Friday, November 29, 2013

Welcome the Season

I was going to do a post on the human condition surrounding Black Friday, but the house needs decorating and countless holiday chores completed. Therefore, I leave you on this Friday with two of my favorite holiday music:

My absolute favorite: Oh Holy Night by John Berry

My second favorite: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Jars of Clay

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Best Known Story: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. It seems to be the only one that remains free from the commercialization of shopping and glamour—even though stores are trying to take that away by opening early for shopping specials. The day is still mostly about the meal and giving thanks—the calm before the chaos we have come to know as Christmas.

When I was thinking about what to post today, I thought of this holiday. In actuality, it is a “story” in and of itself. The initial fable we are told as a child is of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. The meal marked a peaceful union between the two cultures…at least for a time. Yet, considering how that story ended, I am sure the Native Americans are not holding this holiday up as a time to remember. In fact, if I had to venture an opinion, I would say Thanksgiving continues in the same light it began—the celebration of a harvest in a new world. According to National Geographic, the first thanksgiving wasn’t even about giving thanks. That didn’t come until later, when a drought left the settlers struggling and truly grateful for a harvest. 

Taken from Microsoft ClipArt
Over the years, this story has transformed from two cultures coming together for a time of peace (however short-lived) into a time to gather with friends and family. I think it is Charley Brown that first introduced the idea of Football into the story. Now, it is hard to see a Thanksgiving story on any television program that doesn’t either reference football or at least has the cast members playing. My favorite is the Friends' episode where they play for the Geller Cup (a ratty little troll drilled to a board). 

Another staple to the story is the long table piled with food. While the settlers ate deer, corn and shellfish, there is not a single episode that does not mention the turkey. In fact, on the first season of Everybody Loves Raymond, Debra creates quite a stir by making a fish for dinner instead of turkey. I always wonder, however, if Benjamin Franklin got his way and our national bird was the turkey instead of the eagle, would we still be eating fish for thanksgiving?

It seems in every thanksgiving “story,” there is conflict at the beginning and a peaceful dinner at the end. This is interesting because it is quite the opposite in real life, but I like today’s version. Life is tough and we tend to get sidetracked by little things. I know in my family it was where the dinner would be hosted and who was in charge of which course. Yet, it is nice to know that, in the end, the holiday is about appreciation. 

So, if you are celebrating the holiday tomorrow, then I wish everyone safe travels and a happy Thanksgiving. For anyone who does not partake, I wish you all the happiness in self-reflection and true appreciation of this short pleasure we call life.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Monday's Quote: Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this quote because I know I can get too wrapped up in my “goals.” I blame it on my childhood. It was always stressed to me to think of what I wanted to be when I got out of high school. What degree did I want to get? What did I want out of my life? Then, when I chose a profession, all the experts say to set achievable goals. After all, the only way to be successful, to make progress, is to set goals and plow forward. I know I also look back on my life and question some paths I’ve taken. Would my life be different if… Would I be further along in my career if… Did I choose the right path? 

Emerson is correct in saying it doesn’t matter what happened in the past. It doesn’t matter what happens in the future. What matters is who I am. Schools now have to teach “character traits,” which basically teaches kids how to be a good person. I think it’s sad that schools have to teach this in today’s society, but I do think it is still the most important aspect of life. We need to focus on who we are. We need to focus on being the best person we can be. Everything else will follow.

Friday, November 22, 2013

World Building is Not Just For Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

I follow a reading group on Facebook centered on the appreciation form the fantasy and science fiction genre. Yesterday they posted the following picture in honor of the new movie Catching Fire. What occurred to me in the joke, besides the fact that it is entirely true, is that it emphasizes a key component in this genre, which is world building. I’ve discussed the topic before. Go to any writer’s convention with the genre present and you will certainly find a class on how to build the world. That, after all, is part of the flavor for reading. I saw a quote by George R.R. Martin “They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth.”

We want to experience the author’s imagination to the fullest. We want to live in a place unlike our own world. It’s that part of human curiosity that sends us exploring the ocean and space. Surely there are places unlike anything we have ever seen. The story is sometimes secondary to the place in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

However, I think that authors have to “world build” no matter what genre they are writing. In fact, world building in essence is not constructing a new land, but rather as part of characterization. What “world” does the character live in? I remember an English teacher saying Jane Eyre read too many books as a child and therefore did not have a grasp on what real life was. Her understanding of the world is that it should operate as her novels do, which is probably why she fell in love with Edward Rochester in the first place. It is also true that a teenager’s world is far different than an adult’s. Think of the YA books and their love stories. They are intense. They proclaim the idea that love will last forever, even if that love is a burden on those around them. It is the most important aspect. As someone who works with the age group, I can say this is accurate. 

But the characters don’t have to be “unworldly.” Let’s look at John Proctor in The Crucible. The world he lived in was not fantasy or science fiction, so-to-speak. Yet, it certainly is not the world that I live in today. Sure, that’s a historic piece (which probably has more emphasis on accurate world building), but current literature builds worlds as well. Is it a book that takes place in Washington DC? That book would be different from the “world” perspective of a diplomat versus a pizza delivery man. Keep the same characters and move them to New York and the entire world changes. Or, better yet, small town America. What we’re really talking about here is setting. But I ask to extend the thought. Setting builds the character’s “world.” Part of the intrigue in any genre is becoming a part of that character’s lives and how they perceive the world is a part of the plot…or should be.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Where are all the Happy Endings?

As this year of reading comes to a close, I found myself wondering….is there room for happily ever after anymore? I am actually a part of a group on Goodreads designed to discuss movies and books that end happily. Not necessarily because I require such an ending—actually the main reason is they have the best games—but the idea of ending a novel happy has been engrained in my writing career. Growing up, I had to satisfy one reader…my mother. She is the heart felt reader who loves her romance, her characters, and her happy ending.

Most of what I read this year was YA novels, so I will gear my thoughts in that area. You would think writers would want teenagers to believe in a world where such endings exist. Yet, reality strikes in the center of them. Think Harry Potter. It ended happy, sure, but there were certain character’s deaths that many would have preferred to take back. It makes the ending bitter-sweet, not happy. I remember when JK Rowling killed off her first character. The media hooked onto it. Death in a “children’s” novel? The horror. In actuality, she’s not the first to kill her character in the genre. I remember reading My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier. Now, granted the title kind of prepped me for the ending—plus the fact it was a revolutionary novel made the outcome a guarantee—but I was still impacted.

Hunger Games, of course, was built on the agreement that Suzanne Collins was going to kill off her character. Yet, she was still able to crush me in the third novel. Did she end it “happy.” Define the word happy. The main character survived and lived a long life…but I don’t know if I could say I was joyful at the end of the series. The Divergent series is the same way, ending the series on a bitter-sweet note, but certainly not happy. Both of these are Dystopia novels, so I suppose the point of the genre requires a non-happy ending. 

Okay, so let’s switch: Beautiful Creatures. There’s a book that should end happy. It’s a nice YA novel based on a girl coming of age as a witch. Yet, that novel made me so mad at the end because the authors decided to kill off a character I loved. I’m told he comes back in later books, but that feels like a cheat. 

So my question: is the world so haunted, so corrupt, that our books can no longer end happy? Or, are we striving too hard to match realistic life scenarios. I, for one, miss my Disney “and they lived happily ever after,” where the only deaths are that of the villain.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday"s Quote: Elbert Hubbard

"A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you."~ Elbert Hubbard

This one received the most likes on my Facebook page last week and I can see why. For me, this quote really strikes home. I think I've discussed before that I discovered writing in middle school. That is probably not the easiest place to find oneself...especially when that person is "outside" the social norm. It didn't take me long to realize most of my peers were not supportive of my passion for writing stories, and that was before they had even fleshed into full length novels. I didn't want to stick out--to be different--so I hid my joy from everyone except for a select few.

When I talk with high school kids today, I always tell them that your true friends are the ones who support you. I expressed my love of writing with a handful of people. While all the others I was trying to impress have since moved away, I still keep in contact with the ones who supported me all along. They cheer me on and have been my fans since the beginning. There is nothing like the feeling of knowing that they knew who I was--at one time--ashamed of expressing and yet they loved me anyway.

I don't care what there is to know about a person. True friends are those who know everything--the good, the bad, the dramatic--and they love you anyway. Great quote.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Can Novels have Realistically Strong Women and Weak Men?

Over the course of this week, I noticed many book-lover sites started posting cute pictures depicting the same concept: men are better in books. I would venture to say that women probably are as well. This got me to thinking about the types of characters that come out of novels and a conversation I had with my mother about a novel I just finished. We were discussing whether the author broke characterization by making her male protagonist wimpy in a certain situation. During the course of the conversation, my mother said his reactions were not realistic. 
It seems I always come back to talking about walking that fine line of realism in fiction, so I expanded her comment. In society, we expect our men to be strong, defenders of the family, “bread winners,” and leaders. This is slowly starting to change, but the stereotype, I think, has not. We also expect our women to be delicate. In some way they are in need of “saving.” They ultimately find a man over the course of the book and a famous movie once said…completes them. I tend to think the stereotype goes outside of my bubble of experience. I heard a survey the other week that stated women don’t mind dating a man who is more successful (in fact look for it), while men do not want to do the same. Since this is the stereotype, it got me to thinking…how realistic is a novel if the roles were reversed? And does that novel exist?
What I found interesting is that I could think of countless women in novels who were strong. But I couldn’t think of one that didn’t involve a male lead as well. I know this is a big topic of conversation on whether a book would sell without the male lead. Then, of course, there are the feminist classes that would suggest such a book doesn’t exist due to societal stigmas. I fall victim to this “curse.” When reading a female point of view, I automatically look for the love interest. 
There is one good novel where I could remember the male character being depicted as “weak.” He wasn’t the lead character, but I think having a weak character as the lead would be tough. The novel is The Horse Whisperer. I will try not to spoil the book for those who still want to read it…because it ends drastically different than the movie…but in the story the mother has an affair with a rancher who is trying to help her child overcome a tragic horse accident that left her with a prosthetic leg. The husband was introduced a few times as a businessman, but was clearly second in control when it came to the relationship with his high-powered magazine editor wife. I believe he was made this way to justify the affair and drive the reader to wanting her to leave her marriage.
What do you think? Are there any good novels that break the stereotype

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How Much Character Change is Realistic?

This week, I had a moment of self-reflection. I like to proclaim that I have changed a loom high school. I used to be super shy, wishing to be invisible. I was happy staying home constantly writing. Through the course of growing up and venturing out of my parent’s house, I have tried to “change.” I won’t go into details because that is probably for a therapy session and not a writer’s blog, but I debated whether I have really changed at all. 

Changing is hard. I remember reading a quote that stated change was only possible if someone is willing. This goes along with the idea that I cannot change another person, no matter how much I want to. If we could change people, then imagine how different history would be…both for the good and bad. Yet, even if I make the choice to be different, how easy is it to adapt? This thought led to where it always does…the story.

People spend a lot of time discussing characterization in novels. What are their motives? What are their goals? Who are they? What are their deepest fears? All of these questions help mold this idea of a person into someone a reader can truly picture. It develops a “true” person. The other things people like to map are character arcs. How does the character change over the course of the novel/story? In a way, the story feels incomplete without characters making some change. 

But how realistic is this? I’ve been out of high school for a little over a decade and, while my interests and understanding of the world is vastly different, I really haven’t changed my personality all that much. I am still the girl who prefers conversations with her characters…they’re easier. I am still the girl who craves a good story, whether in book or tv series form. In fact, I would venture to say most people don’t change a lot throughout the course of their adulthood unless they encounter some traumatic event in their lives. 

When considering that most novels take place over the course of a few days, maybe a few years, how realistic is it that characters change? The teenager movies I grew up watching would depict the wallflower being turned into a socialite. I think a real person would struggle with this. But, more importantly, I don’t think novels should depict such a dramatic change to be easy. It’s not a matter of waking up one day and claiming a different personality.

So, while readers expect character change, I think there has to be a balance. When we build characters, maybe we need to look at what we want characters to learn. How do we want them to be different…or do we even want them to be different? Characters should grow and adapt. Yet, even if a character is propelled into being a hero figure, they still have their original faults. This is where the heart of a true story can arise.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Monday's Quote: Joss Whedon

"I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I'm afraid of."~ Joss Whedon

I like this quote because it touches on the enjoyment from writing. Sure, a lot of my writing comes from my own knowledge and experiences. In that way, I am recreating myself in each piece. I'm sure there are psychology books on that. Anyway, while I contend that I will also say that my characters are always better people. They are stronger than me. They are more compassionate. They always know the right things to say and do. They are everything I am not.

I think this is why people read, as well. It is an escape. We get to become people that may not be perfect, but they do not share our imperfections. But it also allows for a safe place to explore the unknown. Sometimes the most edgy material make the best stories because they push the boundaries of what society is comfortable with. Of course, this can't go too dramatic. There is the audience to think of.

Happy Veteran's Day to all my US friends.

Friday, November 8, 2013

How to Keep the "Spark" Alive in Series

I was watching a television series this week and got to thinking about book series. It occurred to me that television shows tend to last around 8-10 seasons. Granted, some left at the height of their following, claiming they wanted to either do something new or get out before things dropped. But, many end as a result of a loss of following. Book series can fall into the same category. Harry Potter was 7 books, although I think the following would have enjoyed JK Rowling to expand the series indefinitely. Lee Child’s series on Jack Reacher is 19 books long, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is 15 books long…and both are not finished yet. However, most books I see in the YA realm last for only 3: Hunger Games, Divergent, Mortal Instruments (which she has since continued). Sure, Twilight was 4, but I was ready for it to end by book 3. 

Maybe because I am a writer and am interested in maintaining a following, I started to question what drives me to follow some series and drop others. I think it is the same desire that devotes me to a tv show series and to drop it. I’ve boiled my list down to three key aspects a series needs to keep the “spark” alive.

1. A change in story lines. I discussed this earlier in the week, but it still holds true. What I like about Dresden Files (which is the longest series I have read so far), is that he may have a common story line, but each book is different. Each one deals with different beings in different situations. I “learn” more about the characters and their world with every book I encounter. Nothing becomes stagnant. Everything is progressing in some way.

2. The introduction of new characters. Let’s face it. After so long, the same characters get a little boring. They won’t drastically change throughout the series, and neither would I really want them to. But, to keep the spark alive, I need something new. I need a new character I can fall in love with. This is tricky, though. I want to still see the old characters. One book, I can’t remember which, made me angry because it no longer followed a certain character. I was left wondering why I cared. The old characters still have to have a significant presence, but new blood is always good.

3. The world has to be rich with possibilities. I can’t read about a world too similar to mine. I find that boring because I am in mine too much as it is. I need a different world, one with mysteries and intrigue. This really has to be established in the first book to allow for longevity. Setting is important. Jack Reacher is a wanderer, so his setting and life is constantly changing, while Dresden’s world is so interesting I don’t mind staying a while.

What keeps you into a series? Likewise what causes you to drop one?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Four Things I've Learned Writing a Series

I have read a lot of blogs recently about writing a series. Since I am endeavoring into the task…and it seems to be one that is more and more popular with the publishing industry…I thought I would share a few of the things I have learned. This list is incomplete, I know. I am sure I will learn more as I go. I welcome any comments below of anything you have noticed writers do or that you do yourself.

1. Character charts are important for consistency: One thing a reader will notice is if the eye color or height of a character changes. They will also notice if scars move or family history changes even slightly. I have started keeping a character chart. I fill it with physical attributes, short back story that’s important, job professions, etc. It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but just enough to remind me and help me stay consistent.

2. It is probably a good idea to keep track of the room description for commonly used areas. This is one that I actually have to go back and do. So far, I have gotten away with not having to look back into the other books to find the descriptions due to renovations or changing the scene. However, that will only work for so long before the reader starts to get annoyed and realize I’m not holding up my end of the job. Therefore, it is probably a good idea to keep a document with the descriptions of common rooms that will come up time and time again in books.

3. Do not repeat story lines. I hate this when I encounter it in books. The characters are going to be the same and react the same, but don’t rehash old story lines. A fight a couple has in book two is just boring in book three. Yes, this probably happens all the time in real life…but it is one of those real life things I am trying to avoid as a reader. Make sure the plots change. The characters should be growing and adapting (even ever so slightly) throughout the series. The things they experience should therefore be different to help shape them further.

4. Keep a “spark chart” of sorts for each book. I heard this advice at a conference, but wasn’t considering changing my book into a series at the time. Now, three books in, I realize the importance. Basically, I need to go and write a 1-2 sentence summary of each chapter. That way, when I am further in the series, I will have a quick guideline to what happened in book one. I also have an easy cheat sheet for if I have to reference things further. This would come in handy and I wish I had done it before. Now I’m stuck backtracking, which is going to be a lot more difficult.

There you have it. My short list for what I’ve learned writing my Atlantis series. Again, feel free to share your own antidotes below, or any reference materials you found that are good.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Monday's Quote: Jerry Seinfeld

"And that's when I realized, when you're a kid you don't need a costume, you ARE superman."~ Jerry Seinfeld

My theme for quotes last week was Halloween. Therefore, when I thought about posting today, I was tempted to pull from another week. But then I re-read this quote. Be prepared to watch me spin this into a non-Halloween message in the most English-major fashion.

I remember when I was young my parents would always tell me to just survive childhood. They would say nobody wishes to go back. Heading into my thirties, I would have to agree with this. There are no amount of nap times that would make me repeat it. Childhood is a time of discovery, which is not an easy task. I think of it like sanding a raw mineral. The process is not fun for the rock, but in the end it is smooth, shiny, colorful and something worthy to display. That is childhood. Friends come and go, people change, and ultimately, we survive.

But, there is something I would love to go back to. Ignorance. My world view was so laughably small, but so was everyone else's. Yet, we all thought we understood the world. We were Superman. Entering into adulthood, I think the world starts to steal this away. It tells us there are at least a billion people with my exact talent and who may be better. It tells me that getting what I want is no longer a matter of asking for it. I have to work for it...and then maybe not get it. And, somewhere in the struggle, it steals our confidence.

Even though the phrase sounds like a comedic joke, I think our chant should be "I am superman." I am capable of anything. I am good. I am unique. I am worthy. The key is not to let the world convince you otherwise.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

My Thankful List for November

Today is the first day of November, which is one of my favorite months for a few reasons. First, I love the change of the seasons. Living in Arizona, we don’t really get “fall” in the traditional sense. We are not full of trees that change colors. But our sunsets seem more vibrant, there is the smell of wood burning in fireplaces, and the coolness in the air is refreshing after a summer filled with 100 degree weather. This month also holds my favorite holiday: Thanksgiving.

Taken from Microsoft Word Art
It seems simple: be thankful for what you have. A few years ago, someone on Facebook decided to place one post every day on what they are thankful for. I started a few years ago and it’s easy for the first few days, but then things start to get a little tough. The action forces one to look at the smaller joys in life, something often lost in the “pursuit of happiness.”

In the spirit of this activity, I thought I would do a post today on the things I am thankful for in my writing career thus far. 

1. The support of my family and friends. I began writing by hiding in my room and telling a limited few. The only reason I started to share my passion was because my family planted the idea in my head that I was good enough. Since then, my support system has gotten me past rejection letters and the disappointments, reminding me that even the best authors experience it. Their insistence as well as joy from reading my work keeps me going. 

2. The Odyssey Writing Workshop. These online winter classes really have been a valuable experience for me. I learned a lot and, more importantly, have seen my writing ability grow. The key to this is that I walked in open to the idea that my writing was not perfect. Was it good? Yes. Was it attracting readers? Yes. Was it the best it could be? No. I took local creative writing classes before, but these classes have really been worth the money. 

3. The stubbornness my father gave me. This doesn’t sound like something to be proud of, but I find it is important in the writing field. I want to write. I want to share my writing with others. I want to create and there is nothing anyone can do to stop me. That is a trait that pushes me on and I am thankful for it…even if it can get me in trouble from time to time.

4. I am thankful for the readers. Their joy…and sometimes anger…is what compels me to write. Sure, I would probably write without it. But sharing the experience certainly makes it more fun.

5. Finally, I am thankful for the gift. I met a lot of people who have a desire to tell a story but don’t know how. I try to guide them best I can, but I do recognize their struggle. I am grateful I have the ability to create these stories because it is how I find enrichment in my life.

What do you give thanks for during this month?