Archive for May, 2012

It’s Oddly Comfortable to Have a Turtle on Your Head

Just to be absolutely clear, we are not talking about ceiling turtles. Ceiling turtles are vicious and will eat your ears. We’re talking your average, run-of-the-mill, preferably stuffed turtle.

Stuffed as in plush. Not in a turtle-that-was-once-alive-but-now-is-not sort of way.

We all know that writers aren’t the most stable crayons in the box. We all have weird quirks. One of mine is named Matthias. He’s a stuffed turtle that I’ve had since about the age of 16 or so. Most of the time he sits on top of my editing books and stares at me with his beady, little eyes, asking why I haven’t rewritten that chapter from that other character’s POV by now. But sometimes when I’m stuck, it doesn’t hurt to reach over and put him on my head.

Say, when I’m a bit short on blog post ideas.

He’s actually very comfortable. He’s just heavy enough to exert a calming force across the whole of the top of my head. And I have heard from associates with their own stuffed turtle that the effect seems universal, as long as your turtle is of a general size and is somewhat floppy in its limbs.

I’m not guaranteeing that placing a turtle on your head will solve all your problems, but it probably will be somewhat calming and may help spark something.

Or you may just look like a crazy person with a turtle on your head. Jury’s out.

Photo courtesy of the infamous Ian Dudley


Naming Your Characters Names You Wouldn’t Name Your Children

Is there such a thing as too many barbeques? I think there must be. I am barbequed out.

Character naming is an interesting part of story creation. I know a lot of people who can’t write until they find the right name for a character, or the character’s name leads directly to their personality, and changing the name changes the character, often with disastrous (or, sometimes, fantastic, if your story was stuck) consequences.

With names being so important, it’s somewhat interesting to compare naming characters with naming children. Characters, even those we like, often get stuck with a name we’d never burden a child with. As a random example, I have a character named Raphael, but I’d never name a child that. It’s pretty much one of those “guaranteed to get you beat up on the playground” names. (Though, admittedly, with some of the boy names that are popular at the moment, it may not even rate on a bully’s radar.)

Kit, I can hear you saying, isn’t this kind of obvious? You do lots of other terrible things to your characters, so why not give them a bad name while you’re at it? It’s not worse than giving his girlfriend cancer and having him discover he has a ten-year old son he’s never heard of who has been kidnapped by an evil dragon who is threatening to eat him if he doesn’t destroy the heart of magic.

(Hm, I think I got my genres confused.)

While that is true, I would almost argue that you can get away with naming a character something you wouldn’t name a child BECAUSE they’re going to face worse things. Sure, you may be writing contemporary YA or MG where a character’s name is a plot point, but for the most part, a character’s name isn’t going to affect their world.

With a child, you have to worry about things like bullying and whether or not your child will be frustrated because none of their teachers ever pronounce their names right. With a character, it’s not going to matter much if he’s named Zebadiah when zombies are trying to eat his head.

(Of course, there are other circumstances too – if you’re writing historical, fantasy, or a certain culture, you’re probably not going to use character names that you would use for a child anyway, unless you are a time-traveler from the 1800s, a dimension-crossing elf, or Japanese.)

Do you have any character names that you would never, in a million years, give a child? What are your character-naming conventions?

Submission is Scary, but Everything Will Be Okay

Going along with writing fears and insecurity, we have submission. Oh, submission. Perhaps the scariest and most disheartening of all steps of the writing process. You’ve written a story, you’ve edited and polished, and finally you’re ready to let it loose into the world to find its way.

Well. Some of us never get there.

You see, submission is scary because of two reasons. 1) You may get rejected. 2) You may get accepted.

Writing has a strange dichotomy to it. On one hand, we tend to be highly critical of our own works, but on some level we also feel like we’re brilliant. So rejection hurts the latter – sometimes, especially if you have something you’re sending out and sending out and not getting any bites on, you begin to wonder if you’re not so brilliant as you thought, and oh, maybe you suck and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you all these years.

And it does hurt, to send out something you’ve spent a good amount of blood, sweat, and tears on just to get a collection of form rejections.

But I’ve found writers fear success almost as much. When we’re not secretly thinking we’re brilliant, we tend to think that we’re hacks and any and all successes up to this point have been some sort of fluke. And we tend to worry that someday someone is going to figure out that we’re hacks and call us out on it. And every time something is published, it just affords more people to see it and possibly be that one person who realizes that we’re a giant fraud.

So writers sit on stories, revising and revising way past having good reason to revise, or even just stuffing stories in drawers to rot, because they’re afraid to send them out.

Friends. I know it’s stressful. But I’m here to tell you to let them go. Send them out. As long as you’ve edited and done your research so you’re sending things to appropriate markets, no one’s going to laugh at you. Send them out. Everything will be okay. If nothing else, it’s good practice. It will teach you things about your writing. It will teach you things about yourself.

And if this is a career you want – it’s something you’re going to have to do.


Doing a Story Justice

On a somewhat related note to Monday, here’s another author fear that I sometimes worry about myself – doing a story justice.

You know how it goes: somehow, a story worms its way into your head, as stories are wont to do. It’s brilliant. It’s amazing. If done correctly, maybe it’s your chance to finally get a story into that literary journal you’ve always dreamed of seeing your name in, or maybe that Top 25 market that’s always been just a tiny bit out of reach will finally say yes.

All you have to do is sit down and write it, and maybe your dreams will come true.

And that’s where the doubt strikes. Sure, some tiny, obnoxious part of your brain says, if done correctly, this story could be extraordinary. But all it’s got is you, and what have you done lately that can prove you’ve got the chops to pull this off?

So you sit there, and you say, well, perhaps my brain is right. Maybe I’m not ready for this story yet. Maybe I should hold off until I have a few more publications under my belt. Maybe I should hold off until I’m sure I can do this.

Except you know what happens to stories that you wait on. They wither and they die. Right now, that story is clear in your mind. You can see scenes and characters and dialogue. Even if you write a detailed outline, when – if ever – you go back to that story, it’s going to be different. You’re going to have lost something, something that drove you to want to write it, and you’re going to be hard-pressed to remember what it was.

So I say, why not write it now? Part of writing is the journey, the growth you experience with each story. Sure, maybe you won’t do this particular story justice. But you won’t know if you don’t try.

And you may be pleasantly surprised with what you come up with.

Take Charge of Your Writing

You know why most of us write, right? (ahahaha) Because we have a story we want to tell. We may or may not care if anyone else reads it, but we want to see what happens, how the characters change, and we want to experience new things.

So we write the story, and then we may or may not enter the editing phase. And here’s where things get a bit weird. Some people, when they get to this stage just…give up. They figure they did their best the first time around, and now they need someone more experienced to help them.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Getting feedback is a good thing. It helps you tighten the story, fix plot holes, expand character arcs, up the stakes, and, on a more nitpicky note, points out everywhere you need commas where they have mysteriously wandered off. Feedback is good.

What is bad is what I occasionally see in my editing career. I will occasionally get authors that give me their novel and say, “Kit, you are better at this than I am, so I want you to rewrite my story for me.”

No. This is bad. If you want to be an author, if you want a career writing books, then you need to learn. And the best way to learn is by figuring out where you went wrong. If I am better than you at it, it’s because I have a ridiculous amount of practice.

But I also have my own way that I like to write stories, my own voice, and the last thing I want to do is write your story for you. I have my own stories. I will help you whatever way you want to help you get your story done, but it is your story. (And, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, the random editor you hire? Probably doesn’t particularly care about your story. I work in my non-favorite genres all the time for clients. They’re not going to do your story justice because it doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to you.)

There is no easy way to do this. You’re only cheating yourself if you give your story away. You may get an end product you’re happy with, something that may or may not be better than what you could have done on your own, but you’re cheating yourself, denying yourself the opportunity to grow. And there is the very real possibility that you will get your story back and find that you hate it, that the editor has managed to kill everything that made your story special to you, or you hate their writing style, or whatever.

It’s your story. See it through to the end.

A Treatise on Ghost Hunting Programs

So, if you guys have been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I love a good ghost story. So it should come to no surprise that I watch the occasional ghost hunting show on television.

And I really like them, but at the same time, they seem ridiculously silly to me.

Here is a list of things that are ridiculous:

1) At night, in the dark.
Every ghost-hunting show I have ever seen does this. And I don’t know why. If you listen to the claims, most of the time activity happens during the day, or with the lights on, or whenever. I mean, aside from apparitions watching people sleep, nothing seems terribly time or dark dependent. If anything, if you believe that entities need energy to manifest, it seems like turning off the lights just makes it harder for everyone involved. Plus so many of these haunted places have claims of shadow people, and tell me that the dark doesn’t make EVERYTHING look like a shadow person.

2) “Did you hear that?”
Ghost hunters rely on EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) as a mainstay ghost-hunting tool. They will cart tape recorders (or, I guess, digital recorders these days) everywhere and ask questions, trying to find voices that can’t be heard normally. Yet, every time there’s the slightest creak, everyone stops what they’re doing and says something like “OMG what was that? Did you hear that?” I would think, if you’re trying to listen for disembodied voices and you think you heard something that might possibly have paranormal origins, the last thing you would want to do would be to ask stupid questions. Also, they do this ALL THE TIME.

Actually, a good description of ghost hunting shows probably would be “a bunch of people wandering around in the dark saying ‘What was that?’ every few minutes.”

Related – doing this while outside. For example, Ghost Hunters International did at least three jungle investigations this last season. When they’d do the “What was that?” thing, I would yell at the TV, “IT’S A FREAKING ANIMAL. YOU’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF A JUNGLE.” And one time they were hearing growls, and I would have been out of there so fast, but GHI? No. They will risk being eaten by panthers in the name of paranormal science.

3) Every place is haunted.
This is getting worse as time goes on. At first, half or so of the investigations would turn up nothing. It wasn’t great television, but it did lead some credence to the whole thing. Ghost Hunters is a good example of this. Nowadays, even if they don’t catch anything truly paranormal, they’ll rely on phantom footsteps and strange feelings to keep things interesting. (Or, if you’re less cynical than I am, you could claim that as they’ve gotten more famous they tend to stick to more definitively haunted places. Whatever floats your boat.)

4) The spirits mean you no harm.
This is a new one on the list, because I’ve just noticed it. The owners of whatever will be terrified and want to know if they need to worry about their family/staff/visitors being harmed by said entity. Most of the time, the ghost hunting team will find nothing. But I’ve seen some episodes where the team is scratched, or has rocks thrown at them, or something else that I would classify as “not cool,” and then when they go back to the owners, they tell them that everything is fine and no one will get hurt. Their definition of “hurt” is apparently not the same as my definition of hurt.

Don’t get me wrong – I really do enjoy the shows. And sometimes they’ll find something that just makes your skin crawl, and those are good days. And the rest of the time you can pretend like you’re watching a really bad horror movie and yell things at the screen.

How do you feel about ghost hunting shows, Squiders? Excellent entertainment? Realistic at all? What are your pet peeves?

The Used Book Controversy

Some of you may be sitting there wondering how used books are controversial. Books are books are books, right? And sure, some of them have contents that might raise some hackles, but how are used books more controversial than new books?

Well, it comes down to royalties. You see, most authors get paid thusly: they receive some sort of advance when a publisher buys their book. Then, once they have earned through their advance, they begin to earn royalties, which are honestly usually pretty crap. You’re looking somewhere between 8-15% of what the reader pays for the book. So, if you pay $7.99 for a mass market paperback, the author sees somewhere between 64 cents and $1.20. Or less, if the publisher takes out some percentage to cover costs first.

If you sell 100,000 copies, great! But most books don’t.

So the controversy comes in when you buy a used book, because the author gets nothing on the second sale. (And, admittedly, used book stores don’t usually get much either.) And since so few authors can make a livable wage off of writing to begin with, there is occasionally an outcry that used book sales hurt the author, because it prevents potential readers from giving their money directly to the author (and publisher) to support them, instead of some random third party.

You hear this argument in video games and movies as well.

On the other hand, people who purchase used books may pick up authors that they wouldn’t otherwise, gaining authors new fans that may pay money when the next book comes out. Many people are more willing to take a risk on a book they pay a buck or two for than one they have to pay $10 for (which, coincidentally, is why ebooks sell so well). So the other side argues that used books allow the author more exposure than they would have gotten otherwise, resulting in a larger fan base.

What do you think, Squiders? Used books – evil tool that robs poor, starving authors of their rightful due, or convenient tool for readers to find new favorite authors?

(As a random statistic – 80% of my favorite authors, the ones I pick up new books immediately for when they come out, I first found through either a used book or a library copy.)

National Park Annual Pass: Kind of a Scam

You wouldn’t know it, because I am sneaky and know how to schedule blog posts, but my husband and I have been on the move for the last week or so. Specifically, we’ve been exploring Eastern Wyoming and Western South Dakota.

We had this grand plan. We’d buy the National Park Annual Pass (called the America the Beautiful pass) at the first attraction we came to, and we’d use it to get into all subsequent parks. You see, the pass is good at national parks, national forests, national monuments, national recreation areas, etc. Sounds like a great deal, right? For twice the price of the annual pass at our local national park, we can get into EVERY PARK IN THE COUNTRY.

In theory. In practice, the national parks/monuments/what have you have come up with slightly evil ways to get around letting you use it.

You see, the annual pass is mostly good for entrance fees.

I don’t know about you guys, but every national forest I’ve ever been in (and I can name four I’ve been in in the last two years) is free. So, very lovely that they’re included, but not terribly useful. Most national forests also let you camp anywhere you want for free as well.

We bought the pass at Devils Tower. When we got to Mount Rushmore, well, they don’t have an entrance fee. They have a parking fee. The pass does not cover the parking fee, never mind that you must pay the parking fee to get into the memorial. (Well, maybe you can hike in for free. I bet most people don’t.)

Jewel Cave doesn’t have an entrance fee, but you have to pay to get into the cave. Wind Cave works the same way, even though it’s a national park.

We ended up hitting Fort Laramie (entrance fee: $3) on the way home in a desperate attempt to justify our purchase.

I foresee trips to every national whatever in the state over the next year.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the National Park Service. I enjoy seeing new ones on my travels and always try to fit a couple in, wherever we are. But for something as expensive as this, there seems to be an awful lot of ways to get around letting people use it. And maybe we should have done a bit more research before hand, and maybe in some parts of the country every park/memorial/lalalala charge entrance fees and it’s all moot, but for Wyoming/South Dakota? Disappointment.

Write Your Query First

So, generally people look at novel writing as a linear process: Step 1, write the novel. Step 2, edit the novel. Step 3, submit the novel. So you write the book, make it pretty, and then worry about how you’re going to sell it. For those who have never thought about selling a novel, the query is the pretty letter you send an agent or editor telling them what your book is about in an attempt to grab their interest so they sign you and you get lots of money.

(I’m lying about the money.)

But, it turns out that writing your query BEFORE you write your novel can actually be helpful.

Don’t look at me like that. I’m not crazy.

Here’s the thing. Queries force you to take your plot and smoosh it down into a few paragraphs. It forces you to pull out what’s most interesting about your story and what your main themes are.

These are important things to know. And if you know them before you get 50,000 words into a novel and realize you have no idea where you’re going or why, you’re going to be able to write a more cohesive book that makes sure to focus on what you feel is important.

But Kit, I hear you saying, I’m a pantser. I don’t know where my book is going before I start it. How can I possibly write a query first?

Well, it’s a little harder for you, but not impossible. After all, there’s something that pulled you to start writing that particular story. Can you put what that is into words? Aside from helping you realize what’s important to the story, it might help you hold on to whatever it was that got the juices flowing.

Just something to think about, Squiders. Have a good weekend.

Obligatory Hunger Games Post

I think this is required these days. You read the Hunger Games, either the first book or the entire trilogy (and/or read the synopses online or watch the movie) and make a thoughtful post about social commentary. Well, you’re not going to get that here. Best I’ve got for you is that I cannot name anyone Gale for the next five years.

(And a friend of mine said she’d name a son Peeta except it would be too obvious, so she said she’d name him Peter instead and pronounce it in a bad British accent.)

Anyway. I am not generally a trendy reader. I do eventually get to most runaway best sellers, sometimes even before their movies come out, but I generally let the hype go on for a bit before I bother unless it’s something that sounds extremely thrilling. I picked up Harry Potter right before Goblet of Fire. I read the Twilight series after the first movie was out. Da Vinci Code I was relatively early on, for me at least, though I read Angels and Demons first (and it is the better book, by far).

So, Hunger Games. YA dystopia. Dystopia can be very hit or miss for me. Sometimes you get ones where you feel like the author is smacking you over the head with their message. I dislike that. And, since it’s modern YA, it’s first-person present tense which I generally dislike a lot, but luckily Katniss is less annoying than most teenagers when you’re in her head.

Having read the whole trilogy now, I find myself trying to analyze why exactly it’s so popular. It has a lot of similar themes to other YA and YA dystopias I’ve read. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, because I did like (most) of it, but it’s not on, say, Harry Potter levels of epicness. (I’m sorry, the plotting, foreshadowing, and characterization in the Harry Potter series is on a level of its own. I would like to grow up to be JK Rowling.) And, to be honest, Mockingjay is…not fun.

I know a lot of people who really hate Mockingjay, in fact. I can see why. The plot flows logically, but the main character is powerless for most of it, which makes the reader (in Katniss’s head) feel powerless, and most people don’t like that.

I think the strength is Katniss, honestly. She’s strong, self-sufficient, and while she does have the requisite love triangle going, it doesn’t consume her thoughts and she doesn’t act like an idiot over either boy. I’m not saying she reacts well to everything the trilogy throws at her, but, for the most part, she’s a positive role model and someone whose head I don’t mind being in.

So, hm. Would I reread the books? I don’t think so, at this point. I enjoyed the first two a lot, but I didn’t like the last one. Would I recommend them to friends? Sure, why not, especially if said friend doesn’t typically read science fiction.

I admit I occasionally spend some time trying to figure out what districts would be where. I think District 4’s got to be the gulf coast, and maybe District 7 is the Pacific Northwest? (Actually, from the description, it seems like the Capitol has to be, oh, Salt Lake City, or the general area, which makes me wonder if there’s some sort of social commentary about Mormonism going on, but that’s probably just in my head.)

What did/do you think about the Hunger Games, Squiders? I’ll go ahead and say spoilers are allowed in the comments, so beware if you haven’t read the books and intend to at some point.