Archive for January 2014

Raising the Stakes


Honnold_BacharYerian4[1]

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a wimp, but the picture above still creeps me out. Climbing up a vertical mountain with no safety net or backup plan is not my cup of tea.  In this picture, I get a vague sense of his stakes, but they don’t really mean a lot to me.

Look at the uncropped version below, now.I’m fairly certain those green bits aren’t algae. Nothing changed for the guy hanging on the cliff, but for me, the stakes just got SO MUCH higher. Why? Because now I don’t have a vague idea of “he will fall” for the stakes. I have a very specific understanding of what will happen if he fails. And suddenly, though his situation hasn’t changed at all, I care a whole heck of a lot more.

Sometimes, however, I’m not just the person watching someone else risk their life. When I was younger, I competed gymnastics. I wasn’t very good at it, but I had a few strengths: I was flexible, for one thing, and tended to have impeccable form. I practiced 16 hours a week. Beam was my least favorite event, but I happened to be really good at it, for my level.

See, I wasn’t doing anything crazy, like this:

The coolest thing I could do was a back walkover on beam, which involved more grace and flexibility than tumbling prowess. Right up my alley, in terms of my strengths. And I performed some pretty great ones during practice. In fact, often times we were required to do five or ten or fifteen skills or routines in a row. I did that, say, one Friday.

Then I came back to gym the next day, in a long-sleeved velvet leotard instead of a tank top one. My hair was hair sprayed in place and coated in glitter (it was 2002…). Suddenly, I had to salute a judge before performing my beam routine. Suddenly, even though it was a home meet, and I was doing the same routine on the same beam in front of my same coach, the stakes were a lot higher.

I wouldn’t have made a good protagonist, because I crumbled under the pressure. I spent my last competitive season as a first-time level 6, and I never once made it through a competitive beam routine without falling off. Even though I never really had to. I would place my feet on the beam, remember how much was at stake, and lose it. In some old videos, it looks like I land and then just hop off. I bail. I can’t manage the pressure.

Sometimes what your story needs isn’t more action. Sometimes it’s more stakes.  One of the most gripping parts of my WIP, IMHO, involves the main character walking into her house. It goes on for pages, and I think it’s one of the most poignant scenes I’ve written so far. She goes in with some friends and makes her way into her father’s office.

So what? She already did that at the beginning of the book. But at the beginning of the book, the stakes were low. She was just asking for permission to do something that she was fairly sure he’d let her do.

The second time she goes into his office, I’ve spent something like thirty-five pages  leading up to the moment. Thirty-five pages where we learn exactly what’s at stake, and exactly how improbable a good outcome is. Thirty-five pages of learning just how important a good outcome is.

Suddenly, everything – and nothing – has changed. A moment that had little meaning in the opening has been repeated. But this time, it’s life or death.

William Carlos Williams wrote a poem that goes like this:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens. [source]

I bet someone could write a story in which all the plot lines converge so that everything does depend on that red wheel barrow being beside the white chickens. There are stories where everything depends upon the contents of a note. Or everything depends upon getting to a familiar location at a certain time. Or getting 4 out of 10 in a dance competition. The higher the stakes, the more everything depends upon it.

What do you do to raise stakes for your characters? What is a good example from another book you can think of where the stakes were raised?

The Cerulean Birdhouse

1,000-word limit.

Taking up the Flash Fiction Challenge from Terrible Minds for the first time, where I had to use a random number generator to decide on a title, and write a story of 1,000 words or less that related to the title. (Word Count: 982)

The Cerulean Birdhouse

When I was a kid, my mom made me go to a summer camp for “developing artistic talent” or something equally stupid. I had no artistic talent to develop. She, however, had a relationship to develop with my soon-to-be stepfather, so out of the house I went, nine to noon, six weeks straight. She was always late picking me up.

The teacher was young, probably an arts major at the local college, paying the next term’s tuition back when next term’s tuition could be covered by a part-time summer job. When my mom showed up, she would look down at me, or over my mom’s shoulder. She couldn’t meet her eyes. I couldn’t, either. Her eyes were too close to her disheveled hair and the mismatched buttons on her shift dress.

“Lisa did well today,” Miss Cindy would always say. “She’s really getting down the technique.”

Mom would shrug and take my wrist. “Time to go home, kid.”

I made no friends. Wearing brown and orange dresses still ragged from the ’60s when they were my mother’s, with barely brushed hair, I didn’t fit in with the other 12-year-olds, who wore leggings and neon t-shirts that fell artistically off their shoulders. It was an art class for those who wanted it – and me.

All I knew was that I didn’t want to be there, and no one else wanted me there except Miss Cindy, who probably just saw me as the money she needed for that elective class she was eyeing. Keep me in the class for the full six weeks, get the $120, and let me be, right?

In this place where I felt less wanted than usual, I just wanted to rebel. The problem was not knowing whether doing a good job or a bad job would be the best way to accomplish it. At first, I did a terrible job. I painted everything red and everything with my left hand.

At the end of the first week, Miss Cindy had us take turns sharing our project. I marched to the front of the classroom and held up my one-color, left-handed painting. “This is my anger,” I said, and sat back down.

In the quiet time between the responsible parents picking up their kids and my mom showing up, Miss Cindy sat down across from me. “Is this really the best you can do?”

“I don’t see why you care.”

“Your misery doesn’t make anyone happier, Lisa,” she said. “Especially not yourself.”

It took until after week three before I took her seriously. I couldn’t stand another pitiful look from Miss Cindy as I paraded intentionally bad artwork around her classroom. Plus, she told us we would have a different kind of art assignment.

“For the rest of the class, you’ll be working on one project. It can be with any material you’d like. Just be creative and try your best.” Of course she was looking at me during the last part. Why wouldn’t she?

I spent a week scouring the reference books kept in wooden bookshelves under the windows. While my classmates set up easels and still lifes and began to draw and paint and mold their clay, I sat at my desk, reading. That Friday, I didn’t have anything to share except a newly dog-eared page in the last book I read. When Miss Cindy called my name, I shook my head and kept reading.

After class, she said, “Lisa, you can’t just read forever. You’re going to have to make something.”

“I know. I found something. Do you think…” I looked back at the front cover of the magazine, uncertain. “Do you think I could make something with wood?”

I watched her gaze drop and saw her catch a glimpse of the cover. The time she spent staring at it passed slower than the class itself. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

The following Monday, a pile of wood sat on my desk, pre-cut. A hammer. A pile of nails. I looked at Miss Cindy questionably, but she just smiled and went back to patrolling the room. Not only was the wood already cut, it was even labeled – match piece A with piece D, the magazine read. And there they were, right in front of me. Piece A and piece D. I carefully placed a nail and began to hammer.

Other kids hated it. The noise interrupted their concentration. I worked harder. I can’t remember ever caring about a project as much as I did that one, and when class was over but Mom wasn’t there, I kept on hammering. “This is looking fantastic,” Miss Cindy said, “I think you’ve got talent. Maybe you’ll be an architect one day.”

“Nah,” I said, hardly looking up. “Only men are architects.”

She put a hand over my nail so I had to stop working. “Maybe you should change that.”

After a week, the main structure was finished and I shared it with the class. I waited for the snarky comments, for the giggles, but they didn’t come. Everyone just stared at my birdhouse. “Now I just gotta paint it,” I said, and sat down. Their respect was more embarrassing than their loathing.

I spent two hours on Monday picking out a color. I wouldn’t do red this time. I wanted something to go with the trees, something to stand out against the brown and green. I chose cerulean and picked the least-used brush. It was for birds, after all, and now it would match the sky.

When Mom picked me up on the last day and handed over a check, I showed her my birdhouse, nearly feeling proud. “You made that?” she asked.

“Yeah, I made it.”

“For the tree in the back?”

“Yeah.”

“Good job, kid.”

I didn’t have to come back the next summer because Mom already married my stepfather. I came anyway.

Why Poetry is Bad Prep for Novel Writing – Part 2

Yesterday I told you why I sucked at telling stories. Today is about how I stopped sucking.

I spent 2011 trying – and failing – to get poems published in magazines or considered in competitions or something to validate my existence as a poet. Never happened. I entered 11 different contests and never made a short list.

In the beginning of 2012, fueled in part by my failure as a poet, I decided I wanted to try telling stories again. By that point, I was more than two years out of college and I knew what made me a bad storyteller. Creating underdeveloped characters. Not letting them get into messy enough situations. Purple prose.

To improve, I decided to isolate the variables. If I could work with pre-fabricated complex, interesting, non-Mary-Sue characters, could I improve the other two? Would having prompts for situations help me get the characters dirty?

I did the only thing I could think of. I Googled “Harry Potter Fanfiction Challenges.” Turns out that’s the name of a forum on a site where I’d been registered as a reviewer for years. So I joined the forum and got started. I wrote about Ron. Hermione. Remus. Tonks. Easy, well-defined characters. I wrote less than 2,000 words per story. I got decent reviews. Finally, I branched out.

Molly and Arthur became my favorites. I’ve written nearly 25,000 words about them, spanning 100 years. And, with them, I started what I became known for – interconnected one-shots.

Not only are those 25,000 words all in the same “universe,” so are a total of no less than 200,000 words written over the past two years. I wrote about the last year at Hogwarts and the final battle from the perspectives of ten different people. In one, Colin Creevey’s little brother sneaks in and takes pictures of the battle. In another, Anthony Goldstein is looking for his friend Michael. When he finds the body, he hears a camera clicking behind him. In one, I kill off a first-year student during the Carrows’ torture sessions. In another, taking place at Harry’s funeral in 2100, I mention that student.

Anyway, all that to say I learned I could write 200,000 words in the same universe. My old excuses of not having the patience for that kind of intricate storytelling were broken. And best of all? In two years, I went from writing short stories about well-known characters to novellas with entirely OCs for the cast.

So could I write a novel with my own characters? Absolutely. I already had. In late 2012, I began publishing a story set firmly in the Harry Potter universe… but that takes place in the year 3003. The only character from the series that even makes an appearance is a ghost – Professor Binns. The rest were my own characters, and the story was prompted not by a challenge on the forum but by a self-imposed challenge to attempt what some theorize has been JKR’s and Suzanne Collins’ reasons for success: writing in the tradition of literary alchemy and chiasm.

One of my last reviews for the story says, “The whole story reads very much like a canon piece, using many plot devices that come from the original or draw on its style and purpose.” I laughed when I got it. She has no idea.

More recently, I wrote a story in the nearer future, when the children of canon characters are in their 20s. The adults in their lives are canon. The rest are mine. And it’s not firmly set in the Harry Potter universe at all. I might one day adapt this 30,000-word novella into a modern novel. Who knows?

So part of my learning to write came specifically from getting to play in someone else’s imagination sandbox.

The other part – one I started honing when my stories started to reach 15,000 words and longer – was far more intentional than just trying to reach my “million words.” I read books. I read books on outlining novels, on archetypes, on plot structure, on main characters. I read books on literary alchemy and chiasm for the story I mentioned above. I took notes. I highlighted. I let it all absorb into me.

And, over time, I slowly figured out how to plot stories. I learned to let my characters loose. I learned to put them in life-and-death situations. After all, there’s always AU fanfiction in which I can revive them. 🙂

So when an idea for a real story came to me – a story set in my own world with my own characters – there was nothing left for me to do but write.*

*Technically, I mean start to plan. I brainstormed and outlined for four months before I began writing. But I did that planning by writing it out, so it’s close enough.

Why Poetry is Bad Prep for Novel Writing – Part 1

I spent 7.5 years in school formally studying how to write. I read many of the classics. I wrote essays and poetry and short stories. I took “Writing Fiction” and “Writing Poetry” and “Creative Non-Fiction” and even “Songwriting” in college. But I realized something after graduation.

I never learned how to tell a story.

This probably wasn’t my teachers’ faults. I’m sure I learned the mechanics. I could tell you about inciting incidents and rising action and I could even spell denouement when I was fourteen. But I still couldn’t tell an effective story.

There were a few reasons for this:

  1. I couldn’t create characters. Well, I could. But I became too attached to them and they morphed immediately into Mary-Sues and never had any real issues to deal with. Like I was in real life, I made my characters afraid to take the chances that would lead to a good story. And I tried too hard to write fictional versions of Real Life. I wouldn’t accept that stories could be told better than the way that I, or someone else, had lived them.
  2. I wrote well. But I let writing well get in the way of writing good. Purple prose was my best friend. I let poetic sentences get in the way of voice, clarity, and active sentence structure. I just read over a little 500-word drabble I wrote my senior year of high school. It’s beautifully written — absolutely poetic. But there’s so much I didn’t explain because it would have messed with what I thought was voice but was actually a purple blanket. I decided clarity was less important than rhythm.
  3. I took “Write what you know” way too seriously. I was a goody-two-shoes who never, ever swore, whose main concern throughout high school was which boy to crush on, who got good grades and mostly got along with her parents. Until the age of 19, I didn’t do a single thing that might be considered rebellious (although I did my fair share of stupid things). Take a guess at what I wrote about.

In high school, people told me I was a really good writer and I would get a novel published one day for sure. I shrugged them off and told them poetry was my thing because I didn’t have the attention span for novels.

Turns out, this wasn’t the reason I preferred poetry and songwriting. It had to do with three things (summed up in my laziness):

  1. In songwriting especially, stories are told, not shown. In songwriting, I could say “My Prince Charming turned back into a frog and I lost my way/Living on white lies – sometimes shaded gray – that say I’m doing okay.” and it might be considered a decent lyric. If I wrote that in a novel, it would get slashed as too much telling. But how did your Prince Charming turn back into a frog? my annoying critique partner, who’s annoying because of his high percentage of being right and asking easy questions with hard answers, would probably ask me. And I would mumble and say something incomprehensible about how that dude I dated was dumb to dump me.
  2. In poetry, the words used are almost as important as the message. Maybe they were more important. I seemed to think so. I could write this: “One smile, one nod, one note: one lie/
    I answered quick the question, “No… I’m fine.”” and it’s the first lines of the best poem I’ve ever written. In prose, it would read something like, “At church that Sunday, Jamie approached me while I was doing something unchurchlike – I wasn’t smiling. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked, good Christian concern written all over her face. I smiled, nodded. ‘No, I’m fine. Really.'” Makes a lot more sense. Doesn’t fit the iambic quadrameter I was writing in.
  3. Stories in poetry and songs are about moments, not transformation. At least, not always. In that Prince Charming song? The narrator never gets happier again. The whole song is lamenting that lost love. In the poem about not crying? The narrator never ends up crying. A revelation happens, a musing, but not transformation.

I tried to transfer those three things to my prose. Needless to say, it didn’t work. So I thought story telling wasn’t for me.

It turns out I was wrong, but it took two years of left-brained creativity to figure it out. See part two tomorrow.