a to z challenge: because

Peer pressure can be a terrible thing.

I've had a few writing plans for a while. One of them is to keep revising the novella a posted here as a serial a few years back. It keeps getting delayed, mostly because I keep alternating between being unwell and being overwhelmed at how much book-writing there is to do. I save all my energy for the all-important day job, and there just isn't much left for anything else.

Still and all, it's got to the point where the stress of not writing is worse than the stress of trying to write all the time. I've decided to give Camp NaNoWriMo a go, and commit to revising an hour a day. That will probably make me a bit crispy, based on past experience, but I'm hoping I can gear down without stopping completely in May.

In the meantime, because there's always something else, I've decided to take part in the A to Z Challenge for blogs. Most bloggers I read who have done this choose non-fiction topics, but I've decided to write fiction. Yeah. Don't say it.

The A to Z fiction is an idea I've had around for ages, and already posted three entries for previously for Friday Flash:

I made up my alphabetical list of topics last night, some letters with alternatives in case the first choice leaves me with writer's block. I figure I can write the six days of stories for the week on Sunday, and then just schedule them to publish throughout the week. A to Z posts every day but Sundays. To make it all the way to Z I'll have to post the last story on the last Sunday of the month, the 30th, but that's all right.

By the end of it, I'll have about as many scraps and snippets as I did when I started the novella I'm revising now.

Who knows? It might even work.

not all adjectives are equal

Consider the following passage:

The pretty woman ran through her beautiful apartment to the large, pleasant kitchen. She turned off the noisy oven buzzer.

"Dinner's ready!" she called out. 

She entered the tasteful dining room, aromatic casserole held between two cute pot holders. 

Her wonderful family were already at the table. She gave each of them and herself a generous serving. 

Her handsome husband took a bite. "This is delicious, honey," he said.  

"It's yummy, Momma!" chimed in their adorable child. 

The woman flicked a strand of her lovely hair behind her shoulder. "Why thank you, you two."

Refer back as often as you need to, and answer the following questions:

  • What were the main ingredients of the casserole?
  • What style is the kitchen decorated in?
  • What colour is the woman's hair?

Exactly.

Sure I stacked the deck by writing the passage to illustrate my point, but this is something I've been seeing a lot lately. I haven't found any writer's jargon for them, so I'm calling them "empty descriptors".

Most of the adjectives in the sample passage give opinions, not information. The reader learns that the author believes the apartment to be beautiful, the kitchen to be pleasant, the casserole to be aromatic. But they have nothing to go on to build their own picture of the scene. "Aromatic" only means the casserole has a smell, not what it smells like. And what's a "pleasant" kitchen? For me, it's a double sink, a working stove and fridge, and a dishwashing machine; after that I'm not fussy. I know many people are much harder to please when it comes to kitchens.

Size adjectives are also vague without a standard to compare them to. Think about that "large" kitchen. How large? Large for a downtown apartment in Paris? Large even when compared to a McMansion in the suburbs? Large enough to fit my real-life apartment into? The reader doesn't know.

Of course, over-describing can be bad too — consider the "green ceramic bowl heaped with fluffy white mashed potatoes" types of descriptions featured in many a YA series — but it's probably better to leave out the adjectives entirely if they're not communicating actual sensory information.

Another thing about empty descriptors: what if the reader disagrees with you? North American writers especially seem to think nothing of mentioning a "big, beautiful house", not realising that to many readers, big is not beautiful when it comes to houses. "Big" might just mean "expensive", or even "liability" or "foolish". As a friend of mine put it when we attended a housewarming party at a house far bigger than either of us were comfortable in, "I'm glad I don't have to clean it."

Words like "beautiful" can be even worse. Of course, as a writer you may want to convey that a character or characters consider something or someone beautiful, but if so it's that perception you want to convey, not the beauty itself. What if what you consider a "beautiful" house is exactly what your reader can't stand? A lot of people love neo-Georgian and neo-Victorian, but to me all that molding just says, "lots of dusting and painting to do." Then again, a lot of people would find what I find "beautiful" in a house too modern and minimalist. The way around that is to show the house through the character's eyes. I may not agree with them, but I can appreciate that they find the house beautiful. And that was the point, wasn't it?

I'm going to finish off by attempting a conversion of that sample passage, removing all the empty descriptors and adding in sensory information. Probably I should give at least some of these characters names, but I'm just going to stick with "the woman" etc. for now:

The woman ran through her apartment to the kitchen. She turned off the oven buzzer.

"Dinner's ready!" she called out. 

She entered the dining room, casserole held between pot holders. The scents of curry powder and chicken filled the air.

Her family were already at the table. She served everyone before she sat down. 

Her husband took a bite. "This is delicious, honey," he said.  

"It's yummy, Momma!" chimed in their child. 

The woman flicked a strand of hair behind her shoulder. "Why thank you, you two."

Better? Worse? Were you expecting the chicken divan in the original passage? Lasagne? Something else? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

guest post: how do you find the right writer's group?

One of the things I love about writing is that I can do it all by myself. I can be quiet and retreat into my own thoughts. I tend to lose all track of time.

Unfortunately, that aloneness can also be the biggest drawback to being a writer. It is likely that your friends and family don’t understand how your brain processes things or get the jargon you use to describe your work. And that is when you need to be in the company of writers.

I just finished volunteering at the Willamette Writers Conference, which I do nearly every year. I get a total jolt of inspiration and excitement when I attend. And I love being surrounded by people who know that WIP means work in progress. It’s such a great sense of camaraderie I can’t get anywhere else.

I was lucky in that I stumbled across Willamette Writers soon after my first book was published and I started devoting time to fiction. It was a good fit for me.

But it doesn’t always work out as easily for other writers, especially if you’re looking for a critique group, where fit is of great importance. So, how can you tell if you’re in the right group?

First, make sure the topics of discussion are suited to your career level.

When I interviewed J. Anderson Coats for Pacific Northwest Writers, one of the things we talked about was the group of writers she connected with online. They were all in the midst of getting their first book published, so they spoke the same language, were dealing with the same concerns, and had the same fears and excitements.

You’ll want to make sure that you’re working with a group of writers who can understand the career phase you are in so that you can all support each other and grow together.

Second, you must feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. The type of feedback offered in critique groups can vary widely, from no-holds-barred editing to kind and gentle sandwiches of positive feedback – opportunity for improvement – positive feedback.

There was a scene in season 1 of Jane the Virgin where she didn’t read the instructions on feedback and wrote some feedback for one of the writers that didn’t fit with the goals of the group. There were madcap antics as she tried to take back the cards she’d written her notes on — and tears as the person receiving the criticism wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear what Jane had to say. Make sure you’re on board with the goals of the group so you can give and get the best critiques of your work.

Have you been part of a writer’s group? What was your experience like? Tell us in the comments below. 

 

Author Bio: Jennifer Roland is a freelance and marketing writer with more than twenty years' experience in newspaper, magazine, and marketing environments. Jennifer also works as a virtual assistant to writers, helping them build their online presence and connect with readers so they can focus on what they love — writing.

She loves fiction and writes that under the name Jennifer C. Rodland. She hopes to put all of the lessons she learned writing this book into getting more of that published.

Find Jennifer online: 

http://10takesonwriting.com

http://twitter.com/jenroland

http://instagram.com/thejenroland

 

 

the hero myth

I am just old enough to have seen the original Star Wars movie at the theatres, when it first came out. I've been thinking a lot about that experience, and about the hype that followed, now that I've finished reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The "Star Wars proof", as I've come to think of it, rests on the following syllogism:

  1. George Lucas deliberately wrote Star Wars to follow the monomyth as defined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  
  2. Star Wars was and is a huge hit, and a cultural phenomenon!  
  3. Therefore, if writers want a huge hit (or just a successful story, period), they should follow the example of Star Wars and use the monomyth in their own writing. 

As with all syllogisms, it needs to be tested point by point.

#1 is certainly true, on its face — as I mentioned last blog post, Lucas is on the record with his admiration of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

#2 is also certainly true. Star Wars Day was started by an ad congratulating Margaret Thatcher, for pity's sakes. Star Wars fandom shows up in places as mainstream as Friends — that episode is going to be mostly opaque if you don't know the references.

#3 is where the syllogism breaks down, as syllogisms often do (1. I like fish, 2. Cats like fish, 3. I am a cat). The conclusion of the syllogism assumes that Star Wars was a hit because it was written to follow the structure of the monomyth.

I spent some time reading discussion boards on this topic while I was getting this blog post ready, wanting to make sure my own memory of seeing it on its first theatre release weren't faulty. It doesn't seem like it was (do some Googling for commentary if you want to see third-party opinions). People do mention The Hero's Journey, but they also talk about how the good characters and bad characters were easy to tell apart, how there were so many recognisable tropes from the old adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, how wonderful the special effects were. They also point out (and I'm glad I'm also not the only one here) that while adults liked Star Wars, it was the kids who loved it.

Funny thing about that. You'd think Luke Skywalker would be the character all the kids wanted to be. But I remember seven-year-old-me chose Leia, not just because she was the token woman, but because she had attitude and could fire a blaster. My second choices were C3PO and Obi-Wan Kenobi. My younger brother (he was four when he saw it) became an instant R2D2 fan. I remember local magazines having C3PO and R2D2 on the cover; not so much the so-called hero. (Which is not to say Mark Hamill did a poor job; on the contrary, he gave Luke's quiet moments (like those bits on the Millennium Falcon) a depth that rounded out the character in far more ways than any lines he was given to say.)

Then there's the whole Han Solo arc. Never mind the farm boy who saves the galaxy, Han is a down-and-out smuggler who gets the princess. He's the guy who goes from only having himself, his ship, and his one-wookiee crew as priorities, to being a full-out fighter in the Rebellion. He's the survivor who discovers principles. There's a reason why fans freaked out and started the "Han shot first" meme, when Lucas tweaked the film after its initial release.

The paradox is that the films are so widely loved, yet so much of the writing is reviled. Most of the dislike is aimed at the sequels-which-are-really-prequels, but it's cast a more analytical eye on the original trilogy as well. If the Force is something you inherit, why doesn't Leia seem to have it? Why are there virtually no other female characters besides Leia (and don't bring up that senator)? What the hell was Obi Wan doing all those years in the desert? Baby-sitting from a distance is no way to keep occupied.

I'm just not convinced people love Star Wars because it's such a great example of the Hero's Journey. I love it for the characters, and the setting, and yeah, the special effects. The plot, meh — it beggars belief just a few too many times. Consider all the "you can't hit an exhaust hatch with two torpedoes which have to bank at a right angle almost immediately after being fired" theories:

So what am I getting at? Just this: having read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I'm just not convinced it's ultimately that useful. Better to read the original myths, or to work through a plot approach with a stronger focus on structure, like Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer.

outrunning your readers

It seems silly to call spoilers on two books which were both released more than a year ago, but... spoilers. Just minor ones though.

I just finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and while I can't actually say anything against it — her narrative voice is spot-on, her characters are realistic to a wincing degree, and her plot is immaculate — it fell a bit flat for me. This post is about why, and why it's the same thing that made The Da Vinci Code a slog to get through for some people.

Let me explain.

Remember The Da Vinci Code? The plot structure wasn't unlike a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. A protagonist with deciphering bona fides finds puzzle after puzzle, each one leading him on to the next clue. The action and danger escalated geometrically, and the solution to each puzzle provided a new twist to the plot.

Or, at least, it was supposed to. Certainly for the readers who loved the book it did. It even led to a whole related flurry of books, documentaries, and TV specials running through which conspiracies were historical and which Dan Brown had made up whole cloth.

For other readers, however, it was all very underwhelming. One of them was my brother Rob, who studied art all the way through high school. "This is all stuff we took in class," he complained. "All that stuff about Da Vinci's The Last Supper... anybody who studied any art history or has ever bothered to read up on Renaissance painters is going to know that. It's no big secret."

I never studied art, so Rob was ahead of me there, but both of us received a lot of puzzle books as children. We used to try out ciphers and send each other messages all the time. Some of the ciphers in The Da Vinci Code were the same as the ones we used to play with. I remember there was at least one chapter (the one with the mirror written message) where I knew the solution at a glance, and had to march through twenty pages of the characters asking each other, "But what could it mean?" before they finally figured it out. Other chapters I had a pretty accurate idea of what the cipher was, and had to plod through until it was deciphered in the book.

This isn't to brag, not at all. It's to point out that if your reader has knowledge pertinent to your story context, they're going to get very frustrated with your story. It's sort of a variation on the "howler" of an inaccurate detail in an otherwise realistic story. The difference is, that while a detective story may make a police officer cringe, or a medical thriller make a doctor wince, these are bits of knowledge that a non-specialist may have acquired just by liking to read. Quite probably they are members of the book's target audience.

So: Gone Girl. At the top of this post, I described the characters as realistic to a "wincing degree". The two main characters (they take turns narrating in the first person) are both narcissists, possibly sociopaths. The issue is that if you've ever had the bad luck to know such a person well — I have — it's obvious after five pages in the book what they're about. It's a credit to Flynn as a writer that she portrays them so accurately, but it means that the three big plot twists people have discussed a lot are completely predictable. As a reader, I didn't know the exact details, but I could see the fallacies in what was being narrated (narcissists are the perfect unreliable narrators) and knew reality was going to give them a hard smack long before it happened.

That meant that the reading experience was a lot "flatter" and, well, non-thrilling for me. What kept me reading was that there was a sort of perverse joy in exploring the behaviour in two people who were married to each other. All the real-life narcissists I've known have always wound up connected to non-narcissists (all the better to make the relationship and the drama they get to generate from it all about them).

What do you think? Have you ever had a book fall flat for you because you had knowledge that blew away the mystery before the plot could?

comment conclusions

The second incarnation of this blog was started on Blogger on April Fool's Day, 2008. It spent the first several days with all the privacy settings I could throw at it turned on, being vetted by (and only visible to) trusted in-real-life friends. They left enough encouraging comments that I threw the doors open to the general public by the end of the first month, but truthfully until I joined Friday Flash it was vanishingly rare for me to receive comments from anyone I hadn't met in person first.

I made a decision very early on that I wasn't going to write for the comments (ie: no clickbait), but at the same time, be grateful for everyone who did leave a comment (with obvious exceptions for trolls and spammers). Over the years, the general level of comments has built up, to the point that when I started considering getting a web domain name under, well, my name, I wasn't going to move the blogs unless I could take the historical comments and posts with me.

In April, Icy Sedgwick wrote a thoughtful post called "Should you close comments on your blog?", which considers comments on blogs and some alternatives, and ultimately comes out for keeping the comments option on. Earlier this month, David G. Schrock responded with the post "Comments Closed" on his blog. He followed up his conclusion that social media was a better forum by turning comments off on his own blog.

As both bloggers pointed out, one is never limited to discussing a blog post in the comments section of the post itself. Discussion of blog posts and other like articles can and does move to Twitter, Google+, and elsewhere.

Ultimately I agree with both Icy's and David's points, but come down on the side of leaving comments on. My reasoning goes like this:

  • Leaving social media open as the only discussion forum essentially forces people to comment without the option of doing so anonymously. I know a lot of people are against anonymous comments because it's believed to make trolling and spamming easier, but I have one (okay, more than one, but one who's vocal about it) real-life friend who will not comment unless she can use an anonymous option. She uses a nickname she's told me face-to-face so I know when it's her. The reason why she does this — and it's the same reason I actively avoided using my real name on my old Eyrea blog for years — is because she doesn't want to drop too many clues on the net about her physical whereabouts or ways she can be reached by third parties. People often fail to realise a space without privacy is an unsafe space for a lot of people, effectively silencing them, no matter how benign the topic at hand is. They try to minimise how "out" they are in the world for very good reasons, including their own safety and security.
  • E-mailing the blogger is another alternative, especially for when one doesn't want one's response to be visible at all on-line. Having comments open doesn't remove this option, though — the blogger just has to have an e-mail address to use listed on their web site.
  • I restarted my blog in 2008 as part of a decision to leave Facebook. I deleted my account in 2010. Devices getting onto the net through my home wifi can't even access Facebook, because I have its domain blocked at the router level. (By the bye, this is a simple way to make web pages load more quickly!) So if a forum only allows commenting on their Facebook page, or via Facebook login... I can't comment. If they direct all discussions to Facebook... I can't comment. The same is true for people not on Google+, or not on Twitter, or not on whatever. Along with the anonymous option, it's one reason why I make sure you don't need to be logged onto anything to post a comment on my blog. It's also why I hate comment systems like Disqus that never seem to remember my credentials right, and mix and match bits of the different social media accounts I've told it in moments of weakness. The main purpose is to comment, not increase the hits on some third-party social media web site I don't even have shares in.
  • Commenting on the blog keeps the comments with the source material at hand. Moving the comments elsewhere reminds me of when I went to hear Neil Gaiman read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane at The Danforth Music Hall. We went to a pub across the road from the hall afterwards for a drink, and a couple who were having a drink a few seats from us came over and asked if we would mind telling them what the event was. They'd seen the crowds leaving the hall, and they'd seen us cross the street and come into the pub, but from the bits they'd overheard of us talking, they knew it couldn't be a band we'd gone to hear. They couldn't figure out what the event was, though. As it turned out, they were very well-read people, and we wound up having a great conversation about books and authors. On the net, that would have been the difference between stumbling across some tweets and thinking, "okay, I'll click on the link" and stumbling across a Google+ post which made no sense unless you had already read the post. Context is important.

David made the good point in his post that not all comments are made with the sincere desire to add one's one thoughts to the source material. He gave the examples of people leaving comments for SEO linking, or back-slapping community support. I agree with him that people often do exactly this, but have a different conclusion about them. SEO linking, as selfish as it may be, can lead to community-building. As for any back-slapping... hey, I'll take it. Unlike some other writers, I don't have any family or spouse cheering me on with my writing. If an on-line acquaintance wants to say something nice, I'm very grateful for it. For my own part I try to leave comments which are on-point and (hopefully) thoughtful.

In the end, I think it's one of those cases where whatever you're doing is probably right, at least until you want to change it. If there were real consensus on comments versus no comments, blog editors would have stopped offering so many options to manage them long ago. On this blog I can turn comments on or off entirely for the whole blog, or for selected posts. I can keep comments on indefinitely, or disallow them after a certain date. That's a lot of functionality for something that could be considered a by-the-way feature.

What do you think? The comments are open.