Monday, October 20, 2014

Full Contact Writing

I have carpal tunnel. It’s a side effect of typing at a computer for most of the day, every day, for the past twenty years. Many people have it and we’ve figured out how to live with it. I also study karate, and that requires impact on my wrists at times. One of my teachers can always tell when I’ve been doing a lot of writing because my wrists are more tender than usual. The last time he noticed, he said to me “Full contact writing again?” I laughed because karate-related injuries can happen in our dojo and we all know how to deal with them, but writing isn’t a contact sport. It’s sitting in a chair all day, and the only things moving are your fingers.

After I went home, though, I thought about what he said.

Full Contact Writing.

Actually, that *is* what I do, or, at least, what I strive to do. I don’t mean this in a physical sense, like chucking a book at someone’s head. I mean mentally, intellectually, and emotionally. When I read a great story, it makes an impact on me. A hard hit in karate can leave bruises, which usually last about a week. In a good book, the characters and situations leave an impression on my mind, sometimes for days after I’ve finished it.

A book that can do this has effectively used all the working parts: relatable and interesting characters, unpredictable plot, vivid and believable world-building, increasing tension, satisfying conclusion, etc. But the thing that really ties all these together is the writing. Good, solid, strong writing.

What makes writing good?

I’ve taken quite a few writing classes over the years. Inevitably, someone picks out a flowery sentence and reads it aloud as an example of amazingly good writing because it sounds so beautiful. But, does that make it good writing? In my opinion, no.

Beautiful sentences and turns of phrases work great in poetry or books in verse. But in a regular story? Nope. For me, it makes it sound like the author is trying too hard to impress the reader, and she comes across as pretentious. These sentences also do a disservice to the story because the reader is no longer absorbed in the story, she’s focusing on the words. The best writing is invisible, seamless, and never distracts from the characters or the story. It’s the stitching that binds the various pieces of the story together, and stitching is best when it’s not the focus of the whole work. Occasionally, some stitching is visible and adds to the overall beauty of the whole, but it’s never the focus, and it’s never what you notice first.

So, how do you write invisible and seamless sentences? That’s the topic for next week.

 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She's trying to break out of prison--even though if she succeeds, she'll be the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive. Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit's grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn't know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother's whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

The first book in this series, Cinder, is a futuristic sci-fi retelling of Cinderella. Scarlet is about Little Red Riding Hood, but with a modern twist.

In the original fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood is meek, scared, and incapable. Scarlet is none of these things. She learns that her grandmother is in danger, so she rushes off to rescue her. She has such determination that she overcomes any obstacles by sheer will. She has no problems taking care of herself, and isn’t easily scared off. I loved reading about her.

We meet two new characters in this book: Wolf and Thorne. Thorne is hilarious. He’s got the perfect blend of swagger and cluelessness. Wolf is, of course, something of the Big Bad Wolf character, but in an interesting way. He’s not your typical alpha male character because of his damaged past. I liked him, and I liked the romance that blossoms between him and Scarlet.

Cinder is in this book, too, and the story starts out with two separate story lines: one for Cinder and one for Scarlet. They seem unrelated at first, and then Meyer connects them in a pretty cool way. The plot has plenty of tension and the pacing makes it impossible to put this book down.

If you like fairy tales and sci-fi, you’ll probably like this series. Definitely recommended.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Crafting Powerful Sentences

My oldest son is in fourth grade, and he recently came home with an interesting homework assignment. He had to pick out what his teacher called ‘juicy sentences’ from the book he was currently reading. These juicy sentences (I love that term, btw) are the ones that evoke the most emotion, imagery, tension, etc.

It’s difficult to craft sentences like that. It’s all about choosing the right words for your story, which is easier said than done. Part of it is feeling out the story and using the words that pop into your mind, and you can’t really explain why you choose them. You just do. This skill takes a long time to learn how to do effectively, and can’t really be taught. But there are a few guidelines that can help steer you in the right direction.

1) Avoid repeated words.
When we repeat words or phrases in our stories, it lessens the impact each time that word is used. This includes repeated imagery. If you’ve just referenced a color as a feeling, or a metaphoric smell, or specific kind of texture, then avoid using that same reference again. If possible, don’t use it anywhere else in the story. This keeps it original, and the single use makes it powerful.

2) Avoid common, everyday words.
Words like just, then, anyway, so, though, etc. dilute the sentence because they’re filler words. They don’t add anything to the underlying meaning of the sentence, and can (most often) be deleted. Don’t worry about these words that crop up in your first draft. After you have the big picture working, then you can go through and remove them.

3) Avoid overly used phrases.
The most powerful sentence is one that conveys a familiar meaning/image/feeling/etc while using unfamiliar construct of words. Phrases that have been around for quite some time are more like conversation filler. They don’t really have any meaning except to let the person verbally meander. A powerful sentence doesn’t meander; it gets right the point and hits you hard with its intent. Instead of taking the easy way out and using a phrase that you’re familiar with, find a new way to say it.

Some examples to avoid: of course, I was like, I couldn’t help but wonder, I noticed, in my mind’s eye, only to be met with, sent shock waves of, like a bat out of hell, glimmer of hope, throw in the towel, etc.

To create your powerful sentences, constantly ask yourself if there’s a stronger way of telling your story. Embrace the concept of ‘less is more.’ Look at each word and ask yourself what its purpose is. If you can’t answer, then you either need to delete it or find a different word. Make your sentences as juicy as possible.

This is a lot of work. A lot. But it’s also what separates the good writers from the great ones.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl.
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

This is a fantastic and imaginative retelling of Cinderella. I'm not always fond of retellings because they are sometimes rote and predictable. It's their nature because the basic plot is well-known. But a good author can make the reader invest in the story even if we know where it's heading. I was invested in Cinder.

Cinder is a cyborg because of a horrible accident that almost killed her when she was a child. In her society, cyborgs are considered second-class citizens. Actually, more property than citizens, which brings about some serious discrimination issues. Meyer handles them well. Cinder does as much as she can to hide the mechanical aspects of her body, but she can only do so much: one of her legs is mechanical and her foot is much too small (it's left over from when she was a child), making it near impossible to disguise. The change in attitudes from people she encounters is spot on and heartbreaking.

This theme is further illustrated in Iko, the android that lives with Cinder's stepfamily. Iko has a human personality, but she's not human. She *is* property, and her wishes, dreams, and feelings are never considered by the stepmother. It doesn't even occur to her. In fact, it will never occur to her because she sees Iko as far beneath her. Not unlike slavery.

Cinder herself is a fantastic character. She's a brilliant mechanic, feisty and strong, and smart about how she stands up for herself. She's also practical about her interactions with Prince Kai, but still loyal and selfless. She made the story interesting. Well, that and the pages and pages of action-packed tension. :) The romance develops slowly and on the more realistic side, and I liked how the two came together.

If you haven't read this, you should. It's great fun, and very entertaining. Definitely recommended.

Monday, April 28, 2014

In the Past or Present?

Present tense. It's in many YA books today. Some people have very strong feelings against it, some don’t. Me? I love it. BUT. Yes, there’s a but. :) I only love it if it has been done well, and if it’s necessary to the story. Otherwise, I can't stand it, and this is why.

When we writers sit down to write a first draft, we are discovering the story. Even if it’s been planned out with outlines and whatnot, there is still plenty of discovery happening through the characters, dialog, setting, etc. That adds an element of immediacy, of being in the moment. But the problem is that it’s not coming from the characters; it’s coming from us.

In that first draft, we writers are in a state of complete discovery. We may know some basic facts about the story and the characters, but really we are living from moment to moment, recording the story as we go. In subsequent drafts, though, we are no longer in that moment. We are reflecting back on it, analyzing, perfecting, adding in the details we may have missed the first time around, and trying to show that moment to the reader in the best way possible.

The same is true for our characters. To have a completely effective story told in present tense, the characters must be in the moment, not the author. That means that there should be no reflection or analyzing of what is currently happening. They need to figure things out as they go.

Some good examples of present tense are The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, and The Spectacular Now. In Jenna Fox and Teenage Amnesiac, the main characters have no memory of who they are. They’ve been told some basic facts about themselves, but they are in full discovery mode, trying figure things out. A perfect situation for present tense.

In Jenna Fox, Jenna stays in this self-discovery mode for the entire story because it’s not possible for her to reflect on who she was before her accident. It’s a very powerful story. The reader gets completely sucked into all of her moments and can’t wait for her to discover more, because that means we will discover more. This book is one of the most effective uses of present tense I’ve ever seen.

In Teenage Amnesiac, Naomi is suffering from amnesia due to a nasty bump on the head. So, in the beginning, we are discovering right along with her. It’s just as effective as Jenna Fox, and just as compelling...until Naomi regains her memory, and suddenly knows who she was before she bumped her head. At this moment, Naomi begins to reflect, comparing her old self to her new self. It’s also the moment that the present tense feels awkward. The reader is stuck in discovery mode, i.e. present tense, but Naomi is no longer discovering. She’s reflecting and analyzing.

The Spectacular Now is a different sort of book. Sutter is a party boy alcoholic. He completely lives in the moment, looking for the next fun thing. When that’s over, he’s off looking for the next one, and the next, and so on. His whole life is built upon not reflecting, because that would mean facing the possibility that he has a problem with his drinking. Hence, the title, The Spectacular Now. As Sutter shares his story with us, he presents it as-is, no frills, no I-guess-I-did-that-because rationalizations or reflections. He is completely in the moment, and this book is also one of the most effective uses of present tense I’ve ever seen.

So if you’re writing a story in present tense and you’re not sure if it’s effective, then take a look at both you and your character. Which one is in discovery mode? Which one is completely in the moment? If it’s you, then you might want to rethink using present tense. If it’s your character, then you’re probably on the right track.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau


In The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

The basic premise behind this series is compelling, and the writing is quick and vivid. It's easy to pick these books up and not set them down until the end because they are full of non-stop action. Cia is interesting, too. It's refreshing to read about a super smart girl, especially in math and science, who is also brave and can look at things from a 'big picture' perspective.

With the first book, I had issues believing in the basic world-building. Unfortunately, I had the same issue with this book. There are still too many holes in why someone would want a society to function this way. The kind of people who would graduate from a program like this would be more of a threat to the leaders, simply because it rewards selfishness and greed, *and* the only people accepted are super smart. So they will come up with creative ways to get themselves more power, which threatens those currently in power. Therefore, I still couldn't buy into the world.

That said, I thought this book was better than the first...until I got to the end. Cia is too smart to do something so stupid. Because of that, I figured out the plot twist well before it was revealed, which really bummed me out. I was hoping to be surprised. Endings are important to me, so this one impacted my enjoyment of the rest of the story quite a bit.

I'll probably read the last book just to see how it ends, but I'll wait until I can check it out from the library.