Monday, May 28, 2012

What's in a Word?

A good friend of mine pointed to an article on Amazon. The purpose was to discuss a cool program designed to show the most common words in a novel: the size dependent upon the frequency of the word. I was skeptical, but ran my pieces through the "machine" to see what came out. The result, while very neat, also told me a lot about my writing. As in everything in life, I think we tend to fall into a routine. Writer’s are no different. I know I fell into writing what came easy. In fact, before this year, I often wondered why writers would complain about it being hard. For me, the creation of a story still feels natural. But pushing for better prose is very hard. It’s like going to the gym. It hurts and questions your willpower, but the result is always promising.

My first adventure this year was through the Odyssey program I have mentioned earlier. What I find fascinating is that, when you are open for improvement and change, the opportunities come in the most unsuspecting places. Who would know I would actually learn a lot about my writing through a simple program online?

My mother, who teaches 2nd grade, has a “trash bin" posted on a bulletin board for words that her students need to throw away. I think I need to put that on my office wall. Words I need to add to that wall? “Looked” and “Eyes” most definitely need to go there. I am disappointed to see the word “like” so big in each of the pictures. It like totally like makes me like look like a valley girl! Not all words were bad to see. I was excited to see theme words like “dark,” “Lost,” and “hell” appear in The Lord of Nightmares. One shock was seeing the name Jasper appear bigger than Nightmares. I would think the Nightmares had more “airtime,” but, apparently, Jasper demands his own space.

In The Curse of Atlantis, I see “king” and “Atlantis” and “horse.” I find it interesting the word “know” is so large. I guess that could be a bad thing, but I wonder if it does speak to the characteristic of Nicias. What also shocked me is how big “Sebastian” appears for a character who was only prevalent in maybe a third of the novel. But, that is so fitting because he really is the catalyst that moves the story along.

I even ran the machine on this blog. No surprises here. I mean, if a writer’s blog didn’t have the words “writer,” “book,” and “Story” pretty big, then it really needs to be closed down. I was fearful to see the word “I” nice and big, but am glad I don’t even see it small. Maybe I’m not as self-centered as I thought. :)

Besides being a fun adventure, I think I can learn a lot about my writing through this activity. I can see into those pieces of my process that are too close for me to critique on my own. The readers and editors I have who do not shield their opinions and advice are invaluable. I think this is yet another avenue in the pursuit of growing as a writer. Best advice I could give to other writers: keep pushing and learning. This makes me want to take more writing classes to see what other areas I can strengthen.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Strong Character

We have all seen it: a book that comes out of nowhere and hits every shelf in every store, even those who don’t typically sell books. JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, etc. I have said on many levels that I do not want to be one of these writers. Why, you say? Because they are here and gone. I wonder how satisfying a short career could really be…although maybe if you are a super-duper millionaire then who cares? Anyway, I was thinking about the newest sensation “The Hunger Games.” I started thinking. What makes a book a huge success?

I am in the beginning stages of my third book in the Atlantis series (let me take a moment for my old self to chastise my new self for writing a series!) I am at that stage of plotting a story line. I fight and think and fight and think until all of a sudden something clicks in my brain. I can almost physically feel the snap that takes place as dominos fall and wheels turn. It’s at that moment I know the pre-writing is done and I’m ready to dive into a story. Trying to teach someone my process would be downright impossible unless I really thought about it, but I started to apply the question above to my own work. What makes it work when other ideas don’t?

While plot, action, character and marketing all play into the success of a book, I will contend that character development is the number one push for driving a book from being good to being a sensation. Ever the English major, I have come up with a few defenses for my theory. First, Bella Swan. What had captured me about this book was not only the fact that the girl fell in love with a vampire, but that she was in many ways just like me: clumsy, plain looking, and down to earth. Second Katniss Everdeen. Who would care that this girl was placed into an arena to the death if we didn’t care about her? She’s a girl who didn’t know what she wanted out of life, out of love, but showed saved her sister and had to grow up quickly in such crazy circumstances. She was a strong character I could only dream of being. Who would care about Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter if it weren’t for such a strong character? What would The Three Musketeers be without Athos, Porthos, and Aramis? I contend The Pirates of The Caribbean movies would be nothing without Jack Sparrow (I know, I know, that’s a movie, but still worth mentioning).

I think an author’s job is to sucker us as readers into caring for these fictional characters. They need to be someone we could envision being…or perhaps dream of being. They have to be real and enriching in some way. Otherwise, why bother spending countless hours reading about them? Who cares if they explore France, date vampires or do anything? I can only hope my Nicias of Gaea and Pandora will capture my readers just as much as the great characters before them.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mother's Day

On this weekend, we honor mothers across the country. I thought I’d take the time to honor mine, a woman who has guided me on my writing path since the beginning. She began as my typist. In my sixth grade class, we wrote for so many minutes every day to learn the writing process: write, peer review, revise, final copy. I didn’t know how to type at that time, and so she diligently did so on our typewriter…yes, that’s right. I would read my crazy handwriting while she typed and listened.

Lucky for her, those stories were only ten to twenty pages long. As I grew older, I began typing on the typewriter myself (after hitting my first 50 page book, they upgraded me to a really old computer). Even still, she would revise my papers. She was the first to read the Curse of Atlantis (a close to 400pg book that came out of nowhere). But, more importantly to me, she was the one to fight me through the plot. This doesn’t work, I don’t understand that, but you didn’t fix this. I cringe to think how loopy the plot would be without her.

I wrote for her pleasure. She was my drive to create—to see how my avid reader would react. But I have learned so much from her. I have learned to structure plot. I have learned character development is important to grab her attention. And, yes, every story needs a small romance to keep her interest. :) Even still, I go to her first with my crazy questions. What’s the word for…? What do you think of…? I have an idea for.... And, the best one, I’m stuck, talk me through this. Even though I always discount her ideas, they spark new ones that propel me forward. And she loves me enough not to be offended. She has battled me through the What do you mean I’m not perfect phase of taking criticism, molding me into someone who now values and craves it. She is my cheerleader, my mentor, and my number one fan. She is the one who catches my stupid homophone dilemma: past vs passed, loud vs load, wondered instead of wandered.

I would be nothing as a writer without her. In all honesty, I wouldn’t even still be writing without her. So, on this weekend to honor mothers, I honor mine. God blessed me with a mother I truly needed and no one else would have measured up!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Another Look

I vividly remember sitting at a conference with a keynote speaker discussing his process as a writer. He announced that he never edited his own work, that he was incompetent to do so. So he wrote it, gave it to his editor, and moved on. The more I’m in the business, the more I wonder about his philosophy. Either he is some sort of possessed writer, in which the right words come out the first time, or he was lying…or he just wasn’t that good. I have come to understand the revision process as a necessary step, even if it is taxing by edit number eight. Why is it so important? Because I’ve grown the most through this stage. I have been blessed with Tama White, editor of Ghost River Images. I fell into their laps when looking for a self publisher so I could merely publish stories for family. They are the ones who pushed me toward mass publication and continue to be a blessing in my life. I thought I’d take a moment to show the growth from the beginning until now (feel free to laugh because I most certainly will upon reflection).

Most who have talked with me understand The Lord of Nightmares was not a first draft by any stretch of the imagination. What most don’t know is that this story went through three vastly different versions. The first, (a seven page story with as many chapters) I wrote in the 6th grade. Tim wondered if he would die. Then he felt a sudden burn. He saw himself. He saw the Lord of Nightmares controlling his body. Tim couldn’t do anything. Let me pause to roll my eyes at such prose. All of my sixth grade stories are written this way, in a matter of minutes. In this version, the Lord of Nightmares would possess someone’s body. By the way, they kill him by shoving a pebble in his throat (I will thank my mother every day for not throwing me into a mental institution).

By the time I wrote my second draft, I was in the seventh grade. This version is 26 pages—something I bragged about at the time—and a love story between the Lord of Nightmares (whom I named Stephan) and his captive Cherisa (who reminded him of an old love before he became a Nightmare). The red liquid started running out of the sink in the kitchen. He could hear the windows cracking. “Please!” Mike begged again. While the sentences are better, most of the story was dialogue driven (without even dialogue tags). I had apparently given up hope on my prose.

The story called me freshman year in college. A love story was just not believable. No, by definition, this needed to be much darker. She noticed one black paw stepping out of the shadow that soon transformed into the entire body of a panther standing in the light of the room. Madison chocked on the air, her body stiffening as the animal made its way toward her. It circled her. While I am done with this story—aside from playing with a possible sequel—I only edited the final manuscript about five times. I can only imagine what it would be like if I had pushed further with what I know now.  

I have learned so much since my beginnings, but it is because I have had awesome people placed into my life. They have guided me, pushed me, and told me I was worth reading. I thank my teachers who saw the prose of my early writings and told me I had talent and could be more.

I have revised my newest novel about ten times now. While it pushes my love and dedication for that particular story, I am excited to see the change. I am excited to see the growth with every revision. And I am grateful to all who push me and are not afraid to tell me something isn’t working. I could not be who I am today as a writer without you all. And I thank my readers. You all are the reward for the hard work and dedication to a profession I could never imagine giving up. My best advice to those writing is to continue to push your processes, continue to look for improvements, and continue to write.  (By the way, I edited this piece three times before posting…)