Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hump Day Surprise: the Metaphor Rant

So it's after 11 o'clock on a Monday evening (yes, I know this is Wednesday -- just roll with it :-) ). I need to get up in six or so hours, and I'm WIDE awake. That has a little bit to do with our Scribblerati meet up tonight and that always winds me up some, but it has a lot more to do with the chocolate mocha thingy I so wisely chose to down at 7:30 PM.

Not my brightest move ever.

So here I am, my mind spinning with all sorts of things, but mostly with the fact that sometimes I hate writing fantasy. To be honest, it's more of a love/hate, like when people talk about their cat chewing up their computer power cord, or their kids throwing a tantrum in the grocery store. Yes, I do love fantasy, just like people love their cats and their kids, but there are times when it drives me crazy, like when I would love nothing more than to use one tiny little frakking metaphor.

I suppose most fantasy writers have this problem to some degree. For instance, you can't use commonly known metaphors like, ‘an electric feel,’ because there isn't electricity in most fantasies. My situation is even worse, and it's entirely of my own making. My story takes place on a completely different world and not even a world, but a moon where even the plants are different colors than they are here on earth. So, forest green? Can't use it. Saying the air has a spring-like feel? Can't use that either.

And it gets even crazier. Take “winds me up,” for example. That's a metaphor based on watches and clocks. Clocks could potentially exist in my world, but don't, and throwing that phrase into my world would adjust ring hollow.

Ring hollow… I think I could actually use that one….

So what is it that has me worked up tonight? “Pancake like leaves.”

It just so happens that the leaves on illiana trees look like pancakes. They do. They are round, flat, a little thick. Pancakes. But can I use that? Noooooooo. Because when I do, the ever insightful Scribblerati began to ask, “Do they make pancakes in your world? And if they do, would they really call them pancakes because nothing else in your world is named the same as it is here on earth.” To which my reply is, “What if I add a scene where they go out for brunch and order pancakes and goat cheese omelettes?”

Yah, that won't work.

Sigh. So back to the drawing board.

PS. I can't use drawing board either.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Secret of Writing Success

"80% of success is showing up." ~Woody Allen

What about success in writing? I think the Woody Allen quote holds up here, too, although I’m not sure it’s wise to trust a guy who married his stepdaughter (or was it his granddaughter? Either way, creepy).

Making time for writing, showing up with some type of consistency at a time and place conducive to putting words on paper (or on screen) helps. For me it’s Mondays and Saturday mornings and whatever other spare time I can fit in. Some days it’s an hour before bed or an hour when I first rise. Occasionally I write over lunch. How about for you?

Another important factor for success in writing, I think, is to surround yourself with supportive people, especially people who love reading and writing.

I’ve decided to dedicate this blog post to those people who encourage and support my writing fix in one way or another. If you’re one of them, this blog is for you. If you are a writer—who are those people in your writing corner, helping you succeed?

Thanks first to my spouse (and my sometimes writing widow) Brenda. If showing up gives you an 80% success rate, I have also heard in more than one place that 90% of happiness in marriage is marrying the right person. I’m thankful I did. My wife is a great spouse in many ways, but I’m extra lucky in that she supports my desire to write and also is happy to look over my writing from time to time and give me feedback. Fortunately she’s also a pretty good editor and catches some of the little things I miss in my own work. Single writers: If you are dating someone and they are willing to critique your work (and hopefully in a kind, or at least honest, way) you may have yourself a keeper.

Thanks next to the folks at my day job who allow me the flexibility to work a shorter work week so that I can pursue my dream. There are many work places that would look down on someone who has a pursuit they love outside their job—my workplace is not one of them. Sure, I’m the office IT guy, but I appreciate it when my coworkers ask about my book in progress or ask me questions about writing. I’m lucky to be where I’m at.

Thank you also to my friends and family, both volunteer readers and writers alike (you know who you are). There is nothing that bonds a friendship like sharing writing back and forth across the years and miles. I’m glad we have this in common. (Special shout-out to Peter who says he has some writing feedback in the mail for me this week!)

And of course where would I be without my fellow writing critique group? Yes, you Scribblerati or Sparkle Death Rabbit, or whatever we call ourselves these days. To have a group of brutally honest writers (and I do mean brutal ☺) at your disposal to discuss writing and get feedback from is invaluable. I know over the past year+ I’ve grown a lot thanks to the critiquing process and being surrounded by some other up-and-coming great writers who offer unique perspectives. Thank you!

I’ll mention just one more writer “support group” that I’d highly recommend:
The Loft.
This Twin Cities-based writing academy has been an invaluable resource for me as a developing writer. We are lucky to have such a resource in Minneapolis, let alone in our state. I’ve taken close to twenty writing classes and workshops over the past many years and know it has helped me grow many ways as a writer. The critique group I’m in all met thanks to The Loft. The first few appearances of my book’s protagonist, Blackheart, appeared to me in writing exercises during various classes. The Loft has their Fall calendar up now if you are interested:
I highly recommend you check them out, whether or not you are a beginning or advanced writer (I’ll be taking a couple more classes there myself come September).

Some instructors (novel) I’ve really enjoyed are: Mary Gardener (, and Mary Carol Moore (

BLACKHEART Progress: Editing, editing, editing
I took a “vacation day” today from work, and most of it (about six hours) was spent at my writing desk, hashing away at BLACKHEART Chapter 10, one of the more troublesome chapters in my manuscript. I’m pleased to report that when this chapter is completed (I’m hoping it’ll be done Saturday) I’ll be almost to the halfway mark in this revision.

The interesting thing to me is how much of revising is cutting. I keep a “parking lot” of cut and pasted pieces that I’ve removed from my manuscript (so far) as I edit. This certainly doesn’t include everything, especially not little changes, but right now it contains a word count of almost 16,000 words (!) that have been removed from my book in the name of making it better (out of my now 110,000 word manuscript). This also doesn’t include a couple scenes that I really love that no longer fit in the story. Sigh.

Oh well. If you are looking for me I’ll probably be at my desk, revising. Until next time!


“There are no great writers, only great re-writers.” ~Hemingway

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hump Day Surprise! A few thoughts about Scarlet #1

I wasn't always a fan of comics.

I used to be one of those people who looked down their noses at comics. They weren't real writing, so why waste your time with them? Clearly, I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.

I first started reading comics back around the time that horrible travesty otherwise known as The Phantom Menace came out. I was a pretty big Star Wars fan boy back then and I heard they were coming out with a comic about one of those fascinating side characters (Ki Adi Mundi) that Lucas dreamed up but did absolutely nothing with. So I bought it.

And the rest is history.

Now I read a lot of comics and I have been anticipating the release of Scarlett ever since I first heard about it. I may not be a Star Wars fan boy anymore, but I am a big fan of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev.

So without further ado…

This book is a jewel. From the opening page to the last, this book rocks.

As I have become a better novelist, I have learned to better appreciate and recognize good writing in all forms. As an avid comic reader, I have learned how difficult it is to write a good story in the graphic novel medium. Comics writers don't get to write exposition. They can't explain how a character feels, they have to show us. They do this through dialogue, but also through layout; setting up panels, their content, character placement, etc. This makes the artist as much responsible for the success of a comic as the writer.

We novelists have it easy. We can paint a setting through exposition, and then turn around and tell you exactly how a character feels. Comic writers provide a brief description of all this and then turn it over to the artist. Talk about scary! Fortunately, Bendis and Maleev are both masters.

Don't get what I'm talking about? Well check this out. Here's the setup: Scarlett just killed a cop and she's trying to decide how she feels about that.

© 2010 Jixworld Inc.

That is mastery. Any novelist would be estatic to convey a moment as well as Bendis and Maleev do in these two frames and those handful of words.

Go buy it. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 16, 2010

You Are What You Read (The Q Version: Part One)

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Now that Lisa has posted her list of favorite books, it’s my turn. Viva la dos equis!

Time to get girly. Except not really so much.

You see, I’m a sci-fi/fantasy writer, and a self-proclaimed geek. I like a lot of 'boy' stuff: I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I love both R.R.s – Tolkien and Martin. I read the Thomas Covenant series when I was 12. I’ve even cracked open a comic book here and there.

Also, I’m happy to note that as thoughtful, intelligent female writers, neither Lisa nor I have included any sort of mooshy memoir from a high end domestic or intern or the like, nor any chicktastic books that are about people reading Jane Austen novels, and/or are themselves modernizations of Jane Austen novels. However, do you know who’s among the top of my list?

Jane Austen.

Yep. I’m a girl. But wait! Hear me out.

Jane Austen: In this order: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abby, Emma, Mansfield Park.

Ms. Austen is terribly misunderstood by humans of the broader, hairier persuasion. I think it’s because they’re forced to read her in high school or early college, and often they’re just not ready.

Kind of like when I watched A Clockwork Orange at age 18, and was traumatized for years. Only instead of scenes of graphic violence, these poor boys are subjected to elegant balls and class struggles between the upper class and the, ah … upper middle class. However, those 3 or 4 men I’ve convinced as adults to give Jane another try have been successfully converted, without the use of eyelid securing contraptions. Heck, I finally re-watched A Clockwork Orange when I was 30, and I liked it quite a bit.

Here’s the deal. Once you fall into her language, which doesn’t take long, Jane Austen is really, really, really funny. And not in a ‘oh how veddy veddy droll’ sort of way, in a sharp, cutting, whimsical, pointed sort of way. She does this thing, where she, as narrator, is a character herself; she manages to come across on the surface as the objective storyteller, but all the while she’s commenting on the selfish, ridiculous, and just plain stupid qualities of some of her characters, and society – without ever actually coming out and saying anything bad about them. It’s all in her tone, and it’s a brilliant balancing act. From Northanger Abby:

“She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Razor sharp. Of course, I also love her breathtaking use of language, her wonderful characters (WWEBD – What would Elizabeth Bennet do?), and oh yes, of course, the Romance. Has ever a book so utterly transformed the heroine’s and our opinions of the man in question so gradually and so perfectly as Pride and Prejudice? I guess you’ll have to read it to find out. Yes, you too, gentlemen.

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

When I was taking a class at the Loft, the teacher (an acclaimed author) asked us to write down what we’d done that morning, and I included on my list: ‘Read a chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.’ I was soundly mocked. By the teacher. “Really? Harry Potter?” I looked around the room, and some of the students were pursing their lips and shaking their heads in condemnation, others were staring studiously at the floor. I’d bet you a pile of cold, hard knuts that the former group had never read the books, and the latter had, and loved them.

Because what’s not to love? They’re brilliant, and I don’t use that word lightly. (And to be clear, I’m talking about the books and not the movies.) “It’s a kid’s book; it’s for young adults, blah, blah, blah:” not really, and who cares? Not since I was a young adult myself have I been so completely transported into a series of books, into another world.

The series gets better as it goes along, both as Rowling becomes more accomplished in her writing, and as Harry’s understanding of his world expands – in other words, as he grows up. Adults disappoint. People die. Governments fail. And all of this hangs on a tale that Rowling crafted from start to finish, all seven books, before she ever started writing. The completeness of the story, and the little foreshadowing cookies she drops here and there for those who are paying attention (or rereading), are so satisfying, it’s hard to explain properly if you haven’t experienced it. Plus, the characters, and the world of Hogwarts are so likeable and well drawn, and, yes: magical, it’s hard to resist.

I’ve read all of the books multiple times, including twice out loud to friends (I do all the voices, don’t you know), and I’m sure there will be many more readings in my lifetime.

And by the way, my response to my teacher’s comment was, “Hell YEAH, Harry Potter!”

Jonathan Lethem: Motherless Brooklyn and Gun With Occasional Music

Mr. Lethem has other books worth reading, but the above two are my favorites. He is a clever, clever writer – and when you read interviews with him, he speaks almost as eloquently as he writes.

Motherless Brooklyn is not science fiction, although the majority of Lethem’s books fall loosely into that category. It’s a murder mystery, and the main character is low-level thug in the mob who grew up an orphan and also has Tourette Syndrome. It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not, it’s amazingly powerful, thoughtful, and funny. I would recommend this book to anyone I know; I can’t dream up a person who wouldn’t love it.

The first conversation I ever had with my husband was about Gun With Occasional Music, so it holds a special place in my literary litany. The quote at the front of the book is from Raymond Chandler:

“There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.”

Lethem uses this quote as a springboard for his futurist noir world, which contains, among other delights, an actual kangaroo in a dinner jacket. There are evolved animals, force-matured children (called baby-heads): objects come with their own soundtracks (thus the title of the book) and psychology has become a religion. Our main character is a private detective in a society where asking questions is a taboo. Tricky. But beneath all these fantastic incidentals (which Lethem manages to convey without ever coming across as Basil Exposition), there’s a great, gritty, classic noir mystery.

Wow. I just took up a lot of space, and I’m only three authors in. I do go on. Well, okay then. More next time!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Do I Write, or Am I a Writer?

Faithful Scribblerati readers may remember a post I made a while back about getting canned from my day job. At the time I talked about how excited I was to actually have time to write and I have made the most of that opportunity. But like most writers who struggle in these years before publication, I need to work. Even though I would love nothing more than to stay home and write, I can’t.

Me need moo-lah!

But let me tell you, there's nothing like being able to devote hour after hour of uninterrupted time to your craft, and doing so day after day. My work has increased in both quantity and quality and in two months time I have shaved roughly nine months off what it would have otherwise taken me to complete To Kill the Goddess. Two months ago I was maybe 35% complete, now I'm probably somewhere around 80%. I have solid, finished drafts of all but three chapters and I'm working on the final, post critique drafts even as I finish the rest.

I've always wondered what the difference was between writing and being a writer and now I know. Being a writer is living and breathing your characters. It's immersing yourself in story, swimming in character and plot, and weaving it all together like a tailor. It's an amazing, wonderful journey.

But now this fantastic blessing (otherwise known as unemployment) is drawing to a close. I start a new job next week. It'll be a good thing, for a number of reasons completely unrelated to writing, but I'm really going to miss all the time I've been spending with Seamus, Kaytlyn, Cassandra, Coltrane, Mathias, and Airelai. They have become my friends in a way they never have before, even though I've known them for more years than I care to admit.

So now I go back to writing, snatching an hour here, a couple hours there, and doing my best to balance everything that demands my time and attention. One never knows what curveballs life will throw your way but, thanks to my time off, I think it's entirely possible that I could be finished and ready for publication before the end of the year.

So, yeah me, and thank you God (and Goddess) for this astonishing time.  I’ll be back to being a writer as soon as I can. You have my word on that.

Friday, July 2, 2010

You are what you read (Lisa's version)

Mark is brilliant. After surveying my dearest reading memories, it is so obvious that the writers and novels I've loved have absolutely filtered into the ways in which I'm telling Beryl's story. (Or at least the ways in which I'm trying to tell it.) And now, after following Mark's lead, I see my own history as a reader and a writer much more clearly. Again, that Mark: brilliant.

Creating my list, I realize that I'm drawn to certain types of books, certain ways of telling stories. Specific themes/ideas/narratives just push my pleasure buttons. So rather than a listing of authors, you're getting Lisa's First List of Favorite Literary Features (hereafter: LFLFLF). Subsequent lists will be forthcoming.

Telling The World from A New Perspective
These are stories that we all know. We probably know them by heart. Our elders told them to us; we tell them to our young. We know everything about them. Or so we think. Until we are told the story from the perspective of a minor character. Someone who hasn't yet been allowed to speak, someone we haven't been listening to. Like the story of the current world from, say, the perspective of a bear. And then we see the story, our world, with new eyes.

Favorite examples:
Till We Have Faces - C. S. Lewis. A retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from the perspective of Psyche's ugly sister Orual. It was Orual who convinced Psyche to look on Cupid (forbidden!) because she was so jealous of her sister's beauty and her scoring the luscious Cupid. Except that's not what REALLY happened, which you would know if you'd heard Orual's side of the story. This was the first book I read that switched a familiar story. It twisted my mind and it felt so lovely, twisted up that way.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing - M. T. Anderson. A retelling of the Revolutionary War from the perspective of a black boy/young man. I always catch myself trying classifying this series as an alternative history. But it's not an alternative history. It's my American history, fictionalized, yes, but not alternative history. But I never learned my history this way, from this perspective. So my brain has to do this dance with itself: Woah, imagine if this was our history. Uh, Lisa, this IS our history. But in high school I learned... and everyone always says...and we won the revolutionary war and.... Lies, Lisa, half-truths: Who won that war? Who was freed from imperialism? Not all of us. Woah, everything I thought was true.... Yup.

Nested Stories
Stories inside stories inside stories. Layers. Chocolate Cake, Ganoche, Raspberry Jam. So, so yummy. Obvious connection to Once We Were Bears: A potato tells the story of three teenagers who are reading a journal written by Beryl.

Favorite examples:
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell. Six different stories, times, places, narrators, and even genres. Wildly different (futuristic sci-fi to mystery to farce to....) Each story emerges seamlessly from the previous until you've gone from the past to the distant future (which resembles the past in some very unsettling ways) and then back again. And throughout them all, a sustained exploration of a single set of questions.

The Orphan's Tales - Catherynne Valente. The most intricately interwoven stories. An orphan tells a story, the character in her story tells a story and on and on and on. The stories dive downward through many storytellers and then come back up through each again, only to dive down again. As I was reading them, I pictured the structure as a score, with notes running down and up a music graph. Down, down, down, up, down, up and up and up and down. Up. Down. File this one also under stories that twist, retelling familiar tales (princes questing, for example,) but turning them inside down and upside out. Breaking them in ways they were aching to be broken.

Choose Your Own Endings
Choose Your Own Adventures: a series of books first published in 1979 (I was eleven). The reader is the protagonist; you read a scenario and then get to choose what action you will take. I had this one (and many, many others):

I am giddy writing this! I so loved these books. I devoured them. I inhaled them. I systematically went through them to make sure I read every possible scenario--my system involved using my fingers as bookmarks so I could trace where I'd been, and where I still needed to go. It might seem hard to read a book when you've got all your fingers stuck into it in various places, but it sure didn't bother me one bit. What will happen if I make this choice? The logical choice seems to be the first option...oh no! Let's try the second option..ok, better, but now which option? Again, the connection to my WIP a strong one: when things go bad (very, very bad,) time travel allows Beryl to try another option by erasing her journal, (rather than flipping back pages.) Will she choose better this time?

I'd pretty much forgotten all about these books, until I saw a promo for a graphic novel that uses the technique: Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga. I'll be reading it soon.

Okay, I gotta close with that one. My brain is doing cartwheels. Whee!