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.