Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Help for the Series Dilemma

How many times has this scenario happened....?

You're standing in a Barnes & Noble, and you come across a book you think you'll love. You're instantly attracted to the cover, and when you read the flap, you can't wait to plunk down your hard-earned dollars and dive right in! But, wait! You look closer and see the word "SERIES." This is both good news, and bad. Good, because, hey - if you like this book, you've got at least a few more that will be similar to it - characters and settings that will carry over to the next book. There's something so comforting and familiar about a series...

Bad news? Surely the book in your hand doesn't just happen to be #1. It's never that easy. Or worse, you can't TELL which number in the series it is. So, you panic and flip to the front cover, and see 8 previous titles listed. Ack! You have to start at the beginning, don't you? So, you return to the bookshelf and scan the titles again, and pray that #1 is among them. But it isn't. Deflated, you shelve the book in your hand (because, really, who wants to read #9 in a series first?), and make a mental note to look up the first book online (and then you usually forget the author or title, by that point...).

(Even worse is when the series books aren't numbered!! WHY aren't all series clearly numbered? I'll never understand that...)

Well, this may be just the solution you need -- I stumbled across an invaluable site for booklovers, called FictFact. It's a huge database of SERIES books that tells you the exact order in a particular series, and even notifies you when the new releases are coming out. So, just get out that fancy i-Phone in the middle of Barnes & Noble, and start tapping in the title in your hand. This database should give you all the info you need. And, if the book isn't available in the bookstore, the site even has a button that leads you directly to Amazon, to purchase the book, then and there.

Dontcha love the internet??? ;-)

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Little Nugget of Magic

For me, the best literature is a book (or even movie) that stays with me a long, long time. I don't forget it the moment I close the last chapter - instead, I mull it over in my mind, reflect on characters or a storyline that was powerful.

I think part of the "magic" of this is when an author nails it. When he/she, usually in just one unexpected sentence, one little nugget, takes a feeling, emotion, or a truth that we knew all along but never found the right words for -- and plucks out of thin air the PERFECT words to describe it. When that magic happens, I find myself nodding along, and think, "Yes. That's it, exactly." I love it when that happens.

And it happens so rarely. Even in the best modern literature, it only happens a handful of times in one novel. But, I guess that's the beauty of it. If those authors could "nail" a specific feeling or emotion with every single sentence, it would be commonplace, rather than rare.

Elizabeth Berg, a favorite author of mine, describes this moment I'm talking about, in her writing book, Escaping Into the Open:  "You want to solicit in your readers that pleasant rush of recognition, that satisfying surprise of finding out something they knew, but didn't know they knew."

Here's an example that I found from her own novel, The Last Time I Saw You -- about a 40th high school reunion. Here's a main character, at the end of the reunion (after some disappointments of expectations, some old wounds re-opened, some truths confessed):

"It comes to her that all of the people in this room are dear to her. As if they all just survived a plane crash together or something. All the drunks and the show-offs and the nice kids and the mean ones. All the people she used to know and all the ones she never knew at all."

I haven't been to a reunion, but I've recently reconnected with a lot of old high school friends, and this is SO much what it feels like to me. Ms. Berg nailed it - high school was rough, in different ways, for just about everyone. There were wonderful moments and heartaches, moments you'd rather forget. But, we all went through that experience together, for better or worse. Nobody else but that exact group of people in that exact graduating class could go through that exact experience the way we did. So yes, I think high school, in hindsight, feels very much like surviving a plane crash together. Some unique experience that can't be replicated, that can't be experienced except by the people inside the plane together. What an interesting way to look at it.

I love those little nuggets of magic. In fact, I seek them out, bookmark the page when I come across them. And, I'm lucky if, as a writer, I can ever sprinkle a truth like that inside my own work...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


When you're editing a book or story - I mean, REALLY editing - cutting whole scenes or changing character traits or moving scenes around - the decision-making can feel overwhelming. Because one single decision you make, with a character or scene or plot, has ripple effects. It can change the entire rest of the story, so each decision has to be made carefully. And almost always, something has to be sacrificed.

Here's my example: In the novel I'm currently editing, the male and female leads are old college friends who meet up 5 years later. Well, for reasons too long to explain here, I've decided that it would be better if they didn't have a history with each other at all -- that instead, their friendship starts fresh, developing in front of the reader's eyes.

When I made this change, I realized a few things were sacrificed, but the biggest one? Their comfortable history together was gone. So, I had to re-work the entire beginning of their relationship. As well, the original way they got reacquainted had contained a "bead" (symbol) that I'd integrated into the end of the story, to create a full circle, a connection. Well, with these new changes, that bead vanished. It had to be sacrificed. So, I have to brainstorm another bead instead.

I think, in the end, it will be worth it - and that's the main point, really. You have to weigh everything as you make your decision. Ask yourself whether the sacrifices are worth it in the end. If they are, you'll know you're doing the right thing. Of course, if they're not worth it, you might need to re-think it. Again.

Sacrificing ANY plot, character, or even dialogue can be so tough. But the bottom line is always this: if the sacrifices are made for the greater good of the novel, it's always the right decision.

Monday, September 20, 2010


I knew this day would come, but not quite so soon. Text-speak has officially been entered into the dictionary. No, seriously - right here.

Now, sure, being internet-savvy, I like my LOL's and my ROFL's and my BTW's well enough. But do I think they should be legitimized as actual words? Or should start to be seen as some sort of substitute for "real" language? Umm, no. Not at all.

My worry, of course, is that text-speak will creep in to my students' formal essays (it already has! I've seen rampant use of "u" instead of "you!"). And that this generation of readers/learners/texters will rely SO heavily on abbreviated versions that they'll begin talking in them. *imagines a funny conversation occurring, with "LOL" being spoken in place of actual laughter*

Something else that's occurring? A book-less library. (<--oxymoron?). That's right. A library filled only with....chairs and tables. No books. No tall shelves that house rows and rows of glorious literature. Instead, the books are digitalized. The wave of the future?? I certainly hope not. Because I still enjoy the sensation of having a book in my hands, turning the pages, smelling that new-book smell. *imagines a future world in which children point to a hardcover book and say - "Mommy, what's THAT?!"*

I guess I'm just an old-fashioned, old soul. I don't like these changes that are a'coming, though I know I'm powerless to stop them....

People Don't Change...

In my Creative Writing class, I often relate examples of real-life people when I talk about fictional characters. Because even if we're not basing our characters on anyone in particular, we still have to make them "feel" absolutely real. They need to have flaws and quirks, good points and bad - to be more than one-dimensional.

This might be a bit controversial, but I tell my students that, in my personal experience, (real-life) people don't change. That the CORE of who they are (personality, belief system, the way they view the world) is often established at a pretty early age (or, they're even born with it, in the case of personality). And that they rarely, if ever, veer from that main core.

Sure, people grow and learn and stretch themselves. Absolutely. And sure, people can have religious experiences, which often are accompanied by significant alterations in their beliefs. But most people I know react the same way to the same situations time and time again (myself, included). In fact, I could present a hypothetical situation and just about predict how a certain person might react.

Maya Angelou has a fantastic quote: "The first time someone tells you who they are, believe them." To me, that means that people show you who they are, and they will CONTINUE to act that way, time and time again, so we'd better brace ourselves for it.

Another great quote comes from Don Draper, the fictional character in Mad Men. I jotted this down from last week's episode: "People tell you who they are, but we ignore it. Because we want them to be who 'we' want them to be." Again, meaning that as much as we want someone to change, they most likely won't. They'll most likely continue to be exactly who they always were.

So, back to fiction -- just as people tend not to change who they truly are, at their core, so fictional characters shouldn't either. At least, not without justification. Here's an exaggerated example: if Sally starts out in your novel with a passive, meek, introverted personality, she probably won't end up at the end of the novel with an assertive, sanguine, outgoing personality -- unless something significant has occurred within those pages to justify the "change."

The reader gets to know a character better with each page he/she turns. With every sentence, the writer is building a background for the character, laying a specific foundation. So if, suddenly, for no reason, the character changes drastically - does something completely OUT of character - the reader will know that. And will be frustrated by it. Because, suddenly, the characters don't seem "real." They seem "written."

So, what do you think? Are real-life people - or characters - capable of drastic changes in their lives that are lasting, sustainable? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Embrace the Inner Geek

At some point in the semester, I tell my Creative Writing students that I'm a geek (by that time, though, they've probably already assessed that fact). And I usually also tell them that they are probably all geeks, too. No, I'm not verbally bashing my students. In fact, they all laugh and nod their heads at me when I say it. Because they know I'm right.

The world defines "geek" as someone like us - book nerd, bookworm, someone who would rather spend a Friday evening at home with a new novel than attend a loud party.

And I embrace it! I'm proud of being cerebral, contemplative, introspective. I like the fact that I smile when I crack open a new book and smell that new book smell. Or when I overhear a couple arguing softly in a corner booth and take mental notes, knowing how well it will fit into a scene I'm writing. Or spend hours researching/querying agents and then get a rush when I click open a "please send us your novel" email!

So, if you identify with any of these things, embrace the geek!! Be proud of your geek-ness. It means you're brave enough to stand out in a crowd, to move against the tide, to be an independent thinker. Today, be who you are. Be a geek!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Feel That Pull? It's the Writing Magnet

Here I sit, at the edge of a weekend. Exhausted from a hectic work week - looking back at all the grading, lecturing, planning I've done. I should be wanting to sit in front of the t.v. Or even go to sleep early. Or just do nothing at all.

But here I sit at the computer, feeling it - that pull to write. To create something.

It's been a little while since I've written. Oh, sure, I talk about writing every day. I tell my students about run-ons and fragments, about characterization, about setting and dialogue. But during a busy semester, rarely do I have time to sit down and put these lessons into practice, just for me.

So, often, I find myself during my rare "down" time wanting to write. Feeling the pull, strongly, like a magnet - toward familiar characters, toward new ideas, toward possible revisions.

John Grisham's writing magnet pulled him to get up at 4am (when he was working as a lawyer) and write for an hour every day before he left for court. I'm SO glad my magnet doesn't beckon at that early hour! ;-)

I like that it pulls me, this writing magnet. Sometimes I wish it didn't, but I'm glad it does - because that's how I know I'm still interested in the process. That I still long for it, still want it in my life as often as possible. In fact, I might even be a little bit unnerved if I didn't feel at least the pull, the desire to write. That would be a very sad day...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Blog!

Here's a new agent blog I found (quite literally "new," as Ms. Little has recently become an agent). She's got a lot of publishing experience, and her entries are informative and honest. I love her enthusiasm for writers and the written word! Also, she's generous enough to answer questions inside the comments. Nice!

(I've perma-linked this to the left-hand menu, as well).


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Short Story Contest!!

Just passing along this link to a Writer's Digest Short Story Contest. I'm sharing the link with my students too, but I won't be participating.

The main reason? I stink at short story writing. No, truly. I think it takes an incredible level of skill to tell a worthwhile, interesting, layered story in a terribly-brief amount of time. Much like those short films I'm showing in class right now ("Paris, I Love You" is the title) - 5 minutes to tell a story with punch, with impact, with flavor. I don't have those skills, but I soooo admire those who do. I personally need about 400 pages to tell my stories, lol. Seriously - I just love the freedom of having that many pages to play with.

Sure, I've attempted the odd short story here and there. But I don't enjoy them, probably because they're so challenging for me. So, I'll leave short story writing up to the ones who do it best.

Good luck to all who enter the contest!!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Paris, I Love You

Today in class, I talked about "beads" (here's an old entry about them). Then, I showed the students this short film, and asked them to find the beads (red coat, humming/dumplings).

The students seemed to love the film - one of them marveled at how rich, bittersweet, even humorous it was, all in the span of 5 minutes' time. I couldn't agree more. I love that I can show a class of young creative writers a film with subtitles, and they actually appreciate it!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

It's My Anniversary!

I started this little blog of mine exactly one year ago (well, technically, it was Sept 12th). It's surprising, how satisfying it's been, to write about writing - the ups and downs, joys and frustrations. And, even more, to hear from other writers across the country who are in the same boat. I had no idea if I'd enjoy the blogging process (I do!) or whether I'd even find enough things to say (I did!). Thanks to Becky, for giving me the inspiration in the first place.

Looking back on this year, I didn't do anything amazing like snag an agent or get published, but I did "put myself out there" more than ever before - and from that, I've received unexpected valuable feedback/advice/interest from some agents, which is promising. And, more importantly, I've continued to write. To make progress. To keep chipping away. In fact, I've been more productive in the past year than I have any other writing year, and I'm proud of that. And, I feel like I'm close - that maybe, just maybe, this next year could be "the year" of getting agent representation. It's probably just wishful thinking (realistic thinking!), and if it doesn't happen, it's fine. I'll just keep on writing, anyway...

So, today, I'm issuing a heartfelt "thanks!" to the readers - to anyone who's even read a single entry, and especially to those who keep coming back for more. It's much appreciated! At least I know I'm not out here alone in cyberspace, talking to myself, lol.

Today, I wish my blog a Happy 1 Year Anniversary!

*throws confetti all over the blog; hands out bubbling cyber-glasses to the readers*

Here's to another year!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Makes You a Writer?

I addressed my Creative Writing students for the first time 2 weeks ago, and said something along the lines of this: "Some of you signed up for this class because you've written all your lives - you can't imagine not having writing in your life, or maybe you've even been published. Some of you signed up because you've occasionally dabbled and you want to hone your skills. And some of you signed up out of sheer curiosity - you've written things no one else has seen, and don't consider yourself a writer. But guess what? If you signed up for this class, if you've written anything that you'd call 'creative' -- you're a WRITER."

Sadly, it's this whole "publishing thing" that leads writers to doubt that they are -- writers. Society has made us believe that unless we're published, we're not validated. That we're not really writers. Hogwash.

Allow me to illustrate: Let's pretend that next month, I will finally nab that long-sought-after agent (ha!). Well, the book that I've spent hundreds of hours creating, editing, polishing, in the past year and a half is THE book the agent will take on and try to sell to publishers, right? And if she does sell it, then bam! Does that suddenly make me more of a writer than I was a few weeks before, when I was finishing the novel (and didn't have an agent)? No! In fact, the material itself hasn't changed a bit - only the results.

I heartily reject the idea that one has to be "published" in order to be a writer. Because you can't GET published without having written something. A writer WRITES.

So, today, if you've written anything creative, give yourself permission to call yourself a writer. Be comfortable with that title. Try it on for size. Because you've earned it. And no one can take it away.

By the way, here's a great article on this topic, from the GLA blog - At What Point Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Traci Can!!

So, I like to watch HGTV's "Carter Can" - a home improvement show - and not just because Carter Oosterhouse is the cutest handyman ever!

The reason I like watching the show is to see the incredible transformations that take place. For instance, on today's show, Carter gutted a small, awkward, out-dated kitchen. He took down walls, added walls, replaced countertops and appliances. He made a whole new kitchen!

And it dawned on me, as I watched him and his team going through all that hard work -- isn't this sort of what we, as writers, do when we take on a major book revision? We have a vision in our heads of the "after" picture, but in order to get there, we must take drastic measures - dismantle storylines, transform characters, replace dated/awkward dialogue, rip out plotlines that don't work, add fresh perspectives and a climax that does work. It's a writer's version of home improvement.

Just like Carter and his team, it takes MASSIVE hard work and mental sweat to make these revisions and see them through. But the result? Well, if we've put in the strenuous work, dedicated ourselves to the process, and allowed BIG, necessary changes to take place - the results can be stunning. The book can be improved to the point where it's nearly unrecognizable, compared to that first "shabby" draft.

So, when you're faced with a massive book revision, take heart - know that the hard work will be worth it, and that, in the end, you'll have a brand-new, sparkly, functional, renovated novel.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The POWER of Writing...

A few months ago, I blogged about the "Immortality" that writing can offer -- the idea that, when we leave this earth, we can leave something behind in our writing.

I've never experienced this so poignantly as the past couple of days. A fairly-new friend of mine passed away unexpectedly 2 days ago. Well, she was a writer. A great one. She wrote articles and had a (private) blog that she'd been gracious enough to let me see. I started reading her blog just last week. I loved it - the honesty, the rawness, the emotion. And when she passed away, I found myself drawn to it again, to get to know her better, posthumously. There's something eerily beautiful about reading her words NOW, in hindsight, knowing how quickly her days would come to an end. And knowing she had no idea.

I'm committed to reading her entire blog, entry by entry - so I can get to know her, "backward."

Also powerful were the written messages that people have been leaving on her Facebook page - heartbroken messages TO Shannon, from friends, family, students. Wow. That page has been turned into a memorial. We visit her page, knowing she's not there anymore. Knowing she'll never post another status again, and that's sobering. But, her words live on. Her blog and her articles and even her Facebook page are permanent digital fingerprints she left behind. Little gifts she left to those who are mourning right now.

THAT is the power of writing.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Appropriately Stormy...

Today, I lost a friend. She passed away after an unexpected illness, and I'm still in shock. We had raging storms when I heard the news - thunder overhead, rain pummeling down. Appropriate for the shock I was feeling. Just yesterday, I taught students in my literature class about "pathetic fallacy," when nature seems to mirror the actions going on in people's lives. Soft rain at a funeral, bright sunshine on a wedding day. And big storms on a tragic day.

What do writers do when we're stunned, upset, sad? We write.

So here I go, rattling off some thoughts about her (she's "YODA", by the way, in some of my comments sections in many of my entries - I always loved hearing her thoughts on things).

I found her through another friend - both on Facebook and through our blogs. Over the past 2 months, we exchanged emails and it felt like I'd known her for YEARS. It was one of those friendships that cuts through all the "fake faces" that we have when we meet someone new. Instantly, we were talking about all our similarities: we're both teachers, both had similar heartbreaks, and both attended the same high school, 20 years ago (but didn't know each other then!).

I loved her writing style - she was quick, witty, and brilliant. As I got to know her personality, I saw the great depth of her spirit. She'd been through a lot in her life, but was a fighter. She fought until the end, I'm sure. Her spirit was strong and endured through great hardships.

Today, in this blog entry, I honor her. Her life, her spirit, those she left behind (children and a husband), and the all-too-brief friendship I was honored to have with her.

Rest in Peace, Shannon. I wasn't finished with our friendship yet. You will be MISSED.

Where Were You Last Night?

This is the exercise I'm going to give my Creative Writing students today, ask them to write a brief scene, using that question as their first sentence: Where were you last night?

They could use it in a piece of dialogue, an inner thought of a character, any way they choose. They could write in first person, third person, even second. The main character could be anyone, in any given situation.

That idea came from the brilliant "What If" book that I use each class period (details over on the left-hand menu). Exercises like this are a wonderful way for writers to keep up the creativity level, even during busy, non-writing times...

Can't wait to hear what the students come up with. It's surprising, how different their stories always are from each other, even given the exact same prompt...