When things are at their worst, Make them laugh

A few years ago my best friend’s husband died.

This is real life.Featured image

It was awful. Real life awful. Literally freaking awful.

After the funeral we all sat around at the dining room table, drinking too much wine and laughing our asses off.

Not because we were awful people. Because we were so incredibly sad we had no where else to go at that very moment.

We told jokes. Really tasteless disgusting jokes. We mercilessly teased each other, including the widow. We probably resorted to fart noises, anything really to keep us from falling into a bottomless pit of despair. Anything to help my best friend continue to function in the face of horrific loss.

Now, novels are usually not real life, but they do frequently act as a catharsis for readers. If you have done a good job as a writer, your reader will be invested in your characters. They will care about them and want them to succeed. But as in real life, a character does not have a straight and easy road to the end of the story. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they fail miserably. Sometimes they die.

It’s certainly a decision of style to add humor to a serious story. Many many authors do not. I, personally, find those books harder to read. Probably because I’m the kind of person who tells fart jokes after a funeral.

As an author your job is to take your reader through a journey. How you choose to lead them is up to you, but what should always remain in your mind is that they can and will abandon you if you do not respect them. Many people find the darkest hours to be bearable with a little humor. This can take many forms according to what you feel comfortable with and what you enjoy.

George RR Martin, the king of killing heroes has a method for this, by the name of Tyrion Lanister. Joss Whedon flawless weaves in snappy one liners. Stephen King’s narrating characters take on a sarcastic tone. Tolkien offered moments of levity in the midst of the chaos and despair.

It may not be your thing. You may think laughing after a funeral is awful. But consider that a good character is not just a character to reader. They are a friend and you, the writer, are trying to navigate your reader through this friendship with respect and authenticity.

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Why did you do that?

If you were having drinks with your friend Carl and, in the middle of a deep conversation about locally brewed IPA’s, Carl grabbed your gin and tonic and dumped it on the floor, you would want to know his motives. If he had no explanation for his actions you might then decide you no longer want to hang out with Carl. The same goes for characters in stories.

A writer always has a reason for a character’s actions. To set up an event, to get someone out of a bad situation, to allow for romance or just adding some interest to a filler scene, character actions drive a story. But while the writer is god of the world they create, they should never remove free will from their characters.

So every time a character does anything you, as a writer, need to ask them why. And they need to be able to tell you.

Why did you pick up that stick that ended up allowing you to kill the zombie you didn’t know was coming?

Why did you get in the car with the man who you later realized was your soul mate?

Why did you wear that amulet that turned out to be the magical crystal of power?

The character has to have reasonable motivation for doing these things and they need to be established before they come into play or else your writing comes across as sloppy and transparent.

So if the situation with Carl was a story and, as a writer, you know that the gin and tonic is poisoned, you have a reason for Carl to dump it out, but that is not enough for your reader. Carl needs a reason (he has a long standing vendetta against the gin brand, he saw the tonic was expired, he’s just realized the protagonist slept with his girlfriend)  or else you’re cheating your reader, and you never want to cheat your reader. They are the people who pay you.

Judging a book by it’s cover

While I still am cleaning up my YA Fantasy before it goes out to friends and family for a read, there are other more fun things to do too. Like Design a Cover!

I’ve worked as a graphic artist since graduating college so I know the value of an attractive cover and even more important, a professional one. I wince when I see low resolution images, obvious Photoshopping, armature illustrations, and, the very very worst BAD FONTS!

I could write an entire post on bad fonts. Maybe someday I will but for right now I will keep it simple. If you are designing your own marketing material or covers, keep your fonts simple. Engraver, Helvetica, Copperplate, Elephant, Impact. Avoid Papyrus, its been done to death, Lucida and Brush are dated and do not touch Comic Sans. Just don’t go near it. If you really want to use it google it first and then decide if you still love it.

Anyway, back to the point, if you are feeling intimidated now because you’ve been living your life thinking Lucida was the peak of coolness, I recommend you check out pre-made cover sites like the book cover designer. They have very reasonable prices for very attractive, professional book covers. You just type in your info and its done. No worries about fonts. I considered doing this as well. It would be much easier to be sure I got a professional cover, but I am a DIYer to a flaw and I want to use my mom’s work on my book cover.

So I went back at looked at some book covers I love.

“Of Bees and Mist” is an amazing modern fairy tale written by Erick Setiawan. The cover is understated, elegant but hard to ignore. Just like the book.

“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman. Its dark and intense. Its mysterious and its not busy or crowded.

“The Book of Atrix Wolfe”. Patricia McKillip used  Kinuko Craft’s beautiful and achingly whimsical art for several of her covers. They are classic fairy tale art, full of magic and sorrow. Just like McKillip’s book, this cover spins a web of enchantment.

None of these covers are the standard for today’s market. They’re all radically different from one another, just as their author’s style is, but they’ve all stuck with me as covers that drew me to the book, that complimented the story inside.

So what am I thinking for my book? I have an initial mock up in the works. I’m thinking a classic fairy tale style, simple, but meaningful. I’ll be posting it soon and I hope I can get some honest opinions on how to perfect it.

The YA Paranormal Fantasy Formula

This weekend I downloaded a couple indie YA fantasy novels onto my kindle and read them. I enjoyed them. They were well written and kept me interested to the end, where they wrapped up alot of elements but left the reader with a teaser to get them to buy the next in the series.

Here’s a summary of them:

Slightly outcast girl doesn’t realize how pretty and awesome she is. She meet a wildly attractive young man who is kinda arrogant. Even though she’s attracted to him she doesn’t like his attitude and stays away, which makes him seek her out. Weird things start to happen she thinks he may be involved. There is a horrible beautiful snobby girl who is also after his affection and HATES the protagonist irrationally. Then he saves her from something supernatural but she’s angry about it and he’s smug about it. She starts looking for answers and realizes he may be supernatural. And maybe she is too! He starts to actively pursue her but he’s still arrogant and she wants to figure things out on her own even though he makes her feel things she’s never felt before. He opens up to her and she realizes he’s damaged and just needs to be loved and that she is the only one he’s ever loved. His love puts her in danger and she almost dies. He saves her but wants to distance himself from her because he cannot bear for her to be in danger. She finds out she’s special in some way similar or complimentary to him. They can be together. Or maybe there is another roadblock… to be continued…

If you haven’t figured it out, this is a formula made popular by Stephanie Meyer. ALOT of writers use it because it works. Why? Because every teenage girl feels outcast, wishes she was not so aware of her looks or didn’t care about them, feels victimized by snobby beautiful popular girls and just wants the most gorgeous man in the world to be irresistibly in love with her, but also to respect her and know how special she is.

To be completely honest, there is a part of that confused teenage girl still alive in adult women as well, which is why YA paranormal fantasy transcends age groups.

Men should take note.

Many people, writers and otherwise are contemptuous of this formula, of these novels and movies. Many writing sites, editors and agents recommend adhering to this formula because it sells and sells and sells.

So my opinion on it?

Well I read several of these novels over one weekend so…

But my YA fantasy is more on the fairy tale side. My protagonist already knows she’s special. In fact, she needs to be knocked down a few pegs, and she isn’t all that interested in the handsome man she’s thrown together with. Do I want my novel to sell? Hell yes. But I played through this formula in my early years when all my main characters were just versions of myself. Now I’m more interested in exploring and have a hard there’s no real formula for that.

Don’t take my back story!

I have a problem. I love to examine motivation. I love to determine just what happened in a persons life to bring them to where they are now. I’m pretty sure it drives my husband crazy and I missed my calling as a psychiatrist. This quality of mine is the most apparent, however, in my writing. And it bogs my work down.

Here is the beginning of the first Chapter of my recently finished draft:

The drive home was unreasonably fast. There were very few cars on the road. Of course everyone was trying to pretend that live was going on as normal and this would all be sorted out soon. Many people were still working, but no one worked overtime anymore. No one took business trips, and most people with long commutes quit work all together to be closer to home.

Colleen didn’t notice though. She was thinking about her ex husband Mark. Mark and she had met in college and fallen in love. They got married when they graduated and he got a good job as an engineer. She had gone on to medical school and the plan had always been to have their first baby when she got a good residency.

But medical school was demanding, and so was Mark’s job. And her internship was even harder, and they hardly saw each other at all. When she finally got into a good residency program, she couldn’t imagine putting everything on hold for a baby. She was in one of the best programs in the country, and then she got her fellowship.

Now, if this was a story about Colleen lamenting over the break up of her marriage than maybe, maybe this would be appropriate. But its not. Not even remotely. This is a story about an apocalyptic plague. So while it may be relevant to know that Colleen was married before the reader doesn’t need to know all the details of her early marriage and the contributing factors to it’s demise, and they don’t want to know it right away before they even really know what the story is about.

So why is it there? Because I need to know it. When I wrote this, I was getting to know my character. I was learning that she was driven to a fault. That she put her career over everything else. That she had no time or patience for other people, even those she loved the most. Colleen has an interesting back story. She is an interesting person and how she came to be the woman who is introduced in chapter one is important. It shapes how she is written through out the rest of the book. It makes her growth as a person rewarding.

So it hurts to cut it all out. When I first started editing seriously I clung to these little back stories because I felt like they were the life of the novel.

What I had to realize is that it is okay for me to keep them for myself. Many writers work up full profiles for their characters in a separate document. I have found that, for me, it works better to let them develop in the story but when it comes time to rewrite, these are the first things to go. Details can find their way in, here and there as the story progresses, but four paragraphs on the science fair project she created in fourth grade does not add to the story. It just crowds out the actual story.

Writers write, better writers edit too

When I wrote my first full length novel I felt like I had conquered the world. I suppose, in a way I had conquered a world. The world of Lila Jepodia, a warrior elf princess who defeated an evil tyrannical shadow master (that would have had Tolkien’s estate calling their lawyers). I loved my character. She was perfect in every way. I loved my novel.

It was total garbage.Featured image

You might think it’s ridiculous for me to cringe at the thought of how bad my first novel was. I was only seventeen when I finished it after all. But the embarrassment comes from how freaking awesome I thought it was and I was for having written a novel! A novel! I thought writing a novel was the challenge and I had completed it.

It’s sorta like falling head over heels for a person you think is super cool. You parade them around and don’t notice that the people around you are cringing. Because that person is actually a total douche and years later you still cannot figure out where your judgement had gone.

That’s how I feel about my first novel. It was a douche. It was preachy. It was juvenile. It had all the cockiness of a teenager with none of the actual life experience.

Fast forward to a few years ago I completed a piece many many years in the making. It was not a douche. It was funny. It was weird. It was dark. It was a novel written by an adult. I spell checked it. Cleaned up a few things and sent it off to every agent I could find. I heard nothing back. I sent it out to more people. I shared it with other writers. I shared it with friends. I couldn’t figure out why half the people getting it were not finishing it and getting back to me. It was really good!

I finally signed up for an online reviewing site and I got the truth.

It was hard to read. Like really hard to read. When the first writer reviews came in I winced. By this time I had thickened my skin up a little bit. You really can’t be a writer if you don’t, but these were harsh. Harsh but true.

I was wordy. I was vague. I went into grandiose descriptions of the sky in one scene and didn’t mention what the main characters apartment looked like that she lived in through the entire story. I had too much and too little back story, depending on who you were asking.

The answer came back again and again, “This needs work.”

But I hate work. Work is boring. Work is stupid. I like making things. I like knowing things. I like doing stuff and having it just be awesome because I did it and I’m awesome.

This needs work.

Now bear in mind I had edited this manuscript 3 times already, so it’s not like I wrote the last line and thought it was done. But I did need direction for editing and that is where the online workshops really helped out. They helped me get past my laziness and just re-write the chapters that needed re-writing, with genuine, helpful criticisms to drive the new work. They pointed out gaping errors and confusions that I hadn’t even realized where there because I knew what they meant (having written it). They insisted that the reader didn’t need to know so much about a character they’d never see again. They asked why they didn’t know more about a character that kept showing up.

I’m sorry to say that book is currently on the back burner while I gear up for a total overhaul, but unlike my first novel, it will rise from the ashes, because while it “needs work”, it isn’t a douche, and I, no longer being 17 and thinking that just because I did something, must mean its awesome, finally have the patience, the balance of ego and the skill to put in the work to make it something people will want to read.

If you write fantasy, horror or sci fi and are ready to take the next step in self editing, check out this site

Finished the book!

I just finished writing “The Silent Apocalypse”. Here’s the last line:

“Liam did not mind.Featured image He supposed that they would meet again.”

Chills, right?

So I’m all ready to start submitting to every agent and publisher in the Eastern United States, right?

(insert laughing gif here)

Yeah. While I’m chomping at the bit to get this thing out there after the two years it took me to complete it, its just a first draft. That’s like Monet displaying a sketch for waterlilies (you will find I make alot of art references. My mother is an artist and art teacher, check out her blog)

So I  basically have a pencil sketch of a future masterpiece. I wouldn’t want anyone to see it yet. What I’m going to do with it is leave it alone. Maybe just for a week, maybe for a few months until I can go back and read it objectively. Then I’m going to rewrite half of it and change the rest. I’m going to give it to some people (my mom) and see what she says and see if I want to make any changes from her review. Then I will post it on a writing forum and beg other writers to review it, chapter by chapter.

My soul will die a little bit. I will be convinced that it is total shit and I am an awful person for considering allowing such a monstrosity to enter the world.

Other writers are the harshest critics.

They’re also the best.

So when I piece back my shattered ego, I will go back and rewrite some more. Then I will take a literary knife and cut the hell out of the thing so that it represents something like a Thanksgiving turkey after the meal. Then I’ll rewrite some more and then I’ll get my mom to read it again, if she’s willing.

If I’m brave I’ll go back to the writing forum.

If half of them don’t hate it this time I will know I have a winner.

Then I write a query, which is about 100x harder than all the work I just finished.

In the mean time, I will be cleaning up and preparing to publish a lighter, fluffier piece on kindle.

And by lighter and fluffier I just mean the apocalypse in this book is a bit more lighthearted.

Writing Mom

There are glorious moments when you are writing that the world falls away. Stress and worries and everything around you vanishes as your fingers fly over the keyboard and the words pour out, perfect and poignant and exactly like they should be.

These are the moments writers write for. The times it seems we are not even the ones doing the writing.

But getting to this state of mind doesn’t come easy, and when you are a mom with young children that need you constantly, even just to acknowledge that they are whining over nothing at all, it’s more likely your words will come out like this:Featured image

“Please please please be quiet. Be quiet for one minute so I can write this one freaking sentence without losing my mind and my cool. Please be quiet. Oh My Freaking Goodness will you just stop teasing your sister and watch Puppy Party quietly for one minute so that I can think!!”

Actually that was probably much too coherent. This is probably more accurate:

“Gah! words! Noise! Stop! Wekaek! fasdlkei! GEEEEEE!”

exclamation points don’t take much effort.

As I already addressed in my previous post, I don’t write because I want to create sweeping epics and make readers afraid to go to bed at night. I write because I just have to do it. If I go too long without it I start to feel jumpy, stressed and disconnected with myself. Especially if there is a story calling me.

So I’ve learned the hard way, the way many many stay at home moms have learned, that working during the waking hours of children is pretty much impossible. Even as I write this my daughter is upstairs fighting her nap and my shoulders are up near my ears with tension.

What do I do?

I write when they nap. I write when they go to bed. I write while my husband watches baseball. I don’t have an office right now, but I wouldn’t use it if I did. Stay at home moms don’t get offices unless they also have nannies. So I have my laptop on a stand next to the sofa and I write when I get the moments.

And when everyone goes to sleep, that’s when I can get into the zone. That’s when my fingers take over and I create the work I’m craving.

I go to bed very very late sometimes. I used to kick myself for it but the funny thing is, no matter how tired I may be getting up with the little ones the next morning, I’m also happier.

Being a mom is wonderful. Staying home with my children and guiding them as they grow is a privilege, but it is also equivalent to two full time jobs sometimes. So I have to slip in the moments to do my third job when I get the chance, and when I am doing the work I am compelled to do, I am more at peace with the poopy diapers and tantrums.

Lump of Clay

The nature of writing is not beauty, it is not creation, and it is not wisdom.

It is compulsion.Featured image

It is the pressing need to release something that has been thumping around in your head. For a painter it can be no more than a color scheme, a composer might have to hear what a few notes strung together sounds like and a writer has to commit a line of prose, scenario, conversation, character or place to words.

It must be done, even if its only scribbled on the back of a bar receipt, sometimes only so that it can live in the real world for a moment before before discarded as trash or shoved in a pile of equally bad ideas.

Being a writer is a pain in the ass. The best ideas are fleeting and if they are not captured, no matter how sure you are that you can never forget them, you do indeed forget them.

The worst ideas parade as the best and sometimes after months or years of chipping away, trying to make them work, you realize the entire foundation of your project is a heaping pile of shit.

Unfortunately this seems to be the case for most early projects.

My first four novels were sacrifices to the writing gods. To prove I was serious about this compulsion thing. I had to learn the hard way that just because you wrote a novel doesn’t mean it is worth anything more than experience.

It’s unfair. Writing a novel can take years. For me it usually does. All to have it rot on your hard drive.

But a writer writes. And so here I am.

My ideas are lumps of clay. Some dissolve into silt, some are formed into the foundations of a great story.

As I finish the first draft of my latest project, I am cleaning up the final draft of an older project. This summer I intend to jump head first into self publishing with a young adult fantasy novel still untitled.
I will be sharing all my experiences here.

Lets see how this goes.