World's Oldest Fledgling

The blog of Stephanie Wardrop, Y A Author

Killing Your Darlings

WIP It Wednesday, revision edition

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Most people know that the phrase “Kill Your Darlings” is not just the title of a new movie about the early Beat poets starring Daniel Radcliffe. It’s a term, variously attributed to William Faulkner, Stephen King,  and others, that writers use to remind themselves that when you’re revising, no matter how much you’re in love with a joke or a turn of phrase or a particular passage of prose, if it doesn’t work for the overall good of the book, it has to go. As I revised the last portion of the Snark and Circumstance e-novella series, I whacked a lot of darlings this morning. It was a virtual bloodbath here, with some phrases cut down quite easily and painlessly, others struggling and clinging to life even as I knew they deserved to die. But an executioner has to be heartless, so the blade came down; noble sacrifices of parts were made for the good of the whole.

And as I was revising, I was thinking that sometimes “kill your darlings” is almost more literal. Sometimes you have to kill the characters you love, your almost flesh-and-blood darlings – or at least let really bad things happen to them. And that’s a lot harder (unless you are GRR Martin, apparently).

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To be honest, I used to scoff a bit at this notion. Duh, they’re characters, not real, I would think. But I have to tell you that when you spend a lot of time with these fictional people, inside and outside your own head, it becomes a lot harder to be disinterested in their welfare. Yet at some point in any narrative, your main characters have to come up against some serious chiz, be tested to the point of breaking, and that’s when some weird authorial maternal instinct kicks in for me and I want to protect them from all the pain and sadness in the world. But if I did, that would make for one really boring book. (And mean I have a pretty dangerous ego investment in identifying with my characters, perhaps).

So I had to suck it up and let my snarky self-rghteous teenage heroine, Georgia, get her much-deserved comeuppance.  For those of you who have admitted in reviews of the Snark series that you want to slap Georgia, I’ve got some good news for you: fate and her own ego slap her silly in this last installment. I had to let her be humiliated and regretful because that’s not just good plotting – sometimes that’s the only way to learn. In life and in fiction, I think, you have to earn your happy ending. And in Prom and Prejudice, I think Georgia earns hers.

I discovered something else through this revision process, but I’ll save that for next week: perfectly healthy writers can develop crushes on their male “romantic leads” and it is neither unhealthy nor creepy. I hope.

Stay tuned.

what I’m reading

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what I’m listening to 

Image(I can’t believe this is thirty years old)

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NaNoWriMo No More?

Image Everybody knows that November begins the holiday season, and, along with it, seasonal anxiety. Many of us, though we know better, nonetheless  try to live up to some Hollywood-produced expectation of the perfect holiday during which the family sits around a long dinner table groaning with delicious food, chatting happily and in harmony. Everyone gives – and receives – the perfect holiday gift, heralding that the approaching New Year to be the best one ever. That never happens, but each year many of us remain neurotically, delusionally, damagingly hopeful, only to be let down later.

So I’m letting myself off the hook this year.

I’ll still try to find the perfect presents for my loved ones, hope for a cordial gathering at a table or two, and accept that my New Year’s rockin’ Eve will be spent at home, as usual, and I’ll probably be asleep when the magic that will be 2014 officially commences.  But I’m giving myself a break regarding another seasonal nerve fray-er: NaNoWriMo.

If you’re a writer – or striving to be one – the Season of Anxiety begins not at the end of November with Thanksgiving but at the end of October with the advent of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month . it officially  begins November 1st but people start gearing up for it in September.  I used to kind of hate NaNoWriMo.  And not just because I still harbor an adolescent hatred of anything that seems to be imposed on me by unseen collective forces, or because each year, barely three days in, I would already find myself woefully, irretrievably behind.

I’m letting myself off the hook because, frankly, I put enough pressure on myself, and this year,with two deadlines looming, I would have no chance in hell of writing an entire novel in thirty-one days, even if I never slept and called in sick every day or gave my students a month-long “group project” that involved their coming to class but working quietly and not bothering me as I typed away.

I’m letting myself off the hook because I always wanted to be a writer in part because  I liked the idea of being an iconoclast, someone who doesn’t jump on the bandwagon just because it’s rolling through my town. And I know that writers, solitary as they are in their work, need a sense of community to sustain them, and NaNoWriMo provides that for everyone who signs up, all over the globe, and allows us to compare notes and progress and cheer each other on. And  I love this part.  But because I am still, in large part deep inside, that neurotic teenager convinced that everyone else is spending their Saturday nights at some awesome party somewhere while I watch The Love Boat and make fun of it, I don’t need the constant posting and tweeting and general measuring of word counts. Having let go of NaNoWriMo this year, I can truly say to those who signed up that I’m really glad that you’re at the party, and I’ll get there, eventually. I’m just going to be fashionably late, like, say, December-ish, when my semester dies down?

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If  there is somebody else out there flagellating themselves when they don’t get the desired number of pages or words written each day, let me be the first to tell you It’s okay. You can still finish your novel, this month, even, and novel writing has always seemed more like a marathon than a sprint to me.  Some novels are just going to take longer than a month to draft and maybe yours is one of them. You’re not a big old loser if you don’t finish until January, or whenever.  What matters is that you get there.

It’s hard to find the time to write. Believe me, I get that.  I’ve been stealing scraps of time for revision so much lately that I keep thinking about William Faulkner at work in the post office in Oxford, Mississippi, closing the customer service window while people were trying to buy stamps because screw them, he had a novel to write. (And a really good one, too). But I am more Stuart Smalley than William Faulkner at heart, Maybe you won’t find enough time to write this month, and that’s okay.  stuartSmalley If NaNoWriMo motivates you to do close that metaphorical window on reality and write write write,  then go for it!  Just don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goal. There’s no finish line here, no ribbon to run through that will be packed away on December 1st. It will feel just as good to write those final words a month or two from now.

Maybe I’m a quitter, or the cheerleader for the under-achievers. Maybe I’m the Julie McCoy of the new millennium, Cruise Director of the Lazy Boat. But I don’t think so.  I know I felt a lot less pressure – and a lot more like writing – when I got that NaNoWriMo monkey off my back.  I support all writers who dive in to NaNoWriMo with a gusto that I just can’t afford right now. And for anyone else who is lagging behind in the word count department, take heart. Maybe we’re the tortoises to their hares. We’ll catch up – maybe even triumph – eventually.

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Making Villians and the Nature of Evil

WIP It Wednesday, Halloween 2013

I’ve been thinking about the nature of evil as I work (slooowly) on this WIP. I’ve never written a real “bad guy” before so this is new to me, and like all good liberals, I do not believe in a Manichean universe or a world in which some people are just born evil. If there is anything we can truly call evil, I think, it develops in a person as a result of complex environmental factors. I have to believe that this applies even to the pus-bucket who was just arrested (thankfully) for buying a puppy on Craigslist so that he could torture it.  Only two things in the universe would prevent me from punching that crapbag in the face if I saw him. One: I really need to believe that I am “better” than that. And two: I know that I wouldn’t be able to punch him hard enough. Better to donate to an animal rescue group to help other victims and hope karma eventually takes care of this sphincter muscle masquerading as a human being.

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As for my writing, to create this character, a villain with a capital “V”, I have had to think a lot about what makes him so villainous, so I’ve thought a lot about some of the literary and historical characters I have found to be truly evil. I’ve read some great books about evil and psychopathology, like Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Why Good People Turn Evil, both of which I’ve read fairly recently. But I think the first time I became aware of what could be called evil was when I saw a film in in fifth or sixth grade about Hitler and the Holocaust and realized for the first time that human beings can do some truly despicable things to one another. I had nightmares for a week. Then in late adolescence, I was fascinated by the Manson family, because I was a neo-hippie myself and horrified by the idea that young peace-and-love chicks could be persuaded (or coerced) into stabbing people. And as an adult, I was a huge Sopranos fan, in large part because, like many viewers, I was captivated by Tony’s balancing on an icepick-thin point between being an average guy from a messed up childhood home and a truly amoral, unfeeling “monster” capable of hurting anyone. A lot of us must feel this way, because Tony has morphed into a Son of Anarchy, a Blacklist baddie, and a meth cooker who manages to strike fear in viewers’ hearts while wearing tighty whites. Clearly I am not the only person who finds these characters so compelling. Image <-miss you, Mr. Gandolfini 

One thing that really fascinates me about those we could label “evil” is the fact that, as far as I can tell, no evil person in history has ever thought they were evil.  I don’t think Vlad the Impaler sat around his castle, drinking blood out of empty human skulls, and saying to himself, “Yep, I sure am evil.”  I think most “evil” people do what they do because they think they’re on the side of good, or at least because they think they’re right.  I heard an interview on NPR a few weeks ago with Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and confirmed my suspicions about villains’ sense of themselves. She seemed genuinely surprised when the interviewer characterized Nurse Ratched as evil, because she always saw the character as someone who was convinced she was doing right in a difficult situation.

Image  <- Louise Fletcher – totally not evil

So for my WIP villain, Count Giancarlo Montoni,  whose name is taken from one of the first Gothic villains ever in Ann Radcliffe’s The Castle of Otranto, I have used the notion of a bad guy who is convinced he is good, or at least that he’s right.  He has powers beyond those mortals possess and believes that this gives him special rights or privileges – or  greater insight into what needs to be done to make the world a better place (as he defines that). He’s also modeled on the devil figure in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a guy who waltzes through history seeing what mayhem he can instigate, and in that vein, he’s also somewhat like the demons in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, who use their powers to do little more of use than mess with people. (They knock the hat off of a bishop, for example, if I recall correctly). I find fascinating and disturbing the notion that people with power and ability might do very bad things just because they can, and Montoni does this to a great degree. The world is his board game and we’re all just little plastic figures to move about.

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In this regard, I hope to make him like the literary character who most scares the crap out of me: Iago, from Shakespeare’s Othello. What always gets me at the end of that play is not the body count, the sheer number of lives that have been cut short or otherwise ruined for Iago’s caprice. It’s that when he’s asked by a thoroughly debased and shattered Othello why he did it, Iago refuses to tell him. And that destroys Othello even more. Because Iago made all of this awful stuff happen to him and Othello will never, ever know why. Iago is not the cartoonish super-villain in a crappy movie who dangles the hero over a shark tank while explaining, in great detail, the twelve points of his plot to destroy the world as well as his complex motivations for doing so. No. Iago is not going to give Othello – or the theater goers – any closure. Like Honey Badger, Iago don’t care. And a person who doesn’t care is truly scary. Because they are capable of anything.

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So that’s what I’m working with as I try to flesh out my first bad guy. I’m a little bit like Victor Frankenstein, stitching together influences from here and there to make a monster.  Let’s hope things turn out better for me than they did for Herr Doktor.

What I’m reading

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what I’m listening to

lou NY albumRIP, Mr. Reed. As my friend Chris said, “The world just got a little less cool” with you gone.

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Writing by the Numbers

Like a lot of writers, I suspect, I have always been averse to numbers. When I was a little kid, I loved Grover and and when my daughter was little she loved Elmo, but I never ever liked the Count.

images-3I can appreciate obsessive compulsive behavior as much as the next person, but I had a visceral reaction, as if someone had run a cheese grater across my skin, to his particular compulsion, counting everything in sight. As I grew older, I became more and more hopeless at math tasks, and when I got to eighth grade and was introduced to imaginary numbers I was truly perplexed. Aren’t all numbers imaginary? I spent the whole class period pondering this and forever missed what I was supposed to have learned about the concept (expect that for some reason the imaginary number as actually a letter, “i”, and it was italicized, which was kind of cool).

As a grownup writer, numbers play a far greater role in my life than I would like. So here are the three (Count them! Three! Ah ah ah!) sets of numbers that could give me fits if I let them:

1. Book sales

My publisher doesn’t share this with me often, and while that can be frustrating, it’s probably a good thing.  I know people who go to Amazon.com daily – even several times a day – or to Novelrank.com to watch that sales rank rise and fall the way some people tune in to their televisions everyday to watch that lady drop the ping pong balls and choose the lottery number.  In each case, the number seems, in some way, to determine their fate, and that’s a truly angst-inducing process. I’m not being glib here – book sales determine a writer’s fate in real ways. I just prefer to live in denial, to assume that everything is fine enough and, ideally, spend the time writing instead. I never had the goal of being a bestseller. I just want to be able to keep writing and not feel like I am indulging myself, taking valuable time away from other things I am supposed to be doing (like counting cereal Box Tops collected by the students at my son’s elementary school).

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2. Word Counts

NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month– is almost here, and it’s a good thing. Every November it motivates countless people to attempt to write one novel in one month, and if even a tenth of those novels are decent first drafts, that’s pretty wonderful. My problem with NaNoWriMo is personal. I hate the way it ratchets up the numbers game, the way writers post in between word sprints their word counts on social media (it’s something some writers do almost daily even outside NaNoWriMo). “210k! Woohoo! Almost at my goal!” I understand that this motivates you and I applaud your progress but I am just petty enough to think, when one of these gazillion word counts taunts me from my Twitter feed, that this person should heed my mom’s advice that no one likes a show off. I know many writers that set a daily word count for themselves and I admire the way it keeps them honest and productive. Word counts just make me want to flagellate myself with a stick as I sit in my kids’ schools’ carlines or at my actual day job thinking “I am not writing.” If I had to attach a number to my (lack of) productivity I would look like this

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3. Twitter followers

I never thought that this would be part of my writing life, and not just when I was a kid dreaming of being a writer and Twitter had not been invented yet. I never thought about it until a year ago when my publisher told me I had to get on Twitter. I was uncomfortable at first because what exactly do you tweet twenty times a day anyway? “Drank a cup of tea”? who cares. Lie and say “Drank a cup of tea. Johnny Depp poured the milk”?

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That would be the only possible version of that tweet that would interest anybody. But now, a year later, I am tweeting away, though my follower count is miniscule compared to others, some of whom sign up for services to glean followers and swell their numbers. Following the number of followers has become a new unappealing numbers game. The follower count can rise and fall literally second to second, and I have to admit that when I lose five followers in one day I am insecure enough to wonder what I did wrong (possibly nothing – apparently Twitter has limits on how many people you can follow and I don’t always make the cut. Which is okay, because I suspect many of you are robots anyway). So Twitter becomes a site of anxiety or, worse, perhaps, a closed loop of commerce in which we all Tweet posts to our book rankings and reviews and book sales and giveaways in the hopes of raising all the numbers (sales, rankings, word counts, and followers).

Enough already. I’m going to Tweet the link to this post and then get back to clipping Box Tops.

And for all participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck! May the words be with you.

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Too Much Work in Progress: Juggling Life and Writing

WIP It Wednesday: Works Not-So-Much in Progress

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I should be writing.

I should be working on the WIP that I haven’t touched in a week.

I should be typing the revisions to the sequel to Snark that I promised an editor and spent the weekend making instead of making progress on the WIP.

I should be outlining the other projects, or getting ahead on blog posts, or working on the scavenger hunt with my Indie Ignites friends to promote PRIDE AND PREP SCHOOL, or compiling that list of interesting facts about me for the guest post feature on someone else’s blog.

I AM WRITER. HEAR ME WHINE.

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This is, of course, a paraphrase of Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem that rocked the Women’s Movement and was part of the soundtrack of my life as a child of the Seventies. And as a Seventies girl, I grew up, thanks to women like my mom and Helen Reddy and Gloria Steinem and Billie Jean King and

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Marlo Thomas and her Free to be You and Me, believing that I would have a full-time fulfilling job as part of my life as an adult woman. And I do, as a professor of writing and literature at a New England university.

So let’s add to the above list:

I should be reading student papers.

I should be reading revisions of student papers.

I should be reading and preparing lecture notes and discussion questions for tomorrow’s classes.

I should be checking in with some students’ advisors to see why they are not attending class or handing in assignments or keeping up with the material.

And don’t get me started on what I should be doing as a wife and mother, like the laundry and mopping the floor and buying onions and figuring out the source of the vaguely unpleasant smell in the living room, all before I pick up the kids, feed the kids, take them to various extracurricular activities and help them with their homework (true confession: I am actually relieved that I cannot be called on to help with some of the homework now, as algebra mystifies me as much now as it did in eighth grade).

This is the universal lament of all writers and all working women (and men, probably) everywhere: I don’t have enough time for it all.

When I was studying nineteenth-century women writers as a grad student, I was struck by the number of those women writers who were unmarried and childless, because it seemed so impossible at the time to be able to be both writer and mother.  The list of those who did’t live long enough to even consider undertaking that juggling act, or lived but did not even attempt to perform it, is pretty impressive: all three of the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, Christina Rossetti . . . (the list goes on). Author Elizabeth Gaskell did juggle both jobs, and her journals are filled with her worries about failing at both of her duties as writer and wife/mother – as well as some pretty disgusting sounding recipes for puddings that could be left in the hearth to cook all day and allow Gaskell a little writing time (she may have been the unacknowledged master of the Victorian “crock pot.” And as a child of the seventies, I know about the crock pot).

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I don’t know any writer – especially women writers – who doesn’t feel this way, especially since most of us have to work at other demanding jobs in order to have the luxury of writing (in the hope that one day we will be able to sustain ourselves on royalties from that writing). It’s especially hard because by its nature, writing is a pretty solitary job that requires long periods of uninterrupted time to think, to imagine, and to wander around in a completely made-up world until we get our bearings and can render what we see there to others. And that’s hard to do when you have to squeeze it in between your day job, drives to and from dance classes, and all of your other responsibilities.

But I don’t post this just to whine (though thanks for letting me do this a little).  I wrote to ask those of you who find yourselves in this category – trying to write while maintaining another job in or out of the house and trying to be a parent/spouse/partner – if you have any survival strategies you’d want to share.  How do you carve out work time? Keep your sanity? Manage to be the “good enough” mother and writer and worker, to borrow DW Winnicott’s phrase from object-relations theory (psychoanalysis)?

I’ll leave you with one strategy of my own: Have a support network. Mine is the virtual mutual admiration/talk-me-down-off-the-roof society that is Indie Ignites.  Just this morning one of us was freaking out on Facebook about not getting revisions done quickly enough, and within hours we were online offering support, wisdom, cheerleading, and bad jokes when appropriate. Even if we never see each other, we know what it’s like to juggle all of these concerns so we can empathize, sympathize, and even apply a kick in the pants when necessary. It’s amazing how far an online pep talk can go toward keeping you writing and functioning.

Please post your suggestions and strategies in the comments below.  It would be nice to think we’re in this together, wouldn’t it? (How about a little Seventies’ style solidarity? :))

What I’m reading:

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What I’m listening to:

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Works (Not) Cited Part Two: Literary Influences on the WIP

WIP It Wednesday continues (though sometimes I worry that I should put less time into the blog about the work in progress and more on the work in progress itself).  Last week I posted about the research I’ve done so far (and I just picked up two great tarot books to add to the collection). But this week I’ll focus on the literary works that have influenced the work so far. I’m sure I’m not accounting for all of them because the unconscious is tricky like that 🙂 but here’s a good-faith effort to present the influences:

Some paranormal/fantasy YA that hasn’t influenced the book directly, but must have, somehow:

Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices series. I have to admit that I was a somewhat reluctant reader of fantasy, based on what I’ve read before, but once I started these series, I was hooked. Clare creates such strong, varied characters and the relationships between them are so complex and engrossing that I tend to forget the magical stuff going on at times with these Shadowhunters, vampires, werewolves, warlocks, Nephilim, and all. While my book will never be as complex as this series, I think I’m working on my own version of the genre Clare has mastered: the (sub)urban fantasy. I guess I have portals of sorts in my WIP and I admire the way Clare sort of explained how they work, or, at least where they came from through the combined expertise of a scientist/inventor and warlock. And for the record, I am Team Simon, though things are working out nicely as far as I am concerned for Clace. I’ll let you know in May 2014 if I make it to the release of the final book  without gnashing my teeth to little nubs in anticipation.

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Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles.  My witches are different from Spotswood’s but I love what she has done with them, having them live in a somewhat recognizable past in which a religious right in charge has snuffed out witches and their practice – or so they think.  This feminist view of history and power makes the book especially appealing to me. Plus, I have a wild crush on Finn.  When I asked Spotswood via Twitter whether she would “give [him] a break” in the third and final installment, she tweeted that she would make me no promises. So , Dear Readers, I do not get results, but at least you know that I am out there in the trenches, fighting for you.

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I just finished April Genevieve Tucholke’s mesmerizing Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and while it’s not about witches, it certainly raises some intriguing questions about the nature and definition of evil. River has some formidable powers, and he’s (probably) not the Devil, but to what extent is he responsible for the havoc (murder, suicide, mayhem) he wreaks? And does Violet love him or hate him? How much of her love is the result of being taken in by River’s “glow”? Can you ever trust a guy with supernatural powers? I can’t wait to read the sequel and find out (I googled the date of the sequel as soon as I put down the book, too. Summer 2014).

DevilDeepBlueSea_FINAL_LR1 If my book turns out to be even 1/10 as good as these, I will be dancing from the rooftops of my town.

The YA novel that started this whole idea of a 400-year-old witch trapped in the body of a seventeen-year-old many years ago had to be Twilight.  I have to admit that I found the relationship between Bella and Edward more disturbing than enchanting. What I wanted to hear more about was what it was like to be stuck being a teenager forever. That idea entranced me, if only because if you had told me one day as I sat in high school, “This is it. This is where you will stay forever”, I would have run screaming down to the creek and tried to drown myself in it. I was captivated by the idea though Meyer did not explore much of the aching loneliness one would feel, fated to never grow older, to stay the same, in stasis, as everyone around you changed. I was intrigued by the logistics of how that would even work – how often would you have to move, exactly, from town to town before your neighbors noticed that you never, ever looked older.  Could you ever forge  relationship with anybody under those circumstances? I also, to be honest, wanted to present a view of love and sexuality that wasn’t as heavily weighted toward abstinence and the idea that the female is the threat to the male’s chastity and honor (go back and check some of the stuff Edward says to Bella about how she is the one threatening his control). That’s too sexist and last century for me.  But I’m not going to say anything more critical about Twilight because the world has done enough of that already. I’ll just say that despite my reservations expressed above, I wholeheartedly agree with agent Mary Kole’s assessment that the novel is, to paraphrase, 450-plus pages about longing. And that’s a pretty formidable thing.

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Non-YA influences

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita gave me the idea of having a really creepy devilish guy who has had his hand in all the awful stuff that’s happened in history, from holocausts to revolutions to political assassinations to everyday persecutions.  And, if I were being truly honest here, I would have to give the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” some due credit because it’s based on the novel and I’ve heard that song a lot more than I’ve read Bulgakov’s book.  But you should, because it’s really good and because Daniel Radcliffe said he likes it, too. When Harry Potter endorses a book you go read it. I don’t have a big scary black cat in my book, though, because I live with one every day and I fear her wrath.

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Apparently Arthur Miller’s play has been used to torture New England high school students for years, but The Crucible is brilliant in presenting the witch hunt as metaphor. He was writing, of course, about the Salem Witch Trials on the surface but really about the HUAC/McCarthy trials of the 1950s and the insidious and very real ways in which a small group of frightened and bigoted people can turn a community into a lynch mob living in terror of being the next one accused. I present this idea in the book with a false murder accusation of a young man who looks like he’s up to no good and makes a very easy scapegoat for the religious right “Family First-ers” in my fictional town.  (I say fictional, but it’s based on a real place and the events are, unfortunately, not pure fiction).

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That’s a pretty long reading assignment, so I’ll stop now and let you get to your reading. Please tell me, in the comments or through Twitter or Facebook, any of the books you’ve loved and been influenced by, especially those dealing with magic, witches, or scapegoating.

Happy reading and writing, everyone!

What I’m re-reading:

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what I’m reading:

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What I’m listening to:

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WIP it Wednesday: Works (Not) Cited

(Part One)

A whole lot of reading goes into writing.

I am always amazed when my students who’ve mentioned that they want to be writers come up with a blank when I ask them what they like to read. Some even admit that they don’t particularly like to read, so I have no idea why they want to write except out of some twisted sadistic impulse, but that’s not what I want to explore here.

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Reading-toward-writing can be conscious, such as when you do research on a subject to help inform and flesh out your book. Sometimes it’s done for inspiration, such as when you turn to books that do a particular thing well, like presenting juicy kissing scenes, for instance, or the author was masterful at creating a certain feeling that you want to get into your book, like a character’s complex feelings when a loved one dies. But oftentimes, the influence/inspiration is unconscious. Everything you read informs your writing and your consciousness in some way, but I’m not going to be able to account for that here. (Or anywhere else!) Instead, I’ll share what I have consciously consulted while working on A Time of Shadows, my YA (sub)urban fantasy about a 400-year-old witch trapped in the body of a seventeen-year-old Colorado high school student.

This week I’ll focus on the “conscious” research, although some of these texts, especially the films, were viewed/read long before I hatched the idea for the book.

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 HISTORICAL TEXTS/RESEARCH BEHIND A TIME OF SHADOWS

  • I’ve already posted about WB Yeats’ The Celtic Twilight (1907), but that’s just one of many texts I’ve consulted so far, including
  • The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkranz, a seminal text in Rosicrucianism – I’m not sure I’ll use anything from this weird, mystical story, but the Rosicrucians (Knights of the Red Cross) will probably come into it as an ancient order that was created long ago to combat my villain.
  • String Theory for Dummies, Andrew Zimmerman Jones, 2009 This one is kicking my butt intellectually, which I suppose puts me in the sub-“dummy” category. My writer friends reassure me that I don’t need to explain the magical mechanisms by which my sorcerers and others make stuff happen, but I really want to know what a wormhole is and understand dark matter. Maybe it’s the academic dork in me. Or maybe I just want to know what the guys are up to on The Big Bang Theory
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  • Tarot for Dummies, Amber Jayanti, 2001. Not my favorite tarot book but the only one I own right now.  I started reading tarot when I was in high school and did off and on until someone stole my deck of cards when I was in grad school. I can only assume that that person has accumulated some formidable karma as a result. Tarot readings play a big role in the book. I’m looking for a good Celtic deck for myself now, or this awesome one I saw on Etsy with foxes that’s no longer available.
  • Daemonologie  and Newes from Scotland, 1597, King James VI and I. When he was just the King of Scotland (and not the whole UK), James got impatient when his second wife’s ship was delayed in getting her to the wedding so he sailed out to meet her. Such violent storms hit that he figured they had to be the work of a coven of witches (in Berwick, specifically) because who else would dare to mess with a King’s wedding plans? He became so obsessed with witches and destroying them that he wrote this manual and even participated in some witch trials.  He also re-wrote a little thing he liked to call The King James Bible and filled it with anti-witch stuff.
  • Scottish Witchcraft: The History and Magick of the Picts, Raymond Buckland, 1995
  • Website: Celtic Dress of the Sixteenth Century, Meistr Gwylyn ab Owain, https://www2.hau.edu/~wew/celt-clothing/ Number one thing to remember about Scottish dress: tartan was not worn until the nineteenth-century after the Clearances.  The fact that several sources besides this have said that little is known about Scottish dress during this period equals an academy-mandated artisitic license in my name., as far as I’m concerned
  •        Image(And why wasn’t this cool Scottie the mascot when I went to CMU?)
  • Books about Wicca whose names I did not record because I am sloppy.
  • Life after Death, Damian Echols, 2012; the Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Glen film trilogy, 1996-2012, dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; West of Memphis, dir. Amy Berg, 2013.  I saw the first of the Paradise Lost movies about the West Memphis Three murder trial when it first came out in 1996 and thought that something just wasn’t right with these so-called experts claiming three high school kids in a Satanic cult murdered and mutilated three 8-year-old boys.  It took 20 years and a troubling Alford plea to get the WM3 out of prison. Their story reveals so much about what prejudice, classism, and hysteria can do to destroy the lives of people deemed as too different, and I have a character who is falsely accused of a crime somewhat like this.  Image Not because I want to capitalize anybody’s pain but because this kind of abomination should never, ever, ever happen again. And that’s what the book’s about.
  • A bunch of stuff read fifteen years ago about repressed memory and children’s accusations of Satanic abuse in preschools. I read it all for an academic paper I was writing analyzing The X-Files as a meditation on the culture’s recent infatuation with (and subsequent repudiation of) repressed memory. Can you believe that show premiered 20 years ago?Image
  • Books and articles about Robert Boyle, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and alchemy, all elemental in creating the book’s villain figure, who abuses the sort of power these guys hoped to master.
  • Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witchhunt in Scotland,1981. Such gripping stories I almost want to retell all of them in the book. I’ll probably end up not even retelling any of them, but they certainly inform what I have happen to Becca and her mom and aunt back in the early 1590s.  And it’s where I learned about witchprickers. (You’ll have to Google that or wait for the book!)
  • Cotton Mather Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions  1689.  Lots of good quotes and proof that this country was founded on the persecution of women/witches.  Here in Springfield, Massachusetts, four people, , including Hugh and Mary Parsons were put to death in 1652 for crimes of witchcraft. I might put their names in the book just for fun whenever I get stuck for a name.

There were so many more books whose names I didn’t jot down and there will be many more.  And these are just the ones I consciously chose to inform the book.

Next week, I’ll do my best to uncover the ones with an unconscious (mostly) influence.

Until then, happy reading and writing.

What I’m reading

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What I am rereading

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What I am listening to

Image The Kinks on Pandora internetradio

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My (index) cards are on the table

WIP it Wednesday is back, which means I am talking about writing and my works in progress. (I took a break last week because I had previous obligations – reviews and previews that had to be posted).

I’m going to focus today on organizing and outlining a plot. My plot outlining for Snark and Circumstance was easy by design: I based it on Pride and Prejudice, so I had a certain sequence of events I just had to modify and follow. But with its sequel and my WIP, I don’t have it so easy. I have to make this stuff up myself!

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A lot of writers and bloggers talk about “plotters” and “pantsers” and plenty of people will argue the virtue of being in either camp. I have always been a bit of both and I’ll share my method (or lackthereof) here.

I’ve spoken elsewhere on this blog about where my initial ideas come from and how my characters develop. Once I have the idea and the characters, those characters have to do something.  I usually have a sense of where the narrative will go -sometimes it’s very vague and sometimes it’s quite specific. I just have to figure out how to get them there.

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I sometimes do outlines for the plot just as I was taught to do in fourth grade science class, and sometimes this works really well.  I might have a Roman numeral/heading for each chapter or event and then list what happens within that chapter, kind of like this:

I. Becca meets Ethan

1. he is in the coffee shop, working

2. we learn he has noticed her before, out in the street

3. when she comes in, he is excited and says something stupid and feels really    mortified

I can fill in as much as I want here on the outline, and often have little arrows and scribbled dialogue pointing to one of the plot points above, like when I finally figure out the silly thing this character blurts out.

This, however, requires pretty linear thinking, and I don’t think that I am wired this way by nature. So I have borrowed a more portable and less rigid method from screen and television writers (not to mention ninth graders in the 1970s who had to write term papers).

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Behold! The Index Card!

I write down a character trait or a plot point or something important on a card and keep them in a pack. I can divide the pack into smaller packs by chapter or character and reshuffle them as my ideas change. For example, if I realize that something I put in Chapter Two of my outline doesn’t work and needs to move to Chapter Three, I just move the card to the Chapter three pile, which is way easier than redoing the whole outline.

When I get really ambitious, and closer to having a sense of how all the pieces might fit, I put them on a board like this

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a kind of storyboard like screenwriters do.  I can rearrange things easily and visually if I realize a bit of back story, say, needs to go somewhere else, and when I have a brainstorm I write it on a card and then figure out where to place it. It helps me to see the whole thing laid out like this sometimes. (I am the kind of person who leaves all the files on my computer desktop and not in folders because I need to see them to be reminded that they exist, which shows a shocking lack of faith in my memory but there you go.)

And here’s the craziest part.

Once I have all of that semi-impressive looking storyboard worked out, I usually totally ignore it and just start writing. Sometimes not even in the order in which things happen, which is a great trick that I have only recently learned to employ, even though it should have been obvious to me: you don’t have to write the first part first!.

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Just because events happen in a specific sequence in the book doesn’t mean that I have to write them in that sequence and sometimes, if a particular scene is nagging at me I’ll just write it, even if it is near the end of the sequence of events in the narrative.  I’ll usually have to change it once I put the whole narrative together at last, but at least I have something written and I can then move on to the next scene or problem. Movies are filmed out of sequence, right? You can do that as a writer, too, and your reader will never know.

So right now I am shuffling index cards and writing scenes out of sequence for a character that I need to get to know better; writing those scenes now, and not waiting for when I get to “his” part of the plot helps me understand him better, to flesh him out, so to speak; when I figure out the sequence of events and how he fits, I’ll insert him into the narrative.  And I may not be able to do that until I figure him out better. (He’s tricky because he is charming but evil and I suspect he looks like Colin Farrell).

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In addition to my storyboard and index cards,  I have started using PInterest for this particular work in progress. I have posted pictures of characters, places, and some notes on String Theory that I need to absorb.  If you want to see what I’m thinking about regarding this WIP, you can find it here.

So I am part pantser, part plotter, I guess. I do the plotting groundwork by outline or index card and then get to writing, but the outlining, even if it is not used exactly, is what allows the writing to happen. It’s the pre-thinking I need to do before I can write anything somewhat purposeful and not purely exploratory, though there’s plenty of that, too.

There’s no right or wrong way to plot. Everyone has to find their own method, and the method may vary not just by writer but by project. Sometimes I outline carefully. Other times I just dive right in.

If you have any tips to share, please leave a comment below.  Happy reading and writing!

What I am reading:

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What I am re-reading:

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Let them talk: Using the voices in your head

Monday Morning Writing Tip

I just read a very good post about getting to know your characters. This writer advocated, as many writers do, imagining what they look like and answering a checklist of questions about them to get to know your characters. I’ve done this and found it somewhat helpful but a little mechanical for me, somehow. Still, checklists/questionnaires like this one can be kind of fun, like taking a Cosmo quiz as your character.

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And as for writing down what the character looks like, for me, appearance often comes to me later. I hear my characters first. They’re the voices in my head that I start to recognize as distinct from my own. They’re the ones saying less mundane things than “Did you actually turn on the dryer before you came up from the basement or have there been wet clothes sitting in the machine for the last three hours?” And I know there’s a character developing in my head if the voice becomes more distinct or persistent, like its trying to be heard. Or get out.  Image

And yeah, I know this makes me sound at least a little crazy. Maybe the difference between the mad person and the writer is transcription. Because for me, the best way to get to know my characters is to listen to them, and to write down what they say.

It kind of is like transcription. When I’m stuck, especially in a first draft, I’ll just let them talk to each other and try to catch up on typing what they say. (Maybe my brief tenure as a court reporter prepared me for this method.) I kick back and let them talk and write down what they say. That’s the simple part.

The “writing” comes in when I go back and look at what they said and see what I can use. And most of it is pretty useless. I may get a character announcing, for example, “I don’t like eggs” and even the other character I am listening to doesn’t know how to respond to that because it’s not that interesting.  Unless it sparks something like a great plot point (Dr. X discovers that the deadly pandemic is being spread by unearthed pterodactyl eggs!) or great dialogue (You don’t like eggs? You don’t like anything! Including your wife! I’m leaving you, Bill.) Okay, that’s not great dialogue, but I can work with that. And I’ll take it from there.

But please keep in mind that while you, their creator, may be fascinated by everything they say, these creatures you are channelling from another dimension, your reader isn’t going to be. Remember that these overheard conversations are for you, to spark your imagination.  They are not in and of themselves a novel or short story.

I just read a self-published novel that was mostly this sort of dialogue, two characters that the writer obviously cared deeply about, chatting away for page after page about Chardonnay and pop music and Shakespeare, but their conversations didn’t take them anywhere.  It didn’t drive any discernible plot, or, to be honest, make me care about the characters much, any more than I would care about people I overhear talking about this stuff at the food court at the mall.  I wouldn’t wistfully watch them pick up their shopping bags and move on, wishing I could follow them and hear what happens to them next. Instead, I was wishing the writer had taken these dialogues and figured out the heart of what they reveal about the characters and what it means for the plot and then used the conversations s/he “overheard” to craft the story arc, to function as the invisible scaffolding that supports these characters and what they do.

The reader doesn’t have to know everything about your characters. S/he is going to fill in the blanks themselves – that’s how fan fiction works, right? It’s the same for readers even if they ever write down their own versions of the story and characters. And you don’t have to know everything about your characters either. When you take time for these little conversations, when you let them talk to you, you find out stuff about them that surprises you and you can use this to make the plot and characterization richer. But each syllable does not have to go into the story.

So sit down with a cup of tea and a keyboard or notepad and let your characters talk to you. Just try to keep up, because sometimes they have a lot to say. It won’t all be golden, but there will usually be a nugget there you can use.

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Writing Romance Guest Post on Indie Ignites

below is a copy of my guest post over at Indie Ignites’ blog.  This is one blog you should follow: lots of great writers, giveaways, and info for indie and small press peeps.

Don’t Want Your Bad, Bad Romance: Five Writing Don’ts with Apologies to Lady Gaga

Writers read a lot. And we read differently from when we were “civilian” readers, even when we’re reading for pleasure. No, we don’t sit there with red pens and mark every typo or infelicitous word choice (though as a writing instructor at a New England college, I often have to fight the urge to do that. It’s an occupational hazard, even though I don’t enjoy doing that with my students’ papers, and don’t know any instructor who does. And for the record, I don’t use a red pen.)
I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily harder on the books we read either, though maybe now and then we read something that seems less than polished to us and remember our bazillion rejection letters and think “THIS got published? Someone chose THIS over my magnum opus?” Maybe the difference is that when I was a “reader”, if I didn’t like a book – if, for whatever reason, it wasn’t working for me – I’d move on to the next one. Now, as a writer, I try to figure out why I don’t like it. I keep going and do a post mortem as I’m reading, trying to discover what went wrong.
Call it the CSI Approach to Disappointing Novels.
 
Because there’s a lot to learn, I’ve discovered, from what you don’t like, to learn what doesn’t work for you as a writer by examining what doesn’t work for you as a reader. I’ll slip into teacher mode for a second again and ask you: How much did you learn from the good essays you wrote in school that earned you an A or a check-plus or a vague “Very good!”? I have to admit I tended to learn more from the ones that didn’t get such high marks because I didn’t always know why the essays that did earn those marks deserved them. And when I couldn’t tell what worked, I was always afraid that I had succeeded by accident and that the next thing I handed in would make the teacher/reader cringe in horror and reassess my worth as a writer and a human being.
I had issues.
And still do, I’m sure, but this post is about learning to write a better romance novel from reading ones that don’t quite work. I’m going to give you a list of what I’ve learned that doesn’t work and, in some cases, provide tips to avoid these pitfalls. In other cases, I will beg you to send in some suggestions on how you avoid them, so I can, too (and share them with you, my lovely readers, without whom I am not a writer, after all).
So, here goes
MY TOP FIVE NOT-QUITE-EPIC ROMANCE FAILS
 
(But first, I’m going to sneak one in here without a number because everyone has heard of it. But it bears mentioning.) No INSTALOVE, a misstep so heinous it has its own name. Readers do not want to be told that somehow, magically, your two characters have fallen in love somewhere between the pages they’ve turned while waiting to see it happen. Because that’s the point of a romance novel: We know these two are going to get together but we don’t know how and we want to see it happenThe pleasure is in the happening, not in having had it happen. )
On to the list.
1.     If your characters fall in love with each other in part because of their witty repartee, then there had better be some witty repartee on those pages. This is hard to do. Witty dialogue is the Holy Grail for me, I’ll admit it, and you never know if what amuses you is going to amuse anyone else. It takes time and lots of revisions to get it right. (But the advantage to writing over speaking is you get lots and lots of tries to make the stinging comeback or hilarious offhand remark that most of us drive home IRL wishing we had made). Please don’t end every line of dialogue with “she giggled” to show me that your heroine finds the hero amusing. Make me giggle. Which is hard. Believe me, I know. All through Snark I knew I was walking a fine line between making Georgia and Michael clever, teasing combatants and a pair of angry malcontents, and I am not sure I succeeded in all scenes.
2.     Misunderstandings between would-be lovers are the lynch pin of most romance plots, but they have to be motivated and believable. If your heroine simply sees the man she’s growing to love talking to another woman and instantly assumes, based solely on this incident, that he is either wildly in love with this woman, sleeping with her, or both, I am going to think that your heroine has some trust issues, and not interesting ones. But give her a reason to be suspicious and I will be right in her corner. A man talking to a woman is not a smoking gun. Now, if he’s talking to her and laughing and she’s sitting in his lap, you’ve aroused my suspicions too, especially if there is a history between these two. (Though I don’t know if I would recommend using this particular scenario. I wrote this into the sequel to Snark that I am working on and it took me quite awhile to invent a plausible reason for the girl in question to be in the boy’s lap in public.) Your misunderstanding  has to be believable or it announces itself for what it is: A plot device. An obstacle to keep the two apart for a few more pages. And we should never be able to identify a plot device too easily.
3.     Weave in hints of a character’s troubled or tragic past throughout the story. Backstory is hard. I think everyone struggles with this, so if you have any suggestions to make this easier, please leave a comment, or better yet, email and share it just with me and together we will rule the publishing world.  This is where, again, revision comes in, finding the right moment to mention, plausibly, a little something about the past. All I know is that it is jarring and unpleasant to be a hundred pages into a book and hear one character say to another, “But oh! After all you have been through!” and I have no idea what they mean. Obviously you don’t want to dump it all right out there on the first page. I heard Vince Gilligan, the show runner for Breaking Bad, speak the other day about how plot points (especially endings) have to seem both surprising and inevitable. He’s right. And if we all figure out how to do that then we can retire to the south of France with Vince Gilligan.
4.     Backstory is hard. So is providing physical descriptions of your first-person narrator. Personally, I am perfectly okay without knowing exactly what your character looks like. I am going to invent her in my own head anyway, and when I see an actor in a movie who does not resemble either the author’s or my conception of a character, I’m okay with that, too. Shalene Woodley, for example, does not look like Tris in Divergent to me, but I have no doubt she will be awesome in the role. (The “whitening” of all mixed-race characters in other films is, however, problematic for me, but I won’t get into that here). Suffice to say I do not enjoy reading passages like “I brushed my long brown hair and gazed in the mirror at my rounded, exuberantly lashed wide blue eyes.” I have never found myself brushing my hair and looking in a mirror and thinking, “Oh, I am brushing my chin-length brown bob.” Such descriptions are as jarring to me as a misplaced bit of backstory and pull me out of the narrative that I want to remain wrapped up in like a blanket on a cold night. Please don’t do that to me.
5.     Help me come up with new, relatable, scintillating words for passionate physical contact. Please. How do you describe really great kisses without using words like “electric”, “heat”, “mind-blowing”, “earth-shaking”, fill in your own cliché? I am really bad at this, a deficiency that may keep me squarely in the “sweet” romance category because I think any attempt I make to describe full-blown lovemaking will either sound as absurd as 1980s romance descriptions of  penises as “pulsing pillars” and “throbbing manhoods”,  or as freakishly clinical as an old medical text.  How do you avoid purple prose or the Kinsey Report? Revision, revision, inspiration, revision?
And there you have my top five fails.  How do you remedy them? What are your own readerly-writerly romance pet peeves?
Stephanie Wardrop is the author of the Snark and Circumstance series of enovellas from Swoon Romance, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and available on Amazon.com and BN.com. She’s also a proud member of Indie Ignites!
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