Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe's Tips for Writing

It's Halloween, and Halloween means many things: candy, trashy costumes, a new The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode, and Poe readings throughout high school English classes everywhere. Since only one of those is a writer, I will delve into the last for today's post. More specifically, we'll look at what Poe had to say about writing.

A while ago Gotham Writer’s Workshop featured Poe and mockingly claimed that “in a recently-found treatise, he set down the following advice for bettering a story: *
1.     Employ an unreliable narrator, preferably one who doesn’t know he is insane and has no recollection of such events as digging into a grave to rip out the teeth of his recently departed lover.
2.     Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.
3.     Use grandiloquent words, such as heretofore, forthwith, and nevermore. A little Latin will also enhance the text.
4.     Do not shy away from such grotesqueries as inebriation, imprisonment, insanity, and men costumed as orangutans being burned to death.
5.     When in doubt, bury someone alive.
* Poe didn’t really compose this advice, but, as he was fond of a good hoax, we hope he would be pleased by this affectionate charade. “

Funny. But Edgar Allan Poe is so much more than that, and writers who want to build tension or get a little dark should be posing the question…what can budding writers learn from Poe about the creepy?  Here are some of my favorite takeaways from my Googling research:

1.       Poe on punctuation: “It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force--its spirit--its point--by improper punctuation.” He then goes on to defend  the use of the dash by saying “The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words—‘or, to make my meaning more distinct.’ This force it has--and this force no other point can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with.”

2.       Poe believed that man should write backwards. “Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
3.       I’m not the only one with this idea. Last year one writer prepared for NaNoWriMo by reading Poe’s Philosophy on Composition and condensed it for the rest of us.
What do you think is Poe's genius? Has he inspired your writing in any way?

Monday, October 29, 2012

From Book to Screen (and back again): An Interview with New York Times No. 1 Bestselling Author Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why
I first met best selling author Jay Asher at the SCBWI LA Conference in August.  He was a guest speaker and his presentation No Bookmarks Allowed! was both insightful and humorous.  I remember lining up with all the other inspired writers at the end of Jay's presentation, waiting for the chance to speak to him.  I hoped perhaps he would be up for a "From Book to Screen (and back again)" interview since Universal Studios optioned the film rights to his hit debut novel Thirteen Reasons Why.  You can imagine how nervous I was, after all, Thirteen Reasons Why was a New York Times Best Seller ...for over two years...and counting!  

Next in line, I readied my pitch, then sheepishly approached and blurted it all out in one fell swoop.  

His response: 


And that's pretty much the best way to describe Jay.  He's just a cool, fun guy with a "can do" attitude.

If you haven't read Thirteen Reasons Why, do because it's not only a beautifully written story that addresses hot button issues but it's also a great example of the writing process. What do I mean by that? Finish reading the novel, then read Thirteen Reasons Why (between the lines) at the end of the book.  Jay provides his answers to thirteen questions including "where did the overall idea for this book come from?" and "how did you decide on Hannah's thirteen reasons?".  What I love about this section is that Jay gives honest answers about his process and you soon realize it takes a lot to make something look so easy - a very inspiring tale for aspiring writers!

But enough about the process.  Now onto the interview!

JP: Did you ever dream that one day the film rights to Thirteen Reasons Why would be optioned?  We all know that the likelihood of having certain stars portray your characters on screen is slim to none but did you ever think "x or y would make a great Hannah or Clay?"

Jay Asher at SCBWI LA
Jay Asher at SCBWI LA
JA: My favorite how-to-write books have always been screenwriting books. When I write, I probably think in more cinematic than literary terms. I visualize how each scene would look up on the screen, and that affects how I structure the scenes and which visual details I focus on. Since I've already imagined what the scenes would look like in a movie, I definitely let myself dream about one day seeing them in an actual theater. And sometimes, while writing, I'll watch a movie and think a certain actor would be interesting in one of the roles. But I started writing that book ten years ago, so those actors are too old for the parts now.
JP:  When you first found out that Thirteen Reasons Why was to be optioned, what went through your mind?

JA: When the offer came in from Universal, I was sitting in the back of an airport shuttle on my way to a speaking gig in Georgia. I was only allowed to tell certain people about the offer, and there was no way I could wait to reach my destination before telling them. The shuttle driver and the other passengers were annoyed by my constant texting and whispering into my phone. When they dropped me off, the driver even said, "I hope you didn't forget your phone."
JP: What surprised you most about the "option" process? 

JA: Not too much surprised me, mostly because I'd watched friends navigate the book-to-movie process and seen how every journey is different. I'd already let several offers pass as I waited for the right people to come along. When they did come along, I suppose I was a bit surprised by their personalities. We've all seen TV shows and movies where producers, actors, and all those Hollywood people act know ...Hollywood! And maybe I'm just lucky, or maybe a project like Thirteen Reasons Why only attracts certain types of people, but everyone has been so down-to-earth and wonderful to work with. They're great at what they do, but they're also great people.
JP: What has been the funnest thing about the process so far?

Selena Gomez as Hannah
JA: Two moments stick out. The first happened when I went out to lunch with the producers and the screenwriter before the "official" business meeting was to begin. They began discussing the characters in Thirteen Reasons Why, and talking about them as if they were real people. In that moment, I thought back several years to when I began writing the opening pages to that book on my kitchen table. If that struggling writer could've eavesdropped into that conversation, he would've freaked! The other fun moment came when I attended a Selena Gomez concert with my wife, son, niece and nephew. (Selena is set to play the character of Hannah Baker.) We were in the middle of a mob of people from her fanclub, all waiting to go backstage. I noticed that a few of her fans had brought copies of my book for her to sign. When my wife told them who I was, they kind of freaked out.
JP: At what stage is the novel currently in the development cycle?

JA: I'm not supposed to get specific about what stage we're in, but things are moving in a positive direction. I had lunch with the producers two months ago, and it was exciting to hear some of the names being discussed. We all share a very similar vision for how we want this to look.
If there’s one thing you would advise aspiring YA writers on the process of writing their first novel, what would that be?  And if there’s one thing you would advise a writer - with dreams of someday having their book optioned for a feature or TV production, what would that be?

The Future of Us
JA: When I write, I'm always thinking about what would make the book a page turner. Whether it's a novel dealing with serious issues or a comedy, if you can make it difficult for people to put your book down, you'll end up giving them a better reading experience. The same thing applies for books being turned into movies. If a producer reads a books, is fascinated by the story and can't put it down, it makes it so much easier to picture audiences not being able to get up to take a restroom break. 

JP: What are you currently working on and what can we expect next from Jay Asher?

JA: Something and someday. :-) 

JP: What are you currently reading?  And is there a book you would recommend others to read?

JA: I always have so many books going at once, and they're mostly non-fiction. When I'm writing, I can't enjoy much fiction because I overanalyze it. And I like to read several things at once so that, no matter what mood I'm in, there's always something to read. I did just finish Drama by Raina Telgemeier. I think it was only the third graphic novel I've read, and I completely enjoyed it.

You can find out more about Jay and his novels Thirteen Reasons Why and The Future of Us here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My mini NaNoWriMo challenge (aka the kick in the pants I need)

A story has been circling around my brain for the last few months. My future MC's voice keeps elbowing me in my side, begging me to bring her to life. I have a mental outline. I have love interests, a villain, two red herrings and an opening chapter, but all of it is living inside of my head. Because for some reason I can't find the motivation to get off my @$$ and write.

Has this ever happened to you?

It wasn't that long ago that I started writing my current MS. I sat down. I started writing. I revised. Wrote some more. My memory makes me think it was an easy, natural process. So why is it that I can't find the motivation to start this new story that so clearly wants me to write it?

I think what I need is a good sharp kick in the pants. Which is why I am making my own NaNoWriMo pledge, right here, right now.

I hereby declare that by November 30, 2012, I, Stacy Stokes, will write 25,000 words or more of my as yet untitled story. No take backs. No excuses. You are my witness!

Participant 180x180 (2)For those of you who are not familiar, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Thousands of writers will challenge themselves with writing 50,000 words in a single month, and many of those 50,000 word first drafts will go on to become full fledged novels.  It's a lofty goal, and I applaud every single person who has taken the challenge or plans to take the challenge this November. Unfortunately my day job coupled with Thanksgiving travels makes 50,000 words a bit too lofty of a goal for me, which is why I'm setting my sights on 25,000. It's enough to get me started, and who knows? Maybe I'll come closer to 50,000 words than I thought. The goal is for me to get off my pajamaed @$$ and write!

For those of you interested in going for the gold, check out There you can connect with other writers who have pledged to take the challenge, find the support and encouragement you need, along with other helpful writing support tools.

For those of you who aren't quite ready for the 50,000 word goal but are in desperate need for a kick in the @$$, post a comment here. I'm happy to be a writing buddy/cheerleader for anyone looking for a little extra support. And once you say it out loud it will be official - maybe that's all the motivation you need?

Hopefully you will all keep me honest.  25,000 words by November 30th. There's no taking it back now. Feel free to heckle me at will. (@stacyastokes)

Happy writing! 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Villain of the Month: The Joker

I left you hanging last week. When a class of my high school students were posed the question: Who is the best villain of all-time, there were many nominated as you saw last month, but the hands-down winner was….THE JOKER!

Here is what they had to say about it:
·         Because he has no motive to being evil: he simply does bad things to cause destruction and problems.

·         He is the most likeable villain b/c he is so interesting in the crazy way he looks and his actions are crazy.

·         Because he is kreepy and is very crazy he has a personality that is really mean and just the way he looks is scary.

·         The Joker immediately comes to mind because the way he is played out is so differently evil. He acts evil in a way that you can also feel his emotions and his motives behind all the acts he does. –Jenny

·         Muahaha…he is very clever and quick and very spontaneous with his villainous crimes. Not to mention Batman actually has a struggle fighting him.

·         Because his name tells so much about him.

·         I don’t really know why he is the best villain but he is entertaining and interesting.

·         Because he is so interesting and creepy. His evil methods are so strange yet thrilling at the same time. –Kevin Lyle

·         Because he always knows people’s weaknesses and gets what he wants without any superpowers. He only takes advantage of people to get money or Batman. – Brandon Miller

·         Most likely because he intimidates me with his clown-like look and crazy thick red lips, and that haunting laugh.

·         The pure evil that pours from this character is un-paralleled. He has no motivation except to watch the world burn. Pure un-predictability. – Brendan Gallagher

·         Because he’s crazy and different from all of the other villains. He has his own style…

·         He is my favorite because Heath Ledger did such a good job playing and becoming the character. Also The Joker is such a unique character and he is unlike any other villain.

My students, when asked, were talking about Heath Ledger’s performance of The Joker in their responses.  I think that the reasoning behind WHY he is the best villain is helpful for tapping into the core of what is most terrifying to teenagers, and may help in the creation of villains written for that audience.
At the core of their fears seems to be the following key fears:

*No discernable motivation for his actions rendering him unpredictable. At a time in life when there are so many unknowns, this terror makes sense.
*Can read people’s weaknesses and exploit them. This seems to be a universal fear, but I often hear a sense of uncertainty in my students as to whether or not they can “pull” in regards to mischievous behavior; they are often testing the limits of what will be believed. And even at its more benign, teens aren’t quite sure yet how much others can see through them to their more vulnerable state.
*Unique/Different. Often “otherness” described in appearance. It’s Interesting this was mentioned so much when YA lit is often defined by a need to be different/finding your own uniqueness, and teenagers often claim to hate to be defined by appearance.

* He will do the villainous thing—the thing from which even Batman will struggle to protect us, thereby showing us that those who are to protect are imperfect and may fail.

Contrastingly, when I did a quick Google search to read about what journalists had to say about the Ledger Joker, most posts at the top of the search claimed he based his performance on Tom Waits, but there were many more nuanced readings to be found. They touched on many of the points the teens mentioned, but most, like this one, spoke of the terror one man might create on a macro-scale, something conspicuously absent in the teen responses. Interesting, especially when considering the dystopian trend sweeping YA Lit right now.

As for Ledger himself, he said: “ I just locked myself away and formed a little diary and experimented with voices... I ended up making him within the realm of a psychopath kind of like zero empathy or very little to no conscience towards his acts which is fun because there's no real limits on their boundaries to what he would say or how he would say something or what he would do...”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Workshops: Not Just For the Un-Published

I recently overheard a writer chatting to a friend about how one day when they get published, they won't have to attend all these conferences and workshops anymore.  To say that I didn't have this same thought when I first started writing would be lying.  I remember my first conference as a fantastic affair.  Still, you feel like a little fish in a very, very big pond especially when your value is rated by the word "published" in front of "writer".  I fathomed that once one reached the level of "published", it meant you should be the one lecturing at speaking engagements and not sitting in the audience engaging the speakers. 

But from these conferences and workshops, I grew to know many great writers, some published, some not who continue to attend these functions not just to meet publishers but to keep their skills fresh and to gleam ideas and perspectives they might otherwise miss holed up in their offices typing away. 

Duncan Conference Center
Novel Gurus Weekend Retreat
Duncan Conference Center
Workshops are especially helpful to published writers looking to write in a different age category or genre.  Where a writer's work may be stellar in middle grade, they may need new tricks of the trade and a fresh perspective to add spice to their foray into YA.

The last conference that I went to was SCBWI's LA conference which was a great event with round the clock speakers, activities and meet ups with old friends and new.  But the ones that really hit home for me, that I learned the most from as a writer were the more intimate workshops and smaller affairs.  The ones that offered opportunities for on the spot critique groups and small group presentations and work sessions. 

Which is why I'm very excited about two upcoming events. The first is Free Expressions Your Best Book workshop which is taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina starting this Friday.  This workshop offers an intimate setting for a small group of writers to learn from each other, to focus on their craft and projects and to meet with and listen to top agents, publishers and writers....for a week!  

The second is the Novel Gurus Weekend Retreat to be held in Delray Beach, Florida, March 1-3, 2013 where you get the opportunity to spend the weekend with two top publishers and freelance editor extraordinaire Lorin Oberweger.  The best part about this?  There's only room for 20 attendees!

Not everyone can afford to or have the luxury of attending all these workshop opportunities but for those who are published and think these aren't for them, I would say, think again, you just might find that it's more beneficial than you think. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writer's Resource: Magical Places Tumblr

Do you write fantasy or science-fiction? If you do, you'll definitely want to check out this Magical Places Tumblr the next time you're creating settings or fleshing-out anemic ones. There are an unbelievable number of amazing shots. A few story ideas popped into my head just from scrolling through the page!

Here's a screenshot:

I wasn't really sure what Tumblr was prior to stumbling upon this page, so I looked it up. The short explanation is that it's a place for people to set up short blogs (officially called "tumblelogs," although most people seem to just call it "my Tumblr.").

Users can post things directly to their Tumblr, much like Twitter or Facebook, without having to go through another interface. Most Tumblr users appear to favor photographs, which leads to amazing sites like this one.

If you'd like to read more about Tumblr, there's a good explanation here: What the Hell is Tumblr?. You can also go to to set up your own.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Genius of TED

I happen to be in love with TED (the lecture series not the profane stuffed bear). Especially when I'm procrastinating. Especially when I get to hear talks about how to whip up a great story, or what it's like to be a teenager. Here are a few of my faves for the next time you want to be inspired:

Pixar genius Andrew Stanton talking about the clues to a great story:

Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on the development of the teenage brain:

THE Amy Tan talks about where creativity resides by saying brilliant things like "We all hate moral ambiguity in some sense, and yet it is absolutely necessary. In writing a story, it is the place where I begin." :

Wish I could've seen all of those live, but did get to attend a local TED x event.
If there's one near you, you may want to check it out!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Writer's Resource: Synopsis Help and Links

According to Writer's Digest, a synopsis "supplies key information about your novel (plot, theme, characterization, setting), while also showing how these coalesce to form the big picture. Quickly tell what your novel is about without making the editor or agent read the novel in its entirety."

It sounds so easy when they say it.

If you think summarizing a 300-page novel while maintaining voice, keeping the writing engaging, and putting in enough information (but not too much!) to see how all the pieces of the plot go together sounds like about as much fun as a root canal, you're not alone.

Oh, and did I mention agents and editors often want the synopsis to be no more than 1-2 pages?

tearing out hair

If you start looking like the dude in the picture at the very thought, read on for a few handy tips and sites that might help make the synopsis-writing process more bearable.

First of all, it's very smart to have two versions of your synopsis, a long one (4-7 pages is safe) and a short one (1-2 pages). In my experience, most agents are busy these days and want the short one, but I have had a few ask for the one with the most detail.

Most advice will tell you to write the long synopsis first and then condense that to get your short one, but I found exactly the opposite worked for me. Once I had the short one together, it was a snap to add details, characters, and plot points to flesh out the long one.

Here is the absolute best site I've ever found for writing a short synopsis: Susan Dennard gives you a worksheet with specific questions and uses Star Wars as an example as she walks you through each step. I cannot recommend this method highly enough. I've now sent this link to a half-dozen writers, and each person has commented on the simplicity and effectiveness of this method.

A few other sites you might find useful:

writing too long

Here's a good resource for trimming a synopsis that's too long (a common problem!):

Good luck with your synopsis, and feel free to ask questions in the comments!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why I Read Banned Books to Try to be More Christ-Like

WARNING: This is the rant of ONE religious blog member who can’t resist giving her own slant on the need for a Banned Books Week on the blog. Enter at your own risk. I promise this is probably the only religious post I'll do.

As someone known for being book-obsessed, many of my religious friends often come to me regularly to ask what they should read/have their kids read. Most of the time, they’ll include a qualifier, though. They don’t want to read anything that isn’t “clean” and “uplifting” and then rattle off a list of offending titles that do not fit the bill.

Hmmmmm. That list of offending titles often reads an awful lot like the list of books I would’ve just recommended.

 And so the dilemma. What to say? While this isn’t usually what I do say, it’s what I always want to say: “Depends. If you want to be more Christian, I’d start with one of the ones on that list. I have an extra copy of Catcher in the Rye, if you'd like.” Smile.

The reasoning: Now, I’m definitely not saying that every book that isn’t “clean” is worth reading. Personally, I don’t see any value in wasting my time to read porn, bad-writing, and all shades of gray, and the like, but the classics? Works of tremendous literary merit that show the depth of the human experience? Works that in an attempt to show us humanity at its most honest may include things like rape, violence, sex, swearing, etc.? How is that not worth reading???

I think this point was driven home best for me one lazy summer afternoon at Book Passage bookshop. I’d just listened to the brilliant Isabelle Allende and had asked her to sign my copy of The House of the Spirits, a book I teach. She remarked that many schools had banned it and chuckled, and then went on to talk about (or at least this is how I remember it) how interesting she thought it was that so many parents fought so desperately to stop their children from seeing what it would’ve been like to have been born in other, less lucky, more violent circumstances.

I got to thinking. The book is a magical re-telling influenced by the stories of her family. Her cousin once-removed, Salvador Allende, was violently overthrown and she includes all of the fallout that brings as well as other family traumas that her own family may very well have experienced. And yet, her life, the one she may have experienced as an innocent child, was too dirty for the other kids to see. Wouldn’t want them sullied too. Wouldn’t dare to want the clean kids to do something terrible like learn to empathize at a time (teen years) when a brain is literally wired to develop empathy. Nope. Let those unlucky kids suffer alone. Poor suckers. Totally what Jesus embodied.

Or not.

While there are many aspects of the Christ-figure I love like the model for re-birth, strength-in-kindness, etc., the one I love most is that Christ is the perfect model of empathy. In the Bible He suffers everyone’s sins for redemption, and in doing so, it makes Him uniquely qualified to give comfort at man’s lowest moments, having literally experiencing the same pain. And one of the most unbearable aspects of suffering is the loneliness that often accompanies it. Isn’t it?

So I think that I would like to do a little of that, too, but unfortunately, I haven’t experienced everything. There are a lot of dark places my loved ones have spent time in that I can’t even fathom. Or at least not without the help of books. And sure, I don’t need to go there. I can stay peaceful and clean. But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus chose to experience all of the pains this world can heap on man. And I think He wanted me to follow suit, and so he gave us books. Great and powerful sometimes un-clean books.

Books that even talk about rape (just ask David’s daughter Tamar) or violence (Abel might be able to comment on this one), sex (oh David!) and the like. BTW my examples aren’t even past 2 Samuel in one of the greatest banned books ever written.

And it gets even better because talented people keep writing books that honestly portray and grapple with these issues in modern ways that make them applicable to today's special ills. How awesome it that!

So, yeah. I’ll admit it. I'm going to keep reading/recommending banned books from The Bible to Catcher in the Rye to The House of the Spirits to To Kill a Mockingbird, to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to Speak and more and more, and in each uncomfortable moment I’m hoping to develop more of one of Jesus's best traits: to be the kind of person who is prepared for the next time one of students or friends needs to feel just a little less alone.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Industry Month in Review: Money, Money, Money!

We all aspire to be amazing writers, expressing ourselves through beautiful words and lyrical prose.  We pride ourselves on our ability to remain pure to our calling and write without boundaries.  Even so, we have to eat and so do our agents and publishers.  Hence, that's why publishing is a business and writing with the goal of being published can sometimes feel like a daunting task and a bit like swimming with the sharks. 

This video from serves more to poke fun at the world of freelance in general and directs you to a website that provides legal tips for those who can't afford high power lawyers.  Still, it resonates with many writers.  If anything, it reminds us not to assume we know exactly what agents and publishers are looking for and to make sure we always do our due diligence (when we finally get that offer!) regardless of how much it's worth. 

Hernando Guanlao in front of his house/free library
Hernando Guanlao in front of his home turned free library
Then there's the other side of the business (I'm looking at all the writers reading this).  Some writers have that "me versus them"/"writer versus agent/publisher" attitude.  The publisher got it wrong with the book cover or their notes were lacklustre.  However, sometimes, it's the other way around.  Sometimes, it's the writers who are the ones who should get a slap on the wrist.  Case in point, The Smoking Gun reported that The Penguin Group recently filed lawsuits against writers who received advances but failed to deliver their books.  I know what you're all thinking: this would never have happened if they gave that advance to me. 

But enough about money. Sometimes, the best things in life are free.  Hernando Guanlao may be a former accountant, but he's doing more to spur on the love of reading than most of us do writing.  Guanlao lives in Makati City, Philippines and he has turned his house into a free public library where there are no rules. Kids and adults alike can take what they please for as long as they want.  With over 30% of the country living under the poverty line, access to a free library like Guanlao's can mean all the difference in the world. 

Just like the circle of life, from the mind of a writer to the press of a publisher to the hands of an excited reader, a book also has it's time and place.  Some have found their way into the Jardin de la Connaissance, a garden of decaying books in Quebec.  Established in June 2010, the walls of books are now sprouting moss and mushrooms and Dezeen Magazine notes: slowly rotting to become part of the forest.

Jardin de la Connaissance
Jardin de la Connaissance