The Stories Begun











{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



I cannot believe England went by so fast.

So, as of right now, I should be bumming it in the Göteborg (Yutuhboreee) Airport reading some Simon Winchester book (he is AMAZING) and waiting for my family to meet up with me.  But we’re going to pretend I’m still on the plane as that’s the major event of today!

There’s something to be said in finding wonder in every day life.  Now, I know that hopping on a plane in England and watching Hamlet’s castle ago by on my way to Sweden can hardly be called every day life, but work with me.  Please.

When I flew home from college, I always knew when I was approaching home because the turbulence would kick in.  It’s just a feature of living in Colorado.  Turbulence=home.  There were times when that was inspiring to write.  When that swelling of the feeling of home from freaking turbulence was so overwhelming that I had to open my computer as soon as I was able.

Then there was the time I was on the beach and the wave kicked up the sand just right and the sun hit that wave at the exact moment as to make it look as if I were swimming in champagne.  That image broke a months long block on a story.  These things can happen.

I have seven hours to wait in the Göteborg airport for my family.  I am hoping, perhaps madly, that the flight over here, will have given me some inspiration for the hours to come.  I fully expect the views to have been stunning, but also the views in these seven hours to come as well.  People watching can be some of the most effective writing inspiration I know.  “Banal” interactions are the best fodder for writing.

The view from the writer’s chair is always beautiful.

Remember that,

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



Okay, today’s a writing day.  I have NOTHING to talk about by way of craft and I’ve been dying to work on something other than blogs for weeks.  Seeing as I won’t really have time to write anything outside my blogs for the next six and a half weeks, you best bet I’m taking the time NOW to do it.  Also, if I don’t do this now, the right side of my brain will do a hostile take-over of my motor functions and bang my head against my desk in protest (mostly likely the left side in an attempt to dull its reactions).

Now, what is a writing day, you may ask?  I will answer: It’s a day where I take an idea (preexisting or totally new) and develop it into a one-shot.  It may be a snap shot of a scene I want to write, it may be an image I want to develop.  No serial one-shots allowed!  It’s been a disgustingly long time since I put up a writing sample.  This is a writing blog, for crying out loud!  Where’s the writing?!?

Well, it’s finally here (and I think I’m going to make this a fourth and fifth week tradition from now on–the prospect of that hostile take-over really frightens me).  But first, as always, some rules (I love me some rules):

  • As I already mentioned, NO SERIAL ONE-SHOTS!!!!  If I fall in love with something I’ve done (which is not likely first time around), it gets put in the “to be worked on” file.  NOT the “blogging” file.
  • One thousand two hundred fifty words, +/- 10%.  This is the rule of thumb one of my college profs used for “big” essays and it works well (for those of you out there screeching, “That’s nowhere near the length for a big essay,” please keep in mind that we did a paragraph essay per class and weekly essays–he was being kind).
  • If I so chose, I can do a brief blog post beforehand.  No more than three paragraphs.
I believe that’s all that needs to be done.  Now, for the writing!
  The girl had made her peace with the dip.  Past this point in the road, there was no easy place to turn around excepting the loop that ran by her parents’ house.  That was no good option and the neighbors knew her beater well enough to know who the crazy person was pulling a K-turn in the middle of the out-of-the-way residential area she had lived in her whole life.  Someone would mention seeing the car to her mother and father and ask how the visit went (the neighbors were horribly nosy, and the last visit had been such a debacle they were dying for more gossip).  The girl would then get a miles long lecture about neglect and love and how she had a funny way of showing it.  No, she knew better than to try that.  So she made her peace with the dip, despite the fact that this was the point of no return.  The dip meant she was coming home.
It had always been that way, when she thought about it.  With her strict upbringing and her parents antiquated ideas about an appropriate curfew for a high school student (most study groups didn’t end until eleven–where in heavens name did ten o’clock make sense for a curfew?!), the girl was often isolated from her friends.  Even when they did go out, this was the point where the conversation began to wind down.  There was no sitting and talking  in the car in the dim pool of the porch lights allowed.  And there would certainly be no inviting the friends in the house.  If the girl took longer than her parents deemed appropriate for a goodbye, they would come out and collect her from the car.  It was mortifying for both parties, the driver and the passenger, so even the girl’s friends had learned to respect the curfew.  Only the newest ever challenged it.  Unconsciously, the conversation would begin to peter out at the dip so that by the time the house was reached, the girl was safely inside before too long.  The girl had come to hate the dip for the role it played in her isolation.
It was only when she moved out for college (and never again came back to live under the same roof as her parents) that she began to look back on those memories fondly.  Her friends, after all, had loved her enough to put up with the daily shenanigans of her misguided parents.  They had never pushed to come to her house, knowing it would cause her pain–pain if she didn’t ask on behalf of her friends and pain if she did.  Those small comments between the dip and her house were treasures, the things that her friends had to tell her before the night ended.  This was when her peace was made and she was able to look at the dip as a place to go beyond, not a place to run from.
And here she was, crossing it again.  Physically more than intellectually, she knew just how much to slow down and just when to punch the gas to prevent scraping the bottom of her car, but not lose too much speed.  After all, however claustrophobic and frightening home could be, it was still home.  Once she passed the dip, she might as well get there fast.
The parents cordially greeted their daughter with about as much love and tenderness one might expect from a couple who felt all their hard work and care in raising their child had been thrown back in their faces.  It was a stiff meeting–clearly neither party had forgotten the words said (or the particularly well aimed projectiles thrown) at their last encounter.  Franky, though, this stiffness was barely worse than their usual stilted version of family life.  At least there was an agreed upon reason for this.  As far as the girl could recollect, that had never happened before.
Still, the uneasy agreement on what caused the issue made the conversation no easier.  In fact, in many ways, it made the conversation harder.  The girl would not apologize for refusing her parents’ offer to move back in with them and be–for all intents and purposes–a slave with the “benefit” of living with the masters.  The parents would not apologize for their expectations for their daughter, nor the frequently expressed disappointments when they failed to be met.  Neither party was willing to apologize for the items thrown and destroyed.
It was not long before the silences were unbearable and the conversations intolerable.  The girl was reasonably confident nothing else would be thrown and that no words could make her feel worse.  Unfortunately, she was also confident that no words would make her feel better.  Perhaps indicative of a bitter soul, but true nonetheless.  Too many opportunities for the right words had come and gone–some hers, some theirs.
There was some purpose to today’s visit.  Perhaps not an apology, but a peace offering.  A grandchild.  Surely no parent could deny the child of their own!  There was no boy or girl to raise the child with, just the girl.  She had seen no relationship on the horizon and had decided to have the child on her own.  Perhaps not the wisest of decisions, but if she delayed getting a new car she really didn’t need (the beater was still going strong) and worked from home a bit more often, there was no reason this couldn’t work.
The parents brusquely pushed her out of the house when the announcement was made.  Two minutes later, they followed.  The parents had made their peace with the dip, too, you see.  It was a different point of no return.  They knew that if they had sufficiently shamed their daughter, she would turn around before the dip and come back with apologies to make it better.  But if not, she would blast by the dip without a second thought and do whatever she pleased.  The parents realized it had been years since they had been able to shame her into doing their bidding (her choice of college had proven that) and this was too important to leave to chance.  They didn’t catch up in time.  Just as the father lay on the horn to alert the girl of their presence, she crossed the dip.  She turned back, though, and for a moment the parents hoped.  But she stopped before the nose of her car touched the dip.  She got out, and waited.
Such a simple thing, this dip.  Unassuming in it’s presence, worn but well-kept, it never stood out to anyone so much as it stood out to these three.  For something meant to bridge an otherwise difficult point in the road, it certainly acted as an uncrossable chasm for this family.  They stood across it, staring.  Cars parked on either side, silently confronting each other.
It was too much.  The girl knew it was time to go.  She had passed the point of no return.  The beater’s door gave off rust as she slammed closed, turned the key in the ignition and reversed into the nearest driveway.  Without a backwards glance, she drove away.  For a single, short moment, it looked as if the father might follow–not out of love, but spite.  But the dip’s strange power over this household asserted itself once more, and the much more pristine car pulled the K-turn the girl had studiously avoided for so long.
A lone neighbor had noted the strange happenings outside her window and had watched the wordless exchange.  Before the parents’ car had passed out of her view, she was on the phone.  The rumor mill was running once more.
And the dip sat in the middle of the road, blissfully unaware.
Oooh, that was fun!  See you next week!
~RJL


{April 19, 2011}   Why I love what I hate.

Remember when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out?  The fans had been waiting for three years (the longest Rowling ever made the fans wait) for this book.  Many of us who had been growing up with Harry (as I had) were all of a sudden older than him.  We were salivating in anticipation.  And then we read OotP.  This boy who had been our hero and classmate and everything good about someone who had to overcome a bad situation quite suddenly turned into a world-class (heck, multiple worlds-class) jerk.  He mistreated his friends, he was a boor and lost his girlfriend before he even really had her, he was terrible to the one man who consistently tried to help him through everything, he insisted on acting misunderstood when–in all reality–many people tried to understand him and he refused to let them.  Harry shut people out.

And yet . . .

After all that, after the whining and the screaming and the fighting and the bs teenage shenanigans that I hated every minute of, I was still rooting for Harry, as were a lot of other readers.  Yeah, Harry was terrible.  He turned into everything I hated about being a teenager and the teenagers who I was around.  But he was still my hero, not because he had many (or any) redeeming qualities in this book, but because Rowling had written him so believably that I still cared about this whiny teen after an 800+ page book of his bull.  I’ve written before that I’m kind of tired of Harry Potter & Co., and I’ll go so far as to admit that I don’t love Rowling’s writing.  I think it’s good, but I’m not one of those who think it’s lasting.  Except in this book.  In book five Rowling took a much loved character and turned him into the least lovable version possible and still came out with a huge (if not bigger) fan base.  In OotP, I feel like Rowling created something I can not only like, but respect.

Something similar happened just this morning in the webcomic I mentioned last week.  I know I just posted about All New Issues, but I have good reason for bringing them up again, so please forgive me.  This time, I wish to talk about the writing.  Dani O’Brien is the other half of the ANI team.  She’s the main writer (though the artist, Bill Ellis, started the comic by himself and still contributes to the plot and characters).  She’s phenomenal at making the right decisions for her characters.  They are not always popular.  About a week and a half ago, after one of the characters went on a truly horrific date, she kept in line with his character and had him sleep with his date anyway.  I did not like the character for making the decision, but I loved that he made it.  It was exactly what I expected him to do, and I would have been disappointed had he not.

Today’s comic (the one linked above) he made another decision in keeping with his character that did surprise me.  I guess it hadn’t hit me just how much of a dick this character was.  Due to reader reactions from a couple weeks ago, Ms. O’Brien knew that today’s strip would not be popular (the character not only slept with his shallow and terrible date, they’re now dating).  According to her twitter account (what?  I follow my favorite webcomic artists on twitter–they’re clever and make my day brighter . . . don’t judge), she expected hate mail.  I’ll admit, I was displeased enough to comment on the comic, but at the same time that I expressed my displeasure, I also expressed how awesome it was that Ms. O’Brien and Mr. Ellis had created a situation that elicited these responses.

I love what I hate because it draws me in.  Rowling, ANI, Nicholas Evans (The Loop, Buck Calder), Suzanne Collins (The Underland Chronicles, Ripred; The Hunger Games, Haymitch), A Girl and Her Fed (Agent 146: Clarice), and too many more to list create characters that I cannot stand, but have to read more of because they create the tension that drives the situation.  Sometimes these are the main characters, sometimes these are side characters driving the main characters to action.  Half the time, these characters aren’t even antagonists, which is so many kinds of awesome!  Writing that inspires passion in the reader is exceptional.  Writing that inspires negative passion that–against all expectations–engages the reader even deeper is astounding.

This is a skill I am working on.  A good antagonistic situation (whether or not there is an actual antagonist) is hard to create.  It means making tough decisions with your characters, putting them in situations you (and most likely your readers) dislike or with characters you hate, even though you created them.  Sometimes it even means having your best and most loved character making a hellacious decision.  Sometimes it means hurting your characters, which can be akin to hurting yourself.

At best, I’m writing antagonists now.  Eventually, I’d like to get to the point where I’m writing antagonistic situations where the surroundings or the protagonist themselves are the “antagonist.”  I have the greatest respect for these authors who manage this balancing act.  They’re inspirational as well as entertaining.  I love that, as an author, I never lack for examples and enjoyment.

Go write someone (or something) horrid,

~RJLouise



{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



{April 5, 2011}   I really hate mirrors.

And history is the worst one.  Thankfully, it seems that this time, the reflection of my past has actually taught me something.  My past pattern has been to be faithful in blogging for a little while, maybe even a good while, and then miss for about a month (for a myriad of reasons, perhaps some of them are even good).  At a month, I get too intimidated/ashamed to start up again until I am too sick at heart from lack of writing to not start up again . . . about six months later.

Vicious cycle.

Thankfully, as I said, the mirror of my blogging history has at last come through.  When I realized that this week would make the dreaded month, I figured I should probably get back on the blogging horse before my shame became too enormous.  Still, since my shame is still decently large, I decided to use it to examine my writing practices in general, to see if what other patterns of fault that mirror could illuminate.

But first!  A few rules:

  • No castigating!  Recognizing faults and areas for improvement is one thing.  Beating myself up will help nothing.
  • Related to rule one is rule two: minimum name calling.  I am only allowed one “I am/This is stupid.”  That’s it.  To be used wisely.  Other names also to be used sparingly.
  • Focus on the general today.  Descending into minutia can wait for another careful scrutiny of self/post.
  • After determining the faults, come up with some simple solutions, preferably ones that address multiple problems.
  • Last but not least: Understand that these problems are not unique.  Many people struggle with their own craft.  You help nothing by assuming that you are alone.

Okay, the rules are set!  On with the task!

Fault one:  Good intentions.

You know that saying about the pathway to Hell?  Well, the pathway to a dead manuscript (the dreaded xms) is paved with the same materials and do I ever have a lot of them.

Fault two: Distractions.

Thankfully, I have the ability to be single-minded when I need to or to multi-task when called upon.  However, when I’m between needs, I seem to set up my own distractions (have the internet browser up and running behind my word processing application as well as a card game I can switch back and forth between when a sentence is taking “too much” work to form).  Beyond just those distractions, there are personal “distractions” (family and friends) that, rather than work around them, I allow them to displace the work entirely.  This is not okay.

Fault three: Project jumping.

This is really stupid. I know better than to do this and I do it anyway.  Rather than sit down with a project and get a clear idea of it, I often get just far enough to establish shallow roots in my brain before jumping ship for the next interesting project.  I know that variety is the soul of creativity and am not silly enough to think that I can start one project and finish it while never working on another, but I am smart enough to know that there should be one main project I am working on and that there better be a darn good reason for me to put it aside.  At this point, there rarely ever is.

Fault four: consistency.

Ah, I’ve talked about this one before!  I’m not sure there’s much else to say about it, either.  inconsistent = sub-par writing.

Fault five: Getting bored.

I don’t get bored with the story.  I get bored with the work. It’s much easier to imagine the end than it is to work towards it.  Bad, lazy me! (That wasn’t castigating . . . that was a gentle scolding . . . yeah.)

Fault six:  Minutia.

I’ve always liked the details of things: the brushstrokes of a painting, the stitches in an afghan, each shave and thrust of the knife in a carving.  In fact, it was something of a revelation when I was told that one of the main reasons I struggled in school was directly due to the fact that I saw details better than the big picture.  Unfortunately, it is easy to drown oneself or one’s ms in said details. Especially since, as the author, it is my job to know them all.

Okay, I think those are the main faults that my history can show me today.  Solutions go along these lines:

Solution one:  Find time where there is time.

Consistency is one thing, writing the same time for the same amount of time is another.  I may one day get there, but it’s not going to happen right now.  So, when I find the time, I need to utilize it!    For example, this blog goes out on Tuesdays, but I had time on Monday to write it, so I did!  Then it was just a matter of scheduling the post to publish on Tuesday.  (Addresses faults 1 and 4.)

Solution two: Learn to say no.

Eliminating distractions includes saying no to myself and to others.  I need to be able to say no to that silly game on Facebook (although shutting down my account at the end of the month will help with that) as much as I need to occasionally say no to watching NCIS with the family or watching a movie with the boyfriend.  My writing may not be my job right now, but it is still part of me as well as eventually being a career goal.  Also, saying no to the lazy/ship-jumping instincts will help specific project progress greatly. (Addresses faults 2, 3, 4, and 5.)

Solution three: Take good notes.

Ideas strike all the time. I know this.  I love this.  In fact, this has helped me get back on track before.  However, this also causes problems.  So it’s time to start taking the same sort of fastidious notes that I did in college classes, this time with my ideas as the subject.  This way I’ll be less afraid of losing things, as well as less enticed by the thought of starting something new. (Addresses faults 2, 3, and 6.)

Solution four:  Set up a regular time each month to review projects.

Once a month, look at the work I’ve done.  If I’ve done one page of work, maybe this “main project” isn’t the right main project for the moment.  Maybe it is, but I’m not doing something right (should be editing some older parts of it rather than trying to add new material).   Just spend the time to make sure that I’m setting myself up to succeed, not merely not fail.  (Addresses faults 1, 3, 4, and 5.)

And there you have it!  I’ve held myself up to the mirror and come out fairly unscathed!  Sure, I have things to work on, but none of these are particular news.  And the solutions are, thankfully, simple.  Funny how being determined to be simple makes it easier to be simple.

Off to put the plan into action!

~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.



et cetera