Monday, January 31, 2011

Do I get a badge?

I have an official writing injury!

Not only that, but one of the treatments from the physical therapist is a BATTERY-POWERED BANDAGE. Dudes and ladies! We totally live in the future.

(localized electro-magnetic cortisone... patch)

In what wasn't-related-but-now-is news, here is a lovely summary of Sara Zarr's SCBWI keynote talk (which I only followed on the twitter chatter of those attending, obviously) from the Notes from the Slushpile blog. My favorite two take-aways were:

1) Your creative life is one of the only things that you really and truly own,
2) There is no artistic romance in being self-destructive (i.e., take care of yourself)

Ha. Well, over-extending myself typing isn't really self-destructive, and I am fanatical about eating greens and sleeping, so. I think I'm good.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Reading the introduction to a mid-19th century collection of essays meant to characterize the city of Saint Petersburg (this is my life), I found this commentary on the superiority of show versus tell in the literary mode:

Furthermore, Mr. Bashchurtsky's book had as its primary goal to describe Petersburg, not to characterize the city.  Indeed, its tone was more official than literary.  By contrast, the content of our book seeks not to describe Petersburg but primarily to characterize its mores and the distinguishing features of its population.

And, as a very funny (and dry) sidenote,

To expound at length on this work [Moscow and Muscovites, by a Mr. Zagoskin] is inappropriate.  Let us only say that despite all its merits, ones that fully justify the fame enjoyed by its writer, the work has a glaring deficiency;  that is, it describes neither Moscow nor Muscovites.

Oh, snap.

Thank you, Russian literature, for always having my back.

I want a fully realized world and I want one NOW

Look.  World building takes time.  Good world building, exponentially so.

To say that I have been obsessing over this lately would be an understatement, as my last eureka! moment regarding the MS I was actively querying was that the world I thought I had a handle on (I have charts! and graphs! and color-coded notecards! and MAPS!) was not actually complete.  Also that I have to restructure the first ten chapters and remove an entire sub-plot, but that's a different matter.

So, yeah, I've been obsessed with world building.  And about the time I really do not want to admit it is going to take before I am satisfied enough to start querying again.  I am feeling not unlike this:
… only I already have a golden goose, so at least I don't have *that* to complain about.

(Fun fact:  I looked up Veruca Salt in Google images, and the dozenth or so picture was one that I took during our Wonka Hike at Hometown Europe in 2009, that I had put on that year's Village Page!  Yes, I am pretty much famous)

So obviously, owing to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon*, the two for-fun books I managed to get through last week were both epic fantasies (tick) with deep mythologies (double tick) that had to introduce remarkably enormous worlds in the span of 350ish pages.  This fact was made all the more obvious as one of the books pulled the world building off with ease, while the other was so patronizingly dull that I groaned out loud probably two dozen times.

So of course I wanted to compare them.

[Orson Scott Card, Finnikin of the Rock, and a Damn Interesting follow-up to that asterisk after the jump]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Novel readers live longer (or, how Bakhtin predicted Jellicoe Road)

Here is a dude who should, at first glance have no place on this blog:
I mean, right?  The whole point of me separating Lit from Woe from Woe from Lit was so that I could talk YA and creative writing separately from Russian lit and literary theory.

But hear me out.  Because I am about to rock a comparison between a dense-as-hell Russian literary theorist, and this:

So, yesterday I went to the Russian lit equivalent of a Major Rock Show, going to Willamette U up in Salem to hear the great and fascinating Caryl Emerson speak (see Woe from Lit for a nerd-love write-up on that).  Her second presentation, on the lifelong, searing hatred that Tolstoy had for Shakespeare was wonderful (Tolstoy, it turns out, was a solipsistic ass), and can certainly be made pertinent to a discussion on form and humor in YA literature, but Bakhtin is who I need to get out there to the YA world.

Bakhtin was all about the novel.  He thought that, compared to other "genres" (lyric, epic – this is theory-speak, not pubworld-speak), novels were the only things able to capture REAL life without limiting or reducing it in some way.  I don't want to make this like a dang academic paper, so here are the main takeaways about Bakhtin's position:

1)  We need to live in a "novel" space to fulfill our potential as human beings.

2)  People inside novels are neither dead nor fictional.

3)  Wobble is a sign of life.

4)  Something can only be true if it is incomplete, if you can't capture it;  novels are never wholly finished.

5)  Novel readers live longer than lyric/epic/non-fiction readers.

[How Jellicoe Road adds up, and immortality in Hogwarts, after the jump]

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Smooth Criminal as Storyteller, and the Wild Nerd Yonder

Two cellos enter.  One girl leaves.

This is how you tell a story:  conventions?  Demonstrated (dueling banjos) and broken (um, BLACK cellos and leather jackets).  Expectations?  Set up (close-up shots of the bow and bridge and strings of the cello, as well as a gilded grand ballroom) and subverted (again, BLACK cellos, plus overturned chairs and gritty fistfight, and Michael freaking Jackson).

Simple formula:  know the conventions, then break them.  USE details as formal devices, don't just throw them in just to be details.

It has been a long time since I read a good book that used music as a storytelling device, and did it well.  Many YA books use clubs or bands or scenes to flesh out their settings, or give their characters some heft or motivation, but as a formal device?  As a musician, I think that is a tricky thing to pull off.  You can't just add music and say it automatically influences and develops the narrative.  Heck, there are even plenty of music videos that don't manage to jibe the soundtrack to the visual (that is purely my sense, with no evidence to back it up).

Recently, however, I read last year's well-loved Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, and I found myself appreciating the role Barrett's band played as a formal device shaping the narrative.

Halpern doesn't just throw Barrett's band into the mix to give Jessie something to do, or her friends something out of their reach to glom on to, but to show the development of Jessie's character, and to give her an outlet for growth.  The band literally reflects Jessie's adolescence, and her [SPOILER] violent destruction of Van's drum kit mirrors the emotional climax of both Jessie's story, as well as Barrett's (and maybe Van's, if any of us care enough to add him [which I don't, as he reminds me too much of my own HS drama]).

The point being, Halpern didn't use a conventional detail (high school punk band) in a way you would expect, and definitely didn't use it simply to add more detail to the story.  Yes, the band provided details about each character that would have been boring as crap if they had just been told us, but more than that, it provided a narrative structure, a formal device that actually worked within the story to turn it into more than just the sum of its parts.

Now if only it had had dueling Michael Jackson cellos...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On words and swords, and words as swords

At some point when I was working in Switzerland a couple years ago, a friend got me hooked on communication via Post-its, and since then my life is little pieces of sticky paper every damn where.  The frame to my front window?  Covered.  Edges of my bookcase?  Covered.  Dashboard of my computer?  Digitally covered.  Sometimes these are things that forgetful people need to remind themselves of, like passwords (stealthily coded, often months out of date), or library call numbers for research (years out of date, there, I just realized), but mostly, they're covered in words.  GREAT words.  Strings of words so perfect I always want them on hand.

From the latest tick on my lit exam prep bedpost, summed up on Woe from Lit

I read something on Twitter today about how some mystery author uses words likes swords.  That might not have been the actual phrasing, but that was what I took from it.  It's a fantastic image, and an even more fantastic reality:  this is the thing I most love to find in books, or in dialogues on television and in films.  This is also what writers, I think, dream of creating.  I do.

But I wonder if you can pick these things out from your own writing?  I mean, sometimes I go back to scenes I've written, months after the fact, and I find something that knocks me flat – maybe it's not the BEST thing ever written ever, but it's one of the best things ever written by the hand of me.  But then again, I've become so inured to my manuscript as it stands now, that it took my dad giving me a piece of dialogue to use in a draft of a query letter for me to remember that it was, at its core, pretty great writing.  To me it just seemed like words that were fine enough that I didn't have to revise them any more.

So I put myself the task of finding one golden moment from one of my manuscripts, one pile of words that fell together perfectly.  And this is what I came up with:

A poet speaks beautifully, but doesn't charge for a conversation.

I like it because it is simple, and it says exactly what it is meant to.  In context it rings even better, but when isn't that true?

And you, my invisible readers*, I would invite to do the same thing.  And let me know!  Because I just bought a new bookcase, and it's edges are looking awfully bare...

* someday I will have readers. I am sure of this.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Evolution of Ham... I mean, Man... I mean, Characters

It is absolutely astonishing to me, considering the fact that my current manuscript was borne out of a need to do Sbux one better when they laid me off and kept the slacker, already-insured HS employees, that it took me until this month to realize that my main character's key personality trait is her contrariness.

My approach to writing has always been more on a wing than a plan, my plotting derived more from intuition than organization.  I found my characters through their names, and just plowed them through several scenarios until I found the one that put them in the middle of an actual story.  That sounds terrible.  That sounds like I have no plot.

Well, I kind of didn't.  I had people (characters) I really cared about, and situations in which they could have oh! such clever conversations.  The ham, people, the ham is in there.  And heart, and real wit and force of personality.  But my plot didn't come until my dad recommended I send in a man with a gun (I gave him a knife), and make the characters do something.  And I did, and they had to, and all of a sudden, there were world-hopping outlaw assassins chasing an obstinate teenage time-traveler.

And still I was lacking the choice – you know, the choice, the thing any good, relatable MC needs to have to keep a reader engaged.  To keep a writer engaged.  Let me reiterate:  I was surviving on the fumes of pretty decent dialogue, and happily self-constructing characters.  I had fights and serious injuries and plenty of tension, and even a conclusion.  But no choice.

I already knew that my MC was suffering neglect, that I had fallen in love with her entourage and left her a little stiff, a little cardboard, all the while justifying to myself that she was an avatar for the reader.

That's crap.  She's an avatar for herself, and it's mostly her brain the narration picks through to roll forward.  So I had to step back and find her, and try to capture her and make the story hers.

And she bit me.

Turns out, she's pretty damn contrary.

So am I.

That's something I can work with;  that's something that can afford her a choice.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

FOUND: Please call to recover

(Micro-fiction written for a contest on*


"So it's an egg?"

"No.  I said like an egg.  Shaped.  Egg-shaped.  Ovoid."

He looked at me blankly.

"Oval, like an oval."

"Oh.  Well."  There was a long pause.  "Did you try to move it?"

I stared.  "Move it where?"

He glanced unseeing over his shoulder, then, hesitating, opened his mouth.

"And if you say the bathtub, I will kill you," I said.  "We take showers in there."

"Well it can't stay outside.  People around here, they'll talk, us with a monster egg on our lawn –"

"Not an egg."

"– a slimy, pulsating egg.  They'll talk.  George cornered me at the bookstore the other day, went on for twenty minutes about our sprinklers soggying up his newspaper every morning."

"Sprinklers are hardly –"

"Twenty.  Minutes."

"Fine," I said.  "Alright.  But I don't want it in the house."

"I mean," he looked over his shoulder again, "do you have a better idea?"

It's very distracting

Trying to finish a six-page list of required texts for a comprehensive Russian lit exam for my MA, at the same time as coming up with a good presentation for "Nevsky Prospekt" for one of my classes, at the same time as trying to craft a perfectly compelling query for my YA manuscript, at the same time as realizing I need to grossly revise said manuscript, at the same time as coming up with short fiction ideas by the handful, that is.

To combat one of those issues, I created a books blog.  A Russian books blog, a blog about Russian books and Russian authors and Russian poems and obsessive memorialists.  And I called it Woe from Lit, and managed to write two posts in as many months.  And realized that I am in trouble with this whole exam prep business.

So, I started another blog.  OF COURSE I DID.

This is for writing – for the micro-fiction I write on my phone, or the character sketches that have no place in an actual narrative, or the poetry… no, wait.  Probably won't be any of that.  But short stories, and chapter stories, and ghost and sci-fi and bildungsroman stories.  Those will all be fair game.

And I'm calling it Lit from Woe.

Of course I am.

This is a great plan.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I dream eclectic (projects)

In order from most-done to least, here are the projects roiling around my imagination (and my word processor):

WIP #1 - YA fantasy(ish)
(in the middle of draft two overhaul)
Unflappable seventeen-year old Temerity West finds herself suddenly flapped when – smack in the middle of the fight for valedictorian – she discovers that not only is there a ridiculous legacy from a magical parallel world she is expected to deal with, but also that a string of mystically amped-up assassins has been sent after her by this new world's Outlaw Most Wanted. Determined to beat fate for control of her life, and accompanied along the way by her incorrigible best friend, a mysterious shape-shifting coyote, and an infuriatingly charming golden boy, Temerity sets off on a mission to figure out just who she is supposed to be, and why Kit Hickock so desperately wants her dead.

WIP #2 - MG adventure/interactive
KidCalledIt: @enniwhat @jennydjeni The Agency is not what they seem – pls help
[back-burnered until Brother has time to collaborate]

WIP #3 - MG literary fantasy
(this is my current pet, going gangbusters in the background of everything else)
Zinc's father has been taken by a Nightmare, the only cure for which is a thing that no one has ever seen: a Dream. Armed with a handful of secrets, a pile of truths, and a family talent for lies, Zinc sets off on a Dream quest, determined to be the first person in history to make it back alive. He is joined by an obnoxious circus girl and her goat. Hijinks ensue. 

WIP #4 - YA contemporary
As per my David Wax Museum video post, "a very promising, rollicking, heart-string-tugging contemporarybildungsroman, with a cheeky narrator and an achingly dear best friend." The achingly dear best friend has a square face; the cheeky narrator has an aversion to her own first name. I'm really excited about the whole business.

WIP in theory only - What Woe from Wit - YA contemporary
In this modern retelling of an 18th century Russian farce, class smart alec and wag, Chad F. returns for his senior year after a junior year spent traveling the world. Expecting his neighbor and childhood sweetheart, Sophie Noble, to be waiting for him, he shows up at her father's restaurant, flowers (metaphorically) in hand. 
But Noble's is not the respectable, quiet place he left it: Sophie's father lost a star over the summer and has become obsessed with regaining his former glory, resorting even to throwing a ridiculous sweet sixteen for his daughter, as well as setting her up with the school's QB (and son of local moneybags), Jack Thrasher. Not only that, but Sophie has been up to her own tricks, dating the chef's churlish son behind her father's back, and using the put-upon head waitress, Lise, to cover for her. 
Chad F., always too smart for his own good, can't keep his mouth shut, and by the time the birthday bash rolls around, he is poised in the cross-hairs of a wit-induced fiasco. Will he be able to parley his way back into Sophie's heart, or will his mouth take him as far as the funny-farm Sophie claims he escaped from?

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