Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Titles

by Amanda Stevens

I've been without Internet all week and I'm about to lose it again so I'll have to make this quick.  Today I'm writing about book titles. They're tricky business. You submit a book with what you believe is the perfect title only to hear back that, for whatever reason, it doesn’t pass muster with the editor/publisher/marketing department. Then it’s back to the drawing board. The process becomes even more complicated when you’re working on a series. Each title should stand on its own (just as each book must), but ideally it also works as part of the collective.

The title of the fourth Graveyard Queen book has already been changed and Books Five and Six are still under consideration. My editor came up with the title for Book Four and I actually like it better than the original. The titles of Books One and Three of the YA series have been approved, but Two didn’t cut it. Luckily, I had an alternative, which looks to be a go.

That’s a lot of titles to have rolling around in my head. The take away? Flexibility makes everyone’s life more pleasant and IMDB is your friend.

Also, there will never be a better title than Snakes on a Plane.

Here are just a few book titles that I love/find provocative for various reasons. Your favorites?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gone fishin'

Dear ADR3NALIN3 Readers:

This is my birthday week. I have gone fishin’. Herewith are two links to let you know what’s been happening in the last seven days. It's been exciting (and there are pictures!).

and my personal ALA’12 round-up.

Have a great start of summer, everyone. I’ll see you in two weeks! 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Taking Care of Business

This is not a sexy post.  No video, no glossy photos.

This post is about taking care of business, and unless you're into that kind of thing, this is about as exciting as toe fungus.

Now, if you're like me, one thing you hate is business.  You know, charging people for services and then expecting to be paid?  There's just something so . . . craven about it.  When I went to medical school, business was the last thing on my mind.  The IDEA that I was rendering a service for which I deserved compensation . . . who thought about medicine that way?  Okay, I'm sure someone did, but I didn't.  My focus was learning how to help people--or, maybe more accurately, how not to kill them while I was trying to help them.  (Believe me, every doctor--in training or out of it--comes close every now and again.  Why, there was this one guy . . .)  So no one told me anything about how to set up an office, run it, collect fees.  Really, there was so much MEDICINE to absorb, the business end of things wasn't talked about.  Earning money wasn't on my radar.

So I learned as I went along, after I left the military and opened a solo private practice and was, for a good long time, a small business owner.  Boy, was that rocky.  I just didn't get it.  I mean, here I was, a pretty decent child shrink . . . and where were the patients?  It had never dawned on me that I had to learn the biz, how to cultivate it, make contacts, find referral sources, all that.  It felt a little slimy, to be honest, this need to go out and trawl for a paycheck.  Eventually, I learned, through trial and error, what worked--which relationships to cultivate so I had referrals; what I had to do to gain exposure so people would know me; who I could trust with certain aspects of my business, those things I couldn't do myself because it wasn't my area of expertise--all so I could meet my office rent and, oh, make a living.  Lucky for me, I ran a one-woman shop, so all I really worried about was making payroll for one.  But it sure would've been nice if my med school education had included a unit on running a small business.

Like many professions, doctors are also expected to keep themselves educated and up to speed on their specialities.  They're called CMEs (continuing medical education credits) and every state has a mandatory number a doctor must complete every year, or they won't give you a license to continue practicing.  That's fine; I'm no more anxious to kill anyone now than I was back then.  But, darn it, there STILL aren't any CMEs that tell you how to run a business, so far as I know.  This isn't the problem it used to be, primarily because I'm not seeing patients right now and, more likely than not, if I'd stayed in practice, I'd have hired an office manager and let her/him take care of business.  But I might very well have gone to a couple business seminars, too.

Now that I'm a full-time writer . . . well, the experience has been only a little different.  One question most beginning writers ask is how to break into publishing, which only makes sense and about which I wrote an earlier post.  But what I think most beginners don't realIy understand is that, as a writer, you're the sole proprietor of a small business.  Sorry, but it's the truth.  You're into this because you love to write--but you also enjoy eating.  

Since that IS the case, it behooves all of us to learn as much about the business side of writing as we can because things come up, all the time.  Now, it's true that if you are very fortunate and have done your homework (I am and have been), you will likely have an agent you trust acting on your behalf: negotiating contracts, selling your work, that kind of stuff.  But that doesn't mean that you can simply put your head down and spin out product.  You must become as savvy about the business as you can, so you know what the terms of that contract mean, the publishing cycle, access to overseas rights, royalties . . . it's a big deal.  We're talking money in or out of your pocket here.  We're talking groceries.

Business isn't necessarily sexy.  Business is frequently . . . well, business and requires a certain mindset, this idea that you really do need to be looking at what benefits you and your bottom line, and then weighing that against what benefits everyone else who supports your business.  But taking care of your business is essential, and like everything else in this biz, you need to devote some time--doesn't have to be a lot, necessarily, but some--to keeping current, getting those writerly CMEs.  Like I was way back, you're in private practice: the sole proprietor of your business.  These days, you could make a go of it solo--as in no traditional publisher, no agent, or maybe an IP lawyer to look over contracts you DO negotiate with a traditional house (but only if you are just SO savvy and experienced, you really get the biz)--or you can hire people as you go along: a copy editor, a graphic artist, etc.  Or you go the traditional route.  Whichever way you choose, you still need to understand business.

I've attended only a handful of writers' workshops, none more valuable than those devoted to understanding the business of writing, from copyright to contracts to publishing cycles (and I STILL need advice and help, believe me).  The very first workshop I ever attended was not about plot or pacing or any of that; it was one entirely devoted to the business of publishing: a crash-course on breaking in, what to expect, production levels required to sustain x-amount of income over x-amount of years, when you can quit your day job (if ever), payment cycles, agents, work for hire, all that.   Since then, I've made it part of my business to keep current.

I'm going to suggest that YOU consider doing this, too.  You don't have to read a gazillion articles or anything, but you should read some.  Really, there is no one out there who cares as much about your career as you do, trust me on this.

There are organizations; the RWA, for example, has some fantabulous articles and presentations on all aspects of business (and they're one of the best organizations at paying attention to the business side of things, IMHO). There are also a ton of books and Reader's Digest condensed versions on things ike copyright law, etc.  Yes, a drool-worthy snooze-fest, but essential reading nonetheless.  We all run into this sooner or later.  I just spent an hour shooting off nasty-grams to pirate sites offering my books, as one for example.  These sites are like weeds, for God's sake, and they're stealing what I've worked very hard to produce.  They're stealing bread, man, figurative and otherwise.  It's like people walking by my table and nicking my drink because, well, it was just there.  Who said this is acceptable behavior?  Where are their mothers?  Don't get me started on this.

Back to business: you have to pay attention to who's offering the advice, too.  Now I don't know about you, but if someone's written a book on the biz, I tend to look at their credentials to do so.  It would be the same if I hired someone to fix a toilet or build a house.  Why trust people who, oh, aren't all that published, or have zip credentials?  I can not tell you the number of kids out there who take creative writing classes from teachers who aren't published.  What, WHAT?  This is like me, a surgery intern, deciding to learn the ins and outs of open-heart surgery from, oh, a plumber.  No, worse: a used-car salesman.  There's a reason doctors spend five hundred trillion hours learning from other doctors who have spent ten hundred bazillion hours.  Look at the creds, folks.  Don't get me started on this either.  

For my money, there are only a few people in the writing world whose take on business I truly trust (and admire).  If you're serious about your work, you've probably already heard of them and/or dropped by their blogs.  If you haven't, then here are two people to whom you should pay attention: the husband-wife duo, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Both are pro writers with about ten trillion hours in the biz and several hundred--we're talking hundreds here--of publications under their collective belts: short stories, articles, books.  (I think the last time I talked to Dean, he had . . . what . . . well over a hundred books, both traditionally published and, only very recently, as self-pubbed ebooks.  A hundred, people.)  Both have been editors.  Both have run a publishing house and just opened another.  Both have their unique takes on the biz and they offer workshops, not only on the building blocks every writer needs for the craft but--just as importantly--the business of writing, which I would encourage you to think about taking (or ponying up the extra dough the next time you're at a con or writers' meeting and they're offering a course).   They are people to whom I routinely turn for their take on various issues, some of which I haven't realized WERE issues until they brought them up.  (And, yes, that very first workshop I attended was theirs.  It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I mean that; I absolutely do.  I trust and owe these two people more than I can express.) 

How seriously should you take their opinions?  How savvy are they?  Well, let me put it this way: quite recently, Kris did a fabulous post on some shady dealings in various agencies--and her site was hacked.  She reposted on a second site--and she was hacked again.  And again, on yet another site.  I'm not necessarily into conspiracy theories, but it really does seem that someone wanted to shut her up.  Fortunately, that post is available on an alternative site (which is, on its own, another very good site to read about the biz), and Kris has since redesigned her blog to be as hack-proof as possible. Not saying it won't happen again, but what I think this should signal is that when people who've been in the biz for a long time raise an alarm, you should pay attention.  

But . . . you can't do that if you're not paying attention in the first place.  If you're not taking care of your business.

So I'm going to suggest that you start with Kris and Dean, and go from there.  You won't always agree with their views (I don't), but for your opinions to hold much water, you need to at least understand and be able to talk the same language.  It is stunning to me how many writers can't, don't and won't.  But trust me on this: you can't afford to put your head in the sand and hope everything will work out for the best.  That you can simply choose to hand over  a part of your business--say, selling your work and contract negotiation--and trust that folks are doing the right thing by and for you.  Yes, ideally, they are; I trust my agent, but I also talked to and researched quite a few agents before I settled on mine, and we keep talking and I still trust her because she has shown that she knows what she's doing.  She teaches me stuff, too, and when she says something, I go look it up to see if what she's said is right.  When she DOESN'T know something, she goes and finds out because she's a pro and understands that you don't get to remain a pro is you don't act like one.  Trust but verify.

You must do the same.  You need to be able to evaluate if the folks you choose to work with are doing their jobs and you can know this only if you understand what their jobs are in the first place; if you understand the ins and outs of your business.

Remember: No one cares more about your career than you.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Essential Twitter Hashtags for Authors, Readers and Publishing Industry Professionals

By Jordan Dane

Twitter can feel like screaming into the void until you get a feel for the Twitterverse. If you tweet using a link to your blog post or website to draw traffic, you can check your blog or website stats to track the traffic from that link. Using Twitter in the right way can enhance your promo, but if you aren’t maximizing your tweets with hashtags, you’re not being as effective as you can be. That’s a waste of your precious time that you can’t afford. Here’s why:

It can take time to build Twitter followers. You can have 100 followers, but if you understand the use of hashtags, you can get beyond your followers to a much larger online community. By using the Hashtag symbol #, you can connect with readers, tap into people following a particular topic, search for the latest in a book genre, look for industry advice or read about book recommendations. Even if you have many followers, by using the right hashtag, you can target your post to a specific audience that’s looking for what you have to tweet about.

Hashtags can also be used to promote a certain product brand, like #Kindle or #Nook. It can also be used to tap you into certain experts, like #AskAgent or #AskEditor. A fun way hashtags are used is punctuation to a joke or use of sarcasm, like tweeting ‘Snooki did another beach face plant #awkward.’

To keep up with the latest in hashtags or look up ones you don’t understand, go to #TagDef. Below is a really good list to start with hashtags geared for authors, readers, and industry topics.

Target Other Authors
  • #AmWriting
  • #AmEditing
  • #BookMarket (Every Thursday, 4 PM, ET)
  • #IndieAuthors
  • #LitChat (Every M/W/F)
  • #MemoirChat (Bi-weekly Wednesday, 8 PM, ET)
  • #WordCount
  • #WritersLife
  • #WriteChat
  • #WriteTip
  • #WriterWednesday (or #WW)
  • #WritingParty
  • #WritingTip
  • #YALitChat

Target Book Genres
  • #RomanceWriter
  • #SciFiChat
  • #KidLitChat
  • #RWA (Romance Writers of America)
  • #ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers)
  • #MGLit (Middle Grade Lit)
  • #SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators)
  • #MemoirChat

Identify Industry Information
  • #AskAgent
  • #AskAuthor
  • #AskEditor
  • #GetPublished
  • #PromoTip
  • #SelfPublishing
  • #Publishing
  • #EBooks
  • #IndiePub (or #IndiePublishing)
  • #BookMarketing

Goals Setting Specifics
  • #WritingPrompt
  • #StoryStarter
  • #WordAThon
  • #Creativity
  • #WIP (work in progress)
  • #1K1H (write one thousand words in one hour)

Target Readers
  • #FridayReads
  • #BookGiveaway
  • #Giveaway
  • #Kindle
  • #MustRead
  • #Nook
  • #Ebook
  • #LitChat
  • #StoryFriday
  • #MustRead

After this Twitter Tutorial, I thought it might be fun to launch a Twitter FollowFest on ADR3NALIN3. If you are interested in building your Twitter Followers, list your twitter link below on the Linky Tools link. Anyone wanting to do the same can auto-follow those on the list we’ll create. Get to know other authors or readers who love YA.

Support your fellow Twitter travelers.

ENTER your TWITTER account by clicking the ENTER HERE link below. Post your http code so others can follow you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Love Triangles: A Guy, a Girl and a Ghost

by Jennifer Archer

I'm on the road for the next couple weeks, so today I'm recycling a post I did a while back as a guest on another blog about love triangles. Enjoy!

These days, love triangles in young adult fiction abound. I’ve conducted an informal survey of my reading friends and here’s what I’ve surmised: Readers have strong feelings about love triangles. They seem to either really love them or really hate them.

I enjoy a love triangle in fiction if it’s handled deftly and isn’t the main focus of the story. I mean, let’s face it: Who will she choose? can get a bit old, and besides that, the answer is usually fairly predictable. But as a side plot, a good love triangle can add great conflict to a story. If only someone didn’t have to get hurt! Especially if that someone is a nice, well-meaning guy or girl. That’s another problem with most fictional love triangles – frequently they don’t play out in a realistic way. In real life, love triangles are usually pretty messy and don’t end conveniently, smoothly, or with everyone getting along. But in fiction, often one of the love interests either dies, turns out to be an unworthy person, or is so unbelievably virtuous that they step aside with little display of anger, jealously, or hurt feelings.

In my YA novel THE SHADOW GIRL that will be released next year by Harper Teen, the protagonist, Lily, finds herself in a love triangle. I tried to show as realistically as possible the pain and confusion this causes her, as well as the guy who loses out, without letting that aspect of the book take over the story. My debut YA novel THROUGH HER EYES also contains a love triangle, but one with a twist. The triangle consists of a guy (Tate), a girl (Tansy), and a ghost (Henry).  I had a great time with this element of the book because I’m a sucker for ghost love stories. One of my favorite older movies is one directed by Steven Spielberg called ALWAYS. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the trailer.

In ALWAYS, Dorinda really doesn’t have the option of a life with Pete, her deceased boyfriend who is now a ghost. But that isn’t necessarily the case for the character Tansy in my novel THROUGH HER EYES. Even though Henry is a ghost, there might be a way for Tansy to choose a life with him, but doing so will involve giving up A LOT on her part.  The things at risk for Tansy are serious ones: family, friends, the life she’s always known in a time period that’s familiar. But what about the smaller things? What would a girl have to deal with if she chose to have a romantic relationship with a ghost? Just for fun, I’ve come up with a list:

Top Ten Reasons a Girl Should Think Carefully
Before Choosing a Ghost Guy Over a Real Guy

1.      Real guys have actual blood running through their veins so they’re warmer. No girl likes to be cold!
2.      Your friends can actually see how hot your real guy is. Not so with your ghost guy. In fact, your friends may not even believe you really have a boyfriend.
3.      Privacy. When you want some time alone, you can tell a real guy ‘goodbye’ and close the door. You never know when a ghost guy’s in the room with you. Creepy.
4.      A ghost guy will stay young while you grow older. Will he still love you when you’re 30 and he’s  18?
5.      Transportation. Ghosts can’t drive so you’ll always have to take your car.
6.      Food. Ghost guys never get hungry. It’s no fun to eat alone!
7.      Strait jackets are uncomfortable and ugly but you might end up in one because people will think you’ve lost it when they see you talking to thin air. 
8.      Ghosts are unemployed since nobody hires them. You’ll have to pay for every date.
9.      You’ll never see your ghost boyfriend in any other clothes than the ones he died wearing; he’s pretty much stuck in those.
10.   Forget going to a crowded movie theater with a ghost; once the seats are filled, he’ll probably get sat on. 

So, what about you? I’d love to know how you feel about love triangles in fiction. If you like them, what are your favorite books or movies with love triangles? And what else do you think a girl should consider carefully before choosing a ghost boyfriend over a real guy?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

So I misspelled a word, big deal...wait, it IS a big deal

I think something has gone wrong in my brain, because I'm having crap luck at titles lately. But I digress. You guys didn't come here to listen to me rant about titles. No, you came to listen to me rant about spelling.

Wait, what?

Yes, I said spelling. Or, more importantly, spelling in your writing. Stay with me, folks. It won't be long (too late, right?). Just imagine that you're reading along in your absolute all-time favorite book ever and you come across a misspelled word. It's jarring, gut-wrenching, painful.

Much like this:

Yeah, it hurts to read, huh? Which is how it feels when you see a misspelled word in your absolute all-time favorite book ever. It hurts. It rips you out of that wonderful world you were in, where only you and those beautiful words exist, frolicking together in a meadow full of similes and metaphors and perfectly-placed adjectives. Basically, it stops your groove. And that sucks.

Now, do you want that in your own writing? Of course not! You don't want someone to be totally engrossed in your work (whether it's a critique partner or an agent or an editor or the public), head-over-heels in love with your prose, only to be yanked from the abyss of blissful reading by something as trivial as a missing "P" (see photo above). And you certainly don't want to boast with pride that "Yes, this is MY book" when the contents contain something as blatantly obvious as this:

Yeah, just when you thought it couldn't get worse. At least that first one was done by hand. This was printed, people. Printed. Like, on a computer, where it was probably looked at by several people. So, so sad.

Please don't get me wrong. In no way am I condemning those books that make it to print with misspelled words. Believe me, my debut novel is littered with them. It happens because, in the end, we are all human. But, if you can in any way contribute to the betterment of your printed book, don't you want to? So start now. Don't rely on spellcheck to verify your words are spelled correctly. Print that sucker out and check each word yourself. Sure it'll take a long time, but at least it will save you from this kind of embarrassment:

Monday, June 18, 2012

It Takes Work

By Dan Haring

Look at that picture again.


Why are you still here?

Well, since you are, I'll elaborate a little on what Batman is telling you.

In the last five years I've been able to accomplish some of my bigger personal goals. I worked on a comic book movie. I worked on a Disney animated film. I wrote a book that got published.

I'm not trying to brag, I'm trying to illustrate a point.

A few people have told me they wish they could do some of those things.

Guess what? They can. There's no secret to it, just like there's no secret to any success in life. You work hard, you hustle, and you try to be in the right place at the right time.

Sometimes you win.

Sometimes you lose.

It's hard.

It's supposed to be.

I'm not telling you I never procrastinate. I do. I've probably wasted hours looking at baby English bulldogs.

I mean seriously, how adorable are these little guys?
 But I've also been able to buckle down and get things done.

Because I had dreams and goals and didn't just sit there wishing they'd come true.

Because I wanted them, and I worked for them.

Comic book artist/writer Faith Erin Hicks tweeted something a while back that really stuck with me.

She said, "What did you do this weekend to get closer to your goal of working in comics?"

Substitute "working in comics" with "writing a book" or whatever your goal is, and then think about it.

What did you do?

And more importantly, what are you going to do now?

It's not going to fall in your lap.

You have to work for it.

But you can do it.

I believe in you.

And so does Batman.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Strange Attractor

Do you have a strange attractor?

I’m not talking sex appeal or pheromones, but the aspect of your story that provides a built-in pitch, a wow factor, an aha! element that packs a visceral punch.

It’s like high concept only different.

At its most basic, the definition of high concept is a premise or idea that can be summed up in one sentence.  But screenwriter Terry Russio (Pirates of the Caribbean) says an idea must be more than just clear and simple, it must also attract an audience (and professionals) to your project.  It must have what he calls a STRANGE ATTRACTOR.  “Strange meaning unique and attractor meaning compelling.  Something unique that is also compelling.”  An element that is so clever, so ingenious, so kick-ass it turns other writers pea green with envy.  And who doesn’t love that?  (By the way, if you haven’t been to Russio’s website,, OMG, run, don’t walk and prepare to spend hours because each essay there is a gem.)

A strange attractor is more precise than high concept because it zeroes in on the most compelling aspect of the premise.  A good attractor defines the characters, shapes the plot and drives the action.  Conversely, even the most innovative concept can fail if the writer mistakes what element of the story is going to hold the reader.  

Let’s explore some examples:

Concept:  An alien has behaved badly in his home world and is sentenced to the worst punishment imaginable—he is banished to planet Earth.

Not a bad premise and it can easily be summed up in one sentence.  The potential of the setup is obvious and instantly conjures all kinds of scenarios for conflict and whacky hijinks.  It’s the old stranger in a strange land concept that strikes a universal chord.  I’m intrigued and heading to Netflix. 

But wait.  What about the…

Strange Attractor:  Arriving on our world, the alien immediately finds he has a problem—his head explodes easily and frequently.

Yes!  Now this movie is going straight to the top of my queue. Admittedly, the attractor is a little over the top, but it’s fresh and fun, the most unique and compelling aspect of the premise. How the alien deals with the problem of borrowing human heads will define his character, shape the plot, and drive the action.

Concept:  In the year 2019, vampires rule the world.

Excellent idea.  I’m envisioning Underworld  meets The MatrixTwilight meets Blade Runner.    

And now we stir in a little…

Strange Attractor:  The vampires are running out of blood.

Suddenly it becomes Thirty Days of Night meets Marie Antoinette.  Nothing wreaks havoc like a hungry mob—especially a mob of vampires—and I’m salivating at the prospect.

Concept:  In the small town of Cherry Falls, there is a sexually bewildered serial killer on the hunt for virgins.

Strange Attractor:  The best way to stay alive is to lose your cherry!

Enough said, I think.

So in summary, a good attractor can flip your high concept on its head, spin it, twist it, and then knock it on its backside, generating all sorts of interesting situations and conflict.  It captivates the reader and elevates the premise.  It attracts and compels.  It thrills, chills, and excites.

The strange attractor…take one along on your next writer’s journey and see where it leads you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wherein a Shoe has a Soul.

by A.G. Howard

Looking back over some old manuscripts, it hit me how many of my stories have secondary "characters" that are inanimate objects. I started pondering how often writers do this, giving life and breath to objects, maybe without even being aware of it.

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is a perfect example, where the house itself becomes a character in the book. Ms. Bronte flawlessly wove personality into the surroundings by using melancholy and unnerving descriptions so that the house and setting emanate actual emotions: anger, hatred and jealousy.

Here's a quote taken from an online essay: “Wuthering Heights ... suffers from a kind of malnutrition: its thorns have become barren, its firs stunted, everything seems to crave for the ‘alms of the sun’ that sustain life.”

Throughout Ms. Bronte's story, the characters fall into despair, madness, and unrequited love: a self-fulfilling prophecy mirroring the home's ugliness and dilapidation. The proper literary term for this is objective correlative.

In one of my historical love stories, there's a pair of 16th century Italian shoes which harbors a gypsy curse and has an amusing yet creepy tendency to move about without a wearer. The heroine is drawn to the shoes, almost to the point of obsession. They hold a mystical power over her, even without her realizing they also hold the secret of her lost past.

Another example is my gothic literary love story, where a flower which embodies a man's spirit becomes an active participant in the intensely emotional relationship between the ghost and the flower's keeper, a young deaf woman.

Even in Splintered, worn-out and mutilated toys play too big of a role to be considered mere objects.

Anytime an "inanimate thing" serves as a game player or mirrors the characters and their arcs, it evolves to more than just a prop. It takes an active role in the plot, a role that without which, the story wouldn't survive. Thus it becomes -- for lack of a better description -- a character. Within the confines of the story, it develops a soul.

What stories have you read where there are objects that could be considered pivotal characters?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Giving Characters Opinions!!

Carol Tanzman checking in.

Pixar Story artist Emma Coates  tweeted 22 story basics that she’s learned from working at Pixar. You may have seen some of these tweets; they’re great.

I particularly liked:

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

It’s something I haven’t ever actually verbalized to myself—but I realized I’ve been unconsciously doing exactly that in the my latest YA novels from HarlequinTeen. In dancergirl, Ali is passionate about dance. She has opinions about her teachers and their choreography, as well as her own dancing. What’s working for her–-and what isn’t. Her opinions grow out of a deep commitment to the art of dance. What she is willing to do, how far she is willing to go, as well as discovering where the limits are––all grow out of her opinions and beliefs. It definitely makes her a more three-dimensional character that was fun to write.

Valerie Gaines, in Circle of Silence, is equally, if not more, opinionated. Val’s passion is TV news. She fights to be the Producer of her TV news crew, she fights to get to the bottom of the mysterious story that is the main conflict of the book (“Who—or what––is MP?”) and she fights her team, at times, in trying to figure out exactly how to report that story. Valerie’s opinions, which do change, don't come out of a vacuum. As a high school student, she learns from the Campus News teacher. She does her own “research” and watches her idol, Emily Purdue, a professional news reporter on TV, to gain tips for her own broadcasts. She also critiques the rival crew’s stories in Campus News. All to further her ambition--which is to be the best reporter she can be.  

One thing that I especially like about Valerie is that her friends are also opinionated. Because the rest of her crew is just as into TV production as she is, they have their own ideas of how to do things. It makes for some interesting scenes as the crew members argue over the best way to do something. The tenser the situation, the more opinions they have. Having characters with specific, and differing points of view, I believe, tends to make the writing feel very realistic. It also helps to keep things from getting too preachy, as if the author has a specific ax to grind.

And, while conflict may not be the most pleasant thing in one’s personal life, in literature it is exactly the thing that leads us all to turn those pages! As Emma Coates noted, having opinions creates not passive characters, but interesting ones that deepen the story you are telling!

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Brain, Off-Grid

So my husband's dragging me away this afternoon (it's Thursday morning), and I'm thinking, shoot, I don't want to go anywhere, not even to spend several days off-grid, in the woods, tramping around, getting all dirty and smelly and feeling strong, like an Amazonian queen. Which is how I am and feel, at times, when I've put in a good day's hike.

But, for a person who never turns on her cell or answers it even when it's on (that sucker's always on silent, which drives my kids bananas); for a woman who turns off her phones all day, every day . . . I have tremendous trouble unplugging, being off-grid, going away. Always have had. Now, we can chalk this up to childhood traumas or something--and I'm sure that's somewhat true (you don't know true togetherness until you're squashed into a tiny camper, when it's about a thousand degrees outside and even higher inside--you're baking in there and lying on a little bunk hammock with about an inch of clearance between you and the ceiling, and then . . . you have to pee. In a bucket. Right there, while everyone listens . . .).

Yet, when I was in my residency and fellowship, I hated going away, too. I used to hoard my vacation and mental health days; I hardly ever used them up, and it may have something to do with the dread I felt about returning: the killing pace, the emergencies, the constant demands. All that was still there when I got back on Monday morning, whether after a weekend or vacation. (Which is why, I'm convinced, a reason this impending sense of doom rolls over me on Sunday nights. I have a tough time sleeping at the best of times, but forget Sunday night.) When I'm away--when my husband tells me I'm on vacation--I don't really relax-relax until about Wednesday or Thursday and, then, only grudgingly. (I'm like a Belgian shepherd that way: always on alert.) So, say, about three or four days into it, I sort of unwind and then, boom, before you know it, time to go home. Hardly makes it worthwhile, you know? Always been like this, too. So, gosh, thank heavens for the Internet that allows me to do this NOW and NOT FRET about having ZERO INTERNET access and all that while I'm gone and feeling pressured to get the blog done and OH, NOOOOO... I'm so important, I MUST be reachable . . . without me, all life on Earth will cease to exist . . .

Oh, pshaw.

Here's the thing, and I said it a couple weeks ago when I wrote about Facebook, et. al.: you are simply not that important. (Okay . . . I'm not that important, but you understand. It's that prototypical "you" I'm talking about.) Unless you have dying relatives or something, the world will continue. There is nothing THAT all-consuming and life or death for which you absolutely MUST be in touch, tethered, reachable forever and always. Even though I don't feel that way when I'm forced to go away, I've known this for a long time, and here's why.

You want to know important?

Death is important.

People actively dying is important. People THINKING about actively dying is important. This is why God invented pagers for nurses and doctors, so we would always be around to stop bad things from happening, or try to make bad things right. As a private practitioner, I was available 24/7, and yeah, when my pager went off at two in the morning, I knew that patient wasn't calling just to shoot the breeze. If we were lucky, that patient was only THINKING about jumping off the bridge or taking pills or whatever. If we were unlucky, the patient was TAKING the pills or had a foot off the bridge or broken out a window . . . You get the drift.

When I was an intern and resident, I was tethered with a pager-umbilicus, too, because when it went off and squawked about a code blue . . . that was my cue to hustle because only I, the surgical intern, knew how to slap in that CVP line without dropping a lung or skewering an artery. (That was the truth, too, in the hospital where I trained.) When that pager went off, people were dying or trying to. Most number of times I blundered out of bed and ran to the same patient trying to tank, in a single six-hour period? Eleven. ELEVEN. Try to relax, unwind, get some shut-eye knowing that's out there. Go on. I dare you.

Now, this isn't to brag or anything. All doctors and nurses and techs and EMTs and cops and all that . . . people in those professions all do the same thing. So this isn't about me being so wonderful; it's about me doing my job, the one I volunteered for, entered willingly. But this is also to make a very important point--well, important to me. It might even explain why I can't walk into a hospital these days without a mild return of PTSD (I'm serious here, folks): the elevated heart rate, the sweats, the semi-flashbacks to blood and guts and all that, the smells that trigger it. It might also explain why I both HATE being on-grid and off it, too; my love-hate relationship with all tech, to be honest, and so my need to venture into the wild and this overwhelming urge, sometimes, to stay there even as all my instincts are screaming that I MUST go back.

People write about your brain on- and off-grid: the feelings of anxiety about going away, the pervasive sense of urgency that you simply MUST be available, that kind of thing. There was a very interesting series of articles in the New York Times a couple years back studying this same phenomenon, and it's worthwhile reading, so take a minute.

What I found the most interesting--for me, personally--was all that stuff about attention: that the demands of a twenty-four hour news cycle, this barrage of information, reinforce the sense you are just SO IMPORTANT--and all that is awfully draining to creativity. (I could go into the neurochemistry of it--and it is REALLY fascinating--but I'll take pity.) We've all heard about the benefits of unplugging, getting away, letting those creative juices flow . . . etc. But so many of us can't do it or have a hard time or feel a profound ambivalence . . . blah, blah. As I think I've pointed out, though, our presence and attention to the minute workings of the universe are not required. The world will keep turning.

For the me of the past, though, this was not so because when I wasn't around, bad things did happen. They also happened when I WAS around; patients still paged me, had a hard time, etc. In fact, I guess you'd say that I lived with the threat of bad, that Damoclese Sword of IMPENDING DISASTER AND DOOM--and it was constant. Coming back after a break--whether as an intern or in practice--I always felt my gut tighten because a patient would've crashed during the night; a previously stable patient would be in the hospital (I'd get these long voice mails about who did badly while I was away, for example); someone would've died . . . again, you understand. So vacation--going off-grid, leaving that beeper on the bedside table--became merely a prelude to more bad, more doom and gloom, and--sometimes--death.

So, not fun.

These days--the me of the now--I'm only a little better, both because there is the PTSD-esque spectre of all that hanging around, just at the corner of my eye, and . . . well . . . because people about whom I care a tremendous amount will die when I step out these days, and that's a fact.

Now, I know you'll think that's silly, but it's true. Yes, I agree, wholeheartedly, with Stephen King and others who've said that a writer must allow time for the boys in the basement to do their thing. Even when I think I know my story, it's when I take a break--mostly, to exercise, and I do that every day, but it also happens after a night's dreaming on it--that the "answer" for how to keep my book alive, my characters doing their thing, all the plates spinning, comes to me. (As it did this morning, for example: I'm leaving in about five hours; I know I'll get maybe an hour of writing in before the rest of going away sucks me down; but I awoke, and very abruptly, knowing precisely what was keeping one of my characters from getting on with it already. That will necessitate killing about twenty pages and rewriting, but that's the work.)

NOT being allowed to continue--being wrenched away--leaves my characters in a real lurch. I know that I will, obsessively, rehash what's going on with them while I'm gone. I'll jot endless notes. I've got an outline, but I'll expand, in my head and on scraps of paper (I always hike with a pen and paper). I do my best heavy-duty thinking on the trail; I know that about myself.

Because here's the thing: I really am these people's life-support system. Quite simply, without me, my characters will wither up and die.  They NEED me, Energizer Bunny Ilsa, to keep them ticking.

No, this isn't narcissism, and I'm not psychotic (at least . . . hang on . . . no, I just checked; I'm not). But what I just wrote is the God-honest truth.

If I die tomorrow, my characters enter limbo. They'll never live again, for anyone. I'll never visit them again, and they won't get to live for you either.

So, for someone like me, it's imperative that I stay with them, keep them breathing and suffering and living for as long as I can--becauase only I truly know how to throw in that writerly CVP line for them. No one else can do it--or if they do (say, someone decides to release and/or finish the great previously unpublished, unfinished posthumous works of Ilsa J. Bick), my people won't be entirely the same. Come on, you know what I'm talking about, too; it's WHY no one can write the real conclusion to Edwin Drood, or WHY the Mozart Requiem is both so glorious and yet ultimately unsatisfying because the poor guy DIED after the first couple measures of the Lachrymosa. The folks who came after, trying to finish that masterpiece, ended up only repeating what Mozart had already done, just with different words. (Really. Go listen sometime. You can tell, INSTANTLY, what's Mozart and what isn't.)

Sure, I'm not Mozart. Some days, I'm not sure I'm even me. But I do know that I also unplug from THIS reality on a daily basis--because I dive into the page and the work at hand. You could say that I go on a vacation for as long as I can every single day; I get to go to a different country and leave all this, only to have to return to . . . pay bills, make dinner, etc. Pulling free from my worlds--leaving all those people HANGING--is tremendously anxiety-provoking. Yes, I know when I've done a good day's work. I also know when I've sucked and that novel's really limping along on life support. So I live in a continual push-me/pull-you of only you, Ilsa, will do.

I think this is reinforced by the fact that I'm working on the last volume of the ASHES trilogy. After it's done . . . that's it. No more chances. No re-dos. For people I've nurtured for so many, many months now--crying for them, worrying about them--the moment I truly pen the last sentence, they are . . . unplugged. They won't die, of course.  Crack the spine, and I can read about them.  But I won't be able to unplug and visit their world and make them live in quite the same way, ever again. Once the words are set in their mouths, they're set.  They'll never again have that chance to grow and become.

Would I have it any other way? Heck if I know. I only know it's the way I--and they--live now.

Okay. I'm gone . . . and this is the sound of me, unplugging . . .