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Writing Tidbits (and an early New Year’s Resolution) November 18, 2008

Posted by LHK in Atlanta, writing craft.
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Regarding NaNoWriMo, I think it’s all or nothing for me. As in, I throw all of my writing energy and time into it, to the detriment of all of my other projects, or I work on the other projects and let NaNo languish. I’ve chosen the latter.

***

Saturday was the monthly meeting of Atlanta Writers Club. I wasn’t able to stay for all three presentations, but I did catch the first two. First up, Doug Crandell returned to AWC to do a one-hour workshop on the craft of the short story. I appreciated that he hammered home the point that, yes, short stories must have plots — literary fiction included. He usually starts his story with a character, or even with just a single character trait. Then he discovers who or what is the character’s opposing force. The story grows from there. He said he used to write a lot of stories with guns in them; everybody laughed at this, but I’m sure it was uncomfortably true for some of us. Myself included.

Here’s my problematic method of crafting a short story:

1. Find character. Done. Oftentimes, this comes down to “insert an already-created character” (one of my own, I mean. Don’t mistake me for a fanfiction writer).
2. Come up with nebulous idea of the philosophical conflict guiding the story.
3. Recognize that there need to be actual events and settings to prop up said philosophical conflict.
4. Start writing anyway.
5. Write 4000 words based on the character and the philosophical concept.
6. Delete 2000 of the 4000 words.
7. Reach the place where the end of the story should naturally be. From here, there are two options:
8a. Quit writing story and never come back to it.
8b. Throw in a random murder, a suicide, a car accident, an armed robbery, or a dead relative who’s been messing with the protagonist’s mind.

I don’t really aspire to have my name all over the lit journal world or to be in Best American Short Stories (it surprises me to be able to state this sincerely; I tend to be the ambitious type, but I seem to have mellowed a bit lately, or at least channeled all outlying ambition into my YA novels). I’d just like to be able to write a short story that actually is a story, rather than a collection of haphazardly-arranged scenes. And while I figured out long ago that novels with true plot and structure don’t just burst from head to page (unless you’re William Faulkner on his As I Lay Dying bourbon bender, or — and I say this begrudgingly — Stephenie Meyer and her vampire dream), I’ve churned out a lot of literary crap under the delusion that short stories can emerge fully-formed in a single sitting.

So here’s an early New Year’s Resolution: I’m going to unearth all the short story writing advice I’ve internalized over years of how-to-write books and workshops and a whole boatload of fantastic short stories themselves. (One of my favorite online destinations for short fiction is StorySouth, by the way.) I’m going to try to write a short fiction piece with the goal of creating something that is unmistakably a story.

***

Joshua Corin, author of a rather hilarious sounding novel called Nuclear Winter Wonderland, spoke next. He covered the differences and similarities among playwriting, screenwriting, and novel-writing. (Quick primer: in playwriting, dialogue is the focus; in screenwriting, images are the focus; in novel-writing, narrative voice is the focus.) And he’d probably agree with my plan to have a plan for my next short story. At one point, he said, “Even if you don’t know where you are, know where you’re going.” Yes. Also, he stated that just because you have an idea for a novel, story, screenplay, or play, it doesn’t mean it’s time to sit down and start drafting it out. I agree — my ideas need a lot of time to attach themselves to character details and bits of dialogue and description before they’re ready to be put to paper. I feel uncomfortable sitting down to start on something unless I have one or two of those gotta-fit-these-in lines or phrases lying in wait in my head.

I left the meeting feeling inspired to go home and write… something. I wasn’t sure what. I’ve got plenty on my to-do list.

Plus, you know what’s nice? I am actually acquainted with a handful of people at Atlanta Writers Club, so during monthly meetings I actually manage to chat with people rather than just sit with my arms crossed and silently grump about how no one ever talks to me. With every passing year I grow just a little teeny tiny bit beyond the personality I cultivated so well in high school.

***

If you’re even slightly a fan of children’s or YA literature, you should check out the Winter Blog Blast Tour that’s being hosted by Chasing Ray and other fine kidlit-related websites.

Just the latest “why don’t I live in New York City?” moment November 17, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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A British theater company has adapted Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (one of my favorite novels!) into a multimedia stage play.

The Waves is a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues by six different characters. I maintain that the best way to experience the novel is to read the whole darned thing out loud, as I did several years ago. (To be fair, I was marooned in my apartment in Japan at the time, recovering from a running injury. I had nothing but time and headspace to fill.) As the review of this production notes, one might expect a stage play of The Waves to be little more than six different readers dramaticizing the monologues, with moody music played in between. But this one goes far beyond that, and I am jealous jealous jealous of anyone who gets to see it:

While one performer reads from the script, others are occupied in rendering the sights and sounds described in the play’s interior monologues. And surely no ensemble in New York is as multifarious as this one, which works with drill-team precision. Each member appears equally at home in the roles of narrator, silent-movie actor, camera operator, sound-effects maker and on-the-spot dresser and set decorator.

Homemade devices like a bowl filled with water, a fragment of lace or a leafy branch are used to frame faces and body parts, which are then projected in simulcast video to suggest a child peering through foliage, a boy peeking through a window or a terrified girl staring into a puddle. (The performers put on only bits of period costumes — a sleeve or a collar, say — depending on how much is included in the camera frame.) At the same time other performers are shuffling their shoes on stones, perhaps, or flapping sheets or running a finger around the edge of a partly filled glass.

It’s only playing in New York through Saturday. I haven’t checked, but I’d bet you a lot of money that this production ain’t makin’ it to Atlanta.

(I do get to see John Hodgman speak tonight, though. You know, the PC guy from the Mac commercials?)

Book Review: Catalyst, by Laurie Halse Anderson November 14, 2008

Posted by LHK in book reviews.
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Catalyst paperback cover

Catalyst paperback cover. I have this one, and it's signed now!

When she’s “Good Kate,” Kate Malone dutifully attends track practice, makes straight A’s, gets a thrill out of ironing the clean laundry, and smiles through her minister father’s sermons. When she’s “Bad Kate,” though, she goes out on midnight runs, or lusts after her boyfriend, or resents the responsibilities she has to take for her asthmatic brother. Catalyst explores the clash between Kate’s two sides while chronicling the last few months of her senior year in high school.

Her breaking point is finding out that her dream school, MIT — which is, in fact, the only school to which she applied — has rejected her. And that her classmates in AP Chemistry were betting against her acceptance. Ouch. Worse, the combination of a fire at the Litches’ house down the street and Kate’s father’s generosity means that Kate’s grade-school nemesis, Teri Litch, is now taking up residence in the Malone house. And more specifically, in Kate’s bedroom. A tragic accident derails Kate’s future plans even further, and alters her focus and her mindset.

When I heard Laurie Halse Anderson speak the other night (which rocked! which means photos and more discussion of said event are to come!), she talked about how Catalyst was meant to (subtly) underline the phenomenon of first-world teens being so bloody straight-lined toward one path of success — that is, the path of taking all AP classes, getting at least X score on your SATs, going to a prestigious college, and eventually getting a job that makes you a lot of money. She mentioned visiting a school in Michigan where the afternoon announcements featured a list of the most recent college acceptances for graduating seniors. Imagine the pressure. But Ms. Anderson wasn’t sitting in an AP class at the time she heard the daily college announcements; rather, she was in a vocational class where the usual troublemakers and (perceived) underachievers had been sent. One of the girls in the class, briefing Ms. Anderson on the social structure of the school, said, “They don’t mention us on the announcements. They don’t care about us.” This girl was part of the inspiration for Teri Litch.

Another cover (the hardback, maybe?). I like this one better.

Another cover (the hardback, maybe?). I like this one better.

Kate’s character trajectory in Catalyst is predictable, though comfortingly so. If you read the first few pages, you’ll see there’s little else for her to do but come closer down to Earth. And it is a relief when she does, although the journey is difficult.

One of my favorite things about Laurie Halse Anderson’s books are the seemingly mundane details of teenage life that become sneakily revelatory when put in just the right spot. I loved Kate’s experience of getting her first pair of contact lenses and realizing just how many things she wasn’t able to see before. (This happened to me, too. I was thirteen, and I had no idea that I should have been able to see individual blades of grass in the yard when I looked out my bedroom window.) I love Kate’s annoyance and fear at having to merge onto the highway. I love how the school is so overcrowded that seniors have to take lunch period so early in the morning that doughnuts and coffee are served.

A good book. I’d say I liked it better than Twisted, but not as much as Speak. And remember how I was worried that my own novel mirrored Catalyst in some annoyingly coincidental ways? Well, it’s not as bad as I thought, though I think I’ll need to make sure Mitchell is a soccer player instead of a distance runner. And reading Catalyst made me rethink Mitchell’s quest to go to Harvard. A-revising we will go.

***

I think my “currently reading” box is way outdated, or at least not complete. Right now I’m reading Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, which is don’t-want-it-to-end-but-can’t-stop-reading-it fantastic.

November Frustrations November 9, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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Last week, blogging literary agent Jonathan Lyons dared to ask what his readers thought of NaNoWriMo. A lot of vitriol resulted. Man, who knew? The poor, defenseless month of November shrunk away in defeat.

I didn’t want to sully the comment box there with my long-winded, wishy-washy sorta-opinion on NaNoWriMo.The concept of the event is so simple that for years it seemed like it was above criticism. In my mind, in a way, it still is. Fast-drafting is a perfectly normal way for writers – professional or not – to pound out the first draft of a story. Writing between 1500 and 2000 words a day is fairly normal output for most habitual writers. And few people expect to be able to go from idea to polished novel within the span of thirty days. I think most NaNo-novelists are realistic about what the quality of their output will be, and I doubt that NaNo has been solely responsible for the uptick in the amount of dreck in agents’ and editors’ slush piles over the years. Probably the personal computer and the relative accessibility of the publishing industry through the Internet have been the major culprits where the problem of bad novels escaping into the world is concerned.

Of course, one could also argue that a mass writing event can only be as good as its participants. And if said mass writing event is offered to the general denizens of the Internet, you’ll attract a lot of people who have a passing interest in writing, or who like the idea of the 50K challenge, but who do not habitually read and who do not study the craft of writing, and the discussions on the forums tend to be a reflection of this. Questions often fall along the lines of “Has anyone ever written a novel in present-tense?” or “Is it possible to have more than one narrator in a novel?” and it seems like the few people in the “Literary Fiction” subforum who were actually writing literary fiction have been scared off by the masses of newbies who have unwittingly redefined literary fiction as “manuscripts in which plot has been replaced by Livejournalesque rambling.”

And, yeah, I haven’t followed my own advice to stay away from the general forums. It’s just my instinct to jump to the defense of first-person point-of-view or writing a novel in present tense every time I see those techniques maligned. I swear I’m trying to quit.

***

Speaking of NaNoWriMo, I doubt I’m going to hit the 50K this year. This afternoon I wrote about 600 words to bring me up to a little over 7000 total, but that’ll probably be as far as I go with it today. I’ve just got too many other things on my plate to worry about scrambling through a first draft of Rob’s Day Out! And by the way, Rob’s Day Out! has not been a terribly interesting novel so far. I suppose I should have had something more than the title in mind when I began it. Also, the idea that the entire story is going to take place in twenty-four hours was another brilliant way to set up a creative roadblock for myself. So far, the one amusing thing that happened (Rob follows a truck towing a trailer full of llamas, and eventually winds up surrounded by said llamas in the parking lot of a McDonald’s off I-85 in north Georgia) was born from a suggestion made by my writing pal Erin. Rob escaped from the llamas before 7 AM, thus leaving me with many, many more hours of his day out (!) to fill up. And with what? I’m not sure.

Maybe if nothing else, I’ve at least learned that Rob worked best as a supporting character in my stories. He’s a more action-oriented character than any of my other main characters have been, and it’s difficult for me to write about characters like that. Rob is low on personal demons, self-doubt, and paranoia. If there are going to be enough conflicts in his life to fill a novel, they have to come from external rather than internal sources. And where’s the fun in that?

***

Also, three points of excitement!

1. I’m typing this on my brand-new MacBook Pro. It’s so light! And bright! And widescreened!

2. After 3.5 years of being a blonde, I am back to being a brunette. And a darker one than before, for that matter. One day soon I’ll share some photographic evidence.

3. I’m going to hear Laurie Halse Anderson speak tomorrow night!

Weekly Bookstore Jamboree – Week 5: Anatomy of a Write-In November 2, 2008

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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There's a dead cat in my current novel. This book's title sometimes haunts me.

Bookstores visited: Borders on Cobb Parkway in Smyrna
What I bought: a chai latte
What other people bought: I didn’t get to observe the checkout area, but I did get to see a lot of other people buying coffee. And by “coffee,” I mean, of course, French vanilla lattes and mochas and cappuccinos and such.

What I looked at: Mostly, I was there for a NaNoWriMo meet-and-greet / unofficial write-in, rather than to look at books. What’s a write-in, you ask? Basically, it’s a NaNoWriMo-invented event wherein a bunch of crazed novelists gather at a particular spot and write fiction in the presence of each other’s tacit support. Occasionally, there’s a word war: everyone tries to write as many words as they can within, say, fifteen minutes. Since this meet-up took place before NaNoWriMo began, no one was doing a frantic first draft, so there was no cause for a word war. I worked (slowly) on a strange flash fiction piece about a dead dentist, as well as a YA short story called “The Understated Unraveling of Mercedes Moreno.”

We did grab a few books from the writing reference section: the obligatory copies of the NaNoWriMo handbook No Plot? No Problem, as well as Robert McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! I mentioned both of those in my last post, didn’t I? They’re about screenwriting, but more specifically, they’re about the plot backbones of stories that work. I generally suck at creating good, working plot backbones. Even in the case of “The Understated Unraveling of Mercedes Moreno,” I’ve got three central characters, an opening conflict, and a foggy idea of the story’s goal. As usual, the characters have come to me fully-formed (which isn’t hard, as I’ve been writing about Mercedes, her sister, and the other people in her life for years and years), but the direction in which the story will go has yet to be determined.

That’s my usual operating mode for writing fiction: the characters come first, and then either a theme or a conflict will emerge. How I go about dramatizing that theme or conflict is dealt with eventually. I’m not ashamed of this method, although it does make for slow going in terms of finishing anything. I think it’s also why I took an unintended break from fiction writing for a long time in college and into my early twenties — when I was younger, I felt it was okay to play around on the page with characters and undramatic situations (e.g., I once wrote an entire “story” composed of scenes of different characters waking up. How did one character’s typical morning differ from another character’s typical morning? I found it fascinating). Years later, I decided I didn’t want to write such aimless fiction anymore, but when I realized I didn’t know how to take my fiction from aimless to, uh, aimful, I just quit. I switched my focus to writing for my website, and didn’t look back for many years.

How I got back to fiction, and how I braved the territory of real plots for the first time, is a post for another day.

For reference about plotting, though, Save The Cat! author (and fellow WordPress user) Blake Snyder has a recent blog post about finding the “spine” of your story.

What other people looked at: A lot of people come to Borders on Sunday morning to sit in the coffee shop area and read magazines. Who knew? Others were doing work on their laptops. Someone was reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

Bookstore notes:

The Cobb Parkway Borders is a very strange place: if you take the first right into the maze of shopping center, as I did, you wind up on the bottom floor of a parking garage, with no way to drive up to the second floor. It looked like a good place to get one’s car broken into. Some bits of glass near the stairway were strong evidence for this theory. I parked anyway, figuring there were enough other people trickling in to divert any thieves’ attention from my wee Nissan. I took the stairs to the Borders entrance, where shoppers are greeted with a bin of bargain books and a tall escalator. Everything else – the non-bargain books, the coffee shop, the checkout – is on the second floor. Like the shopping center as a whole, the second floor is a maze. I gave up looking for the YA section. The coffee shop area is pretty great, though, and it includes an expansive patio.