Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Love what you do

EVERNEATH CONTEST. Go enter. Now.



There are times when writing feels like a job. Particularly during the revisions process, I find myself procrastinating, getting distracted, and making every possible excuse not to work. Revisions just aren't that fun for me. There's none of the creative excitement of a first draft, and after multiple read throughs I get bored by my own writing. When you can recite paragraphs without reading them you know you've read a book one too many times.

Sometimes writing is hard work. We persevere. We do it even when it's not fun. But if you ever get to the point where writing is a constant hassle, where you can't bring yourself to sit down and work, something's wrong. Writing should never be awful. Sure, revisions can be tough, but if they're pulling you down it's time to take a break. Work on a new project. Forget writing for a week or two.

Because if you lose the joy of writing, then your stories will come out dull and bland. Always remember what brought you to writing in the first place. Keep that in your mind, that love of storytelling, and you'll be able to get through revisions just fine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

EVERNEATH Contest!

Last night I attended the launch party for Brodi Ashton's EVERNEATH. It was an amazing event, with hundreds (no, literally hundreds) of people crowding into the King's English bookstore. I read the book back in October and loved it. It's one of Harper Collins' big releases for 2012, so if you haven't already heard of it, you will soon! I got to hang out with tons of awesome writer-people, including several of my critique partners. The Utah writing scene really is wonderful.

Brodi's a local author and her presentation was hilarious. She received hundreds of rejections before signing with an agent, and EVERNEATH went on to sell within 48 hours after going out on submission. Truly an inspiring story. I have here a hardcover copy of EVERNEATH, signed by Brodi herself. You can read my review and a plot summary here.



So how do you enter? The rules are simple:

+2 for following
+3 for Tweeting
+3 for blogging
+3 for Facebooking
+1 for commenting on this post with your name and email address
+1 for adding up all your points and posting that number in the comments

Open to US residents only (sorry, international bloggers!). You don't have to be a follower to win (although of course, I would love it if you did follow :)).

Congrats to Brodi! This contest ends February 3, 2012. Spread the word!!!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Writing Historical Fantasy

As I've probably mentioned before, the book that's undergoing revisions with my agent (Aillea's Cards) is historical fantasy set in 1631 Ireland. I've written several historical novels, ranging from Ireland to India to China. I don't claim to be any sort of expert on the subject. Writing historical is difficult, and I definitely have tons of room for improvement, but I thought I'd share a few world-building tips I've picked up over the past year or so.


1. Trace articles back to their origin. For instance, if you're reading an internet post about a certain time period, find the references at the bottom and go backwards from there. If you can find the original book/article, you'll usually get more complete and accurate information.

2. Find pictures. Like they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. It helps to get a visual in your head of the world you're trying to describe. Even a modern-day photo can help.

3. Start with the basics. Research governmental structure, organization of towns, current political situation, role of religion, types of housing, foods eaten, and layout of the landscape. This is when I usually write my first draft. I get a rudimentary framework of plot, characters, etc, without too much emphasis on the historical setting.

4. When you write your first draft, make sure the dialogue doesn't contain any modern phrases (like the word "okay"). Research language and speech style for your particular time period. Sometimes you won't be able to find anything on this, but if you can (specific phrases, colloquialisms, terms of formal address, etc) then you can go back through during your first round of revisions and tweak dialogue here and there.

5. Details. I usually devote an entire round of revisions to historical detail. Working scene by scene, I research the little stuff (the Irish term for stove, the exact method for threshing barley, types of plows, names of specific pieces of clothing, who gets to wash their hands first before dinner, etc). These additions are what really bring your story to life. For me, it's best to focus on these things after I've got a first draft, because otherwise there are just too many terms and details to remember. Also, I don't want to disrupt the flow of work on my first draft to go look things up. I often mark specific pages that need more historical detail so I can come back to them later.

6. Remember, small additions can make a big difference. References to political situations, customs, and cultural nuances help ground your story in the real world and provide an additional layer of depth.


So there you have it. I still have a lot to learn about writing historical fantasy, but I hope to improve with each book. How about you guys? Does anyone else write historical? What are your tips?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Complex Antagonists - Part 2

A month or so ago I did a post entitled Writing Complex Antagonists. In the comments section, one astute reader (Star Swirl the Bearded) (nice name) provided some interesting counterpoints to my argument. I gave them a great deal of thought, and decided to discuss them here in a second post.

In my original entry, I argued that complex, shades-of-gray villains are more interesting than "I'm evil because I'm evil" villains. Star Swirl pointed out several exceptions to this rule - the Joker, Sauron, and the Emperor from Star Wars. I decided to address each of these one by one to take a closer look at how they fit into my initial theory.

Firstly, the Joker (to be clear, we're talking Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight). Brilliant villain. A complete psychopath, whose sole goal is to cause chaos for the sake of chaos. Now, I'd argue that the Joker, being a character in a movie, is completely different from a book's antagonist. For me as a viewer, Heath Ledger made that movie the masterpiece it was. It was his physicality, his way of moving and speaking, that really brought the Joker to life. I don't think it could've been done in a book. Also, I think The Dark Knight isn't really about the Joker as a villain. The real villain is the corrupting force of evil....the way the Joker is able to corrupt what's-his-name (hey, I'd look it up, but Wikipedia is down) and turn him to the "dark side."

Star Wars. Honestly, I don't consider the Emperor to be the villain of Star Wars. When I first saw the movies I never gave a rat's ass about the Emperor. In fact, I found him quite boring. I'd argue that Darth Vader is the real villain of Star Wars. He's the one we care about, especially during the latter films, and he's quite a complex character. Vader supports my original theory - complex antagonists are more interesting than simple ones.

And then we have Lord of the Rings. This is the one that really stumped me. Is Sauron purely evil? Sure. Is he scary? Hell yes. I thought about it for a long time, and the conclusion I came to is that Sauron functions more as a symbol than a villain. He represents everything evil in Middle Earth. In cases like these, I think a fully evil antagonist can work, so long as there are other evil characters who are more complex. When it comes to Lord of the Rings, we have Gollum and Saruman. Both evil, both swayed by the influences of Sauron. Sauron is basically Satan (makes sense, given Tolkien's Christian background). He doesn't really appear in the books at all. However, his influence can be felt through both Gollum and Saruman, who are tremendously intricate characters driven to darkness by some outside malevolent force. So in a sense, I think Star Swirl is right. Purely evil antagonists can be highly effective if utilized correctly. Sauron may be a one-dimensional villain, but considering Saruman and Gollum are basically extensions of Sauron's power, Tolkien manages to add depth and shades of gray to an otherwise black and white scenario. These two characters don't define Sauron, but they make the book a lot more interesting and thought-provoking by implanting the idea that anyone can be corrupted by evil.

So what do you guys think? Am I totally off base? Love hearing your opinions!!! And thanks to Star Swirl for encouraging me to look deeper into the issue :).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Finding your character's Dosha

For those of you who don't know, my mom is a yoga teacher. She knows a lot about traditional yoga practices and Buddhist/Hindu beliefs. When I was young, she had my sister and I take a test to determine our dosha, which is a mind-body type derived from certain kinds of energy. There are three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. While most people have a mixture of the different doshas, there tends to be one or two that predominate in our bodies and demeanors. Ayurveda is a traditional medicine system native to India. In the ayurvedic system, it is believed that determining your dosha, or your prevalent energy, can help you develop a healthy lifestyle specific to your body type.

I am a Vata-Pitta, like my mother, meaning Vata and Pitta energy are more prominent in my body than Kapha energy. Vatas tend to be thin and small of frame, with cold skin, dry hair, and joints that crack easily. They may be light sleepers and possess energetic demeanors. Pittas have medium frames, and find it easy to gain/lose weight when they set their minds to it. They are purposeful and good at turning their ideas into reality. The three doshas tend to react differently to stressful situations; Vatas become anxious and worried, Pittas are irritable, and Kaphas grow depressed and withdrawn. In this case, I'm definitely a Vata. I get unnecessarily worried about things I can't control whenever my life is hectic.

Anyways, I thought this might be an interesting way to help develop characters. I always try to view my characters through a multitude of different perspectives. It gives me a more rounded understanding of their thoughts, actions, and emotions. Why not try looking at your protagonist through the lens of Indian medicine? This Dosha Quiz is a quick and simple way to determine your character's predominant dosha. After identifying the dosha(s), it will give you lists of foods this person may enjoy, both when they're healthy and when they're unhealthy (you are "unhealthy" when your dosha energy is out of balance), and ways they might react to certain situations.

Just some food for thought. There's no such thing as too much characterization, so if you've got time, check it out. And let me know how it works :).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why I write YA

Whenever I talk to my extended family (the adults) or my parents' friends, they tend to make certain assumptions about the trajectory of my writing career. They automatically assume that someday I'll "graduate" to writing adult fiction. As if YA isn't "serious" literature. As if all children's writers are simply honing their skills, hoping, someday, to finally be able to write for grown ups.

I tell them they're wrong. I explain my intentions to remain a YA/MG author even when I'm no longer a teenager. They give me a patronizing smile, as if I'm a silly little child, and spout something along the lines of, "Oh, you're so young. You'll change your mind when you get older."

.....

............

.......

*refrains from shouting expletives*

Condescension really isn't attractive.

Here's the thing. I've read plenty of literary and commercial adult fiction, just as I've read literary and commercial YA. Some books are high quality. Some are less so. There are just as many quality YA books as there are quality adult books, and YA can be equally complex. Take His Dark Materials or The Bartimaeus Trilogy or The Adoration of Jenna Fox. All well-written, stunningly complex books, one YA, two MG. As the talented Madeleine L'Engle (we share an agent) once said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

YA can be dark and frightening and real and thought-provoking. It can also be light and funny and irresistible. The main difference between YA and adult fiction is the necessity of story. I've read many adult books in which plot takes a back seat, with characters meandering through the tasks of their everyday lives. The writing may be beautiful and the descriptions gorgeous, but in the end this type of book won't hold my attention. I have no reason to care about the characters. I feel like there's this common misconception that an action-packed children's novel automatically sacrifices character development, beautiful writing, and themes, as if plot and depth are mutually exclusive. So many good children's authors refute this sentiment. Once again, I'll use the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud as an example. The plot is fast-paced enough to hold the attention of young children (I read it first in elementary school). There is action, adventure, and danger. However, Stroud does not sacrifice complexity and beautiful writing in order to appeal to children. There are times when I stop in the middle of a paragraph, just to admire Stroud's deft skills, a particular turn of phrase, or the placement of a word. His prose is stunning. Each character in the trilogy is fully fleshed out and vocally distinct, and the emotional journeys they undergo are heart wrenching. To this day, Stroud remains the only author to ever make me cry. The series also delves deep in its exploration of slavery, the slave-master relationship, the corruption of political power, and colonialism in the Americas.

I'm not saying all adult fiction lacks plot, but YA requires it. A good YA book has everything: a well-paced story, believable characters, complex relationships, emotional arcs, beautiful writing, and underlying themes that can (but don't necessarily have to) be explored by the reader.

I write YA because I want to produce books that kids like to read. I've known many people who've read the "classics," but not many who truly enjoyed them. Reading should be engaging as well as meaningful. Again, this is just my opinion. There are those out there who prefer adult literary fiction, and that's wonderful, but I simply detest the academic snobbery that surrounds YA.

But the real reason I choose YA, why I will probably never graduate to "grown-up writing," is because of the characters. Because they are so dynamic and unpredictable and interesting and capable. Adolescence is a universal and fascinating time in one's life, when the mind and body are constantly shifting. Characters with such potential for change create fascinating protagonists. They are poised on the edge of adulthood, but their world is still so colored by their own perception, by a kind of interiority not found in adult characters. Like children, teenagers view the events around them through a hypothetical lens. But whereas children are wholly selfish in their evaluation of others, teenagers have started to branch out and look at the bigger picture, becoming more empathetic in the process. The hard and fast truths of childhood are dissolving. Teenage characters begin to discover the multi-faceted nature of truth, and the fact that their own truth may not be the same as the truths of the people around them. It's scary, and thoroughly engaging. Adolescent protagonists are more heavily influenced by the events that occur in a story. They are emotionally vulnerable, and as a writer the exploration of a teenager's mind makes for fascinating work.

I know I'm still a teenager. I'm still changing, and making new decisions, and shaping the person I'm going to become. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage; as a teenager, I'm better able to understand and empathize with my teenage characters, but I lack the perspective of my future self. In twenty years, will I have a more balanced perspective? I'm sure. But for now, I'll work with what I've got.

Lastly, the audience. I believe that YA, more so than any other genre, has the potential to change lives. Just look at Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Teenagers deal with so many issues and don't necessarily have the maturity to handle heavier problems on their own. During such an impressionable period, YA books can have a huge impact on a teenager's mind. I know books have changed me for the better.

So those are my reason. This is why I write YA. And this is why, ten years from now, I'll still be writing for children.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Motivation

One of the things that I've really tried to focus on throughout my revisions is motivation. Characters need motivation. This may sound like an obvious rule, but I'm always surprised by the number of manuscripts I read in which the protagonist lacks sufficient reason for their decisions. In order to empathize with a main character, we as readers need to understand why they're doing what they're doing, and whether emotion or logic lies behind the choice.

Here's what I've learned: in general, emotional motivation tends to be stronger than logical motivation. For instance, say your character is trying to save the world. "Trying to save the world" is motivation, but it's not particularly interesting. (I should know. In one of my earlier books, the main character had this exact same motivation....save the world.) That is, unless there's some emotional component attached. Take, for instance, Harry Potter. Possibly not the best example in the world, but Harry's determination to take down Voldemort certainly has an emotional component: his parents. Voldemort killed his parents and deprived him of a childhood. This motivation is far more empathetic and interesting than a boy who simply wants to do the right thing.

At every moment in the book, your character should want something. Oftentimes a book's main plot might not start until a little ways into the story (i.e., Harry isn't determined to take down Voldemort until about halfway through Sorcerer's Stone). However, even before the character's most pressing goals actually surface, they should desire something at all times. In the beginning of Sorcerer's Stone, Harry wants desperately to escape the Dursleys. This want gives us the opportunity to connect with Harry through similar emotions.

Anyways. Those are my ramblings of the day. Hope everyone's had a great week!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Realism vs Romance

When it comes to writing romantic relationships in YA, I find there's a line that must be walked between realism and romance. Different people have different tastes in terms of where that line falls. Some prefer epic, sweeping romances, which usually sacrifice realistic problems couples face for the sake of an idealistic relationship. Others want a book that portrays the ups and downs of having a significant other, without skipping the unpleasant details.

Me, I'm a realism girl. I'm also kind of a cynic when it comes to romance in YA. I honestly don't believe that the majority of teens, at 16, 17, 18, have the emotional stability and maturity to form a healthy, long-lasting relationship. Most people don't find their soulmates this young because teens are constantly changing. I'm 18 myself, and I know I'm not likely to find my soulmate anytime soon. How can you expect to commit yourself fully to another person when you yourself haven't developed into the person you're going to be?

In any case, I understand why people enjoy the idealized romances of YA fiction. It's escapism. Something to yearn for. Oh, don't we all wish we had that perfect guy who complies to our every wish, showers us with love and affection, and, of course, looks incredible in a swimsuit. But when I read a book that sacrifices realism for this perfected vision, it jerks me out of the story. I find myself snorting and thinking, "Yeah, right. That's not how it works."

Take sex. I've read a fair number of YA books recently in which the female heroine loses her virginity to the guy of her dreams. It's perfect. It's everything she's ever imagined. He's kind, and gentle, and perfect, and it feels so good....

Haha.

No.

This is the kind of scene that makes me laugh. I'm not going to get into the anatomy of the female body, but suffice to say that for most girls, losing your virginity hurts. It's not perfect or amazing or even pleasant. There are girls who can hardly walk for a couple days afterward, yet in YA books the heroine always wakes up fine, exhilarated, and ready to go again (or something like that).

Maybe it's just me, but I honestly prefer realism. I prefer to read about characters who are like me. Who aren't perfect. I want characters I can relate to, and situations that mirror, in some way or another, the things I face in everyday life.

What about you? Do you like the grand, sweeping romances, regardless of their accuracy? Or do you prefer stark realism? Somewhere in between?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012, yo

Yaaayyyyy 2011 is over!!!!

It was an okay year. Certainly not perfect, but hey, I'll take what I can get. I graduated high school, spent the summer in NYC, started college, got an agent, found a critique group, and met some fantastic new friends. So here are my resolutions for 2012:


1. Run every day. I try, but I'm often not very good at it.

2. Get a book deal. I know I can't control this, but I'd really love to finally sell something.

3. Be nicer to everyone.

4. Write two books.

5. Make more new friends at college.

6. Volunteer more.

7. Earn enough money to go to Uganda in 2013 to volunteer.

8. Blog three times a week.


Off the top of my head, those are my resolutions. Hope everyone has an awesome New Year!!!