Sunday, July 28, 2013

Great Minds Think Alike

Tiny elf, big shirt

I have neglected this blog terribly again, and no excuse I could give would sound believable to you or seem adequate to me. But this entry has been percolating for a while, and when I caught myself composing sentences for it in my head, I decided it was time to get it down on paper. Except, you know, not really, because I’m typing it in Word right now.

So my writing process has kind of been hit or miss since I went radio silent. I poked at my Snow White story (which will be referred to as Rotten Apples from here on out, or until someone comes up with a better title for me—but no one ever does so I’m stuck with the slightly lame ones I come up with on my own). I went to my annual writing conference in late June and hung out with some great kids and taught a workshop on writing the opposite gender. I wrote a little while I was there, and I learned some things from other workshops that would apply really well to my characters and plot.

Then I came home. And I didn’t write.

After two weeks, I thought to myself, “Self, this is ridiculous,” and gave myself a metaphorical kick in the pants. This is usually more effective when someone else does it, but there isn’t always a pants-kicker available right when I need them. So as I kicked myself in the pants, I told myself I needed to set a goal. Any goal. Even a miniscule one. Just something to get me back to writing every day, to actually making progress on a story that seemed stalled out at about 8000 words. (For the uninitiated, that’s about 24 pages for the average writer. More like 26 or 28 for me, though, because my work is always more dialogue-heavy.)

500 words seemed doable. 1000 was too scary, especially after not having written anything of substance for a while. 1000 is too close to NaNoWriMo’s 1667, and the idea of doing NaNoWriMo more than once a year is terrifying. All right. 500 words a day. For a week. I made a cute little notation on my to-do list, with boxes to check off by each day of the week. Because that helps—I don’t know why, but crossing things off or checking boxes is extremely gratifying, even if it’s something dumb I will do anyway, like shower.

So I’ve been trying this for about two weeks.

Did you know that writing is hard? It really is sometimes. I think sometimes people hear writers complain, and they’re just like, “Yeah, whatever, you sit on your butt and dream stuff up all day.” But it’s a job like anything else. Writing is also not as solitary as some would have you believe. Maybe there are some writers who just go into their caves and huddle over their laptops and work in total isolation, but their work would suffer for it because there is a person I think every writer needs in his or her life.

The Voice of Reason.

Don’t confuse the Voice of Reason with a First Reader, because they aren’t always the same. First Readers tend to be all glowing and supportive and encouraging. Your Voice of Reason can be that too, but your Voice of Reason is really the person who talks you out of doing stupid things. An authorial conscience, if you will. But conscience is more about right and wrong—a Voice of Reason is more “that’s a stupid idea.”

What I need in my Voice of Reason is a sounding board, someone to talk me down from the cliff of doing something really stupid like aging up my characters just because someone else suggested it. I tend to latch on to any kind of logical argument. Because it’s logical, there must be some validity in it. That’s how my brain works. So I need my Voice of Reason to tell when something is a bad idea for my story. I don’t always see that. I see a new, shiny, logical possibility.

My Voice of Reason is my friend Amy, dating all the way back to Mr. Gordon’s 7th grade homeroom. When we first met, I was a tiny elf who wore enormous t-shirts and said very little. Amy is my total opposite in that respect—she’s a talker. But we’re very like-minded. I find myself drawn quite often to people like that, people who think along similar lines but are able to better articulate those thoughts. I tend to say something with a lot of “I don’t know”s and “maybe”s, and then Amy will say it back to me in a way that totally agrees with
what I just said but is stated much more clearly. It’s a good back-and-forth.

Don’t get me wrong—we don’t agree on everything. Boy, don’t we. Amy has a Ph.D. She’s co-authoring books and articles about theology. I’m a college dropout with eight novels under my belt. But Amy loves story, and she has always been supportive of my endeavors. She is my Voice of Reason, the first person I come to when an absolutely crazy idea pops into my head and I’m not sure whether it’s absolutely brilliant or just not right for my novel. When someone else, another reader, perhaps, suggests an idea and I latch onto it because their argument for it makes sense, I take it to Amy because I know Amy is not so easily swayed by an argument just because it’s sound.

My writing process these days isn’t dependent on Amy, but she’s a big part of it. She asks me if I’m writing. She shames me if I tell her I haven’t written yet because I’ve been lost in the black hole that is gag reel videos on YouTube. She reads pages that are in their absolute roughest form and gives me honest reactions and helpful suggestions. When I have some kind of thorny issue, like how to take a certain fairy tale element and create a non-magical, science fiction equivalent, Amy talks things out with me until we uncover a solution.

Amy has been an invaluable resource for me as I write Rotten Apples. Without her, I would have one spectacularly bad kissing scene, a big hole where I should have a sci-fi equivalent of the Evil Queen’s magic mirror, and countless unintentional Star Trek rip-offs. Without Amy, I might still be stuck at one of those old problem spots, unable to think my way around or let go of an unworkable idea just because it looks shiny. We talk almost every day (on Facebook chat—go, technology!), and I know I can always go to her for rational advice and an objective view. Every writer should have a Voice of Reason. It’d be nice if every writer could have an Amy, but I know I lucked out in that department, because there’s only one, and she is AWESOME.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Those Fantastic Austen Females

F is for Fanny Price

Forget (F! See what I did there?) what you've seen in the movie adaptations of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, especially the Jonny Lee Miller one. No adaptation I've seen has adequately captured the original incarnation of Fanny Price.

Fanny comes from a large, impoverished family that basically gives her away to richer relatives because it means there's one less mouth to feed. This is hardly an auspicious beginning for a heroine, but as Austen proved with each novel, a heroine doesn't always look like a heroine from the start.

As a child, Fanny travels to her rich relations at Mansfield Park, a mammoth estate in the country. There, she meets her aunt and uncle Bertram and her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria (pronounced Mariah, like the pop star), and Julia. While she does find herself in better circumstances, wanting for nothing and basically having nothing to do besides little tasks for her aunt and neighbor Mrs. Norris, Fanny is treated by most of the family like a second-class citizen. She is an outsider and is often reminded of the painful circumstances of her origin. The only person in the house to treat her with respect and genuine kindness is Edmund. There's a beautiful scene when Fanny has spent too much time outside in the heat and has a bad headache. Mrs. Norris chastises her for lounging around and appearing to be lazy, but it's Edmund who realizes she's unwell, Edmund who comes to her aid. You can guess what happens. Back in those days, cousin-cousin love wasn't taboo like it is now.

I've been quite attached to Fanny ever since I first read Mansfield Park. Her shyness has always really spoken to me as I'm super shy myself. It's only recently that I've been able to accept as part of my personality and appreciate it for what it is instead of viewing it as a flaw or character defect. So watching Fanny struggle with her feelings is a bit like going through those struggles myself. I totally relate. Fanny isn't actually my favorite, but she is the one I relate to the most.

Tomorrow: taking a page out of J.K. Rowling . . . 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

An Elemental Everyman

Okay, that title doesn't really relate to this character. I'm stretching a bit for my assonance and alliteration. I've been under the weather in the last week, so that's why it took me so long to write this post, but it's worth the wait because today I get to talk about a really amazing character.

E is for Emilio Sandoz

My friend Meredith told me about Mary Doria Russell's book The Sparrow. Jesuits in space, she said. It will make you question your faith, she said. Well, of course I had to read it. I was wildly curious.

The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God primarily tell the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest whose incredible linguistic abilities secure his passage on a ship to Rakhat, a newly discovered planet with signs of sentient habitation. I don't want to spoil any of this amazing story, but while on Rakhat, Emilio is brutalized and mutilated due to a simple language misunderstanding.

What's interesting to me about Emilio is his spiritual journey of the course of the two books. It's not your typical hero's journey. When Emilio travels to Rakhat, he is in a peculiar position spiritually. He has been a devoted follower of God all his life, but his relationship with God has always been intellectual, never personal. On Rakhat, in his darkest moments (really dark--if it was a movie, it would have to be rated R), Emilio feels he has been deserted by God. You really have to read both books to get the whole sense of Emilio's journey--just reading the first book leaves Emilio in kind of a hopeless place. But over the course of the second book, Emilio's relationship with God becomes more personal, and watching the transformation is a beautiful thing.

Even the titles of the books lend insight into Emilio and his journey toward God. The Sparrow evokes the Bible verse that tells us that God knows when even a sparrow falls, that God sees Emilio where he is and is with him even when Emilio is at his lowest point and feels deserted by all, including God. Children of God is what Emilio becomes more fully, a child of God finally able to fully trust Him.

Emilio as a personality doesn't intrigue me so much as his transformation, spiritually. I think it's just about the most beautiful character arc in all of literature.

Tomorrow: A trip to England with Miss Jane Austen . . .

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dashing and Dastardly

I just couldn't narrow it down any farther than two. Today, for the letter D, I have chosen a pair of "bad boys," although each rises above that stereotype in their own unique ways. And my image search was quite enjoyable.

D is for Dean Winchester

In the grand tradition of tough guys with the last names of gun manufacturers, along came Dean and Sam Winchester when Supernatural debuted in 2005. The brothers team up to fight demons and ghosts and creepy monsters together. Sam is set up as the "good" brother, the one who (at first) is in a stable relationship and has ambitions about the future. Dean is the bad boy, the wisecracking, love-'em-and-leave-'em type. He loves burgers and women and beer. But Dean quickly shows himself to be more than his stereotype.

What intrigues me so much about Dean is the conflict within his nature. His devil-may-care attitude belies a deeply emotional interior with strong ties, holding family above everything. If Dean had to choose between saving the world and saving his brother, he would choose his brother every time. It is Dean who angels call upon to be a force for good, Dean, who doesn't even believe in God. The dichotomy (big word alert!) between good and bad that exists within Dean is what makes him by far my favorite Supernatural character.

And D is also for Damon Salvatore

Damon Salvatore is another bad boy half of a good brother/bad brother pairing on The Vampire Diaries. (I'm a fan of the show, not the books, so I'll be exclusively discussing TV Damon.) Bland brother Stefan immediately captures the heart of human heroine Elena, but it's Damon who insinuates himself into their lives and wreaks such interesting havoc.

I keep coming back to Damon again and again because he has so many layers. Spoilers ahead--be forewarned. Over the course of the show, we learn that it was Stefan, not Damon, who chose the life of a vampire for himself and his brother. Damon was an unwilling participant at first. Damon may have embraced the life with no wish for redemption, but only after accepting the mantle of vampire which was thrust upon him. He doesn't spend his time torturing himself about what he is like Stefan does.

Like Dean, Damon also uses swagger and bravado and wisecracks to cover his inner self, a man that feels so deeply that he is in agony when he does open himself up to his emotions. I already liked Damon, but there was a moment in Season 2 that absolutely sealed it for me. In this episode, Damon loses a woman he had made a real connection with. She is a vampire who is dying from a werewolf bite (shut up--don't judge me--this is high-quality TV), and in the end, Damon kills her, making her death much easier than it would have been if the illness from the bite had run its course. It's agony for him, and when it's over, Damon has an existential crisis: 

Tomorrow: I return to literature and talk about a South American Jesuit who is not the pope, I swear

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Covert Character Status

C is for . . . Charles Wallace Murry

If you don't know that name, go read A Wrinkle in Time right now.

Okay, now that you're done, let's talk about Charles Wallace, the child prodigy poster child of children's fantasy literature. (Child/child/children. Like that? :P)

Meg Murry is the main character of the first two books in Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. But her younger brother Charles Wallace is central to the plot in both books, and in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Meg takes a backseat as Charles Wallace must travel back in time to stop a dictator's plans for nuclear war.

It is Charles Wallace who sets the events of Wrinkle into motion. It is Charles Wallace whose arrogance leads him to the dangerous climax of the book. Charles Wallace is the main focus of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Though sidelined from the action by a mysterious illness, it is to save his life that Meg and Calvin O'Keefe must journey to the microscopic level of the mitochondria within his own cells.

Charles Wallace is a genius. It's not specifically stated but rather implied through his vast knowledge of things beyond his years, the level of his conversation, and other hints dropped here and there, such as when he says in Wrinkle, "Thinking I'm a moron gives people something to feel smug about. Why should I disillusion them?"

I've always found child geniuses (genii?) particularly interesting, so I was instantly drawn to Charles Wallace. But the more books I read by L'Engle, the more curious I became. In An Acceptable Time, which follows Meg's daughter Polly, a litany of sorts is recited about what the various Murrys are up to, in which Charles Wallace is conspicuously absent. Polly is given his room for the duration of her stay with her grandparents. The tone of that scene always led me to believe that Charles Wallace died young. But in researching for this blog entry, I learned that Charles Wallace gets another mention.

In A House Like a Lotus, which also follows Polly, she says that Charles Wallace "is off somewhere on some kind of secret mission." While this book appeared five years before An Acceptable Time, meaning my conclusion might still be right, it's interesting to note what else Charles Wallace might have been involved in. Was it a mission for the government, perhaps? Not too far out of the realm of possibility, considering his prominent scientist parents and his own talent and genius. Or was it something like the adventures from his childhood, traveling in time and to other planets in order to save the universe? There's no way to know. An Acceptable Time was the last mention of Charles Wallace, and Madeleine L'Engle had stopped writing children's fiction years before her death in 2007.

You're going to find out pretty quickly as I continue this series that I'm constantly drawn to enigmatic characters like this. The desire to know more, whether I will find out or not, is a very powerful driving force.

Tomorrow: I don't know! I have four possibilities for D, and I don't know how I'll ever choose. Maybe eenie-meenie-miney-moe.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Back From the Dead . . . Again

So the whole post-every-day thing kind of had a hiccup. It was an intense week for everyone, I think. Anyway, last Wednesday I promised you a groundbreaking TV icon, and today, I deliver.

B is for Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You've all heard of her. You have at least one nerdy friend who saw all the episodes (and you have me, so I guess that's TWO nerdy friends who saw all the episodes). Buffy is a pop culture icon, and one of the first in an illustrious but far too short line of strong, butt-kicking female TV leads.

Buffy was created by Joss Whedon in an original movie script which was heavily rewritten to become the much lighter, much lamer Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992. Buffy the TV series first aired in 1997, featuring a younger, smarter, less whiny heroine. With the TV show, Whedon was able to bring us the Buffy he originally created.

There is no other character in the fictional world quite like Buffy Summers. Spunky, smart, and strong, Buffy is still a teenage girl and thus relatable. The emotional ups and downs of teenagerdom are universal, and Buffy has to deal with her share of angst too, though it's often in a different context than the average teenager.  For instance, most teenagers do not have to sacrifice themselves to save the world (twice), nor do they suddenly find themselves needing to know the plural of "apocalypse."

Buffy was a groundbreaking character, paving the way for the likes of Sydney Bristow (from "Alias") and Nikita*. Scully had to share the limelight with Mulder, but Buffy stood on her own. Though she was surrounded by some gals who were pretty tough in their own right, and Joss Whedon continues to populate his shows and movies with strong, take-charge female characters. There is a legendary quote floating around the internet where someone asks Joss Whedon in an interview, "Why do you write strong female characters?" Whedon answered, "Because you're still asking me that question."

*Okay, we could argue a little about the origins of Nikita, but she didn't become a really real butt-kicker until  the show "Nikita" started, and that was after Buffy.

Tomorrow: A mysterious child prodigy . . . 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Art With a Pulse

If you blog at all, or follow bloggers, you may have noticed a challenge that's going around, for bloggers to post a new entry every day from A to Z. When one of the teen writers I mentor (shout-out to Spiral!) joined in on the challenge, she decided her posts would have the theme "Persons: Real and Imagined." That sounded like a great theme. I've modified it for myself to just be imagined persons, my favorite characters from books, TV, and film.

So for the next 26 days (I hope), I'll be telling you about some of my favorite fictional characters. Today is A. I narrowed it down from 5 choices.

A is for Archie Sheridan

Archie Sheridan is the main character in Chelsea Cain's thrillers about the pursuit of serial killer Gretchen Lowell. Archie is a Portland, Oregon detective who was manipulated, seduced, abducted, and tortured by Gretchen Lowell while he was on the task force pursuing her. Their relationship is strange and twisted and so layered. Gretchen herself doesn't interest me because psychopaths aren't really deep characters--when someone has no emotions, they're just not very interesting. :P It's Archie who fascinates me. Archie, who, in spite of all he's been through, including the destruction of his marriage, the decimation of his health, and the deterioration of his mind, still does not really hate Gretchen. He still finds himself attracted to her.

Characters who are not easy to figure out, who have depth and layers, are my favorites. I cannot begin to fathom how Archie's mind works, how he can reconcile his attraction to Gretchen with his law enforcement background and his knowledge of the horrible things she's done, to him and others. So I find him absolutely fascinating.

. . . and also for Augustus Waters

I couldn't find quotes from Chelsea Cain's books about Archie Sheridan because the ones I own are in storage and there isn't much online, so I'm strengthening this short entry with one more character, Augustus Waters.

Have you read The Fault in Our Stars? You haven't? Then what are you still doing here? Just go read it. Now.

Okay, now that you've read John Green's YA masterpiece, we can talk about Augustus Waters. Gus (I feel weird calling him Augustus—only Hazel does that) is not the POV character in the tale of two teenage cancer patients finding love in a support group. Hazel is. But so much of the story is about Gus’s own inward journey. He hides behind bluster and wit and the cigarettes he doesn’t actually smoke, but he provides some of the story’s best insights, as when he tells off another character, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”

When John Green spoke at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, he talked about Esther Earl, a young fan who lost her own battle with cancer and inspired aspects of the story, and he talked about his own time serving as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, and he said this: “The real hero’s journey is not, as I had always believed, the journey from weakness to strength. What Esther knew, and what Augustus Waters must learn in The Fault in Our Stars, is that the real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness.”

Tomorrow: a groundbreaking TV icon . . . who kills vampires . . .