The Stories Begun











Since I wrote Stars in Their Houses (my version of “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” or, as it’s better known, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), a lot of things have changed in my public life. I’m now out publicly as pansexual and non-binary, I’m married to a wonderful man, and I’ve been part of a beautiful essay series about diversity in fiction (which had a second “season” this year that is far more expansive than the first and pretty phenomenal). A LOT of the last few years have been about recognizing the complexity and diversity in my own life and where I might be erasing/ignoring it in other places in my life. This was already something really important to me when I was writing Stars, but I have about three more years of experience, research, and education. It’s appallingly apparent where I didn’t just fail, but actively refused to see the reality of my characters because of comfort zones and fear.

So, in the editing process, a lot of things are changing. And I know that, should this manuscript ever see public light, it’s going to get some serious throwback about things like “diversity for diversity’s sake,” “forced diversity,” or “self-insertion.” I know this is going to happen. And it’s going to hurt. But it will be so worth it because diversity fits my narratives. This is no more self-insertion than the reality that three of the characters in the narrative have bi-polar disorder. Sure, I wrote that because it’s something I know, but I wrote the girls as they presented themselves (in this case).

Where I didn’t write the girls as they presented themselves was in the matters of sexualities and genders. Since the beginning of the writing process, I knew one of those twelve sisters was transgender. However, I stifled that response because a) fear of reactions and b) fear that I might mess it up. Now, this was before I had come to terms with being trans myself, so I have a bit more confidence in that second area and I care a lot less about the first fear. I still know, for sure, that I want to make it clear that the transgender sister wasn’t socialized to be a girl by being around eleven other girls and she wasn’t forced into being a female by parental expectation, but that she was, is, and always shall be a girl. Also, that she’s a LOT more interesting as a person than this one part of her. At the same time, I don’t want to erase this part of her identity, which would be easy to do because she is post-transition. That was one of the reasons I justified not explicitly writing her reality into the text initially and that is NOT OKAY. This balance of visibility and complex characterization is a challenge I don’t know exactly how to meet, and I know I’ll meet it imperfectly, but I also know that I’ll do my best to meet it as well as I can.

When it comes to sexuality . . . welp, that was a background static in my writing: “not all these girls are straight and by the way, you aren’t either.” But I so thoroughly quashed this authorial instinct (and personal truth) that I have NO IDEA which girls are what. None. In this aspect, I am going to have to approach the editing process as a truly new narrative I’m writing. I know the narrative is going to be WAY better in the long run for this entirely new story being told. I know this isn’t diversity for diversity’s sake but a true reflection of who these women are. I know I will be a happier artist and person when this is over. But it’s going to be rough and I know – again – that I will meet this challenge imperfectly. I commit to listening and changing when someone tells me I’ve screwed up in the portrayals (Don’t worry, I also commit to fully ignoring someone who tells me I’ve screwed up by including LGBTQIA individuals in my writing). Worth it. All the way.

The only time diversity would be forced in my writing would be if I forced it out the door, the way I did in my initial draft. That’s not my narrative; it’s a false narrative. I’m really tired of being lonely for the sake of a false narrative. Diversity is my narrative and therefore it fits within my fictional narratives.

I really hope you fit in there with me.

~RJL

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{September 5, 2013}   Fandom and Head-Canon

Okay, drawing back the writing curtain for a minute.  I usually don’t talk about my process/views on the art’s interaction with readers this much, but this is important to how I read and write, so why not. You have been warned – there’s a heavy mix of academics and fandom in this.

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I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on my writing, so it completely makes sense that the writing blog got put aside. It may also be that I’ve been writing less here because when I get depressed I internalize so much that I don’t even write–and if anything can be said of this year, it is that it’s been an adventure in depression and working through it–but only enough to work on Stars.

So, a few months ago, I was in a race to finish this project that had been absolutely kicking my butt for over a year: the second story in my thirteen story series of faerie tale adaptations. Strains of a Sonant Storie is my writing baby. I have a lot of projects I have worked on and care about, but none so deeply important to me as Strains. The theory of Strains is as much about taking some well-known (and intrinsic to my childhood) tales, some lesser-known (also intrinsic to my childhood) tales and writing them in fun, different ways as it is about taking the stories that sit in my heart and finding a way for me to own their existence in my life. I literally have been studying faerie tales and mythology since before I knew what studying was.  I need to tell these stories as much for me as I do for other people.

Stars in Their Houses (my adaptation of The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces, or The Twelve Dancing Princesses) was an exercise in just about everything strange and wonderful in the evolution of a manuscript. When I built Strains as a project back in college, I had just the one tale I planned to tell in a modern context, an adaptation of The Frog Prince. Those plans haven’t changed–I’m still rather excited about my plans in that area. No, it was the plans for Stars that changed dramatically. I was in the middle of scripting out Scarlett (the Little Red Riding Hood adaptation), actually.  I wasn’t even thinking about Stars when it changed so forcefully that I could not work on anything else.

One of the forceful changes was the modernization.  The other was bouncing to and fro between a truly shameful amount of narration styles and narrating characters–third-person omniscient, third-person limited, first-person narration by the mother/youngest sister/oldest sister, to name a few–before realizing that this story belonged to ALL the major players. The story could not live if I didn’t give each sister a voice, nor would it be complete without the soldier. Yes, I had thirteen voices racketing around in my head while I wrote.  And yet another twelve peripheral characters who danced in and out at their whim, bringing little gems of themselves to be used in the story as I liked.  All of these wonderful characters, who I loved so dearly, were clamoring to tell me their back stories and futures and arguing with my decisions about them and showing me their true character with little anecdotes that just had to make it into the script or how was the reader going to understand them?

My head was a busy place.

And it would have stayed that way, but for one of the best decisions I’ve ever made: I put a strict, conscious moratorium on head-canon.

As an occasional fan-fiction writer and full-time head-canon lover, part of me screamed: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! THIS IS THE ONE WORLD YOU HAVE FULL RIGHTS TO AND OWNERSHIP OF! THIS IS WHEN YOU PLAY TO YOUR HEART’S DELIGHT, NOT HOLD BACK! In many ways, that part of my brain was right: If ever, this was the time.

And yet, every time I found myself wandering into the back (or future) stories of characters, I would ask myself: Does this matter? Will it make it into the manuscript in some way, shape, or form?

If the answer was no, and it often was, I put down my planning pen and typed out another paragraph or two in the story.  I would only pick up my pen again if it was absolutely necessary, and not in that Danny Kaye sort of way.  If the answer was yes, on the rare occasion it was, I would scratch out long-hand what it was about the character I needed to know, what event affected how they interacted with other characters, or what time/culture determined the zeitgeist the character exemplified. Then, I typed another paragraph or two to keep me from moving on to the back story of another character.

This was hard. In some ways, it was torture for me because I like things to be complete.  So, a back story for one or two of the twelve dancing partners made me long for the back story of all of them.  College plans for Leoné (sister number seven) made me hurriedly pick up my pen to detail exactly what each girl would do post-secondary . . . and then throw the pen back down because NO!  Leoné’s future is important because reasons that I will not spoil and defining and the culmination of her and another sister’s plot depends on said sister sister waving Leoné’s future career in her face.  In fact, that moment for Leoné is vital to the end of the entire novel ending as it does, and it all hinges on her interrupted college plans.  Pisca (sister number eight, pronounced PISH-uh, for those wondering) also has some schooling relevancy to her plot.  Her skills enable the other sisters to get to the world below.  Of course her schooling is important.

Do you know whose schooling matters other than those two? No one’s. I mean, it’s significant that the older girls took over the secondary education of the younger girls once Mom went SUPER crazy, because it isolates this poor family even more (which is SO necessary to their commitment to escapism in the world below), but post-secondary education REALLY DOESN’T MATTER for the other ten girls.  And it kills me not to figure it out.

So why don’t I?

Because of you, dear reader.

Well, and because of JK Rowling.

But mostly you.

Backing the truck up, I promise.  I grew up as part of the Harry Potter generation and did the whole midnight release madness several times (although, one less time than my father did because HE STOOD IN LINE TO GET THE FOURTH BOOK TO ME RIGHT AWAY BECAUSE HE IS AWESOME AND THE PERFECT FATHER) and, frankly, I just don’t care for him anymore.  Even less than I did at the time I wrote this.  It’s not because he wasn’t a big deal in my teen years or that it wasn’t a joy for my friends to finally understand what reading for fun was, but because HE’S ACTUALLY NOT THAT GOOD. Also, because I HATE HOW ROWLING IS A MASSIVE CONTROL FREAK. She makes fun of non-canon shippers in interviews!  She still gives information out about the future and pasts of completely non-essential characters, not to mention main characters!  She wrote that stupid freaking epilogue because she just couldn’t handle her readership seeing anything about her books other than the way she does! Argue all you want that interviews are not corpus and therefore not canon, but interviews wherein she definitively states the futures of characters are symptomatic of her complete and total distrust of readers (see also: Dumbledore (or any character) being gay everywhere but in the books.)

I NEVER EVER want to be like this.

Because you exist, readers.  I write these books for me, but I share them for and with you.  I trust you with my books and short stories.  Not only that, but I give them to you so that your imagination can bring them to life in a way I cannot and will never be able to do. It is your imagination, your personalities, and your existence as individuals and ‘teams’ and a collective that gives my story meaning beyond “taking the stories that sit in my heart and finding a way for me to own their existence in my life.”  Sure, that’s what they mean to me.  In Stars, the characters mean even more to me because I built a lot of the characters’ isolation around their mother’s health problems – health problems I’ve been dealing with since I was young.

But that’s what they mean to me.  To you, it could be the freedom the girls seek that’s significant.  It could be their relationships with each other.  It could be the dichotomy of their attempts to escape the fatalistic nature of their names as well as how they desperately cling to those names.  It could mean something entirely different to you and, more than anything as an author, I WANT IT TO.

I want my work to mean something to you so badly that I am willing to let go of my instinct to complete things and invite you to complete it in your head.  You will never catch me saying, “Oh, this IS what happens after the last page.”  Nope.  Nuthin’ doin’.  If I ever get asked, “So what happens with blah-blah-blah, or what happens in so-and-so’s life?” my response will be simple: “I don’t know, but what do you think?  I’ll trade theory for theory.”

Because I don’t know.  Because what happens to so-and-so in your head is just as valid as what happens to them in mine.  The book is over.  I told the story I needed to tell. You read the story you needed to hear. Your future for the characters is just as, if not more, important than mine is because YOU are the one who brought life to the characters outside the walls of my mind.  My mind limits my universe.  Your mind expands it.

Now we get to the academic part:

Stories live well past the life of the author.  The fact that there are so many stories without known authors is proof of this fact.  What makes these stories live?  Is it the fact that they were stored somewhere on a page or skin?  Probably not, seeing as the oral tradition is still our strongest tool for dissemination of information (though not necessarily correct information), despite the advent of the internet (hello, Youtube and Vimeo and Instagram Video, etc, etc, etc – even the internet recognizes the ultimate power of the oral tradition).  In fact, Strains of a Sonant Storie is named and written out of respect for those oral traditions! Stories live because the words of the many, not the few, keep them alive and I would be a consummate fool to ignore that, especially in the face of the origins of the stories I am adapting.  The author (you can easily insert artists of any kind here), upon presenting their work to a public (however small that public may be), is relinquishing control of their work to the masses, and doing so because they realize that stories need an audience to properly live.

This is the contract that I believe exists between every writer and every reader, no matter the novel.  In my head, Neville marries Luna.  That’s it.  That’s the future of the books I read.  In my head, Silas Lapham rebuilds his business, but never re-enters society because he knows the person he became in pursuit of it.  In my head, Penelope and Irene Lapham do enter society and, while Penelope is never accepted by anyone except her husband, Tom, Irene shines (but only because she ignores the darker costs of being in society).  That’s the future of the book I read.  Is that how Howells imagined the future? I don’t know – he’s too dead to ask.  Is that how Rowling imagined the future? I know it’s not, but I do not care.  The books I read ARE NOT the books she wrote.  And therefore, by trying to control how I relate to those books, she is violating the contract between writer and reader.*

I respect that contract too much to ever tell you something about a character’s future or past outside the manuscript definitively.  If it’s relevant, it’s in the manuscript.  If it’s not: decide for yourself.  If you disagree with my interpretations of my own characters: write a new ending!  Those characters are not the characters I wrote – they are the characters you read.  And I want you to be happy with their endings.

I want to uphold my side of the contract by declaring it is NONE OF MY BUSINESS how you think the characters’ lives turn out.  Unless, that is, you wish to tell me.  Then, please, share.  I can’t wait to hear what you think about their respective futures.  Oh, and I promise I’ll be speculating right there with you, trading theories back and forth.  Because the other part of that important contract is this: in return for the favor of bringing my work to life in a way I never could, I engage with you.  Outside of writing more manuscripts, you are my highest concern because you gave me a gift I could not have purchased/achieved/made on my own. The head-canon of the fandom IS what made/will make the book, so it is something I not only respect and encourage, it is something I love and protect.

Right now, my fandom is very small.  It’s a group of friends who are wonderful, amazing second and third readers (not to mention the best cheerleaders I could ask for).  When it gets bigger, though, this contract will still be in effect.  So, to my prospective readers who will have Stars in Their Houses, or other Strains from the Stories, in their hands one day: I have no idea what happens after my books end, and really only a vague idea of what happened before they began. I can’t wait until you figure it out, because I’m just as curious as you are. I want to hear your theories.

I know this was all very dense and a bit strange.  I know that my academic-esque look at the contract between author and reader flies in the face of creative ownership/intellectual property.  But it’s important to me that you, as my existing and potential readers, know that I believe – in a very academic, fundamental sense – that you are as important to the life of my creations as I, the creator, am. You always will be.  This is who I am as an author.

Best of luck to all you dear people (and in the hopes that, one day soon, we’ll be swapping theories),

RJ

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Okay, this went on way longer than intended.  But I’m happy with it.

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*Let it be known that I respect the hell out of Rowling as a person.  Her efforts on behalf of under-represented groups are nothing short of astounding.  Her giving attitude when it comes to money is admirable.  I like Rowling, the Person.  I do NOT like Rowling, the Artist.

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By the way, the faerie tale re-writes got put on hold because of a wedding and summer season of rodeo.  I really thought I could get them done around the wedding activities and before the summer season.  Thankfully, winter season has arrived.  Less thankfully, I’m moving at the end of this month so PACKING AND CLEANING FRENZIES FOR EVERYONE.  After THAT, though, I should be able to do my two months things as, again, I will not be participating in NaNoWriMo because that would actually hurt the progress of Stars in Their Houses, while this project will help.  Thank you for your patience and I hope that the me behind this curtain is an author you can like and/or respect. This was actually very scary for me because I really care about you as readers and revealing so much of my process and how I see my art’s relationship with you feels very . . . naked. Take care! ~RJ



{March 15, 2013}   Calling all faerie tale fans:

I need some help.

As you might notice, it’s been a while.  I tried to get a couple things prepped in January, but I was doing an INSANE sprint to finish up the first draft of Stars in Their Houses before the month was over.  We’re now in the pre-editing stage (otherwise known as “ignore it” OR, more accurately, “give myself some breathing room because I was about to crawl inside the manuscript and live there”) and I’ve been working on some other projects to make sure I 1) don’t get out of the writing habit and 2) to make sure I don’t get into the habit of *just* that style.  I went back to one of my pet projects (it’s something like eight years old and has been through three revamps and I just can’t give it up) and really sat down with the characters.  They’re finally who they’re supposed to be in my head.  Now that I have a grasp on them, it’s time to put them away until the editing of my draft has at least gone through round one.  I have a short that has some very fun characters that I’m loving and working on giving a strong ending, rather than a happy one.

That concept–strong endings–and this video put me onto my final project that I’m going to take on before getting back into Stars in Their Houses.  As I’ve talked about on this blog, faerie tales and myths are a specialty of mine.  I’ve not just been involved in a life-long love affair with them, I’m also good at seeing the creepy, nasty parts of the originals and understanding why those things were part of the cultural ethos and how that heritage is even relevant in the world of today.  I love the fact that my ancestors laughed at the dark and made it something easier to deal with.  Myths and faerie tales, for all the flaws they expose, are important.  This is why I decided to tackle some of the lesser known ones along with some of the better known tales in my Strains of a Sonant Storie series, which is the whole reason I started this blog.

As you might imagine, that’s one of my reasons to dislike Disney.  I LOVE Disney.  LOVE IT.  It may be a little Stockholm Syndrome-esque, but the love is there.  I also don’t like Disney very much because of what they’ve done to faerie tales.  It’s tough to see some of the most beautiful moments and lessons taken out.  The faerie tales of become sanitized and neutered.  EXCEPT: Disney can’t help it.  Some of that darkness does still bleed through.  Whether they intended to or not, some of those tougher lessons really do exist in the background or would exist if the movies didn’t end at “happily ever after.”  In order to convince us that that happily ever after stays happy, they make sequels!  BAH!

So here’s where this project comes in.  Right now, any time I think faerie tale+writing it equals Stars in Their Houses.  I don’t want that perspective going into the edit.  I want faerie tale+writing=good, well-researched writing.  I don’t want it to be about Stars in Their Houses, I want it to be about good story telling with a firm understanding of what’s going on in the faerie tale/source material.  I can’t do that if I have preconceived notions about the tale rather than just working with the material I have.  To stretch myself, I’m going to take five of these ruined versions of the faerie tales and write what happened AFTER the ending based on a close watching of the movie itself with NO BACKGROUND READING (this will be almost impossible for me, just so you know).  I need help choosing which five Disney movies I’m going to do this for, so please help me choose!

Rules for candidacy:

  • Must be a Disney film (sorry, Fox/Dreamworks).
  • Must be fully animated (no Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Song of the South).
  • Must be based off a myth or faerie tale, NOT THE LIFE OF A PERSON THAT WAS MYTHOLOGIZED (sorry, Mulan and Pocahontas, for what they did to you).
  • Must be based off a myth or faerie tale plot, not an extrapolation of fae/myth stories (so, not Atlantis).
  • Must be based off a myth or faerie tale, not a novel (so, Alice in WonderlandPeter Pan101 Dalmations, etc are all out).

Rules for me:

  • I’ll go with the vote.   The top five vote winners (through facebook and these comments) will be what I do.  Even if I hate the movies.  Only exception, if an illegal movie gets a ton of votes.
  • Each movie gets a watch and a note-taking watch.  I promise, I’ll research it right.
  • I need to get them all done within two months.
  • Post them on here after one more watch of the film to be sure I stayed true to the characters.
  • Do the characters justice (or, in other words, no word requirements/limits, it’ll be as long as it needs to be).
  • After the ending means just sometime after, there’s no reason to start right after the movie ends.  Also, no reason to start at the end of the characters’ lives.  So don’t.  Choose a reasonable situation that might happen anytime in the futures of the characters.

So, vote!  Choose what three movies you would like to see me work with and remember: these are the Disney movies.  Be sure you want me to deal with the characters as Disney wrote them and the story as Disney wrote it.  Don’t be thinking, “Well, I know she knows the background on such and such so that one would be cool!”  I’m doing my best not to let that influence me, so no thanks!

The top five movies picked by Friday of next week will be the ones I use, so get your votes in here or on facebook NOW!

~RJLouise



{May 10, 2011}   For the sake of continuity,

And because I can think of nothing else, I want to talk about goals.

Last week I talked about making (and a little bit about breaking) deadlines, especially those that we impose upon ourselves.  These deadlines are the direct results of goals we make.

This week, my goal is to write two blogs a day.  If I manage to do that, I’ll be on schedule!  Not just for my blogs as usual, but also for all the ridiculous behind-the-scenes blogging I’m doing before my trip to Europe (I fly out five weeks from tomorrow!!!).   So far (as in, the one day of the week that has completed), I have kept that goal.  It was a near thing, not because I posted at nine minutes to midnight like last week, but because I almost convinced myself that three posts today wouldn’t be so bad.  This may yet be true.  I might decide to get ahead of myself and do three today so that I’ve done fifteen posts by the end of the week.  However, a goal is not about averaging out.  That is one of the best ways to get almost helplessly behind in a goal, trust me.

Goals are about making the goal.  Extra is bonus.  Extra should not be done until the original goal is made.  I know this sounds intuitive, but say that you have three papers due by the end of the week, one is due in two days, the others in three.  You decide it best to do two pages of all three papers, then use the extra time to devote to the paper you connect best with.  This is a great plan.  You may end up getting the paper that’s due in two days done a day early, or one of the others two days early and out of the way.

Then, when you get down to the work, you find you really connect to paper number two.  And, thinking it couldn’t possibly hurt, you decide to move on past the second page to the third and fourth and fifth and before you know it the paper is done, you’re exhausted, and the third paper has yet to be touched.  That’s a terrible plan execution.  Now, you’ll have to rush through the end of the first paper to give yourself semi-adequate time on the third paper.  However, had the hypothetical you gone on to the third paper, you may have found some interesting connections for paper two when you weren’t concentrating so hard on it (seriously, project blinkers can be such a problem).  Or, you could have discovered that paper three was the one you connected best with!  Or, you could have given yourself a small break and gotten the second paper done faster once you came back to it with no harm to your timing for papers one and three.

This is just a hypothetical illustration (based on many years of finals in college) of why goals are important to fulfill exactly.  Averaging out will end up with average results.  There is a temptation to justify doing the extra first with the excuse “It keeps a rhythm going.”  Non-hypothetical example: the possible third blog I want to work on today is one of the blogs for The Stories Begun while I am on vacation.  Yes, keeping the mindset of “author” verses “reviewer” (which is the planned second blog today) would be easier.  But I doubt it would be better.  I really do need to get that review done, if only to free me up to read this week’s book without feeling guilty and dwelling on last week’s book.  Also, if I do two posts for this blog, I can almost guarantee I’ll not be able to get into the mode I need to be in for Awake in the Pages of an Endless Library.  And, as I said earlier, it might be beneficial for the second The Stories Begun post to take a break.

You may have noticed that I keep harping on jumping between projects being a good thing, yet I titled this post, “For the sake of continuity.”  Good get.  I wholeheartedly believe that continuity is best maintained by taking these breaks.  If, as writers, we lose ourselves in projects so singularly that we forget about any other creative outlets–what I called “project blinkers” earlier–we find ourselves stagnating more often than not.  Some problems can only be solved by taking several steps away and turning our backs for a time.  This is why having several projects running at once is healthy.  If we have nothing to turn to, our minds will stay on the project even if our fingers do not.

Of course, this method, while maintaining its own kind of continuity, will bring in other continuity flaws.  I maintain that it will bring in less.  And, for those that it does bring in, that’s what’s editing is for.  Don’t worry about it.

And now, bringing this back to goals: have them.  Jumping around is no good if there isn’t a solid goal in mind.  Without the goal the switching back and forth will be purposeless and, worst of all, the flaws of both methods (singular-minded concentration and multiple projects) will combine.  I would not recommend this course of action.

Now go find something you want to do and DO IT!

~RJLouise



Can you believe that I forgot it was Tuesday until 11:24 at night and that I had a blog due out in 36 (now 30) minutes?  How do I forget it’s a day FOR AN ENTIRE DAY, excepting the last half hour?  College students will easily be able to answer this.  We’ve done it time and again with assignments.  As someone with a full-time job now that college is temporarily over (yay Masters!), I was enjoying having this not happen.  The date I would forget, but that’s always been a problem.  The day?  Not so much . . . usually.

So, in honor of my awesome biff, we get to talk about deadlines (26 minutes).

The deadlines I find I most often miss are the self-imposed deadlines.  I mean, does anyone really care about those?  (The answer is YES, I cared enough to put it on, pay attention, dolt!)  These are the deadlines I regret missing the most.  Not because the repercussions are that significant–often the self-imposed deadlines are just deadlines I have moved up an hour, day, week, etc.–but because I feel like I’m not doing myself justice.  I’m allowing myself to be lazy with myself.  This is not a good habit for a writer, especially a writer who is not employed as such.  I write because I want to and therefore I need to write to my deadlines because no one else is going to give me one (24 minutes)!

Then again, sometimes, deadlines are INCREDIBLY fun to miss.  To flat-out ignore a deadline can be incredibly freeing (don’t you dare tell your teacher/editor I said that–they will kill me).  It allows you to do work the way you want to instead of the way someone else thinks you should.  Go for it!  Don’t blame me if there’s a sudden uprising and you end up dead.  Just saying (20 minutes).

I suppose it all depends on your outlook on what is important and what isn’t.  Is your writing important?  Yes?  Quit missing your deadlines–especially the ones you put on yourself (19 minutes).  No?  Have fun (18 minutes)!  Is your art important?   Yes?  Use the deadline to motivate you, not scare you (still 18 minutes).  No?  What are you doing with deadlines anyway (17 minutes)!?  Are you doing this for a job?  Yes? HELLO!?! (16 minutes).  No? Consider the other questions before deciding what to do with your deadline (still 16 minutes).

Oh, and silly as this may seem after all this fuss, stop watching the clock!!!  It’s distracting, demotivating, doesn’t help you or your writing, and–above all–it SHOWS.  Perhaps not as clearly as what I’ve done here, but watching the clock shows in your writing.  If you’re under a deadline, push through.  Get rid of every clock you can, put a piece of tape over the one on your computer if needs be, and just type.  Keep going.  You’ll get so much more done that way and things will flow much better.

I appreciate that this will be more difficult than actually making your deadline.  But, once again, I encourage you to miss it if you have to the first few times.  Learn how to write under pressure without clock-watching.  Take time out of the equation.  The pressure you put on yourself should be only from yourself to be better.

That’s the only “deadline” I can think of that will NEVER be fully met.  But it’s something to keep reaching for.

Luck!

~RJL

P.S. 9 minutes



{April 12, 2011}   Excising the artiste.

When Kitty Burns Florey graduated from high school, there were Great Expectations for her future.  She had Potential.  She could become a true WRITER.

When she arrived at college, a kind and wise professor sat her down and explained why the writing style she had learned in high school was not the kind of writing the college professors or any editor was looking for.  Florey credits this as an hour that truly changed her life. (Story adapted from Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey.)

I think many artists do this.  They make life more complicated.  Recently, on one of my favorite webcomics, the artist tried something new with his art.  I thought it was awesome.  A lot of the readers, though, felt like the story was unclear.  So, in a nod to “the consumer/customer is always correct,” the artist changed the last panel.   He said on his twitter that he “outsmarted” himself.

I think that’s a perfect description, across all arts.  We who create outsmart ourselves, trying so hard to be of a certain caliber that we ruin our art.  In writing the fault is often found in sentence construction and convoluted plot.  Of course, there are all kinds of other faults.  Painfully obvious symbolism, forced metaphors, and ridiculous epic cycles are problems that are easy to pick out and common enough.  I believe this happens when we try to be, or what we perceive to be, a true artist or, as I like to spell it (as it avoids excessive italicizing), artiste.

This is not to say we cannot challenge ourselves in our art.  The artist of All New Issues, Bill Ellis, was trying something new.  For a few of us readers, it worked.  For many, it did not.  It was good that he tried.  It is good that all artists try to expand and grow.  Sometimes that attempt ends up in round file.  Sometimes it’s wildly successful.  Most times, that attempt at something new ends up right in the middle, requiring many separate occasions of practice to get the new skill good enough, much less perfect.

In the mean time, I think writers need to become comfortable with “normal” writing.  This is not to say banal writing, but the writing that comes out without thought or effort.  My “normal” writing is extremely conversational.  I naturally assume an audience, and begin a conversation with them.  Of course, it’s very one-sided and occasionally becomes a lecture.  These are problems I need to fix.  However, I am at the point where I’m comfortable “talking” with my audience.  Is my writing informal?  Yes, very much so.  Is it better for it?  I like to think so.

Now, please don’t mistake that last sentence to mean informal = better.  That is not necessarily the case.  It is the case for me because my natural writing style is informal.  There are some people who naturally fall into a formal rhythm that is so beautiful and effortless that I turn green.  For those, I would encourage them to become comfortable with the formality of their writing.  Yes, it will alienate some readers, but artists will never please even a majority of the people a minority of the time.  Accept that fact.  While you do write for others, make sure you are also writing for yourself.  Don’t lose the artist to the possible critic.

Some writers will tell you that we put on and off writing styles like clothing.  I think that’s a bad comparison.  I think it’s more like haircuts.  Even in the shortest of cuts, under the surface there are roots still left.  Those roots are what we, as artists, need to discover and find a style that shows them to their best effect.  Simple as that.  Change can happen, does happen, and is a good thing, but it takes some time to accomplish, just as it takes a bit of time for a haircut to settle and look like it really is supposed to, or to grow out if it’s horrific.

I caution against trying to make sudden changes.  Like firing a gun too large, there will be kickback too strong if you try to take on an unwise, too sudden change.  Focus on small things.  Focus on what needs to be done, and eventually what you want to be done will happen without you knowing it.  That’s the beauty of making small changes over time.

And, of course, don’t let your artiste stifle your inner artist.  The second one is so much more important.  The first tries to make everything oh-so-impressive, the second tries to make the art genuine–true to the artist, true to audience, true to itself.  I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of art I want to be creating.

Remember: artist, not artiste.  Until next week,

~RJL



The hook: proof that writers really do write for the audience and not just for the pleasure of writing.  Any writer who tells you otherwise is full of a bunch of hooey.

This particular element of any work should have been covered in your first essay writing class in high school, maybe even middle school.  It probably went something like this:

TEACHER:  After reading your essays, “What I Did This Summer,” we have a few things to work on.  Most of you are familiar with basic paragraph structure with the intro, body paragraphs, and conclusion.  That was well done.  However, you do need to repeat that same structure within the paragraphs as well.  Have a topic sentence for each paragraph, followed by supporting body sentences, followed by a concluding summary sentence.  Everyone understand so far?

STUDENTS: Yes, Miss Hannigan.

TEACHER: Good.  I knew that wouldn’t be too hard.  There are some finer points of structure that we’ll cover later in the week, but something you all struggled with was the attention getter.  Does anyone know what that might be?  Yes, Millie?

MILLE THE KNOW-IT-ALL:  The Hook!

TEACHER:  That is another name for it, Millie, but what is it?

MILLIE THE SLIGHTLY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL:  It’s a sentence or two that draws the reader in and convinces them to continue reading the story or, in this case, essay.

TEACHER:  Very good, Millie.  An attention grabber, or hook, can be a story told at the beginning of an essay, a definition of a word that the essay centers around, or perhaps a shocking assertion.  It can be other things as well, anything to garner interest.  However, a hook is not, “Today I’m going to talk about what I did this summer.”  That was similar to, if not the exact first sentence in more than seventy-five percent of the essays I collected last week.  Today’s in-class assignment is to re-write the first paragraph of your essay on a separate sheet of paper with an appropriate attention grabber.  Millie, please put your hand down.  Even yours can be improved upon.

MILLIE THE ENTIRELY DEFLATED KNOW-IT-ALL: Oh.

I may have enjoyed putting that together a bit too much. 🙂

In blogging, the world of hooks is a bit different than it is in the world of essays or even books.  Titles are ever so much more important in blogs than in essays or books, in my opinion.  The title has to act as the hook, to stand out amongst a mess of titles to the reader, quietly surfing the internet.  The title has to be enough to convince the reader to follow the link.  However, it is never going to hurt your cause as a blogger to have a hook in the body of your text to greet the reader who has already made the decision to follow the link.  They deserve an interesting blog, too.

Now, I know why the amount of importance the title gets is so disparate between blogs and essays: teachers have to read the essays anyway.  I almost never bothered to title my essays in an interesting way until the last three or so semesters of college.  I’m sure my teachers appreciated the extra effort if they noticed, but I’m not convinced any of them did.  Why should a student bother to put in the time and effort to title a piece cleverly (which is surprisingly difficult) when the teacher/professor will–at best–come out of their essay daze long enough to smirk?

On the other hand, I do not understand the difference in importance in book titles and blog titles.  There are blogs I simply will not read because their titles are ridiculous, dull, or badly spelled.  However, there are plenty of books with incredibly boring or overlong titles (the non-fiction industry is full of run-on titles, it’s an epidemic), that I buy at sight.  My fiction book chosing process doesn’t even take the title into account!  I pick a book at random; look at the cover; read the back; if I am not satisfied at this point, I give the book ten pages or the first chapter, whichever comes last; read and then decide.  Any book that manages to capture me so completely that I go beyond the ten page/one chapter limit without noticing is a same-day buy.  Any book that I am enchanted, if not thrilled by goes on my ever-growing buy list.  There is rarely a time when the title comes into play.  I am entirely willing to judge a book by its cover (so long as that cover includes a blurb), but I would never dare to judge a book by its title.  I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has to do with the size of a book: with only half a dozen words representing, it’s harder to tell the content of many thousands of words at least (possibly hundreds of thousands) as compared to the content of a couple thousand at most.  The example that comes most immediately to mind is the book East by Edith Pattou.  I would not read a blog titled “East.”  East of what, where, who, and why the heck?  However, the minute a friend told me there was a book called East, I began to suspect what it was about and went through the process of getting it from the library.  Sure enough, it was an adaptation of my favorite version of ATU 425C (need a refresher on the ATU system–find it here).  Had I been in the position to perform my normal process, I wouldn’t have required reading the first chapter.  There was a polar bear on the front (a dead giveaway) and the blurb made the parallels clear.

So, that being discussed, there is another problem with hooks: one is never enough.  Cliff-hangers (and don’t we just hate them as readers?) serve sort of as reverse hooks.  They’re not meant to draw you in, they’re meant to throw you out of the story saying, “WHAT?  What happens next, you jerk?”  Then, if the author has toed the line of making you angry without infuriating you too entirely, you’ll dive back in.  If you’re lucky, the cliff-hanger just happens at the end of the chapter.  If you’re unlucky (Chris D’Lacey, I’m glaring at you for that business with Dark Fire), the author ends the book that way. 

While cliff-hangers used well are some of the best ways to keep a story going when you, now as the author, feel you might be losing an audience (by the way, if you’re feeling that way, highlight the section for a close look during the first major edit), used badly they can put off the reader, for good.  When FictionCentral.net was still up and accepting submissions (sniffles), that was one of the biggest flaws I saw in the fiction there (as well as at the fan-fiction sister site, though I didn’t frequent it nearly so much).  Authors, in an attempt to keep readers interested until the next chapter would often leave the chapter unfinished.  Unfinished does not mean cliff-hanger!  Even those talented with the cliff-hanger (of which I was not one, my talents lay much more to the flash-back) would abuse the talent and put one in every chapter.  The result was a frenetic piece of work that never did flow quite right.  Maybe that was because of the format of submissions (min and max words per chap), but I think it has to do with the acknowledged fact that readers have a small attention span!

Think about it, readers.  How often have you picked up a book that you know you adore and . . . oh my gosh, it’s been three months and I haven’t gotten past the first fifty pages!  What is the deal?  I don’t think it has anything to do with appeal and it’s a total myth that you can read a book too many times.  It has to do with what is grabbing you attention at the moment?  I’ve been working on a novel that’s barely over 500 pages for over a month.  It’s killing me.  I can do 500 pages in half a day.  Furthermore, it’s by one of my favorite authors!  But, despite how much I enjoy the author,  the snappy dialogue , the awesome one-liners, the great interplay between the characters, or even the fact that the next book comes out in a month and a half and I want time to read this at least once more, I can’t engage.  I’m SLOGGING through this reading of it, while still enjoying it.  For some reason, the subject matter is falling flat.  There’s nothing the author could have done to prevent this.

So, my goal for my writing is this: more hooks, but no more than I need.  I recognize the fact that I’ll never please even one reader all of the time.  There are days when even the best of my writing will not appeal to my dearest and most ardent fans (hi, Mom! 😀 ).  The result of trying to MAKE people read my writing will just be a horrific, jilty work that I’ll hate and won’t ever be proud of.  And, of course, as I’m adding these hooks, making sure they aren’t necessary to make the prose in the middle palatable.  That, too.

Time to go jump off a cliff and see where I land!

~RJLouise



Conjunctions and fragments: I like ’em!

I know, I know . . . I acknowledge that they’re improper grammar.  I know I begin far too many sentences with conjunctions.  I know I use the fragment for emphasis, even though I’m not “supposed” to.

So what?  Conjunctions are fantastic! They’re beautiful little words that connect several thoughts without losing pace.  They establish several types of connections and contrasts!  Conjunctions make the world go ’round with coordination and clarity!

However, to make my professors happy (as well as attempt some semblance of grammatical propriety), I’m working on the conjunction inundation, though I’m sure I’ll never give up fragments.  If conjunctions are fantastic, fragments are awesome!

Fragments don’t just express a partial thought, they require someone to stop and consider the thought.  The reader has to work to find and establish the context on their own!  Fragments cause the reader to think.  Fragments are disruptive.  And that’s a good thing.

I’ll admit, as writing flaws go, I’m pretty comfy with mine.  Why?  Because that’s the way I’ve observed communication to function.  People finish thoughts, then feel that there are things to add.  Or, they purposely end a sentence before picking up the next one with a conjunction for emphasis.  Fragments that begin with conjunctions are fairly common because that’s an easy way to a) emphasize! and b) to associate the emphasis with the correct event.

When telling a story from first person, adding touches like these is vital.  I–as an author–cannot rely on proper grammar to do my work for me.  To quote Some Like It Hot: “Nobody talks like that!!”  Internal dialogue is especially fragmented and interconnected with ridiculous amounts of primary conjunctions.

Now, is this exceptionally smart?  Not really.  Most people can pull these tricks of emphasis off with little effort . . . which is why they’re so good! Using common, everyday modes of speech in dialogue is the exact way to appeal to an audience.  Simplicity is not a bad thing.

Simple fixes extend to craft as well.  The first thing I do when I’m stuck in a scene is talk it out.  The easier it is for me to narrate any given scene, the easier it is for any audience to access the writing from their position as readers.  I adore books that I can “hear” in my head.  There’s no reason not to set that same standard to myself.

But, to bring this back to regular ol’ buts, learn to use conjunctions appropriately.  Sure, it’s easy to over-use the primary conjunction, to fall into the trap of trying to connect every sentence to the previous one.  Readers are pretty smart.  They’ll make connections you’ll never dream of.  Right now, just worry about using conjunctions and fragments at the right time, maybe even using them together.

Have fun connecting and fragmenting!

~RJLouise



{February 3, 2011}   Dragon Speak®: Words of Flame

That title definitely came to me in Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or Death” voice.

Perhaps it’s not quite so cool as that, but technology and writing are extremely cool and so I decided I wanted to talk about a dictation program today, mostly because my writing process is so very oral/aural.

I first heard about Dragon Speak® (now called Dragon NaturallySpeaking®) just before I went to college.  A friend of mine at that time knew that she tended to process her essays better if she spoke them, so her parents bought her a dictation software.  I thought this was brilliant.  I still do, even though I am out of school.

Many of our oldest and, arguably*, greatest canonical works began orally/aurally.  The medium of telling was oral, the audience was receiving aurally.  This is still the way we are taught  and teach.  There are centuries of precedent.  It comes as no surprise to me that many students that I met throughout my years in undergrad found it easier to speak out their essays first or as they were in the process of writing them.  We are, as a species, wired–if you will–to speak first, then commit to paper.

Which brings me back to Dragon NaturallySpeaking®.  This program conflates the process significantly.  Rather than having to speak an essay and hope to be able to remember all the salient points made or take notes that are good enough to remember them all (which, inevitably, will not happen), the program takes it all down in a text file.  How fantastic.  There would, of course, need to be editing.  It is rare that a stream-of-conscious spew of thoughts is organized enough for an essay.  Unlike these essays, the epics of old were specifically structured with a plethora of memory devices so that they are “easily” remembered by the speaker.  The editing process for those must/would have been hellacious.

I hope that there are teachers who are looking to push the evolution of education away from essays.  Such an antiquated form of evaluation; those who can write well, but cannot speak are equally inhibited as those who can speak well but cannot write.  However, if that is not the case, I hope more students discover technologies like this program that allow them to utilize their natural abilities, the ones that have been cultivated within the classroom since long before they were born.

On my room wall it says, “The written word can manipulate minds, this power is in your hands.”  Perhaps I should change it to say something more like this: “The written word races across the world like a forest fire.  That spark can reside anywhere in you.”  After all, the spoken word is just as potent, and often times the written word is reporting an event or quote.  I can never allow myself to forget that as a writer, for it is dialogue, not prose, that paints the true picture.

And sometimes, those pictures do catch inside a head like fire.  Certainly, that’s how it happens in my head when the writing is done right.  Words are the match that light the tinder of imagination.  Now if only I can get them to show up as flames on the computer screen when I dictate.  That would be glorious.

Flying away on dragon wings for the week!

~RJLouise

_________________________________

*I hate Beowulf.



{January 25, 2011}   Symbolism

I want to talk about symbolism today, and how purposeful it is or isn’t.

I’ve had particular two experiences with symbolism that have me thoroughly convinced that English classes in general and college especially are a bunch of bunk (to put it concisely).  The first was the Thesis o’ Doom (as I lovingly termed my Senior Thesis) and the second was 2010’s NaNoWriMo project.  First, though, I think I need to define my experience with English classes and why I think they are quite so ridiculous.

Symbolism is one of the first things placed on the altar of verbal dissection in an English class.  It’s probably the easiest literary device to identify in a manuscript as well as being the easiest to dissect ad nauseam.  Teachers tend to encourage the line of discussion, “What did the author intend by this or that?”  Pages upon pages written about centuries old works by long-dead authors after hours of discussion clog the hard drives of proud students and weigh down the desks of busy teachers by semester’s end.

All I can say is: What a load of crap.

Yes, I will admit that some symbolism is purposeful.  Some is wildly accidental.  I will present two distinct experiences  I have had with this as proofs, but please keep in mind that these are these easiest and most accessible.  These are nowhere near the only ones.

Distinct Experience One: Thesis o’ Doom (Senior Thesis, Fall Semester 2009)

Stefan was born in Spring of 2008, when my well-meaning sister checked out a book from the library for  me.  It was a novelization of “Beauty and the Beast” and I felt the author did several disservices to her characters.  I liked the book, but it wasn’t all that great.  Having previously felt that I could not possibly tackle my favorite faerie tale without doing it a disservice, I now felt that I could not leave it alone.  If I could not be brilliant, I could at least fix the faults I had found in the novel my sister had so nicely found for me.

Well, I certainly fixed some of them.  Others, I could not fix in time to turn in my thesis.  Others, still, I created.  Such is the nature of writing.  But, one thing I did manage was to inadvertently create three phases in the story that echoed the Fates of Ancient Greek legend.  My beauty was a maid, then a mother, then a wise “crone.”  The gifts she received that revived her prince also echoed these phases.  It was completely unintentional.  I was following an age-old plot.  Occasionally, I would throw in a twist from a similar plot from another culture.  Very occasionally, I would take an element and would imagine it in a different incarnation, but I doubt there was a single thing that I could truly call “original” in that plot.

And yet, none of this symbolism was present in some twenty-two originals that I read, even the Greek based one.  I created it entirely, if unintentionally.  I purposely chose to return to the pagan roots of the symbolism.  There was much that I did purposely highlight within the piece (the connection between cats and dragons and the good and evil they represented), but never did I intend the maiden-mother-crone cycle to occur.  Yet it is one of, if not the strongest symbols in my thesis.  I am proud of how neatly it fell into place, but I can take very little credit for it.

Distinct Experience Two: NaNoWriMo 2010

I started this project with one story, one image, and one symbol.  It was simple:  the moon as the benevolent mother.  As the project went on, the moon remained the benevolent mother, but the main character also understood the poison of the child within.  All of a sudden, the moon and it’s light became a spreader of poison and parasitic dependence.  It wasn’t that the moon had changed at all.  Or that the story, image, or symbol had changed.   What had changed was that a layer had been added to the symbol.  Pregnancy can be seen two ways: life or death.  It entirely depends upon the fate of the mother and the story took on a dual meaning.  It was incredible to see the dark pall that swept over the joy and love that had originally permeated the soul of the story.  I love the new version, the version I really cannot take credit for.  It just happened as I went.

It is so very easy to guess at what an author meant, but–from my experience alone–I am inclined to say that no author means all that we assume.  In fact, I am willing to bet there will be some authors in the next life that greet academics with a handshake and a smile, saying, “Thank you so much!   I had no idea I was so profound as that until you came along!”

Go make some dead author’s day. 😉

~RJLouise



et cetera