July 7, 2015

Podcasts for Writerly Types

Podcasts are one of my favorite ways to feel engaged with the creative community and feel like I’m learning something new. When I can’t sit and pick up a book, I can often turn on a podcast and listen while I fold laundry or clean the kitchen or drive to appointments. They’re free, easy to download, and they make me feel like I’m being more productive than listening to Taylor Swift’s newest album for the billionth time.

I’ve listened to dozens of them over the years. Some are better than others, and of course different people will prefer different personalities and podcast styles, but here are the top five I think every writer should check out:

ONE: Writing Excuses
This one is in its tenth season, so they have podcasting down to an art. Their tagline is “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” I like that it’s short and organized and to the point. I like that it has great authors (like Brandon Sanderson) sharing what they’ve learned. I like that there are different types of writers in the cast, and they often bring on guests. The only drawbacks to this one are their tangents can sometimes get annoying (and a couple of the cast are particularly prone to tangents), and if you’ve listened to it for ten seasons, it can often feel repetitive.

BUT. If you’re a writer who is new to podcasts, this is definitely the place to start. They’ve won dozens of awards, and they really know their stuff.

TWO: First Draft with Sarah Enni
This is one of my favorites. Enni travels around the country on a long road trip, interviewing different authors in their homes or hometown. This one is like being part of an intimate conversation with best friends. You get a great sense of each author’s personality, and I like that Enni focuses on authors that are relevant NOW and understand the current markets and publication processes. The only drawback to this one, in my opinion, is that often they’ll meet at cafes or the author will have dogs or kids yelling in the background. They don’t do high-quality recording sessions, and sometimes it’s super annoying. If I wanted to listen to kids yelling, I’d turn off the podcast and listen to my own. Still, this one is a great source of information for aspiring writers, and I think Enni is a personable, likeable host.

THREE: This one's a tie between Radio West and TED Talks.
These two aren't generally writing specific, but I think they have the most interesting range of topics and ideas. Both do shows on everything from authors to religion to science to current events. TedTalks are particularly popular--they're short, informative, and really interesting. If you haven't ever tried them, these talks from authors would be a great place to start.

As for Radio West, I think the host, Doug Fabrizio, is one of the smartest, most well read, most empathetic and engaging hosts out there. This week alone, I’ve listened to podcasts about Lewis Carol, Climate Change, FBI Terrorist Informants, and the culture and history of rain.

With both podcasts, even topics that I don’t think will interest me often draw me in once they get started, and I’ve incorporated the ideas into more than a few stories. I also like the occasional break from writing specific chatter, and these ones make me feel smart and well rounded.

FOUR: Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips
This is exactly what the title sounds like—quick discussions on grammar. This is perfect for writers because it covers use of grammar, punctuation, and usage that will make all of us better at our craft. The host, Mignon Fogarty, gives a lot of examples and somehow manages to make the discussion of grammar fun and engaging. You’ll like it so much, you’ll forget you’re learning!

FIVE: This Creative Life with Sara Zarr
Similar in format to First Draft, I like the one-on-one style that Sara Zarr uses to interview various authors. I feel like she has a wide range of genres and categories in the authors she interviews, and she is really sharp. If I had to compare the two, First Draft’s Enni has a list of questions that you’ll hear repeated for each author. I like that format, but I also like that this one seems more organic and the conversation takes different twists, depending on the author and the things she/he wants to focus on. It’s a different style, but still intimate, informative, and fun to listen to.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (because who can stick to five?)

The Writing Show
This one might not appeal to everyone. The hosts have very distinctive personalities, and it’s not as uniform as other podcasts. The thing I like about it is that it covers a wide range of topics from genres to screenplay writing to rules of writing. It’s a great podcast that brings on established writers to talk about different aspects of their writing and careers.

I Should be Writing/Ditch Diggers
Mur Lafferty runs both of these podcasts. I Should be Writing is her own reflections on writing life and usually a short interview. It’s very personal and introspective. I don’t love her co-host on Ditch Diggers, but it’s interesting because it’s more business focused where I Should be Writing is about creative processes and self. Both are worth checking out.

This American Life
This should probably be in the top five, but this podcast is great with storytelling, setting different moods, engaging the audience—all tools writers need to use. It can be sad or hilarious, but regardless of the topic, it’s always fun!

The Legendarium
This one is more focused on fantasy, particularly Tolkien and Sanderson, but they’ll deviate to talk about Lovecraft, super heroes, horror, new movies, etc. I like that their focus is usually based on current issues and pop culture. For example, not just The Lord of the Rings, but the role of women in The Lord of the Rings. It’s a fun listen if you’re into fantasy and/or pop culture.

This is a podcast that focuses on one story for an entire season. If you haven’t listened to the first season, GO NOW! It’s perfect for writers because it has spot-on storytelling. It has perfect structure for writing chapters. It gives you just the information you need, as you need it, shows how to incorporate back-story, and makes you feel like you’ll explode because you have to wait for the next episode. We could all learn a lot about storytelling from the way host Sarah Koenig leads us through the narrative. (I must like Sarahs. There are a lot of them in this post!)

The Author Hangout
A great tool for learning how to market books and use social media as an author.

The History Chicks
Awesome podcast that focuses on women in history. It showcases specific women, random groups of women like the women from Oz or Tudor grandmothers, and is an entertaining way to learn more about history from the perspective of women. Great inspiration for characters!

And that’s my list! Hopefully you’ve found something worth checking out. I know that I have a lot of fun listening to podcasts, and I think I’m more informed and a better writer for taking the time to listen.

What about you? Any writerly podcasts you love that I’ve missed?

Post originally published here.

June 11, 2015

Do Critique Partners Mess with a Writer's Inherent Genius?

I’ve read several posts lately about why people don’t believe Critique Partners (CPs) or writing groups are for them. I think it’s totally fine if authors don’t want to work with others—IF they don’t want to be published.

Here’s the thing. Writing is a beautiful and solitary pursuit. Publication is not. Those of us who intend to eventually be published are not writing in a bubble. Writing becomes about more than only what we like or what we think works. I read one post that said, “I know I’m not going to take the suggestions anyway, so why bother?”

To this I say, 1) If you feel like you have all the answers and nothing to learn from others, then you probably suck as a person, and I don’t want to read your books anyway. And 2) Then you probably haven’t found the RIGHT critique partners yet. Because, honestly, I feel pretty confident about my writing and about the things I like and don’t like, but I can’t possibly think of everything from every angle.

For example, in my writing group, I’m the only female. For those boys, I get to be the angry feminist who tells them when they’re using manic pixie dream girls or gratuitous violence against women or other plot devices that are stupid and sexist and overused (I hope I add more to the group than that, but we joke about how that’s my role).

And in turn, I have one group member who is a genius with plots. He knows what works and why or why not. He can point out plot holes and pacing issues in ways I’ve never seen anyone else do. The other guy is so great with characters. He has a gift for infusing realistic characteristics into flat archetypes. He’s also very positive and allows me to see the good in what I’m writing, even when it’s mostly crap.

I also have a critique partner who is HILARIOUS. Any time she comments on my stuff, I end up adding so much more voice to it because she oozes personality just by being alive. Me? Not so much. I’m more the boring writer type. I have another reader who is honest and blunt and tells me when something sucks. Personally, I need ALL of those things.

I don’t always take every suggestion that all of them make, but it’s helpful to see how other readers might view my work, and if it’s coming across the way I’d intended.

However, writing for publication comes with an audience, and being able to gain perspective from others helps to anticipate that audience—whether it’s actual readers, agents reading my sample/query, or editors I’m hoping will buy my work. They’re all people whose perspectives I can better anticipate because I have sounding boards BEFORE I submit my work to them. I really believe that even people who prefer to work alone need that.

The one exception might be that I’ve heard a lot of published authors say they don’t have time for CPs or groups anymore—their first audience is their agent or editor. I hope I never get THAT busy, because I find the process of working with CPs invaluable. But what do I know? I’m not a published author yet.

I guess my point is, if you’re an aspiring author, and you feel like you have no need for outside readers/input—whether it be every step of the way or at least before you submit the book—then I think it’s important to ask yourself why. If it’s because your ego’s too big to take feedback from others and really measure its relevance to what you’re trying to accomplish, then I think you should reconsider.

In my experience, Critique Partners have made ALL the difference, and I think they can for most people, as long as they’re working with the right ones for them.

What do you think? Are you anti-CPs/Writing group? Have you had any really good or bad experiences with them?

May 14, 2015

Another Academic Chapter about Fairy Tales!

This week I was asked by the same editors that I worked with in this book to write a chapter for a new reference guide about fairy tales.

My chapter will be "Fairy-Tale Cultures and Media and Expressive Genres and Venues: Comic Con"

Um, fairy tales and comic con? Can you think of anything more exciting? Well, I can't. I'm thrilled to be working with this brilliant group again and excited that now when I go to cons, I can say it's for "research." 

Now to get busy!

April 13, 2015

Motivation Monday: Neil Gaiman

"This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard, and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard."

Neil Gaiman is arguably one of contemporary literature's most important authors--and definitely one of the most prolific. He's written tons of comics, screenplays for film and television, short stories, a video game, some non-fiction, and published a bunch of novels for adults and children, including some great ones like Coraline, American Gods, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He's only in his 50s, and he's still going strong!

Fun Facts about Neil Gaiman:
  • First author to win both the Newbery and Carnegie medals for the same book (The Graveyard Book).
  • Started reading at age four and has been a voracious reader since. He loves comics and classics, and everything in between.
  • Grew up in a family of Scientologists, but is not religious. Says there's probably a 50/50 chance God exists, but he doesn't really care either way.
  • Famously has a writing shed where he retreats to enjoy the quiet of nature while he writes.
  • My favorite thing? He keeps bees!
  • He's expecting a baby with Amanda Palmer in September.
So What?
The best part about writing is writing. The worst part about writing is writing. If you want to be an author, you just have to do it, man. Put one word after another until it's done--best advice ever.

April 10, 2015

Making My Own Odds

I love this post on Kristen Lamb's blog. She talks about how only 5% of writers will ever make it as career authors. It might sound discouraging to some, but she broke it down to show how much of writing and publishing really is within each person's control. It's easy to forget that when you're in the trenches, but I love Lamb's reminder that it's about showing up and learning and improving.

Also, she didn't say it explicitly, but I was reminded that succeeding as a writer isn't a competition. It's only about my own willingness to sacrifice and work and be dedicated to my goals. That, I can handle!

Check out the post--especially her breakdown of the 5%. I think I may frame it and put it on my desk.

April 9, 2015

Spring Break!

Monday I blogged about "writing" while you're busy doing other things. This week, I'm putting it into practice. My kids are out of school for spring break, so we're wandering off into the forest with no internet access (or plumbing, if you must know!) and a whole lot of work projects we need to finish.

I'm taking my laptop, and during any downtime, I'm committed to finishing the last 10k words of my WIP. Manual labor, surviving the woods, and finishing my book are my only goals for the entire break. I can't wait!

See you on the other side!

April 6, 2015

Motivation Monday: Agatha Christie

"The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes."

Agatha Christie wrote 66 detective/mystery novels (including my favorite mystery of all time: And Then Their Were None/Ten Little Indians/Ten Little Niggers), 6 romance novels under the pen-name Mary Westmacott, dozens of plays (both theater and radio), and innumerable short stories, poems, and unpublished works. She's considered the queen of plotting, and has influenced countless adaptations and inspired countless authors.

Fun Facts about Agatha Christie:
  • Best-selling novelist of all time, with roughly 2-4 billion books sold.
  • Third best-selling books of all time, ranked only behind The Bible and Shakespeare.
  • Made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
  • Her character, Hercule Poirot, is the only fictional character ever to have an obituary printed in The New York Times.
  • During WWI, she worked as the equivalent of a pharmacist assistant, thus the in-depth knowledge of poisons apparent in many of her novels.
  • She was deeply involved with theater, an accomplished photographer, a world traveler, and attended many archeological digs with her husband.
So What?
When Christie says to plan a book while doing dishes, I'm sure she meant it literally. However, based on the full and fascinating life she lived, I also believe she meant to have ideas churning in your head always, even while going about the mundane duties of life.

If you're a writer, you're always a writer--when you're noticing small details such as crunching leaves and sunshine filtering through trees on a fall day; when you're people watching and stealing snatches of interesting dialogue; when you're dozing off and an evasive plot point finally jumps into your head.

I think she's saying that when you're writing on a regular basis, it becomes part of everything you do. And as an added bonus? Washing the dishes just got more interesting!

April 2, 2015

Read Like It's Your Job

One of the main pieces of advice that we receive as writers is Read More Books!

Read widely in your genre. Read books on writing craft. Read books outside of your genre. Read diverse authors. READ ALL THE BOOKS!

I love to read. It's one of my favorite things to do, which is probably why it feels like a luxury that I allow myself to indulge in only after all the hard things are done. After the house is perfect and the day job is finished and church duties are completed and the kids are clean and fed and content.  

Reading is never a priority--it's my reward for completing obligations.

Which is why it rarely happens. Which is why my "to read" pile is a teetering stack next to an overstuffed bookcase of unread books that I only dream of cracking open.

People say if you want something bad enough, there's no excuse. I don't believe that. There are LOTS of excuses. Many of them are very valid ones. I literally never finish everything that needs to get done before I can "allow" myself to sit and read.

In addition to having a life, I work hard at writing. I write every singly day, I blog, I blog and edit for an e-zine, I read and write for a weekly writing group. I have a CP Mistress on the side, which requires working on a different project than my official group is working on. I read and critique manuscripts for friends. I query other projects.

So, yeah. I'm busy. Who isn't?

But, I also love this quote, and I believe in it:

Then where does that leave me?

I work hard at writing, but because of that, I don't have time to read as much as I'd like/as much as I should. I've tried audio books and other ways of getting it in, but with small children, that doesn't work as well as I would like.

Recently my husband sent me an article about how to read more books. It kinda changed my life. The article includes a few simple steps, but I only want to focus on one of them for now. Check out the article for the others.

The step that changed my life?

Read 10% of a book every day.

That's it. (Mostly).

In a standard book, 10% is only about 20-40 pages. Depending how dense the book is, I can usually do that in 15-45 minutes. It seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try.

It's great advice for anyone, but as a writer, here are my two take-aways from the experience:

1. Treat reading like a writing course. 

If there were a class that I could take every single day that only lasted a few minutes but could significantly improve my writing, wouldn't I take it? I think I would.

I believe reading has the same power as any good class. Even in the last few days, I've seen authors use techniques that have made a huge difference in my own WIP. I believe, as King said, that reading is giving me the tools I need to become a better writer.

2. Treat reading like a job.

We hear all the time that we need to treat writing like a job. Well, if reading is essential to improving at writing (my hopefully-someday-soon-job), then I should make time for it.

My schedule and workload haven't changed, but I'm making reading a priority. Some days it's a challenge to get through the minimum. Other days I can't put the book down and read much more than I'd planned. The difference is I use my time better. I get up a little earlier. I use social media a little less.

The changes are not significant enough to feel like I've sacrificed anything, but the benefits definitely feel like I've accomplished something important. And as an added bonus, I'm making time for the activity I love most.

How do you make time for reading in your busy life? Do you have any strategies you can share?

March 30, 2015

Motivation Monday: George Orwell

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

George Orwell  (1903-1950), a pseudonym for Eric Blair, wrote six novels, including the still widely read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He also wrote three nonfiction books, hundreds of articles, and dozens of poems, screenplays, and short stories. 

Fun Facts about George Orwell:
  • Animal Farm made him famous in 1945. His first professional article was published in 1928. That's seventeen years of writing professionally before finally making it big!
  • Was a police for five years in Burma.
  • Married twice, had lots of affairs, and one adopted son whom he adored.
  • Was superstitious and had small blue circles tattooed on each knuckle to ward off evil spirits.
So What?
So, go be driven by your demons! There's no logical reason why someone would put themselves through the torture of writing, but since you can't resist the torture, go do it!

March 26, 2015

Creating Suspense without Manipulating Outcomes

Last weekend I went with my husband and another couple to a murder mystery dinner. Our job was to question characters—doctor, lawyer, actress, maid, gardener, etc.—about their host, a wealthy estate owner murdered during his own dinner party.
            It was fun to talk with the cast, explore the “manor,” and interact with friends.

The evening was broken up into three parts.
Act 1: A PI (Private Investigator) told us there was a murder. Without any of the details, we questioned the cast.
Act 2: The PI called us back together to tell us:
a.     The victim had been stabbed at the base of his skull.
b.     Part of a torn note was found in his mouth. All of the guests had received a note exposing a dark deed the rich man had found out about them.
c.     Parts of the estate had been shut off/boarded up, and we needed to explore those closed off areas.
Act 3: We re-interviewed the actors with the new information, the PI found the final clue, and the case was solved.

Toward the end, I was pretty determined that it was the gardener. She had a relationship with one of the guests, access to the house, a visible pair of pruning sheers that fit the description of the murder weapon, a motive (her own letter from the dead man), and potential incentive based on her connection with the rich actress.

During the final phase, two things happened. In the dark corridors, somebody found a letter opener (murder weapon) and someone found the other half of the note. The mystery was solved because the name at the top of the note told who the murderer was.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, the story was unsatisfying because it broke three key rules of good fiction:

1.     Chekhov’s Gun: Employing purely extraneous details which do not enhance the plot and do not lead to a potential conclusion. (the character backstories). Learn more HERE.

2.     Red Herrings: Using clues that are not extraneous and would lead to a possible conclusion, just the wrong one from the real conclusion (plain sight gardening sheers fitting the description of the murder weapon). Post about how to do them right, HERE.

3.  Deus Ex Machina: Resolving a problem through contrived and unexpected intervention with a new event, character, ability, or object (the name on the letter that the PI found when nobody else could). Hilarious post about Deus Ex Machina HERE

Literary agent Victoria Marini said this one best: 

In the first act, it works to have everyone be a suspect because they each have motive, opportunity, and ability to commit the crime. But Chekhov's Gun indicates too many details thrown in that aren't relative to the story, and the note being found by the PI was a major Deus Ex Machina--because the writers of the play intervened with a new object and event that we weren't told about until the conclusion. Red Herrings work great in mysteries, but after the first one or two acts, the reader should be able to start drawing a few accurate conclusions. The problem with our experience was that there was no way to solve the puzzle based on the information we were given. 

A good example of plotting done right is the boardgame CLUE. Players are on a level playing field with access to all relevant information. Each player starts with an open graph where all weapons, rooms, and characters are suspect. 

But as information becomes available, you're able to eliminate suspects until all that's left are the last possible choices. It's deductive reasoning, not an endless stream of "guessing" what the author wants you to figure out.

A mystery should narrow down possible conclusions with each act, not add more possible conclusions. In other words, you can't have a conclusion that wasn't reachable all along. 

It's the same with writing in any genre. As authors, do we deliver what we promise in the premise? Do we give readers the tools they need to come to satisfying conclusions?

I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from writing, and particularly from working with a writing group, is:

Give the reader credit!

Readers are smart. Allow them to put the pieces together so they feel like they’ve figured something out, rather than that they’ve come along on the journey, only to be misled by the clues and tricked in the end.
Look at We Were Liars, for example. Without spoilers, the novel is basically a psychological game that could have gone badly. However, I felt like there were enough clues along the way that I ultimately bought the ending. The big revelation was earned because Lockhart had legitimized the end all along. The clues were all there, it just wasn’t until the end that I was able to make sense of them.

I believe that’s how good fiction works--the author trusts that the reader is smart enough to stay with them. Otherwise, it may be a fun journey, but it leaves the reader unsatisfied in the end.

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling tricked or didn’t trust to you to make the connections? As an author, do you have any tips for creating mystery without manipulating the outcome?

March 25, 2015

The Power of Mood Boards

This week I blogged about Mood Boards over at Quantum Fairy Tales.

Mood Boards for Creative Types looks at the benefits of mood boards for inspiration and so many other things.


Finding Inspiration for Your Mood Board is a fun exercise in identifying moods and senses with randomly assigned pictures.

Check them out!

For the post, I also created my own mood board for my current project. It was a lot of fun and convinced me that I before I start my next book, I definitely need to have a mood board in place!

February 6, 2015

Book Launch: Shutter by Courtney Alameda

I’ve been a fan of Courtney Alameda for a while. True, Shutter is her first book, but she’s done a lot of excellent blog posts on Scream Queens and elsewhere. I’ve seen her pop up all over the place in the last few months, so I was eager to attend her launch and see if she held up in person.

It was one of the best I’ve been to.

I loved her approach to the launch. She talked about her writing journey and her book, but she also focused a lot of the conversation on aspiring writers. First, she talked about having “Creative Godparents,” or authors who bestow certain things when we read them. For example, she says Crichton gave her a love of monsters; McKinley gave her feminism; Tolkien gave her a land to escape from bullies; McCaffrey introduced her to blended genres.

She gave other examples, but her overall point was that we’re deeply influenced by the things we read, which is why we should read widely and often to improve our own writing. It’s not a new sentiment, but I loved the way she framed the discussion.

I also appreciated her view of horror. She said that all fiction lies to us, but horror explores life in a grittier, more realistic way. It shows us that we can survive terror and monsters, but we can’t avoid the scars that come with them. I think it’s one of the reasons I love horror so much—it’s a chance to explore what humans can overcome and gives us permission not to be the same afterward.

Another concept I found really interesting was her passion for video games and how much they’ve influenced her writing. I’ve never been into video games, but lately I’ve heard several writers talk about how gaming is key to their creative process. Alameda said that she’d written Shutter to read like a video game. She called it a “gateway drug to books.” I loved that image.

I wanted to hate the girl—she didn’t have to query to get an agent, she never got rejected, she is smart and charming and a great writer. Heck, she even rocked a ZOMBIE skirt and stilettos. But, I left her launch feeling like Young Adult and horror were both in incredibly intelligent and capable hands. I can’t wait to read her book.

January 29, 2015

The Beauty of Retellings

Retellings are a popular part of our culture—whether it’s fairy tales reinvented for television or YA novels, generations-old urban legends around campfires, or the all female remake of Ghostbusters.

Most of the time we like the sense of familiarity from the original tale, with the added bonus of something new and reimagined. Or maybe we hate the original and are looking for someone to do it better. Either way, retellings aren’t going away any time soon.

But retellings can also be problematic because we have a set of expectations going in that may be unmet in the newer version. For example, last week I went to see a musical version of The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of my favorite books of all time.

I hated the movie that came out a few years ago because it took a tale about revenge and humanity and turned it into a Hollywood romance. Very disappointing. I had high hopes for the play though. Theater performances tend to be darker, and a musical seemed like a really cool medium to do something new and interesting with a great story.

There were a few things I really enjoyed about the musical. For one, it had fantastic digital graphics projected as the backdrops. They were able to do some visually amazing scenes, like the prison shots with the underground digging and underwater scenes like the body bag sinking and Dantès finding the treasure.

They also did some fun gender-bending. The pirate ship that picked up Dantès was captained by a loud, brassy, over-sexed female. They tried to make some of the scenes fun and quirky amidst the dark storyline.

But overall, it didn’t work for me. Like the movie, the Count forgives Mercedes and they live happily ever after. I think the book has a lot of themes that are much more meaningful than just another love story (the book contains some of the best love stories—just not the happily ever after between Edmond and Mercedes that remakes seem to like).

The voice of the musical, for me, was the “it’s not you it’s me” type of rejection that agents send authors all the time. The songs were loud and involved a lot of shouting, instead of the nuanced mix of light/soft/dark/loud of other similarly heavy-themed musicals like Les Misérables or Wicked. The narrative felt monochromatic and one-dimensional. I often wonder if that’s how agents see stories from their slushpile when they respond that the voice didn’t grab them.

Although I didn’t love either the film or musical adaptation of this particular book, I like other spinoffs of The Count of Monte Cristo—like the television series, Revenge—but I think it’s because they don’t resemble the story much at all. They’re their own thing—they aren’t trying to improve upon the original so much as springboard a new story from an existing idea or theme, which I think is the beauty of retellings.  

For me, it holds true that I like retellings that develop another dimension or adapt the story to a new narrative. Some examples include 10 Things I Hate About You as Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; Austen’s Emma in Clueless; and Ever After or Cinder as new takes on Cinderella, to name a few. Or I like retellings that stick true to the original in theme and story, like BBC's Austen remakes. So I like them either really close to the original or really far away--if that makes any sense.

Arthur Frank’s Letting Stories Breathe says that stories over time “change plots and characters to fit multiple circumstances, allowing many different people to locate themselves in the characters in those plots” (Frank 39).

So, I guess if some girl sees herself in the bawdy, bossy pirate captain and is able to embrace feminism because of the gender twist, then the retelling did its job.

In general, I think retellings are a great way to expand a story and think about new ideas within the framework of a familiar tale. And as writers, I think we’re always influenced by different parts of already existing stories. I think retellings are a fascinating part of the creative process and of contemporary narratives in a variety of mediums.

Do you have any favorite retellings? Or any retellings that you hate?

January 15, 2015

Blogging Voice: A Whole New Animal

I’m trying to find my blogging voice. I feel like I know my scholarly voice, and I’m decent at finding different voices for different fiction projects, but when it comes to blogging, I’m at a loss.

I like the idea of exploring the academic side of things when it comes to writing, which was kind of the point of starting this blog. But when I asked a couple of friends to read it, one said: “It sounds like a textbook,” which everyone knows is never a compliment. Another friend said, “It’s over my head, and I feel dumb reading it.” Since the entire premise of my blog is about starting a conversation (remember the parlor discussion?), I’m obviously failing.

I know there are things I like in other blogs that aren’t me—animated GIFs, for example. 

(There you go. Probably the only animated GIF I'll ever post.)

GIFs totally fit some peoples’ personalities and it works for them. Sometimes they lighten the mood of a post and make it more interactive, but mostly they drive me crazy and I have a hard time focusing on the content with too much movement going on. I also don’t write or eat tacos in my bed, and I never run around without pants on--all of which seem like prerequisites to being a writer, so I’m not sure where that leaves me.

All I know is that I need to find a happy medium between boring textbook writer and fun, GIF-y writer. That’s one of my goals this year, I guess.

Kind of funny story to go along with finding a distinct voice:

I proposed a conference class this year on voice. It’s a topic I’m pretty good at teaching, and I always got rave reviews on student evaluations about that topic, so I based my conference pitch on the class I’d taught. It was a solid pitch, and I was excited about it.

It was rejected.

When I got the finalized conference schedule, I figured out at least one of the reasons why.

#1. The title of my pitch:
Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Finding Your Own Style and Voice by Mimicking the Greats

#2. A class on the final schedule:
Amateurs Borrow, Professionals Steal: How Creative Fusion Fuels Great Stories

Pretty much the exact same premise, but which class would you rather attend? 100% #2, right? It sounds more fun and interesting, and it also takes the imitation a step further to implement the SO WHAT? of imitation. Anyway, it’s being taught by an author I admire, and I’m excited to take the class from her.

I’ve thought a lot about my own voice lately and my blog’s lack of likeability/relatability. Here’s a (non-writing) post I love that relates:

In the early years of my blog, I remember…things that fell firmly in the “meh” category – there was nothing particularly notable to write about, nothing that interesting. For someone trying to find their voice as a blogger, this was altogether excruciating. And so I tried everything in an attempt to see what clicked, what felt natural, and what did not.        

I published the occasional illustration, I made lists. I was at times emotional, at times snarky, at times altogether boring. In some respects I haven’t changed at all – I still experiment with the blog. I still toy with new concepts and try to be creative. I write the occasional haiku. But now, unlike then, I know exactly what my voice is. I know who I am as a writer. Hell, I might even know who I am, period.

She goes on about particular instances, and it’s a hilarious blog, but more than anything, it gives me hope that blog voice is its own distinct little animal that I will develop over time. Like other writing, it’s a skill I can develop if I stick with it.

Do you blog? Did it take you a while to find the right voice for your blog audience and what you were trying to accomplish?  Any tips for developing that voice?

January 8, 2015

Ringing in The New Year

A couple of random thoughts for the New Year:

1. I’m starting off the new year in querying hell. 


In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t started right before the holidays. I did it because my 2014 goal was to send out a few queries, and I literally waited until the last possible moment to do that. Mostly I was afraid to jump in, and I didn’t think about how starting in December would add extra weeks to an already excruciating process that can turn even the most patient person (which I'm not) into an angst-ridden, mouth-foaming, deranged lunatic. On one hand, I have a few fulls/partials out and only a few rejections. On the other hand, now that people are back in the office, I constantly feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

2. Goals. I really like them. I love the idea of turning over a new leaf and starting fresh—although I’m pretty consistent about setting goals throughout the year, it’s fun to start with brand new shiny ones. And lists? Be still my heart. There’s nothing that makes me happier than finishing goals and crossing them off a list.

For example, here's my list for January:
Obviously it's very specific to me and may be overkill, but it fills the criteria of being specific, measurable, and written. By crossing things off on a regular basis, I feel like I’m constantly accomplishing something. Especially for writing, when there are so many factors I can’t control. It lets me feel like I’m controlling the aspects that I can.

3. Querying sucks, but I’m working on two projects that I’m excited about. It’s fun to put away the novel that consumed all of last year and create something new and shiny (there’s that phrase again. Apparently I really like shiny things?).

4. I’m giving my year a theme. I read this really awesome post on tips to help with New Year’s productivity. There are several I’ll try to implement, but my favorite is this:

A one-word theme creates simplicity, clarity, and life change. You’ll find renewed passion and purpose by achieving laser-like focus that drives productivity.

Best of all, one word transforms not only what you do, but who you become; it impacts every area of life—physical, relational, mental, spiritual, emotional, vocational, and financial. One-word focus eliminates distractions and turns our intentions into actions.

I want my word to be tenacity. Or discipline. Tenapline? Discacity? Can I just pick two, please?

It’s easy for me to get bogged down in the millions of different ideas for success, so I like the idea of focusing on one method of achieving a lot of different types of goals. In all of my little goals, I just have to remind myself to be disciplined and tenacious, and the rest will fall into place.

5. Let it Go. 
In addition to a lot of goals and discipline, I also want to learn to let go a bit more. Relax occasionally. Waste time. Tinker. Think. Just be instead of always freaking out about the details.

My favorite mind-numbing distraction lately is Legos. It’s been a while since I’ve done my own—my kids got a dozen sets for Christmas, and I helped assemble those until my fingers bled—but my husband is awesome (and desperate to find ways to help me calm the eff down) and gave me some of my own. This is all I’ve had time for so far:
But, I can’t wait to start playing around with this bad-boy:

2014 was a good year—nothing life-changing happened, but I made gradual, consistent progress on a lot of aspects of my life. I hope 2015 will be a year of enjoying the benefits of the hard work.

I keep seeing this meme going around the internet:
It’s probably cliché to post it again, but I love the idea that the new year is a blank page. I’m counting on the fact that a lot of good writerly things can happen in 365 days.

What about you? How do you feel about New Year's resolutions? Any new focuses for you in 2015?

January 5, 2015

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

For years I considered myself a pantser, but after writing two novel-length rambles that I never finished and two novels that I finished but had to revise heavily because I had painted myself into multiple corners, I decided it was time to try something different. 

In looking for a book on outlining, this one stood out because I’ve enjoyed Weiland's blog for years. She's very easy to read and provides a ton of great information. I was hoping this book would help in some small way, but in a lot of ways, it changed my writing life completely.
Weiland has a hard-core approach to outlining—with character interviews and elaborate backstory memoirs—that I don’t know if I’ll use in its entirety. However, she also provides fantastic tips, questions, and formats that aren't confining, yet make a world of difference in moving the story along.
Overall message, scope, or purpose of the book:
Methods of and reasons for outlining. Also includes methods for world building, character sketches, writing a pitch, and other resources valuable to writing and pitching.

Favorite take-aways:
·      Questions to help guide writing – Each chapter contains a checklist relevant to the particular theme, a mini-interview with published authors about their outlining techniques, and questions that help to tease out specific components of writing setting, characters, etc. I found the questions extremely helpful. They can be used with any project in any genre, and I was amazed by how taking the time to answer the questions really fleshed out my own story arc.

If I remember nothing else from this book, I will continue to use the questionnaires to solidify the details and ideas in my own writing.

·      Importance of establishing a premise – Weiland poses a series of “what if” questions to help bring order to the ideas for plot, character, setting, etc. floating around in your head. I found this very significant in preparing a marketable story, as well as drafting query letters, synopses, and loglines. For me, her ideas make sense. I see the benefit of crystallizing the details rather than muddling through a draft with a lot of random thoughts and unanswered questions, the way I usually do.

·      Pantsing vs. Plotting – Experimental writing may require weeks and thousands of words to play out a scene, but outlining takes a few minutes and a couple dozen worlds to follow a scene to its logical end to determine if it will work (p. 69).

Pros of Book:
·      Promotes Asking Questions – I mentioned this briefly, but I think it’s the best part about the book. Weiland doesn’t push a stodgy, boring outlining program. She says, “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s the life’s blood of a writer” (69). Push a little further and ask a few more questions. That’s it. Simple, right?

·      Author Blurbs – different perspectives and different methods to try. Weiland reinforces that the only right way is the way that works for you.

·      Lists and Checklists Galore – How to keep the stakes high. Character quirks and personality types. Character progression. How to strengthen themes. Movies that work for different aspects of story telling. How to work with pacing and tension, etc.

These lists are gold. I can’t tell you how many ideas they spurred in my own WIP. I will continue to use them as reference tools.

·      Discussion Questions – Questions that force you to think about and flesh out settings, characters, story arcs, plots, etc.

·      Examples – She uses a lot of books and movies to illustrate her points, which is great, but even better, she pulls them from a wide range of genres. Movies include Gladiator, Forever Young, Peter Pan, The Patriot, etc. And authors include everyone from Brandon Sanderson to Elizabeth Gaskell and Joseph Conrad. I believe her examples appeal to a variety of audiences and types of writers.

She also uses her own writing a lot in examples. This wasn’t as helpful to me because I haven’t read any of them (sorry, Ms. Weiland!), but she does a good job of telling readers exactly what to look for, while showing how to relate the points to our own projects.

·      Readability – I found Weiland’s text to be well-written, easy to read, nicely laid out, engaging, and accessible.

Cons of Book (for me):
·      Cumbersome at Times – If I followed every single suggestion in here, I feel like I would never get around to actually writing. For example, she talks about outlining all day and then going back at the end of the day and highlighting different components with different colors (64). Weiland mentions some novels taking up to a year to outline before even starting writing. I bet that does save a lot of time on the back end, but I think I’d rather get going at some point and take my chances with the revising.

·      yWriter – Weiland references this program enough that she’s probably getting a cut for marketing it (Kidding. Actually, it’s free—you can pay to register it if you choose, but lose no functionality if you don’t). I felt like a book about outlining should acknowledge popular writing programs like Scrivener, Writers Café, Word, or whatever else. Maybe yWriter is the best according to Weiland, but I wanted her to make a case for that compared to some of the other options out there.

·      Overwhelming – I might recommend taking this book in chunks (in tandem with your own project). Don’t get me wrong, it’s an easy read, but it is packed with so many ideas that it’s hard to know where to start (unless you’re starting from scratch with your writing, I guess).

Three-quarters of the way through, I just wanted to quit planning and start writing. Also, I think a lot of the lists, etc. will be a lot more helpful when incorporated with your own WIP rather than as theoretical ideas that will work in eight months when you’re finished with the countless other outlining steps.

What it adds to the Writing Conversation:
After reading this book, Weiland has me sold on outlining. Or at least aspects of it.

She’s not heavy-handed in any way. She acknowledges that creative-types like freedom to explore ideas and follow whims. But she also points out ways that having a bit more structure can save so much effort, time, and heartache.

She never says that outlining is the only way to write, but by the time she’s provided all of her evidence and examples, I feel like she makes a strong case for putting a little more preparation into the prewriting stage, thus saving a lot of time during drafting and revisions.

Buy, Borrow, or Pass: 
I think this one is worth buying. Some writing craft books are beneficial to read once and others are worth keeping around. I think this one is a fantastic reference tool.

The questions it poses are, to me, the strongest selling point. They provide a solid foundation for any novel or short story. Traditional outlining—to me, at least—has always felt like setting ideas in stone, but Weiland’s text reads more like an appeal for writers to explore and think and imagine—the epitome of creative freedom.