Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Overthinking Things on a Tuesday Morning

I know I said something about this on Twitter yesterday, but I found that the 140 character limit just wasn't giving me enough room to appropriately address this issue.

And the very serious, not at all ridiculous issue is this: disturbing food product commercials.

Watch this M&M commercial and see if you understand what I mean:

Okay, M&Ms people. The very nature of the giant computer generated candies is problematic, because no matter how you spin it, those Living Candies are things that we EAT. They are supposed to be mouth-watering, not sympathetic characters in an overarching narrative of M&Mdom. Do I really want to eat my old friend the Red Candy if I've been watching commercials with him in them since I was five? The Red Candy has attitude. He has personality. He is NO LONGER YUMMY.

So, putting the concept of the ad campaign aside, consider the above commercial. Orange Candy Guy is clearly being forced against his will to undergo some kind of brutal surgical procedure in which a Living Pretzel with an accent is inserted into his body to form a kind of pretzel skeleton. The cruel people of the M&M laboratory are doing this for the sake of candy sales, not considering the psychological damage this could do to Orange Candy Guy, and clearly not considering that it will cost Living Pretzel HIS LIFE. So basically, we have an eternally horrified Orange Candy Guy who lives with the guilt that he was the one to survive, because he was the one with the hard candy shell and chocolatey insides, whereas the Living Pretzel with an accent had the misfortune of being somewhat less delicious and therefore only suited to be a filling.

Every day for the rest of his short candy life, Orange Candy Guy is going to ask himself, why? Why couldn't they make a pretzel covered M&M instead of an M&M covered pretzel?

And seriously, how is this procedure working? Are they going to kill the pretzel before they stick him in the other guy's body, or are they going to let him suffocate to death in chocolate?

This is sounding more and more like an awful horror movie.

And by the way, this is not the first time that a food commercial has weirded me out. Because remember when Goldfish crackers didn't have smiley faces, and then Pepperidge Farm gave them smiley faces, and the commercial jingles went like this:

The wholesome snack that smiles back
...until you bite their heads off.

Yes, that's right. The goldfish crackers are all happy and welcoming, but LITTLE DO THEY KNOW that your sinister jaws will soon open and you will grind their cracker brains into bits with your giant, horrifying teeth.

I really don't understand making food likable in commercials.

In other news, Happy Mockingjay Day!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Character Priorities and Story Jet Propulsion

I have been thinking this morning about how stories begin. And I don't mean how they open, because that's a whole different discussion, one typically involving rules like "No 'waking up' openings!" and "No 'first day of school' openings!", rules that strike terror into the hearts of writers everywhere as they frantically revise their first five pages. No, I mean how they begin. Here, check out my chart:

This is an extremely basic map of a story. Generally speaking, most stories match up with this map. A character is living in his or her state of equilibrium-- Harry Potter is in the cabinet under the stairs, Frodo is living in the Shire, Elizabeth Bennett is chilling in the Bennett home, and so on. Then an inciting incident occurs that thrusts the character out of equilibrium-- Harry finds out he's a wizard, Frodo discovers the ring, Elizabeth lays the smackdown on Mr. Darcy-- and into The Story.

I'm really only concerned with the first part at the moment:

Right. So it occurred to me today that this chart/map/thing is misleading. Because it isn't really the incident that propels the story into motion, it's how the character responds to that incident that launches us into the story. I'm thinking that the story begins when a character responds to an incident in an unexpected way.

I say "unexpected" not because you're always surprised by the way that a character responds to The Incident, but because there are two kinds of fictional people: normal, average people, and the kind of people that we write about. (I say "fictional" because I'm not convinced that anyone is really normal or average in real life.) And normal, average people have a certain set of priorities. They go something like this:

1. Survival
2. Good health
3. Safety/Security ($$$, Family, Home, etc.)
4. Status (social, mostly)
5. Sensual stimulation (Look at the pretty colors!)
6. Mental stimulation
7. Altruism
8. Suspended action (or "rest")

(I'm going to credit Dennis Hensley with those, although I'm sure variations of that list are floating around everywhere.)

Want to get nerdy? Because that list of priorities loosely fits into Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a (debatable) psychological theory of human motivation. Yeah, that's right. We're getting FANCY on the blog today.

Basically, normal, average people want to survive more than they want mental stimulation (which is why you would choose food over television, given the choice) and they want safety more than rest (which is why you work for an income), et cetera. But the people that you write about aren't like that. When presented with an Inciting Incident, those people rearrange normal, average priorities. And that's how stories start.

Take The Hunger Games as an example. The story of The Hunger Games starts when Katniss decides to take her sister's place in the Games in order to save her. Basically, she places altruism (Priority #7) above survival (Priority #1). This leaves a tiny corner of my brain asking: what kind of person does that? And: how can she possibly survive this? And I am sucked in. Success!

Harry Potter places mental stimulation above security.
Frodo places altruism above security.
Achilles places status above health/survival.
Bella Swann sticks sensual stimulation above survival. (That's how I see it, anyway.)
Jonas (of The Giver) chooses mental stimulation over safety and status.
Hester Prynne places sensual stimulation above status

And the list goes on.

Thinking about this can be helpful, I think, when you're writing your own stories. I wasn't consciously thinking "what priorities should my character rearrange?" when I wrote DIVERGENT, but when I consider what made Beatrice so interesting to me, I realize that that's what it was. Beatrice has to decide whether to put mental stimulation above security, or to put altruism above mental stimulation. Sort of a complicated decision. And I had to write about it.

Sometimes we writers find it difficult to get the character out of equilibrium, or to figure out what happens after the inciting incident. And if you can ask yourself what your character's priorities are, and figure out what that suggests about how they will behave throughout the rest of the book, you can propel yourself right into the story.

Consider the squid. Squid are my favorite animal for one reason: they move by sucking water into their body cavities and squeezing it back out again. Jet propulsion. It's the coolest thing ever.

Rearranged character priorities are the water to your story's inner squid. If you give them a squeeze, your story will go shooting forward into...the ocean of...ideas. Okay, this comparison totally fell apart. I really just wanted to talk about squid. But you get what I'm saying.

Will Katniss continue to choose altruism over survival, or will her priorities change? And what does that say about her character? Will Harry Potter discover that he values safety a little more than he thought? (The answer to that is, of course: not really.) And what is UP with the girl who has the hots for the guy who wants to freaking murder her? All valid questions. Fascinating questions.

Do your characters re-order their priorities in a weird way? And how? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

RTW: What Book Ending Would You Rewrite?

What day is it, you ask? Why, that would be Road Trip Wednesday, the day that the fabulous chicks over at YA Highway pose a writing/book-related question and invite you to answer it. This week's topic is: If you could rewrite one book's ending, which would you rewrite and why or how?
Oh, it is so on. Because I have a bone to pick with Harry Potter.


A. Don't read this post unless you have read book 7, or don't care to have the ending spoiled.
B. Die-hard Harry Potter fans: don't hurt me. Please.

(Original is here.)

It may shock you to hear that this is not about the epilogue. You know, the epilogue? That wisp of cotton candy at the end of Deathly Hallows? Yeah, that's right, I said it. COTTON CANDY, as in painfully sweet and lacking in substance, as in made me roll my eyes at the end of a book series that I read with greedy eagerness since I was 12. Oh, the humanity.

No, this is not about that, although Emilia Plater has a great post about it, if you want to check it out.

Remember the months before HP7 came out? I do. The rumors about how the series would end were floating around like dust motes, and the most terrifying among them was: Harry Potter is going to die! And while many readers started to collect canned goods and dig bomb shelters in their back yards to prepare for The End of All Things, I inched to the edge of my chair and started to grin like an idiot.

This is not because I don't like Harry. It is because I have the utmost respect for JK Rowling, who ruthlessly killed characters throughout the series, including my favorite, Sirius Black. I admire any author who can and will kill characters if necessary-- potentially a lot of them, at very inconvenient times, all for the sake of a powerful story. And I trusted that if JK decided it was time for Harry to kick the proverbial bucket, it would be mind-numbingly awesome.

And then she didn't.

And okay, the ending, pre-epilogue, was pretty good anyway. I'm definitely not arguing that it sucked the way that it was. I suggest, however, that if Harry had gone into the forest to find Voldemort and discovered that the only way to defeat Voldemort was to sacrifice his life (because he's the horcrux, yes?), it would have been like a kick to the chest. By far the most powerful moment of the entire series. And beyond that, an incredible act of heroism.

Yes, I know that Harry went into the forest anticipating that he would probably die, and that means he's a hero anyway. But it doesn't have the same impact. As I was reading, I knew that he probably wouldn't die because there were like fifty pages left after he goes into the forest, so I never actually feared for his life. I suspect that happened to a lot of other people, too. You think, she can't possibly kill him. The masses would be outraged. There would be riots in the streets of London. She wouldn't do that to us.
But: what if she did? What if, after everyone had convinced themselves that Harry would live happily ever after, he freaking died? The cheerily sadistic writer heart inside my normal heart would have grown three sizes that day.

Of course, I have to admit that as a normal reader, with no inner writer calling for complete destruction, I would have been really upset.

But I would have gotten over it.

So there you have it. My preferred ending to HP7. And that also fixes the epilogue problem. In fact, the epilogue could have included older Hermione and older Ron talking to their kids about their best friend, The Boy Who Lived. Beautiful. Poignant. Sad. So NOT cotton candy.


What book ending would you rewrite, friends?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Things I Learned From SCBWI That Have Nothing To Do With Writing

...and everything to do with conferences in general.

1. Layers. Because even though SCBWI was in LA, it was not warm-- not even outside, most of the time. What is UP with that, LA?! Anyway, the rooms are cold. I spent the entire week freezing my buns off. One day I took a second shower just to warm up. (Yes, I know, that's a waste of water. I'm very sorry, Mother Nature. I was delirious from the cold.) But at the same time, some of the rooms got really hot, so I recommend warm-weather clothes worn under removable cold-weather clothes-- or else you removing your sweater will be awkward for the people around you.

2. Tea. I'm a tea snob, so I say, bring your own. Because most conferences have only coffee. SCBWI had tea bags, but they disappeared after 9AM. So if you're like me, and you drink 2 cups a day to prevent fatigue, pack a few and heat up water in the coffee maker.

3. Business cards. Bring them. I didn't have any, because I was like, what do I write on a business card? Veronica Roth: Writer, Just Like Everyone Else Here? Well, that wasn't a good move on my part. The card should just say your name, your blog address/web address, and your e-mail address. Nothing fancy is required, but it helps to keep in touch with the friends you make if they have your contact information on hand. Smoke signals are not effective over long distances.

4. Exchange phone numbers with friends beforehand. You might feel weird about it because you haven't met your Twitter/blog/facebook/message board friends in person yet, but it's handy. They probably aren't going to check Twitter while in the hotel lobby. Probably.

5. Get over that whole "but I don't want to be a creepy stalker!" thing. It may shock you to discover that I'm kind of reserved, and I have a hard time introducing myself to people, especially people like, say, Jay Asher. In fact, Kate Hart (who signed with Michelle Andelman, did you hear? CONGRATS KATE AND MICHELLE!) had to peek at his name tag, say, "Hey V! This is him!", and then drag me over to talk to him. Actually, I think Debra Driza might have done the actual dragging. But I'm so grateful. Because he was really cool, and my momentary feelings of awkwardness were worth pushing past. Anyway, the moral of the story is that there were great authors at SCBWI, and I don't think most of them mind if you want to say hi, introduce yourself, and tell them that you like their work, no matter how weird you may feel about it.

6. On a related note: talk to strangers. The good thing is, you have something in common with everyone at the conference: books. And while some people come with a group of buddies all lined up, a lot of people don't, and they will be happy you talked to them. Even people who come with friends aren't resistant to making new ones, most of the time.

7. Skip some sessions. If some seminars don't interest you, leave. Hang out with other writers who are skipping. Sometimes you learn more that way, and even if you don't, your brain probably needs a break, or writing advice will start oozing from your nostrils.

7. Bring a camera. I didn't take any pictures, and I'm sad.

8. Split a hotel room. It's much more cost effective. And roommates are fun.

Does anyone else have any conference survival tips?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Strive Always for Normalness!: My Advice for Super New, Unagented Writers

First of all: this post isn't really for people who have been querying for awhile and have done their research and all that. This is for newbies.

Let us all freely acknowledge that I am no expert, and that in many ways I am not qualified to dispense advice about querying or agents or any of these things. I was not a seasoned query veteran when I got an agent. But I did make a lot of mistakes you don't have to make, and I did do a lot of things well by accident that you can do on purpose, and because I've been getting some "do you have any trying-to-get-published-advice?" e-mails lately, I thought it might be time to write this post.

Okay. So you finished your manuscript. What now?

1. RESEARCH. You must know the answers to the following questions before you do anything with that manuscript:

A. How does the publishing process work?

B. Do I submit my manuscript directly to publishers? (This is, hands down, the number one question I got asked by laymen after the book deal happened: "Did you just send the manuscript to publishers?" I know they don't know any better, because they aren't writers and they don't know how it works, but I get so unnecessarily frustrated when people ask me that.

I think it's because the question makes it sound so easy, like I just printed out my fabulous manuscript and sent it in a fabulous envelope and editors just read it at their leisure in fabulous leather lounge chairs-- which, by the way, completely neglects that middle step in which my agent did crazy work to get my manuscript ready for submission and then pinpointed exactly who it should go to and crafted this pitch and then pitched it to them and then negotiated all of this madness. Seriously, let us give credit where credit is due.)

B. What do literary agents do?
C. Do I need a literary agent? (My answer: "Um...definitely.")
D. How do I get a literary agent?
E. What is a query letter?
F. How do I write a query letter?

...among other questions, which will probably come up as you go. And rather than hunt down some knowledgeable person and demand that they tell you all they know, you can use this newfangled "google" website all the young people talk so much about these days. Or you can do yourself a favor and go to Nathan Bransford's blog, to the left sidebar, and read ALL OF his "before you query" posts. Seriously: all of them. Actually, even if you've been querying for awhile and are no longer a n00b, and you still haven't read those posts, I recommend it. They're very helpful.

2. RESEARCH SOME MORE. Because now that you know How This Works, you need to know How to Query Without Embarrassing the Crap Out Of Yourself. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Elana Johnson's blog, which has several posts about query letter writing. She also has some posts up at the QueryTracker blog, in the "Querying" section. Thanks, Elana, for keeping me from looking like an idiot without even knowing that you were doing it. Monsieur Bransford also has a post about it, but you know that already, right? Because you took my advice and read all of the posts on his sidebar, right?

I have my own advice, though, and it goes like this. When in doubt, be a normal human being.

You would think this would go without saying, but it doesn't. I don't know what it is about querying that turns us from rational people into awkward crazies, but it does, so everything you do while querying, measure it against what you would do in real life. Some examples.

A. Don't brag about your book in the query letter. You know how, in real life, you don't go up to people and introduce yourself and then start talking about how awesome you are? You don't do that because you know that it would make people hate you immediately, right? Yeah. EXACTLY.

B. Don't insult your book in the query letter. This is just common sense. If you want someone to like your book, don't give them a reason to hate it.

C. Make sure you know who you're sending it to and what they want. Do you send other e-mails without making sure that the e-mail is addressed to the right person and that the contents of the e-mail actually apply to its recipient? No, of course not. And this is no different. So find out what each agent is looking for, follow their query guidelines, and for heaven's sake, use the right name in the e-mail. Repeat after me: agents are humans. They have wants and preferences. Respect those humans by finding out those wants and preferences and honoring them.

D. Be patient. Know that the publishing industry moves at the pace of jelly on a slightly-inclined surface. Start to think in terms of months instead of days.

Basically, no matter what you're wondering about, ask yourself this: "If I were having a professional conversation with someone in person, how would I handle this situation?" You would be respectful and as concise as possible. And you would not pester them.

3. GET BETA READERS. This can be tricky, because you might not know if the person ripping your manuscript to shreds knows anything about writing, in which case you might not want to take their advice. I was lucky enough to get some good beta readers on my first manuscript, but I also got some bad ones-- it's just part of the deal. Oh, and I found most of them at the Absolute Write forums, in case you were wondering. Some additional advice about betas:

A. Get more than one. Actually, get at least 3. One opinion is completely subjective. But if 3 people agree that something in your manuscript sucks, they might have a point.

B. Ask them to be brutal. Dangerous, I know. But while some people will hear "be brutal" and give a sadistic cackle and start writing terrible, offensive things on your manuscript (no, I am not kidding), others will feel like they can actually be honest with you, and that's what you want. You can always throw nasty feedback away. But honest and wise feedback, while it may still hurt, is invaluable, and worth the risk.
4. GO TO A WRITER'S CONFERENCE. Okay, so this isn't absolutely necessary. But if you can afford it, or if your school will pay for it (find out if they do that, by the way. Because my school did, but I had to ask about it), I definitely recommend it. You can learn a lot there, especially if you're just starting out. You can also meet fellow writers there, and maybe even some beta readers. And you can often pitch to an agent in person instead of through a query letter, which is a good experience, whether you're freaked out about it or not.

My agent-specific conference advice is, again: be normal. Go ahead and sign up for a pitch session, but restrict your pitch to that session and that session alone. Consider not approaching that agent with Greedy Pitching Eyes at any other point in the conference. Maybe even consider introducing yourself to them and then just talking to them, not about your work. At all. Because if you signed up for a pitch session, talking about your work will be completely non-annoying then. But the bathroom pitch? Or the "standing in line for lunch" pitch? ANNOYING.

Think about it this way. When you approach someone with the sole objective of getting whatever you can from them, you are treating them like crap. I don't know if we always think about it that way, but we should. Agents are people, and you should treat people well, in life as in the publishing world.

5. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY ON THE INTERNET. Don't insult anyone. Don't publicly keep track of your rejections. Don't present yourself like a bratty little jerk. Don't whine and complain. People can see it. And they won't want to work with you if they think you're a butthead.

6. BE LIKE A SPONGE: ABSORB. This applies especially to criticism. I have this friend who just finished her first manuscript and started querying. She got a rejection on her manuscript with some very detailed feedback, and rather than get pouty about it, she got excited and inspired and revised the crap out of it. I'm so impressed with her, because I don't always react that way to criticism, but I should. Feedback should excite us and spur us on.

If I had some kind of motto for unagented writers, it would be this: work hard. There is no shortcut, no easy solution, no escape. Research is work, query writing is work, querying is work, revising is work, beta reading is work. If you want to get published, writing is no longer your hobby. It has become your job, whether you get paid for it or not. You don't go into any other job thinking "this will be easy! I won't have to do anything!" (okay, maybe you do, depending on what you're doing, but that's beside the point). Sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's boring and a lot of it makes you want to tear your hair out, but it's completely worth it. When you finally get The Call from an agent, when you finally sign your publishing contract, when you finally get your ISBN number, you will be happy you did all that work.

Trust me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Rereading Mission, Round 1: THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

A few weeks ago I decided it would be cool if I reread some important books from my childhood and blogged about the experience. And then I invited you to do it, too! No worries: if you couldn't participate this month, I'll be doing it next month on September 13th. And if you did participate, leave a link in the comments, or email it to me, and I'll add the link to this post.

(Also: all images in this post link back to their original source if you click them.)

(And: this post contains spoilers about THE GIVER.)

Summary (from the back of the book): Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the Community.

When Jonas turns twelve he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now it's time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.

I first read this book in fifth grade, during our "what is a utopia?" unit. The assignment associated with it was to create our own utopias; to figure out how we would form the world if we intended to form it perfectly. The consequence of that assignment, for me, was to realize that I could not form a perfect world on paper, no matter how hard I tried.

So eleven years later, I decided to form an imperfect one on paper.

I don't think I need to dwell on the lasting impact this book has had on my writing life. Suffice it to say that THE GIVER was my first taste of what was possible for me as a writer: I could write about a disturbing world that did not yet exist. So: THE GIVER is important to me.

I found this book disturbing the first time I read it, for obvious reasons. Basically: the whole "let's euthanize old people and twins, but lie to everyone and say we're just sending them outside the community!" thing. But more than that is the chipper attitude with which the people who do the euthanizing talk about it. Jonas's dad is like "cootchie cootchie coo, if you don't learn how to sleep through the night, we are so going to murder you, yes we are, snookums!" to the baby they temporarily adopt into their family. This bothered me as a ten year old, and it disgusted me now.

Yes, that about summarizes my rereading experience. I comprehended, at the age of ten, a lot that this book was saying. But I did not understand its full weight until now.

I have a scene that will illustrate this. I didn't even really register this scene when I was young, I think because I was so desperate to finish the book that I breezed through a lot of it. But I actually teared up in LAX at gate G29 (or wherever I was) as I was reading it this time. Here, have a look:

He made himself say the words, though he felt flushed with embarrassment. He had rehearsed them in his mind all the way home from the Annex.

“Do you love me?”

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”

“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.

“Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.

Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory.

“And of course our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, ‘Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’” his mother said.

“Or,” his father suggested, “‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.’”

“Do you understand why it’s inappropriate to use a word like ‘love’?” Mother asked.

Jonas nodded. “Yes, thank you, I do,” he replied slowly.

It was his first lie to his parents.

(Lois Lowry, The Giver, page 127)

As a child, I thought: Why can't they understand what he means? But surely they love him, they just don't get it.

As an adult, I thought: these people have been so warped by the society that surrounds them that they can no longer experience love. Even the mild impressions of love they are able to convey are entirely egocentric, based on what their son does for them rather than who he is.

Yeah, it's much more upsetting now.

This has led me to several conclusions. The first is that what I appreciate in this book now, I have always appreciated, but it was on some undeveloped, almost visceral level, the only level at which I could experience it as a child. And I am so glad that I had people in my life who let me read things that bothered and disturbed me, because at that age, I was still figuring out who I was, and it was only by reading about things that I knew were wrong that I was able to isolate what I thought was right.

The second is that really now, really really, anyone who says that books for young readers are not worth reading because they lack nuances or don't require as much deep thought in order to comprehend them or whatever, can just kiss my pale butt. Also, they aren't reading the right books. I had to grow up and "become an adult" (whatever that means) to appreciate how heart-rending this book is.

I mean: it isn't perfect. Another thing I realized while rereading was that it was flawed, something I didn't pick up on when I was younger. And that is deeply encouraging. Even this book, which stuck with me for over a decade, which was so memorable that I continually felt compelled to read it again, which helped me develop as a writer, is not perfect; therefore my work doesn't have to be perfect in order to be powerful. And let's hope it is that, even if it never compares to THE GIVER.

THE GIVER, I can't forget you. You remind me of colby jack and cracker sandwiches in the dilapidated mobile classrooms behind Grove Avenue Elementary School. And Ms. Gill, who put up with my incredibly moody and generally looney tunes childhood self for two years. TWO. And somehow managed not to throw heavy objects at my head. You made me realize that sometimes life is painful, but having pain is better than having nothing at all. You made me realize that life is valuable even if it's imperfect, and that people should never be discarded. And I still need to learn those lessons. I need to learn them over and over again.

Other Rereaders:
(Aka: people currently made of awesome.)

Sarah Enni-- A Wrinkle In Time
Michelle Hodkin-- 99 Fear Street: The House of Evil-- The First Horror

Aunt Feather-- The Hundred Dresses

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Wonderful Thing About Outlining (And Tiggers)

First: my first "rereading childhood books" post on The Giver goes up on Friday. If you are also planning to put up a "rereading childhood books" post, please either put the link in my post's comments, or email it to me at veronicarothbooks@gmail.com, so I can add your link to the original post. (And so I can read about your rereading experience.)

some of my thoughts about voice are up on the GotYA blog today, if you want to check it out.

Third: the
Road Trip Wednesday topic at YAHighway is awesome this week. I tried to participate, but in the process I discovered that I can't do it without
seriously spoiling DIVERGENT for everyone (which should tell you just how good this topic is.)

In other news, I'm hard at work on DIVERGENT's sequel, which I will hereby refer to as D2. It has an actual title, but I'd rather not use it until it's final, on the off chance that it changes.

And I have discovered the wonderful thing about outlining. (Not to be confused with the wonderful thing about Tiggers, which is that Tiggers are wonderful things.)

I don't know if you know this about me already, so I'll tell you: I don't like to outline. And when I say I don't like it, I mean that the thought of doing it fills me with terror. Not frustration. Not annoyance. TERROR. Why? Because up until recently, I thought of outlining as the enemy of my creative process. Once I decide that the plot of a book is going to go a certain way, I have serious trouble getting that idea out of my mind. I have to practically dig it out of my brain with a scalpel in order to think of any other options.

But if you want a trilogy, or even a sequel, you have to learn to outline. Because your publisher isn't going to say, "oh, you don't have an outline for the next two books? Well, that's all right. We trust you to make them good, debut author who we have no prior experience with." That would be extremely foolish of them. So: I'm sorry, fellow pantsers, but we are all out of luck.

I outlined D2, and freaked out for awhile, and then got scared, and now I've finally found my inner writing badass again, and I'm writing. (That post I did last week actually worked, people! How cool is that?)

The wonderful thing about outlining is this: I can write anything. At any time. No more forcing myself to write the next scene in the narrative sequence even though I really don't feel like it. (Yes, I know that some of you were never prisoners to chronological order. Shush.) Yesterday I wrote a scene from the middle of the book. The day before that I wrote a scene from the end, and then wrote a scene from the beginning.

Yes, that's right: now I just wake up and think, what kind of scene do I feel like writing today? And then I consult my outline and find a scene that corresponds to my mood.

It's freaking awesome.

So this week's motto is: embrace the outline. The outline is your friend.

And this week's D2 song is...

Also, look!

My very own copy of The Contract! Signed!
This, my friends, is a look of "OMG."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Evil As Chaos. Evil As Order.

I propose this. Generally speaking, fictional antagonists represent one of two opposite, but equally menacing, forms of evil: chaos and order.

What the heck do I mean, you ask? Well I'll tell you.

Evil As Chaos: The Joker

Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just... do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. ...

...Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!

--The Joker, The Dark Knight

I find The Joker fascinating, because he has no clear motivation. I mean: he's a maniac. I guess he doesn't have to make sense. But he seems to me to be a representation of the most troubling kind of evil, and one that we would like to think doesn't exist in the real world. We are always trying to find reasons for the evil people do, even if those reasons are flimsy at best. When people do horrifying things, we have to investigate and probe until we find a reason for it. We blame mental instability and bad parenting and social problems. Sometimes we even blame Marilyn Manson. Makes perfect sense, right?

I find that tendency frustrating. Don't get me wrong: I fully acknowledge that a pair of terrible parents, or the lack of a pair of even terrible parents, and/or abnormal brain chemistry, and/or cruel adolescents, are real and important factors in the commission of evil acts. But they are not complete explanations, as much as we would like them to be. Because there are thousands upon thousands of good (or even neutral) people out there with mental conditions and/or horrifyingly bad parents and/or terrible high school environments. The existence of contributing factors is not an explanation.

Characters like The Joker say, to me: maybe there is no explanation. Not an observable and satisfying one, anyway. And maybe trying to explain evil away is not a good thing. Neat and tidy explanations don't heal us. They may actually prevent us from acknowledging the depth to which we have been wronged-- they may actually make it harder for us to recover.

The Joker says: I don't do bad things because I want money. I don't do bad things for my own personal gain. I do bad things because I want to do bad things. I set things on fire just to watch them burn.

I love villains like this because I can feel my brain fighting and struggling for explanations even now, as I hypothesize that there are none. We want so badly for evil to make sense. And characters who do evil for no good reason press against that desire in our minds, ask us to reconsider our faith in rationality, force us to think deeply about how evil works. And I love when fiction makes us work that hard.

Evil As Order: The Machines

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.

--Agent Smith, The Matrix

(How creepy is that speech?!)

If you haven't seen The Matrix, allow me to summarize. Man discovers that the world he thinks is real is actually a computer-simulated environment. Reality is actually a place where machines use human beings as batteries. He wakes up from the computer-simulated environment. Chaos ensues. (A gross oversimplification, yes. But it's the gist.)

Any evil machine character is going to be an example of evil as order because...let's face it, they're machines. They operate based on a set of well-defined rules. They are incapable of breaking those rules because they don't have what we would call a sense of free will. Therefore any evil they commit must be perfectly logical.

The thought process of the machines in The Matrix goes a little like this, I would imagine:

A. We need an energy source to continue functioning.
B. Solar power is out. The humans messed up the sky.
C. Hey, humans produce energy, much like the sun.
D. Therefore we will use humans as our energy source.
E. Humans are pesky. How can we stop them from being pesky?
F. They aren't pesky if they aren't conscious.
G. True. But unfortunately, it's not easy to keep them not-conscious. As I said: pesky.
H. Let's trick them into believing they're conscious, while actually keeping them unconscious and imprisoned.

Makes perfect sense. But what happens when the antagonist is not a machine?

Villains get really freaking creepy, that's what. The thing about machines is that we don't expect them to have a conscience or a code of ethics. They operate for their own benefit, and that's all. But when humans can completely disregard all moral and ethical concerns, and exhibit a complete lack of sympathy and empathy, that's scary.

For me, it's scary because I don't think it's at all outside the realm of the possible. If chaotic evil challenges our belief in the power of rational thought, orderly evil confirms it-- and asks us why we think rational thought is such a good thing. I think humans can rationalize pretty much anything, depending on how firm their moral foundation is.

If evil-as-chaos strikes us as subhuman, evil-as-order is somehow inhuman. It is systematic and supremely rational and devoid of compassion.

It bothers me when evil doesn't make sense. But it disturbs me when it does. I think that's why I tend to stick with evil as order in my writing-- it's more compelling to me. I'd say that all but one of the antagonists in Divergent are calculating rather than maniacal.

This strikes me as a little funny, considering how organized my desk is.

This begs the question: what's your favorite flavor...of evil? (In fiction, of course.)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Rereading Mission and The First Lesson from SCBWI

This post is a two-parter. The first part is: I'm on a mission. And that mission is: to reread books from my childhood, and then blog about them.

I formulated this plan in LAX, while at one of the airport bookstores. Side note about bookstores. I always feel kind of silly walking into the young adult section of bookstores. I'll sort of wander around sci-fi/fantasy, and then glance to see if anyone's looking, and then dart over to the YA section really fast. I have this weird paranoia about someone who isn't familiar with YA assuming that it's only for younger people, coming up to me, and saying something like, "shouldn't you be reading at a higher level?" At which point I would flick them in the jaw. But I would rather not have to do that. I try to use my flicking powers only for good.

(Maybe that is using them for good?)

Anyway. I would love for anyone and everyone to join me on this mission. I am going to blog about The Giver on Friday, August 13th (Friday the 13th! Ominous), and if you choose to blog about a "childhood book" on that day, please post the link in the comments or tweet it at me and I will link my post to it, and we can form a giant chain of blog posts. Read any book you want, as long as you first read it when you were a kid (or a teenager, if you are a Person With More Age, and your teenage years feel far off to you) and post anything you want about the experience. If you can't do it this month, I'm pretty sure I'll do this again in another two weeks, with A Wrinkle In Time.

The first lesson I learned from SCBWI is more an interesting thing to think about than anything else. And I learned it from Marion Dane Bauer's keynote speech, "The Shape of Our Stories."

Marion said that while she was in an interview, once, the interviewer asked her a series of particularly good questions that led her to this simple realization: she's written the same book, over and over and over again. The trappings would be different-- different characters, different settings, different plots, even-- but the core of the story that lived under all those layers was the same; that basically, no matter what she wrote, she was always writing about abandonment. And when she tried to push away from that topic, she found herself stuck in the story, wondering why it wasn't working.

I realized as I was sitting there that my stories are always about transformation. More specifically, a decision that leads to transformation. For some reason, the idea of a character taking responsibility for his or her own life and doing something else with it just never leaves me.

Basically: Marion isn't alone. I think we all write about the same things, over and over, because we all acknowledge that our writing isn't just for readers, it's for us. There are things I am trying to tease out, to understand better, and because I find them confusing and compelling, I write about them, over and over, in an attempt to get somewhere. That doesn't mean that our stories are just replications of each other. It means that no matter what you write, you are the same person, and parts of you are going to make it into your work. Sometimes, the same parts. I don't think that's a bad thing.

The practical application of this is that the next time I get stuck in a story and I don't know where it's going, I can look at whether I am allowing myself to write about what I really want to write about, or whether I am forcing myself to write about something else.

The theory that I'm going to test with this rereading old books thing is: do the stories that stick with me for long periods of time also deal with the same things I am currently writing about?

And: what is it I'm trying to figure out, exactly?

This should be fun.

Anyway, think about what your works have in common. It's fun. And let me know what you come up with. (If you want.)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dear Veronica. Freaking Jump Already. Sincerely, Veronica.

I do actually intend to write a series of blog posts about SCBWI, but today is not the day, because I've got something else on my mind.

I haven't really written in about three weeks. And it doesn't feel good.

So for the past week and a half I've been wondering what the heck is wrong with me. Am I ill? Am I depressed? Do I no longer like to write? THE HORROR.

I keep telling myself the answers to these questions:

A. No. I feel fine.
B. No. I feel fine.
C. I've been writing since sixth grade. If I haven't hated it before now, it's probably not going to happen.

After a week and a half of fretting, I think I have finally isolated the cause of my writer's block, and it's unsurprising, given my personality: fear.

I'm not going to lie to you and say that it's exactly the same now, writing under a book contract. When you have The Contract, writing becomes your job (even if it's a part-time job), because someone is compensating you for it. And not only that, but in The Trilogy Zone, you know that there are people relying on you to make the new book at least as good as the last book. And you are fully aware that several important people are going to read one of your initial drafts. All of this floats around in your mind when you write, because it's awesome, and because it's real, but the unfortunate side effect of this incredible blessing is that it's not the same, because it's not just me and my computer and my desk chair anymore.

But the lesson I am trying to teach myself is: it must become the same.

Like so many of the lessons I try to teach myself, this one is about courage.

Before, I was writing alone, and I felt secure not because I was brave but because no one had a vested interest in how my work turned out, no one but me. This time, people do, and every time I sit down to write I put this pressure on myself for it to be good. I really don't want to let those people down.

I am not, despite how I may seem, insecure about my writing. When I sit down at the keyboard and I shut out everyone else, I know exactly what I'm doing. I don't mean that in an arrogant way-- I don't think I'm perfect or brilliant or that I've learned everything I need to know. I mean that in this space, and at this desk, I am fully convinced of my ability to do good work. This is what I am supposed to do.

But this time, when I sit down, it's hard for me to shut out everyone else, so I have a problem. I have to create space for myself to mess up. Badly. I don't think I realized how scary it is to launch yourself into a draft without knowing where it's going or if anything will work the way you want it to, not because I haven't done it, but because I've never thought about it before. It's like when you're young and you'll just launch yourself off the swings without worrying about how you'll land, and then you grow up and you know about physics and broken bones and fragments of glass potentially waiting in the dirt, and you won't jump anymore. I know a lot more about what screws up a draft now, and that makes it hard for me to jump.

But you can't be afraid when you write. You have to take ownership of your talent and shut out the world's opinions and do the work you love because you love it, and for no other reason. You have to fire your internal editor, who is telling you that every move you make is a mistake. You have to realize that you are the only one who knows your characters so completely that you understand all the inner workings of their stories. But most of all, you just have to get over it and freaking jump already.

Be brave. That's my plan. It's not very sophisticated, but there it is.

(Psst. Myra McEntire also has a post about this today. And it's awesome.)


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