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, laundry...so 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?