Saturday, August 30, 2008

Screaming Blue Angels

Every August, Chicago hosts the Air and Water Show on the lakefront. It features boats, water skiers, and a zillion different kinds of airplanes. Including the infamous Blue Angels.

We just moved in February, and our new house is right under the fly path of some of the airplanes as they're practicing, or performing in the show. So, instead of going to the lakefront with the millions of other tourists and Chicagoans, we went to the top floor of our house...and ended up getting up close and personal.

These suckers are incredibly loud. Especially when they got so close you could read the writing on the underbellies. My oldest son is highly sensitive to sound, and got a bit concerned when the windows were rattling in their panes. He covered his ears and hid under his blanket.

My youngest son, however, is like a rock. Nothing rattles him. He just covered his ears, then grinned up at the Blue Angels screaming by as if they were there just for him. It was kind of cute. :)
We went through a full week of this - four practice days, then three performance days. Fortunately, the practice days were mostly during the middle of the day, when both my kids were at preschool. But the performance days went until eight at night. That seemed a bit ridiculous even to me.
Next year, we might actually join the rest of Chicago on the beach so we can see the actual show, rather than the bits and pieces from our house. But I think I'll invest in some ear plugs, or something, for my oldest. Got any suggestions?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Holy freakin’ cow. This is one powerful book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

Plot Summary: In 1973, a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon is raped, murdered, and dismembered by a neighbor. Over the next few years she watches from a personalized heaven as her family and friends deal with their grief.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

I tend to walk the line between optimism and reality, hope and acceptance. In life, I lean more toward reality and acceptance. It just makes things easier for me. But in fiction, I definitely lean toward optimism and hope. Because of this, I can’t decide whether or not I loved this book.

On the one hand, this story is so full of real life and real characters that I was completely lost in it. On the other, that reality was so harsh that it squashed any hope I had of a righteous and happy ending .

Hopeful Me wanted the cavalry to haul in Mr. Harvey. She wanted Susie’s family to be able to spit in his face. She wanted him humiliated for all the world to see. She wanted him put safely behind bars so no one else would become his victim. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he fell into a hole, and wouldn’t be discovered for months. Hopeful Me was outraged.

But Reality Me accepted this as how this often happen in real life. Especially during that time period. It’s completely unfair and infuriating, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. And the author captured this amazingly well.

Susie’s family is another reality that was harsh, yet there was still hope there. Losing a close family member can understandably destroy the family. At the very least, it destroys the current way of life. Rebuilding that is both difficult and painful, because you are constantly reminded of what’s been taken from you. But, as Susie observes, her family finds a way through. Hopeful Me was elated.

The only real stumbling block I had was with the shifts in focus from person to person. Susie is in heaven and can watch the Earth from her spot in the clouds, and she can see into the minds and hearts of everyone. So we have a first person narration with something like an omniscient POV. It was interesting, but the transitions from person to person could be confusing. Susie would sometimes shift so quickly and so often that I didn’t know who we were reading about. Once the focus settled, then I understood. But it sometimes took a while.

That, combined with the raging war between Hopeful Me and Reality Me, left me feeling exhausted once I finished this book. I definitely enjoyed it, but I don’t think I have the strength to read it again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Brillante Weblog Premio award

Thank you to Susan Meyers for passing this award on to me!! :)
Now I get to pass it along, weeeeee!!!!!!!!!

Resident Alien: Mary Whitsell is an American who has spent much of her life living in other countries. She shares many amazing stories that always leave me in fits of giggles or tears of happiness. If you haven't read her blog, you should. Like, now.

The Bookshelf Muse: Becca and Angela have spent many, many hours putting together an amazing Emotion Thesaurus. They matched up action and body language with several different emotions, and the thesaurus grows each week. Recently, they've added a Setting Thesaurus, and I can't wait to see what all they put in that one!

Congratulations everyone! If you so choose, it's your turn to nominate others for this award.
Rules for recipients of the Brillante Weblog Premio are as follows:
1. The award may be displayed on a winner's blog.
2. Add a link to the person you received the award from.
3. Nominate up to seven other blogs.
4. Add their links to your blog.
5. Add a message to each person that you have passed the award on in the comments section of their blog.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Whole World of Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas?”
This is probably the most frequent question writers get asked. My answer? Everywhere.

Ideas for stories can begin with the tiniest thing. Or, they can fall from the sky, huge and already half-built, right into your lap. All you have to do is look around, and you’ll see them.

They’re in the old woman waiting for a bus, the iron pressing the wrinkles out of a collar, the dog abandoned by its family, the teenager inventing her own words, the kid shuffling to school with hunched shoulders, or the kid standing tall and meeting the world head on. There are stories in all of these things.

A new story idea has been niggling in the back of my mind for quite some time. It partly came from a horrible and vivid nightmare. I woke, shaking and sweating, then stared at the ceiling for the rest of the night because I did not want to go back to it (as I sometimes do). The next day, when the sun was out and I felt a bit braver, I thought about this dream. There were many aspects that would never go into a children’s book, at least not one that I would write. But there were others, tiny nuggets in this realm of terror, that I plucked out, wrote down, and brainstormed. Pretty soon, I had this vivid new idea gripping me by the throat, demanding me to write it. I was in the middle of another story at the time, one that I really wanted to finish, so I made myself set this one aside. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do.

Which brings up another question, one often asked by other writers. How do you deal with new ideas when you’re already up to your eyeballs in another one?

I think the answer to this is personal preference, or how your brain processes things. Some people can read multiple books at a time, and some can’t. Some people like to have several stories going at once, and some don’t. Which are you? I'm a one-at-a-time gal, myself.

But what about this: since you’ve gotten this great new idea, does it mean you have to start writing it immediately? Not necessarily. There’s something to be said for letting your ideas stew for a bit. For the idea I mentioned above, I’m glad I didn’t start on it right away. Aside from the fact that I finished my other project (yay!), that extra time to let it simmer has given it a deeper, richer flavor. The setting has grown. The characters have fleshed themselves out. The main character has taken over, and tells me more and more how this story needs to be told. Rather, how it *will* be told, whether I like it or not. If I had started working on this story right out of the gate, none of this would have happened. And the story would have suffered. So, I think that, from now on, letting my ideas simmer is going to be a regular practice of mine. No matter how hard it is to set them aside.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Plot Summary: ORPHAN, CLOCK KEEPER, AND THIEF, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo's undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo's dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

I heard Brian Selznick speak at the 2007 Winter SCBWI conference. He told us the entire history of Hugo Cabret – the inspiration, the initial execution, the stumbling blocks, everything. Since I’m a storyteller at heart, this story about a story had me riveted. I was so enthralled that I decided I had to buy his book. So, at our next break, I ran off to the bookstore to pick it up. But I wasn’t the only person with this idea... By the time I’d gotten there, it had already sold out.

This told me two things. 1) Brian Selznick is an amazing speaker, and got so many people interested in his book that we all ran out to buy it. 2) All authors should to learn how to do this.

When I got home from the conference, I picked up the book from my local bookstore, then settled in to read.

Let me first say that I'm not one for picture books. I enjoy reading them to my kids, but I’m not too interested in reading them for myself. However, this book had me enthralled. The artwork is absolutely beautiful (I have a special place in my heart for pencil drawings, anyway), and I spent many an hour just staring at the detail in each picture.

I wasn’t as enthralled with the text. The story, yes. Most definitely. But the writing wasn’t as smooth or polished as I would have liked. If I had read this story without the pictures, I doubt I’d have been so taken with it. But the pictures...more specifically, the way the pictures and the text are combined such that both tell the story is genius! I love how you can’t get the complete story with only the text, and you can’t get the complete story with only the pictures. You need them both. If there were more picture books out there like this, I’d definitely read them.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing Is Like A Soufflé…

…get one thing wrong, and the whole thing falls into disaster.

Of course, that statement is subjective. What if that one thing is minor? Or what if it looks a total disaster, but still tastes really good? Well, it’s all relative to what the reader can ignore, and what he can’t. And the best way to make the reader ignore those mistakes is to strike a good balance among all the ingredients that go into a story.

But, how do you do that?

First, you need to know the ingredients, or the elements that make up a story. Once you have everything you need, you can go about measuring them – but instead of using measuring cups and spoons, you need a balance scale. And it’s probably the most complex balance scale your imagination can conjure up. Take each element, dole them out onto the scale such that everything stays in balance, then mix and bake at 350 degrees. :)

Using the balance scale gives the writer direction without telling him what to do. I.E., without giving him a formula to follow. If your story calls for major amounts of plot twists, then include them. Just don’t forget to add enough characterization, pacing, research, etc. such that the story is still in balance. Otherwise your story soufflé is going to come out lopsided.

Okay, you say. But how do you know if your story is in balance?

That’s where objectivity comes in. I know, I know. I’ve gone on about this before, but it’s such an important concept to me that it’s in everything I do related to writing. This is no different. Critique groups are wonderful for balance-checking, too. Especially well-rounded groups where everyone has different strengths. A fresh pair of eyes can do wonders.

Once you’ve measured, mixed, and baked, then you can set your story aside to cool. When you come back to “taste” it, it’ll be easier to see if the mixture is right, or if something is off. Figuring out what is off, however, can be really, really hard, and sometimes requires an experienced palate. Use your critique groups to help out there.

Sorry about all the baking analogies. In case the guitar cake wasn’t a dead giveaway, I’m a big lover of baking, and this is how my brain processes things. If you're not a baker, my apologies. :)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Eldest by Christopher Paolini

BREAKING DAWN by Stephanie Meyer was just released, with quite the extreme response. People either love it or hate it, and some clashing discussions have erupted as a result.

The last time I saw such a bi-polar response to a book was ELDEST by Christopher Paolini. I find this interesting because the only thing these stories have in common is that they’re popular, part of a series, and heavily backed by their respective publishing houses.

In light of this similarity, and since the third book in ERAGON's series is coming out next month, I decided to revisit ELDEST.

Plot Summary: Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, have just saved the rebel state from destruction by the mighty forces of King Galbatorix, cruel ruler of the Empire. Now Eragon must travel to Ellesmera, land of the elves, for further training in the skills of the Dragon Rider: magic and swordsmanship. Soon he is on the journey of a lifetime, his eyes open to awe-inspring new places and people, his days filled with fresh adventure. But chaos and betrayal plague him at every turn, and nothing is what it seems. Before long, Eragon doesn’t know whom he can trust. Meanwhile, his cousin Roran must fight a new battle–one that might put Eragon in even graver danger.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

I read ERAGON when it first came out because I was curious what this fifteen year old kid had produced, and I enjoyed it. His youth shone through the writing and plotting, but it was clear he had worked hard to create this world. When ELDEST was released, I decided to give it a try. I was sadly disappointed.

The main character, Eragon, didn’t go through much struggle in this story. He needed recover from injuries inflicted by the seriously nasty Durza in the previous book, he needed to learn how to become a dragon-rider-warrior by overcoming his human limitations, and he needed to learn how to better use magic.

He got all of these things, but had to work for none of them because they were literally wrapped up in a magical gift from the dragons. Sure, he had some difficulties early on, but he never had to really suffer or figure out how to become what everyone needed him to be. It was just, poof, there.

When I read a book, I want to see the characters struggle as much as I've had to struggle in my own life. There's no magical gift-giver waiting in the wings to help me get through my life, so I have a hard time connecting with characters who have to struggle for nothing. And if I can't connect with the characters, then I'm shut out of a huge part of the book-reading experience. For me, no amount of cool plot points or flashy story telling can overshadow that. I had this same problem with the Twilight series.

But we're here to talk about Eldest... The ending wasn’t as climactic as I think it was intended to be. The relation between Murtagh and Eragon had been (not so subtly) hinted at way back in the first book. Which made it kind of obvious that Murtagh had killed the Varden leader, having an agenda of his own.

The most interesting character in this series is Solembum, the werecat. He’s mysterious, hilarious, and dangerous all in one. What’s not to like? I was hoping to see more of him and his purpose in the story, but he was as elusive as ever.

I think Paolini’s youth is still shining through, and I think he still hasn’t found his Voice. Still, I give him credit for attaining this much success at such a young age. I hope he keeps writing, and I wish him luck on his journey.

On a separate note, I’m very curious what’s going to happen with the release of BRISINGR next month. Will there be another bi-polar reaction? Or will it be more temperate? Only time will tell, I suppose.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tag Me Brilliantly, Baby!

Last week, we looked at how to get Tone from Emotion and Action in a simple exchange of dialog:
“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across his teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.

There are a lot of “identifiers” is the above exchange. There’s at least one sentence of description with each line of dialog. The good part of that is we always know who’s speaking, as well as the tone being used. The bad part is there’s a lot of it. A bit too much.

In a regular story, the history is provided gradually, so we get to know the characters along with their likes/dislikes. In a writing exercise, that’s not always possible…but I’m going attempt it now.

Story history:
Albert has just been dumped by his long-time girlfriend, Vanessa. He’s normally fun, suave, and charming, but this breakup has him moping about. Jane has had a crush on Albert since forever, but doesn’t know what to think about this new, moping Albert. She and her friend, Allison, were out for a snack, then ran into Albert. Allison slipped away to the restroom, giving a secret thumbs-up to her friend – much to Jane’s chagrin. Jane fidgets, keeping her eyes fixed on the restroom door.

“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing. Why?”
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” She shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.

Since we know the character’s histories and personalities (at least somewhat), it’s easier to hear the appropriate Tone even without the Action. In this exchange, the only time Action is needed is when the characters are reacting to some part of the conversation. If they aren’t reacting, their personalities combined with the story’s history can create the appropriate Tone.

This kind of thing is easy to do if there are only two speakers. But what if there are three? Or more? It can get cumbersome to give everyone some kind of Action each time he/she speaks.

Personalities can play a huge part here, as can using the “said” tag to identify the speaker. For personalities, if the characters have been well-developed, then the reader can probably identify the speaker just from what he/she says. But what if it’s not possible in a particular scene? That’s where the “said” tag comes in useful. When a character doesn’t need to react to the conversation, using “said” is the easiest way to let the reader follow the conversation.

Let’s look at the scene where Allison comes back from the restroom:
The restroom door creaked open, and Allison strolled back to the table, arms swinging. “So, what did I miss?”
“I’m taking Jane out tomorrow night.”
Jane blushed, nodding.
“That’s awesome!” Allison clapped her hands, face tight with excitement. “Where are you taking her?”
“There’s a great seafood place on Chester Street. I was thinking we could go there.”
“I’m allergic to seafood,” said Jane.
“Oh.” Albert’s face drooped. “Okay. Well, I’ll…I’m sure I can find something you’ll like.”

In this exchange, Jane spoke up to let Albert know of her allergy to seafood. Introducing an Action could be cumbersome, and leaving off the tag could have made the declaration confusing. So, adding in the “said” clears up who’s speaking, without detracting from the exchange.

Personally, this is the only time I’m comfortable using dialog tags. And, I only use “said.” If I use them anywhere else, I feel like I’m being lazy. And if I ever use an adverb with a tag, I’m being ultra lazy! I’ve heard many editors and agents talk about how they hate seeing adverbs with dialog tags. It’s classic “telling,” and should be avoided. If you’ve got adverbs with your tags and you’re not sure how to get rid of them, look at the Emotion behind the dialog. Then, imagine the Actions that go with that Emotions. Write that down, and you’ll be on your way to showing instead of telling.

Geez Louise! I can’t believe how long this post has gone on. There is just one more thing I want to add: level of detail. Just as with Action, the reader doesn’t need to know all the silly, boring details that go into a conversation. Jennifer Hubbard has already written an excellent post on this, so I will just refer you there. Less work for me. :)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Fender Guitar Cake

I made this cake for the son of one of my best friends. He was premature, born at 25 weeks, and yesterday was his fourth birthday. He wasn't expected to survive, but he did. So, a big Happy Birthday to you!!!

I've made cakes before, but never one like this. Sure, it's not to scale and the guitar strings aren't straight...but still, I'm pretty proud of it. :) And, I think, if I did it again, it would only get better.

So enjoy a little fun cake today, and wish this little boy well for suriviving against the odds, and for knowing how much he is loved.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Book Description:
Clay Jenkins returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers 13 cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker—his classmate and crush—who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out how he made the list.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Let me say, first off, that I really enjoyed this book. The writing was sharp and vivid, the Voice was clear, the characters were strong and compelling, the subject is interesting, and the story held me in such a strong grip that I couldn’t put it down.

But I didn’t love it. It kills me to say this, but I didn’t. It wasn’t due to a lack of talent, because, clearly, this author has a lot of it.

There is a discussion on Verla Kay’s Blue Boards about this book, and many people had trouble sympathizing with Hannah, the girl who commits suicide. I, also, had trouble sympathizing with her, and, in the end, didn’t really like her. But I was okay with this, because to sympathize with her could be to think suicide is okay. Even viable. And I will never see it that way. Therefore, Hannah and I will never be able to connect, and that’s fine. If the author did this on purpose, then I am incomplete awe.

There was only one thing in this story that gave me pause. Unfortunately, it was a really big thing: the tapes. I just can’t accept that someone who is planning to commit suicide would go through so much effort to record *everything* that led to her decision. Tapes like these are more likely to be a tool for someone who is trying to sort through what’s happened to her, so she can move on. But it’s set up from the beginning that these tapes are an elaborate suicide note that only a select few should hear.

As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t get past that. Suicide is about hopelessness. Would a hopeless, depressed person have enough energy and drive to not only go through the time and effort of creating the tapes, but also reliving everything that led to her decision? I don’t think so. To be fair, I’ve never been one to give up, so I’m only guessing here. But it makes sense to me.

Without the tapes, there is no story. But with the tapes, I couldn’t accept the story. You see my dilemma… Still, this is a great story that deals with important issues, and I do recommend reading it.

And there is one thing I know for sure – whatever Jay Asher writes in the future, I’m going to read it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Tone Deaf? Show Me The Melody

Last week, we looked at a simple exchange of dialog in PieceA:
“Jane? What are you doing tomorrow night?” said Albert.
“Nothing. Why?”
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
“Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
“Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight,” said Albert.

Then added action to it in PieceB:
“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across uneven teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folded his arms across the table.

Do you see the shift? What are the major differences between the two pieces? Setting, personal preferences, characterization? PieceA has none of these things, which makes it sound flat and boring. PieceB tells us that Jane and Albert are probably in a restaurant, that Albert likes Jane, but Jane doesn’t necessarily feel the same way.

How do we know this? Let’s look at one line of Jane’s dialog, from both pieces.

A) “Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
B) Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.

How do these sound to you? The same? Probably not. The first could sound like anything. Jane could be nervous, excited without wanting to look excited, scared, horrified, anything. There are no clues to tell us what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. The second piece gives us the clues we need, so it’s easier for her voice to fill our heads.

This is tone. Action sets the character’s tone of voice. An annoyed person will do things like shift her weight, not make eye contact, sigh loudly, etc. So if we see her doing these kind of things, then we’ll hear the annoyance in her voice when she speaks (check out The Bookshelf Muse for an excellent Emotion Thesaurus; it illustrates actions associated with certain emotions). If the character isn’t doing anything, there’s no tone and the character sounds flat and lifeless. Tone, combined with the right choice of words, is what gives dialog authenticity, or, what makes it ring true.

A writer could study today’s teenagers – i.e. visit shopping malls, movie theaters, and other teen haunts - write down everything she hears, use it in dialog, and it could still sound forced, flat and false. It all depends on what the teenagers are doing. If what they do matches up with their personalities and the dialog, then you’ve got well-written dialog, with clear tone, that rings with authenticity.

“But,” you say. “Aren’t you missing something here?”

I surely am! Thanks for pointing that out. :) You probably picked up on that when I mentioned the Emotion Thesaurus, because the missing element is emotion! Without it, you've got nothing. Emotion works behind the scenes of Action. It’s the driving force, sets the direction, and ultimately sets the tone. So, once you’ve identified the appropriate emotions for a particular scene, then chosen the resulting actions and words, you’ve got yourself a stunning set of dialog.

Once again, this post has gotten quite long. And, once again, I haven’t covered everything. How do we know who’s speaking? How long should an exchange of dialog be? And, do we have to include everything? Those topics, and probably more, will come next week.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

What Kind of Bug Are You?

This came across my inbox recently, and I thought the questios were pretty funny. So I thought I'd share.

What type of insect are you?

Praying Mantis

You are very intelligent, inquisitive, patient, and well respected by your peers. However you tend to be a loner.

Personality Test Results

Click Here to Take This Quiz
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