Monday, December 17, 2012

Celebrating Christmas in a Broken World

The Lord and I have been wrestling a bit lately.

And by a "bit" I mean "a fair amount" and by "wrestling" I mean "giving the Lord opportunity to break out some of his divine patience." "Lately" could also refer to "a while."

I know that's vague, but it's a deeply personal sort of wrestling. the kind that involves patience and grief and sorrow. The last several months have taken a toll, and Christmas looming made it a little trickier.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writer's Corner: Active vs. Reactive Characters

Here's where my head's been at, thinking about story and characters. Every remarkable story is defined by a remarkable character. In recent literature, we've got Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen as prime examples. There are more, obviously. But those are the ones that spurred this thought process. 

If you look at the characters who are the most involving, you’ll generally find a common thread – they don’t let life happen to them. Their lives are defined by their actions and choices. Sure, mistakes are made. There are regrets. But they’re interesting, and you want to know what they’ll do next.

The easy story to write is the one where life happens to your character. You bring problems to his door, and he gets to respond. Rather than plan his actions, you let your character relax, sip tea, and wait for the phone to ring. The more often they wait, the more passive they become. You can hide it for a while with twists and turns, but after a while readers subconsciously become disinterested, even frustrated with the character.

Take a look at the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy. The first book is the strongest; the chemistry between Mikel and Lisbeth is involving, and not just because Lisbeth is one of the most charismatic and unique characters to come out of popular literature in the last 50 years.

She’s that interesting, but what does the author do with her in the last book? Lock her in jail and expect the bland character to get her out. As a result, the last book is the weakest.

(I've got a whole other tirade about how the author wrote a glorified version of himself into the book. Sure, Ian Fleming did the same, but at least James bond is interesting.)

Similarly, take a look at Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. The books work best when you really don’t know what she’s going to do next. But in the third book she’s essentially rendered powerless, stuck as a figurehead or in hiding underground. Just like Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy because the most dynamic character is locked away.

The good news that there's more than one way to make a character dynamic. A dynamic character doesn’t have  to be swashbuckling or computer-hacking or government-overthrowing to be interesting. Think of Elizabeth Bennett. Obviously, as a single woman with a tiny dowry during the 19th century, she couldn't control her destiny much. But what could she do?

Snark. And the book is better for it.

 So take a look at your story. Is your character reactive or passive? Ask yourself - 

1.) What is the last bad decision your character made?

2.) When did your character last surprise you?

3.) Which characters do you feel are doing the lion’s share of moving the plot?

4.) Who does your character take advice from?

5.)  What kinds of verbs is do you surround your character with?

If your character is making so few decisions that he hasn’t made any bad ones, seldom surprises you, relies on other people to move the plot, talks about action rather than acting, and seems to be hanging around a lot of passive verbs, he is likely a reactive character.

If, on the other hand, he is getting himself into scrapes, takes you by surprise, drives the plot neatly, knows his mind, and spends time with active verbs, you’ve got an strong active character on your hands.

Tips to save reactive characters:

1.) Plan ahead. Your character is more likely to drive the plot if you’re first aware of the plot’s direction. It’s easier to move the pieces across the board when you know where you’re going and how you want to get there.

2.) Increase the tension. Put your character in a tight spot, physically, emotionally, and make her fight her own way out.

3.) Less thinking, more doing. I don’t care if your character is particularly cerebral. Friends who hem and haw for weeks or years before a decision are boring and trying. Characters are the same way. A reader will respect decisiveness, even if that decision turns out to be foolish.

4.) Get to know your character better. A lot of times, reactive characters happen by default when you simply don’t know your characters as well as you should. What are the sorts of things that will drive him to action?

5.) Surround your character with active verbs. Even if he’s going through a pensive stage, he’ll read more dynamically on the page.

My next character tip is to give him (or her) a superpower, and not, I'm not necessarily talking about flight. Stay tuned for the next blog...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Cupcake of the Summer

We all know by now that Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" is the song of the summer. But the cupake of the summer? Hands down, it's the S'mores Cupcake.

I started with Martha Stewart's recipe for our church's high school girl's retreat - I figured a s'mores-themed cupcake couldn't lose.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Getting Started

Totally loving this line from Meg Cabot's blog:

"If you want a long-lasting publishing career, I think the best way to spend your tweens and teens and early twenties isn’t worrying about getting published, but figuring out who you are and what you’re good at, experimenting with your style, and developing your own voice—in other words, just live your life."

(full post here)

I love that. I love it because I think it's so true and so right.

I talk to a lot of people about getting started in writing, or the writing business. And yes, it's *totally* a business. But it's also the business of selling a (hopefully) really great product. I get frustrated when people talk to me about agents and proposals and the desire to go from concept to contract.

It doesn't work that way. And it shouldn't work that way - not if you're about telling the best story. Telling the story, telling it well - that comes first. Then you can worry about agents and marketing and publicists and paperwork. It will be there when you're done.

Some people start writing early - I did. Other people start writing later. When that's the case, I really think the wisest tack is to let yourself have a second adolescence from a creative standpoint. Figure out your identity as a writer. Identify your writing heroes. Settle into your voice. Learn the building blocks of story. Create compelling characters. Figure out what makes a compelling concept. Try different styles on for size and see what fits comfortably. Don't focus on achievement - focus on growth. Write drafts. Do the work for work's sake. Challenge yourself to be sharper, more edited, more precise, more thoughtful.

Like any other skill, writing well is something you learn how to do, and something you can get better at. Respect the craft.

If you respect the craft, then the agent/editor/sales/marketing/contract/query/subsidiary rights stuff will work itself out. Promise.

And in the meantime, you've lived life. You've observed humanity. You've been places - and that, my friends, is worth writing about.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Absolutely Official, Very Important Publishing News!

Coming in May, 2014, I'll be releasing the first book of a brand new series, A Table By the Window from WaterBrook Publishing!

I seriously could not be more excited. My agent and I have been working toward this for a long, long time. The beginnings of the story popped into my head almost five years ago, shortly after I married Danny. As time passed, the story grew and changed, becoming richer and more complex.

Like cheese.

And after all of these years, the story has found the perfect home at WaterBrook.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Happy Anniversary, Us - Part V

Five years ago today, I married my best friend.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

One Week Later

Remember when I said I looked forward to posting good news?

This is Shiloh - our new Cavalier King Charles Spaniel! He's ten weeks old today, about six and a bit pounds of fluff and kibble. He loves to play, he loves to chew, and he LOVES to snuggle.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How Things Are

I started this post differently, exactly one week ago.

It was full of happy news and instagram photos and glad tidings of dogs. Instead, I get to write this one.

We're putting Tesla, our dog, to sleep tonight.  The fact of the matter is that, no matter how much we love her, exercise her, play with her, train her, and manage her, she's bitten me six times over the last nine months. She's gotten Danny three or so times.

Last week we "adopted" a second dog on a trial-run from the prison-training program, a dog purported to be excellent at dog calming signals. We hoped he'd help Tesla learn to self-calm so that we could do some BAT-training with her. They played well together - and he was a good dog - but the stress of the change sent Tesla into a crisis-mode that we couldn't ignore. If the weather hadn't been unseasonably cool and I hadn't been wearing jeans, she would have gotten my legs. Twice.

We returned the other dog. We considered keeping him, but he showed signs of becoming a resource-guarder, and to be honest, after working with an aggressive 30-lb dog for nine months, I was terrified at the potential of doing the same with a 75-lb dog. (Note: he was returned to the prison program, where he will be trained and interacted with until adoption. He's good.)

After a conversation with our trainer, we came to the conclusion that Tesla, as smart and athletic, cute and funny as she is, would never be safe around young children. 

Danny and I had preliminary hopes of finding a shelter that might be able to work with her, but the no-kill shelter in our area doesn't accept aggressive dogs. And realistically, her stress in any other situation would put anyone trying to work with her at risk. We made the excruciating decision to have her put to sleep.

I hate it. I hate failure. I look at her and see the puppy I stayed up with at all hours, socialized endlessly, and trained patiently. But the fact of the matter is that when she hit adolescence, all of her genetically-inherited tendencies kicked in. The dog who once basked in the joy of having her belly rubbed by multiple children at a family reunion, the dog who patiently allowed timid children to pet her at the park, now bares her teeth and growls at me if I give her a (requested) belly rub.

It breaks my heart. 

We got Tesla shortly after our move to Tri-Cities, after (as faithful readers of this blog know) a difficult series of months. The circumstances of that are a large reason why we fought so hard for her. We learned a lot. We learned that her brand of stress-reactivity is partly genetic, and partly imparted by the mother in-utero. Having seen her mother, we know this was the case. Our beloved puppy was a behavioral time bomb, but one who had the best life possible.

As much as we hurt for her as well as ourselves, I'm glad we're doing this now, before she seriously injures someone. We can remember her in as balanced a light as possible, rather than as "the dog who sent ____to the hospital." We're not doing this out of anger, or as punishment. She is so high-stress, despite our best efforts, that her quality of life is not what it should be. This way, we know exactly where she is, that she's not hungry, not frightened - and not frightening anyone else.

So that's what's going on around here. We are actively looking for a new puppy, and I'm desperately looking forward to having good news to post. Until then, if you have a dog (or cat, or bunny, or what-have-you), give it a pet for me and enjoy the moment. 

Life is short. Enjoy the good days.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

You should watch Bunheads if...

1.) You loved Gilmore Girls.

2.) You have considered moving to Stars Hollow.

3.) You always wanted to see Emily Gilmore as a dance instructor.

4.) With flowy scarves.

5.) You ever wondered what the inside of Kirk's Mother's house looked like.

6.) You enjoy ballet.

7.) You enjoy wearing your hair in a bun.

8.) You HATED The Return of Jezebel James.

9.) You think more shows should be scored with Sam Phillips songs.

10.) You enjoy shows with dancing (SYTYCD, DWTS).

11.) You enjoy shows with quippy, smart, fast-paced dialogue, writers who love their characters, and good old-fashioned charm

I've got to be honest. When I first heard the title, I was like, Bunheads? Really? Hopefully that will change before it airs. And then it didn't. And then Kara explained to me that a Bunhead was a person with her hair in a bun, and that it had nothing to do with hotdog buns (sorry. I got confused.) And then I saw the series trailer, and I was like, Hey, it looks cute, but like watered-down Amy Sherman Palladino, and the guy looks kinda dopey. I mean, there's nothing wrong with him, but he's no Luke.


And then I watched a sneak peak of the pilot episode and was completely blown away by the show's awesomeness.

Yes, it's Gilmore Girls 2.0. Is that bad? No. If there's an author you like, you hope that their subsequent books will be in a similar vein. It's called brand, and it's a big deal. I heart show-runner Amy Sherman Palladino's brand, so I'm delighted that she has a new opportunity with a new show. Sutton Foster is great (the woman's got a Tony), Kelly Bishop is terrif, but I think the show's secret MVP will be Kaitlyn Jenkins, who plays Bettina "Boo" Jordan. She's all kinds of winning and adorable (purple dress below), and when Foster's character gets her to dance in front, she makes you want to dance with her.

There's a bit of a twist at the end of the episode (I say "bit" because it was an eventuality that I had thought about) which will open up all sorts of great plot/character opportunities. My biggest quibble with the episode is a monologue of Foster's that's framed awkwardly with no cutaway shots and feels long - but that's a directing/editing issue, really, rather than a writing issue.

The Pilot episode airs on ABC Family on June 11. You can still catch it early here, if you enter the password   
HollywoodLifeBunheads (if it expires, check the news section for the show on imdb and see if any other sites are promoting it). Or catch it on June 11.

Happy watching! If you see it, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Spring Cleaning

Will be updating the blog's design and layout over the next few days. As I do it myself, this will take a bit. If things look wonky, just check back later :-)



Tuesday, May 15, 2012

National Clean Out Your Purse Day!

If you told me that there was a government conspiracy to make the month of April, like, *disappear*, I would totally believe you. If you said there was an ongoing plot to do the same thing to May, I would nod my head emphatically.

What is going on??

We *have* been traveling a bit. In the last month, we were in Eugene (briefly), Bellevue (briefer), Kelso (briefest), and Portland (least brief). Oh, and the weekend before we went to Eugene, I went to Weston, OR with our church's high school girls.

Because of this, my purse has a serious case of Travel Bag.

A lesser person would be too proud to share with you the contents of this bag. It's a lot. Maybe it doesn't look like it. Maybe this looks like a nice, slender purse to you.

But let me tell you, when I dumped this puppy out, I decided I needed to put on an episode of Arrested Development, because I was going to be here for a bit.

(Not because the cleaning would take that long. No, it's the documenting that which was in my purse. Because it needs to be shared.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Chocolate also the name of a song that I like. (Yes, most music videos tend to be strange and I'm still unsure as to the logic behind their creation. Lead singer Gary Lightbody is blinking like vintage Hugh Grant (or even not-so-very -vintage Hugh Grant, which leads you to wondering why the man seems to have had dust in his eyes for the last twenty or so years) and that moment with the ladybug wigs me out a bit because we've had to remove three ticks from the dog in the last week alone, and if this is a post about chocolate I really should stop writing about ticks.


I meant "kicks."

Really. Bear with me - there's an amazing recipe in this post!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons from Hollywood - The Hunger Games vs. John Carter

This post is the first in a "Lessons from Hollywood" series focusing on writing/publishing truths gleaned from Tinseltown. I've written similar posts in the past (Writing lessons from Eclipse, for starters), but now such posts will have a club of their own to belong to.

Anyone reading about films and box-office reports will have heard that The Hunger Games has done very well. Games had a strong opening weekend and has continued to dominate.

Conversely, Andrew Stanton's baby, John Carter, has gone down in flames.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anne with an "e" knew what she was talking about: What to Consider as You Name your Characters

I renamed a character this week.

I have a thing about names. Some authors are pretty relaxed about them. I think that's great - it's just not me. When I create a character, the name is one of the first things I have to nail down. Otherwise, it's like making a friend whose name you don't know - who does that?

(Actually, I do sometimes. I'm not always great with remembering names. But when it happens, it's VERY uncomfortable and certainly not ideal. Not in real life, and not with made-up people).

With the book I'm working on now, it really became necessary to change several names of central characters. For a couple people, that was fine and downright easy.

But the others? Not so much. You see, these people are half French and half Italian. They're practically a super-species, if by "super" you mean "super stubborn, super strong-willed, super opinionated." And you know what?  They did not appreciate the name change. Not. One Bit. One character even flat-out refused.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sundry (mostly about the dog. A little about writing, but mostly about the dog).

Things are pretty quiet around here. It's nice. After SO much travel and change, getting into a boring home routine is kinda great.

We've got family coming up next week - so the quiet part will change - and a wee bit of travel to Bellingham in the near future, but until then it's nice to enjoy the house and the less-wigged-out dog.

Speaking of, Tesla is loving life right now. When she's not spending time in elegant repose (and bear with me as ALL of these photos were taken with my phone)...

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Spring Thing

I am usually not much a fan of Springing Forward. Every year, I whine and complain about why we still have Daylight Savings and why do they want to take a precious hour of sleep away from meeeeeee???

Like I said, not my fave.

(I do not, however, have these feelings in the fall).

However, now that we live in a more northerly location, it gets dark. Way dark. Dark by 3:45 in the winter kind of dark, which is really pretty depressing. I know there are far darker locations (say, Alaska), but after a dimly-lit winter, when a friend of mine mentioned we'd have an extra hour of light soon -

- it was the best news, ever! Like getting a birthday gift on a day that is nowhere near your birthday, just for being alive. Losing an hour was a completely fair trade - I would give two for the extra daylight.

One way to get through Daylight Savings, without the sleep-deprivation-angst, is to help your husband move five tons of river rock. It actually works really well.  By the time we were done last night, it felt hours later than the actual time, rather than and hour earlier. Mission accomplished.

Terribly excited about that rock, though. One of the joys of a new-build house is having basically no landscaping whatsoever. Last fall we seeded the backyard (the front had sod) and put cement curbing around the edge. But the grass came in really thin in places - and thick in others, partly because the sprinkler system turned out to not actually be going off.

Which was a problem.

So we've wintered with thin grass, open vats of dust/dirt on either side of the patio, and dirt/dust/weeds on the other side of the curbing.  Let's just say it was prettiest when it was covered up with snow.

Danny picked up river rock on Friday afternoon, and Saturday and Sunday we hauled it off the trailer, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load (with breaks for Danny to pump the tire back up, as it tended to go flat quite often), and dumping it onto the weed cloth-prepped areas. And honestly, the yard looks SO much better! There's more work to be done before we can move on to fun things - like plants - but the yard is off to a great start.

Tesla also thinks the yard is pretty great - in particular, the weed cloth.  We left the unopened rolls outside on the patio, which she discovered is shaped rather like a giant dog toy. There was much joyful leaping and running with the roll of weed cloth until I stepped outside to retrieve it.

So that was our weekend - how did you handle the loss of an hour?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Little Romance: The Mechanics of a Love Story

I've been asked to appear as an expert, of sorts, for middle school writers.  The subject? Romance.

Yeah, I know.  I struggle with smooshy, mushy romance.  But they asked for romance, so romance they shall have.  I spent some time thinking on the subject of Romance Theory (which seemed to dovetail with the blog on The Vow, come to think of it).

Good romance is the most character-driven of all genres, so if you're going to do romance (or a believable romance subplot/thread), you've got to know your characters and be able to communicate their essence on the page.

I mean, *really* know your characters.  Because the reader has to believe both characters as people, be invested in both of them, and believe that those people could/would be into each other. Obviously, there will be obstacles - that's what drives the turning of pages.  The reader has to:

a.) want the two characters to get together


b.) not be certain it's actually going to happen.

If one of those is missing, you've got a problem. If the reader doesn't want them to get together, she (we'll just assume the gender here) will hate you in the end when they do.  And if you make it too easy, there's not enough plot.  The love story can't be a foregone conclusion.  There have to be roadblocks, there have to be difficulties. For your characters - your hero and heroine - to be motivated enough to persist through those roadblocks, they have to be more than likable. They have to be desirable.

(Sorry. The italics just kind of happened there.)  If you skip out on desirability, your reader will sit/read/watch and yell at the character (the one who's romancing the undesirable) to RUN, RUN FAST, RUN FAR, IT'S NOT WORTH IT!

Think of The Bachelor, for this one.  Sure, the girl the guy likes most may be pretty, but if she's also evil, no one will want them to actually fall in love.

Conversely, it can also be a problem (for some plotlines) if your characters are too desirable.  The Vow is a good example -  they were both too pretty and desirable for us to believe they weren't even remotely attracted to each other. If one or both of your characters are very pretty (either inside or out), there had better be some good obstacles!

As far as I can tell, there are three core types of romance -

1.) The "will she/won't she" romance - will the heroine fall in love with him? Will she??  Stories that fall into this category include Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Anne of Green Gables,

2.) The "will he/won't he" romance - will he fall in love with her? Austen examples include Persuasion  and Sense and Sensibility. YA examples include Anna and the French Kiss and The Princess Diaries.

3.) The "can they be together" romance (a variation on this is how long will they be together - especially applicable in Nicholas Sparks books).  The Princess Bride is a good example.

Those are the core types.  Many stories are a combination of the two. Stranger than Fiction is a "will she/won't she" with a twist of "can they be together" - Maggie Gyllenhaal's character has to decide if Harold Crick, the tax man's flours are charming enough, but even after they all for each other, there's this niggling reality that Harold Crick is going to die.

You've Got Mail is a "will she/won't she/can they be together" mashup - they fall in love online first, but have to reconcile their real lives and true selves with their online personas before they can be together.

Something to consider with love-triangle plotlines - it's still a will she/won't she with a twist of  which one should he/she choose (most successful triangles involve a woman choosing between two men).  It can be kind of  a cop out. The question is "A or B?" rather than "Do I love A with my whole heart? Or should I ditch A and B because this situation is disturbing?"  My take is the same in fiction as it is in real life -  if you really can't choose, the answer should be neither - because you don't love one enough to give up the other.

(This is why I'm neither Team Edward or Team Jacob, but rather Team Go Find a Strong, Reliable, and Loving Human Man With Less Baggage. And don't tell me humans are boring within the framework of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Because: Aragorn. End of conversation.)

My personal preference is for a combo of the core types - it gives the characters two kinds of drama.  While you're figuring this out, though, you've got to make sure you're maintaining both believability and likability.  It also works best for stories where the romance is a subplot. Your main plot throws your characters just as many curveballs as their love lives.

So - there's my short masterclass on plotting romance. What do you think?

Brief Update: Found this rather awesome article about female stereotypes in chick flicks - you know, the women you see onscreen but NEVER meet in real life. Worth the read.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sweet Nothings

Look at these.

I mean, just look.

I made these for a baby shower, and frankly I'm a little obsessed with them.