Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Still Smells Like Pine Needles Around Here...

So there's this scene in It's a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey walks into his future wife Mary Hatch's house, awkwardly shambles through the foyer, nervously handles his hat, and remarks "I see it still smells like pine needles around here."

And this is what I'm feeling right about now.  See, George Bailey is *supposed* to be with Mary.  We just know it.  We know he has a purpose and that something bigger than him has vision that he can't even see.  But he's fought against it and tried a dozen other things and so when he's finally where he's supposed to be...well, I guess it still smells like pine needles or whatever.

Because if I'm George Bailey, writing is my Mary Hatch and it's been a long time since I've visited her.  I've been noncommittal and crappy to her.  Her mom is very justified in wondering why she doesn't just ditch me for Sam Wainwright.

I'm not fighting against anything, but I am in a season of life where it's all so busy.  It's almost over.  I can feel my subconscious hyperventilating subsiding a little.  The great thing about grad school as a highly motivated overachiever is that I devote myself to what I'm doing and insist on exacting standards of quality from what I'm doing.  This is also the terrible, horrible thing about grad school as a highly motivated overachiever, and the reason that other areas of my life--areas that make me a happy human person--have suffered.

Like writing.  I did zipsquilch this fall.  Not entirely true--I did some, here and there, but the momentum I could establish was quickly subsumed by readings and papers and teaching.  Then the semester break happened, and despite every intention I had to work on my thesis, I worked on something else instead.

I love the smell of pine needles.

It felt right to devote a ton of time to a draft that's been sitting...waiting...every so patient, ever so Mary Hatch.  There's light at the end of the semester, and though I expect the midpoint of this semester--with thesis revisions, portfolios, and a myriad requirements--to be as bad or worse than the fall, I'm looking forward to a better balance after that.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Meyers-Briggs and Your Characters

You've probably, at some point, encountered the Myers-Briggs inventory (MBTI), whether you've taken a Buzzfeed quiz or the formal inventory.  Debate exists over the scientific validity of the test, with many experts calling it "meaningless," though the Myers-Briggs foundation maintains that it is a reliable method with valid results.  Much of the argument seems to stem not from the descriptors themselves, but from the way that some, including businesses, use the results.

As a writer, I'm less interested in what Forbes says is the proper and improper use of the MBTI than I am in thinking about how the inventory asks us to think about describing people.  The claim--four traits, each existing in a spectrum, combine to explain how a person interacts with the world around them and perceives their engagement with it.  Does a person prefer spending time in their inner world or the outer one?  Does she focus on individual pieces of information as they come in, or on pattern interpretation? Does he look at logic or the human element? Does she prefer to have a final, decided answer, or remain open to alternative possibilities?

Each of these questions can certainly be useful to a writer trying to create--or understand--a character, his or her motivations and defaults, and how he or she will react to and attempt to solve problems.

Of course, you've probably seen character breakdowns of your favorite geekdom interpreted by MBTI standards:

So, I test consistently as an INTJ, so you'll all be happy to know that I'm taking over the galaxy any day now.  I haz evil plans, guys.

Right--good time to remind you that MBTI doesn't determine good or evil (OR DOES IT?!?), career preferences (even though INTJs are sometimes called "The Scientist" there are plenty of INTJ writers, teachers, etc), hobbies, favorite TV show....it's about asking (and trying to answer) how a person interacts with the world.

Even if you're a pony, not a person:

For a (potentially frighteningly) in-depth discussion about MLP and MBTI, read here.

That's right, people!  PRINCESS CELESTIA! Proof: INTJ =/= pure evil.  Also, Proof: I have watched too much My Little Pony with my three-year old.

We all know people in our lives who react to the world differently than we do, right? The friend who isn't bothered by the mess on her desk when we'd go nuts, or the significant other who prefers to plan every detail of a vacation when we'd rather leave ourselves open to whatever adventures may come.  Yet sometimes when we craft characters, we can default to how WE would deal with the world when put into their shoes.

Often, we might also equate personality with the things that have influenced a character, even if we don't mean to.  A character might be leery of interacting with others because of abuse or isolation in her past--but that doesn't mean that she is naturally introverted.  A character might be a highly trained scientist--but that doesn't mean that collecting data and applying principles to it is her natural mode of operation.  Consider the potential conflict and tension between how a character prefers to interact with the world and why they behave in reality.

Asking where characters exist on the MBTI spectrums can be a helpful tool.  For one, just asking can spark more great character development questions, even if you don't buy the hard-and-fast MBTI types.  For another, determining a character's preference can help to maintain consistency in their thinking and actions.  You won't have a character bouncing back and forth between extreme shyness and chatting up the mailman without a good reason for the difference in reaction.  A character who typically applies basic principles and logic in decision making will be challenged when they don't work in a situation, adding an extra layer of tension and forcing some juicy character growth (or failure, which is also fun).


E & I: Extraversion vs Introversion.  Probably the one we talk about the most right now, with some long overdue understanding that being introverted doesn't mean you're shy, a jerk, incapable of human interaction, or a dweeb. (I'm not saying I'm not a socially inept dweeb, FWIW.)  But ask yourself--does a character prefer to spend time in his own head, or does he want lots of human interaction?  Does he get tired out by people, or energized by him? And don't mistake forced isolation for introversion--an extraverted social outcast is going to have a different experience than an introverted one.

N & S: Intuition vs Sensing.  Basically, whether a person relies on their sensory perception or whether they rely on the patterns they perceive.  Does a character pay attention to the physical world around her, or to the patterns and meaning in the information she receives?  Are her perceptions of the world rooted in the physical reality ("I see, I touch, I smell") or does she connect them to the things she already knows ("When I see, I think X, when I touch, I remember Y").  Think about the great potential for conflict here--a data-driven individual at odds with someone who believes he understands a pattern in the information that the other just doesn't see.  How do those two work together?  I love how the concept of data vs patterns forces people to question their perception of "what's the right thing to do."

F & T : Thinking vs Feeling.  Thinking doesn't mean "smarter" and feeling doesn't mean "emotionally intelligent."  Instead, think about whether characters apply basic principles across the board (thinking) or engage in a more personal, tailored concerns.  It's important to consider that thinking doesn't mean "right."  Consider Star Trek--how many times did logical Spock apply his basic principles of evaluation to a situation, have it disregarded by Kirk--and Kirk's course of action is right?  (Yes, without the use of a handy chart, I am deciding that Kirk is a Feeler and Spock is a Thinker.)

J & P : Judging vs Perceiving. We might think of this as openness--do you interact with the outer world to get a decision made, or to remain open to possibilities?  While this pair is often used to describe work styles (does your character make lists and work toward a goal, or work in seemingly random bursts?), it can also be helpful for understanding worldview.  A principled person can still be a P, of course, but does your character look at their understanding of the world as all figured out, or as constantly evolving?  Two people can share a belief system and still understand their view of it differently.

You  might not hold your characters to hard-and-fast types--and remember that the idea isn't that most people are 100% one extreme or the other.  But asking about *how* your characters perceive, think, and engage with the world, instead of just *what* they do (or *why*, from a motivation or background perspective), is a good exercise!

What do you think, potentially useful tool or hokum? If you've taken the MBTI or a related quiz, what's your type? Do you agree with the assessment? 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Romantic Tension--and Dance!

I like stretched comparisons. So when my husband and I were practicing our lindy in the kitchen the other night, and I was paying some extra attention to the tension in our arms and torsos, I started to think about how that related to writing, too. In particular--how tension, as it does in dancing, defines the movement between two partners in a written relationship.  

So, in honor of Valentine's Day weekend, a little post on romantic relationships and the dance they create.  

With examples from swing dancing.

First up--in partnered swing dancing, we use "tension" to mean the body position of both partners, the connection between the two partners, and how the lead's movements direct the follow and the follow responds. By the way, I use "lead and follow" not "guy and girl" because leads can be girls and follows can be guys! Plus, it's more descriptive of what the roles actually do, and it's not a gender thing--it's a dance thing.  Proof--two ladies in a partnered dance at the Savoy (and one gal just doing her own thing):

In really good partnered dancing, there aren't "cues" to follow most of the time.  That is, the follow doesn't need to know "when I put my arm up, you go under it."  Instead, where the lead places himself or herself dictates where the follow will go. The lead puts his arm up and there's no logical place to go *but* under it.  If, of course, there's good tension.

So what makes tension?
Body Position Different dances require different proper body positions--in swing, it's athletic and at the ready, more springy than formal. Both partners have to have the right posture for the dance to work at its best. What about writing? Well, if you're going to write a relationship between two characters, you need two characters. I may have just made what seems to be a "duh" statement--but how many drafts, or even published works, have you read where one of the characters doesn't stand up on his or her own? Both characters need good posture, and it needs to be right posture for the relationship. You're going to have a really awkward dance if one person is in upright ballroom position and the other is in athletic, slightly crouched lindy stance. They'll have to learn to dance together if they start out in different postures!
The Connection The connection in dance refers to the places where the lead and follow touch. Take a look at Fred and Ginger:
Now, this is kind of a posed photo, but work with it.  Their connection points are at Ginger's back where Fred's hand is, at Fred's shoulder where Ginger's hand is, and their clasped hands. The most obvious connection point is the clasped hands--you see these the most in the fancy moves, because she's going to turn under his arm and he'll appear to be leading her with that hand most of the time.
He's not. It's a lie. The strongest connection point is his hand on her back. When you have a good connection, a follow should feel like the lead's hand is glued to her back except when he wants it gone, and she'll try to keep the hand where it's supposed to be. This will direct a lot of her movement--where he goes, she goes; if he turns, she goes where the hand directs her to go, which may be away from him or with him.
So, where do your characters connect? Is is an obvious but superficial spot like the hands? If you lose your grip, the you've got no other connection. Or is it a more solid spot, allowing them to communicate and dance together? This is one place where writers often develop the relationship through the story--you see the hands only at first, but the plot reveals or creates other ways the two are connected.
One other point--with good connection, the movement is organic, borne out of the connection and the lead's movement. The lead isn't shoving or pulling the follow. So, too, with your characters--one character shouldn't feel like he or she is forcing the other (unless that's a particular issue your characters are going to have to work out).
The Tension Itself So here's the thing--you can have good posture and a great connection, but still no tension. Tension is the resistance that the partners give each other. If one person has noodle arms, you have no tension, and the lead can't tell the follow anything. Imagine a cooked noodle--you push on it, it just flops. On the flip side, too much tension and you'll be too stiff to communicate with. The lead can't get through to a too-tense follow, and a follow can't understand anything if the lead's tension is too heavy. Imagine a piece of uncooked spaghetti--push it too much and it breaks.
So, basically, characters can't be noodles, cooked or uncooked.
To make a relationship enjoyable to read--to make it a real dance--there needs to be tension. When the lead pushes, the follow gives--a little. Not all the way. This keeps them developing the relationship--too much tension and there's no give, no keeping the reader involved in the hopes that something will develop. Too little tension and the story just folds on itself--it's a done deal before it's really begun to develop.

And one more thing...it's supposed to be fun! (See, these folks dancing at the Savoy are having fun.) Sure, any developing relationship will have its angst--dancing with a new partner means getting used to all their little nuances and learning the moves they know that you don't. You're going to bonk your follow in the head or step on your lead's toes. But if it's all head-bonks and toe steps in your story, your readers are going to get bored. They want some fun, too--not just angst.
If your favorite romantic pairing in a book, or your current WIP's characters, danced out their relationship, what dance would it be?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Resisting the Gross in Non-Contemporary Lit

I'm sure we've all seen the lists and click-bait articles, like Ten Revolting Facts About the 18th Century.  And we've definitely read it and viewed it in books, movies and TV.  Some time ago, Terry Dresbach, the costume designer for Outlander, posted an extensive blog about All That Is Icky in the Eighteenth Century.  She has since removed the post, but there's a response that discusses it in depth here.  All in all, the peasant's explanation in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that he could tell that the king was a king "because he doesn't have any shit on him" seems, in fact, quite adequate in light of what we "know" about historical hygiene and cleanliness norms.

Fact is, much of it is pure crap.

As writers, this becomes problematic.  We either accept the current concept on non-modern norms (whether writing historical, fantasy, or speculative fiction), or risk accusations of (or actual) "romanticizing" of these spaces.  Frankly, gross sells, too--it's different, it's shocking, and it feeds our egos that we're oh-so enlightened and "better" than those poor sods. The thing is, different is not necessarily a bad thing--and to our characters might be quite normal.  And not always gross.

Take, for instance, the use of showers and deodorant.  (This is going to be a long for-instance--fair warning.) We find it totally normal to shower, wash our hair, and apply an underarm deodorant (not all of us--but I'll get there).  To compare with the 18th century, we quickly get grossed out--Ew! They didn't shower! They didn't even *BATHE* for pity's sake? Well, they were walking stinkbags, then, weren't they?

Trouble is, we forget to look past "they didn't take baths" to a more nuanced approach to hygiene.  Yes, most people didn't "bathe"--that is, immerse themselves in water--on the regular, but they did wash.  Washing and bathing--not the same.

Maid with washbasin, presumed to be helping her mistress with a touch-up sponge bath, not preparing to upend it over her for calling her "Hey  You" for the eighth time this week.

Freshening up, for lack of a better term.

And then we dig deeper.  Did they scrub their hair with shampoo? No, but they combed it, worked pomade (conditioning agent) and powder (oil absorbing agent) through it and then styled it (with  no extra sticky, chemical-y, gummy, shall we say gross? styling products).  So we can surmise that most people had regular hygiene routines, just like we do--they were different, but effective.  I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the pomade-and-powder hair routine.  I haven't "washed" my hair in about a week.  I will soon, because I like wearing it in a "modern" style that requires hair prepared in a modern way--and there's the rub, isn't it? This "gross" hygiene practice is actually coming down to aesthetic preferences and norms, not cleanliness!

And then we slather on antiperspirant, right? Turns out, not everyone--write them off as hippie nuts or laud them as progressive, but plenty of people reject the idea of applying a product that's intended to slow or stop a natural process, or are leery of the ingredients in modern deodorant antiperspirants.  And you know what?  They don't stink.  They wash.  Maybe they use scent, like our "gross" ancestors did.  (And their choices haven't gone unnoticed by The Science, which of course now is developing armpit odor studies.)

So. All of that coming back around to this.  It can be hard to Resist the Gross when writing, because a) initial research is going to lead you to Gross and b) there actually is a lot of real, factual Gross out there.  It's also hard because the expectation for any pre-technologically-modern society is that it be Gross, so you might walk a line of being told you're *not* being realistic when you are!  But I think it's worthwhile for solid world building.  We can't fall back on Gross when we aren't sure what to do, but consider what people *actually did* in similar situations.

I try to Resist the Gross.  There are time it makes sense and adds authenticity to include some gross, but we shouldn't fall back on sensationalist Gross to pull in readers--instead, we should aim for tactile, awesome world building.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Being a Grad Student and Pursuing Publication

A weird thing happens when you're both a writer and a student of literature.  You realize that your perspective is...skewed.

Now, plenty of people in academia also write.  Plenty of grad students have notebooks full of poetry or short stories or novels.  And plenty of professors--at least, the ones who keep their posts in publish-or-perish academic departments--have experienced the highs and lows of publication.  Yet there's still kind of an oddity actively pursuing both commercial publication and a degree in studying things that are published commercially.

An illustration.  In one class, a professor (for humorous effect) outlined the belief that many people have that books are written by writers and then proceed directly through the magic of "becoming published" with no further interference.  I burst out laughing, not the polite titters of my classmates, but solid "Yes, it's so completely the opposite! What you just said is beautifully absurd! I love it! HASHTAG HILARIOUS!" laughter.

He kind of glanced at me as he continued, "Yes, but you all think this in some way or another!"

Thing is, when you're a writer pursuing publication, you don't.  You definitely don't.

And here's the thing--it's often treated in the study of literature as a dilution of the author's intent, all those "things" that can happen to a work between end of drafting and publication.  That somehow, the input of agents and editors "takes away" from the work the writer did.  I sense a clear undercurrent of that in many discussions of literature.  "Well, Dickens did it this way because of the serialized nature of the work..." with a sigh that oh, his work would have been purer had he not been constrained.  "It seems the editor took some liberties with the chapter breaks" as though goodness! The editor was quite the idiot and the author in question was infallible.

I feel a kinship of understanding, probably completely inappropriate given that I'm little old me and not a Great Author, with Great Authors, simply because I *get* what they went through to write a complete work.  And maybe I'm just not at their level of genius, but input *helps.* My work is *better* after my agent makes a recommendation, even if the rec comes more out of a concern over saleability than "pure" art.  Because what is so pure about written work, anyway? It's process work.  It's never truly "finished"--we just decide at some point to stop tweaking.  Not only that, but it is formula work.  Part of the beauty is the way in which is fits a formula.  We reject a novel that's thirty pages long because it isn't a novel--yet we criticize the "meddling input" of an editor who suggested re-working the breaks on Shelley's Frankenstein for re-publication.  We don't want to harsh the author's writerly buzz with silly concerns about saleability...except we do want the author to utilize form.  It's a fascinating, weird question of applications.

Further, it's fascinating to recall that, though we study many Great Authors as bastions of literature today, they weren't necessarily publishing believing themselves to be Bearers of Great Literature.  They were, many of them, commercial successes.  We can't read them as Literature without remembering that they (even, yes, those Great Authors) knew a thing or two about appealing to an audience.  They weren't writing in--or for--a vacuum.

So I find myself feeling the need to push back against this mentality that any "intrusion" on the author's "pure" writing is bad.  I'm experiencing the intrusions of people, market pressures, audience expectations--they're not necessarily "bad." They may, yes, guide my work--but we agree that work benefits from some guidance.  Constraints can actually produce better work, in my view.

How does writing influence how you think about what you study, or where you work? Does it change your expectations or outlook?

Monday, November 2, 2015

On Not NaNo-ing


I'm not doing NaNoWriMo.

Confession #2:

I've never done NaNoWriMo.

Now that that's out of the way, the big question is BUT WHY?

Don't get me wrong, I think that NaNo is (mostly) a great idea.  (I say mostly because, depending on your goals and your writing style, the "you can write a book in a month but you need to revise for the next three months" thing might not be your best bet.  You do you.) I love the community that's built up around it, the support, the energy--all coming from a defined and difficult but not impossible goal.  Who doesn't love goals? Who doesn't love getting encouragement and support on rough days and built-in-cheerleaders on good days?

Nobody, that's who.

So why NOT NaNo?  For me--a few reasons.

1) Resisting the Shiny.  Look, I love a shiny new idea as much as the next writer, but--ooh, hey, the new holiday cards are up on Tiny Prints!

Ok, let me try again.  I love a shiny new idea as much as the next writer, but distractions are the bane of ever finishing anything.  And I'm nearing the home stretch on a draft right now.  I have probably 20k to go on it.  Starting a new project now lets me set that shiny 50k goal...but it undermines my goal of finishing this project.

2) Related, I love this project.  A lot.  ALOT.  In the immortal words of Hyperbole and a Half:

so I'm not really interested in taking a break from it right now.  This project is my Alot, and I care about it. A lot.

3) Honestly? While it would be fun to try the NaNo 50K in a month method, it's really not my style. (Ducks.)

Not that styles can't (and shouldn't) be challenged--they can (and should).  It would be a good learning experience.  But I can say fairly confidently that my writing style is more hiking the Appalachian Trail than sprinting or even marathoning.  Slow and steady.  Frankly, less shitty drafts up front.  I KNOW. Write shitty first drafts is the most freeing writing mantra ever, unless you're me and you want to write relatively cohesive first drafts and can do so by taking a different route.

I did Camp NaNo this summer, and enjoyed that.  I met my goals, started the project I'm finishing now (this included a long break in the middle while I did some revisions on another project), and loved the community.

4) The novelty of finishing a draft has...well...kinda worn off.  "Winning" NaNo is a first step.  It means you have a draft, a start, that you can do it.  And it's awesome. But I've done it. A few times.  Not in a month, and not with the celebration of a great community alongside me.  Still...I think it's fair to say that I know the feeling of finishing a first draft, I love the feeling, I pop a bottle of Champagne every time (ok, I crack a bottle of Malbec, let's not split hairs here)--but I don't feel the need to chase it or accelerate it any more.

So if you're NaNo-ing--good luck! Enjoy! Seize the day and write through the night! Make this YOUR year!

And if you're not? Keep writing, just like you always do.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Truth: Grad School Cuts Down your Writing Time

Well, the title pretty much says it all, right? Don't cry for me yet--I'm loving my Master's program in English.  I mean, who wouldn't? I get to go to class and workshop writing and analyze Renaissance poetry and write term papers and...

...ok, yes, plenty of people wouldn't and I may be bonkers.  In any case, I am managing to balance work, school, family, and writing pretty well, excepting this pore ol' neglected blog.

So how to keep writing when your time is suddenly monopolized by a new venture--whether that be a new job, a new baby, a new move, a new just about anything?

1) Keep up the old habits that you can.  One of my "good habits" is setting aside large segments of writing time when I can by planning for it and literally penciling it into my datebook. (Subhint: Have a datebook.)  If I have a free Saturday, I arrange for The Husband to watch The Tiny and I run away for a while.

This is my precious. I mean planner.  I mean spiral-bound sanity.

2) Accept adjusting the habits you can't keep up.  Maybe you were writing every day and that just isn't going to happen anymore.  It's easy to get bogged down on a "right" way of writing, and so many authors tout "write every day" as "the" method that busy people can feel very discouraged.  I'll tell you what--I can get as much done in a weekly writing binge as I can writing every day.  Not everyone is like me, but find what works for you and your schedule and make that happen instead of mourning what can't happen.

3) Accept a downgrade in productivity.  Be honest with yourself about how many hours you actually have in a day.  And accept that writing anything is much better than writing nothing.

4) Don't be precious. I've said it before, I'll say it again--use the time you have without setting useless limits for yourself like "I need to have my playlist" or "I have to have my cup of tea first" or "I need to be home alone."  Maybe you work better with those things, and that's fine. If they're easy to procure, like popping in earbuds, do it.  If they're not, muscle through without.  Don't let a lack of tea or music prevent you from taking advantage of an unexpected free hour--and it gets easier to be opportunistic with practice. If you can scratch down a few paragraphs, that's a few paragraphs you didn't have before.

5) This too shall pass.  I get a regular reminder of this--with the academic calendar, my schedule changes literally every few months.  Plus, I get a few weeks here and there with no classes and no work, when I make like a writing camel and stock up on time for the long haul ahead.  But even if you're not on a regular change-o-matic like that, you can remember that everything changes.  If this is a time when it's easy to be productive, take advantage! Love it! Learn all you can about how you write to benefit you in the tougher time-crunch times.  And if it's a tricky time to make writing happen, remember that change is coming--maybe around the corner, maybe further down the line.  Persevere.