December 30, 2014

Book Launch: The Bishop's Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

I've read some of Harrison's nonfiction, and I've seen her at various conferences, so I'm familiar with her by personality and reputation, but I haven't read any of her fiction.

I attended her book launch tonight because in the last couple of weeks, I've read about her book in the NY Times, LA Times, Kirkus Reviews, and listened to an interview on NPR. That's a lot of buzz for a Jessica Fletcher-esque Mormon housewife, so I was intrigued enough to attend before having read the book.

It was a different type of book launch than I'm used to--the focus was definitely on spirituality and organized religion, as opposed to the author's experience of writing, or a reading from the novel, or any of that kind of thing. It had a very somber feel to it, in fact, when Harrison launched into the discussion by telling the story of her stillborn child--the impetus for her loss in faith and subsequent exploration of the questioning character in The Bishop's Wife.  There was a lot of emotion, both from Harrison and her audience, and a lot of people seemed to identify with her struggle to maintain her religious convictions. It felt almost like a church meeting or self-help group.

While I couldn't identify with Harrison in many ways, what stood out to me as a writer was the way that she incorporated her own experience into the novel. Writers are always being advised to "write what you know," which is sometimes confusing when you're trying to write about house elves or sparkling vampires or whatever else. Of course Harrison has never helped solve a murder in her church congregation (at least not that I know of), but the MC's personality was based on Harrison's own struggle with religion, while the character's strengths--according to Harrison--were based on a real-life friend whose faith and dedication she admires. She used what she did know to give life to the parts that were fabricated.

So, the two things that I took from the launch for my own writing were: First, write what you know--insofar as it helps make completely bizarre and fictional events more real and relatable.

And second, a lot of people commented on the MC's complex, layered personality, so I found it helpful to think of my own characters in ways that I can channel traits based on different people with conflicting personalities to make a more interesting whole.

Harrison did a great job, and I'm glad I was able to attend.

December 1, 2014

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This is pretty much the first book that always comes up when books on writing are mentioned, and frankly, I'm 100% in agreement. It's not a perfect book. For example, I always laugh out loud when I read in the foreword, "This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit." King then proceeds to fill the next ≈300 pages chitchatting about his childhood and car accident and favorite movies (to be fair, his subtitle does say it's a memoir). I've read a lot of Stephen King in my day, and I would never, ever accuse him of being brief or concise in his writing. Second, a lot of his examples about publishing are outdated. He talks about typewriters and S.A.S.Es and taking notes with a pad and pencil. He's not the person to ask if you want to learn about writing apps or current publishing practices or finding an agent.

Still, this book is like sitting at the knee of a gregarious uncle who has been at writing and publishing for a very long time. Any aspiring writer would be crazy to turn down a chance like that. He doesn't offer some ground-breaking new ideas about how he became one of the most influential writers of our time--he sticks to basics like working hard and treating writing like a career and balancing your ambition with your personal life--but still, he gives glimpses into how HE has been so successful by doing very specific things. I really believe that there is something in this book for everyone--it will be different for every single person, but every time I read it, something new strikes me that has helped with my own writing.

I also happen to believe that King is a genius. I've read a lot of his fiction and non-fiction. I think he is brilliant. I think he does things for certain reasons. I think he has done what most of us yearn to do--make a successful career from thinking and exploring and writing. There's a reason he's continually a best-selling author, and I personally don't believe there's anyone in the profession who has nothing to learn from him.

Buy this book--don't borrow it. Own it, mark it up, crease pages, re-read it whenever you're in a rut. Uncle Stephen and his stories will always be in style.

November 3, 2014

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by J.E. Nelson

I've bought Rivet Your Readers several times, because I keep giving it away to fellow writers. It's really short--less than 100 tiny pages--but it's inexpensive, and I think it's one of the most helpful books writers can have.

Point of View (POV), in my opinion, can make or break writing. When we as authors understand deep POV, it can dramatically improve the flow of writing, create more engaging characters, help with active vs. passive voice, and help with the age-old show vs. tell.

When we as readers are immersed in deep POV, we feel and experience the story along with the character, rather than being a detached observer. Nelson calls it creating "immediacy and intimacy" with readers, and I've seen a huge difference in my own writing and that of others after working to develop this skill.

To be a good writer, an understanding of perception, person (first, second, and third), and tense are essential. This book clearly and concisely explains those things, then gives simple before and after examples to demonstrate.

I don't claim to be an expert on POV, so this little book may not be as in-depth as some would like, but it's absolutely a good place to start for newbies and a good review for the rest of us. It's a book that I would recommend owning. It's a great reference tool, and it never hurts to have a refresher!

October 28, 2014

Book Launch: Atlantia by Ally Condie

Tonight, a friend had tickets to Ally Condie's book launch for ATLANTIA, her new YA novel set under the ocean, and invited me to tag along. I haven't read any of Condie's work yet, but I fell in love with her and plan to remedy that soon. Here were the highlights for me:

1. She shared a bunch of photos and stories about where her inspirations came from. It was fun for me to see the creative process of someone who has done so well, and having heard from other authors who are kind of scattered in their process, I loved hearing from someone who seems methodical in her research, what she includes in her books, and why she feels they're important. 

2. When asked about her favorite authors, her inspirations, and writers who have taught her about craft, her interests were all over the place. It was obvious that she is widely read--from fairy tales to science fiction to classics to religious texts to poetry, she is no slouch in the literary department. It gave me a sense that YA is in good hands, and it's not just dumbed-down genre fiction like some people believe.

3. Apparently, her books have a lot of themes about difficult choices, conflicted characters, good vs. evil, etc. She was asked hard questions about how her own feelings are manifested in her writing and how she reconciles questions of faith. This is something that always fascinates me about authors and writing, so I was grateful she didn't shy away from the questions. She said something very profound--something to the effect of, we want to identify teens as having crises of faith, but whenever you have faith, there's always a crisis. You're always trying to determine where you fit and what you believe. I loved that personally, but I also think it speaks volumes for why YA is important. Not just about faith, but teens figuring out where they stand on any issue.

4. Her husband and kids were there, and it was obvious they were her biggest fans. Her husband laughed the loudest at all of her jokes and seemed so proud of her. I had a bit of an emotional moment when she apologized to them for being crazy sometimes while writing, but said, at the end of the day, they were the most important and she loved them more than anything. I think it's important for authors to acknowledge that finding balance between writing and "real life" will always be difficult, but both are worthwhile.

Anyway, it was a really good launch. I loved Condie as a person and look forward to trying out her books in the near future.

October 20, 2014

The 22 Rules to Perfect Storytelling, According to Pixar

I’m pretty sure that most people saw Emma Coats’ Pixar rules of storytelling a couple of years ago.

Well, now you can find those points of great storytelling on Pixar images for printing or as quick reminders of her bullet points.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Now, go check out the rest HERE!

Which are your favorites? Why?

October 7, 2014

October: Morbid Fixations and Creative Inspirations

For those of us who love horror, October is a wonderful month. It’s the one time of year when our morbid interests tend to be socially acceptable, and we can pretend that the faux body parts and gruesome fiction lying around our houses are part of the festivities.

It’s a time when we re-watch the classics—a few of mine include Psycho, Watcher in the Woods, Misery, and The Woman in Black—or have marathons of cult favorites like the Halloween, Friday the 13th, or Saw franchises.

We curl up in warm sweaters with hot cocoa and re-read favorite books and legends from authors like Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, E.A. Poe, Washington Irving, and H.P. Lovecraft. Or we venture into newly terrifying discoveries.

October, for me, is about reveling in the sinister and macabre and unknown. I adore haunted houses and ghost hunts and costume parties and decorating. Much like my writing, those things provide ways for me to play with ideas. They’re outlets for discovery and questioning in a fun and non-threatening way.

Decorating, for example, is something I look forward to all year. Here’s a glimpse of our house last year:

I’m convinced that it will either make my kids the coolest, bravest kids ever, or it will make them serial killers. I have no idea which.

But even if you’re NOT into horror, if you’re at this website, then you likely have an interest in speculative fiction. And all people who enjoy the speculative arts, I believe, have an edge during this time of year—Steampunk has one of the coolest aesthetics I’ve ever seen, and it inherently wants to reconcile the past with the future. Science Fiction questions life, the universe, and everything that crawls from the darkest corners of our minds and worlds. Fantasy pits good against evil in unconventional ways. All of those are excellent fodder for creativity.

October is also the month before NaNoWriMo, which means that many of us are trying to come up with new concepts or outline ideas in preparation for sprinting toward the 50k word count in November.

So, even if you don’t love October or fall or Halloween, find the aspects that interest you—whether it’s the cooler weather, crisp leaves, bizarre costumes, excited children, hayrides, pumpkins, or migratory patterns of geese—and let them inspire your creativity.

I’d challenge you to write a small piece with as much sensory detail as you can think of. Explain your own fears in a visceral way, or explore a character with phobias you’ve never understood. Focus on the sights, smells, and tastes that are unique to autumn. Empathize with a hibernating bear. Whatever it is, let yourself feel alive through your writing in this unique time of year.

Here are a couple of links with some really cool writing prompts that might get your creative juices flowing:

Fall Writing Prompts or Horror Writing Prompts

What about you? Do you have a favorite horror book or movie? Or is there something new you’re excited to try this year? What are your favorite things about October?

(originally posted here.)

September 30, 2014

Quantum Fairy Tales

A while ago I applied to work with a speculative fiction e-zine, and I found out this week that I've been accepted onto the team! I will be Blog Goddess--in charge of coordinating posts, etc.--as well as editing for the quarterly e-zine and reading slush pile submissions.

I'm excited to work with them for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they have a really cool premise. The site was founded by a group of friends and aspiring writers who wanted to have a place where people could submit and receive feedback on all submissions, even if they're rejected. I think it's really neat that they're about helping writers to become stronger and giving them a place they can be published when their work is ready.

So, go check them out at Quantum Fairy Tales! I'll be posting under my cool new alter ego, Bionic Banshee. I hope to see you over there!

July 24, 2014

Writing Lessons from Project Runway

I’m about as far from being a fashionista as you can get. I'm one step above wearing mom jeans and flannel every day of my life. But, for some inexplicable reason, one of my favorite shows is Project Runway. It's taken me a while to figure out why, but I’ve finally decided it's because I love watching the creation of something from nothing.

The contestants are given bizarre challenges, almost no time to complete them, and are forced to magic up something beautiful and unique out of random materials to gain the approval of the highest reps in the fashion industry. It's exhausting and emotionally overwhelming, but the contestants keep going anyway. Why?

Because they love the craft.

Sounds kind of like writing, right? You have a glimmer of an idea. You plunk it out. You revise it until your eyes bleed, and then you present it as something beautiful and unique. Agents and editors and readers evaluate it. Some like it; some don't. Sometimes you fail miserably. But you keep going, because you love creating something that nobody else can.

Since a new season of Project Runway (PR) premieres tonight, I thought it would be fun to look at a few lessons on writing that can be gleaned from the show. All of my examples come from Season 12, because, let’s be honest, I can barely even remember back that far.

1. Be unapologetically you. Helen comes to mind. Throughout the season, several contestants talked trash about her—how she was a hack, not sophisticated enough, and only had a few looks up her sleeve. She wasn’t a fit in the beginning, but in the end she had the chance to compete for a spot at Fashion Week. She beat out most of the people who claimed to be better designers than she was.
 Don’t be afraid to be yourself. You have a unique voice to offer.
2. Don’t be a drama queen (or king). The loud, crazy personalities on PR (or any reality show) always make for good TV. They make for good fiction. But nobody likes dealing with them for too long in real life.

Every season has at least one high-maintenance personality, but two that stand out from last season are Ken and Sandro. Both yelled a lot, threw things, alienated people, stormed out of rooms, and otherwise made their obnoxious presences known. Ultimately, Sandro raged off the set, knocked over cameras, and refused to return. Ken was chastised by Tim Gunn, the nicest person in the world, and sent home.

No matter how talented and creative they were, in the end, they lost their chance to succeed because they couldn’t get along with others.

Writers have strong communities that include agents, editors, readers, and other authors. Being well behaved and polite, even with a big personality, is an absolute necessity.

Be nice. Use the Golden Rule. Don’t be a diva.

3. One size does NOT fit all. Your work, no matter how beautiful, will not appeal to everyone. One example from season twelve was Alexandria’s pants:

Heidi Klum loved them. Zac Posen called them “poopy pants.” 
Heidi was loud and proud in her defense of them, but all of the other judges hated them. (Seriously though, if Heidi Klum is on your side, who cares about anyone else?)

Nothing works for everyone, but chances are, somebody will love your work. More importantly, you will love your work.

4. Manage your time. This isn’t such a big deal for authors aren’t actively selling yet, but as writers, we have to learn to use our time wisely—especially since we have to be largely self-motivated.

With my first couple of novels, I spent so much time drafting and changing and figuring out precise word choices, that when it came to the actual hard work of rewriting, I was so burned out that I couldn’t keep myself motivated. I’ve learned, for me, it works best to write a fast draft, and then save my time and energy for making it shine during revisions. I’m a huge believer that rewriting is where the magic happens. It’s where you fine-tune characters, layer in themes and ideas, and make plot points come together seamlessly.

In PR, there are always those who spend so much time sketching, draping, or obsessing, that at the last minute, they’re scrambling for the runway show. There are inevitably errors and poor construction because they didn’t leave themselves time to execute and adjust. Sadly, the judges always notice sloppy work.

Find what works for you—everyone is different—but whether or not you have a deadline, make sure that you leave time to do your very best.

Plan, prepare, create, but save time and stamina to polish writing in revisions.

5. Make it personal.  One of the highlights of the season was when Justin talked about his three runway looks that were so personal to him. His looks didn’t literally say deaf/gay man, but when he explained his life’s challenges, it became clear how his designs conveyed his feelings, thoughts, personality, voice, etc.
The PR judges are no different from agents and editors—they want to recognize the artist in the art. Your writing should be a reflection of what matters to you, not the same tropes they’ve seen a million times by a million other authors. Keep writing and your ideas and voice will become more YOU.

Nobody has the same story as you do. Personalize your ideas, and they’ll be distinct and noticeable.

7. Take ownership. Justin’s hot glue gun dress was a disaster on the runway, and he was lambasted for it. A few challenges later, the contestants had a chance to pick an outfit from an earlier challenge and recreate it. Justin was sobbing as he walked onto the floor and picked his own hideous dress. He knew that he owed it to himself to do better.

In writing, don’t send something out there that you know is flawed. It’s easy to feel like you no longer have the time/energy to fix it, but if you sense something isn’t working, readers will be all over it.

Care enough about your craft to send out your very best finished product.

6. Enjoy the journey. While we’re talking about Justin, his designs had the theme of “transformation.” Transformation is essential for writers. We evolve. We grow and learn and develop. Enjoy that process. For Justin, it was a matter of coming to terms with his individuality and incorporating lessons he learned along the way to make him a better designer. Hopefully most of us are writers because we love the journey of creation. We mirror great character arcs in which characters take internal and external journeys to find themselves and where they belong.

Keep practicing, keep growing, and enjoy the journey while recognizing your own moments of transformation.

7.  Develop a Thick Skin.
There are countless examples of contestants being eviscerated on the runway (on national TV), only to pick themselves up and try harder the next time. The winners are those who take criticism and learn from it. 
 Dom, the ultimate winner, was a great example of this. She had a very distinct design aesthetic that didn't always go over well, but instead of arguing, she always listened to the feedback and found new ways to interject suggestions from the judges into her OWN style.
Accepting criticism doesn't mean losing your own voice, but it does mean learning to incorporate your best work with what the industry and audience are seeking.

And, of course, we can't forget Tim's self-explanatory, "Make it work!"

I love Project Runway because, even though I suck at fashion, I love (and empathize) with the idea of creating something from nothing.

There’s nothing more fulfilling than taking any art form—whether it's writing or fashion—from conception to execution, culminating in a physical representation of something beautiful that started out as merely an idea. As writers, could we ask for anything more?

What about you? Has anyone watched Project Runway and felt inspired in your own artistic endeavors? Any lessons I missed mentioning?

July 8, 2014

An Ode to Horror


I'll just put it out there—I love creepy, twisted, dark, messed-up, terrifying stories. I used to be self-conscious about all of the mystery, suspense, and horror books that I devoured, thinking that they were a lesser genre. So when I went off to college, I gave away all of my R.L. Stine and Stephen King. I boxed stacks of Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha Christie. I gave up fear-inducing books in order to focus on real literature like Austen and Steinbeck.

And here's the thing. I do love Austen and Steinbeck. I love a lot of classics and literary fiction, but I've realized that horror has its place as well.

I was able to start looking at horror in a different way when I took a course on fairy tales in contemporary society. I realized how much the tales I grew up on had been sanitized, and that the original tales were horrific. They were meant to be gruesome and terrifying. They were meant to scare as a way to moralize and teach—a far cry from today’s Disneyfied versions of fairy tales.

Stephen King argues, “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time” (Google “Why We Crave Horror Movies”). I don’t agree with his entire article, but I do believe in the subversive nature of both fairy tales and horror. I think they both serve important functions in our culture, and those who appreciate horror, like those who appreciate fairy tales, aren’t deviants or future serial killers.

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a pretty interesting exploration of horror (mostly films) that anyone interested in the genre should pick up. He says that horror is about three things: Horror (when you experience something shocking), Terror (feeling of dread that something may happen), and Revulsion (the gross stuff—my least favorite of the three). When they are used in various combinations, the horror genre is created.

A couple of years ago, I saw a really interesting exhibit at the EMP Museum in Seattle called: Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film. I was especially drawn to this wall:

If horror films and books scare us, why do we like them? I know everyone doesn’t like/get horror, but I would add thrillers, suspense, mystery, true crime, etc. to the list. Some of us are drawn to the heart-pounding feeling of wondering what’s going to happen next or asking why someone would do such a thing. I liked some of the reasons on that wall in Seattle:

-       It tests our courage in a safe environment
-       It reinforces good vs. evil (some even argue that horror is the only medium that truly explores the contrast between true good and true evil)
-       It creates a rush of heightened emotions
-       It allows us to safely explore taboo subjects
-       It reflects our nightmares and dreams

I think this is a great starting point, but there are many other reasons as well. I’ll go into some of those in a later post, where I’ll look at some aspects of fear that I find really interesting in literature.

But, King’s comparison of horror to fairy tales, and the EMP’s look at the draw of horror illustrate that horror does matter in popular culture. Fear is a powerful motivator. Think of any horror or thriller where a child is taken or a life is threatened or a person is tortured or chased—people are manipulated to do horrible things because of fear. They react in ways that are against their normal behavior or belief system.

To me, that’s one of the greatest draws of horror. What would I do if confronted by my greatest terror? Would I be true to myself? Would I be smart and able to fight? Would I survive?

I’m drawn to the ideas that horror lets me 1) grapple with my fears. Danse Macabre claims that in periods of fear, like right after 9/11 or during the Cold War, there are increased outputs and consumption of horror. Film and literature are safe places to confront those fears at a level that we’re individually comfortable with. If it gets too intense, we can always close the book. And, 2) preparation. I personally love to imagine what I would do if zombies or aliens attacked or how I would survive biological warfare.

I love the feeling of my heart pounding, of realizing I’m holding my breath, or when something drives an audible gasp from my chest.

I can’t think of another genre that creates quite the same physical, mental, and emotional responses. I think it’s a pretty powerful type of literature.

Do you enjoy reading horror/thrillers/mystery/suspense? If so, why? Why do you think we react so viscerally to stories when we know they’re fiction?

June 10, 2014

Lagertha: Characters I Wish I'd Written

Strong, multi-dimensional characters are one of the best ways that writers can engage readers and keep them hooked on their stories.

As a reader and consumer of pop culture, I've liked a lot of different characters who engage me in different ways, but it's rare when I encounter a character that I think of as a friend or someone I connect with in a personal way. When I meet that kind of character, I emotionally engage at a deeper level. A few examples include Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Jane in Jane Eyre, Elinor Dashwood from the film version of Sense and Sensibility (1995), and Mal and Zoe in Firelfy.

Most recently, I’ve been kind of obsessed by Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, in Vikings on the History Channel.
She’s particularly interesting because she’s based on a real person, but there’s a lot of fictionalizing and incorporating legends and traits of other women from the time period. Personally, I think this is great because the fictional version is probably more interesting than the actual person was, and writers have done an amazing job of making her a must-see character.

So, let's do a kick rundown of Lagertha's character through Seasons One (I’ve tried to minimize spoilers, but there are a few along the way. Sorry).

1. She's a beautiful, happy, hard-working wife and mother. She's also feisty and sexual and has great relationships with those around her.

2. She is also a legendary shieldmaiden. She’s a warrior who everybody knows and respects and even fears. She can—and does—beat anyone who tries to harm her or her family.

Let’s stop there for a minute. Within the first few episodes, we see that she’s a fighter. She’s strong and opinionated and lethal. But she’s also sweet and compassionate. Over the years, writers have often tried to overcorrect perceived weaknesses in women by making them into badass, bitchy, warriors who wear tight black leather and either dominate men or sleep with them to get what they want. Dr. Christina Rowley calls this trend “a ‘hyper-feminine’ spectacle of sexuality that must ‘compensate’ for her warrior characteristics” (Gendered Space, 320).

But Lagertha doesn’t do that. She isn’t over-sexed. She isn’t mean and power-hungry. She’s kind and decent. She’s feminine and empowered. None of those traits should ever be mutually exclusive, but they often are in fiction. The writers of Lagertha have combined just the right amount of soft and edgy traits to make her well rounded, multi-dimensional, and oh-so-likeable.

3. She’s also suffering from fertility issues. Together she and her husband Ragnar have a son and daughter, but they both want more children. For a Viking leader, nothing is more important than sons. They will fight with him; they will follow him to battle and inherit his lands and titles (although not exclusively boys in Viking culture—more on that in the 2nd season); they convey his strength and worth. For Lagertha, not being able to provide that for Ragnar is devastating. She feels like a failure.

4. Ragnar dethrones the earl, making him and Lagertha the power couple. She becomes pregnant. She has everything she thought she wanted.

5. BUT, she is also worried. She knows that Ragnar has a restless spirit. He wants to travel the world and conquer. He wants more, more, more. She worries what that will mean for her.

6. She miscarries. Ragnar leaves, taking their son with him to explore and conquer. She is left to deal with a plague that starts wiping out their village. She is sad, alone, and scared. And then, in what I believe is one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen on TV ever, she loses her daughter the same moment she is losing her husband. I’ll let you watch it to see how.

This was the season finale, and I had such a strong reaction to it that I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. By that point, Lagertha was someone I loved and felt a human connection to, so when she experienced so much loss and her greatest fears were realized, it was devastating for me as a viewer.

In Season Two, Lagertha goes on to make hard choices. I didn’t always agree with them, but I understood why she made them because her character was so fully developed, they made sense for her. The writers would have been cheating if they'd written her any other way. She reinvents herself in important ways, making the most of her strengths without losing sight of her tragedies and losses. 

So, who cares? 

Well, as a writer, I’m always trying to figure out what makes amazing characters work. Of course there are as many character types as there are ways to write them, but my takeaway from Lagertha is that writers can keep readers engaged by implementing the following traits in their characters:

·      They’re normal/relatable. They have traits or roles that we can identify with in our own lives.
·      They have strengths. There’s something powerful or unique about them that makes us want to be more like them.
·      They have flaws or weaknesses or handicaps or obstacles. We can identify with their heartaches and their attempts to overcome something hard.
·      They have victories. They know successes and joys, and as readers, we love celebrating those with them.
·      They define themselves by interactions with other characters. They aren’t in a bubble. They’re affected—positively and negatively—by those they love. They have fears and hopes and know how their own fulfillment can be dependent on other peoples’ choices.
·      They have setbacks. Fiction is all about tension, and tension is all about kicking the characters when they’re down. If it hurts readers that we as writers are causing our characters pain, then we’re doing our job right.
·      They redefine themselves. They don’t wallow or stay in a slump. At least not forever. For likeable, relatable characters, they have to pull themselves out at some point and rethink where they fit and why.
·      They become a new, stronger, better character. This doesn’t always happen (especially in literary fiction), but in genre fiction we like the sense of closure. That somehow all of the trials that the characters have gone through have not been in vain. They become something different. Their character arc is based on them evolving and emerging, at least internally, victorious.

There is a whole cast of interesting characters in this series.

Ragnar, Lagertha’s husband, is great with kids. He loves deeply and passionately. He spares people he is expected to massacre. In many ways, he inverts expectations of Viking brutality. But, he does other things that I hate him for. His brother Rollo means well. He’s loyal and can be compassionate. But he’s also greedy and traitorous and keeps screwing up—he rapes, he murders, he turns on his brother. But I can empathize with his jealousy and remorse, which makes me occasionally root for him.

And then there’s Siggy and Floki and Bjorn and so many others. I could go on all day. If you haven’t seen the series, it’s worth checking out. Watch the characters—so many of them are complex and interesting and relatable.

What about you? Do you have your own Lagertha—a character who you’ve connected/identified with deeply? For you, what qualities should characters have in order to be engaging?

June 3, 2014

LDStorymakers 2014

LDStorymakers is one of my favorite conferences. It's always well organized, has tons of really fun, nice people, and it is attended and taught by a lot of authors that I admire. This year’s conference was no exception. But rather than give you a travelogue, here are a few of the highlights for me, in no particular order:

1. Publication Primer Group
The day before each conference, they offer the option to workshop a completed novel with a critique group and a published author. I’ve always had a good experience with this, but this year was awesome. All of the participants in our group were really good writers, and more importantly (to me), excellent critique givers. Our group leader was Jennifer Shaw Wolf, who writes great contemporary YA. She was genuine and down-to-earth, and she gave really solid advice about writing mechanics and querying.

Sarah Hunter Hyatt was a bonus. She came with Jennifer on a book tour, and we were lucky enough to have her sit in and offer some excellent advice from the perspective of someone who works in publishing.  

The other three participants were all fantastic writers whose work I can’t wait to see published. I have no doubt that all of them will make it someday.

2. Tweets of the Keynote 
I thrive on awkward moments, so I was sad to learn that I’d missed one of the best ones of the century by skipping out on the keynote. Although I had to leave for family reasons, I checked in at the conference hashtag to read updates. The Twitter feed was going crazy with the bizarre and offensive things being said in the keynote address, so I spent the evening riveted to my phone. I was intrigued by the tweets themselves, but even more so wondering how things were going to go the next day when the speaker taught a session to a room full of people who had been saying horrible things about him online. I was torn between laughing at the tweets and praying that the keynote speaker wasn’t into Twitter.

3. Brandon Sanderson
I’ve taken a class from Sanderson before, and even though his genre of writing isn’t my favorite, I think he’s one of the best teachers out there. He’s analytical enough to know what works and why. He’s smart and talented. He’s humble and gracious. He’s funny and engaging. I could listen to him talk about writing all day long. Every time I hear him speak, I feel like anything is possible in my own writing.

I have this secret plan to someday become so successful that he’ll want to be my best friend. He is seriously a good person.

4. Jordan McCollum
I’d never heard of McCollum. I took her class because there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to take at that time slot, and she blew me away. Like Sanderson, she’s analytical—this woman had spreadsheets to track every part of her writing process—she was a good teacher, and her ideas and methods were just plain smart. I ran out of the class so I could get to the bookstore and buy all of her books on writing before I had to be somewhere, and then I took another class of hers the next day. It was equally impressive. To be honest, I’m probably not organized enough to use all of her methods, but there are many that I will try, and her books on character arcs and character sympathy are pure gold.

She was my favorite new discovery of the conference.

5. Agent Workshop
This year they had a fun new feature where you could sign up for a critique workshop with an agent instead of pitching to them. It was a couple of hours, and you got the query and first ten pages of each participant. This was great because you had a lot more time to spend with agents than is typical, and the query samples provided concrete examples of what will make them stop reading or keep them going. It was pretty enlightening.

The one problem that I ran into was a personal one.

My query basically said:
My novel is a mash-up of X (popular film) + Y (classic novel). Well, apparently the film was involved in a lawsuit for plagiarizing a novel I hadn't heard of—a novel that just so happens to be represented by the agent running the workshop. So, completely by accident and against all odds, I hit an agent rage button with the very first line of my query. Awesome.

It didn't get too much better after that, but my CP (who was also in the class) did say, "I think he hated yours less than some of the others." So there is that.

Still, it was a really good experience. The agent was intelligent, kind, and asked a lot of great questions about all of the manuscripts. It was a priceless experience in learning about agent/query expectations.

6. J. Scott Savage
I always love classes on horror writing. If I had one complaint about the conference, it’s that they don’t really seem to do a lot of panels on horror, and when they do, they’re fairly tame and about LDS horror, which is its own strange genre.

This year, Savage did a great class on horror. He went into so much detail on creating scenes and moods and tension. It was stuff that was great for horror, but it was also applicable to a lot of different genres. It was one of my favorite classes of the conference.

7. How I impressed a NYC agent
There’s an agent I was excited to meet because I stalk her on Twitter, and she seems smart and nice and interesting. Well, I did get to brush shoulders with her, but not in the way I’d imagined.

To attend the conference, I ditched my baby for three days. I'm still breastfeeding, so every few hours I would sneak into the restroom, hide in a stall, and pump and dump. I tried to be discreet as I went to the sink to rinse out the breast pump. Of course, the second I turned on the water, someone came up beside me to wash their hands. I looked over and it was THE agent. She looked down at the pump in my hands and froze. She looked at my face, said, “Oh,” and curled up her lip like it was something disgusting before spinning and leaving.

And that, my friends, is how you impress the NYC crowd.

She was nice in the panels though, and I’m still a big fan.

What about you? What are your favorite conferences? Any smart, funny, or embarrassing conference moments that stand out?