls back the window blind to see what unspeakable things the hooligans or the mafia or the democrats have gotten up to during the night, she is met with the dispassionate, wall-eyed stare of the slowly melting horror across the driveway. The horror wearing my deceased great uncle's hat.

"Getting the mail today? I don't think so."

I would bash it with a baseball bat, but I don't dare. I just know it would only appear again outside my kitchen window. And I live on the second floor.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Fan Fiction

Be honest, did the title of this post make you cringe? Did it make you think of excessive adverbs and exclamation points and ellipses? Did it conjure images you've stumbled upon in the black depths of the internetverse and can never, ever unsee?

There is no God.
Be not afraid. I have delved into literature's seedy underbelly, and have lived to tell the implausible and inappropriately sexual tale. I will share what I have learned, internet brethren. For I have written a fanfiction short story.

Celebrating with friends.
It came about because of a contest my favorite video game company was hosting -- write a short story that takes place in the universe of one of their game franchises. The winner gets a bunch of merchandise and a Skype date with the franchise's head writer.

The thing is, I had already started a piece about one of the characters in the fictional universe. Never in my wildest ale-quaffing dreams did I imagine other humans would ever see this piece. EVER. It was really a character study to satisfy my own curiosity.

No, not that kind of character study.
What is WRONG with you?
But when I heard about the contest, I thought, "OK. Why not?" So I whittled it down to 2500 words, added a main character from my very own brain, and sent it in. Will it win? Doubtful. These events draw gazillions of entries from folks who know a lot more about fictional lore than I do. Also, I'm not sure an exploration of the psychological impact of having one's friends incinerated by wizards is the type of theme the judges are really looking for. But maybe it is, who knows?

Anyway, it was a lot of fun to write.

I've written before about the mental barriers we put up -- I can't write this scene because XYZ. But the fanfiction barrier was one I had never crossed.

The question is why? Why don't "writers" write fan fiction?

There are many answers. One is that a lot of fan fiction can never be anything more; it is the creative use of someone else's intellectual property. You can't call up HarperCollins and say, "Hey! I wrote this kickass epic poem about the characters on Grey's Anatomy. What kind of advance can you offer?" And there are only so many official commissions for TV and movie novelizations.

Sigh . . . someday.
Also, we just don't have time to devote our creative energy to something that will never fully be our own and is destined to live in a drawer or on a fan site. There are articles to write, novels to finish, books to review, queries to construct, and other pet projects.

Like scrapbooking.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the company in which we imagine finding ourselves. Crazy, barely literate fangirls and fanboys spewing dreck at each other in a perpetual cycle of OMG UR STORYS SO KEWL LOL!!!!!, unaware that the real creative minds behind their fictional utopias regard them with nothing but scorn and pity -- if, as is doubtful, they are aware of them at all. Because real writers don't write fan fiction. Real writers never get inspired by someone else's story, or character, or universe, and use it as a basis for their own creative work. That would be nuts!







Or maybe they're on to something. Someone once said, "All fiction is fan fiction." And then a lot of other people said it too, so it makes it hard to credit that first someone with it. But he or she was right. We don't write in a vacuum. Our ideas are shaped by our experiences, and our experiences include other people's art. JK Rowling has read Roald Dahl and Diana Wynne Jones. John Williams has studied Beethoven, Saint-Saens, and Holst. Our creative brains like to absorb information and build on it. We like to ask, "What if?"

Granted, a lot of fan fiction answers the question, "What if?" with the equivalent of the Wolvercard (Wolveravier?) above, which I meticulously created for your enjoyment. (You're welcome.) But sometimes people just get immersed in another world. Sometimes people love a work of art so much, they want to add their own voice.

Fan fiction writers are "real writers." Writers are people who write. That's it. There's nothing in there about being famous, or not having another job, or being published, or even being good at writing.

I won't lie, though, a mustache helps.
And there are no rules regarding where inspiration comes from.

A lot of us like to play around with "story starters." I liked to have my junior high students pick a random book off the shelf, open to a random page, and use the first sentence they saw as the first line of a story. Using preexisting settings or characters is just another exercise in story starting.

For me, a lot of good things came out of writing this story. For one thing, there was a deadline, which is always good. But in a larger sense, it was freeing. At first, I felt like I was doing something naughty.

Me? Just -- just doing my taxes. GO AWAY, THEY'RE PRIVATE.
Part of the reason was, due to the nature of the contest's fictional universe, I was writing in a genre I'm not used to. Have you ever done that? I don't mean going from sci-fi to steampunk. I mean going from Ordinary People to Reign of Fire. It's very strange at first. But you get used to it, especially if you read a lot in your new genre.

The other reason this story was a challenge for me was because of the Editor. Everyone has a different name for it, but it's the voice in your head that tells you you suck. Normally, my Editor just says generic things, like you can't write and what's the point of any of this and yeah, those Junior Mints are REALLY going to help you finish this chapter. But over the course of this story, it added to its repertoire this isn't your genre, these aren't your characters and, because the story was for a contest, you have a snowball's chance. Not that the Editor was wrong. But I made myself crack down its barriers one by one.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: SO WHAT if this story sucks?

Really. SO WHAT?

WHO CARES what other people, who may exist within or outside the confines of your own head, think? Do you want to try another genre? Do you think it would be fun to experiment with an existing world?

If you've never delved into the world of fan fiction, why not try it? You probably won't publish your personal answer to the question, "What if Balki had been named Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper where Cousin Larry worked?" But maybe breaking the fan fiction barrier in your head will lead to other barrier breakdowns as well. Or maybe you'll just get sued have fun!