Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Doggie Dogmas for Living

This creative non-fiction photo essay has been excerpted from a (Oxymoron alert!) longer short work.

Fur Babies by Sky Sloderbeck

~ Doggie Dogmas for Living ~

Wolfie on Loyalty and Love

He curled his tail between his legs and looked towards the door that my boyfriend had disappeared through and then back at the couch that I was patting. Ever since Damon and I had moved in together, Wolfie had been on a slow decline. Where once he was vibrant and perpetually happy, he was now unsure and frightened. Where once his brindle coat – so uncommon in a German Shepherd – had been thick and soft, it was now patchy and brittle. Where once he was a 90-pound lapdog, he now trembled when I tried to urge him up on the couch with me.

Finally, with slow, tentative movements and an ear cocked towards the office, he crept up next to me and curled into an impossibly tight ball against my side, his muzzle hidden beneath his sparse tail. I caressed him gently and tried to fight the sharp pain knifing me in the chest. This decision had been made weeks ago, but I kept denying that I really had to go through with it. I kept hoping that things would get better and that the three of us could live together happily. But Damon hated Wolfie, and that toxic energy was taking a terrible toll on Wolfie. It had to be this weekend.

It was a struggle to make the thirty-minute drive to the no-kill animal shelter, not only emotionally, but physically; the road was blurry through my tears and it was hard to breathe from the body-draining sobbing. The trip was filled with flashbacks: The day Wolfie was born, not breathing, and I broke him out of the birth sac, rubbing his chest to encourage him to fight for life; the trips he took with me to visit family – from Virginia to Ohio and back again – his small puppy head nestled on my thigh; his comfortable presence in the bed next to me and his warm tongue on my cheek when the pain of my husband leaving me became too much; the smiles he put on my face from his bat ears and high-pitched puppy bark, even when he was no longer a puppy; and how I could walk the streets of Clifton with him at my side, with no leash, and know that he and I were so bonded that I never had to worry about his safety.

“I’m doing this for you, Wolfie. I love Damon and it’s not fair to you. You’ll be so much happier with an entire family that loves you. I’ll miss you, but I can’t be selfish and see you so unhappy.”  The excuses kept coming, but none of them eased the pain; they only obscured the truth.

When the volunteer closed the crate door and I walked away, the last sound I heard was his whine. Come back, please. Don't leave me. I love you.


Wolfie circa 1998 by Sky SloderbeckWolfie and Sky circa 1996


No one is worth giving away
a piece of your heart and soul for.

(End Excerpt)

The Tantalizing Ten: January

It's a new year, so how about a new feature? I've decided to do something called The Tantalizing Ten where I share ten of my favorite blog articles, most targeted to writers, that I may have come across this month (whether or not the articles were actually written this month). I can't promise that this will be a long-lived feature, as I'm full-bore into classes again in a couple of weeks, but no matter how erratic, I'd love to turn this into a semi-regular thing. Maybe regular if it becomes popular enough.

I promise not to be biased and put links to my own articles in here, though it's going to be hard since some of my articles still give me the gigglefits. I hope you enjoy this month's jewels and then decide to stay a while to check out some of my articles. Maybe you'll learn something, maybe I'll learn something, but either way, it will be fun!

Warning: Some articles may contain graphic language or references to things inappropriate for children.

Tongue-in-Cheek Articles

1. Cracked.com: How to Write a Novel in Simple Three-Step Processes
Excerpt: By following the simple rules outlined above, anyone can write an unoriginal work of fiction that will sell for a dime at used library book sales!"

2. Cracked.com: Writing a Novel
Excerpt: Writing a novel is one of the most difficult, aggravating, frustrating, painful but rewarding things you can do. It's like sex, but with more paper cuts. (Sooo, exactly like sex for some of us).

Serious, But in a Pee-Yourself-Laughing Kind of Way

3. Terrible Minds: 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing (Right Fucking Now)
Excerpt:  You don’t get to be a proper storyteller by putting it so far down your list it’s nestled between Complete the Iditarod (but with squirrels instead of dogs) and Two words: Merkin, Macrame. You want to do this shit, it better be some Top Five Shiznit, son. You know you’re a writer because it’s not just what you do, but rather, it’s who you are. So why deprioritize that thing which forms part of your very identity?

4. Terrible Minds: 25 Things Writers Should Start Doing (ASAFP)
Excerpt: Get the hell out of your house. Open the door. Kick out a window. Escape. Go somewhere. I don’t care if it’s the corner store or the island of Kauai or Mount Kilimanfuckingjaro. Writers are often too insular. They think those two oft-cited pieces of writing advice — “Put your ass in the chair and write” and read a lot — are all it takes. Bzzt! Wrongo! You’ve got to see a bit of the world. Have some adventures. Experience what’s going on around you. Become a part of the whole crazy machine. Let it fuel your wordsmithy.

Shooting Straight: Publishing

5. Dean Wesley Smith: A Number Of Things I Am Confused About
Excerpt: I get very confused when a writer with a few hundred friends on Facebook and Twitter thinks that repeating the publication of their book over and over and over and over will make them more than a handful of sales. And fewer friends.

6. Writer Unboxed: 5 Attitudes Toward Publishing You Should Avoid
Excerpt: If you’re the type of person who is initially interested in traditional publishing, are you sure that self-publishing will satisfy you? Are you hoping to use self-publishing as a way to attract a traditional deal? If so, be careful. Self-publishing is a full-time job if you intend to build a readership. Are you ready to take on that full-time job of marketing yourself? Do you know who you’re marketing to? Do you know how to market to them?

Shooting Straight: Writing

7. io9.com: 10 Writing "Rules" We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break
Excerpt: [S]ometimes a nice done-in-one story is also exceedingly welcome. And this is one area where science fiction seems to have a slight advantage over fantasy — both genres have tons of sprawling series, but science fiction at least sometimes spawns one-off novels. And there's something to be said for getting a satisfying story in one volume, without a cliffhanger or any loose ends afterwards. And sometimes, characters can actually be developed more fully if the author doesn't have to hold anything back for future books. A character who gets a full arc in one book can be a richer character.

8. Write It Sideways: Think Backward to Write Meaningful Metaphors
Excerpt: [M]etaphors can be tricky. However, it’s helpful to think of them not as puzzles writers use to baffle us, but rather as keys unlocking more layers of meaning than we could possibly gain with a literal description.

9. Writer's Digest: 6 Simple Ways to Reboot Your Writing Routine
Excerpt: 1. Your New Year artist statement: You do have one, don’t you?
From those first drafts to that Pulitzer Prize party, I believe that your writing should be inspired by something much deeper than getting rich or getting famous or getting even with your ex. It should cohere with your own personal vision or belief system.

Miscellany

10. The Green Water Blog: Tutorial: How to Hold Your Kindle or E-reader in Your Hands JUST LIKE A REAL BOOK!
Excerpt: Several readers have told me that they would love to buy my ebooks, but you see, when they read they like to “hold the book in their hands.” ... Until recently, I didn’t realize how complicated a problem this actually was. To remedy it I’ve decided to write a detailed, step-by-step tutorial on how to hold a Kindle or other e-reader in your hands just like a real book. If you follow these instructions very carefully and concentrate, paying close attention to all the details, I’m almost sure it will solve your problem.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Inspiration Station: 25 Amazing Quotes on Writing

Independence Day by Sky Sloderbeck

Every once in a while, I enjoying trolling the Internet to find some writing quotes that provide me with some inspiration. It could be after I had to fight to pull a research paper together, or when I find myself off-track when it comes to focusing on a particular story, or when I am just basically feeling blah and can't explain it. Mostly, though, I tend to go digging for quotes about writing when I am in need of a general pick-me-up to keep my energy high in the middle of a writing project. This is one of those times. So sit back and enjoy, and I hope you share some of your favorite writing quotes in the comments.
  1. Pay attention to the sound of words. - Dave Wolverton

  2. Characterization is an accident that flows out of action and dialogue. - Jack Woodford

  3. I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done. - Stephen Wright

  4. Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up. - Jane Yolen

  5. Writing is thinking on paper. - William Zinsser

  6. The story...must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person. - Maxwell Anderson

  7. A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing. - Eugene Ionesco

  8. I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose. - Stephen King

  9. Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. - Barbara Kingsolver

  10. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story. - Ursula K. Le Guin

  11. In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it's not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle. - Ursula K. Le Guin

  12. You may be able to take a break from writing, but you won't be able to take a break from being a writer... - Stephen Leigh

  13. We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to. - Somerset Maugham

  14. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. - George Moore

  15. All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. - George Orwell

  16. The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. - Linus Pauling

  17. There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write. - Terry Pratchett

  18. The only reason for being a professional writer is that you just can't help it. - Leo Rosten

  19. First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him! - Ray Bradbury

  20. I must write it all out, at any cost. Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living. - Anne Morrow Lindbergh

  21. Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. - Colette

  22. My task...is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see. That - and no more - and it is everything. - Joseph Conrad

  23. A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer. - Joseph Conrad

  24. If you haven't got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you'll only have to throw away the first three pages. - William Campbell Gault

  25. Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences. - Anne McCaffrey
(If any of these quotes are falsely attributed, please let me know in the comments. I tried to get them all from reputable sites, but even they can be wrong from time to time.)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Elizabeth Gilbert @ TED Talks: A new way to think about creativity

It's time for a little break from reading and writing to listen to a fascinating TED Talk on creativity. If you have not been introduced to TED Talks, I'm warning you, this stuff will ensnare you and keep you from accomplishing anything productive for DAYS. Unlike the Nyan Cat or Angry Birds, procrastinating with TED Talks can actually teach you something, though. There certainly are worse ways to get off track.

This talk is from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. She shares with us new ways to think about creativity and "genius."
Don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Novel Problem: Traditional or Self-Publish?

Few things are as heady to me as walking into a used bookstore or a small library and being surrounded by the sweet scent of old books. If the bookstore or library has some of that old world character (dark woods, leather chairs, and homey lighting) I could remain for days savoring the scents and devouring the words. I am very tactile, and the feel of a book in my hands, preferably hardcover, coupled with the action of turning the pages is a true joy.

This is why I want to publish traditionally.

Recently, however, I purchased a Kindle. This was actually a decision I struggled with for a year or so. I am highly averse to reading books on a computer, but I felt that the Kindle could help save me money as many of my required books are available in Kindle format.  I soon found out that I actually enjoy reading on a Kindle. I don't get the same visceral pleasure as reading a physical book, but I can transport a small library with me wherever I go. This convenience is a huge draw for me. Another huge draw for me is that it's technology, and I admit to being a bit of a technology fiend.

This is why I want to publish electronically.

So confused. When I start thinking about this subject, I start feeling a bit like  this...

OMG Puppy
I look a little like that too.
Anyhow, like my struggle with whether or not to purchase a Kindle, these warring desires over which platform to publish on have been baffling me. I know that I speak as if I have a choice in the matter, and you know what? I kind of do. Regardless, it's a bit pointless to worry about my platform when I don't even have a complete novel and won't until either next summer or after I graduate college in May 2013. Or is it?

While I can't publish TODAY, it never hurts to know the market. By following what's happening right now, when I am ready to start subbing my manuscript, I'll be knowledgeable and prepared. However, I feel as if we are on the crux of something big and I wonder if publishing is going to be playing by some different rules in the next handful of years.

Why? Well, I'm no publishing industry or economic expert, but when I read an article that Amazon now has TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING IMPRINTS, including 47North, a sci-fi, fantasy, horror imprint, I know that somehow the game has changed.

Before I had read that article, I had come to a decision: Traditional publishing for any easily-categorized novels of genre fiction that I write; e-publishing for anything that was not as easily categorized or was not generally picked up by the major houses (like collections of short stories). I had determined that if my future novels weren't good enough to even land an agent, much less an offer from a publisher, then they weren't good enough to self-publish. Self-publishing shouldn't be where you go when all else fails... it should be the option you choose because it makes the most sense (whether it's due to a non-traditional novel or collection of works, or for financial reasons).

... and I say that as a reader.

Quick note to a vast majority of self-publishers: Stop putting your garbage up on Amazon. I'm tired of trying to find new and exciting authors to read and have to wade through a mountain of badger poo to find anything.

I am not bashing e-publishing. I have read many articles where I saw the inherent value in going it on your own. But for the love of all that is NOT badger poo, please make it a conscious decision because of your needs or wants and not because you want to use it as your own personal Rejections storage bin.

Badger Badger Badger Badger Badger Badger
Badgers? Yes. Badger Poo? No.
Back on track...

I'm no longer sure how viable my plan is, because Amazon has up and changed the entire game - or is trying to. But I do know this, I am going to be learning more about this, following it. If Amazon is able to offer authors opportunities like the legacy houses offer (advances, quality editing, quality graphic design, quality printing, opening doors towards getting your book optioned for film or tv or for international distribution, et cetera), then I will end up submitting to Amazon the moment my future novel is ready. There are a ton of reasons for this, but the main one is this: The sheer reach that Amazon has across markets around the world is absolutely insane, and as an author published under one of their imprints, that reach is going to get my book out to more people.  I'd be an idiot not to go with Amazon if they made me an offer.

But time will tell and when my novel is finally ready, I'll be ready too.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Stray Thoughts: Meet Me in Outer Space

ESO-Horsehead Nebula from Wikimedia Commons
About Pessimism

I have read many articles and come across quite a few people who are pessimistic about making a living writing fiction. In the past few weeks, as I've been considering options for the future of my education (grad school or no grad school, that is the question), I seem to meet more and more people who - in my own best interest, I'm sure - feel the need to try and "be realistic" about my possibilities in the writing market. People who have never read a word of my fiction, I might add.

I respect these opinions and value the information I take away from the conversations. Each time, I assure the glass-half-empty folks that I am perfectly aware of the dismal statistics for writers. Each time I inform them that I plan on continuing to dare to dream. But not a single time has any of these people ever said, "Can I see some of your fiction?" before making a judgement on my ability or potential. Not a single time has any of them even said, "Great, you know. Well good luck! If you can dream it, you can do it!" Not a single time.

I don't know how different it would be if they were familiar with my writing; I have a feeling I would still continue onward towards my dream, but perhaps with the added to care to put a little more time in perfecting my craft (as if I'm not already putting a ton of time into that already). But for the folks that have never read anything that I've done, or perhaps have read some of my work, but it was limited to blog posts or other non-fiction efforts, I have a hard time letting their words frighten me.

About Chasing Stars

I conduct myself in my writing career as if I plan on hunting Rowling and King down and overtaking them in the market. If I feel that I have a chance to topple the juggernauts, then that drives me to work even harder to hone my craft and create the best possible stories that I can. My sensible foot is on the ground, I promise. I know that the odds are against me, truly. But if I go into the business of writing believing that success may not happen for me, then I am merely hamstringing myself and my ability, peppering every word of every story I ever write with doubt of my ability. Besides, did pre-household-name-Rowling's friends, family, and peers think that she was going to be as successful as she is? I doubt it. So don't count me out just yet.

I believe that to succeed, you must reach for the stars. You must believe that you can do it. You must believe in yourself. But it's even more than that. People dream all of the time, every single day. But how many people actually build that rocket that will take them higher than they ever imagined they could go? I could sit here all day and say, "My writing is as good as, if not better than, Rowling, King, or Rice. I could be famous." But if I am not working hard, working ceaselessly to hone my craft and produce worthy offerings which prove (or disprove) that sentiment, then they are just words. I am building my rocket to the stars and no one is going to stop me (this site, especially The Craft of Writing, where I attempt to teach in an attempt to learn, is part of that process, in fact).

More About Reality

I am grounded, though. I know that for every author that gets published, there are thousands of authors who are rejected. I know that some things are out of my control, like market preferences and publishing house backlogs. I know that few fiction writers make a decent living wage at it. I know that it's rare when a new author sells a book on their first try. But do you know what else I know? I know that I MUST write. I know that I MUST create stories, especially ones that I want to read again and again. I know that we never stop learning and no matter how good someone might think that my writing is, it can ALWAYS be improved. If I am going to do this anyhow, then why not dare to dream?

Here's the thing: No one can see the future. Not you. Not me. I have no idea if I will become a household name and my books are read and loved around the world. I have no idea if my books will be optioned for the big screen or television. I have no idea if I will ever get a paycheck on a novel big enough to buy my forever home and my dream car. But I do know this, and I know it for a FACT... if I don't aim for the stars, I will never ever EVER reach the stars.

Some people encourage me and have faith that I can achieve these lofty goals or, at the very least, make a living wage from writing fiction, but most try to "talk me down to earth." Here's what I have to say to them: "I know the risks. I know the odds. So stop trying to dismantle my rocket, I have a galaxy to explore."

... and so do you. So go build your rocket! And enjoy a couple (or three) of my favorite "outer space"-themed songs while you build!














Author's Note: After editing this post for publishing, I realized that it had a pretty strong sense of personal combativeness to it, as if someone had read something of mine and then said, "You suck" and this was the response to that. Or maybe I'm just insane and am the only person who read it that way. In case I'm not, this topic actually had a very strange origin: It came from a post that I was working on (which will be published soon) about traditional versus e-publishing. I make a comment in that article that "I act as if I have a choice [of which platform I can publish on]" and that led me to a digression about conducting myself as if I did actually have a choice, which then led to the whole "daring to dream" thing, and then to this.  Rather than bombard my readers with a massive digression, I plucked it out of the other article and plopped it into its very own. So thank my ADHD for having one of its "WAY the hell off the train track" moments if you liked this post.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cachinnating at Thesauri: The Proper Care and Feeding of Dialogue

Do you like to use a thesaurus? Really? That's great! Some writers say that thesauruses (thesauri?) are tools of the Devil. I disagree. I think they can be very useful in helping you find a better word for a sentence or phrase you might be struggling with, or for getting you out of the "I used the word angry 736 times in my 5,000 word short story" rut. By using a thesaurus, instead of angry, you can use annoyed, bitter, chafed, cross, displeased, enraged, exasperated, fierce, fiery, fuming, furious, , hateful, heated, hot, huffy, ill-tempered, impassioned, incensed, indignant, inflamed, infuriated, irascible, irate, ireful, irritable, irritated, maddened, nettled, offended, outraged, provoked, raging, resentful, riled, sore, storming, sulky, sullen, tumultous/tumultuous, uptight, vexed, or wrathful. Just be careful, because if you use splenetic, people might think that you are a little big for your britches.

Thesaurus Gigantus

But this post isn't about the thesaurus. Oh no, my friends! In fact, I want you to forget that they even exist for the next 30 minutes (if you are a really slow reader). In fact, if you even think about opening a thesaurus or a thesaurus web site, I'm going to send a thousand hungry squirrels to your door with orders to find the acorns hidden in your pants. Green? Super green! (A thousand points to you if you get the reference. Just enough to buy squirrel repellent.)

"Enough! I cachinnated at thesauri, but after that, your endeavor at badinage metamorphosed bromidic."

"Bromidic, you say?! I will have you know, Monsieur Reader, that my clauses are never bromidic. Nay! They are spanking and ineffable. You, Sir, are benighted and your mother is an ungulate. Begone!"

The squirrels are trained not to attack me.

Today's lesson is all about dialogue, and the first lesson of creating dialogue is, you don't talk about creating dialogue. Wait. Wrong topic. The first lesson of creating dialogue is that you put the thesaurus down and back away slowly. If you are creating a period piece, though, I'll recall the squirrels. But be warned!

The most important thing to remember about dialogue is that it must feel natural. Most of the more specific tips on creating dialogue come right back to that basic principle. If your dialogue is not natural, at best you slap your readers out of their suspense of disbelief and at worst you have just lost a sale, a future sale, a possible agent, or a possible publisher.

With an exception or two depending on the genre that you are writing in, dialogue can be written without a single peek at a thesaurus, and you can capture that realism simply by paying attention to conversations around you. Unless "around you" means "I haven't seen the outside in months and the only living creatures I have to talk to are my pet cockroaches." In that case, take a shower, put on some clean clothes, and GET THE HELL OUT OF THE HOUSE. You don't even have to be social. Just go sit by yourself at a Starbucks with a writing journal and a pen and start paying attention.

Once you have filled up a few pages, are hopped up on seven cups of espresso, and are twitching like a meth addict, then (and only then) are you permitted to leave to return to your cave and start working on your characters' dialogue.

Since your attention span is going to be about as long as a drunken cricket's, I'm going to offer some additional tips in easy-to-read-between-wall-bouncing bullet points. Ready? Here we go!

  • People have favorite or habitually used words or phrases. Your characters should too.

  • Use contractions unless your character is supposed to sound pretentious or like he's giving a speech or is in some other formal setting. I am = I'm. You are = You're (or Your if you are typing your dialogue on some forum on the Internet. # PetPeeve).

  • Practice writing dialogue without any attributions. This is hugely helpful in honing different speaking styles for different characters.

  • Use sideways dialogue. "This bratwurst sausage is really good. Don't you think?" "Uhm, yeah." "I really like it when they are long like this, and thick. And how the juices just dribble out all over my chin." "Dude, that's gross. Freaking stop."

  • Don't write out stuttering in dialogue. This one is a rule just asking to be broken. A cautionary note: All the commas, dashes, or ellipses (whichever you tend to use) can be distracting for a reader.

  • If you are attempting to write in a certain dialect make sure that you are good at writing in that dialect, and the only way to do that is to run it by people, let them read it, and get some feedback. Writing dialogue in a dialect can end very very badly... like my following example: "Yo, Vinny. Dat sausage? Da bomb, man. Da bomb. Dose juices, like whoa. In mah mouf man. In mah mouf." (Author's note: I don't write dialect.) Instead, you could do this: "Yo, Vinny. That sausage? The bomb, man. The bomb," Tony said, his Italian accent thick on his tongue.
There's more that can be said about dialogue, but I'll save it for another time. I'm sure right now you are coming down from your caffeine high and probably shivering in the corner.

Exercise: Study the following picture and write a few lines of dialogue to describe what they could be chatting about. If you're feeling saucy, try it without attribution and with sideways dialogue. As always, the comments are waiting for your masterpieces.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Comma Comma Chameleon: Punctuation for Fun and Profit

In this episode, we get to witness the beauty of true love and proper comma use. Open your hearts. Open your mind. And let the Comma Sutra be your guide. (ZOMG, POETRY!)

Comma Orgy
So, there I was, waiting for the bus, when out of nowhere, this gorgeous babe just walked right up to me, and, man, she was smokin', smokin' hot, then, you won't believe this, but, I swear it happened, she walked right up to me, and, wait for it, wait for it, burst into song! "Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma, Chameleon, you come and go, you come and go."


Leaving Your Commas at the Door
After she sang that most awesome refrain she reached over grabbed my coat jerked me forward and then kissed me it was awesome well except for that weird long sticky tongue of hers and I think I tasted chicken or something that tastes like chicken it was some kind of meaty taste but you know it was kind of a turn on.


Comma-Sutra
When the bus pulled up, she backed away and gave me a wink. I opened my mouth to ask her for her name or her phone number. Shoot, at that point I'd have been happy just knowing where she went to get her nails done. I swear I'd wait there every day for her if I had to, all day. I'd pay to have my feet massaged. I'd even let them give me a manicure. Pink nails with glitter? Sure! Anything as long as I might see her again. She put her finger to my lips, a playful grin on her own, and whispered, "Dinner. My place. 1234 Main. 7pm. Don't be late, and bring the grasshoppers." Seriously, I'm in love.



Exercise: Search Internet. Find examples of bad comma usage. Post in comments. Get a gold star!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Grabbing the Bull by the Horns: An Intro to POV

When learning the craft of writing there are many many MANY elements that are important. A novel is 20% creativity, 40% perseverance, and 60% knowledge of the craft... and 1% knowing math. Dialogue? Important. Plot? Important. Theme? Important? Bacon? Important! So probably goes without saying that point-of-view (POV) is also important. Well, except that I just said it, but it was on the screen... in words... so really, I didn't say it. I think my ADHD is acting up tonight.

Where was I?

Oh yes. POV. Briefly, POV is the manner in which you tell your story and, to save the sanity of your readers, should remain consistent throughout the entire story. Rules are made to be broken, though, and I have seen a couple of good examples of POV-shift, but even those were a little disconcerting. POV also answers the following questions (from Gotham Writers' Workshop Fiction Writing: The Practical Guide):
  • Who is speaking: a narrator or a character?

  • Whose eyes are seeing the events of the story unfold?

  • Whose thoughts does the reader have access to?

  • From what distance are the events being viewed?

Many writers don't even consider POV when writing as they have a preferred style that they tend to slip into, but whether you are a new writer or not, thinking about POV before you begin your novel is a very good idea. It helps to consciously decide which POV to use before you begin writing, not only to save yourself a world of heartache when it comes time to edit, but to consider how a story might be be affected (and perhaps improved) if you use a different POV than you are used to using or reading. Before you begin your next story, or venture too far into a current one, it would benefit you to glance over this intro to POV (that I'm about to provide, I promise) and/or find a good workshop guide or two on POV. The importance here is to understand the basic differences between POVs so as to use the one that will present your story most appropriately and powerfully.

* Disclaimer: This is ONLY a super-basic intro to the three main points-of-view. The purpose here is to offer you an example of what you might see as far as pronoun use and (very) general tone of each POV. Once you decide if you'd like to use I, or you, or he/she, then you can delve further into that POV's specifics.

Okay, serious "disclaimer-y" stuff done. Now BRING ON THE BULLS!

FIRST PERSON
So there I was, running with the bulls, when I slipped! I thought for sure that I was going to be turned into a soprano, but luckily the bull ran on by.

Ouch ouch ouch

First-person POV is kind of like this picture: The reader is there in the action with the characters, close to it, but not truly a part of it.  While the narrator uses "I" in first-person POV, the reader is aware that the "I" is referring to the character and not the reader. Another way that first-person POV is like this picture is that the focus is tight; the reader can't see the guy to the left, just out of the frame, who is about to become intimate with a 2,000 pound bull. What the character sees, the reader sees. No more.

First-person POV is intimate, but each time another character addresses the narrator, the readers are reminded that the "I" is not referring to them, and this keeps them just out of the path of the charging bull... just barely.

THIRD PERSON

The bull charged down the dirty street, directly towards the cornered runners. The fear was palpable and time seemed to slow. Alberto screamed as the massive beast neared and his last thought before he was bowled over was If I survive, I'm going to kill Javier for talking me into this.


This is third-person POV: The reader is safely viewing the action from a distance - everything happens to "he" or "her" - and you get to share the thoughts of the characters with the reader as well. Like first-person, this is also a very popular POV to use. If you are using third-person single or multiple, then the story will read much like one told from first-person. You are limited to sharing that which the character or characters personally witness in some way, but are able to tell the story in a different way. For example, if you are writing about a dog, you probably wouldn't use first-person POV (unless in your story dogs can talk). Third-person single or multiple offers you the chance to have a different narrator who is able to better speak for the characters than they themselves could.

One exception to the first-person and third-person similarity is third-person omniscient. This is where you present everything to the reader. Not only can the reader see the bull barreling down on Alberto, the reader also gets to see the other five bulls that are just around the corner, or the kid who is about to throw a rock at the bull to try and make it angrier, or the feral ferrets about to pour out from the sewer and devour everything in their path, including Alberto and the bull. The danger with this POV is there is a risk of letting the reader know that you, the writer, are there in the story. If the reader becomes aware of the author, it becomes more difficult to suspend disbelief. Also, this POV can seem impersonal, distancing your reader from your character even more.

SECOND PERSON

You went to the Running of the Bulls after Javier harassed you for weeks about it. Anything to shut him up. It didn't take long to realize that this was a big mistake. The first clue was when you got rammed into the wall by a passing bull, and the second clue was when you took a wrong turn and got trapped in an alley by an angry bull. As the bull charges you down, do you: (A) cry like a baby or (B) scream for your mommy? If you chose A, turn to page 42. If you chose B, turn the page.


Four steps to writing using second-person POV:
  1. Read the example above of second-person POV.

  2. Commit your reaction to memory.

  3. Call up that memory any time you get an urge to write a novel in second-person.

  4. Write your story in first- or third-person instead.
Of course I'm kidding! Kind of... Every time I see second-person POV in use in fiction, I think of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I have a hard time taking second-person POV seriously, but if you are one of those daring writers who want to be unique, more power to you.

Have you ever watched one of those reality contest shows like Top Chef or Project Runway? Inevitably, there is a contestant who will say, "I knew that this would be a huge risk. It was either going to pay off BIG or it was going to fail miserably." That, my friends, is second-person POV. It can either be an amazing success or a colossal failure.

Second-person POV is highly intimate and this is perhaps why it can be so uncomfortable to read. This same reason is also why, when it succeeds, it succeeds admirably.

This was just a very brief overview of the three POVs, and there is much more to say on each of them. But it is important to know the differences between each POV and to consider which would be better for your story.

Exercise: Think of a brief scene (you could always use any of the images above as inspiration) and write that scene in first-person. Try to keep it short, perhaps a paragraph or two, but long enough to help you get a feel for first-person and for the reader (you, your pal, me) to understand what's going on and who the narrator is. After you finish that scene, rewrite that same scene in third-person POV. After you finish that, rewrite it one final time in second-person POV. Don't worry right now about such things as single, multiple, omniscient, et cetera. It's two paragraphs. I think you'll be fine! And remember, I would love to see your results in the comments.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Walk Like an Egyptian: Plotting and Pyramids

Freytag's Pyramid by Sky Sloderbeck
Figure 1

Every story needs structure. In the way that a good bra holds up the girls, a good plot structure holds up your story. And without that underwire and cotton support your story becomes saggy, flopping all over the place like two puppies trying to escape from a sack.

One of the definitive examples for plotting your story is Freytag's Pyramid, a model that, when viewed in graphic-form, looks suspiciously similar to that good bra, albeit much more pointy. Freytag's Pyramid was created by German playwright, Gustav Freytag and is from his study of the five-act dramatic structure called Die Technik des Dramas (1863).


In Chapter 2, Freytag outlines the five acts:
  1. 1. Einleitung (Introduction, i.e. Exposition)

  2. 2. Steigerung (Increase, i.e. Rising Action)

  3. 3. H√∂henpunkt (Peak, i.e. Climax)

  4. 4. Fall oder Umkehr (Case or Conversion, i.e. Falling Action)

  5. 5. Katastrophe (No translation necessary, but modern triangles describe this act as the d√©nouement or conclusion)
These acts are then visualized as a triangle or pyramid which graphically present the acts in a way that reflects their role in a story (see Figure 1). This pyramid reflects the necessary structure of your basic plot. You introduce your readers to an arc, you ramp up the suspense so that the reader is on the edge of his or her seat, and then you present the climax, giving the reader a chance to peak. That peak, or climax, is the place where your reader is finally able to find a release for the suspense and tension that you've been building in them. I am trying very hard here to not devolve into the world of sexual metaphor, but it's actually a very apt comparison. Though this means that the Falling Action is the "afterglow" part and the Conclusion would be the part where you either fall asleep in each other's arms, or you gnaw off your own arm and sneak out before the sun comes up.

Twilight Freytag's Pyramid by Sky Sloderbeck (Small)
Figure 2
As a writer, you are not limited to just a single pyramid, either. In fact, the best stories, if mapped out on a Freytag's Pyramid, look very much like a mountain range (see Figure 2). Think about a good horror story: One Rising Action might be where the reader sees the hand reaching slowly out from under the bed towards the ankle of the sleeping co-ed; the related Climax could be where the hand grabs, but the co-ed turns in her sleep and the hand just misses her. Coming down from that climax, you will probably not want to take your reader all the way back to a calm and relaxed state, but you need to offer that initial release followed by a Falling Action and some semblance of a conclusion. Then you would introduce another scene where there can be a Rising Action-Climax-Falling Action-Conclusion and, if you play your reader right, you can keep bringing them up and partially back down the pyramids over and over until you get to the final climax...

... and that is the point where the reader finally feels that exhausted, fulfilled sense of relief.

To wrap up, just remember, your story needs a good support bra and you need to sex up your readers. Or something like that.

2 February 2013 Note: When trying to fix some site problems and port it to a new host, Figures 1 and 2 were lost. I found them again via Google, but the sites that archived them had small copies. I apologize for the low-res, hard to read pyramids.

Exercise: Take a story that you've written or are currently writing and map it using Freytag's Pyramid. If you don't have your own story, feel free to use any other story you'd like. I'd love to see your mapping (either in graphic or written form) in the comments.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dress for Success

2013 by Sky Sloderbeck.
One interview tip that prospective employees are given is to dress for the job you want. This is one of those tips that can carry over into everything you do, as the way you dress reflects how other people view you. I know there are many people out there already saying, "But I don't care what other people think!"  Well, that's all fine and dandy, but if you walk into your bank hoping to get some help with an erroneous fee and you are dressed like a local streetwalker, there is a better than good chance that the level of assistance that you receive will be directly related to your appearance.

The same holds true for how you speak. For the same naysayers that are getting ready to argue that how you speak does not reflect who you are and/or how qualified you are for something, I just want to say... BS.

Outrage Alert! The following fictional pieces of dialogue are based on stereotypes, for better or worse. Their point is to make a point, not make a subjective observation about groups of people and their potential grammar skills. If you are outraged by my dialogue examples, I encourage you to remember that this is a HUMOR writing tips site and that these are FICTIONAL characters and dialogues nippets. End Alert.

Doctor #1: "Hi, I'm Dr. Smith, your anesthesiologist. I'll be taking good care of you today, Sky. I like to repeat my patient's names to help me remember them. -wink-  Here is how your surgery will play out. First, you will get an IV to give you fluids. I will inject the IV line with a drug that will make you drowsy. After that, you won't remember a thing until you wake up with me by your side in the recovery area. Did you have any questions?"

Doctor #2: "Howdy, I'm Doc Bill, and I'll be puttin' ya'll to sleep today. I done forgot your name. Sky? Oh, okay. I've wroten it down here so I remember. Ok... Sky... here's how today's gonna go for ya. I writ a perscripshen fer a little bit of happy medicine. You get the happy medicine, you sleep, you wake up. All done! Any questions, sweetie?"

We can go so far as to have our fictional doctors being at the top of their classes in med school with a stellar track record, but which doctor sounds more professional?  I'll give you a hint: It's not Doctor #2.

Of course, I hear the whispering, "But I LIKE doctor #2. He's more real. More down-to-earth and approachable!"

Ok, a new #2 for you:

Doctor #2a: "Yo, I'm Doc MC and I got the fishizzle for yo grizzle. Now, I don't make all deese Bejamins fo' nuttin', yo. Trust yo Daddy. You'll wake up, girl, and it'll all be good. Straight?"

Or how about Doctor #2b? -The doctor enters and sets your cell on the bed next to you and then picks up his cell. He texts you.- "hihi lololo im ur doc 2day i has teh drugs dis wil b soooo fun! yay!"

All right, ignore the fact that you should not have your cell phone in the OR, okay? Look at the bigger picture and point I am trying to make.

The problem is that many people just don't care what they sound like, what they look like, or how they write. Yet like how you dress, how you present yourself in the written or spoken word is important. There are grammar rules for a reason, and they are not to make the speaker sound pretentious. Proper grammar is like proper grooming--it shows that you care about yourself.  And if you don't care about yourself, how can you expect others to?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: Corregidora

[T]hey didn't want to leave no evidence of what they done ... [a]nd I'm leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up.

Corregidora by Gayl Jones
Thanks to my advanced literature courses, I am introduced to many interesting novels that I may have otherwise never have read; Corregidora is one of these novels. Like many of my planned reviews, it is not a new novel and probably has been reviewed hundreds of times, but being new is not a requirement here on my blog.

For those unfamiliar with the author, Gayl Jones, Corregidora (Random House, 1975) is her first novel, yet it does not feel like a first effort. Perhaps this is why it has stood the test of time. Though a work of fiction, it is a stark, gritty, and real look at the legacy of slavery. In the interest of brutal honesty, I have to admit that I am not a fan of this novel. While the language and various scenes can be considered, to some, to be obscene, it is the writing itself that was off-putting, rather than her almost gratuitous use of vulgarity. Still, Corregidora is a worthy read whose message is too valuable to be missed due to a story whose form may not be for everyone.

Corregidora is about a woman named Ursa Corregidora, a songstress in the mid-twentieth century whose foremothers were slaves. The story chronicles her two failed marriages, her brush with and obvious disgust for a lesbian experience, and the eventual glimmer of hope that she is finally growing and moving past the legacy left to her by her grandmother and great-grandmother.

This story is peppered with memories embedded into Ursa by her grandmothers beginning at the tender age of five. These memories are the most vital aspects of the novel; they are Ursa's inheritance, her heritage. They are not stories of perseverance and hope in the lives of enslaved women, rather, they are horror stories of forced and incestuous sex between the slaveowner and his male clientele and his female slaves, the grandmothers included. These stories are key to understanding Ursa and her struggle with intimacy and even her eventual decision in regards to her first husband which many readers might have considered a weakness or failing, but is actually a sign of her growth past the birthright passed down to her by her grandmothers.

Jones' writing in this novel is often celebrated as unique and stirring, but I found the writing stilted and sometimes rambling. Not rambling in the sense that she over-describes scenes, but rambling in that "suddenly distracted by another thought" kind of way. Whether this is purposeful and meant to act as a stream of consciousness or not, it is not my favorite style to read and distracted me from the story itself time and again. However, for a first novel, Jones' command of storytelling and novel writing is obvious and my own issues with the novel are purely subjective. Your mileage may vary.

If you are interested in learning how to craft a novel that is layered like an onion and filled with meaning, Corregidora is the ideal study. If you are searching for a novel that reflects the legacy that slavery left on later generations, this is an amazing book for that. If you are looking for a truly happy ending or a book that can go more than a page or two before using vulgarity, then this book may not be for you. It certainly is a novel that shouldn't be missed, either by true readers or true writers, but it is literary fiction and since the job of literary fiction is to make the reader uncomfortable, or to challenge them, or to make them think, it fulfills that role admirably.

Friday, January 20, 2012

An Eye on the Prize: About Desire

When creating a complete character, one of the first things that any writer needs to consider is the desire that drives the character. What does your character need or want? How will your character's pursuit of this desire contribute to the story? It isn't enough to simply flesh out your character's appearance and basic personality, you must also glean from your character what it is that he or she wants, and wants badly. Without a desire, your character is not only flat, your story is flat. You can create grand vistas in words so powerful that the readers feel that they are there, but without that carrot-on-a-stick known as desire, your mule simply won't go.

You might be saying, "Well, duh. Of course my character needs a desire. That's why I decided that my character's desire is to not feel like such a slouching, ambling, insecure dope." Well, that's a fine start, but it's not enough. A better way to think about your character and desire is in the terms of general and specific. Perhaps your character's general desire is to be more suave than the aforementioned dope, but that is not enough for a complete story. In order to truly bring your character to life, you need to couple that general desire with a specific desire. A specific desire for the same character could be that he wants to step outside of his comfort zone (by joining the military, or taking public speaking classes, or throwing a ring into a molten mountain) in order to achieve his general desire of being awesome.

Depending on the length of your story, your character could have many desires that help propel the story forward, but in all cases, these desires need to reflect specific wants or needs that will help the character achieve general wants or needs. In fact, your character doesn't even really need to know his own desires - learning about what he wants could be a part of his growth in the story - but you need to know. You are your character's creator, his mother or father, his god. You have to know your character better than you know yourself.

Now some writers might prefer to learn about their characters as they write them, and that's fine, but if you come to the end of your story and have never laid out your character's general and specific desire(s), then you are missing a vital piece that will make your story complete.

Exercise: Study the following picture and create a list of three possible general desires and three possible specific desires that this person has. Feel free to share in the comments!

Steampunk player. Burning Man 2011. Photo by Trey Ratcliff