Sunday, April 27, 2014

Body of Revision

A few years ago, I read an article on Steven Pressfield's website about revising in layers.  Unfortunately, I can't for the life of me remember the title or even give a more specific summary.  What I do recall, though, is that this mysterious article came as a revelation.

I knew, through painful experience, that I had to go through many re-writes before my story took shape.  No matter how long I toiled or how carefully I planned, Draft 1 came out awful. Draft 2 was even worse.  Yet around Draft 5, 6, 7, the writing started to come out better.  The problem was, I didn't know why.  I'd tackle everything at once, and sometimes the story sounded nice and sometimes it didn't.

The article made me think about breaking up the elements of writing and focusing on different ones for each drafts.  This kept me from being overwhelmed.  So what if I my sentences were mangled, my description nonexistent, and my point of view kept switching?  I'd figured out the plot, so mission accomplished.

But I knew--again, through painful experience--that the elements had to be handled in a certain order.  Why spend hours trying to tune a phrase just so, when two drafts later you have to throw the scene out.  No, each draft had to build on the next one.  I thought of it like creating a human body.  If you tried to fix skin onto the bones and inject muscles in between, you'd end up with a bumpy looking mess.  Better to make a solid skeleton and then slap on the meat.

As I experimented more and more, I came up with a system for revisions.  I'd start humble, write fast and loose and messy, experiment and leave my options open.  As the story took shape, my writing became slower, more thoughtful, more precise.  By the end, I had a pretty nice, pretty shiny story.

Here's how it works.

Draft 1: Ideas
aka the Soul

Ideas gives birth to the story.  They're what compels the writer to write.  Each story begins with a simple question. "What is this about?"  As that question is explored, the humble idea grows up to become a theme or a motif.  Ultimately, it's what gives the story its meaning.

I call ideas the soul of the story because they are mysterious and hard to explain, but without one the story withers and dies.

For me, the idea draft is simply finding out what the story is about.  I take my time and ask a lot of questions.  How does this happen?  Why? What are the consequences?  I find a novel must have more than one idea.  As the first one starts to dry out, a new idea must be presented.  The old idea and the new one overlap and grow on each other, creating even more question.  I keep asking until I get an idea of an ending.  The idea draft usually looks like something between notes, an outline, or an exploratory draft with lots of gaps and plot holes.

Draft 2: Character, Plot, and Setting
aka the Internal Organs

Character, plot, and setting are fundamentals of story-telling.

Character means, of course, knowing your protagonist inside and out: his past, his morals, his desires, his fears, his strengths his limitations.  But it also means knowing these same things about your supporting characters and understanding their relationship to your protagonist.  

Plot is a progression of events which moves the story to the climax; it should run parallel to your theme and illuminate what your idea is trying to say.  For a plot to move, things must happen now.  Flashback, backstory, and exposition may be vital for clarity, but these are not plot.  At the same time, there must be a purpose to the action or it's just a random bunch of events.

Setting, obviously, means a physical environment: a forest, a castle, a room.  But it also includes the objects in the environment: clothes and furniture and weapons.  If your protagonist finds himself in unspoiled nature, what animals live there and what are their relationship to man?  If he's in a town or a city, what sort of culture does he confront?  What is history of the land?  What's the day, the month, the year?  What's the weather like?  How much time passes for the duration of the scene?

I like to think of character as the heart, plot as the brains, and setting as the lungs.  Each controls its own vital system that keeps the body alive.  Take away one and the story instantly collapses.

The reason I lump these three together is because they're interconnected.  Take a battle, for example.  You have to choreograph the action, one attack leading to another, until someone wins or the fighting ceases. (Plot.)  But in order to understand the action, you need to know where they're fighting and how many people are there and what's the weather conditions. (Setting.)  But you also need to know why the commanders chose to fight here and now and what they expect to happen and how your point of view character fits into the grand scheme of thing.  (Character.)  Any little alteration of one can greatly affect the others.

Not surprisingly, this drafts tend to be muddy, bloody, and messy.  I usually dive in at one section--say, plot--realize I need to do setting, change my mind about the plot, start on character, change the setting, change the plot again, have an idea for something completely different, and start all over.  At the end of it, I've got long thorough drafts so contradictory I can barely understand what I've written.  But that's fine.  I've explored different ways to develop the ideas all the way through from beginning to end.

Draft 3: Logic and Structure
aka the Skeleton

Structure and logic force the various writing elements into one solid story.  Structure means composing scenes, building chapters, putting events in order, deciding where backstory and exposition goes, choosing a point of view, commanding the pace, and ruling over everything with the iron fist of consistency.  Logic means going over the manuscript with a red pen for plot holes, unbelievable characterization, inaccuracies, and any other mistakes.

I call these two elements the skeleton, because they're rigid and they keep plot, character, and setting from spilling out in a disgusting heap.

It's on this draft that I switch off the right side of my brain and let my inner critic come out.  I make note of all the inconsistencies, the confusion, the unnecessary stuff, and I do my best to cut it out and clean it up.  On the flip side, I see what's working and what needs to be expanded or further developed.  This is the draft where I make all the big decisions about what happens in my story and stick to those decisions.  By the end of it, it actually starts to look like a novel.

Draft 4: Imagery and Emotion
aka the Flesh

People read in order to experience something new, be it travel, adventure, or falling in love.  What gives them that experience is imagery and emotion.  Imagery appeals to the five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste.  When people talk about painting a picture, this is what they mean.  But a picture alone can be boring.  Emotion creates a human connection.

Imagery and emotion makes up the good, meaty part of the story--the part people ultimately hold onto.  That's why I liken it to the flesh.  And like the flesh, this kind of description can be thin or voluptuous.

My previous drafts already include imagery and emotion--it's impossible to get this far without them.  But here I crank it up to eleven.  I go over my scenes and write exhaustive description, sometimes ticking off the five senses one by one.  Likewise, I have my point of view character react to everything from the weather to the sight of another character to a bit of exposition.  The more dramatic it is, the more paragraphs I write.

Draft 5: Prose
aka the Skin

Prose is the "good writing" part of the story.  It means choosing the right words, arranging the sentences, listening to the rhythm, building paragraphs, adding tone, and creating pace.  This is when I look at active verbs versus passive verbs and start hitting the thesaurus.

To me, prose is the most cosmetic part of the story, but it's also the part people look at first and judge accordingly.  It's the skin that gives a pretty face to the substance, and the clearer and smoother it is, the better..

I start this draft by reading through the imagery and emotion of the previous draft and hacking out everything but the most evocative words or phrases.  I build new sentences around these words.  This is the most time-consuming draft, as I easily spend an hour or more per page.  Everything is chosen and arranged with meticulous detail.

* * *

By now, the story is basically done.  There's more editing, of course: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like.  But this is what I consider hygiene.  It's clean up, not a major re-write.

This is my own method.  It works for me, for the most part, because it lets me switch my brain back and forth between creator and editor, feeler and thinker, experimenter and decision-maker.  To me, it's a logical progression.  But is it the same for you?  Or do you have a different way of tackling revision?

Please let me know.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekly Update: 4-25-14

There's a term in TV Tropes called "Moving the Goalposts," which means that anytime you think your close to accomplishing a goal, someone comes along and pushes that goal further back.  Like, for example, you commit to writing 50,000 words by the end of April.  You finish on April 21, so your boss comes along and moves up that goal to 65,000 words.

Except that in this case the boss is myself.

It becomes demoralizing quickly. I say I'll get something done, and I do it.  But I didn't get it done enough.  I didn't do it good enough.  Keep working.  Start over.

More insidiously, this actually works as a procrastination technique.  If I'm forever fussing over my writing, I'm not looking at less savory things, like looking for working, researching self-publishing, doing chores, or even talking to friends.  

This week, however, I started to break that habit.  I clearly defined what I would do this week.  Then I did it.  I decided not to mourn what didn't get done.  I felt good about myself.  That good feeling actually made me want to be more productive.  As I result, I got a good deal accomplished this week, including researching self-publishing, researching credentialing, signing my contract for Daily Science Fiction, getting critiques donew, working two sub jobs, and walking the dogs four times this week.

And Nanowrimo?

Currently at 60,000 words.

It's fun to run past the goalposts.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Weekly Update: 4-20-14

Happy Easter!

I'm on my way to church. I've just tossed the scalloped potatoes I made last night heating in the oven. It will seve as the starch component of my family's holiday meal.  I'm going to meet my parents and my best friend since I was five and we're going to celebrate with ham and vegan tacos.  Too bad we're not dyeing hard-boiled eggs or hunting for plastic ones.  I miss those old rituals.

Some good news.  One of my flashfiction short stories got accepted by Daily Science Ficton, an e-magazine that pays for submissions.  They have asked me to make some revisions before it's published, including changing from a second person point of view to a third person pov. I'm not sure how that will work.

You'd think the prospect of actually being paid for my writing would make me ecstatic.  Actually, when I got the letter, I blanked.  I think I was sort of in shock.  Then a strange sense of panic began to well up in me.  What if I messed up the edits or made a mistake? What if they changed their minds and rejected me after all?  I don't think I'll be secure until I sign the contract and see the published story with my own eyes.  'Til then, I'm holding my breath.

Let's see, what else?  My NaNoWriMo suffered and I'm sadly only at 45,000 words.  I blame the massively long Literary Orange blog for that.  9,000 words.  23 pages.  It devoured my week.  I subbed once at Brea Canyon High School.  I read a couple of Dorethea Simpson mysteries.  I signed up for Pubslush and Wattpad. My week had its ups and downs, but I'm slowly accomplishing stuff... which is better than not accomplishing it at all.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 8

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Final Thoughts

How wide, how deep the pool of writers, how small I feel in the middle of it...

There are less tiny oranges in the glass squares than there were this morning.  I notice this as I pass by the tables on my way back to the parking lot and smile to think of people eating them throughout the day.

As the elation of the event wears off, I find myself feeling incredibly humbled and a little depressed.  Are these strange emotions to have?  But I do have them.  Because I compare myself to the authors I've seen--these talented, articulate women, all with agents, most with several books to their name... and I've never even heard of them until I came to this conference.

How wide, how deep the pool of writers, how small I feel in the middle of it, with my weak voice, and my imperfect, unpublished manuscripts.  It's such a long, uphill climb.

Plus, I've got 12--count 'em, 12--pages of notes to convert into something intelligible, and that too is a long, uphill climb.  What was I thinking, agreeing to blog about this conference?  I have one week, maybe two, to try to capture, in my own words, the essence of Literary Orange.


But I have to try.  I open my green spiral notebook (already it looks worn and fatigued), squint at my lead scribbles, and begin my chronicle.


Friday, April 18, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 7

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Afternoon Keynote Speaker

Ann Hood, author
Books: Somewhere off the Coast of Maine, The Knitting Circle, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, The Red Thread

I could read whenever I wanted to escape the world.  I could write whenever I wanted to understand the world.

Ann Hood has blond hair that frames her face.  She wears round glasses and a burgundy jacket.  When she speaks, her voice is calm and yet full lively inflection.  She draws me in.  I lean forward, losing myself in her witty, funny stories.

As a young woman, Ann had worked as a flight attendant for TWA.  One day, she saw a man sitting in first class, nervously pushing all the buttons like a child.  She learned that he was a writer.  At the time Ann had just got an agent for her first book, Somewhere off the Coast of Maine, and told the man so. 
The man looked her up and down.  "You look to stupid to be a writer."

Fortunately, TWA had trained all their flight attendants on how to deal with rude customers.

"I think what you mean is that you don't expect a flight attendant to be a writer," Ann gently corrected.

"No.  You look too stupid to be a writer."

The audience is already laughing.  But the story doesn't end here.  A few weeks later, Ann was doing a book signing, and who should she see standing in the line but Mr. First Class himself.

"I bet you don't remember me," he said.

"Oh, yes I do."

I'm giggling with karmic delight.  I'm impressed.  Ann speaks in an off-the-cuff way that doesn't come across as stuffy or rehearsed.  But make no mistake.  Her speaking is polished.

Maybe her past has something to do with it.

"I came from an Italian American family who sat around the kitchen table late into the night, drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories. I learned from an early age, that if you wanted to get heard, your story had to be better than everyone else's."

They were not a family of readers, but somehow, at the age of four, Ann managed to get a hold of her brother's school book.  She read it.

"I knew then--though I couldn't express it at the time--that every cell in my body had settled on being a writer."

As she says this, I feel a squirt of--I can't really describe it--kinship, I suppose.  An echo of knowing deep in your soul who you are and what you're meant to do in life.  A feeling of destiny, for lack of a better word.

Though sometimes destiny works in mysterious ways.

Ann tells us of growing up in a small town without a library.  Of her blue-haired "ancient" teacher, Ms. Nolan, who walked the rows of desks, ruler in hand, and inspected the student's hair for lice.  Of reading Little Women during the Pledge of Allegiance and breaking down in sobs when she realized Beth died.

Of living with a crazy grandmother who would rank which grandchild she liked best (with Ann near the bottom) and climb onto the table each Easter to bless them like she was the pope.  Of a living with an outhouse, a coal-burning stove, and chickens running around the yard.

"I can be nostalgic about it now," Ann says. "But at the time, I was embarrassed.  Didn't they know I was the fifth March sister?  I wanted to be one of the Brady Bunch."

It all came out one day when a popular girl invited Ann to her beautiful home.  The girl's grandmother offered Ann cookies.  Young Ann caught a glimpse of the lifestyle she could never have.  When she came home, Ann burst into tears and yelled at her grandmother. "I hate you!"

Soon after she penned what would become the first in a long line "disappearing Grandma" stories.  The settings might differ--one might take place in contemporary life, another in the future, another in caveman times--but they all shared a similar plot: the grandmother disappears and the girl's life immediately becomes better.

"The more I wrote, the more I came to understand why I was writing," Ann tells us.  "It was a breakthrough moment for me.  In my life, whatever happened, I always had these dual comforts.  I could read whenever I wanted to escape the world.  I could write whenever I wanted to understand the world."

The words sink deep into my own marrow.  They are simple, yet profound.  But if reading is simply an escape, does that mean I've spent most of my life running from reality?  And if writing is my own private therapy, am I selfish to want to make a living off it?

While I ponder all this, Ann starts speaking high school and having a spectacularly unhelpful conversation with a guidance councilor about to do with her life.

"I want to be a writer," said Young Ann.

"People don't become writers," the councilor said.

"Then how do we get all these books?"

"Don't be a wise guy."

Fortunately, Ann had a back-up plan.  She wanted to to be an airline stewardess, meet men, see the world, and get that kind of "running with the bulls" experience she thought all writers ought to have. The councilor shot this down, too.

"Smart girls don't become airline stewardesses."

"Then you tell me what to I'm supposed to do," Young Ann said.

"You can be a nurse or a teacher," he said.  "Or you can make your life easier and just get married."

The married women in the audience laugh.

Well, Ann didn't listen and set out to do what she wanted to do.  She became a flight attendant and then a full-time writer.  She got married and had two children: first a boy, then a girl.

It all seemed to encapsulate into this one perfect moment.  Ann came home one spring day, and it was unusually hot, 90 degree weather.  She could smell her husband barbecuing in the back.  Her daughter Grace, the youngest of their two children, ran up with a fistful of chives that had sprouted purple flowers.  Ann looked at her life, and thought, Wow, I like where I've landed.

Ann pauses.  "Grace died the next day."

I suck in my breath.  Everyone else does the same thing, and we make one long, collective gasp.  How could this healthy girl with a fistful of chives die so suddenly?  Ann's explanation does little to help.  Grace had an infection.  They took her to the hospital.  The disease flared, and the little girl died.

Ann and her husband had to cross over a chalk drawing their son made with the words Welcome Home, Grace.

That whole night, Ann held onto the edge of the bed like it was an anchor.  The next morning, she heard the sounds of people going off to work.  She couldn't believe it.  How could the world continue to go on, like everything was normal?

"I went outside.  I picked up the newspaper.  I opened it up and stared at the headline.  And I was shocked.  For the first time, since I was four, I could not read.

"I could not read, because the words did not make sense.  And I could not write, because I did not want to re-create the worst day of my life.  My dual sources of comfort had been taken away from me at the moment I needed them the most."

She kept this a secret from her friends and family.  Deep in mourning, Ann had trouble doing everyday things.  Even a visit to a grocery store would remind her of Grace: she'd see her daughter's favorite cereal, her daughter's favorite snacks.  Her friends and family took care of her during this time.  They fed her and walked her--like a dog, Ann jokes.  I smile, but my heart is heavy with empathy.

One day, her friend told her, "You've got to get out of your head and do something with your hands."  Her friend's first suggestion was to re-upholster furniture.  Ann rejected it.  Her second suggestion was knitting.  For some reason Ann lit on this suggestion.

Unfortunately, the knitting classes had already begun.  Ann felt discouraged. Then, out of the blue, a mysterious woman gave Ann the card of a knitting instructor.  Ann didn't know it at the time, but the woman had a son with cystic fibrosis; she knit to keep from going crazy in the waiting room.  It was Ann's first hint as to the community of knitters, how they used their craft to deal with tragedy and heartbreak.

Ann went to the knitting instructor's house and learned a basic stitch.  She was bad at it, but found the act engrossing.  She practiced for hours, just sitting in her car, stitch after stitch, until the yarn was too tight and she could knit no longer.

"I thought to myself, Wow.  Knitting tells you when your finished."

Of course, the next day, her knitting instructor told her she did it all wrong and began undoing her stitches.  Hours of hours of hard work simply unraveled.  Ann felt as though someone had deleted her writing.  But her instructor said, "Don't be silly.  I'm going to fix it."

"You can fix anything in knitting," Ann tells us.  "That was a profound thought.  It gave me hope that maybe I could heal, after all."

Her experience inspired Ann to write The Knitting Circle, a fictional about a woman who finds healing through knitting and through the support of other knitters with tragedies of their own.

Even though Ann was slowly healing, she still experienced a sense of loss.  One day, she looked at her son, and thought, I cannot have my son thinking life is bad.  I need to show him there's still hope.  So Ann and her husband decided to adopt a baby girl from China.

"In China there's a saying that each one of us is connected to every person we knew in the past, every person we know now, and every person we will know in the future by an invisible red thread.  No matter how tangled or frayed the red thread becomes, it never breaks, it can never be cut--even with death."

There was a twist.  The baby they were to adopt was born on April 18th--the same day Grace died.  Ann panicked.  "I won't be able to celebrate her birthday.  I can't celebrate the day my daughter died."  She thought about taking on China's formidable bureaucracy in order to change the baby's birthday.  But that was silly.  Her husband convinced her it was a way of reminding them that they should enjoy life and move on.

"Fine," Ann snapped. "But don't expect me to bake cupcakes."

The first few years, they celebrated her daughter's birthday on a different day.  After all, a one- or two-year-old doesn't know calendar dates.  But the years passed, and the daughter grew wiser.  On her fifth birthday, she had her first big party.  It was April 18th.

"And on that day," Ann says, "I saw that red thread go all the way back to China, connecting me to another woman who'd lost a daughter--the same little girl that I now loved.  I saw the thread connect her to Grace, to the daughter I lost.

"And on that day, I did bake cupcakes."

Tears prick my eyes.  The audience stands and applauds.

Throughout the whole speech, I've wanted to laugh, I've wanted to cry.  I've experienced the emotions so vividly in my imagination, I almost feel they are my own.  How has she managed to weave the story of her life and the inspiration of her books into one stunning narrative?  I am in awe.

* * *

To Be Continued...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 6

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Panel #3
Travel: Journeys in Writing

People on the Panel
  • Lisa Napoli, author, Radio Shangri-La,
  • Gail D. Storey, author, I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail,
  • Catharine Hamm, moderator
"Go to wisdom of the heart.  Go to cocktail parties."

I've come to a revelation.  Literary Orange is not a writer's conference.  It is not here to dispense raw information to writers looking to break into the business.  Rather it is all about stories.  But I can still salvage part of my business model.  All of these authors are here to sell their books and they're doing a good job of it.  If I listen and observe, I can learn how I can follow in their footsteps if I should ever have to sell my book.

With my belly full of chicken, I head over to the F/G1 room.

This room is larger, but currently rather empty.  Everyone must still be drinking their coffee and chatting.  Well, good for me, I get my pick of the chairs. I sit down towards the front.

The panel is here.  Gail Storey has brown hair, a leather jacket, and a large turquoise necklace.  She sits to the left and her husband sits across from her, in the audience.  Lisa Napoli occupies the middle.  She also has brown hair and wears a blue-patterned blouse.  Catherine Hamm sits to the right, as all moderators do.  She has brown hair and a magenta blouse.

Eventually, the room fills, and we are ready to begin.

* * *

Moderator: I had the privilege of being able to travel all around the world without leaving my chair, because I read the books by these two ladies here.  Can you tell us a little about your books and how you came to go on these adventures?

Lisa Napoli
Lisa: My story began when I traveled to the Himalayas to start a youth-orientated radio station in the Kingdom of Bhutan at the birth of democracy.  At the time, I was working as a journalist, but I'd become soured to the media.  During my time spent in Bhutan, I fell back in love with it.  Radio Shangri-La contains twin stories.  There's the story of the kingdom of Bhutan and there's the story of me, how I coped with my midlife crisis.  And what I learned in the end is it's really not about me.  It's about helping other people.

Gail: I'd never thought I'd hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  In fact, my book begins, "I never cared much for nature, or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside."  What happened was that my husband had hit a crisis in his career and needed renewal in nature.  Out of the blue, he said to me, "Let's hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  I know you'll love it."  My reaction was, "No.  I will not love it."  But I agreed.

Moderator: One of the things I love about your books is the way you weave in details.  Now I understand it took you about 9 years to write your book.  When you started this adventure, neither of you planned to turn it into a book.  How were you able to reconstruct all the details?

Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli
Gail: I had no intention of writing a book--for me, it was all about survival.  But my husband insisted we bring water proof paper with us.  It was a good thing it was waterproof, because it was soon soaked with my tears.  My husband would write regularly and keep all the day-to-day details of the trip.  For example, one of his entries would say, "Made camp.  Gail did a bit better today."  Mine would be, "What the f**k am I doing here?"  Whenever we reached rest stops, I'd send elaborate emails to friends and family.  When I got home, I thought it would be fun to write conflicting versions of the same event, but it fell apart.

Lisa:  When I left for Bhutan, I was trying to escape from the media, so I didn't bring a journal or take notes. My boss let me have a leave of absence, as long as I took microphone and sent back a story every now and then. Since it was a radio show, many of the young people recorded themselves and those recordings became the basis for my story.  It didn't actually take me that long to write the manuscript.  It did take 9 months to write the proposal.

Moderator: You write some deeply personal things inside your books.  How difficult was it to be that brutally honest?

Gail Storey
Lisa: I, as a young woman, had been sexually assaulted.  So for me it was a revelation to be able to have this experience and trust these people.  Here I was, a single woman having had this past experience and I was still able to come to this new country alone and put my life in the hands of strangers. I was grappling with this beautiful, wonderful thing, with this pivot point in my life.  There was no way not to write about it.

Gail:  The most challenging thing to write was the sexual and the spiritual.  The spiritual because you're writing about ineffable--you're trying to describe the indescribable.  With the sexual, I had to confront not just the erotic portion, but the problematic.  For example, I have a chapter called "Sex Under the Tarp." (Laughter)  No, but it was a struggle for me to get to the honesty.

Moderator: Who was the person who went into the journey and who was the person who came out?

Lisa: The person who went into the journey was befuddled--not knowing what to do--not really happy.  After I returned, I started reflecting on all the things present in my life that I didn't appreciate.  Like the ability to love.  I don't mean just loving a man, but spiritually, being able to love other people.

I Promise Not to Suffer by Gail Storey
Gail:  An interesting thing happens when you start a journey and commit to it.  The layers of yourself begin to fall away.  The first layer is the physical.  You confront the limits of the body.  Even as you're becoming stronger, you become emotionally raw.  Then the psychological self falls away.  You become a creature of awareness.  There's always the mystery of the question, "Who am I?"  But I've learned to be content living with the mystery.

Moderator: So how can I have an adventure that becomes a book?

Gail: Drop into the heart.  So many times we over think things.  Learn instead to follow in the wisdom of heart, letting it guide you.  The mind will follow as a function.

Lisa: Be open. I like to travel on my own and go everywhere I can--even to Irvine. (Laughter.)  I had the opportunity to go to Bhutan because I went to a cocktail party.  There's a lot of things that work against you.  The infiltration of maps--not physically, but in your mind, telling you where you're supposed to go.

Moderator:  So what I got from Gail was, "Go to wisdom of the heart," and what I got from Lisa was, "Go to cocktail parties."  (Laughter.)  Do I have to hike 900 miles?

Gail: You just have to be present.

Moderator: Where do you go from here?

Gail: My husband and I are planning a hike along a small section of the Continental Divide trail.

Lisa: Rapid City, North Dakota. I'm researching a book on Joan Crock.

* * *

Once again, my notes are dazed.  I am, too.  I'm heady with inspiration.  This has been the best panel so far.  I genuinely feel as though I have been on this journey with these women and have come out of it with newfound wisdom.  It makes me question my own fantasy writing.  I send my characters on a trips across the world. Do they bring such wisdom back?

My enlightenment is disrupted by the sudden prospect of material pleasure.  They're setting out dessert!  I rush to the ballroom for my piece of decadent chocolate cake and my last round of coffee.  The day is nearly done.  Only one speaker left.

* * *

To Be Continued....

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 5

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.


It is noon.  The ballroom is being set up for luncheon, and all the speakers line the hall in their black-clothed tables.  Now is the time to sign books and socialize.  Wise ones have bought their books in advance.  I am not wise.  And I am not alone.

The bookstore is madness.  Every inch of table is crowded by some browser or another, and the line for the register wraps around the wall.  And there is another problem.  All the authors from the same panel sit together.  I cannot afford all three books, yet I will feel horrible if I go up to only one of the speakers with a book to sign.

Deciding against purchase, I go back to the dining room.

On the way, I see the YA panel.  The three women are talking to each other.  No one's really approached them.  I would like to talk to them.  They are role models in my genre.  But what do I say?  Nothing comes to mind.  If I had bought a book, I could ask them to sign it.  But I have not.  What do I do?

If I were suave and graceful, I might simply go up to them and chat.  But no.  I slink to the ballroom, meet my aunt, awkwardly down a salad--before deciding I'm supposed to be networking, dammit, and go back to talk to them after all.  I hope that they have not seen me pass back and forth three times like some kind of stalker.

Jessica recognizes me and we speak briefly about our mutual friends.  I explain the long line in the bookstore. Maurene signs a bookmark for me, and Jessica signs an excerpt of her book.  (Kendare doesn't have anything.)  Now, I've dispensed with the pleasantries, and I still haven't left.  I stand there awkwardly as the lull starts to stretch.  Ask them something, ask them something!  My mind races.

"You have such wonderful ideas," I start.  "Very creative.  Where do you get--?"

No! I tell myself.  You are not going to ask them the oldest, dumbest question in the book! Think of something better!

"I mean," I stutter, making a conversational u-turn, "everyone asks authors where they get their ideas, but, you know, ideas are all around us.  So, um, how do you narrow them down and decide which ones you want to develop?"

Better, my brain says.

I'm so flustered about coming up with clever and creative questions, I almost miss their response.    Kendare says that if an idea doesn't leave her head, she knows that it wants to be developed.  Jessica writes an outline and if she can't come up with enough points, she knows the idea's not strong enough to carry the book.

I nod, trying to think of my next question.

"You speak very well.  You're very funny.  How do you do that?  Practice?"

Jessica says she practices.  Kendare says she just talks about whatever.  Once she had to stretch a 5-minute speech into a 45-minute presentation.  She ended up talking about cheese.

I might have asked a few more questions, but it all goes by in a self-conscious blur.  Eventually, I figure I have wasted enough of their time and make my grand exit.  As I sink into my chair all a-jitter, the dinner rolls come by.

Lunch is a chicken breast coated in breadcrumbs topped with a demi-glace sauce.  (Okay, I'm trying to sound smart here.  I don't know what sauce it is.  It's brown and it's not curry, so I'm going with demi-glace)  It is served with little potatoes that need butter and carrots with too much pepper.

* * *

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 4

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Panel #2
YA: The Awesome Age

People on the Panel
  • Maurene Goo, author, Since You Asked,
  • Jessica Brody, author, Unremembered,
  • Kendare Blake, author, Antigoddess,
  • Alyson Beecher, moderator
"You don't have to like the character.  Just the story."

My first panel and second panel are in the same room, so I remain in my seat.  Why not?  I've got a good view of the stage.  As the panelists play musical chairs, I gaze through my notes.  Suddenly, I hear my name called.  I look up.

Two members of my party--Michelle Knowlden and Debra Young--sit down beside me.  They both took a "Save the Cat" workshop with one of the panelists, Jessica Brody, and they've come to show support for their former teacher.  As for me, I'm here because this is the only panel even closely related to my chosen genre of fantasy.  Mystery, literary fiction, poetry, and narrative non-fiction are all well-represented.  Speculative works are scarce.

The members on this panel seem young.  Two of the women are Asian--the only non-white speakers I will encounter the whole day.  On the far left is Maurene Goo, followed by Jessica Brody and then Kendare Blake.  Alyson Beecher, the moderator, occupies the far right.  I think about taking a picture of the room for reference, but I'm too lazy.

The moderator makes the obligatory introductions and we begin.

* * *

Moderator: Can you each tell us a little about your writing journey?

Maurene Goo
Maurene: Well, my writing journey was probably different from these ladies here.  I had no aspirations of being a writer.  I never thought it could be done.  I wrote a sample chapter for a grad school application.  I decided not to go into that program, but I kept writing.  I have a friend who's a graphic artist.  I sent the story to him.  It turns out his editor, who worked with graphic novels, wanted to tackle regular novels, and mybook was just what he was looking for. So the stars really aligned for me.

Since You Asked by Maurene Goo
Jessica: At the age 7, I wrote the riveting story of a puppy and kitty who--spoiler alert--get the chicken pox. I put my story on the shelf with all the other books and that was the first time I really saw myself as an author.  As I grew up, though, I thought, Writing isn't a real job.  I kept writing, but it was more of a hobby.  Then I got laid off.  The severance package was 18 months.  I stretched it and wrote novel my first novel.  Then I started to write YA.  I was thinking about trying SciFi when I saw a news article about a plane crash with a sole survivor.  I started thinking about that lone survivor. What if she had no memories?  What if she had superpowers?  That became the basis for Unremembered.

Kendare: I didn't think I could make a living from writing. I had a boring job.  One night I was on the barn roof with my brother.  We were drinking beers, talking about the need to leave the country. And the easiest way to do that was with a student visa.  I went to Middlesex University in England.  When I came back, I thought, Well, I can live with parents forever.  I wrote a contemporary novel, first.  But I decided blood and guts was the way for me and wrote Anna Dressed in Blood.

Moderator: Can you tell me about the element of world-building and research involved in your writing?

Jessica Brody
Maurene: I write contemporary stories, so I don't do a lot of world building.  My settings are realistic but more heightened and exaggerated.  It's a little more fun, a little more fantasy.

Jessica: Writing this trilogy has been a crash course in world-building.  It takes place in the real world--at first.  In the first book, I'd put in little hints about the world my character comes from.  Then, in the third book, I realized she had to return to her own world.  All those hints in first book needed to be explained. 

Unremembered by Jessica Brody
Kendare: Anna Dressed in Blood took place in the real world.  I set it in a city close to my house, so I could do fun research trips for local details.  I take a more minimalist approach to description, but I still need details.  The challenge in Antigoddess was building gods that work in the real world while honoring the original Greek myth.  So I did a lot of research.  It was intimidating, because there were all these different origin stories and some of them contradicted each other.  I ended up relying on Homer.

Moderator: You all create characters that feel very real.  Do you ever have trouble with characters going in different directions than you intended?  Is it hard being evil to the characters?

Kendare: Well, as far as characters misbehaving, I created a character named Carmel, who I thought was going to die. Turns out she didn't.  If I'd have known she was going to live I wouldn't have name her Carmel!  In Antigoddess, Hermes told me he was gay.  I was like, "Okay...  At least you told me early."

Kendare Blak
Jessica: I have argued that erasing all of your character's memories and planting new ones is the most evil thing you can do.  Because if you have no memories, how do you know who you are? As far as surprises, one of my characters turned out to be the brother of my heroine.  It was a very, "Luke, I am your father" moment.

Maurene: I think even normal characters can surprise you.  Friendships in my book turned out to be much deeper than I anticipated.  ...I guess, I don't really do evil things to my characters.  The worst thing I've put them through is Life--which is evil enough.

Antigoddess by Kendare Blake

Moderator: Recently, there was an article in Time discussing what is the ideal YA female protagonist.  Your thoughts?

Jessica: So I wrote a novel called 52 Reasons I Hate My Father about a rich girl who has to work 52 jobs before she can inherit her trust fund.  People have told she's unlikable in the beginning of the story.  I'm like, "Yeah...  And your point is?"  She's supposed to start off unlikable, but over the course of the story she changes and redeems herself.  You don't have to like the character.  Just the story.

Maurene: People have told me, "I hated the protagonist."  I feel deflated, because she's based on me.  There's lots of pressure to have this perfect character, but as a writer, it's not that interesting.  My heroine is honest about her flaws.  That's an attractive quality to me.

Kendare: There's this sense in society that females are judged more harshly than males.  Look at superhero movies.  When we meet the heroes at the start of the movie, they're dicks.  But we're told, "You just need to peel back the layers, like an onion, and you'll see that deep down, he's a good guy."  But we're not willing to do that with female characters.  We expect them to be perfect to begin with.

Maurene: Plus, we're dealing with teenagers.  Think of what you were like as a teenager.  You weren't your best self.

* * *

We open for questions.

I glare at my notes.  They don't quite capture how funny and witty these women really are.  But I have been listening too closely to write down more than a phrase or two. Oh well.  At least I had more fun at this panel than the last one.

After questions end, Michelle and Debra walk up to Jessica to say their hellos.  Networking, I think.  Here's my chance.  But I am not a master socializer.  I find myself standing awkwardly between the three ladies as they catch up.  By the time Jessica turns to me for an introduction, I barely manage to burble out my name.

Well, that went well, I think, as the authors all move to their signing tables.  A chance for networking has slipped through my fingers.

* * *

To Be Continued....

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 3

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Panel #1
Agents: The Business of Writing

People on the Panel
  • Julia Drake, publicist, Julia Drake Public Relations (JDPR),
  • BJ Robbins, agent, The BJ Robbins Literary Agency 
  • Linda Friedman, moderator
"The most boring thing is a plot synopsis."

With the morning keynote finished, everyone splits off to different panels.  I head over to the Marina Del Ray/ Newport Beach room, which, despite its double name, is actually pretty small.  A few pictures of palm trees are the room's only decoration.

The lady I sit next to shares her notes on Marlo Thomas' keynote address.  She's summed it up in three words: Acknowledge, Appreciate, Action.  I wish I could be so succinct.

There's a black-clothed table in the front of the room. Three ladies sit at it with white paper triangles displaying their names.  The publicist, Julia, sits in the middle. She sports short dark hair.  Two blonds flank either side of her.  To the left is moderator Linda, who wears glasses on her nose.  To the right is agent BJ, who wears glasses atop her head.  All three ladies are wearing green.  If there's some deeper meaning to the color, I don't know what it is.

I'm afraid that this will be a very loose question and answer session, with the audience lobbing whatever questions come to mind, with no real order to the presentation.  Thankfully, I learn the moderator will be the one asking questions.  Reassured, I click my lead pencil and start to write.

* * *

Moderator:  So let's begin.  Why don't you ladies start by introducing yourself.

Julia: My name is Julia Drake.  I founded a P.R. firm, Julia Drake Public Relations, which does targeted social media and events.  I have over 100 clients, from NY Times best-sellers to new authors.

BJ: I'm BJ Robbins.  I'm a literary agent based in LA.  I started in publicity in Simon and Schuster. Later I became an editor, and then I moved into agenting.  I represent both fiction and non-fiction.  For fiction, I veer towards what I like to call literary with a lowercase l. Literary fiction is a tough sell right now.  I like narrative-driven nonfiction, such as history and memoir--also a tough sell.  I have to really like the voice of the work, but I also have to know that I can sell it in this hostile marketplace.

Moderator: For writers, there's a 2-pronged effort, first to find an agent and get published, and second to run a publicity campaign.  BJ, what advice do you have about the first part of that effort?

BJ: Learn as much as you can, and get your manuscript as good as you can.  Even to the extent of hiring an editor.  You only get one chance to make a good impression.

Moderator: Julia, what would you consider a realistic publicity effort?

Julia: Depends on the writer's platform.  I hate that word.  People hear it and think what does platform mean?  Basically a platform means your built-in readership.  You should already have a website and social media up.  The actual publicity campaign starts 6 months before the book is published. We tap into different media to promote the book.  Everything is working toward the publishing date.

Moderator: BJ, how involved are you with editing?

BJ: Really involved.  If I see potential, I will edit.  It's more developmental editing as opposed to line editing.  It's also sort of a test for the writer, to see how they behave.  Are they willing to change their work?  Because if they don't take my advice, they won't take advice from the publisher.  By the way, you don't have to make every correction. Just 80%.

Moderator: This question is for Julia.  What's the most effective way to do social media?

Julia: From P.R. perspective, you should focus on whatever increases your visibility, whatever resonates, whatever makes you unique.  It's not just updating your Facebook account 20 times a day.  You need a content posting strategy.  Although social media creates buzz and audience interaction, that doesn't necessarily translate into sales.  I've noticed that some bestselling authors don't do social media, but they do write blogs.  It's consistency that's important.

Moderator: How do you find an agent that's a good match?

BJ: It starts with a query letter--a good one--one targeted specifically at me.  No "Dear Agent" or multiple listings in the email header.  Tell me why you're approaching me and what your book is about.  The summary should be no longer than a paragraph.  Then tell me something about yourself: if you've been published before, if you have an interesting job, your credentials.

Moderator: Julia, when people interview you to be their P.R. agent, how do you promote yourself?

Julia: Actually, we're interviewing them.  We have to believe in the project.  What's your platform?  How can we sell you?  All of you.  We look for anything interesting in your background or maybe something happening in the news that connects to your book.  Authors fill out a questionnaire.

Moderator: So you need to feel simpatico?

Julia: We want our clients to feel comfortable with us.  Transparency is important.  We encourage people to call previous clients and talk to them and to look over our old promotional material. That's the difference between the big scary P. R. firms versus the smaller boutique ones.  Smaller P.R. firms give more personalized attention.  You go for a big name publicist for the big hits--for having Oprah on speed dial.  But understand, they still might not be able to get you on Oprah.  In fact, if you're self-published, they won't even take you on as a client.  And sometimes those big hits don't translate into sales.  A New York Times review might do nothing, because the market is fractured.

BJ: Same thing with literary agents.

Moderator: What are your views on how publishing has changed?

BJ: Ever since I started, I've heard about the death of publishing, blah, blah, blah, but for those of us in publishing, it's still business as usual.  That doesn't mean there haven't been changes.  There are fewer places I can take a book to. More goes into the decision to purchase a book than the editor loving it.  The marketing director will say, 'What's the platform?'  If there is none, the book will be axed.  There's more emphasis on celebrity authors, more media noise.  It's harder to compete, harder to get attention, harder to make money.  The heyday of bidding is gone.  Sometimes it's better to look for a smaller, more enthusiastic press, who will pay less of an advance but give you more attention.

Moderator: Julia, what can you tell us about literary events versus social media?

Julia: Actual face-to-face contact works better.  It gives you sense of an audience and creates a personal connection.  Book clubs, libraries, and literary luncheons like these work great for selling books.  But its not enough just to show up and sign books.  You need to think more outside of the box, you have to make it an experience.  So maybe hire a musician, make a slideshow, always have food.  When you talk, don't just tell us what your book is about.  The most boring thing is a plot synopsis.  People want to hear about you, how you were inspired to write the book.  It's all about selling yourself.

Moderator: I remember an event based on an epic novel of Cuba in the 50s.  They held it at a restaurant and hired salsa dancers and everything.  They actually rolled the book into the price of the event.  Everyone got a copy with purchase of admission.

Julia: That's a good example of thinking outside the box.

Moderator: Self-publishing has exploded with the rise of e-readers and Print-on-Demand.  What are your thoughts?

Julia: A couple of things about self-publishing.  It's done a good job of democratizing the market. Content is king.  But if you do self-publish, know that you're going against the current.  Traditional publishers are still able to get more media attention.  And since there's a higher volume of books in the marketplace, it's harder to compete.  Ask yourself, Should I be writing this?  Is the hook strong enough?  The advantage to owning your own publishing company is that if you do make a killing, you don't have to share.  The risk is higher, but the rewards are higher, too.

BJ: Some people self-publish thinking it will get them an agent.  And while that does happen, it's a really small percentage.  Out of all the thousands of self-published books, maybe 10 will land an agent.  So that can't be your reason.  A lot of these services advertise that it doesn't cost anything to self-publish your book.  But it does end up costing.  It costs your time--just doing the formatting, for example.  It costs money for the artwork.  It costs in marketing.  If you self-publish, you're not going to get any bookstore distribution.  Some of these services say that they'll put your book in a catalogue--okay, but who's going to see them?  You have to be careful and get as much info as possible.

* * *

The formal interview over, the moderator opens for questions.  I stretch my cramped fingers and stare at my 6 pages of scribbles, a feeling of pessimism pressing against me like a wave of humidity. I already knew most of these things.  Certainly, after 15 rejections, I understand the impossibility of netting an agent, even with polished, personalized queries.  A few nuggets of information may prove useful--like charging people for an event and tossing the book in free.

Mostly, I feel overwhelmed.  How can I succeed, if I'm not famous enough for a traditional publisher or loud enough for publishing on my own?  Is there a way for me?  How much will I have to risk before I see any reward?

* * *

To Be Continued...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 2

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.

Morning Keynote Speaker

Marlo Thomas, actress, author, activist
Books: Free to Be... You and Me, It Ain't Over...Till Its Over

"Never face the facts, or you won't get up in the morning."

I don't know Marlo Thomas.  I've heard of her from my aunt and uncle.  They say she starred in a TV show called That Girl and that her father, Danny Thomas, was a famous actor.  These names don't ring a bell.  In fact, the only thing I recognize is St. Jude, a charity that the Thomas family is associated with.  Aside from that, I'm a blank slate.

The woman standing on the stage has long blond-brown hair and a bright red blouse.

"Wow," Marlo says to the audience.  "You all look so much younger in person."

We laugh at the joke.  She continues to entertain us with funny stories and her favorite quotes.

"Laughter is an intimacy," she says.  "It brings us together.  I love being in places where women are talking and sharing ideas."

One of those places happens to be her website, where women post comments about their lives.

"One thing that really took me aback was how many of these women felt stuck in their lives.  These were the empty-nesters, women stuck in dead-end jobs, women who had lost their house, who were laid off, divorced, or caring for elderly parents.  And they were all asking, 'What do I want to do with the rest of my life?' "

This inspired her to write an article called, "It Ain't Over...Till It's Over."  The article was later expanded into a book of the same name, filled with the stories of real women who made drastic changes or accomplished great things in the second half of their lives.

"It's not a self-help book," she explains.  "It's a map, showing you where you might go."

Marlo tells us the stories of some of the women who inspired her, including a retired probation officer who, in her 70s, fulfilled her dream of becoming an actress and a mother who took scuff marks on a wall and turned it into a $4 million dollar invention.

"Age meant nothing to these women," she says. "Sometimes we think we're the only person... whose parade has passed us by.  A dream could run out on us or we might never make our dream happen or we might go through life unsure of what our dream is.  But it's not too late to still have a dream."

Marlo pauses. "So how do you start to change your life?"

Her acting coach gave her a saying.  "Acting is not in your head.  It's in the doing."  It may seem overwhelming at first.  But there's a way in.  And if, everyday, you do one thing toward your dream, you'll get there.

"And you're going to fail," Marlo adds.  "But you'll get through it.  Thomas Edison used to say, 'I have not failed.  I've just discovered 10,000 ways to do it wrong.' "

Marlo begins to talk about the process of reinventing yourself and how she did it time and time again in her own life.  Her father didn't want her to be an actress at first, so she studied English in college.  And when she received her bachelor's degree, she handed it to her father and said, "This is for you"  Then she went off to be an actress.

I've been enjoying the inspiring stories, but I must admit, its these personal tales that really draw me in.  I had assumed that having a famous father would make it easier for Marlo be successful as an actress.  It turns out I was wrong.  Marlo had to work hard to distinguish herself from her father.

At one point, she considered changing her name in order to avoid comparisons.  But her father told her: "I raised you to be a thoroughbred.  Thoroughbreds don't look at anyone else.  They put on their blinders and run."

When Marlo got her own T.V. show, That Girl, everyone told her how revolutionary it was to show a single woman living on her own.  She didn't think it was revolutionary, because it seemed like every family had a girl like that--a girl who aspired to be independent.

The show led to a lot of fan mail.  Many letters were frivolous.  But then she'd get letters from a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and scared to tell her family or a 23-year old woman trapped in an abusive marriage.

"I was floored... and scared," Marlo says.  "I was just an actress.  I didn't know how to solve these problems."

But Marlo felt responsible and tried to find these girls a place where they could get help.  She looked and looked and found that no such place existed.  The girls were writing to her because they had no one else to turn to.

That's when she became an activist.

"My father always said there are two kinds of people in the world," Marlo tells us.  "Those who see an accident and pull over to help.  And those who just drive by."

Her father knew something about helping other people.  He founded St. Jude, which treats children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.  Each year they have to raise $830 million dollars--and each year they do.

But in the beginning, it started with $7 and a promise.

When Marlo was in the hospital being born, her father needed $50 to pay the bill and bring her home.  All he had was $10.  Now Danny Thomas was not a religious man, but in his desperate hour, he prayed to St Jude.  Help me get the money and I will build you a shrine.  He put in $7.  Then he got a phone call, saying he got a job as a singing toothbrush.  The pay was $70.

Her father always told his children that this was his burden, not theirs--so of course, they all choose to join in and help.  Marlo became a spokesperson for the organization.  When she goes into the hospital what she sees often stuns her and touches her.  She tells many stories, but my favorite is of a mother and a little girl patient.

The mother had spotted Marlo and brought the little girl up to her.

"Do you know who this girl's Daddy is?" the mother asked the child.

"Yes," the little girl replied.

"Who?" the mother said.

"Saint Jude."

The most poignant story is when a father asked Marlo if she would come inside and say goodbye to his son.  Despite the best care and treatment, the boy was dying.  Marlo held him and said goodbye.

"Holding a dying child in my arms--I never thought I'd be strong enough," Marlo says.  "But I was--and it changed me."

She ends by leaving us with two last quotes:

"Impossible is something that hasn't happened yet."  And, "If you want to predict the future, invent it."

* * *

To Be Continued...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In Case You Missed It: Literary Orange 2014, Part 1

What: Literary Orange
Where: Marriott, Irvine
When: Friday, April 5, 2014

Please Note: The quotes are approximate.


"This is a gift to you, so you can connect with the authors you love and discover new authors and new genres."

Literary Orange is a luncheon gathering of authors, readers, and librarians that takes place in Irvine once a year.  It cost $60 if you sign up in advance, $70
at the door.  A continental breakfast, a nice lunch, and a bookbag is included in the price.

It is my first time here, and I don't know what to expect.  I've come as a writer in hopes, I suppose, of gleaning information about the craft and business of writing and, more vaguely, of networking.  Beyond that, I have no plan.  But I do come bearing a fresh green spiral bound notebook and some lead pencils.  Whatever else I will do, I will listen and record.

Inside the Marriott, tables bearing glass squares brimming with little mandarin oranges (or perhaps tangerines) tell me I'm at the right place.  I register, clip my magnetic name tag on my sweater, and head into the ballroom.  It is nice in a generic sort of way: red-patterned carpets, round tables with white cloth, bulbous golden light fixtures in the place of chandeliers.  My party is early.  We take one of the non-reserved tables near the stage and head over to get breakfast.

I help myself to coffee, a scone, and three bright red strawberries.

The bookstore, hosted by Mysterious Galaxy, sits adjacent to the ballroom.  The books lie in rectangular stacks on three long tables, all arranged in alphabetical order, author last name first.  A few wise people purchase books in advance, before the mad rush begins. I'm not so wise.  I run my hand along the books, skimming through the title names, taking it all in.
The room begins to crowd.  A woman asks if the seat is taken.  Another woman sits down to my right.  Most of the people in the room are middle-aged and older women.  Some are readers, some are writers, and I bump into one of the librarians from the Brea Library.  I begin to think about how the event will appeal to all these demographics.  Is my original assumption correct?  Will it just be information pertaining to writing?  Or will it be something else?

As I wonder, a woman steps up to the stage.  She is a librarian.  She welcomes us to Literary Orange.  "This is a gift to you," she says.  "So you can connect with the authors you love and discover new authors and new genres."

And so it begins.

* * *

In the coming days, I will post each section, one day at a time

Sunday: Morning Keynote Speaker (Marlo Thomas)
Monday: Panel #1 Agents: The Business of Writing
Tuesday: Panel # 2 YA: The Awesome Age
Wednesday: Lunch
Thursday: Panel # 3 Travel: Journeys in Writing
Friday: Afternoon Keynote Speaker (Ann Hood)
Sunday: Final Thoughts

Weekly Update: 4-12-14

Spring break.  Ah, how I yearn for your arrival.  Five days of freedom, time to relax, time to catch up, time to admire the bouquet of newly bloomed flowers.  Such is the fantasy.

The reality is that I worked hard for five days, suffered from hay fever, and felt no closer to making my dent in my ever-growing To-Do List.  Sadly, this is the reality of most working vacations. 

My sister got married last Thursday at City Hall.  There was no fanfare, so I decided to create some in my own cheap way.  I made bouquets out of iris and lupine from my dad's garden, took wedding pictures on my digital camera, made white pies, and set out a reception spread using the knick-knacks around my parent's house. It was my way of showing support.  Congratulations Jaime and Paola!

Literary Orange yielded 12 pages of unruly notes, that I am in the process of putting together.  My Camp NaNoWriMo word count is just past 34,000.  I started, but didn't finish, Chapter 30 of my Coffin story.  I got a lecture from my dad about dragging my feet with self-publishing.  I had a meeting at the Brea Library's Writer Club.  I watched way too many crime proceedurals on T.V.

And that's my spring break.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dissecting Fantasy: Objects, Part 2

Objects, Magical and Mundane

Part 2

How selective use of objects can enhance a fantasy (or non-fantasy) novel

Last time: We discussed the importance of choosing wisely which objects your characters should have access to and what sort of practical items can help in your character's survival

Sources: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins,  the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen

Objects in Identity

"For the opening ceremony, you're supposed to wear something that suggests your district's principal industry.  [...]  This means that coming from District 12, Peeta and I will be in some kind of coal miner's get-up.  Since the baggy miner's jumpsuits are not particularly becoming, our tributes usually end up in skimpy outfits with hats and headlamps.   One year, our tributes were stark naked and covered in black powder to represent coal dust.  It's always dreadful [...]."

--Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

I'm going to say three objects and you're going to tell me when and where the story takes place. Ready?

Spurs.  Revolver.  Star-shaped badge.

Obvious, right?  American West, circa 1880s.  The setting of many cowboy movies.
How about three more:

Katana sword.  Green powdered tea.  Silk kimono.

Feudal Japan.  Not hard at all.

But it shows the power of objects and cultural identity.  Say toga and we're in ancient Rome.  Nesting dolls sticks us in Russia.  Heck, even magical objects have cultural implications.  Flying carpets and magic lamps evoke pre-Islamic Saudi Arabia, while 7-league boots and deadly spindles plants us squarely in pre-industrial Europe.

These associations can help or hurt your story.  If you want to set your fantasy story in a specific time and the mention of even a few of these items will immediately paint a picture in the reader's minds.  Food, art, and technology, in particular, show the culture of a society.  Dried deer jerky versus cream puffs, marble statues versus ink scrolls, chariots versus steam trains--each thing very succinctly paints a picture of a time, a place, and a people.

On the other hand, if you want to create your own unique world without any cultural associations, objects can be a problem. How do you show readers that the world is different? There are three main strategies:

1. Mix-and-Match Objects

Let's see the reader try to place a character wearing a kimono, toting a six shooter, and standing near a marble statue.  That will teach the reader to form associations.  Unfortunately, it may also confuse her.

2. Create-Your-Own Objects

The splutok is a clay-based water holder with a rope handle and patterns of pre-Groteal artwork covering the surface.  By creating your own objects, you show the reader that the culture is not of this world.  Unfortunately, not only do you have to spend the time to invent this new object, you now have to slow down the story to explain it to the readers.

3. Intentionally Vague Objects

The girl sits on the comfortable sitting object, holds the writing object, and writes on a flat writing surface.  The less specific the object, the greater the chance of it being universal and thus not tied to a particular time and place.  But if your objects are too vague, the reader loses a lot of the imagery and thus the joy in the story.

Now, I realize my examples are all exaggerated and sort of ridiculous.  Hey, I like to have fun, too.  But I don't want you to think that these strategies don't work.  They do.  They just need to be employed with a deft and subtle hand.

For example, when you mix and match cultures, take into account the setting.  Fans make more sense in hot, muggy environments than in arctic ones.  A few strange, magical, and important objects show you're in a different world.  If the splutok is used in an important religious ceremony that will play a crucial role in the plot, the reader may be more inclined to read a long description.  Otherwise, opt for general objects: dress, chair, pen, soup, wine.  Oh sure, you can embellish them with adjectives.  The Artrukian silk dress, the famed plum wine of Chial.  As long as the readers can visualize the noun, you should be okay.

* * *

Thus far, I've been discussing objects in relation to cultural identity.  But it can also apply to the individual.

Now, I'm going to play the same "three object" game, but with people instead.  I want you to guess the name of the person based on some objects.  Tell me who has:

Glasses.  A magic wand.  An invisibility cloak.

Too easy?  How about:

A magic ring.  A glowing sword.  A (distinct lack of) pocket handkerchief.

Okay, so Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins are famous, iconic fantasy figures.  Even so, you were able to guess them based on three objects, weren't you?

Why do we want to chose our own clothes?  Why do we want to decorate our house in the way we want?  Why do we take a glance at a person's clothes or nose through their house and draw certain conclusions about them?  Objects have power to reflect a person's identity.  Even objects chosen on a whim.  Wear dragonfly earring everyday and people will associate those earrings with you.

What does this mean for you?

It means that a few well-chosen objects can act as a shortcut to the character's identity.  A main character, of course, will have loads and loads of objects.  But a minor character with a single memorable object will also stick in people's minds.

* * *

Writing Prompt

Your hero roots through the corpses of his enemy for supplies.  All the enemy look the same--similar faces, similar clothing, similar supplies.  Then, suddenly, your hero opens an enemy's pack and finds a single object that makes him stop dead in his tracks.  When he sees this object, he realizes that his enemy was a real person, not some faceless monster.

What is this object?  Why does it affect your hero so much?

* * *

Magical Objects

"One day [a hobgoblin] was in a high state of delight because he had invented a mirror with this peculiarity, that every good and pretty thing reflected in it shrank away to almost nothing.  On the other hand, every bad and good-for-nothing thing stood out and looked its worst. [...] All the scholars in the demon's school [...] reported that [...] now for the first time it had become possible to see what the world and mankind were really like."

--Hans Christian Andersen, "The Snow Queen"

Admit it.  This was the part you were really interested in.

I hardly need to explain why magic is awesome.  It just is.  On the one hand, it can bring your every desire to life.  Things you can regain what you lost, you can do they impossible, you can master skills in a flash.

Things We Desire
  • Power over Nature (water, fire, wind, lightning, earth)
  • Power over People (having them like you, protection against harm or disloyalty)
  • Power over the Supernatural (bringing the dead to life, speaking to ghosts, visions of the future)
  • Mastery of a Particular Skill
  • Wealth
  • Transformation (controlled shapeshifting)
  • Communication (telepathy, speaking to animals, speaking different languages)
  • Youth and Rejuvenation
  • Flying
  • Invisibility
  • Healing
  • Knowledge
  • Love
But on the other hand, magic can represent everything we fear, especially the things which are not necessarily solid or material.  It can manifest horrible losses, it can mar the soul, it can turn us into what we most hate.

Things We Fear
  • Power (used against us)
  • Loss of Loved Ones
  • Loss of Identity
  • Loss of Soul
  • Loss of Freedom
  • Loss of Respect
  • Pain
  • Poverty
  • Sickness
  • Deception
  • Transformation (uncontrolled, monstrous)
  • Ugliness/ Disability/ Age 
  • Death
All this awesome power comes packed inside an ordinary, everyday item, usually something small enough to pick up.  Though the object can be anything, it usually comes fraught with some sort of symbolic power.  Things that bind, things that reflect, things that speak in some unconscious way to our soul.

Ordinary Objects
  • Mirror
  • Paper (books, scrolls)
  • Clothes and Shoes (cape, belt, slippers, boots)
  • Jewelry (rings, amulets, necklace, gemstones)
  • Plants (dried herbs, nuts, mushrooms)
  • Masks
  • Cups, Bowls, Spoons
  • Dolls 
  • Game Pieces (dice, chess pieces, cards)
  • Musical Instruments (pipe, drum, bell)
  • Keys
  • Weapons and Armor (sword, bow, shield, helmet)
  • Candles and Lamps
Put the dread and desire of magic into one of these unassuming objects and you have the beginning of a story.

Just the beginning, of course.  Though the object may be fascinating in and of itself, what people really want to see is how the character uses the object, or, if he doesn't use it at all, why not?  The relationship between the character and the magical object may prove significant.  In order to develop it, ask yourself some of these question.

1. To begin with, how did your character get a hold of it?

Created it
Found it
Bought it
Earned it
Stole it
Traded for it

2. Does he actually know what the object does?

No, not at all
Thinks he does but is wrong
Knows some aspects of the magic but not the whole thing

3. Does it take any skill to master it?


4. Can only certain kinds of people use it?  (Pure-hearted, wizards, members of a certain bloodline, etc.)


5. Does the object have a limitation?

Yes--can only be used during certain times (full moon, before midnight)
Yes--limited quantity (only three wishes)
Yes--needs magic words/ rituals (must blow three kisses)
Yes--delicate/ can be broken
Yes--dependent on the physical/ mental/ spiritual state of person using it

6. Is there a cost to using it?

Yes--stated up front

7.  Is the object good or evil?


As you answer these questions, you should start to think of what kind of dilemma this object can cause the character.  Rarely is it satisfying for a magical item to swoop in and solve the character's problems.  There should be a conflict.

* * *

Now up until now, I've been treating the magical object as though it has a deep connection to the heart of the story.  But sometimes magical objects just pop up for convenient's sake.  Magic is like technology.  Sometimes we get airplanes and atomic bombs.  Other times we get velcro and flashlights.

Remember back in the survival section how I said you could use magic to cheat.  Well, here we are.

If you don't want your character lugging around 50 pounds of equipment and if you've created a world where magic is fairly common, you can use select magical objects to make the trip easier for him.  For example, a cloak that keeps your character dry no matter the weather.  A quiver that never runs out of arrows.  A piece of paper that automatically draws perfect maps.

The possibilities are endless.

Favorite Cheat Magical Objects
  • Tables that always fill with food
  • Purses that never run out of money
  • Bread that fills your stomach with a single bite
  • Boots that take you seven leagues with a single step
  • Walnut shells that store ball gowns
The danger of cheat objects is that it creates what I like to call the RV paradox.  Sure, you can bring an RV into the woods, complete with T.V. and all the comforts of home, but at what point do we start to miss the point of going camping?  Magic can be a nice short cut every once in a while, but too many shortcuts and you suck out all the risk, struggle, and danger.

So when do you use magical cheats?  When the characters actually need them.

Look at The Hobbit versus The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo didn't get magical lembas bread that filled his stomach with a single bite, because going on an adventure--being uncomfortable and hungry--was the whole point of the book.  Frodo, on the other hand, had to carry a magical ring that was corrupting his soul through an enemy war zone while being hunted by flying ghosts with poisonous swords.  Not starving to death along the way was the least they could do for him.

* * *

Writing Prompt

It's a dragon scale, or so your friend claims.  Blue and bold, with serrated edges, and large as your head.  After the knight killed the beast, your friend blunted three knives to pry it off.  On the dragon, the scale had been green, but once plucked, it turned a mystical blue.

"Proof," your friend says, "Of magic."

"All right," you reply, handing the scale back.  "It's magic. But what does it do?"

What does it do?  Finish the story.