My Book Path – Ahead to 2017

mybookpath

This may look like your basic woodland path, maintained by the good folks at Hamlin Beach State Park, but it’s actually so much more. This is one of the 200+ photos I took over a year ago at the spot where my novel takes place. In reality there’s nothing there but trees and the shore of Lake Ontario a a biting November wind, but in my mind there’s a hotel and an invasion of fantastical beings from another dimension! I want to turn this “reality” in my head into the physical reality of a published book. That’s what this path represents to me: my commitment to completing the first revision and moving on to the polishing the book will need, so I can start querying. 2017, here I come!

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Path

2016 Blog in Review

This week’s Wednesday Words is a look back at the past year on the blog, and a peek at the crystal ball to try and anticipate what might be going on here in 2017. First, the look back.

I focused quite a lot on the weekly photo challenge from WordPress this past year. I participated all but six of them (I’ve got the last one of the year all planned, but haven’t posted it yet). These photo challenges have accounted for all of my top five most visited posts of the year:

  • Temporary Beauty, about finding the joy in the tiny, evanescent details of each season and each time.
  • Look Up, about how often we miss the unexpected just because we keep our heads down and don’t look up.
  • Looking for Letters in All the Strange Places, about the delightful challenge of searching for letter forms in the ordinary things around me.
  • Happy Outline Guy, about seeing a prosaic warning cone in a new way and getting a laugh from it.
  • Banister Detail, about the elegant curve at the bottom of the stair at the George Eastman Museum, which captured its grace in a single detail.

Looking back at this list of top posts I see a theme. They are all about opening our eyes to see things in a different direction, or close up, or in a new way. It’s not surprising that a challenge focused on photography would inspire thoughts and images about seeing things in a new way, but it also reflects my way of looking at things through the camera. For instance, I didn’t take any large panoramic photos at the George Eastman Museum, showing the spread of house and grounds, but focused on intimate details like that curve of the banister. It’s just the way I see things when taking photos.

Looking beyond the individual posts, I find that by far my busiest month in 2016 was April, and that was all down to another challenge: the A to Z Blogging Challenge. It was my first time participating in that challenge, and it was overwhelming but a whole lot of fun. I chose the theme of haiku puzzles: each day I had a haiku that referred to a word that started with the letter of the day. Visitors were invited to try to guess the word, and people got every single one. The most viewed letter was B (you’ll have to visit the post to see the haiku, the guesses, and the right answer). The most comments were made to the letter D, which tells me my audience has a scientific bent that makes me really happy.

So, overall, how did I do? It’s useful to look at what I predicted for 2016 a year ago, to see what I got right and what I didn’t.

  • I said I’d have my book revised and polished by now. I don’t. Not even close. I’m part way through the first revision pass, with the help of my critique partners, but it hasn’t been going as smoothly as I hoped. Not because there’s a problem with the writing, but a problem with time. I know, if I made it more of a priority I would be able to find the time, but it just hasn’t worked out that way. I have excuses, of course. Two big ones are that my daughter got engaged early in 2016 so I’ve been digging into wedding planning, and that I took over as chair of my academic department at Monroe Community College in June, a big job that takes a lot of attention. So, yeah. But still!
  • I said I’d do more reblogging and more essays on the blog, and I haven’t really lived up to that. I only reblogged twice in 2016, and both of them were related to gender issues in writing (see them here and here). I still want to do more of this. There are so many terrific blogs out there, I’d love to spread the word! On the other hand, I’ve added a new thing that I didn’t anticipate: Wednesday Words. I put this in because I was worried about losing the blog’s focus on writing. It also pretty much doubled the number of posts I make on a regular basis, which is good for the blog.
  • I said I’d get and give more regular feedback, and this one I’ve lived up to. I found a terrific critique group that meets twice a month to share work and get feedback. These people are good at finding the balance between encouragement and honest criticism. They are quick to point out where I missed the mark, while celebrating the places where I got it right, or mostly right. Or kinda right. (I take my celebrations where I can get them.)

So what are my goals for 2017? I’m going to double down on the first two, that I didn’t get done this time, and then add a couple more.

  • I will push through the first round of revision for my work in progress and maybe get into a second round of polishing. I have to acknowledge that I can’t move ahead as fast as I’d like, but I’m not stopping!
  • I’ll keep doing the photo challenge most every week, missing just a few here and there. The thinking that’s involved in selecting or creating a photo that fits each week’s theme is most of the challenge, and I love doing it. I also enjoy seeing the different directions other people go with the theme each week. There is so much creativity out there!
  • I will keep the Wednesday Words feature on the blog, but branch it out to talking about more than my own writing. It could be a place for some reblogs that have to do with writing, or reviews of books, or general essays on books and writing. Something word-related, every Wednesday.
  • I will definitely do the A to Z Challenge again this year. I have debated what to do as a theme, thinking over all kinds of ideas, but I’ve decided to stick with what was so successful this year and do haiku puzzles again. They were fun to do and garnered a lot of interest, so why not? Maybe I’ll be bored with them after next time and do something different in 2018, but for now, I’m sticking with it.
  • Oh – and I’ll dance at my daughter’s wedding. That’s a great thing to look forward to!

So that’s it – a look back at 2016, and a look ahead to 2017.

How about you? What has 2016 meant to you? What will you preserve into the next year, and what will you toss out and replace? What goals have you set, and how will you go about reaching them?

Happy New Year!

Drawing Characters Like Picasso – the Telling Detail

picasso-dogPicasso did this so well – sketch out an entire character with just a few lines, as he did with this lovable dog. As writer, we want to do the same thing! We want our readers to see our characters as complete, three-dimensional people, but don’t want to spend a lot of tedious description to make this happen. How do we do this?

I’m just a beginner on this path, but there are a few times when I think I’ve gotten it somewhat right. The main thing is to pick one or two details that are specific to just that one person, and put them into the dialogue or into the action of the scene. It’s part of the “show, don’t tell” rule – make the description happen as an action, not just words. We want the detail to do the telling, without actually telling explicitly. Clear, right? Maybe some examples from my work in progress can help.

Naia is what one of my critique partners called a “happy Valkyrie.” She is the primary fighter of the group, wielding a mean sword, but she has a ton of fun doing it. That sentence is description, telling you about her, but that’s not how the information is presented in the story. For instance, here’s what happens just after Naia fought and defeated some really scary other-worldly creatures. Kay, the narrator, is ranting a bit about how she doesn’t understand what’s happening, and she says “There are monsters out back!”

Naia interrupted, “Were monsters.” She tossed the wadded-up paper towel in a bin and celebrated her shot a pumped fist.

In that brief moment, Naia shows that she’s proud of defeating the monsters, that she didn’t find it particularly stressful, and that she’s cheerfully competitive, even about tossing away the paper towel. Not bad for 20 words.

Here’s an example with a minor character, one for whom we never even learn a name. Kay comes across him as he is heading off into the woods directly toward some similar monsters, but he doesn’t know the danger he faces. She tries to stop him, but it doesn’t go well. The young man accuses her of representing the oppressive adult power structure.

“I don’t care what you say.” He tossed his head and the black curtain of hair fell back perfectly over one eye. He’d paid a lot of money for that haircut. “I can’t keep on living like this.”

It was a proud moment for me when a critique partner casually referred to this character as the “emo teen,” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when creating him. I could have describe him that way explicitly, but instead I had him express his attitude in his own words, and in the toss of his head. The expensive haircut, ostentatiously covering one eye, cements the picture of a whiny, over-privileged adolescent who thinks the world is out to get him. Unfortunately, at this moment he’s close to right about that.

One more example. Alex, an important character in the team, is tough and demanding. Kay often thinks of her as acting like a school principal, and this shows in her actions and her speech. There’s one moment early on, though, that’s different, that hints at a whole area of motivation we don’t see otherwise. They try to rescue someone from the monsters but don’t succeed. After the fight is over,

Alex knelt beside the boy I had tried to save. She stroked his face gently, touched the old scar on his hand, bowed her head. Miss Martinet herself, grieving for this small stranger.

We come back to this well-hidden bit of Alex’s psyche later in the story, but for now there’s just this one sentence allowing one small peek. It explains something about why the others stick with Alex despite how prickly she is. There’s no explicit flag here (Look! She really cares about these people!). There are just her actions, for the reader to interpret.

As I work through my revision, I try to watch out for those places where I try to use a big, broad brush to paint a character, telling about them rather than showing them. For instance, just this week I flagged a place where I described a character as “crusty outside but soft inside, like the bread she baked.” This is too direct a description. I need to show her being crusty but soft, and once I show that I won’t need to tell about it. If I’m vigilant, I may be able to find and dig out most of these descriptive slip-ups, and replace all that telling with a telling detail or two.

Counting Down to the Big Day

dress-2Look what’s hanging in my closet!

It will soon be 2017, which is a very important year in my family – my daughter will be getting married! I’m happy to say that the man she’s chosen is terrific and they are terrific together, making it easy to look ahead to their wedding with a glad heart.  I’ll try to keep it from taking over the blog, but as the Big Day gets closer I can’t make any promises! In the meantime, this was an easy choice for this week’s photo challenge. Yes, Christmas is coming up, and the new year, and a new semester – but the main thing I’m looking forward to right now is her wedding day.

Posted in response to the WordPress photo challenge: Anticipation

To Pop or Not: Pop Culture References

I have a writing dilemma I want to share with you, my blog readers, and a question for you at the end. You didn’t know there would be a test, did you? 🙂

In my WIP, the main character is a bit of a nerd, and she has a snarky sense of humor. The same is true of some of the other characters she interacts with. As is usual when people who share interests and experiences get together, they often talk in shorthand, using references to their common experiences to represent ideas they don’t have to explain in detail. This means that there are a lot of pop culture references and nerdy science ideas tossed around in my story. Here are some examples (all from early in the book, so these aren’t significant spoilers):

  • Kay (my narrator) is unhappy with her tendency to avoid challenges, choosing to escape rather than face trouble. She thinks to herself, “I could be the lamest Doctor Who companion: The Girl Who Runs Away a Lot.”
  • When Naia, another character, sees Kay’s beloved ’76 Gremlin, she says, “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.” Kay glares at her to acknowledge the joke.
  • When someone brings up magic, Chass, the scientist of the group, says, “Magic, or whatever. Any sufficiently advanced technology.” Then he goes on with his discussion of the topic at hand.

These three examples show different ways to use pop culture references, and may not all be equally successful.

  • The first one explicitly mentions Doctor Who, which will almost certainly be recognized by anyone who reads fantasy as a BBC science fiction/fantasy TV show. It goes on to say that she’s labeling herself as a lame companion and clearly describes why. Even those who’ve never seen the show will have no trouble understanding what she is thinking.
  • The second is a bit more subtle. It explicitly labels Naia’s statement as a joke, and its meaning should be pretty clear even for those who don’t recognize it as a Star Wars quote (said by Princess Leia the first time she saw Han Solo’s space ship, the Millennium Falcon).
  • The third one is subtler still. Chass’s statement about “Any sufficiently advanced technology” is a reference to the third and most famous of Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems to me that this reference has a pretty high probability of being recognized by someone from the general public (though I may be wrong about that), but it’s placement is subtle in that it’s not explicitly labeled in any way as a joke or an intertextual reference. Someone who is not familiar with Clarke’s law or who simply doesn’t recognize it in this context might simply be confused by what Chass said. That would be a failure of my writing.

I find myself dancing on this fine line a lot. I want my characters to express themselves the way I and my nerdy friends do, which includes nearly constant references to familiar ideas in nerd culture. However, I don’t want to leave behind those who don’t happen to have the same set of references, and I don’t want to be shrill or annoying in how often I bring these ideas up. This is where my critique group can be both a help and a trap. Everyone in the group writes some form of science fiction or fantasy, so they are the audience that will most appreciate these kinds of references (in fact, in my most recent review with the group one member pointed out a missed opportunity to throw in a Dungeons and Dragons reference, which I gleefully added). On the other hand, if I ladle it on too thick for other readers I’m not sure this group will spot that. For now, my decision is to keep these references in but try to make sure that people who don’t catch them will still understand what’s happening and how people are responding. It’s always easier to cut out this kind of thing than to add it later.

Now for the test: Did you get these references before I explained them? Do you think this kind of reference enhances the things you read, or not? Do you use pop culture references like these in your work, and if so how do you make sure they are successful?

Answer any or all questions. Please show your work. 🙂

It Takes a Critique Group

Today’s Wednesday Words topic is about the value of critique partners in the process of world building. When writing fantasy or science fiction, as I do, we need to create settings that are different in important ways from the reader’s normal experience. My story is set in the familiar contemporary world, until it is invaded by creatures from a parallel dimension of magic. I needed to establish my ideas about how the magic works in that parallel world, and how it interacts with our own world when they come into contact. I thought I had that all figured out before I even began drafting last summer, and I smoothed out the last wrinkles (ha!) in the first draft. Now, as I’m going through the revision, I have critique partners who read and comment on each chapter, and I’m amazed by how useful this is. It may take a village to raise a child, but for me it takes a critique group to raise a novel.

My critique partners ask the questions my readers would ask. Occasionally this is a question I planned to leave open at that point and answer later, but more often it’s just something I never thought of. There’s only so much leeway they will give me to wave my hand and say, “It’s magic!” The most wonderful questions are those that grow out of the facts I’ve already established, following them to logical conclusions that take me in new directions. Here’s one example: Early in the story I establish that time in this other dimension flows sideways to our own. What this means practically is that when someone is kidnapped into the other dimension and then returns, they come back at the same moment they left, even if they’ve been over there for decades. This is a cool idea and leads to some fun with verb tenses. However, later on I have my merry band of protagonists trapped in a bubble of this alternate reality that’s landed here, in our world, trying to get out. My critique partners reminded me that they should be worried about what’s happening to time out there. When they finally do get out, will it be the same moment they were trapped? Will it be a hundred years later? This is something they should have thought of, but since I didn’t, they didn’t. Without my critique partners I would have left that interesting complication on the table.

Writers, how do you get an outside perspective on your work? Do you have partners or groups you share with? What about online organizations like Scribophile or Absolute Write: have you tried them? If so, what was your experience? I’d like to expand the feedback I get, so any suggestions would be welcome.