Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Short Stories

I recently mentioned that back in mid-July I decided to step back from my novel WIP and focus on short stories for the rest of the summer…and by summer I apparently mean summer + September. Mostly I’m doing it for the usual reasons: I can improve my writing and experiment with different styles and genres with less commitment, plus it would be nice to have some published stories to add to my query letter later on down the line. 

But I’m also doing it out of guilt and a fear of regret, I guess. Due to the move I’ve been without a job since last month (and we're fortunately in a place financially that I don’t have to panic and apply to jobs nonstop…yet) and I don’t have classes or kids or any other major life distractions. In other words, this may be the most free time I will ever have in my life, so I’m painfully aware that I need to use it well. I don’t know how long I’ll be in this position (the jobs I have applied for so far would start in late September) and I’d like to have something to show for it. Finishing a messy second draft of my novel would be nice, but completing -- really and truly completing and polishing and submitting -- several short stories and maybe getting one published would be better. I'd also like to have something concrete to show my uber-supportive husband, who is okay with my current unemployment as long as I’m using my time productively (and not spending a fortune on lattes, avocados,* books,** or one of my other vices.) I figured that it would be a while before I had a full novel ready to show him, but in a much shorter time I could share several stories with him and start submitting them to journals, the first step in trying to make writing my career.

So far I’m enjoying the process immensely. My daily wordcounts are much higher than they were in the past, I’m trying new things with each story and loving it, and for the first time I’m able to share full stories with Kyle (and soon other people) and get feedback.

The best thing about writing short stories? I can juggle more than one WIP at once without feeling guilty or scattered. One reason I’m writing more than usual is that I’m always in the mood to work on at least one of my stories, even if it’s not the one I was working on the day before. 

The worst thing about writing short stories? I can juggle more than one WIP at once :-P, so none are as finished as they could be if I had given them my complete attention. I currently have six stories in the works (not to mention half a dozen other ideas that I am steadfastly ignoring right now):

  • A dark literaryish YA that is somewhere between flash fiction and standard short story length, so I need to figure out whether to develop the plot more or pack it in tighter. 
  • Two quirky, dark psychological pieces that I quite like, though I have no idea where to submit them because they’re not YA or speculative, but they’re not quite literary either. (Maybe that just means I should polish the prose more.)
  • Two humorous fantasy YA stories with the same positives and negatives: I adore the opening scenes and the voice throughout, but the stakes don’t get high enough and the plotting in the middle needs work. 
  • A dark fable retelling that started out as something else entirely but has been pleasantly surprising me.

Anyone else out there focusing on short stories at the moment... Or trying to make the best use of a temporary free-time windfall?

*My complaint letter to the Pacific Northwest would be titled I was Told There'd be Cheap Avocados. In California I saw roadside stands with avocados for 50 cents or cheaper, and I dreamed of the day that I would live in such a magical part of the country. Then I moved to Oregon and my hopes were dashed...Seriously, you're telling me that transporting them one state to the north requires a $2-3 markup? 

** More on my continued bad book-buying behavior in a future post. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Great Meet & Greet Week

I had a lot of fun and "met" so many great bloggers during Christine’s Sparkfest last week. Welcome and thank you to the new readers, commenters, and followers! (Though is anyone else having this weird error where the Followers widget is sometimes empty? I miss seeing the smiling faces in the sidebar.) I was also lucky enough to receive my first blogging award, bestowed upon me by J at the wonderfully titled Concrete Pieces of Soul:

The Lobster Blog Award!
Oh, wait, that's not quite right. 

She gave me the LIEBSTER BLOG award. 

Liebster means dear or favorite or apparently a bazillion other positive things in German (thank you Google), and the official rules are as follows:
  1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
  2. Reveal your top 5 picks [blogs with fewer than 200 followers] and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
  3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
  4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
  5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!
Here are my picks:

Write. Skate. Dream by Jess, a dedicated teen blogger wise beyond her years
Begin…Begin Again by Jan, a former doctor following an inspiring writing dream
On Writing and Sometimes Publishing by the lovely Lori Ann Stephens, whose debut novel came out this year.
Type a Little Faster by Lynn Colt, queen of limericks and quirky animal art
And finally, the talented and hilarious Heather L Hansen with her adorable kid costars

Go show their blogs some love!

Friday, August 26, 2011

SPARK: YA Short Stories, or how I got rid of the creepy old man in my head

Sparkfest concludes! I've really enjoyed this blogfest, so hats off to Christine and all of the other great bloggers I've "met" through this experience!

In my earlier posts, I talked about the books that made me want to write meta-fiction and dystopian novels. But for the past month I’ve actually stepped away from my dark fantasy/dystopian/meta-fiction manuscript to focus on short stories. (I’ll get into why I did it and what my goals are in my next post, but there's no reason to make this one even longer.) So I thought I would write my last post about my hunt for the right short story spark. 

When I decided to spend the rest of the summer on short stories, I sat down and wrote out drafts for the first three ideas that came to mind, and I also looked back at some old story fragments to see if any were worth developing. And I realized something very strange:
  • Most of my novel ideas and manuscripts: 3rd person past tense with young and reasonably likeable protagonists  
  • Most of my short story ideas and manuscripts: 1st person present tense with unreliable or morally suspicious adult male narrators.
 What the heck? Why is there a creepy old man hiding in my brain? 

Then I realized that while I’ve read a ton of YA novels to pull from for inspiration, my experience with short stories pretty much comes down to this short list of authors:
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Stephen King
  • Robertson Davies
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Neil Gaiman
  • The people who write stories in The New Yorker
You’ll notice that the list is made up of male writers who like creepy things and unreliable narrators, and that other than Neil none of them writes YA. Of course I gravitated towards that type of story in my own writing! I should clarify that I love that type of story and that I'm grateful that Poe and co. gave me the spark to write them and that I will definitely polish and try to publish them... But I wanted to try my hand at YA stories too, especially since that’s the market I primarily want to break into. (I tried to rewrite that sentence so that it didn’t end with a preposition, by the way, but it just sounded silly.)

So for once I had to actively look for a genre Spark, and I found it sitting patiently on my bookshelves, waiting to finally be read. Enter my new textbook of wonderfulness:

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. What you can't see here is that the black dust cover comes off to reveal an amazing Where's Waldo-like scene of battling zombie and unicorns.
I've never been a big fan of zombies (icky) or unicorns (meh), but this collection converted me. I LOVED reading it, it introduced me to some awesome new authors, and most importantly it lit the spark for three YA short stories of my own. None of them, by the way, are about zombies or unicorns, and (hopefully) none seem derivative; I just needed something to get me in the right head space, voice, and general plot arc for YA fantasy shorts, and this book worked like a charm. I highly recommend it, whether or not you're trying to write YA short stories, and even whether or not you like zombies and unicorns. 

Have you ever had to go looking for a Spark? And did it work out as well as my zombies and unicorns?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

RTW: Breaking the Block

It's a very busy blogging week! Today I’m taking a break from the Spark Blogfest to instead participate in another Road Trip Wednesday.

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs.

This week’s topic: How do you beat writer's block? Do you go for a jog? Read a book? Go to a movie? Come on, share your secret - we're dying to know! 

I wish I could beat writer’s block with a jog – it would be good motivation for increasing both my story planning and my exercising! But whenever I try to go on a brainstorming jog, my mind gets too caught up in the rhythm of the run and I just end up repeating phrases in my head rather than really thinking about them. Apparently when my legs are running free, my mind just can’t. 

And as much as I'd like to claim reading or watching TV as a cure for writer's block, for me those activities are just enjoyable but guilt-inducing procrastination. :-D

So what do I do when I have writer’s block?

I go to the bathroom.

Um, yeah. I discovered this quirk in grad school. So many times I would be working away on an essay in a coffee shop and get stuck. Often I’d have to go to the bathroom (lots of lattes + smallest bladder ever), and miraculously the perfect sentence would often strike me by the time I returned to my table. Maybe it was actually the Epiphany Toilet from Scrubs:

Or, more likely, it was just the change of scenery and my moving around that sparked a new idea. 

This method still works pretty well for me, though usually only for small scale writing blocks. For the bigger stuff, like solving major plot snarls, I usually mull over the problem as I’m trying to fall asleep. (This is one of many reasons I’m a bit of an insomniac.) It helps to be in a relaxed state and not have the pressure of the laptop screen staring at me. Thank goodness for this guy:

My glowing pen lets me jot down my nighttime ideas without (1) blinding myself or (2) scribbling something in the dark that I can’t read the next morning.

So, those are my writer’s block busting secrets: bathrooms and glowing pens. Yes, I'm a bit strange. :-P

What about you?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SPARK: Dystopia

The Spark blogfest continues! See past posts here and here.

I have two manuscripts that I consider active novel WIPs (as opposed to abandoned false starts). One is YA dystopian and the other is dark YA fantasy (hopefully reminiscent of The Magicians that I mentioned yesterday, actually) that happens to have a rather dystopian village tucked into it.

The dystopian obsession might not seem surprising, because everyone seems to be talking and writing about them these days. Schools regularly assign classics like Brave New World and Farenheit 451, and with awesome recent releases like Hunger Games and Incarceron, YA dystopias are SoHotRightNow.

But when I was growing up, I felt like dystopias were my own odd and secret thing. I never had to read them for school and I was the only person I knew devouring them for fun. In college when I talked to people about my thesis on 1984, Brave New World, and We, most of them had never heard the word dystopian before. Obviously I wasn’t the only person my age obsessed with these books, but it always felt that way. 

Today it’s very clear that dystopians are not just my thing, but that’s actually pretty awesome. It means there are more of them being published for me to read and more potential readers for my potential future books.

But back to that initial *spark.* I don’t remember what was technically my first dystopian read, but I encountered the following three pretty early on, and all of them inspired me in important and different ways. 
Fahrenheit 451
 Simply put, this is the one that showed me how dystopian was done: designing the controlled society with its carefully planned distractions, placing the seeds of doubt in a once faithful citizen and watching him struggle with his dawning realizations, and finding a bittersweet ending that leaves the system in place but reveals a hopeful kink in its armor.
And the language! The opening draws me in every time:

It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous keroscene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

And as an added bonus, I could pretend that I wasn’t memorizing Poe poems and passages from Hamlet because I was a crazy nerd… I was clearly preparing for a possible dystopian future. It was for posterity, I tell you!

The Running Man
If you love The Hunger Games, if you cringe with disgust and fascination at each shocking new reality show, or if you think Wheel of Fortune would be better if a contestant got beheaded by the wheel every once in a while, then you should read the novellas The Running Man and The Long Walk. I didn’t watch a ton of game shows as a child, but I was an overly competitive and aggressive athlete, which is probably why these stories gripped me initially. 

The best dystopias take an aspect of current society and extend it to a much darker but still terrifyingly believable future. King accomplished that even though controversial reality television didn’t even exist when he was writing these stories. He saw where society’s love of entertainment, voyeurism, and bloodlust could take us, and it seems like we get closer to his vision every new TV season. 

Another interesting aspect is that (unlike the structure of the Hunger Games) all of the contestants choose to enter these competitions in which death is virtually guaranteed, so piecing apart what could motivate someone to volunteer – and making that psychology believable to the reader – becomes a critical and fascinating part of these stories.

As a related sidenote, if you want to watch a fascinating, disturbing, ready-made-for-a-dystopian-short-story reality show, may I suggest Solitary. In pursuit of a monetary prize, contestants spend weeks isolated in tiny cells, completing painful challenges and suffering through torture interrogation tactics (extreme temperatures, starvation, sleep deprivation) and psychological games of the creepy computer voice running the whole thing. 

And yes, it’s on Fox Reality.

Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies taught me that you don’t need to build a typical dystopian society – the overbearing government, the generations of brainwashed citizens, the absence or total takeover of technology, etc. – to express dystopian themes. And you don’t have to kill off most of the world’s population with nuclear war or epidemics to create a post-apocalyptic environment. All you need is a small group of boys on a deserted island and an impressive understanding of human psychology. 

I reread Lord of the Flies recently and it was just as good as I remembered, maybe better. The emotion Golding wields in every conflict among the boys and between their old world and their new one…it’s heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching and feels utterly and terribly real.

The framing device is genius too. The boys’ plane could have easily crashed because of random mechanical failure, but instead Golding makes it a casualty of a world war that’s casually referenced every now and again when the boys remember the world outside their island. Even if they escape the corrupted society they’ve created, they’ll only be entering another corrupted society bent on destroying itself. 

Writing in the dystopian genre is taking what you know and what you fear and combining the two to create a nightmare that you hope your book can help to prevent. I can't help but be drawn to the importance and paradox of that goal, and in awe of the writers who manage to accomplish it.

What are your inspirations, dystopian or otherwise?

Monday, August 22, 2011

SPARK: Meta Monster

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m participating in Sparkfest this week and celebrating some of the books and authors that inspire my writing. This post is about meta-fiction and is apparently brought to you by excessive ellipses.

I love meta-literature and broken fourth walls, books about books, narrators who are well aware that they’re in a book, works that comment on themselves in creative ways... However you want to define meta-fiction, I'm a fan.

Every time I see it done well, it’s another spark for my writing and reading, a new realization about how texts can be connected and the bounds of narrative can be manipulated: Jasper Fforde’s series about the secret lives of book characters… the misleading stories-within-stories of Atwood’s The Blind Assassin…Lemony Snicket’s gradual transformation from what seemed to be just a pen name to a full-blown character within his own narrative… the characters in The Magicians who explore the reality behind a fictitious Narnia-esque series and explode conventions of the genre along the way… and my favorite film example, Robin Hood Men in Tights, in which characters argue over their scripts and accidentally run into the film crew during a sword fight.

It’s no coincidence that my favorite book for most of my childhood was The Neverending Story, which is about a boy who eventually enters the book that he’s reading (and that we’re reading along with him), blurring the line between the two. Ende even starts the book by cleverly manipulating text in a different way:

So many of my story ideas reflect my deep and enduring love for this book. It's not just the wordplay and storyplay (we'll just pretend that's a term) either; Bastian and his adventures are amazing and idea-inspiring all on their own. (The book is also so much better than the movie, no matter how catchy that theme song may be.) In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm tempted to go reread The Neverending Story right after I finish this post...

But I realized that my love for meta-fiction goes back even earlier; I was reading a perfect example of it when I was incredibly young. It's a bestselling work of creative genius beloved by generations of readers, featuring a narrator aware of his book-bound existence and haunted by a terror that hints at an unknown self-loathing. It still resonates deeply with me today.

That’s right, I’m talking about Grover. 

 Meta-fiction and addressing the reader at their finest, brought to you by a lovable and furry monster.

What's your favorite adorable monster meta-fiction? Or what book inspired your writing's style, genre, quirks, or tricks?

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Starting tomorrow, the lovely Christine Tyler over at The Writer Coaster is hosting the Spark Blogfest, or Sparkfest. It’s a way for bloggers to celebrate the authors who inspire them by posting about:
  • What book made you realize you were doomed to be a writer?
  • What author set off that spark of inspiration for your current Work in Progress?
  • Is there a book or author that changed your world view?
  • Some other related question that you make up
As to the first question, I can’t identify The Book that made me want to be a writer because the urge has (almost literally) always been there. I started writing stories as soon as I could scribble semi-legible letters; my ever-patient mother would tell me how to spell each and every word that I wanted as I wrote out my first stories letter by laborious letter. (And then I added abstract crayon illustrations, of course.) 

I can, however, identify books that shaped how and what I write now, so over the next few days I’ll be blogging about my *sparks* in different genres. I’m really excited to participate and read everyone else’s responses.

There’s still time for YOU to join in the Spark Blogfest too! Click on the logo above or on the sidebar to get to the instruction and sign-up page. It should be a lot of fun and a great way to "meet" other bloggers. There are even prizes up for grabs :-D

Friday, August 19, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Borders

(There’s a reason I’m talking about Borders so long after the news first broke, I promise.)

Like most people I was depressed to hear that Borders was closing. Yes, it’s a big chain store, but it was always my favorite of the chain stores. (A really great free membership program + computer search stations in the store + the general friendly feeling of a smaller business.) I dreamed about seeing my book on their shelves someday. And now I worry about what the closing will mean for the thousands of employees, the industry, all those giant empty storefronts… it’s depressing.

But let's be serious... just because I’m sad doesn’t mean I’m going to miss a book sale.

The first weekend of the closing sale, Kyle and I biked down to the nearest store. We were incredibly excited. (Okay, maybe I was excited and Kyle was worried about where we would find space for all of those books.) And look at everything I brought home:

That’s right, nada. I found plenty of books that I wanted, but when I did a quick check on my phone I found that the Amazon prices were much cheaper. And I don’t mean a dollar or two difference; they were almost half as much. No wonder you are going out of business, Borders! Arrg.

When the prices were slashed again we went back, because I am a loyal customer and, as mentioned, completely unable to turn down a book sale. And look at the massive load of books I brought home this time:

Sigh. Only two, and only because they were clearance.

BUT this week I found out that all of their books had been marked 40-60% off, which was where they needed to be to beat Amazon. So my long-suffering husband and I made a THIRD trip, and today I actually did bring home a stack of lovely literature:

And Kyle bought a few travelogue and culture books that I'll probably read as well. 

I feel so much better now that I can pretend that the previous trips were just scouting missions. Not that I usually gleefully celebrate my consumerism while I'm between jobs, but I can make an exception for books, right? I mean, even if I'm judging them by their covers they're awesome.

Ah, the creepy.

Ah, the creepy pretty. 

Ah, the additions to my already lengthy to-read list and my overstuffed shelves...

Anyone else taking advantage of the sales at Borders (or  just being depressed by them)?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

RTW: Inspiration on the Road

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's question: What is the most inspiring setting you've ever visited in real life?

My writing tends to skew dark, so I write about a lot of claustrophobic places. But I’m also inspired by wide open spaces... like the really ridiculously wide open spaces that we rode through in Kansas and Idaho. They were the setting of many of my favorite photos from the trip, and not just because most didn't even have telephone poles to break the view.

There might not be many describable details crowding the landscape, but there's just something about the overwhelming vastness of it all, you know?

What inspiring settings have you visited?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stalling, Cycling, Storytelling

I warned you that my early morning productivity on Wednesday was a fluke, right? Don’t worry; yesterday I was back to my usual self. 
  • Rolled out of bed around 9 after ignoring my alarm and the loud birds for quite some time.
  • Puttered around the house and on the internet until noon
  • Realized it was noon and decided I needed to get out of the house pronto
  • Took the long way to the post office (that’s code for “got lost, again,” but don’t tell Kyle)
  • Made it to the library and returned my books, then wandered into the YA section because I just couldn’t help myself. Thirteen Reasons Why and Catalyst called to me. I believe they said “You promised to read more contemporary YA books about important teen problems and you know you’ve heard great things about us.”
  • Finally, finally found a table, set up my laptop, and opened my manuscript
  • Discovered I had a bunch of phone, chat, and email messages. SURPRISE! Friends of a friend who are finishing up their own cross-country bike trip needed a place to stay. I was really excited because we love hosting cyclists, but it meant I had to rush back home to get food and make the house/me presentable.
My word count for the day, I kid you not, was 8. But of course it was worth it. Meeting new people usually is. These three awesome girls have been cycling across the country and connecting with Girl Scout troops to promote active lifestyles and local farms. Cool, right? Unfortunately I forgot to ask if they had any Thin Mints with them...

They didn’t even know that we’d also done a cross-country cycling trip until we started talking. Suddenly we were all swapping questions and stories a mile a minute. “Did you meet the cookie lady?” “Did Grandma at the diner actually have pie when you visited?” “Goathead thorns – I hate goathead thorns!” “You saw your cougar in the middle of the day?” “You saw yours in the middle of the night?”

I love telling stories from our trip, to anyone; I love answering questions from people who know nothing about touring or comparing detailed route plans with those who do. And I love listening to other people’s cycling stories, both the ones that cross over with my experiences and the ones that are totally alien to me. 

And those are two of the seemingly contradictory things we want from the stories we read, right?

~ We want to learn something new, escape into completely unfamiliar experiences.

~ We want to read about someone who reminds us of ourselves, who shares our interests and experiences and emotions.

~ And in the stories that really grab us, we get both. 

We’re hosting more cyclists in a few days, this time a retired couple from New Zealand that we met by chance in Virginia when we were still living in Maryland. I love how life works, and how it creates and connects so many new stories.