Friday, September 30, 2011

The Delicacy of World Building

Just finished musing about How my own book reviews can make me a better writer over at Operation Awesome.

And now I'm thinking specifically about world building and how jealous I am of other writers for doing it so well. ;) It really does seem to be an art, weaving details into a narrative in a way that doesn't front-load or overload. The more I read, the more I get a sense for how it's done, but I still haven't mastered it.

I feel like a butterfly trying to weave a spiderweb, but my gigantic wings keep getting in the way. That's about how subtle my world building is.

I think my problem is that I geek out over science fiction, fantasy, or clever contemporary concepts. I make concept king, and everything else suffers. What should be king? CHARACTER. 

The setting and the world building have to be a backdrop against which the character can work - like an actor on a set or... a spider in a web. Let the web get too prominent, and it just might strangle the spider it was built for.

Let me show you what I mean:

Azalea wants to find love, purpose, and a place on Earth to belong, since she's always felt out of place in her own world (which is literally another celestial orb in the sky). She happens to be an alien with the ability to manipulate humans emotionally. Because of that, she never knows when someone's feelings for her are genuine, and pretty much always assumes it's just the result of her beyond-her-control sway over mankind. She's lonely.

She finally meets someone who's impervious to her power, but he's fresh from a bad breakup and doesn't trust girls as far as he can throw them. (He doesn't throw them; he's a nice guy, really.) His lack of trust is only exacerbated by the secrecy Azalea's identity requires. The character conflict is there, right? But it's overshadowed in my current manuscript by details about the world Azalea comes from, the people on Earth who don't want her there, and the people back home who want to control her fate. I haven't succeeded at all in weaving a web. I've got a mass of silk instead. It's still a precious material, but it's impossible to appreciate in its current form.

I think reading my reviews of books I've loved by authors who've mastered world building is a good first step in learning what works.

But what other ways do you make sure you're weaving a web instead of sitting on a spool of silk? How do you keep from front-loading or overloading your story with detail?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Unique YA Paranormal: SHIFTING by Bethany Wiggins

Le blurb: 
After bouncing from foster home to foster home, Magdalene Mae is transferred to what should be her last foster home in the tiny town of Silver City, New Mexico. Now that she's eighteen and has only a year left in high school, she's determined to stay out of trouble and just be normal. Agreeing to go to the prom with Bridger O'Connell is a good first step. Fitting in has never been her strong suit, but it's not for the reasons most people would expect-it all has to do with the deep secret that she is a shape shifter. But even in her new home danger lurks, waiting in the shadows to pounce. They are the Skinwalkers of Navajo legend, who have traded their souls to become the animal whose skin they wear-and Maggie is their next target.
Full of romance, mysticism, and intrigue, this dark take on Navajo legend will haunt readers to the final page.
You can read my Afterglow Review of this book here (that's a review written within the hour of finishing the book so you get my rawest reaction).

What's so unique about this book?

  • The setting: It's refreshing to see a setting that's a) not a big city and b) feels like a real place, not just generic Small Town America. From the opener, you can feel the author's love of New Mexico in the vivid descriptions of the horizon and the sky. But you can also feel the protagonist's dread at starting over in a barren place like this. Lots of little details combine to draw a clear picture of New Mexico even for people like me who have never spent time there.
  • The proactive protagonist: Maggie Mae is not perfect, but she's certainly proactive. After being introduced to the reader as an orphan with a juvie record for showing up naked in the morning streets, Maggie could easily have lounged around her new digs for a while, sulking. I totally would have understood. But she didn't. She went to school on day 1, even without shampoo to wash her hair or decent clothes to wear - no complaining to her new foster mom. And by lunchtime, she had a lead on a possible part-time job. She knows people stare because of her strange looks, and she embraces the loner label even though she'd rather be wearing a different one. Basically, she takes what life gives her and deals with it. She's got guts.
  • A real girl: Maggie Mae cries. She doesn't do it to get attention or to manipulate someone. Her crying isn't stigmatized as 'being a girl'. But she's put in horrible situations, and she responds like a real person would. Sometimes she's mad at herself for crying. Sometimes she lets the tears flow. But even though she's been drawn as a tough character, she owns her vulnerability. I got the sense that Maggie just accepted herself in a way that one mean girl antagonist (Danni) didn't. Of course, there's one thing Maggie doesn't accept about herself...
  • The paranormal ability: Maggie Mae wishes she didn't shift. This was different from a lot of the paranormal books I read where the character discovers he/she can do something amazing and geeks out about it pretty much immediately. For Maggie, it's kind of a curse and she lives in constant dread of somebody finding her out. But it really is an awesome paranormal ability. There's one shifting scene that had me grinning from ear to ear, even though it didn't actually work out the way Maggie Mae intended. Oh, and one more thing about this: the paranormal didn't swallow the characters. It's an important part of the book, but I didn't feel knocked over the head with it. It's also unique because it's drawn from Navajo legend. Lots of people have heard of Skinwalkers, but I've never seen a novel based on it. That makes this one pretty special. 
  • The romance: I saw a review of this book that claimed Bridger was 'the hot guy that inexplicably likes the ordinary girl.' I didn't get that sense at all. I thought the romance was very well-developed. I loved the author's use of gossip to introduce ideas that had a grain of truth but were ultimately false. Maggie Mae catches Bridger's eye first because of her appearance, but it's her attitude and skill on the track field that hold his interest. And then, of course, when he looks closely he sees more of what makes her special (as we all do when we choose to look more closely at someone we're already crushing on). Like everything else in this book, it felt real to me. He struck me as cocky, but in an endearing way. Also, when we get to know him a little better and what he can do, the confidence is not unwarranted. :) The attraction between them makes for some great charged moments throughout.
  • The bad guys: are so creepy. Maggie Mae gets attacked a lot by mysterious things. She's strong, but she's not that strong and I pretty much freaked out every time she was pursued by the creepies. And I was suspicious of everyone, for which I give kudos to the author. :) 
So there you go. My breakdown of what makes SHIFTING by Bethany Wiggins a unique YA paranormal. 

Its book birthday was yesterday, so if you head out to your bookstore today, you should be able to go home with it!! Happy reading!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Slow Starters: The Paranormal Edition

Opposite to this topic, I wrote about The Draw of an Awesome Beginning with four books that drew me from the word Go over on Operation Awesome. Check that out if you're not for the slow burn described below.

It's time for another round of the blog chain and Shaun started us off with this question:

What are three books you would tell people that they need to keep reading even if they aren't immediately sucked in by the first page?

This was so hard for me. I looked at my shelves and realized, I don't read a lot of books that don't hook my attention past the first thirty pages. I give each book a chance (I try to give it 100 pages) and if I just can't get into it, I quit. There are too many books and life is too short to spend time on nonstarters. 

But I did find a couple books in my collection which I would and have recommended despite them taking me a few pages to fall in love with. They are:

WINGS by Aprilynne Pike
Laurel's life is the very definition of normal... until the morning when she wakes up to discover a flower blooming from her back. As it turns out, nothing in Laurel's life is what it seems. Now, with the help of an alluring faerie sentry who holds the key to her true past, Laurel must race to save her human family from the centuries-old faerie enemies who walk among them. 
It wasn't a boring beginning. It begins with Laurel's first day at school after homeschooling her whole life. That's a pretty big step to take in your life, and definitely interesting. It just wasn't paranormal interesting, which is what I expected when I picked it up. However, once the paranormal stuff does rev up, it's awesome. Aprilynne Pike put an entirely unique spin on the faerie species, something I've never seen or heard of in any other story. Beyond that, her villains were very scary. And the love triangle, while infuriating, worked. The small glimpse we see of the faerie world, Avalon, made me eager for the second installment, which I pretty much devoured. So yeah, this book is worth reading. And if you're used to contemporary fiction that begins with an ordinary school day made special by a big change, you probably won't even notice the slow start. (The fourth book comes out April 2012, so this series is still going.)

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
  Grace has spent years watching the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf - her wolf - watches back. He feels deeply familiar to her, but she doesn't know why. Sam has lived two lives. As a wolf, he keeps the silent company of the girl he loves. And then, for a short time each year, he is human, never daring to talk to Grace... until now. For Grace and Sam, love has always been kept at a distance. But once it's spoken, it cannot be denied. Sam must fight to stay human - and Grace must fight to keep him - even if it means taking on the scars of the past, the fragility of the present, and the impossibility of the future.

The first line: I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.

That's a pretty compelling starter! And yet, I had trouble getting into this book at first. It just goes to show you that every reader is different, I guess. Or maybe that I'm just a weird reader. But the entire first few pages, I didn't know how to care about Grace... not until Sam sees her in the bookstore and she becomes really important. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone else. Everyone I know loves this book, and I definitely came around once it got going. The paranormal aspect was there from the very beginning, but it wasn't until I fully comprehended the romance aspect that the story spoke to me. After that, it was hard to put this book down. I love that Maggie Stiefvater succeeded in re-imagining werewolves (difficult to do in an already paranormal-saturated market). And the idea of them running out of human time completely just broke my heart. I highly recommend it, even to people who don't always love paranormal books. (It's a complete trilogy, the third and last installment coming out last year.)

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Isabella Swan's move to Forks, a small, perpetually rainy town in Washington, could have been the most boring move she ever made. But once she meets the mysterious and alluring Edward Cullen, Bella's life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn. Up until now, Edward has managed to keep his vampire identity a secret in the small community he lives in, but now nobody is safe, especially Bella, the person Edward holds most dear. The lovers find themselves balanced precariously on the point of a knife—between desire and danger. 
Now that you all know I'm crazy, it's safe to proceed with my third "slow starter." Twilight. I know she has that snazzy beginning about how she never imagined how she would die but she supposes it's good to die in place of someone you love. LOVED that bit. But then it goes to Bella moving from Arizona to Forks and how she feels about it. Nothing wrong with it. It was just slow for me. I even related to it, having moved from Arizona to northern Utah for college and being shocked by the climate change. Still, if it hadn't been for both my parents telling me how epic this book was, I probably wouldn't have read it as quickly as I did. I gave it time to get better because I wanted to find that spark that impressed them. And, oh boy, did I find that spark! To this day, I don't know any author who writes conflicted passion like Stephenie Meyer. Genius. Plus, her re-imagining of vampires was probably the spark that inspired both the authors above, even if they don't want to admit it. And re-imaginings of tired old tropes ROCK!  (You all know the story about how many books and when they were published.) {{If you haven't read this yet, what are you waiting for?}}

So I learned something about myself through this exercise: I'm not a very patient reader. *apologetic smile* If it's not rockin' from the beginning, I'm not eating it up. So I guess it's a good thing I instituted my first 100 pages rule. At least I know I'll always give a good book a decent chance. 

What books have you loved after a rocky start?

Be sure to check out Kate's post before mine and Michelle H. tomorrow!

p.s. An interesting note: When I asked my husband for his feedback before writing this post, he suggested Across the Universe by Beth Revis. I just stared at him and told him, "You know, most people say that's one of the best beginnings they've ever read." He was surprised to hear that. For him, too slow even to keep reading. So this really is all in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Contest to win an ARC of TOUCH by Jus Accardo

Le blurb:
When a strange boy tumbles down a river embankment and lands at her feet, seventeen-year-old adrenaline junkie Deznee Cross snatches the opportunity to piss off her father by bringing the mysterious hottie with ice blue eyes home.  
Except there’s something off with Kale. He wears her shoes in the shower, is overly fascinated with things like DVDs and vases, and acts like she’ll turn to dust if he touches her. It’s not until Dez’s father shows up, wielding a gun and knowing more about Kale than he should, that Dez realizes there’s more to this boy—and her father’s “law firm”—than she realized.  
Kale has been a prisoner of Denazen Corporation—an organization devoted to collecting “special” kids known as Sixes and using them as weapons—his entire life. And, oh yeah, his touch? It kills. The two team up with a group of rogue Sixes hellbent on taking down Denazen before they’re caught and her father discovers the biggest secret of all. A secret Dez has spent her life keeping safe. 

The author is holding the ARC contest on her blog:

It looks and sounds epic, and I really don't want to wait until November 1st to read it... but I will if I have to. I'm getting a Kyle XY vibe from the description, which is a very good thing! So head over there to enter the contest and spread the word about this exciting new book.

p.s. Amparo is over at Operation Awesome today blogging about agent-involved contests for those of you ready to be discovered! 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Difference Between Reading and Critiquing

For me, reading and critiquing are worlds different from each other.

When I read a published book, I relax and accept the story for what it is in its finished form. I may make judgments if I find something I'd change if it were up to me, but I don't dwell on any perceived glitches. I take the story as a whole and let it wash over me like a summer sun. *sigh* Reading good fiction is my happy place.

When I critique, a whole different mindset colors the reading. I'm looking diligently, not for mistakes to correct, per se, but for any possible way the story can be made better, stronger, more realistic, more moving.

This is why I could tear through SHIFTING by Bethany Wiggins in two nights of feverish reading, and yet it takes me weeks to months to critique a friend's unpublished MS.

I can't change the published novel. I can't change my buddy's MS either, but I can make suggestions that might influence the finished project. I love being part of that process.

But it's definitely a slower process for me than reading published works, if only because I'm invested in its success. I don't want to do a half-baked job. I sincerely want to see the amazing stories my CP's write end up on bookshelves everywhere.

I should probably ease up a little, take some of the pressure off myself. After all, it's hubris to think I could make or break someone else's book. I know I can't. Yet the difference between these two types of reading remains striking for me.

Do you critique as fast as you read, or is it a longer labor for you, too?

I lucked out and got to read an advanced reader copy this weekend!!

Please check out my Afterglow lovefest review for SHIFTING by this phenomenal debut novelist, Bethany Wiggins. And get your hands on a copy if you can (comes out this Tuesday!). You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Writers Write

Writers write, bloggers blog, and some say blogging doesn't count as writing. I hope they're wrong because, not counting blogging, I haven't done any new writing in weeks.

I'm reading THE PLOT THICKENS and critiquing for some fabulous people (CPs, cousins, contest winners, auction winners), and eyeing my teetering TBR pile with a mixture of excitement and despair.

I'm also teaching my son addition, subtraction, phonics, handwriting, reading comprehension, art, music, science, and social studies.

And lately I've been cleaning my house, which has to be done during these dry creative periods (because when I'm feeling inspired, I can't be bothered to dust or vacuum).

But all those things up there don't make me a writer. Only writing does. So, referencing my own post on bite-sized goals, I plan to cheat on my overwhelming to-do list and write 1k words tonight anyway. Even though I should be doing other things. I just can't stand not being a real writer. Not really writing.

Do you get into slumps like this that aren't really slumps? Times when something else trumps writing just because it has to be done? 

After all, it is September. I know half y'all are dealing with school beginnings either as teachers or students.

May we all find the time to express the stories fighting to burst free from our innermost fancies!

*rides off into the sunset*

(I never know how to end these things.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Know Thyself (and, um, your character)

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life

I just started reading Noah Lukeman's THE PLOT THICKENS: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, and was much encouraged when multi-published regency romance author Sarah M. Eden mentioned she owns, loves, and more importantly, uses the book!

So I'm reading it, and the very beginning is rough because it has all these characterization questions to ask yourself, and that just makes me want to put the book down and write. I think maybe I should be taking copious notes while I read it.

Lukeman, a literary agent, suggests looking at your character through a series of lenses:

- like an eye witness describing the character to a police sketch artist
- like a doctor asking his patient for personal history
- like a banker considering the applicant for a loan

There's much more than just that, but it basically ends with you knowing more about your character than you know about your own mother. Which is cool. And I can see this type of method really helping me out with my problem.

My problem: If I don't outline, I get lost. If I do outline, my characters surprise me with revelations, making me feel like I just married someone I don't even know (and basically ruining my next plot point).

I can imagine, however, that if I filled out this sort of questionaire about my main characters - made it so detailed that it inspired the plot, which is kind of the point of a character-driven tale - then I wouldn't have to deal with surprises that derail me into that dreaded black forest of crap-manuscript.

I'm excited to read more of this book. I think I'll be learning a lot as Noah Lukeman guides me through characterization to plot points to the all-important hero's journey. Plot has been my downfall for far too long. It feels good to be studying it at last.

Now you know my weaknesses in writing. What have you learned in your writing journey this week?

(p.s. I'm over at Operation Awesome today talking about bite-sized goals.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

What I *should* be doing today...

I'm over at Operation Awesome today talking about Read for Relief, a writer-driven auction/relief effort for hurricane victims.

For the sake of accountability, here's what I'm (supposed to be) working on right now:

1) Editing my Paranormal romance from third person limited to first person... limited. I guess that last part goes without saying.

2) Coming up with a really great ending. (Yes, I'm actually editing BEFORE the ending is concrete, but I kind of know how it's going to end. Kind of.)

3) Teaching my four-year-old to write his full name, address, and phone number for emergency purposes.

4) Ignoring the Shiny New Ideas that keep harassing me! They have the worst timing in the world!

What I am doing:

1) Blogging

2) Laughing at Kiersten White's blog.

3) Letting my kids watch Eloise on Netflix watch instantly

4) Eating pancakes with real maple syrup. Mmmmm....

Now for a laugh:

Yahoo! news quoted NY Times Bestselling Author Kiersten White in one of their articles... only they seemed to have no idea she's a bestselling author. Read the full story here and here.

Update: Yahoo! edited the article in question to focus on whose fault the blackout was, so it no longer includes the charming tweet quote by "San Diego resident Kiersten White" about not having A/C and not missing it. *sigh* It's probably for the best.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Blog Chain: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night in Albuquerque

It's BLOG CHAIN TIME... again. Feels like I just did this, but it's a writing sample this time, so I hope you enjoy. :)

Christine picked the new topic. She says: 

"Since we are all writer's, I thought it was about time for us to stretch our creative muscles and do a little writing. So, take the following topic and go crazy! Show us what you've got. Your story can be as long or as short as you choose."

The topic: A dark and stormy night.

Le scene:

When the rain touched the desert sand, it sizzled. I kicked the side of the car until it left a satisfying dent the size of my boot. The pain was immediate. I shook my foot until it faded. Hiking boots would've been good about now, but no. I wore stiletto boots with a pointed toe that cut the circulation from my peripheral toes. There would be no dancing tonight.

"Did you just kick my car?" Jack finally got up out of the driver's seat, closing his jacket around his squirrely shoulders as the rain made blood-red splotches on the salmon-colored leather. As mercy dates went, this one could run for congress. 

His pistachio green "classic" car looked like a giant, faded vegetable... on a nice day. In the rain, the retro metal was even more pathetic. He bent to inspect his car's newest dent, then pursed his lips in my direction.

I folded my arms and stared down the dirt road until the night sky swallowed sight. If I held really still, I thought I could hear music coming from the distant red and yellow lights. Country music.

Jack coughed.

I watched him lean into the car and tap the gas gauge for the fiftieth time. 

A groan, the caliber of which usually followed lightning, rose from my chest. "No matter how many times you look, it's still going to say the same damn thing. Out of gas!"

"I'm sorry, Chelsea." Even his voice sounded squirrel-ish. It dinged like a tiny hammer against my Sympathy Center, just like it had when he'd asked me to this stupid square dance in the boondocks. It hadn't helped that Always-thinks-she's-right Meg, standing right beside me at school, had pretty much laughed in his face. I couldn't say no after that. 

But now there was mud on my stiletto boots. My feet ached. My hair lay completely flat. The only good thing that came from standing in the rain was that Jack's pink (Come on! Salmon is so not a real color!) leather jacket had turned a more masculine red in the deluge.

"Let's just go," I said, gesturing for him to join me on the road. We could walk to those distant lights if it took us all night. It would be better than sitting in that refrigerator of a jalopy for one more second.

Jack fished out his car keys and handed me my purse. I thanked God for inspiring me to bring my vinyl zip-up bag instead of something more permeable. At least my lipstick would make it through this unscathed. Jack didn't say anything for the first hundred feet, just stared at the gravel and broken asphalt that poked through the soaked dust.

"Are you cold?" He made like he was going to take off his jacket and offer it to me. I stopped him with a raised palm and a glare I really couldn't help sending his way.

A car zipped past, loosening rocks which sprang up at us like swarming insects. A few stung my thighs below my denim cut-offs. I threw my hands up and cursed loudly at the back of the vehicle. Then, to my horror, the white truck spun around and came back.

Jack took my hand so suddenly, I think my jaw actually dropped. A bouncer-sized guy in a wife-beater shirt hung out the truck's window as it screeched to a stop just beside us. "Did you need a ride?"

I shook my head, wondering where my voice had gone off to. Even in the dark, I could see the sheen of bald heads on every passenger. 

The one who'd invited me in took a cursory glance at my hand entwined with Jack's and chuckled under his breath. "This guy bothering you?" His smile only went up on one side, like he was too lazy to get the rest of it up. A scar the shape of the moon marred his square chin. But the spookiest thing about him was his eyes. There was too much white to them, like his eyelids didn't work properly. 

"I'm fine. Moonlit walk in the rain." I turned away, realizing with relief that my feet had started working again. I led Jack toward those promising lights and the hint of music. 

A rough hand jerked my shoulder back, breaking our handhold. "I think we can offer you a better time," insisted the skinhead. Damn, he moved fast.

Every nerve in my chest sent warning signals - to my heart, to my brain. I didn't even register the rain dripping off my nose. All I saw was the shiny white truck and the gleaming bald heads with eyes leering sickly. 

"Back off!" The voice was not mine. I did a double-take toward Jack before I realized he'd spoken. He sounded different: bold. Even his jaw looked a little stronger. Less... squirrel-esque.

The talkative skinhead with the moon-shaped scar took an earth-eating stride toward us. I backed away, but Jack stood firm, even leaning forward with his fists clenched at his sides.

Two doors opened, and three more skinheads got out of the truck. One had a tattoo snaking up his left arm. In the truck's headlights, I could see the grapevine swirls that ended not in grapes, but skulls. The other two had tattoos, as well, but they stood a foot behind the first two, making them hard to see. 

What did it matter? I'd be dead before I could describe them to a police sketch artist.

Jack stepped forward, putting himself within breath-sniffing distance of the talker. 

I shut my eyes as I heard the snickering men advance. The sound of blows and grunts filled my ears. I hugged myself, daring to open my eyes, to see if any of them were coming after me next. 

Now I know my jaw dropped. Groaning or unconscious skinheads littered the dusty shoulder. Jack stood dangling a silver skull keychain from his bloody fist. "Need a ride?" He smirked. 

I noticed for the first time that, behind his broken glasses, his eyes were a really pretty blue. As mercy dates go, this one could run for congress.

I'm not great at brevity. Sorry 'bout that! :) I'm sandwiched between Kate before me and Michelle H.  tomorrow. Start with Christine, if you want the whole group's dark, stormy scenes. :)

Family Reunion - Labor Day 2011

This is me (in my pajamas) after four days camping in San Diego. I'm sunburned and blonder than I've been in years. My 2-year-old, the brunette one, also looks almost blond. Fortunately, nobody got sunburned quite as much as this, but the littlest guy did get red-nosed. We're both slathering on the aloe now that we're home, and healing very fast. 

These little changes in our appearance are just a reminder of all the outdoor fun we had over Labor Day weekend. We set up tents, cooked food in foil and on roasting sticks, played at Mission Bay Park at a mini-beach, visited the Festival of Sail, toured a submarine and a couple tall "pirate" ships (I told my 4-year-old they were pirate ships),

played with animals at a petting zoo, sang songs around a campfire (took requests from the people camped next door, who just happened to be Mormon, too, so they requested hymns by the hymn number), went to Balboa Park, rode the trolley, saw the Botanical Gardens, visited the International Cottages, watched a lame street magician, walked through Old Town California, listened to awesome wood instruments playing Mexican music while our toddlers and preschoolers danced, drank exotic slushies, saw the Mormon Battalion visitor's center (very cool if you're into California/Mexican/American/Mormon history, or even if you're not), panned for gold, and had our own talent show by the fireside. By the way, my brother's amateur magic show was way better than that street magician in Balboa Park. :) All in all, it was a fantastic time. We were never bored, and we were frequently outside, which is an awesome place to be when you're in sunny California. 

The flowers! Oh, the flowers. And the trees... It's just an amazing, beautiful place.

If you ever have a chance to visit San Diego in all its artsy, historic, natural glory, I definitely recommend it. Our camping reunion was made a little more glamorous because of it. 

What did you do over Labor Day weekend? Did you get sunburned?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

You know what's wrong with your story.

Let me change that to, You probably know what's wrong with your story.

I hate to make generalizations, but I've never met one person who was in therapy and didn't know why they were in therapy. Sure, there are plenty of us who don't know how to get out of therapy, how to "cure" ourselves, but we sure know there's something wrong in our lives, and we have more than an inkling about what that something is.

Writing is like that. Just as therapy junkies can talk to psychologists using their own lingo, a writer who's been around the writerly blogosphere a few times can usually spot the main problem with her own work, and often give it a name: pacing, dialogue, detail, realism, characterization, story arc.

When I worked with "troubled teens" in a wilderness therapy program in southern Utah, one of my more experienced co-workers said to me, "Physician, heal thyself." See, when you live in the woods for a week or two at a time, Nature has a way of kicking you in the butt and bringing things to the surface you thought you'd already dealt with. That's why it's so effective as therapy. Add to the mix 6-8 teens with their own inner demons and you wind up with a whole lot of bumbling, blistering self-healing going on. Yeah, the kids had real therapists to hash out their issues, but most of the real work happened between therapist visits, during the long, hot hikes wearing a heavy pack, digging in almost frozen ground so we could have a fire and a latrine, or dealing with in-fighting among the group. It was easy for me to see their issues (just like with your critique partners and their writing). In the wilderness, you wear your heart on your sleeve.

It was harder for me to see and deal with my own.

You can only depend on an outside observer to a limited extent. Real therapy happens inside you. And that's how writing is, too. Your critique partners can't write your book for you. They can point out where you seem to be struggling, like good friends do. But they can't go to therapy for you.

The good news is the title of this blog post: You know what's wrong with your story.

Just like you know your Aunt Bertha's mustache is the reason you avoid dating mustached men. You read healthy, published books and you see where your own work falls a little short. The key is noticing that feeling, embracing it, and remembering it. Because as soon as you realize you fall short somewhere, the human tendency is to forget. It protects us to live in denial. But it doesn't make us better people, and it's never made me a better writer.

So my goal in the future as I'm reading healthy books is to recognize that feeling when I see something that just works, and to write down the thing I struggle with before my protective self tries to hide it from me.

I can read a thousand Harry-Potter-quality novels, but I'll never get any better until I own what's holding me back from writing one. Writing therapy is hard, messy work. It's like climbing a mountain to cut words from your manuscript or rearrange scenes and then (my least favorite part) try to make them all flow together again with segues that don't read like segues.

One day out in the woods, my group had to get to a zone for food drop (a once a week rationing thing) and there was a massive, steep hill standing in our way. It was a quarter mile of straight uphill! Without packs, it would have been formidable, but with our "baggage" it was even harder. When we got to the top, we took pictures. They were the most genuine smiles I saw out there in the entire year I worked there, counting Christmastime! And when we parked ourselves at the bottom, made camp, and started our fireside chat, the personal epiphanies poured out.

The hill had changed us all.

The moral of the story? Take your pick:

1) Hard things are worth it in the end
2) You can do amazing things you might think are impossible
3) The mountain is your friend

So, my fellow writing therapy junkies... Physician, heal thyself. Climb that mountain. Do the hard thing you're afraid of.

p.s. If you don't know what's wrong with your story, keep reading and submitting your work to critique partners. If you do know what's wrong, you can join me in my quest to work through my writing issues, one at a time. I think this is going to be a hell of a long hike.

P.S. Kristine Asselin has written a glowing Afterglow Review on Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. If you're like me and always looking for great middle grade find, check it out!

P.P.S. EPIC 500 FOLLOWERS APPRECIATION CONTEST at OPERATION AWESOME! Going on all week. Don't miss these prize packs, including books, swag, critiques, and a beautiful piece of jewelry.