Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Getting Our Research On

Dictionary: Research

We've all been there.  Sitting, typing away, happy that our last few pages have so far gone smashingly. Then it hits us. Our protagonist must do something, be somewhere, act somehow that is totally outside of our knowledge base.  It can be as small as visiting a building we've never been to or as large as our main character's profession.  Of course there's our imagination, but there also needs to be some understanding of the environment and experience for us to speak truthfully about the events and actions that are about to take place. For our readers to take the journey with us, they must feel that as far fetched as the ideas may be, it could happen. 

Cue the process called "research".  I can't begin to imagine what writers did before the Internet though I'm sure they spent less time falling down the research hole (don't tell me you haven't spent hours clicking on wikipedia link after wikipedia link).  But the internet can only go so far.  Sometimes, you need to experience that which you are researching for yourself. 

Between Shades of Gray Novel by Ruta SepetysI remember listening to Ruta Sepetys speak at the 2012 SCBWII LA Conference about the research she did to write her NYT Bestselling debut novel "Between Shades of Gray".  The novel was partly based upon the stories she heard from survivors of the Genocide of Baltic people during a visit with her relatives in Lithuania.  Hers was one of the most inspirational speeches of the conference and you could tell that she was sincere and honest in everything she said. On her website, she outlines some of her research process:

"I took two research trips to Lithuania while writing the novel.  I interviewed family members, survivors of the deportations, survivors of the gulags, psychologists, historians and government officials.  The experience was life-altering.  I spent time in one of the rain cars that was used for the deportations.  I also agreed to take part in an extreme simulation experiment and was locked in a former Soviet prison."

In her speech, Ruta went on to describe in detail the simulation experiment.  It's safe to say they gave her the real deal experience - no holds bar. 

While not everyone needs to be imprisoned in the former Soviet Union as part of their research, it is nevertheless valuable, enlightening and may just be the kick start you need for your novel.  

My protagonist is a rising star Special Agent.  I watched numbers videos, read articles and books.  But nothing was as helpful as going to the local DEA office and speaking with experienced agents.  I was amazed at how friendly and helpful everyone was.  I wanted to make sure my manuscript stayed true to the department's operations but what surprised me the most was my interviewee's understanding of the hypothetical.  This is after all, fiction. 

Woodstock on top of pumpkinsI came out of that experience knowing more than I could ever have from reading books or searching the web.  I was also able to test my ideas and get real time feedback as to whether certain situations could be possible and what other issues to consider.  I had a spring in my step when I left those interviews knowing that I was on the right track. 

So enjoy the research process.  Ask people questions.  The worst they can say is no, but the best thing they can do is provide you with information you would never have access to otherwise. 


Monday, November 25, 2013

Writer's Resource: Scrivener Help and Tricks

I've gushed about Scrivener enough here that you might know it's my writing software of choice. (See my Ode to Scrivener post here.)
Scrivener logo

But since Scrivener is absolutely packed with features, it's easy to get overwhelmed--or just overlook many of its uses. I was surprised to discover recently that there are all kinds of things I can do in Scrivener that I had no idea about.

Here are a few resources if, like me, you're just scratching the surface of this amazing program:

1. Literature and Latte, the company that puts out Scrivener, has a video tutorial section on their website. The tutorials range from simple to esoteric. Bonus: you get to enjoy the narrator's British accent.
Keep Calm and Love That British Accent

2. My good friend Dee has a great series on getting the most out of Scrivener as part of the Write a Book series on her blog, I Write for Apples. She delves into things like labels, comments and annotations, and project targets.

3. If you really want to get into nitty-gritty details, the Everything Scrivener blog has loads of posts on just about every aspect of the program. The author of the blog isn't affiliated with Literature and Latte--he's just a fan, like me.
Scrivener for Dummies book cover
4. Gwen Hernandez is the author of Scrivener for Dummies, which I haven't read myself, but I've heard is really good. She also has a series of tips on her blog, The Edited Life.

Hopefully these links will help you get the most out of Scrivener!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Industry Month In Review: "I Think I Can!, I Think I Can!"

Turkey writing comic

We're midway through nanowrimo and while I've decided not to participate this year (it's been quite an epic first half of the month personally for me so far!), I'm sitting on the sidelines with pom-poms in hand, cheering on my fellow writers brave enough to follow through with this tough assignment. Go team, go!

As we make our way to the end of the year, many things slow down.  Cold weather, holidays and the abundance of turkey and gravy are just a few hurdles that stand in our way.  It's easy to make excuses, to put gift shopping in front of writing (who wants to be that guy who brought the box of convenience store chocolates to Christmas) but for some, this is the time when things really pick up.  It's the pre-holiday season and books need to be out there to be bought, gifted and read.  Timing is everything. 

Over the past few months, I've had the opportunity to witness first hand a few close friends and their foray into the indie scene.  Self publishing is not just about uploading your manuscript online and praying for fame and fortune.  It's about discipline, marketing and making sure you surround yourself with the right team.  Author Allison Winn Scotch provides some fantastic insight into her journey into self pub and if you're thinking of moving in that direction, her article on Writer Unboxed is a must read. 

The Hunger Games: Catching FireBut what if you're not at the stage where you have a final manuscript ready for the masses?  What if you're only at the beginning of your story when the log line is still something that causes you great anxiety?  Not to worry, take a deep breath. There's no rush to make the black Friday deadline.  Heather Jackson of Write On Sisters just posted a great article on the importance of theme.  Grab a coffee and have a read, then sit back and take some well deserved time to think of what the theme(s) of your manuscript are.  It may feel like a lot of time just "sitting" but trust me, it'll save a lot of valuable time when it comes to "writing".

Finally, what's the holiday season without holiday blockbusters and with the recently released Ender's Game and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire coming out this Friday, what better excuse is there to put down the pen (I promise, it won't hurt), relax the brain and enjoy some eye candy for a few hours?  Still hungering for more YA blockbusters? Simon Reynolds of Digital Spy talks about how YA Lit is Reshaping the Hollywood Blockbuster and highlights four highly anticipated eagerly anticipated YA adaptations.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American compadres! 

Friday, November 15, 2013

SCION OF THE SUN: Bloghop and Givaway!

Hello readers!  It's my pleasure to bring another amazing new release to you - Nicola Marsh's SCION OF THE SUN!
Synopsis (from Goodreads):  When she least expects it, sixteen-year-old Holly Burton’s unremarkable life is shaken to the core. A vision of the mother Holly never knew leaves her questioning everything she believes. 

Eager for answers, Holly enrolls at a boarding school for highly gifted students in Wolfebane, New Hampshire. But Holly's complicated life worsens when she accidentally transports to a parallel existence where she's confronted by a dark and ancient evil.

With the help of Joss, a sexy alpha warrior sworn to protect her, and her new BFF, the equally swoon-worthy Quinn, Holly faces her fears and an unlikely adversary in a showdown that is worse than anything she could’ve possibly imagined …

Publication date: November 5, 2013
Publisher: Month9Books, LLC.

Holly, the main character, is full of spark and spunk, making SCION OF THE SUN a fun and voice-packed read.  Not to be missed are Joss and Quinn, which add an engaging and page-turning which-one-will-she-pick romance to the story. And who can deny that beautiful cover?

Win a FREE copy via the rafflecopter below!
Add it to Goodreads here
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About the author:
USA TODAY bestselling author Nicola Marsh writes flirty fiction with flair for adults and riveting, spooky stories for teens.

She has published 43 contemporary romances with Harlequin, Entangled Publishing and indie, and sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Her first mainstream romance BUSTED IN BOLLYWOOD was nominated for Romantic Book of the Year 2012. Her first indie romance, CRAZY LOVE, was a 2012 ARRA finalist.

Her debut young adult novel, a supernatural thriller BANISH, released with Harlequin Teen August 2013, and her YA urban fantasy series kicks off with SCION OF THE SUN, November 2013, with Month9Books.

She’s also a Waldenbooks, Bookscan and Barnes & Noble bestseller, a 2013 RBY (Romantic Book of the Year) and National Readers’ Choice Award winner, and a multi-finalist for a number of awards including the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, Booksellers’ Best, Golden Quill, Laurel Wreath, More than Magic and has also won several CataRomance Reviewers’ Choice Awards.

A physiotherapist for thirteen years, she now adores writing full time, raising her two little heroes, sharing fine food with family and friends, and her favorite, curling up with a good book!

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Few of James Joyce's Tips for Writing and Art

Around a hundred years ago, nerdy and pretentious little James Joyce read Aquinas and Aristotle then penned some of the most intriguing definitions for what art should be, and I think it’s worth remembering a few of his key points.

Static vs. Kinetic: Joyce asserts that pornographic art moves the reader in a kinetic fashion by pushing only one emotion or idea the way that porn has a single clear reaction in mind.  On the other hand static art, the finer art, pulls the reader in several directions so that he is tethered from so many places he cannot move. The dark and the light. The joy and the pain. The humor and the sadness. The infinitely brilliant and the infinitely stupid. While writers are constantly encouraged to make an audience FEEL, the best writers don’t limit that feeling to a single emotion. Is your work only a fun work? Sad work? What could you do to tease out other sentiments?

Great art has Aquinas’s principles: Wholeness, harmony, and radiance.

Wholeness: “The work should be selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which it is not.” Essentially, are you writing to a trend? Could the work stand alone or does it require a movement to support it?

Harmony: “You apprehend it as a complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of their parts and their sum, harmonious.” Does your work have subplots/smaller character arcs working individually whose rhythms/peaks are timed to enhance the key driving force? Does the setting work both individually and enhance the tenor of the piece? Do all of those pieces feel cohesive?

Radiance: “You see that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing.” This one is by far the toughest. Is your work really unique? Could it have been written by anyone else? And, more importantly, does that shine? I have no other questions to ask for this one, but as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Outliers that it will take about ten thousand hours of practice to create what Joyce might call “radiance.”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writing Isn't for You

Upon the urging of several friends, I recently read this blog post by Seth Adam Smith: Marriage Isn't For You.
marriage fingers

Despite the provocative title, it's actually a very romantic look at marriage from a different perspective. The author argues that marriage is about wanting to make the other person happy, rather than thinking about what you can get out of it.

After I read the blog post (which I agree with wholeheartedly), I got to thinking about how much this applies to writing, too. There's a tendency amongst writers (aspiring ones, anyway) to focus on how writing makes them feel.
a lot of feelings

Sure, writing can be fun. It can also be exasperating, cathartic, joyful, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. But to some extent, this is missing the point.

Writing isn't for you. It's for the reader.

That might seem fairly obvious, but it immediately hit home with me. How many times have we heard phrases like "kill your darlings," or been told by critique partners, agents, and editors to change things we loved? The truth is, they are assuming the point of view of the reader. You are the writer, and no matter how good you are at putting your manuscript aside and coming back to it with a fresh perspective, there will always be things you want to keep because they were fun to write, because they have personal meaning for you, because you think it's a particularly good turn of phrase.

Sad about writing notes

In the future, I'm going to try to keep this idea in mind. Writing is for the reader. If a reader who understands the genre and the mechanics of writing doesn't think something should stay, I'm going to try to curb my knee-jerk reaction (What? But I love that part!) and look at it more objectively. If it interferes with the reader's understanding or enjoyment of the book, then out it goes.

I think keeping the end goal in mind will help me accept legitimate criticism, and therefore be a better writer.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Villain of the Month: D.C. Comics and the Claim that "Heroes Are Lame"

Comic Con 2012. Jabba the Hut: NOT a hero.

On the D.C. Comics website there is a post by Kevin Mahadeo entitled "5.2 Reasons Bad Guys are Cooler Than Good Guys." Since I do have a bit of an obsession with character villainy, I had to check it out. While a simple list post, I must admit I was bugged by the first point: "1. Heroes are lame." 

Really? So that's why we've seen such a non-stop tidal wave of superhero movies/ culture post-9/11??? FYI I live in San Diego, and went to Comic Con pre-2001 when it was mostly just a handful of geeks in spandex. Huh. And now San Diegans need illuminated traffic directives during Comic Con because heroes are lame??? Or was the post just written now because we're starting to feel safer, because people have forgotten the dull ache of what it was like to crave superheroes? I was mulling over all of these when I got to the final line "Plus, they're always so predictable. They'll strive to the do the right thing and save the day and help people. You know who isn't predictable? The Joker. Who knows what that guy will do? One minute he's standing right next to you laughing at what you're writing and the next he could stab you in the face" 

Okay. maybe Mahadeo has a point; I don't worry that any of the heroes I know will stab me in the face. Maybe heroes aren't complex enough to be anything more than boring.

Maybe the traditional model of hero as predictable isn't working for us anymore. Maybe we need to let our relatable, good, trusted, characters, the ones with whom we identify, shock us a little more. Allow them to embrace their darker natures. Even if those darker sides scare us when they aren't tidily placed in the "villain" category. The success of Gone Girl with its foray into the darkness of an initially-likable character certainly shows American readers will eat it up and beg for more.

Or maybe the whole "heroes are lame because they are predictable" argument just plain sucks. 

While I know that great writing requires that our characters surprise us with their complex blends of good and evil, I feel as though I live in a world of predictable heroes who are far more complex than anyone gives them credit for. 

I'm a teacher. 

And I'm a teacher at a public school where many of my colleagues have highly competitive CVs (degrees from Princeton, UC Berkeley, Harvey Mudd, UCLA, etc., one colleague even left a very successful company he'd founded to teach). Every day I'm surrounded by a pack of these men and women who eschew the monetary rewards they might've earned and will always "strive to do the right thing and save the day and help people." 

And the more I get to know my colleagues the more I find the "predictable" heroes far more fascinating than any villain.

We live in a world where the easiest path is one of basic self-centered living, as Mahalo points out, "Clark Kent would have to work for a year to make the kind of money that the Rogues earn for one heist. Just saying." and as I learned from reading The Dictator's Handbook the best way to be a "successful" dictator is to always do what will be the best for you, it seems to me that those motivations are the most dull/predictable because they are the most infantile  responses.

Why be a predictable metronome of goodness when it goes against all basic self-interest, even coolness? Now that's interesting. Complex. Not predictable.

And I believe that teasing out the answer to that question is what makes the writing of a hero great, but (and this is a very big but) can't be limited to the origin story alone

What makes a hero good initially and what makes him/her slosh through the myriad small/large battles of life and stick with it are often two, or three, or four, or countless very different stories.  If I've learned anything teaching beside a pack of heroes for the past decade, even the motivations are complex and ever-changing arrangements and, based on my experience, is far less predictable than one might expect.

And I believe that this is the key to writing a good hero. Your reader might not get the rush of constantly being at risk of getting "stabbed in the face," but maybe there's a different kind of rush in pulling back the curtain to see that ever-changing sea of motivation behind what makes a man "super."