Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Reads: Matched

Genre: Young Adult Dystopian

By: Ally Condie

What's it about?  Teenage girl discovers her society's perfection isn't all it's cracked up to be.  And boys.

Why did I pick it? Another library pick--I'd heard a lot of chatter about it and it seemed quite popular.

Who will like it?  If you like your dystopian with a heavy dose of romance and a light hand on the science, this one's for you.  More about teenage coming of age and emotional growth than the more action-oriented dystopians.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  Great symbolism of feeling entrapped by society, with the green dress that figured prominently in the plotline.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Celebrating the Small Things with Something Like Champagne

Last week I was maneuvering a grocery cart crammed full with a baby and a week's worth of food plus the ingredients for my contribution to Thanksgiving when I turned the corner in the wine section (between the boxed wine and the "imports" which were mysteriously all from Australia and all named after an animal and a body part) and saw the mini Champagne bottles.

I bought one.

To celebrate.

I had just finished a draft of my WIP and emailed it off to my agent.

Big deal?  In the long run, not really--we're probably far from done with this project, and the big finish of publication is still a long way away and, of course, not even assured for this particular book in any case.

But I believe in celebrating the small things.  If we waited until we reached the finish line, we'd be in for a long wait.  Or perhaps we'd never celebrate--after all, what is the finish line for a writer?  Publication is a milestone, but there's always the next book.  Reaching a certain arbitrary sales number or readership?  There's always doing one better.  We're never done, so why wait to celebrate what we have accomplished along the way?

So I bought the mini bottle of Champagne (well, something like Champagne but not true Champagne) and chilled it in the drawer of the fridge between the Ranch dressing and the mustard.  After the baby was down for the night, I popped the cork (well, twisted the cap off, in truth) and poured myself a flute of golden bubbles.

I enjoyed it.

What milestones do you celebrate?  How do you celebrate them?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Magpies, Back Pockets, and the Shiny

I have a theory that most writers are magpies.  We can be working diligently on The Idea that we're super-excited about, typing away, maybe even editing and then--Shiny!  Shiny New Idea!

And like a distractable magpie, we either flit off after it or have a very hard time resisting the pull of the Shiny.

We talk a lot about how to keep focused on the project at hand, which is important, but--the Shiny is important, too.

The Shiny is our creativity, and our drive, and, in the end, it's the heart and soul of our books.  Because without the Shiny Idea, there is no story, no intriguing character, no exciting setting or innovative concept.

Yet we can't run off after all the Shiny Ideas, unless we never want to finish anything.  It's true that, after lots of work and wear and dare we say, love, an idea gets a little worn.  It's easy to find more interest in something Shiny than in something you've been drudging away on for weeks, months, years.

This is why we all need a back pocket.  Somewhere to tuck those Shiny Ideas into until it's time to rifle through them and pick one out to play with.  I have a Giant Blue Notebook where I jot down my ideas before they fly away.  It's hard to remind myself when I'm jonesing after writing the Shiny, but the Shiny will keep.  If it comes out of the back pocket tarnished and dull, it wasn't that Shiny to begin with.

Now is one of those Back Pocket times.  I have a draft of my current WIP with my agent, and while I wait for her feedback, I let myself sort through my back pocket and pick a new project to play with.  No pressure--just playing, drafting, seeing where it goes.  If it goes somewhere--great!  If not, I learned that this Shiny Idea isn't anything more than that--a fleeting, pretty concept that can't grow into a whole story.

Do you keep ideas in your back pocket?  Do you start most new projects from a cache of ideas, or from what's alive in your head at that moment?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Reads: The Night Circus

Genre: Magical Realism, Historical-style

By: Erin Morgenstern

What's it about?  Why, magic, of course.  And a magical circus spun like sweet, delicate, precarious sugar candy out of a competition between two young magicians, groomed for the challenge by old rivals.  

Why did I pick it? I kept hearing and reading about this book, and it was too strange and beautiful of a concept not to give it a go.  Plus I ran across it in the shelves of the library on my last pre-baby visit.

Who will like it?  If you don't demand that things make sense--because while this book is beautifully written and imagined, it creates a world where magic simply happens.  And if that sounds lovely, this book is for you.  Language, imagery, and almost aching pretty-ness take priority; the plot is relatively simple.  Also, a warning--if you want to believe in magic, you will want to dive inside this book and live in it.  And if you like caramel apples, you will want to dive inside this book and live in it.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book? Unequivocally, yes.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Indispensable Tools for Writers

Every writer has a few tools that make writing easier or, sometimes, possible altogether.  Aside from the obvious "paper and pen" or "laptop" tools, my indispensable tools are as follows:

1) Purple pen.  I love editing with a purple pen.  I'll use light blue and pink when necessary, but for some reason it's always been purple.  I'm picky on the ink flow, though.  My current one is a little stingy.

2) French press.  Something about the ritual of coffee making gives me the break I need from the page more than the actual act of drinking coffee.  Not that the caffeine doesn't help, too.  (Hint: Add a sprinkle of good cinnamon or a drop of vanilla extract to the beans pre-brew.)

3) Giant Blue Notebook.  Everyone needs someplace to jot down ideas and make a big inky mess, right?

4) List pad.  I tend to remember that I need to buy eggs or mail the mortgage payment right before digging into writing the Scene of the Day.  There are two choices unless I want to forget: Go to the store and send the check immediately, or write it down.  Writing it down means getting my work for the day done.  Plus my notepad looks pretty on my desk.

5) Baby swing.  I don't use this personally.  That would be strange and, frankly, difficult, as I think I weigh about seven times the limit for these things.  However, the swing buys me a good hour of time from the cranky baby.  On non-cranky days the Moby wrap is my indispensable tool, but the trouble with the Moby is I feel so mobile that suddenly I'm in the kitchen making soup instead of writing with no memory of how I got there or decided to start chopping onion, so it's sort of bad, in the end, for writing.

What are your writer's tools of the trade?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Maternity Leave :)

Just wanted to explain my recent (and forthcoming) absence--Baby E was born Tuesday night.  We'll be prioritizing all the new baby awesomeness and a little writing--and considering the next few weeks maternity leave.  Have fun without us!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Recipes for Writers: Turkish Lentil Soup

Writers have to balance their time effectively--we spend too much time in other worlds to waste on fussy recipes in our kitchens (unless we *want* to.  For funsies).  So, a quick, easy, freezable, delicious soup to get you through fall:

Why is this good for writers?  It involves minimal prep work--chop an onion and mince some garlic.  You can handle that in the ten minute break you need between writing scenes, right?  And then it just...simmers.  You can enjoy delicious smells wafting from your kitchen while you edit, right?

1 stick of butter (oh yeah, butter!)
1 large or 2 little onions
6 cloves garlic
3 cups lentils (standard size bag)
12 cups vegetable broth or stock (or--I use Better than Boullion soup base.  Much cheaper unless you've made your own veg stock)
6 oz can tomato paste (the little can)
Spices: 2 t each cumin, red pepper flakes, paprika, salt, black pepper
Herbs: 3 T each mint, oregano, parsley (I use extra mint!)

First, stop writing.  Find a problem to work out with your plot or your character development.  Muse it over while you chop the onions and mince the garlic.

Melt butter.  Add onion and cook until soft, then add garlic and cook a little longer.  Add the lentils and broth, tomato paste, and spices.  (NOTE: This will yield a moderately spicy soup.  If you like spicier, kick it up a notch; if you like milder flavor, downplay the red pepper and cumin.)

Bring to a boil and then reduce heat.  Simmer until you have soup instead of watery lentils.  (Believe me, you'll know.)

Go back to writing--see if you can write a sparkly new scene or revise that problem you were musing on earlier right out existence while the soup simmers.  You've got a couple hours--use it wisely.

Add herbs at the end of cooking

I serve this with homemade foccacia bread whenever I find time to bake.  It yields about four meals for me and my husband--we'll eat it twice and freeze the rest for later.  Which is another awesome resource for writers--when you can pull a meal out of the freezer, you get to spend a little longer with your characters.  Unlike packaged frozen meals, this is unprocessed and inexpensive!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Reads: The Great Gatsby

This week--one of those books that, really, has anyone *not* read given its proliferation in high school reading lists?

Genre: The American Classic

By: Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Yes, he was named for the fella who wrote The Star Spangled Banner.

What's it about?  Privileged people and the tangled webs they weave.  And nearly crippling emotional issues and partying.  (I kept wanting a glass of Champagne while reading--I mean, all the characters got to have fancy cocktails!)

Why did I pick it? Two reasons--I haven't read it since high school and remembered enjoying it then, and with the film adaptation in the works, it came to mind.  That, and my husband was glued to the Bears/Packers game last night and I needed something to do.  This was handy.

Who will like it?  It's not pacey, it's not high-action, but it's still engrossing if you like digging into characters and a little bit of intrigue borne out of shadowy pasts.  When we talk "plot driven" vs "character driven" fiction, this is a staunch representative of "character driven."

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book? I learned something--the cover actually preceded the finished manuscript for this novel.  Fitzgerald's editor commissioned a contemporary artist to create the cover art  and it was done seven months before the book.  Does it capture the essence of the story?  Well, a gaudy carnival and the overwhelming presence of desperate sadness does kinda nail it.

What classics have you read or reread and enjoyed--maybe school assignments turned personal favorites?  Are there classics from the cannon of literature that you'd rather not give a second glance?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Show Your Work

If your math classes were anything like mine, there was one golden rule:  You had to show your work.  When ferreting out the value of x, you couldn't just slap the answer on the page--you had to show each painstaking step of stripping the equation down to the answer.  And sometimes this took line upon college-ruled line.

OK, so math homework could be a little anal.  What does this have to do with writing?

Quite a bit, I'm finding.  I keep reminding myself as I write and revise my current project that I need to show my work to my reader--that the reader doesn't know anything unless I tell them or lead them to discover it.

Writing a story is kind of like knowing the answer to a math problem already.  You know your characters, the plot (well, most of it, anyway...), the conflicts, the ending.  You know the details--why Susan is shy around strangers, why Bob is afraid of spiders, why no one can see the ghost in the attic except for Aunt Bessie.  Some of those details you keep deliberately hidden, of course--that's part of storytelling.  But most details aren't hidden surprises--they're meant to be shared.

Have you ever read a published book or a friend's draft (or, when you're being honest, your own) and been totally thrown by a character's reaction to something?  Or wondered why in the world a character is so prickly about certain topics?  Or just had no idea what to expect out of a character's reaction at any given juncture? When these kinds of reactions aren't meant to surprise us, they take us out of the story in a negative way.  And they're usually the result of the author not showing his or her work.  We need some piece of backstory or some hint at the character's quirks or personality that will explain this odd reaction.  Then, suddenly, what was a weird moment becomes a completely in-character and revealing moment, all because the author showed his or her work.

Even more common--have you ever read a book or draft with a character who's just...blah?  Nothing too exciting, nothing too interesting.  Just plain Jane nothing doing blah.  Now, ten to one the author didn't intend to write a beige character--in his or her head, the character is vibrant scarlet or deep purple or chipper, cheerful yellow.  When the author doesn't show his or her work, the reader doesn't see it.  You have to show the character to the reader--reveal the nuances of how he or she interacts, behaves, reacts, to paint a full and colorful picture.  Otherwise we're left with beige.  I admit, this is a big challenge for me--I see the characters in my mind, I know them, they're awesome.  But I have to find ways of expressing that awesomeness on the page--finding outlets for details and reactions to share what I know with the reader.

The same goes for plot.  If the reader isn't invited along to explore the mystery, or to see the impossibility of climbing the mountain, or to really understand just how much Betty loves Timmy, the story falls flat.  You have to show your work to build up a conflict--the reader can't be expected to assume it's there.  You have to spell things out sometimes--not because your reader is dumb, but because he doesn't live in your head with  you (we hope).

So--take a lesson from algebra and show your work.

Is this as challenging for you as it is for me?  What's your biggest hurdle in showing your work?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Reads: Einstein's Dreams

Something entirely different this Friday:

Genre: I think the only moniker that could possibly work is literary fiction.

By: Alan Lightman

What's it about?  It's 1905, a young Einstein has just written 26 pages that will become his theory of relativity, and he's been thinking about time.  A lot.  The short vignettes that make up the book each explore a world in which time functions or is perceived differently.

Why did I pick it? I had to read this for a class in college, and it stuck with me, so I decided to reread it.

Who will like it?  If you like to ask "what if?" and appreciate a more literary style of prose (not dense--just a definite and deliberate use of language for beauty as well as function).  You'll probably have thought of some of these scenarios before, and some will be new, but all are approached in such an intimate, human-based, emotional manner that it feels like genuine exploration either way.  It's not a science book, despite the fact that it's written by a physicist (sidenote--if the world is fair it's required that he must have a conehead or a third eye to make up for the fact that he's a physicist and a talented writer).  It won't dive into theory or practicality at all, but sticks solely to what it would be like to look in on a world in which time works completely differently.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book? The cover is simple, spare, and nearly technical.  The book is simple, spare, and not at all technical.  There's also that nagging phrase "A Novel."  I'm not sure what you would call this, but a novel it is not.  A series of vignettes, perhaps?  And though we associate clocks with time, you see quickly in reading the book that even in our world and the way time functions here they're perhaps more symbolic than real...

What are you reading heading into the weekend?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Seamstress Writes: Starting a Project

Have pattern, will travel
You know I write.  My other odd obsession?  Sewing.  (There's a blog about that here.)  I'm starting a new sewing project, and I got to thinking about how the different types of inspiration for a new project can be pretty similar, whether written or stitched.

I get inspired by a lot of different "stages" of a project.  Sometimes what sets me off are the basics--the bones of the story or the garment.  For this gown it was all about the construction.  I knew exactly what I wanted the basic drape and shape of the gown to be.  This is kind of like when you get an idea that's all about storyline--you already know the plot before you sit down to write.  Honestly, this kind of project can be a lot easier to tackle, because the hard questions are answered--what do I do first?  What do I do after that?

Mostly this happened because I loved the fabric--
yummy deep blue silk
Other times, I'm inspired to start a story or a garment based on something a little more vague.  Maybe I just love a fabric and want to use it--somehow.  Maybe I have a single scene in mind--not even a scene that informs much of the plot--and want to build a world around it.  This can be harder, because you have to flesh out the idea, often by working with it for a while, before you can really take it anywhere.  This is when I drape my fabric over my dress form a million different ways and sketch and browse commercial patterns and steal ideas from designers.  It's also when I write scenes out of order that may or may not work and spend time talking to the characters in my head.
Favorite halter pattern
(1940s Butterick Retro)
And um, that same fabric.

Finally, there's the concept start--usually a start that begins with the answer to the question "What if?"  The only "big concept" writing project I've ever worked on started this way, and the gown I want to start did, too.  "What if" I turned my favorite backless halter dress pattern into a column dress with a back?  We'll see--I'm going to start playing with a muslin today.  And "what if" this were a writing project?  I'd start writing down ideas and getting a basic plot on paper.

You can't start truly constructing anything sewn until you have the basics--either a pattern or with the idea for your draping or drafting of your own pattern.  You can't start sewing by adding accessories.  Stories--well, stories can meander for a while without a set plan.  Eventually, however, they need to settle down and find a path to follow.

There's no right place, I think, to find inspiration for a project--no one reason to begin that makes sense or doesn't.  There are different challenges in each, of course, but isn't that half the fun?

What part of a new project do you usually springboard off of?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Reads: Lord of the Rings

To be fair, this has been an off and on read of mine for about a month (and I'm still not done--I keep going back to it and reading another book from the story).  My Nook died in the middle (the MIDDLE!) of Martin's A Dance with Dragons and I needed a chunker to get me through.  I found this in my husband's section of our library--yes, that's right, I'd never read it:

Genre: Fantasy--in all its original epic-ness.

By: JRR Tolkien.

What's it about?  When accessories go bad.  

Why did I pick it? Aside from just needing something to read, I felt my geekiness was not complete unless I read these books.  I love the movies, and no nerd should see the movie and not read the book, right?

Who will like it?  If you like immersive, loooong books, give this one a try--lazy summer afternoons and long winter evenings would be a good backdrop.  There's also something nearly anthropological about Tolkien's exploration of the cultures and places the characters visit, so it's kind of like an epic story and travelogue in one.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  Honestly, I hate the cover.  The one pictured isn't even the one I have, but it's a movie tie-in cover like this one and I have an irrational hatred of those.  Even seeing "Now a Major Motion Picture!" splashed across the original cover is enough to make me bristle.  So, no--you can't.  The book is a piece apart from the movie--you'll recognize the story and characters, but there's a lot that the films changed and left out and highlighted that won't be matched to the book.  (And, by the way, I think that's awesome--Jackson truly adapted the books for the screen, they're not a literal translation.)

What are you reading heading into the weekend?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reviewing Books: What's a Writer To Do?

You'll notice something about my blog: I don't write book reviews.  I do Friday Reads every week, but I don't tell you if I'd recommend the book or not, or pick apart what I thought worked well and what I thought   was a little meh.

This is deliberate.

I've noticed something in a lot of writerly blogs and Goodreads reviews--we're squeamish about truly reviewing books.  We're happy to recommend and gleeful about sharing what we love, but we're hesitant to say "This wasn't up to par for reasons I shall enumerate herein."

Yes, there are nasty reviews out there.  And yes, there are still honest, forthright reviewers, too.  But for the most part?  We as writers are kind of yes men to books.

Maybe it's because we're all reading things we truly, truly enjoy and can find nothing negative to say.  Maybe it's just because we appreciate the work and dedication that go into a book and gloss over anything we're not fond of relatively easily--more easily than a non-writer could.

I think it's more than that, though--I think we aren't quite sure how to be critical yet supportive of our fellow writers.  I'm not sure, actually, that we can be effective critics and effective support teams.  To me, when one reviews a book, one is responsible to potential readers, not to the author.  The author is owed nothing in the review except for fair consideration.  The reader, however, is owed honesty and criticism and praise to carefully weigh the choice of a purchase and time spent reading.  A review doesn't exist to help an author promote books--it exists to share the reading experience with other readers and help them decide whether to purchase the book or not.

I'm not sure how often reviews sway a purchase--I know I've bought books without reading reviews, and I've even bought books having read negative reviews, knowing that the things the reviewer complained about would be things I would actually enjoy.  Still, I'm not up for that responsibility here.  Especially if I'm reading and sharing a book written by someone I know--someone from my network here in WebernetWritingWorld.

So I don't review books--I share what I'm reading and let you take things from there.  At some point I might find myself more comfortable with the idea--but right now I'm not willing or able to be a true reviewer.

What do you think?  Am I overthinking what it means to review a book?  Are you able to be an objective reviewer, or do you find it difficult?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Reads: Throne of Glass

Reading this Friday:
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

By: Sarah J Maas, about whom more can be found here.  Debut novel.

What's it about?  What if the pretty princess was an assassin, and the big event was a competition to be King's Champion instead of a ball?  But you still kept romance and intrigue in the mix and threw in some mystery and magic for good measure?

Why did I pick it? I've been an avid reader of the blog PublishingCrawl ever since before it was PubCrawl and was Let the Words Flow.  Sarah has been a regular contributor and I've loved her story of how Throne of Glass evolved from being a FictionPress story to a published book.

Who will like it?  I won't say you  have to like fantasy to like this book, but if you are a fantasy fan, this is a great pick.  It also helps if you like strong but complicated heroines and love interests with some depth.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  I love the nearly etched look of the Glass Castle in the background, but have to confess--Celaena wears way better clothes in the book than she does on its cover.

What are you reading heading into the weekend?

More on Friday Reads here

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

YA Highway Road Trip: Dear WIP, I Think I Like You

I love a good blogaround, and YA Highway's Road Trip Wednesday is pretty much one of the best.  I couldn't resist this week's topic:  A "this is why you're awesome" list to your WIP.

Dear WIP,

You know I love you to spend this much time with you every day.  But just in case you forget how much I like you, a few gentle reminders of the things that make you grand:

  • Based on my favorite fairy tale
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Rooftop gardens and fantastical pools
  • Biscuits and silver-grey cats
  • Acerbic old ladies
  • Girl technical geniuses
  • Boys who dig that
  • Insecurity
  • Villains who aren't
  • Unwanted immortality
  • Tchaikovsky shout-out, tulle and organza 
  • Weirdsies genetically modified fruit
Thanks for all the awesome,


And now I think I want to get back to writing and discover a few more things to love...

How about you?  Are there a few things in your WIP that have you head-over-heels? Meet me in the comments!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cliches: You Can't Swing a Dead Cat Without Hitting a Dead Doornail

Writer's Digest website had a fun little article on the top 12 cliches to avoid like the plague (ha! sorry) and invited readers to contribute their own.  Yes, most of these turns of phrases have been overused to the point of complete staleness (though some contributions I had never heard of...making me wonder if some folks were stretching a little too hard to contribute an "original cliche" which may be my new favorite contradictory phrase).

Still, they're not the worst cliches in writing, in my view.

These are just sloppy description, placeholder ideas.  They're easily seen and easily edited out.  You might stumble across one while revising on your own, or a crit partner will point it out to you.  You'll see right away how it made the paragraph in which you unwisely included it as bland as beige.

The worst cliches are the storytelling cliches.  Everyone has their pet peeve cliche or two, but cliched storytelling is when the characters feel "done" or when the plot is populated only by familiar tropes and nothing original is added to turn the trope from "done" to "new."  In my view, tropes aren't the problem, as there are a million iterations of most tropes. "Star-crossed lovers" is a trope.  Romeo and Juliet was still original (well, kind of...but it was well-done enough to trump any "been there" feeling).  Reiterations and reimaginings aren't the problem, either--after all, West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet redux, but it still works, because it's such a fresh take.

No, cliches are when the story hasn't been freshness sealed.  Avoid cliches.  Ziplock your stories.

A few of my pet peeve storytelling cliches:

1) The beautiful heroine who doesn't realize she's beautiful.  Let's be honest.  Most of us are pretty self-aware as to what our attractiveness is, comparatively speaking.  If you have a character experiencing an ugly duckling to swan transformation, there needs to be more than, say, a boy making her realize she's pretty.  (I have other issues with this...) Cliches take away real character development.

2) When the mystery is solved or action is dictated by a dream.  This may be just me, but I haven't stumbled across a good version of this in quite some time.  It feels lazy.  Plus, when the character starts dreaming, you *know* this is where it's going.  Cliches take away the surprise from the reading.

3) Chosen by Fate or what have you.  I have no problem with a character being the best one for the job, or being uniquely qualified for something.  That can drive a great plot.  But when the reasoning is "you've been CHOSEN!" and the immediate reaction (which takes about 3/4 of the book to overcome) is "but I am not WORTHY! You have the wrong person!" it tends to step easily into cliche land, especially if this is the driving device in the plot.  Cliches take away the potential for something new.

Now, just because I listed something here doesn't mean any story that utilizes one of these themes is automatically cliche.  There is still possibility to take a stale concept and freshen it up.  The key is the unexpected and the new--it can turn a dead doornail into a live, swinging, yowling cat.  (But please don't.  I like cats.)

Do you have any pet peeve storytelling cliches?  Any that you've culled from your own work?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Read: Shadow and Bone

So it isn't strictly a #FridayRead since I finished two days ago.  But I can certainly recommend it as a future read for you!

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

By: Leigh Bardugo, about whom more can be found here.  Debut novel.

What's it about?  Magic, monsters, an overwhelming darkness and a girl who can master light.

Why did I pick it? I have a weird obsession with all things related to Russian folklore and Russian culture.  Don't get me started on Russian short fiction, either.  And this book was not only awesome for its own story, but also kind of a giant homage to imagery and tropes familiar to the Russophile.

Who will like it?  Fantasy fans who are looking for something a little different, and nonfantasy fans who like a good yarn.  I may have covered a pretty broad range there.   But so does the story--besides magic and adventure, there is a great story of friendship and love, plus court intrigue.

Judging a book by its cover: Can you for this book?  Most definitely--the image captures the folkloric elements of the story, the importance of darkness, a taste of adventure yet also a refined touch.

What are you reading heading into the weekend?

More on Friday Reads here

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thinking About Sex...In My YA WIP

When it comes to sex in my young adult novels, I've come to the Decision Point.  I'm surprised, honestly that I haven't before--but none of the YA stories I've written or plotted up to this point demanded that I broach the question of what to include and how to include it.  The characters, the situations, the cultures--all of it added up to books where sex just wasn't going to be an issue.

To preface--I have no issue with sex in young adult lit.  Teens have sex.  People writing for teens include this realistic scenario in their work.  Yep.  No biggie.

Still, I do think that every author has to answer the question for herself what she's comfortable including.  I tend to believe that sex isn't always a great choice for teenagers--not in all cases, but often enough to warrant being cautious about how and when I as an author present it.  I don't want to treat it flippantly, nor do I want it to be some hulking Big Deal or Moral Issue.  Yet, regardless, it's a reality for the under 18 set, not only in the deed itself, but in the importance it has as an element to explore, discuss, and become comfortable with in the long awkward adolescent years.  In many ways, there are few stories that can avoid including sex in one form or another.

The fact is, teenagers don't have to have sex to deal with sex.  In my high school years I was a peer leader in a program that, for my abstinence-only-education state, was pretty progressive: The idea was that you can't just tell kids "Don't have sex" without equipping them with the tools they need to follow through on that decision, so we taught critical thinking and assertiveness skills along with emphasizing the point that not having sex was their choice.  (As a sidenote, it "worked" in one of the only measures you can really get on these things--teen pregnancy rates went down in the school districts in which it was employed.)

Of course, some parts were a little trite and we felt silly repeating them.  One of the taglines was "It's ok to think about sex; it's ok to talk about sex; it's only to develop feelings about sex; it's just not ok to have sex now."  Yeah, you feel like a dork stating that in front of a room of middle school students.  But--it's also true of the teenage experience.  For teens not having sex, sex is still a huge part of their world.  They're thinking about it, talking about it, forming ideas and emotions about it.  We have to acknowledge that.

And when you consider that, that even a book without sex still deals with sex (often by virtue of its absence), the cardinal rule of "what do I write" comes out loud and clear: You write what the story needs you to write. You write what's authentic for the characters.

If you're not comfortable exploring certain topics, or believe that they're not good fodder for teenage readers, that's probably not the story you were supposed to write.  I'm not going to judge anyone for that decision--we all make it, whether we think we are or not.  In fact, I respect that decision--to write realistic fiction for teens that explores negative sides of sexual experiences, or portrays sympathetic characters making the choice not to have sex.  We need those books, too--if for no other reason than that they show a very real scenario for many teenagers.

So as to my story?  I'm just going to have to see where these characters want to take things.  Because they're definitely thinking about it and developing some strong feelings whether I want them to or not!  (And, as I repeated so often--"That's ok.")

What do you think?  Is including sex in YA any different from books for adults?  What decisions have you made regarding including--or not including--sex?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Recipes for Writers: Versatile Fruit Tart

I've been thinking about this lately.  A lot of writers I know love to cook (or love good food, or both).  Yet talk about a difficult choice--bake a gorgeous chocolate cake or write?  Make a homemade, from scratch meal or write?  Kitchen or computer?
Kitchen or computer?  The kitchen has a fun red teapot...

I thought about my favorite recipes.  They're versatile, they're easy, they don't take much time.  They get me back to my keyboard quickly.

Then I thought--why are they sitting in the box on my kitchen counter instead of getting shared?  Therefore, a new series: Recipes for Writers.  

Fruit Tart

Recipe Box of Happy
The reason this recipe is so perfect for writers?  One, it's easy.  And it takes barely any hands-on time, so if you have, say, a weekend afternoon to write or an evening after work, you can easily take a fifteen minute break, whip this up, and get back to the words.  Two, it's versatile.  All the ingredients are either pantry staples or totally swappable depending on what you have on hand.  So--no wasting time you could be writing with a madcap dash to the store.  

You Will Need:

1 stick butter, softened
1 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar + at least 2 tbs more for sprinkling
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon
You Choose:
Fresh Fruit: 2-3 pears, peaches, nectarines, plums or apples OR 1 cup berries
1/4 jam or preserves, any kind to coordinate with your fruit choice (apricot is a good all-around pick)

What To Do:

Find a good stopping point in your writing--one that lets you finish a thought but gives you a window to walk back into.

If your butter isn't yet soft, go get it out of the fridge, set it in a warm place, and go back to writing for half an  hour.  Aim for 500 words and when you're done, soft butter.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grease a pie plate or round cake pan.

Prep fruit--slice "hard" fruits, peel if preferred (not required) or measure and sort berries.

In a bowl, combine butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla.  In a smaller bowl, combine flour and baking powder (or do what I do and just add the baking powder to the measuring cup with the flour in it and carefully stir).  Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix thoroughly--you'll get a dough similar to a stiff sugar cookie dough.

Press into the pan.  Arrange fruit on top--I like swirls like this for sliced fruits, or just spread berries in the center, leaving about an inch at the edges.

Mix cinnamon and remaining sugar.  (I like to totally overmeasure this and load up the top, but it's your call.) Sprinkle on top of the tart.

Pop into the oven for 45 minutes.  While it's baking, go write.  Aim for the lofty goal of 1000 words.  Fail and console self with tart, or succeed and celebrate with tart.

Pop tart out of the oven when the dough has baked to a golden brown.  Heat the preserves and spoon over the top, spreading evenly.  Cool and serve, or save in the fridge.

Combos I have used and liked:

Pears with apricot preserves
Nectarines with seedless black raspberry preserves
Blueberries with homemade blueberry compote instead of preserves
Apples with apple butter

After about an hour, you have a delicious tart and a good chunk of manuscript written!  

I cop to stealing inspiration for this format from a friend.  She is an amazing historical seamstress and theater costumer and her awesome bread recipe is literally given in how many cigarettes one should go through between each step.  Ie, "Leave dough to rise.  Smoke three cigarettes.  Punch down."  I need to find a smoker so I can actually make this bread.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Agented: An Update and Announcement and Plea for your Patience

I've been worried about writing this post.

That seems kind of silly, actually, to be worried about sharing good news.  But there it is--worried that this somehow changes things or, worse, sounds awfully braggy.

The skinny: I signed with an agent and am now represented by Jessica Sinsheimer (who is awesome).

Whew, that wasn't so hard.

Needless to say, I am very excited to tackle the next step in my writing career, and very excited to be working with Jessica (did I mention that she is awesome?).

I know that this blog has a short history, but I've been plugging away at this whole writing thing for a while, and though I know there have been times I've been quiet about where I've been at, this was not my first visit to the querying rodeo.  Not by a long shot.  At some point I'll write a big, giant "the long road up until now" post to illustrate this point (including, for instance, that I completely thank the economy tanking and the small business I worked for having to cut hours for providing the time and motivation to get serious about writing...back in 2008).

When it's less of a garbled mess, I might even post "the Call" reflections.  Which I've written down for posterity but, again, garbled mess.

And then there are the things I probably won't post.  A big part of this post is actually an apology.  Because of where we're at with the book, and because I'm a cautious and close-lipped sort of person, I probably won't be posting much in the way of "progress posts" until I have something to share.  I will post more on the project as a whole and fun stuff about writing it and all that jazz, but please be patient with me that, for me, it's just not personally comfortable or professional to slog you through the trenches of agented revision and submissions and all that stuffs.  It's not you.  It's me.

But enough about me--I want to know: What's something, big or small, exciting or just smile-inducing, that's happened recently for you?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

E-Readers: In Which I Am Addicted

A year and a half ago, my husband gave me a Nook for my birthday.  I've never been against the introduction of e-readers, though I probably wouldn't have been quite so early an adopter without his gift.

It's been my constant little companion ever since.

I still love hard-copy books, don't get me wrong.  I love paper and bindings and that inky smell.  I really love old books--I've always chosen to buy vintage or antique copies of classics because they look so darn gorgeous on a shelf.
One of my shelves of pretty old poetry books.  Decorative and  fun to read!

Still, I really love having the Nook.  It comes on vacation with me and amuses me for days with hardly any luggage space taken up.  It can hold the three books I'm reading at once on my bedside table without falling over.  It's a giant help when I'm beta reading friends' projects because I can just pop a pdf on it and go anywhere.  And when I'm reading a Giant Tome my hands don't get tired or fall asleep from trying to hold five pounds of book.

Then it happened--my Nook died.  I'm not complaining, though I did expect that it would last longer than 18 months, and I still don't know *why* it died.  The screen went half-blank and apparently there's nothing that can be done about that.

But as I mentioned, I'm addicted.  I thought briefly about cutting my losses with e-readers and going back to print-only.  I finally have plenty of space in my house for books, after all!  It didn't sit well.  I like the e-reader--I really like it.

So I trolled ebay and bought one barely used for le cheaps and it came with a cute leather cover (bonus!) and I'm happily feeding my addiction again.

New used Nook in pretty case.  With business card holder and pen slot.  Since you need those while reading.
 I think the designers of the case may have over-thought this a bit.
It made me wonder--I never would have thought that I would adopt this technology so early, that I would like it so much, and that it would change how I thought about buying and reading books.  It definitely has.  How have e-readers affected your reading habits--or have they?  

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Books We Went To

Last time I talked about unpacking boxes of childhood relic books and being somewhat struck that, if you based what I would be writing now off of what I read then, you'd be way off.  Then I started thinking about the books that really informed my writing style and how I feel about writing, if not necessarily the subject matter.  You know what?  Many of those books came from long ago in my reading past--many were high school finds--but they weren't in boxes.  Nope, they're on my shelf.

They were the books I was so thrilled to discover and read that I couldn't leave them behind through my moves, and they came with me.

A few of them:

All Quiet on the Western Front.  Even before Downton Abbey I had a soft spot for World War I, and perhaps some of it comes from this book.  Yes, it's a war book with a pretty specific theme and message, and a lot of the scenes are pretty graphic.  But here's the thing--it's also the book that taught me that any prose can also be poetry.  You read Remarque's writing (even in translation, and seriously--kudos to the translator, too) and you find yourself falling into a lyrical cadence in so many spots.  It's hard to read, given the emotional grit of the subject, but it's worth it on so many levels.

A Dark Horn Blowing.  One of the first young adult books I read that had an obvious voice and beauty to the language.  This book was one of the first that I read that I didn't read for plot alone--the language is in and of itself transporting.  You don't need to know the story to know exactly how the characters are feeling, because the author inserts so much subtle emotion and mood into the first-person narrative.  It's beautiful and dark and quietly moving (and a really, really neato story based on various myths).

Suite Francaise.  So many things to say about this book, but what stands out and demands to be noticed are the characters.  Nemirovsky creates these multidimensional, often ethically questionable but always sympathetic, lifelike characters and the insane thing is, she does it so quickly.  In the first of the series (of five, only two of which were finished) she links the story of the flight from Paris in advance of the Nazis together using vignettes featuring a wide array of characters.  There are literally dozens--and when they come back into the story, you recognize them immediately.  Absolutely masterful.  The thing that gets me every time, though, is that she writes a beautiful, understanding, and realistic love story between the wife of a French POW and the German officer billeted in her house.  The moral squishiness of this is wonderful.  And so are the sympathetic characters whom you are rooting for--especially given that Jewish Nemirovsky died in a concentration camp before she could finish the series.  That's right--while hiding from the Nazis she wrote a convincing, beautiful love story starring a German officer and a woman who would doubtless be called a collaborator.  Talk about effective character creation.

There are more--maybe once in a while I'll devote a post to Books That Make My Inner Writer Happy--but these are a few of my favorites.  What are the books that you can point to that opened your eyes to some of the magic of writing?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Books We Came From

It's a time-honored maxim:  With moving into your first house comes moving crap out of your parents' basement.

For a few years my parents been kind enough to store a few things in their house as my husband and I bounced from apartment to Very Nifty 1835 Rental House to, finally, Rather Old 1874 House We Bought.  They're all mine now (yay?) including several boxes of books that had been packed up years ago.

My copy of Ann Rinaldi's Wolf by the Ears
was worn-- I remember re-reading this one.
Unpacking those boxes was kind of like a family reunion--I was excited to see some books I'd missed, surprised to find some that I'd forgotten I'd loved, and there were even some books that I'd forgotten completely and didn't recognize.

What was in the boxes?  Lots of historical fiction and quite a bit of fantasy, too.  The historical fiction didn't surprise me--I remembered reading it a lot as a kid, and since I loved history, it was always a "safe" choice.  There were the American Girl books (of course...didn't most of us read those?) plus a lot of Ann Rinaldi and Scott O'Dell.

I still read some historical fiction today, though I admit that the subjects Rinaldi and O'Dell picked were ones I enjoyed more than a lot of the royal court focus I see in "grown-up" hist-fic--I guess I loved "normal people" stories then and now!

If you haven't read this book, read it!
Even if you're not into fantasy.
A couple of the books I was most excited to find were fantasy--Tamora Pierce's Wild Magic series and Garth Nix's Sabriel.  I remembered Sabriel so fondly that I downloaded it to Nook to read on vacation last summer, and it was just as good reading it as a grown-up!  Interesting, as I don't read much fantasy as an adult--I think I actually prefer the young adult "model" of fantasy to the adult genre.

I've boxed a lot of these back up for the elusive "when I have kids who want to read these" day, and plenty of books from the boxes have been relegated to the "donate" bin (mostly school assignments--I admit I don't have a desire to re-read most of those).

Still, I'm not sure that the books I enjoyed when I was younger explicitly shaped who I am as a writer today.   For one, I read in my youth for the stories more than for the writing style, and while story is important to me as a writer, it's in digging into the writing itself that I really find satisfaction.  (To be honest, I have a feeling if I dove back into some books from my youth, I'd be disappointed--just because my taste has evolved.  Sabriel is an exception, and I recognized even then the extraordinary magic behind Nix's writing--it was one of the first books I remember for the writing, not just the story.)  Something shifted in my high school years in that I started to think more about how things were written and less about what was written.

Second, and maybe more interesting--I write neither historical fiction nor fantasy!  I used to write quite a bit of historical fiction, but the subjects I chose and style I liked weren't compatible with where histfic is right now.  And I've never written fantasy--for some reason it feels over my head.

So while it was a fun walk through memory lane (or memory library), I don't know that it shed any light on "where I came from" as a writer--or perhaps I'm too dense to see it.

How about you?  Are there books from your childhood that shaped your writing, or patterns of reading that you see cropping up in how and what you write?  Ever have the fun opportunity to unpack a box of books like this?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Things Not to Name a Character

One of my favorite parts of developing a new story is naming the characters.  I have noticed, however, that there are a few "rules" of names to avoid that keep things from getting off-track.

1) Created names that are too evocative of real words.  Now, sometimes this can work--you want to hint at a trait or plot point through a name.  Think Greek myths--we know that the story of Arachne is going to relate to spiders because, well, her name basically means spider.  And the storyteller wants us to be aware of this, and it's not a bad thing that we "get it" right away. Often it's either too obvious or unintentional.  When it's too obvious, it can ruin a great plot twist--if, say, it's a giant twist that your character Atalante is actually a reincarnation of the Greek mythological character Atalanta...well, you kinda gave it away too soon.  (PS Wouldn't a contemporary YA based on that myth be kinda fun?  Maybe sparring cross-country runners end up romantically entangled?  There could be apples?  Anyway.)  And when it's unintentional, your readers end up associating your character with things you don't want them to.  I once read a piece with a character named (something like) Aerola and I'm sorry, that's just way too close to a part of the feminine anatomy.

2) Some names are just off-limits.  I was once talking baby names with a friend who happened to like German names, and expressed regret that the name Adolph is pretty much ruined at this point.  (Seriously, Hitler--you not only plunge the world into war and perpetrate the worst genocide history has ever seen, you also ruin a perfectly good name for the rest of us.)  When naming characters, you have to consider what those names mean in a social, cultural, and historical context.

3) Impossible to pronounce names.  Look, it's tempting to get super-creative with naming when you're approaching a story, especially one set in a created world.  I say go for it--create away.  But keep in mind that it's frustrating to readers to approach a name so riddled with apostrophes or crammed with consonants that they can't make heads or tails of how it's supposed to come across phonetically.  It even gets confusing when trying to remember who's who--when you can't rely on your memory to tag a character to a name because the name is so complicated, it spells trouble for a reader trying to enjoy the book.  One of the reasons Martin's Fire and Ice series is so approachable, in my opinion, is because his naming devices are so approachable.  Even people not too big on fantasy could connect to the world and its characters quickly.

4) The same name as another character, or nearly the same name.  So I'm currently reading Lord of the Rings (yes, a little late on that bandwagon).  And can I admit that Tolkien totally threw me by naming both a hobbit and a pony "Fatty" something? I forgot about the hobbit briefly and couldn't figure why the pony was talking.  Yeah, so, careful reading on my part would have avoided that, clearly.  But a) you're not Tolkien and b) even if you were, don't make things harder on your reader by having two Johns or Susans or even every other name beginning with "A."  Vary things up.

What do you think?  Is it ok to break these "rules" or do they make sense for your writing, too?  What about guidelines for a name that works?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How Naming Characters Is Not At All Like Naming A Baby

In case I haven't mentioned, I'm expecting.  This post makes a lot more sense with that info in hand.

To the point--naming babies is harder than naming characters.  I never considered I'd have such a tricky time pinpointing potential names for The Little Stranger, but here I am, a couple months out from zero hour, still dithering on the name front.  Completely unexpected--because character names are never an issue for me.

The Bean hanging with the Giant Bean in Chicago
Our temporary placeholder name, to avoid calling the baby "It" or "The Uterine Parasite" (for some reason that bothered my husband), is "The Bean."  This was easy to come up with, probably because it's not permanent.  We aren't stuck with calling another human being "Bean" for the rest of our lives (nor is the Bean stuck with being The Bean).  Plus I had just looked at one of those food-chart-fetal-growth comparisons and the Bean was, at that point, the size of a bean and I joked about it until it stuck.  (Can I just say I find those charts creepy?  I don't want to know that my baby is the size of a yam.  I like yams.  For eating.  I don't want to think about my baby slathered in butter with cinnamon-sugar topping.)

But that might be one reason character names are so much easier--you pick a name, you run with it, and if it's failing miserably, Word has this incredible function called "Replace."  Suddenly Rosalind is Ruby and Silas is Sawyer and you have a totally different feel in the realm of names.

I think the bigger issue, though, is that characters come fully developed (or you develop them...whichever your preferred manner of thinking about it may be).  They're full-fledged grown-up or mostly grown-up people with personalities, likes, faults, and plot arcs.  They practically tell you their names.  "Hi, I'm your headstrong female protagonist with a stubborn streak and a penchant for sticking up for the underdog but avoid conflict with my boyfriend by employing ill-timed humor and I pretty much refuse to be called something wimpy like Susie or Lily."  (I personally do not think Susie or Lily sounds wimpy, but clearly *somebody* here does.)

I've had to wait it out with some characters to spill it about their names; others blurted them out before I had even quite gotten a handle on whether they were going to be blonde or brunette. Occasionally they get a placeholder name while we suss things out.  But always at the back of my mind the search is for a name that fits the character already in place, a name that readers will identify with and strengthen the image I'm hoping they pick up on.

Yep, naming babies is kinda different.  She's not going to pick this one out for me--the husband and I have to do the hard decision making.  I guess my characters have spoiled me.

So--for fun.  What's your favorite character name you've come up with?  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Claiming Time

We're all busy--with jobs, families, school, kids, volunteering, how do you find time to write?

I say it's all about claiming time.

Obviously, there's the time you devote to writing--either hitting your goal word count or sitting butt-in-chair for a set time each day.  But that isn't what I'm talking about.  It's the other time--the time when you're doing other stuff--that I'm saying you can claim.

Wait a second, you say--I have to be at work from 9 to 5.  Or I'm home working my tail off chasing kids around.  Or even But this laundry HAS to get done.

Yeah, that laundry does need to get done.  Believe me, I hear you, and so does my overflowing hamper.  Here's the thing--you can still claim that time.

I've been painting a lot lately.  The 1870s house that is our new home is beautiful--and covered with kitschy wallpaper and questionable paint choices from the previous owners.  A lot of my time lately has been stripping wallpaper, priming, painting, and other time-consuming but not terribly mentally engaging activities.  About a week in, I made the choice to actively claim that time to think about my WIPs--instead of just zoning out, listening to the radio, or having the TV on the background.

I can't tell you why the previous owners stenciled "Buttons and Brads"
on the wall, except that they were devoted scrapbookers.  Yeah, that had to go.
How much of the stuff that fills your day completely absorbs you mentally?  Yes, you can't space out while creating a presentation for work--but does alphabetizing files really keep you mentally engaged?  You should probably pay attention in class, but walking across campus?  And that laundry--does folding it encompass all your cerebral energy?

If you think about it, there's a lot of time during the day when you're busy...but not plugged in mentally.  And you can claim that time for writing--by brainstorming now, acting out dialogue in your head, or coming at a pesky plot problem from a few different angles, you get to maximize your hands-on-keyboard time.  You can come to your writing with a set plan of attack, a new scene ready to be written, or a solution to an editing issue that's been nagging you.  Plus all that prep time makes me feel absolutely pumped about getting to the laptop and getting some real words out!

As for me, I don't mind that I look like a loon, paint roller in hand, talking to myself as I work out a plot twist.

How about you?  Do you find time you can claim for writing?  Does the multi-tasking approach work for you?  Or does it work better to just set aside the writing time and keep it separate from everything else?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Best-Laid Plans: Outlining

Every writer has answered the question at least once--panster or plotter?

I'm sure there is no right way--maybe there are more efficient ways, or ways that produce more creative twists, or, most likely, ways that are the most right for each individual.  In college I had a roommate who literally outlined every paper down to the paragraph.  Beautiful, typed, complete outlines, and they took forever to create--but the actual paper-writing part was shortened because she already knew what she was going to say.  Me?  I never outlined more than what was in my head already.  Even my thesis outline was pretty much section titles and quick notes.  (I think that drove my advisor batty.)

Still, a novel isn't a five-page essay, a twenty-page paper, or even a thesis.  Despite that, I pantsed at first.  It was what I knew, and what worked for me.  You know what?  It worked for writing novels, too.  Just not very well.

That is, I doubled back a lot.  I struggled to figure out what was missing--sections fell flat, or characters seemed to float in and out a bit too conveniently.  Revision was an arduous process because it was only when the project was complete that I had a full view of point A to point B in the storyline.  There was no pre-laid roadmap to see where the potential detours and road blocks were going to derail the story (and how's that for mixing metaphors?).

So I decided to outline.  I was worried--would it squelch my creative process to outline?  Would I abandon the joy of discovering midway through writing an awesome idea or a great character who wouldn't fit in my outline?  Gulp--but I had to try.

I got a big pretty notebook:

And for my next project sat in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee and did this:

Ugly?  Oh yeah.  Nothing like my friend's immaculate typed outlines.  Mine have squiggles and arrows and boxes and giant parentheses and are probably indecipherable to anyone but me.

But you know what?  All those squiggles and arrows and other inked ephemera make this exactly the kind of outline I need--it's a basic roadmap, but it's still part of the creative process.  It's not about stuffing the story into a rigid box, but letting it develop and branch out and sprout naturally--a lot like pantsing, but in a condensed format.  I include the highlights--the parts where the plot needs to turn or develop--but leave the details to emerge in the writing itself.  This lets me be surprised while I'm writing--and being surprised is one of my favorite parts of writing!

Even though I dreaded trying outlining, it's now one of my favorite moments in the process--when I get to open up my big blue notebook and brainstorm, make notes, and create a map for the novel-to-be.

My ugly outline probably (definitely!) isn't for everyone.  What about you--do you outline?  Are they neat, clean, complete outlines, or more rough sketches?  Or do you toss the map out the window (or turn off the writing GPS) and let yourself write by the seat of your pants?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Plot Crap

If you ever watch a movie with my husband and I, you're very likely, if it's not a great movie and sometimes even if it is, to hear me exclaim at some point, "OK, this is total plot crap, right?"

What do I mean by plot crap?  And does it apply to books?

Are you calling this plot crap?
Plot crap does not mean crappy plot.  In fact, it can often have nothing to do with how well a story is plotted.  A great example of plot crap is the movie Gladiator.  Now, I love this movie.  I love the story, the incredibly orchestrated battle scenes, even the soundtrack.  But the historical facts framing the film?  Total plot crap.  Sure, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus existed...but there are a lot of factual missteps.  There's no evidence that Marcus Aurelius ever wanted to restore the Republic, therefore the basis of the film's struggle is historical plot crap.  (Commodus also didn't die in the arena, but was strangled in his bath.  Sometimes truth really is more interesting than fiction.)

However, most people except for die-hard classical historians will say that, as a movie, Gladiator worked.  We can suspend our disbelief over some facts in order to enjoy a good story.  And really, for many genres, some plot crap is pretty much required.  Science fiction might be based in science, but we stretch the existing facts a little to create an intriguing future world.  Fantasy exists outside of the facts of our world.  Even historical fiction might need a little push to flesh out missing details or make a story flow better.  Sometimes the truth needs a little plus.

You wouldn't guess it was
chockablock full of plot crap from the
poster, would you?
Why, then, do we let some plot crap slide, while other plot crap has us rolling our eyes?  Gladiator worked.  Now try watching The Beginning of the End. This is a science fiction/horror movie from the late 1950s about giant grasshoppers.  Pretty implausible giant grasshoppers, really--at least to my judgement.  They're the accidental byproduct of an agricultural experiment gone awry.  In a lot of ways, there's no more bending of the facts than there was in Gladiator--the writers picked one idea (that you could produce giant plants and bugs with radiation) and ran with it, much like the writers behind Gladiator ran with the idea that an emperor wanted to restore the Republic. But the grasshoppers ring hollow.  Why?

For one, there's a lack of consistency.  If an experiment accidentally created giant grasshoppers, why not giant ants and giant ladybugs, too?  Wouldn't there be other radiation-induced issued to worry about?

Second, the writers asked us to stretch too much.  We're supposed to believe that a large-scale, radioactive agriculture experiment is being carried out in boondock nowhere two "scientists" in a pole barn?  Yeah, I expected at least some barbed wire and some lackeys in lab coats.

Third, the plot crap feels way too convenient.  If you have somewhere you want to get in a story, don't solve the problem with plot crap.  Start with facts, research, and real solutions--and if you need to bridge a gap with plot crap, bridge away.  Just don't make the solution too convenient, or the audience starts to get a little suspicious.

Finally, in Gladiator, the plot crap was nestled among believable, documentable facts.  You wouldn't have thought to question the plot crap unless you knew better or really thought about it.  In badly done plot crap, the writer relies only on plot crap--not real research.

What do you think--is plot crap excusable?  When does it cross a line?  Should authors try to avoid bending the facts at all costs, or can we expect the audience to suspend disbelief sometimes?