When I think of required reading, I think of horribly boring books that I was forced to read, usually about white dudes, written by white dudes. But some books from my high school days did pleasantly surprise me. I couldn't put own The Catcher in the Rye, I related to Ordinary People, and I loved the language used in The Scarlett Letter. Still, it's hard for me not to be salty about those books that are "high school famous" and don't deserve it. Two books stick out for me that--if I were the queen of required reading--would be removed from the list.
Lord of the Flies
If you're going to make a teenage girl read a book with only teenage boy characters, at least make a few of them daydream-boyfriend worthy. Boys who smash each other with giant shells and put pig heads on sticks? Gross. Also, the thesis that without civilization, we're all savages (kind of a dark idea to push on the youth of our nation?) is... not true! If you want to know about real-life situations like this, check out Sebastian Junger's Tribe, which shows how humans actually cooperate and treat each other better in times of crisis than in peace. So suck it, Lord of the Flies!
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Reading Ernest Hemingway was when I first became seriously bitter about what we deem as "canon." I remember race horses, one dimensional female characters, and some guy in a hospital bed. The snow means purity? Great. It seems this book has been required reading in every English class I've ever had, and yet, no specific details or truisms have stayed with me. I feel like Hemingway is one of those hearty male writers who people love to put on a pedestal because he's a hearty male. I understand teaching "Hills Like White Elephants" in an intro to creative writing class, but why For Whom the Bell Tolls in every damn lit class? If you want students to read about the effects of war, I don't think you could do any better than Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried .
Your turn--which books should high school English teachers ditch? And if anyone wants to defend my choices as deserving to stay, I'd like to hear it!
I originally wanted to have a post about the "best" and "worst" endings but immediately felt irritated because that's subjective and hard. (The best and worst ever?) Then I started thinking about how some endings leave you feeling bad and others leave you feeling good even if the majority of the content doesn't make you scream "BEST SHOW EVER" or "WORST BOOK EVER!" So instead, I want to know what endings left you feeling on the up and what left you feeling on the down. I've got my picks...
On the up: Okay, this is a weird pick since the ending was actually pretty dark, and I've mentioned this book before, but whatever-- I'm going to say Gone Girl. I screamed. I needed to know what happened next. I had to drink wine to calm down. As a writer, I thought it was brilliant. It invigorated me and made me want to write. It may be the best ending I've read, ever? Is that too dramatic? Oh no, I used the word "best."
On the down: This book was actually great, and I don't think the ending was bad. I'm not sure if I would've done it differently, but it depressed the hell out of me. I'm talking about The Book Thief. The beloved character who dies at the end? After all the growth? And the main character's reaction? I was done. Didn't care about anything that happened next. Goodbye my heart.
Honorable mention for on the down: The Real Lolita. It's about-- you guessed it-- the real Lolita. This story is crazy and sad and true, and it haunted me for weeks. Why did I do that to myself? What did I expect, honestly? (Look it up if you enjoy being disturbed.)
On the up: Parks and Rec, you guys. Usually finales are sad, boring, and you never want to watch them again. Characters leave and no one knows when they'll see each other. Characters leave in the Parks finale too, but through a series of flash forwards, we see that they reunite again and again, that they are in each other's lives FOREVER, and that the best truly is to come. Also, it's hilarious. No finale holds a candle.
On the down: Anyone who knows me knows my answer will always be Dexter. I will never not be furious about how they took such a unique, complex show and turned it into a soap opera, how they slaughtered character development, how everything the show was building up to was tossed out the window for something less interesting and definitely less satisfying. And don't even get me started on the UNFORGIVABLE DEATH! I went from wondering if I should buy a Blue Ray player to get the DVDs with all the extras to deciding I could never watch it again. I am truly a woman scorned.
Honorable mention for on the down: I saw The Wonder Years finale on Nick at Nite when I was thirteen and I'm not kidding, I blame it for jump-starting my junior high depression. I started re-watching the series years ago and was like, "The finale won't make me that sad this time! I'm a grown up!" And then half way through the series I was like, "Nope."
Almost-honorable mention for on the down that has changed because reboot: Will & Grace. I could not believe that those two would go twenty years without speaking--so depressing. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that the show comes back, and the whole thing was Karen's drug-induced dream. Still waiting for my Wonder Years reboot where Kevin and Winnie reconnect at their high school reunion...
On the up: I can think of many movies that leave me feeling great, but I'm going to give the edge to Clueless. The story line ends happily, yes, but the closing credits-- neon colors and General Public's "Tenderness?" It's just as much a part of the movie as the actual movie. I always sit and watch the whole thing until "Supermodel" comes on. Someone help me explain why this is so perfect and great, because I can't articulate it.
On the down: Bird Box. They are not okay! No one is okay! How long can they stay in that place? How will they
get food? Probably no one should reproduce, right, because unless you're blind, you won't be able to fend for yourself. What happens when the blind people age and die? Will they just have to
blind each other to keep going? How will they fight that thing, and what is it? Why was the tone like, "Everything's great now! There's butterflies here!" No!
Honorable Mention for on the down: How exactly is Love Actually a happy movie, you guys? Because it ends with
a singing little girl pointing to a boy? Am I the only one still crying for Snape's wife?!
Wow, I have an honorable mention for "on the down" in every category. Hope that doesn't mean I'm a negative person.
Your turn--tell me your picks!
The book store experience is just different these days. I love ebooks and being able to order literally anything online, but something is lost when you no longer have to physically go to a place to get something new to read. In my family, going to the bookstore was an event, one of our favorite weekend pastimes.
The two book stores that I miss the most technically still exist. Dad used to take us to Triple Goddess, a new age joint that sat across from our hair salon. I loved the chakra sunglasses, fragrant oils, and unusual greeting cards. (One said, "I saw a little girl picking worms off the sidewalk so they wouldn't drown, and it reminded me of you.") I loved how the owners had their dog's aura pictures on display.
Today, Triple Goddess is a part of Everybody Reads, an indie bookstore downtown. Although I love Everybody Reads, I miss that original building. It was bought by my hair salon because they were going to expand, but then they didn't, and it's been torn down. That empty lot is a total bummer.
Barns & Noble also still exists, and it's a massive chain, so maybe I shouldn't feel too nostalgic about the specific Grand River building, but I still do. It used to be a grocery store. The neon sign outside had a lady in 1950's garb with a shopping cart, except they had somehow been able to make the neon groceries look like books. Upon walking inside, the first thing you would notice was the massive fan, turning slowly above a balcony--which I always wanted to explore. Below, I'd be on the hunt. The books I found helped me make sense of the weird grief I felt at becoming an teenager. They sparked my imagination, providing inspiration for the books I would write someday.
This building is now a Playmakers. They renovated the balcony, and I can go up there to look at shoes, which my younger self would be pumped about, but still, I wish it were books. Now attached to the too bright, bustling mall (Is Lansing Mall bustling?), our current Barns & Noble doesn't have that same feeling of walking in and immediately being separated from everything else.
What were your favorite book stores back in the day? What book stores do you miss?
I don't buy it when people say they want to write but have "writer's block." Someone once said that if you want to write, you have ideas. It's just a matter of drawing them out. And what's better than Mad Libs to get things going?
Okay, maybe many things are better, but sparking creativity is sparking creativity, and plus, I like it when my friends make me laugh! Write down your answer for each, and don't look ahead!
1) The first syllable of your city plus either an "ie" or "en."
2) The gender of your first pet. Write as either man, woman, boy, or girl.
3) A character trait that you admire in others.
4) Your teenage celebrity crush.
5) A hobby or skill that you either gave up or neglect.
6) A number from 1-60.
7) A type of family member.
8) The name of your favorite childhood stuffed animal or doll.
9) Something that could give you a problem.
10) A good feeling
11) A negative adjective
12) A haunting location.
13) Another adjective.
14) A season + 's, followed by a size, followed by a noun
(1)_______________ is a (2)________________ who is (3)______________ and has an uncanny resemblance to (4)____________.
Accomplished at the skill of (5)__________________, both career and life have not seen changes in (6) ______ years. That all shifts with a phone call from his/her estranged (7) _________________, (8)_______________, who desperately needs help with his/her (9)_________________. Will (1)___________ choose to help, giving up a life filled with (10)__________to live a (11)___________ existence with (8)______________in (12)________________? Find out in what critics are calling (13) "_________" : (14)___________.
Since I couldn't fill out my own Mad Lib, I had my mom do it. Here we go:
Lanen is a woman who is empathetic and has an uncanny resemblance to Elvis. Accomplished at the skill of drawing, both career and life have not seen changes in 4 years. That all shifts with a phone call from her estranged sister, Cindy, who desperately needs help with her money. Will Lanen choose to help, giving up a life filled with joy to live an ugly existence with Cindy in a graveyard? Find out in what critics are calling, "Fanciful": Fall's Big Person.
Now share yours, and share the royalties with me when you inevitably make a million dollars from your book!
One of my favorite things to do here is to ask you guys questions, because I love hearing your answers. Only, no one ever wants to comment on the actual blog...it's fine, really. Not irritating at all....Anyhow, I went back to Facebook and picked some of my favorite answers of yours to share. The first is your personal (comedic) hell:
Next is your favorite and least favorite book-to-film adaptations. Some of these surprised me, and they really seemed to cover a wide range!
Now, I've got a new question for you: what is a story that's haunted you? I realized after coming up with this idea that "haunting" could mean such a wide variety of things. My initial reaction was to think of something disturbing, but then I remembered being haunted by subtle family dramas, like Heat Lightening. So it could be something upsetting or scary or not, just something that sank into your bones and stayed there, something that affected your mood even after you walked away from it.
The book that first pops into my head is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It's a story within a story about a young man who finds the work of an older man who was writing about documentary about a family who lived in a house that kept growing from the inside out. (It's so weird, I have no idea how this guy pitched it or how he got an agent.)
There are many interesting aspects of this book, one being that the author seems to be poking fun at academia-- there's a plethora of pointless footnotes, some real and others fake. (As someone who spent a lot of time reading and writing about lit theory as I wondered if it was all bullshit, I really appreciated this element.) Another unique factor is the visual layout and how that affects your mood. Some sections are written in shapes while others look like text has been stamped over text. You have to turn the book around to read certain parts. It's alive!
What really haunted me though were the sections about that house. See, there's an endless closet that keeps growing, and this family goes in deeper and deeper to see what's at the end. And... that's kind of it? But also not? Just trust me, it's compelling.
While I wasn't in love with every section of the book (like all the stuff about the young guy?? Pass), I did not want to stop reading the sections about the house, and as the story should have started to feel monotonous, boring, or exhausting, it didn't. I was completely drawn in, surrounded by the endless black walls, wondering what I would find at the end and what it all meant. Once I finished, I just HAD to talk to someone about it...but no one else I knew had read it. It was torture!
So, now I turn to you. What story haunted you to the point where you couldn't turn away from it and couldn't shake it, where you needed to talk about it? Regardless of where you post your answer, I want to hear it!
Most writers like to imagine that someday, their books will be TV shows or films, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't also think that would be totally awesome. Some folks are dead set against adaptations though, and I understand-- it's always a gamble. In this spirit, I thought it would be fun to pick the best book-to-film adaptations and the worst.
Okay, before I really thought about it, my initial impulse was to say Bridget Jones's Diary. It's one of those rare times when I actually think the movie is better than the book. The movie has a very clear arc-- you know what you're supposed to get out of it. I didn't get that from the book, seeing as Bridget is still hooking up with both dudes. I guess the movie fit my American-moral expectations as a young impressionable college gal.
Another movie that's better than the book is Shutter Island. It's dream-like mystery is so haunting in the film, and Michelle Williams and Leonardo DiCaprio make you feel for them even though their relationship is only seen in flashes. I expected the same aesthetics in the book-- thought it would be even better-- but it was just...meh? I honestly don't know what to say about it because I didn't finish it. That's how un-compelling it was.
After more reflection though, I thought, WAIT, Girl, Interrupted? Then-- WAIT--Handmaid's Tale? Game of Thrones?! Surly those two win, right? They're both like nightmares that I never want to wake up from. (That's a compliment.) I've never read the GOT series, but I read Handmaid's and I gotta say, the adaptation does an amazing job of capturing the truth of the novel while also taking it a step further and making it something new--the dream! So that's my winner: Handmaid's Tale.
There are many adaptions that have disappointed me-- like the last two Harry Potter movies (book seven was so exciting and the movies were...not??), but nothing comes close the anger I felt after seeing Gone Girl.
I think what upset me the most about Gone Girl was how many people actually thought it was good. It was not good, and if you disagree, you are WRONG. (Actually, I did note that a lot of folks who thought the movie was good never read the book.)
The reason-- in my opinion-- why Gone Girl was so popular as a novel was because of the way it was written. Duh, but I mean it sort of crossed genres. It was a mystery thriller but also had an intimacy that you usually see in women's fiction. The reason that Amy was so terrifying was because many of her sections were so heart-breakingly personal that you'd think, "Wow-- Gillian Flynn gets me." Then you'd think, "Wait-- that character is a psychopath though! What's happening? Who am I?!" That's what Gillian Flynn does so well-- you connect and empathize with people that you know you shouldn't. Her villains are fully-fleshed out and real.
That crucial element was totally missing from the film. The Amy character was not a relateable human, but a wooden, blank slate. And what the hell was Neil Patrick Harris doing there? I mean seriously, what the hell?! The casting was just a shit show. I guess the directing also had to be to blame? And the editing? Gillian Flynn herself helped write the screenplay, so really, what happened? It was like the people making the film were completely blind to the soul of the book. It was a Lifetime movie.
I haven't seen Dark Places yet because I'm afraid it will also make me furious, but the book is phenomenal. You know what's funny is my least favorite Gillian Flynn book, Sharp Objects, looks like it's going to be a great adaptation. I mean, they got Amy Adams! I guess we'll see, but anyway, I've got my winner for worst adaptation: Gone Girl.
You know the drill-- tell me your favorite and least favorite adaptations, and why! I think I may even put the results here. That sounds fun, right?
I recently decided to rewatch The Good Place, which was a very good call. I love this show--it's funny and strange and comforting, and I'm all about all of that. If you're unfamiliar, it follows a woman named Eleanor who has died and gone to Heaven--except she was a "bad" person and doesn't actually belong there.
Well, this show takes many twists and turns, so I guess I'll only be spoiling one thing. When Eleanor finally confesses that she doesn't belong, the "good" Eleanor who accidentally got sent to Hell returns, and she describes what her everyday life was like in the Bad Place:
"Every day was basically one endless baby shower for a woman I didn't know, but also, somehow I had to organize it, and if I didn't remember everyone's name, I got a very strong electrical shock." She then adds that jazz music was always playing.
This got me thinking about what my personal Hell would be. Going along with the lighthearted theme of The Good Place, it wouldn't actually be the most horrific thing I could imagine, but instead consist of annoyances and anxieties that never seem to end when you're in them.
My personal, yet comedic Hell definitely takes place in a doctor's office waiting room. I have to pee, but I don't want to get up in case I'm next. To my left, a heavy-breathing man is loudly chewing gum, and I can smell it. Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" is playing over the speakers on a loop, and a screaming child whose Mom decides to just stare at her phone is running around, knocking things over.
Please, tell me yours! I would like a good laugh. And if you're so inclined, think about how you could use this setting as inspiration for a story, poem, song, or whatever! I imagine this prompt could start some interesting projects.
So, this was fun! I decided to make a short video explaining the theory behind my novel series and the main plot. Would that be considered a "trailer?" I feel like no. But maybe yes? Don't trailers usually have actors? This does not. Well, whatever it is, I'm sure I'll be making more in the future, because talking about a project in this format is super neat. Enjoy!
Everyone says don't publish a series first. Do your series later, after you've published a stand-alone book. What if no one buys the first book of the series? Then you're just putting effort toward one thing when you could be creating something new, which may be more successful.
I've realized something about myself: I never take good advice. I am a NF to a fault. My gut always leads the way, even when reason should override. Case in point: one evening when I was about five years old, Mom told me to open the screen door before I went inside. It already looked open to me, so I rolled my eyes, walked right into the screen, and fell down.
On the flip side though, one thing I've come to realize with my adult hindsight is that aside from a few screen door moments, my initial instinct is usually correct. Confused? So am I.
Book two of the Layna series is finally done and in the process of publication. I love it. I actually enjoyed re-reading it a million times for edits and typos. I laughed out loud at things I forgot I made the characters say. But while writing, I was always aware that folks unmoved by book one wouldn't give this one a chance. Why didn't I just listen to everyone who told me not to do this? What if in ten years, all I have to show for my series is a new waistline, courtesy of the doughnuts I've shoved down my gullet while typing away at the computer? Why didn't I just take advice?
I guess it's because I didn't want to. I got really passionate about this idea, and maybe that was a good thing. A year and a half out from publication, it's just way too soon to know. But it is frustrating how sometimes, the very things that makes us good at writing--our intuition and imagination-- are also what keeps us from knowing how to make the "business" choices, like when to work on this project versus that project, from a practical point of view.
Don't get me wrong, guys. Among these anxieties, I'm still really excited for the Layna series. When I get excited about a story idea, it's like meeting a family member that I never knew I had, or maybe that's not quite right--a magical elf that will give me glowing jewels in exchange for lodging. That's kind of weird, too. Either way, sometimes a story hits you so hard that you know no matter what, you belong to each other. You can't turn it away and tell it to bother someone else. You let it in because you believe in it and it believes in you. If it didn't, the story would've picked someone else.
I don't know how to end this, except to say that I'd like to know your thoughts on the whole "writing a series" thing, and I'm really sorry that the elf turned out so terrifying. I don't get the broach either.
I've frequently heard from creative folks that a key to success is regularly producing content while working on bigger projects--keep that blog updated! Tweet links to helpful articles! Instagram books that are kind of like the ones you're writing! If you're a creative trying to cultivate an audience, you MUST:
1) Say something NEW! (And in a reasonably short word-count. Everyone has ADD!)
2) Make content NOW!
3) NOW! repeats every 5-7 days, at the very least.
If all that just gave you anxiety, I think this post is for you. I'm not going to tell you that the need to produce "extra" content is a myth. I AM here to tell you that it's maddening and ridiculous.
I haven't updated this blog since May. It's October. I intended to update it weekly, but the summer and fall have been pretty busy. I've been finalizing my second book, working with Voters Not Politicians to stop Gerrymandering in Michigan, spending time with my niece and nephews, and teaching three classes. My back pain is atrocious from lack of proper exercise, and my diet's pretty much gone to hell. Does this sound anything like your life? Probably. Weekly blogging and reaching out requires brain space that not many of us have. And when we do go through spurts of consistent blogging or writing-related tweeting or whatever, do we actually see amazing results? Which leads me to...
...some questions. Out of the other creative folks you follow, how many of their blogs posts do you actually click on? Now out of those, how many do you actually read all the way through? Now out of those, how many do you comment on? Now out of those, how often do you respond on the actual BLOG, not in a Twitter or Facebook comment? (That's one of my biggest pet peeves, y'all!)
It makes me think of that old saying, "the only way to have a friend is to be one." This is true. We can't join or create creative communities if we only toot our own horns. But it's hard to dedicate time to *your* content when I feel constant pressure to create *my* content, and when we *all* feel that way, we just end up vomiting out content for literally no one.
Do you remember learning about your favorite writers in college? About how they spent their days in a big house in Maine or wherever and wrote at this one desk by this one window and hardly ever spoke to anyone? Remember how you thought this would be your cozy writer life? You probably didn't think about how today, most people can read, and education is prevalent, and the human population is increasing, and literally amazing writers are emerging every other hour. You're not the talented farmer on the hill living in a mostly illiterate country; you're just one in a billion.
It's getting harder and harder to stand out, especially if you expect help through social media. All platforms have their frustrations, but ever since the Facebook demons bought out Twitter, I'm so exhausted from seeing things other people "hearted" that I just close the app, missing out on people who I actually follow and like. Yet, when I don't scream out my writing-related content into such voids, I feel like I'm doing it all wrong.
Look, I admit, I need to be better at keeping my writer's blog updated so that potential readers don't think it's inactive or that maybe I've been hit by a bus, but I want to write when I actually have something to say-- and only when I have something to say. I write slow and I write long (that's what she said), and those facts have the odds stacked against me in today's world, but if I try too hard to change myself into a quick & dirty writer, what I produce will not be authentic, and it probably won't be any good. It will just be adding to the noise.
Fellow writers and creatives, what are your thoughts on the pressure to create constant content in this social media mess? Does it also piss you off, or do you think it's helpful? Where are you at with this whole self-promotion, community-building thing, and how do you navigate it?
Mother's Day is this weekend, so I thought it would be appropriate to have a prompt about mother figures and mothering. Whether or not your character's mother is a part of your story, the shadow of her will undoubtedly affect who your character is in some way.
So what's the deal with your character's mom? Is this relationship one of support or competition? Think of complicated mother/child relationships you've seen in other stories. What do boundaries look like? What does taking care of each other look like? Is this Beloved, Bates Motel, Mommy Dearest, or something else?
How has Mom shaped identity? Is there a lack of Mom? Are you or your character the Mom, or the mother figure? How does that role work out? This is another prompt that may be prewriting, or it may provide content for actual scenes. Have fun!
This is the last Writing Wednesday Prompt for a while! I'll still write weekly posts, but about other musings. I know I'll be starting a series about when writing is difficult. Any other ideas? What questions or thoughts do you have about the writing process that you would like us to explore together? Let me know!
Many of us listen to music as we write. There are certain songs or artists that get us in a creative mood, and there are others that would disrupt the flow too much. But is there music that you associate with your story? If so, why is this? Does the tone match up? Do the lyrics remind you of your character's journey? Are you writing about another time period, and the music helps put you there?
This prompt is a little different, because it's actually prewriting. In your notebook, write these questions on blank pages:
What is your character's theme song, and why? If this story were made into a movie, what songs would be on the soundtrack? What music is playing in the background of certain scenes?
Answer one, or answer all! It might even be fun in your notebook to draw a picture of the CD soundtrack case. (We all still know what CDs are, right???) Or, you could actually MAKE the soundtrack and play it while you write! You don't have to stop at one character either-- you could have a theme song for all the important players.
Hopefully, this exercise will help you define your characters and the overall aesthetic of your piece. Get creative with it, and let me know how it goes!
Have you ever seen that show Unlikely Animal Friendships? Dogs will be friends with lions and bears will be friends with giraffes. It's pretty fascinating, precisely because it is so unnatural.
I've always enjoyed stories with unlikely friendships, but I hadn't played around much with writing my own until pretty recently while writing the sequel to The Closing Prophecy. I realized that these relationships are not only way more interesting than the expected friendships, but they're way more fun to write. There's tension when you have two characters who are from different worlds--whatever that may look like--and it's rewarding to see their connections unfold.
This prompt may require you to already have a story or a character in mind. Give the character a friend who she should NOT be friends with in the natural world. You may envision this as a chapter or a background piece, or the relationship may become central to your story, but I promise, it will give you good stuff!
As always, feel free to share how you tackled this and how it went!
This is one of those prompts where the first line is already done for you. Start with a character (or yourself) and the line "You aren't supposed to be here." Is this something spoken, or is it written by the narrator? What comes next?
Is here "earth," and your character unexpectedly survived something horrific? Did your character get rejected from Yale, but he shows up to the classroom anyway? Is your character not supposed to be in the football player's locker room because she's an eighty-year-old woman with dementia?
This prompt can create tension right off the bat, tension that requires questions, answers, and a backstory. Have fun, and have at it!
Have you ever had a dream that stayed with you and you weren't sure why? What about a false memory or a moment of recognition that you know didn't actually take place? We've all been mistaken before-- your best friend's boyfriend wasn't really flirting with that other girl. That memory of your cousin stealing from the neighbor was actually a dream. The violent fight between your parents that you witnessed as a kid hadn't really gone down like that-- your imagination made up the part with the blood.
But what if you hadn't been mistaken? What if you actually did see what you thought you saw? What if that dream was real? What if your memory was the accurate recorder of events, and everyone else was lying about it?
Think of a moment like this for your character. What's the situation? How much time passes before they realize this thing actually did happen, and how do they find out?
This one's going to take some thinking and creativity. It may be a way to infuse some much needed life into a preexisting story, or the prompt itself could be the entire piece. Have fun, and if something cool comes out of it, share!
Yesterday, I attended A Rally of Writers at LCC's West Campus in Lansing. Considering I live so close, I can't believe I haven't gone before, but I'm so glad I did! There's something therapeutic about being around other people who love writing more than anything and just want to make something happen. The keynote speaker, Lori Nelson Spielman, was excellent and got things off to a great start.
Picking and choosing what seminars to attend was rough, but I took something away from each, and I hope these highlights will be helpful to some of you as well.
Nonfiction: Andrea King Collier
Andrea said that the most important thing in good nonfiction is to know what it's about. She said when she asks people "what's your essay about?" they go on and on about plot points but never really tell her what it's about. You need to know the meat of what your essay is, and then every sentence needs to be about what it's about and nothing else. I thought that was great advice. Also, don't drop a bomb on your family for the first time through your nonfiction-- and don't drop somebody else's bomb. That may seem like a no-brainer, but Andrea had some funny stories.
Personality of the Novel: Lori Spielman & Julie Timmerman
The most important thing about any character is that they change. I thought that was kind of obvious, but when I looked at the worksheet Julie had made, I was a little ashamed to realize that I had to think about it. I picked Samantha, a secondary character in The Closing Prophecy who is bumped up to a main character in book two, and my notes were all over the place. We were to write down who the character is at the beginning and how we can see this, the various factors that make the character change and why, and who the character is at the end and how we see this. Seems pretty basic, but that's why it's so helpful. (I realized that Samantha goes from being miserable to almost happy--but for sort of a morbid reason.)
Next, Lori lead us with exercises in voice-- your voice as a writer and your character's voice. Lori encouraged playing with persons (first, third), and looking for ways to infuse personality into simple sentences. This was fun, and we got to hear what other people in the audience wrote, which I always enjoy. For the character's voice, she had us write a line of something very basic, like "how does your character call in sick to work" or "how does your character talk to a cop after getting pulled over." This simple activity made me wonder if I should add an entire new scene to my manuscript.
Short Stories: Barb Modrack
This was mostly an informational seminar about submitting. Everyone knows that submitting is pure hell, and if your stories are long (like mine) it's even more hellish. Most of us know about how helpful the Writer's Digest website is, but Barb also suggested checking out the Facebook groups Open Submission Calls for Short Story Writers and Call for Submissions, and if you're a Michigander, Michigan Writers. Another place that came up in our talk was Duotrope, which finds places for you to submit for a small fee. I'm going to have to dig deep into all of this, but if anyone else has anything to say about these resources, let me know!
Ghostwriting: J. Gabriel Gates
This one was pretty fascinating for me because I've never considered ghostwriting and knew nothing about it coming in, but apparently ghostwriting is much more common than you would think. If your favorite author somehow spews out 50 books a year, guess what-- that's not him. If your favorite TV chef wrote about her life and love of food, guess what-- that's probably not her. It's kind of hard to crack your way into ghostwriting, because you have to be referred by authors or be accepted into a ghostwriting company (or offer your services on your own), but once you're in, you can make a lot of money. Gates mentioned challenges, like having the energy to write your own stuff after you wrote someone else's, and how you can end up stuck if the client can't pay in full. It was especially interesting when he mentioned this "mystical" thing that sometimes happens when he tries to become someone else, has no idea how, but then it works. Gates said it was fun and interesting to learn about things that he would have never chosen to on his own. All-in-all, I think ghostwriting sounds like a pretty sweet gig-- it's just a matter of getting in. If this may be interesting to you, check out his website: jgabrielgates.com.
Some stuff discussed I already knew and some stuff I didn't, which goes with any conference, but I feel more inspired now and ready to get back to writing. It was nice to realize as I looked around that I actually knew many of these faces--something that a year ago was not the case. Connecting with local writers is a must. Also, this bums me out, but it seems like a lot of writers use Facebook instead of Twitter. I kind of hate Facebook--that's another TedTalk-- but I'm wondering if this is a trend?
All-in-all, it was a pretty successful day. I hope you've found something here to be of use, and I'd recommend attending next year if you can!
When we think about what lead to a character's development or even our own development, I'm not sure if "sibling relationship" always appears on the list. But don't our brothers and sisters have a huge impact on how we see ourselves and the world? I remember reading somewhere that the biggest influence on who we become is not our parents or our friends, but our siblings, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. I have three sisters and a brother who passed away when I was two. If one of them had never existed, I would be a completely different person.
For this prompt, summarize or write a scene where we see how the presence or lack of sibling(s) affects you or your character. How does the relationship affect the choices your character makes, who she becomes, or how he sees himself in the world? What does this person believe about their capabilities or potential because of their sibling? What do they believe they deserve and can achieve? How did this relationship influence other relationships in your character's life?
This should be an interesting one. Let me know how you approached this prompt and how it went, but please, don't send me therapy bills if it opens any flood gates!
When we think of what impacts our lives and decisions, we often think of something tangible: a person we regularly interact with, our job, our pay check, our family. But often our choices and our self-concept are also defined by what's missing, or by who's missing. This missing piece floats in the background of our lives, rarely spoken of but just as real as something that is actually in front of us. Think of yourself or your character. What's missing in this person's life?
Maybe what's missing is something that she used to be able to physically hold on to: a person, a car, a house, or maybe it's intangible. Perhaps hope is missing, or security is missing, or fear is missing. Maybe that's what led to Sally's downfall when she tried to outrun that train.
Maybe something that had always held a person back is suddenly gone: an illness cured, an abusive partner out of the picture, a life of poverty undone by winning the scratch off loto.
Maybe the things, people, or achievements you thought you'd have by now have never come your way. Is that perfect partner missing, or just a partner? Has that rock and roll dream slipped from your grasp, and now all you want to do is suck yogurt out of packets while watching episodes of Just the Ten of Us on YouTube?
Maybe something that used to be a constant in your character's life will never again be attainable, like the tough football player who lost his limbs after a freak laser tag incident, or the beauty queen who lost her pure complexion after a freak laser treatment incident. Maybe lasers are missing from Mr. Gregory's laser emporium after it was burned down by a rival laser emporium's lasers. Please stop me.
Take some time to explore this prompt. When/how can we see the impact of this absence in your character's life? What situations does this absence lead to? Let me know how it goes!
As someone who's afraid of everything, I think this prompt is really fun. Often what we fear does not match reality, and this exercise allows us to explore that.
What's something that your character is afraid of? Write a scene where your character is exposed to their fear, but the expected result does not occur. Maybe a shared secret is not met with judgement, but understanding. Maybe just when they're sure the school bully is about to throw a punch, instead, he starts to cry. Maybe what happens to your character is actually worse--much worse-- than they originally feared. Or maybe reality isn't better or worse, but just weird. Who knew that on your first anxiety ridden date with your crush, he'd confess he spent the past year living as a mime?
If you're more of a nonfiction or poetry person, explore a time when something you feared didn't turn out as you expected.
As always, feel free to share how this went!
Welcome to our second Writing Wednesday!
St. Patrick's Day is on Friday, and usually I'm not one for holiday-themed prompts, but I do think exploring the idea of "luck" can yield some rich material. What does it mean to be a "lucky person," anyway? Does it mean things just happen to work out for you, or is it more that that-- being born into a good family? Getting cancer, but NOT the fatal kind? Missing your flight on a plane that ends up crashing? When we think of what it means to be an "unlucky" person, it might not always look like one thing either. Does being unlucky mean that you're accident prone? That you've gone on horrible dates for the past five years while all your friends are getting married? Maybe it means your next door neighbor turned out to be an ax murderer. That's unlucky for sure!
For this prompt, think about how we determine who falls into that category of being "lucky" and who doesn't. In your notebook, write down "_____ was a lucky person" or "_____ was an unlucky person." This could be a character, or you could be writing about yourself. Keep writing until readers can figure out why this character is lucky or unlucky. This prompt may help you start a scene, or it may turn into a summary that provides backdrop for a larger topic or story.
As always, if you want to share your writing or how this went for you, let us know in the comments below!
I'm excited about this! Every week, I'll be posting a writing prompt for people who want to get their creativity flowing. It doesn't matter how often you usually write-- this is for everybody. Get a journal and decorate it to your pleasing. Keep pictures of images that spark your imagination. (Or you could do this in a Microsoft document, but is that as fun?) Tailor each prompt to you and what you want to work on. Sometimes you may alter the prompt so it can be about your own life, and other times you may want it to be about your character. Whatever. There are no rules! If you want to share some of your writing or just reflect on how it went, do so in the comments! If you'd rather keep this to yourself, that's cool too. Either way, I'll always use the tag "WritingWednesday" so you can find the prompts! Here we go!
Prompt 1: Some Space in Time
Think of a space you haven't been in for a long time, one you almost half remember. Maybe it's your best friend's house from third grade, your grandparents' backyard, or the roller skating rink that used to be all the rage. I haven't been to my Grandma Thornes's house in over 25 years, but every now and then I get flashes of the gold curtains that went across the patio door. Then I think of the room off the hall with the blue chairs that...actually... might have never existed?
Think about your space. What sticks out the most to you? What feelings come up with this space? What memories do you have? What questions do you have?
I attended a lovely little writer's conference today in Ionia, A Gathering of Writers. Seeing as it's November, we discussed National Novel Writing Month. I attempted this once many years ago and wrote about two pages. Every year since I'd think, "this is cool for others, but not how I work," and I'd just let November pass. This year, however, I'm feeling motivated by everyone else's motivation, so I'm approaching NaNoWriMo differently. Yes, I will write a ton, but no, it won't be a novel. I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but hear me out.
I think November writing should be completely specific to whatever it is you need to get done. Maybe you feel like you need to finish your screenplay or find journals to send your poetry to. (Yes, I believe you could spend an entire month just dedicated to journal hunting.) Maybe you want to write an album's worth of songs. For me, it's going to be "perfecting" and sending out as many short stories as I can. I published my first novel in August and am anxious to keep building my platform. Obsessing over the sequel or a different novel right now just feels...well, how do you THINK it feels? I have a little treasure trove of short stories hiding in my computer, and I really feel like I need to get them out there. Then I can go back to the long stuff.
NaNoWriMo for me is ShoStoWritMo. (That's really fun to say!) I'm going to tap into the communal writing spirit and fervor that fuels NaNoWriMo to do the writing that I need to do. I'm allowed to do this because I say I am.
How about you? What do you want to get done this month, novels or otherwise? Any alterations with hashtags that sound as cool as mine?
We all know what it's like to go into a job interview and have your potential boss say, "what's your biggest weakness?" It's sort of pointless to even ask this, because everyone knows how to play the game-- you make a strength sound like a weakness.
"Oh, I just care too much!"
"Sometimes, I put in more hours than I need to."
"I give so much to those I'm working with that I forget to take care of myself."
Basically, anything that says "I will give my life to this job." Yeah right. But what if your strength actually is your legit weakness?
Such is my case when it comes to writing. Here's the thing: I write slow. I don't mean I stare at a screen for five hours and only write a paragraph. I mean it takes me years to be satisfied with a piece. Years. Revision after revision after revision to look at a 20 page short story and be like, "It's done! Can't make it any better!" I don't understand people who can complete even one short story a month and send it out to journals. That's crazy to me.
For a long time, I wondered why I was such a slow writer. My epiphany came while I was writing a dad character, Chris. The thing about Chris is that he changed a lot from the time his wife, Randa, met him in college. He used to kind of look like a preppy Teddy Ruxpin, like the douche bags from those 80's movies with the wavy hair parted on the side. But then as he got older, he got into cycling and lost way too much weight. His hair went from brown to blond--naturally--which almost never happens. The more lean and blond he got, the more Randa realized he was kind of a jerk.
It would be fine if I had left the backstory there. But no. Because see, Randa's friends had warned her about him. Everyone knew something human was missing, and she just couldn't see it. But she really thought he was going to give her the type of life she wanted. Randa was a little bitter already about her choices. She'd been a successful hand model before she had her kids, before she got that thyroid condition. Now her dream is dead.
Have I gotten to the plot yet? No. (And by the way, in the story, all of that is not two little paragraphs. It's like, six pages.)
When I was fifteen, I turned in a short story in the form of a questionnaire filled out by a teen girl with a distinct voice. My creative writing teacher wrote, "Great character. Can we put her in a story?" Such a simple comment, but I was lost. Put her in a story I never did. I think about this often.
My strength as a writer is that I see everything. Once I'm the a flow with a character, I know random bits about their life. I know how their kitchen looks. I know about a weird dream they had when they were seven and the kind of music that they hate. I spend so much time documenting all of this that it takes me forever--or sometimes never-- to get to the actual plot of the story. At that point, the strength becomes a weakness.
A "normal" and "awesome" writer would be able to cut and mold more quickly than me. She'd be able to find the meat of the thing and toss the rest. But I feel like it all matters, much like how you feel all the details of something that happened to you matter, even as your friends urge you to just get to the point. So there it is. My biggest weakness is that when it comes to my character's lives, I see too much. So do I get the job, boss?
What about you? What's a strength you have as a writer that also at times gets in your way?
About a month ago, I attended a writer's retreat with some of my coworkers. When it came time for workshop, I said that I'd been playing with this story off and on for a few years, sent it out a few times, and nothing happened. I wanted to figure out how to fix it because--and then I stopped short. I don't remember how I finished that sentence. I probably said something like, "I think it's interesting," but what I actually wanted to say was, "I really love it." But that's just... I mean, how do you say you love something you made? It sounds so braggy.
"Oh, my own genius overwhelms me!"
"My prose is the shit, honestly."
"Really, nothing moves me as much as my own writing. It's just really, really good."
No. That's not what I mean when I say I love a story I'm writing, and it's not what I meant with that workshop piece, either. Remember, it needs help-- yet, I do love it. It's about a girl who was kidnapped by her babysitter as a kid, and now as a teenager, she's essentially stalking the kidnapper's husband. I never get sick of returning to this story, reading it again, tweaking it. It draws me in every time.
I'm currently in love with another story I'm writing that's in really horrible shape. This one follows a dysfunctional family years after the murder of their aunt, and I'm not kidding, it was inspired by Dance Moms. (Should I have admitted that?) It's like, forty pages long. It has sub-headings because I don't know how to break it up. There are pages and pages of side detail-- how the husband dressed in the 80's, how the mom used to be a hand model. There's no real plot. The definition of a hot mess. I would write it all day if I could.
These are the stories that I love. Why?
Writing for me goes like this: you get a thread of an idea from somewhere, you follow it, and then after a certain point, you've lost a great deal of control. You're watching a movie, walking around with the characters, breathing in their bodies, hearing all their thoughts, and your job is to fit all of that into prose. It's very, very, difficult. Usually, my prose falls short, and I'm rewriting and restructuring forever. When I say I love a story I'm writing, it's not necessarily because I think it's executed well. It's because I love being in that place. I love walking through those strange lives instead of my own. I love trying to figure those characters out, and I love the ways they surprise me. I think we've all experienced that thing where you're in the flow and suddenly, a character does or says something that you didn't expect, or maybe an entire scene becomes something that you didn't expect (that's my favorite).
I think because art comes from the creator, there's this idea that every single move is a personal reflection and a deliberate act. Real creating, in my opinion, is the exact opposite. You don't know what this thing wants, and you're just the vessel. So for writers, saying they love or hate a story is just a natural part of the whole process, because how can you not have a feeling about a thing that's it's own thing? I mean, it's not narcissistic when a parent says they love their child, right? (Sorry to compare parenthood to writing. I know you're rolling your eyes at me, but right?)
When we're in love with our stories, that's the best we could ever hope for, because those are the stories that will be cared for and finished and keep us excited about this non-lucrative and non-practical endeavor that is creative writing. So fellow writers, you can go ahead and tell me you love something you're writing. I'll know exactly what you mean.
How do you talk about your creations that you love, and what are they?
Reading during my teenage years heavily formed my vision of what stories should achieve. My novel, The Closing Prophecy, is YA speculative, but it's largely influenced by women's fiction, as is the majority of what I create. Women's fiction seems to be my base, and that started around 13, when, instead of reading YA about mysterious missing hamsters and terminal illnesses and first periods (YA has changed dramatically from when I was a kid), I gravitated towards fiction written by adults for adults about teenage girls.
Before this, my tween years were spent reading Danielle Steel (which tweens should never read--take note, parents!) I thought that was serious writing. Glamorous locations, glamorous events, a lot of plot stuff that I didn't care about, drama. I thought I was hot stuff for reading such grown-up material. I was always insulted when I'd drag the step ladder over to the romance section and get the side-eye from others. Didn't they know what a sophisticated reader I was?
Truthfully, Danielle Steel novels were ultimately unsatisfying for me, and disturbing. (The last one I read, Malice, ended up being thrown across the room.) I did want to read "serious" books, but I was sick of reading about characters I couldn't relate to.
The book that seemed to change things for me was Heat Lightning by Leah Hager Cohen. At 13, I had no idea what "character driven" meant. After reading so much Danielle Steel, I thought everything had to be about dramatic plot. I was haunted by Heat Lightning and was so dumbfounded by that. I said to my mom, "Nothing really happened, but I couldn't stop reading." Scenes from that book are still so vivid that I feel like they're my own memories. I didn't know you were allowed to write about everyday interactions and quiet things, that plot could be secondary and the story could get inside you like that.
Another huge influence during my teen years was Elizabeth Berg, who wrote, among other things, the Katie books (Durable Goods, Joy School, True to Form). I know Berg didn't invent conversational voice, but she may as well have to me. Katie was just talking to me, and this "new" way of writing blew my mind. There was no flowery language or labored description, which I had always hated reading and writing. I just wanted to get to the story and the feelings. I didn't know you were allowed to just skip over the stuff you didn't care about, and it really felt like a whole world was opening up for me.
The Katie books also changed my goals as far as what type of writer I wanted to be some day. I read these books when I was going through a horribly insecure phase (that lasted oh, 15 years), and I saw so much of myself in Katie. I still remember one passage in Joy School where Katie said her only friends at school were the lunch ladies who liked her because she asked for everything, even the vegetables. I was like, "This girl is me." Katie didn't think too much of herself, but she was awesome, and maybe if we were so much alike, that meant I was awesome, too. This was an epiphany for me. I decided that when I grew up and became a writer, my goal would be for readers to be able to recognize themselves in my characters, feel understood, and like themselves more, which would require me to be as honest as I possibly could.
Here are some other books from my teen years that are still on my shelf:
Object Lessons-- Anna Quindlen
Paper Wings-- Marly Swick
The Catcher in the Rye-- J.D. Salinger
Before Women Had Wings-- Connie May Fowler
Map of the World-- Jane Hamilton
Crooked Little Heart-- Anne Lamott
In Dark Water-- Mermer Blakeslsee
How about you? What are the books that really stood out in your adolescence? What books from your teen years still haven't left your shelf?
I'm currently making my way through Amy Poehler's Yes, Please. I know, I'm like two years late, but better late than never. In the introduction, Amy goes on and on about how hard it is to write a book, that it's awful, like pulling teeth. She writes about the myths of how glorious and glamorous writing is, about morning pages (screw that) and daily routines (screw that) and the image of someone being struck by the muse. She argues that writing is nothing like that.
As I was reading Amy's take, I was thinking, well, okay then, why are you writing if you hate it so much? (Maybe because she's had a very interesting life, but I digress.) I thought, hmm, I don't think it's awful. I wish I could be writing all the time, actually. Granted, Amy Poehler is primarily an actress, and to my knowledge, she has never written a novel, but I've heard other writers say the exact same thing, over and over again: writing is awful. It's not completely untrue. Writing is not as romantic as many think. For example:
What people imagine writing looks like:
Sitting at an oak desk overlooking a beautiful view. You're in a cozy woolen sweater drinking something hot.
What it actually looks like:
It's two thirty and you haven't brushed your hair or showered. You are in a sunken-in chair in your living room and there's laundry and dirty dishes everywhere and your body hurts from lack of movement.
So I agree, the muse thing and the glamour thing--no. But I still don't think writing itself is awful. I do think, however, that a lot of what surrounds writing is awful, especially if you've decided to take writing seriously in your life.
What's Awful About Writing
You're not paid for the hours you put in
Having to have a real job that also doesn't take up too much of your time
(speaking of which) Poverty
No one really understands how you live your life unless they're living it the same way
(speaking of which) When people ask if your novel's almost done (IT'S NOT DONE UNTIL IT'S IN PRINT, OKAY!?)
Thinking you're done for the five millionth time and then realizing you're not done
Proof-reading for the 20th time and still finding errors
When you re-read a passage that you thought was good while writing but it's actually a hot mess
Navigating publishing options and all the details
(speaking of which) realizing you're not gonna make much money
When you can't tell if something is good anymore because you've read it so many times
Any bodily function that gets in the way: hunger, exhaustion, needing to pee
That feeling when you wrote all day & so it's like you never really woke up
Note, not much of that is really about the process of writing, at least not for me. It wasn't always that way. I used to hate revising, but now it's my favorite part. It's easier and more fun for me to chisel away at something and slap on more clay than to make a sculpture out of nothing. I love feeling completely lost in someone else's life. I love how writing validates you and lets you escape yourself at the same time. I love when you reread something you forgot you wrote and feel moved. Most of all, I love how after a certain point, it feels like you're not even deciding what happens anymore; the characters are just showing you. (NOTE: a story "telling itself" and "writing itself" are two completely different things. A story should always ideally tell itself, but write itself? Um, no. YOU are going to be writing that sucker. And rewriting and rewriting it.)
I guess it is frustrating when you can't describe something, when the prose just won't cooperate. But I've even started having fun with that. I cup my hands around my head and tell myself, "That's bullshit that you don't know how to say it. How do you say it? How do you say it?" And I zone out until I hear it. Same if I mistakenly think for a second that I don't know what happens next.
Listen, I'm not saying I'm better than Amy Poehler. I'm not saying I'm better than any of you if you don't enjoy most of the process. I just think it's interesting to think about this, because my list of things that are awful would've been twice as long ten years ago, and some of the things I love now would be missing too. Your relationship with writing is something that's always evolving-- if you stick with it.
What about you? What's your take on all this? What do you think is awful about writing, and what do you love about it? If you think it's mostly awful, then what motivates you to keep going? Isn't Amy Poehler hilarious? Don't you miss Parks and Rec?
I am currently in the throws of getting my novel, The Closing Prophecy, ready for publication. I've read and re-read and caught errors missed the first five million times. I've been obsessing over the cover design and how I want the interior to look and how much it should cost and blah blah. I haven't had the energy or attention span to do much reading or support other authors. What I really need right now is a break from my own projects. So I want to hear about your projects.
What are you working on? Are you writing on a book, a collection of short stories or poems? Do you just have an idea and a barley there draft? Are you working on a screenplay or short film? Have you had an idea in your head for a decade that you haven't even put to paper yet? Tell me about it! It always invigorates me to hear what's going on in other people's imaginations, and I've found that I'm always more excited to work on my own stuff if I start talking about it with someone else.
Along those same lines, if you've got any book recommendations, leave them here, too. I want to make a list of things to check out once my own work is out there and I can have my brain back. :)
I want to start a series of posts where we talk about the writers and stories that made us who we are as writers ourselves. Sometimes when I return to a certain book, I'm shocked to realize how much it has informed the content I produce myself. It's easy to forget as we're taken with the latest influence in the moment, so for this first post, I want us to think back to when we were kids, to those early stories that never left us.
I still remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to be a writer. I was five years old, and Mom had just read me Bunk Beds by Elizabeth Winthrop. I decided to write my own version of Bunk Beds. I didn't think of it as copying-- I mean, it was different because I was adding something I liked, something "better." (My sister wouldn't appreciate it when I took this same philosophy to her own stories years later, down to the character's names.) That evening, I sat at the kitchen table with my big pad of construction paper writing my own Bunk Beds, and I was in bliss. I thought, "This is what I'm going to do when I'm a grown up. I'm going to write books." And that's been the plan ever since.
Years later, I tried to find Bunk Beds online. I was shocked when I found it immediately, and after I ordered it and re-read it, it made so much sense as to why that was my book. I was born with a muscle condition, and I didn't walk until I was four. I had to sit out a lot, but I actually grew to prefer my own imagination to much of anything else (my greatest blessing & greatest curse, as you can imagine). Bunk Beds is about a brother and sister who are supposed to be sleeping, but they're imagining that their beds make up a boat, then a house, then a car. At one point, the prose turns poetic as they look out the window to enviously watch the neighborhood kids, the ones who have no restrictions and get to play all night. Of course I loved that book. Getting lost in my imagination, watching other kids do things that I could not--it was my life. Connecting like this is always why I wanted to write, even if I was too young to be fully aware of it.
Other books & writers that stand out in my childhood:
I Go With My Family to Grandma's-- Riki Levinson
The Berenstain Bears (of course)
anything by Chris VanAllsburg
Babysitter's Little Sister series-- Ann M. Martin
The Happy Orpheline-- Natalie Savage Carlson
A Little Princess-- Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Giver-- Lois Lowry
R.L. Stine books (even though they traumatized me)
How about you? What are those books, stories, and writers from childhood that impacted you in a big way?