Monthly Archives: August 2012

Post it Proudly

I’ve been thinking about doing a series of excerpts from my novels for a while now, but the argument for whether you should post your work online or not has been raging for even longer. I want a chance to get my work out there, show you guys what I’m trying to do, and get some feedback on it, but I don’t want to ruin my chances of getting published later. So I’ve been checking out all the arguments, gathering opinions, and really thinking about what I want to accomplish with posting my work online.

The two sides of the argument are pretty well represented in the article “Stop Being Afraid of Posting Your Work Online” and its counter “Be (Slightly) Afraid of Posting Your Work Online”. Yeah, this is frustrating the heck out of me too. If you don’t want to read both of these posts, that’s fine. The first one talks about how writers benefit from posting their work online. It’s testing the market, building a platform and getting feedback that makes the book better. The latter article says that those things are all well and good, but fiction writers should be worried about other writers stealing their ideas.

I don’t know about any other writers out there, but I was really insulted by this. I am not a thief. There have been plenty of times where I’ve heard a pitch and thought (and usually said) “I’d read that”. There have even been one or two that I’ve thought, “Boy, I wish I’d come up with that first”. But it has never crossed my mind that I should steal the idea – even if I think they’re doing it wrong and I could do it better.

Besides, I have way too many good ideas of my own to waste time developing a passion for someone else’s idea (not to mention a plot and all that’s inherent in writing a book). Are there really good writers that don’t have their own projects who spend their time trolling itty bitty author blogs looking for good ideas to steal? That’s like being a world famous chef who has no kitchen and no food, so he sneaks into your house to raid your pantry and use your stove. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who will copy something in order to avoid doing their own work – there are, it’s called plagiarism – I’m just trying to put things in perspective. And, for the record, everything posted on a personal blog is protected because it’s technically been published.

So, let’s say the evil supervillain is out there. After he’s found my brilliant idea and rubbed his hands together saying “Bwah ha ha”, he still has to write the book better than me (and I use personal experience few others have so now we’re talking about a disabled, evil supervillain). And he has to be better at snagging a publisher. Good luck with that one. I’ve heard lots of “Oh that’s a great idea” and not one “I’d love to publish that for you”. He’d also have to be faster, and since I’m in the process of shopping for an agent, that’s pretty dang fast.

I guess it’s a double edged sword. I want to get some feedback and build a readership, but I have to accept that there might be risks.

All of this is to say that I’m starting a new series of posts. Every Wednesday I’ll put up an excerpt from my current work in progress that has something to do with disabilities. I want this to be a chance to look at how disabilities are handled in fiction (especially fantasy), and if you guys have any suggestions or critique, I’m always looking for feedback to make things better. I’m not going to post the whole book, or even whole chapters or scenes. Just passages that highlight something specific that I want to point out. And Fridays will still feature my regular mix of disability topics, book reviews, and writing advice.

So I hope you guys enjoy the journey along with me as I embark on this new endeavor. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you next Wednesday.

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A Step Back to Roll Forward

Our new houseOver the last few months I’ve felt myself slowing down. I’m only 27, but ADLs (activities of daily living) seem to take a lot more work, chores are anticipated with a physical kind of dread, and at the end of the day, I’m exhausted after doing nothing more than living. After six years, I think my body is finally tired of yelling at me and has decided to strike until I agree to more reasonable working conditions.

I’m not a weakling, but I’m also not a hoss. No extreme sports for this bookworm, please. But when a spinal cord injury laid me out three months before my wedding, I worked my butt off in order to walk down the aisle. And after that, I just sort of kept going on the same way. I stuck my chair in the basement, determined never to pull it out again. That lasted for a couple years until I got pressure sores on my feet. The only way to get rid of a pressure sore is to stay off of it and give it time to heal. Well, it’s pretty hard to walk and stay off your feet at the same time, so I caved and brought out the chair.

It felt like a cop out. I mean, I’d spent all this time and energy getting out of the chair and there I was plopping back down at the first little setback. This was totally not true – just another lie I believed. I really did need to get off my feet to heal, but it felt like a step back. What I didn’t tell anyone was that under the frustration and depression was a profound relief. Suddenly my feet didn’t hurt, my knees didn’t crackle and my back didn’t ache.

So I started to use my chair for getting around large places like airports and zoos. But it still went in the basement when we got home. After all, I only needed it for long walks, right? There’s nothing shameful about that. Except there shouldn’t be anything shameful about using my chair at all. Looking at it now, I can’t figure out what I was fighting against. Was I trying to prove something? I think I was trying to show myself that I wasn’t less than I had been. And now that I’ve done that maybe I can focus on what’s best for me.

The chair makes my life easier. Why would I balk at using just another kind of tool? I buy Pampered Chef stuff all the time because it makes my life easier. I don’t say “well, I’m not going to use a knife to cut my vegetables because I want to prove I can do it without”. And then what? I gnaw an onion into submission? See how silly that is? Now that we have a new house with wide doorways and wood floors, I can get around without a moment’s hesitation. I don’t have to struggle up a flight of stairs to get to my books (halleluliah!). And guess what? I have a lot more energy throughout the day. I can get chores done and still have the umph to sit down and write. I’m not giving anything up. In fact, I’m gaining something. It’s called freedom.

It’s taken me six years to admit it, but I don’t want to walk everywhere. I get around my house with a weird mix of walking, rolling, and crawling. I know it looks odd but it works for me. Y’all are probably thinking “Why was this so hard to admit?” Well, I’m pretty stubborn by nature and sometimes you have to beat me over the head with an idea a couple times before I’ll even consider it. This was one of those times. And I find clarity when I write my thought process down, so you get to experience the inner workings of my mind. Lucky you. But in writing this post I realized I’m not trying to justify my choice to you. I’m trying to convince the girl I used to be that it’s all going to be okay. That poor young woman who ached to be up and walking for no other reason than to say she could. This is for her.

 

I promised y’all an update on the new project I’m working on, but after starting it I realized it’s going to take a lot more work than I originally thought. Research! And interviews! So I’m postponing the announcement until I’ve got a better grasp on my timeline. I know, you’re sooo disappointed, but I’ll have to make it up to you later.

 

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What’s in a Name?

A little while ago, I wrote a post about ways to beat writer’s block and a friend commented about how she had a problem coming up with names for her characters. I had a hard time condensing my reply because I felt like I could write a whole blog post on the topic. Well, I finally got around to putting my thoughts on paper, and here it is: “What I’ve Learned About Naming Characters”. Catchy, right? Maybe I should work on “What I’ve Learned About Titles”.

Not to freak anybody out right off the bat, but names are pretty important. Whether you’re trying to make a statement by hiding subtle clues in a character’s name or you just want to come up with something you can wrap your tongue around for the length of a novel, some work must go into the choice. And that work is one of the first things you have to do before you can even get the first draft down. I’ve found it’s very hard to start a novel not knowing the protagonist’s name and at least the basics of their personality. For me, the process usually falls into one of three difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, or Cursing at the page. Unfortunately, this isn’t a video game where you can just turn the difficulty down whenever the bad guy is kicking your butt. You’ve just got to deal with what your creativity hands you. Though there are some tools and tricks which can give you a leg up.

Every now and then, a character walks into my head fully formed, wearing a name tag. “Hello, my name is Isol.” For some reason she was holding hands with Anella, so I got two out of that deal. But that’s usually only once or twice per book, so for everyone else I keep a list of names I’ve come across (or thought up) that I like and think “Hey I might want to use that one day”. “One day” always comes sooner than I think it will. So when a character shows up in a scene without a convenient tag, my first move is to my list. Are there any that just seem to fit? I know it’s arbitrary, but sometimes it’s just a gut feeling. You probably already have an idea who this person is going to be, so find a name that invokes a feeling that matches. In By Wingéd Chair I wanted the leader of their group to be a well-respected warrior, and to me, the name Lans felt big and strong and protective. To contrast him, I wanted Merry’s love interest to be a bit more spindly and bookish and the name Whyn made me think clever rather than brawny; exactly what I was going for.

Sometimes you want something a bit more specific. You want names that mean something or sound like they’re from a certain place. I like behindthename.com because you can search their database by meaning or by country of origin. In Skin Deep I wanted the setting to have a kind of medieval France/Wales feel, so that’s where I got Anwen. Not only is it a pretty name but it’s Welsh for “very beautiful”. Fitting for the beauty in Beauty and the Beast. Same thing for Léon. I was looking for something both French and animalistic. Léon turns into a bear, not a lion, but I think the parallel still works.

When all else fails and the character is refusing to give you ID, start with a letter of the alphabet. Have too many K names already? Try a B. Then add another letter. What works? What doesn’t? Sound it out until you’ve got something useable. That’s how Merrin, Vinny, and Renny got their names in Catching Cinders. Michael J. Sullivan talked about naming some of his characters this way.

And remember, you’re not sitting there with a stone slab and a chisel. If you give someone a name and a few pages later you think of something better, you can always change it. Vira-we in By Wingéd Chair has had three different names so far, and Merry started out as Lori. Although, be careful, because if you slap a temporary tag on someone and leave it too long it might end up sticking like last night’s mac and cheese. For five chapters, I didn’t have a name for Cinderella’s prince (he was particularly picky), and finally, I just threw one at him. It was only supposed to be temporary, but by the end of the book, I couldn’t even imagine him with any other name. Vóila, Prince Nickolas was born.

I feel like I should add one more thing since it’s my mom’s pet peeve, and she’s very generously passed it on to me. If you write fantasy and you’re into those teeth-cracking, tongue-twisting names (like me), please follow accepted spelling and pronunciation rules for the country of your choice. If you must make up very own language, fine, just be sure everything makes sense and is consistent. No one wants to recommend a book saying, “Yeah, that one guy with the A and all the i’s and x’s is really cool. Unpronounceable, but cool.”

Go have some fun with it. I think naming characters is one of the most rewarding bits of our art. Seeing a character come to life on the page with all their cool traits fitting together topped with a name like a really great hat. You can’t deny how cool that is.

 

I’ve got some cool things planned for the near future, so stay tuned next week for an exciting update.

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My Kind of Smart

Hazel, the protagonist of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, has been living with cancer for years. She goes through life knowing that death is just around the corner, stalking her patiently.

I know I usually write about disabilities, but if dying of cancer isn’t a disability, I don’t know what is. Now, I wouldn’t have said my difficulties are anything like those of someone diagnosed with cancer – I’m not dying of anything; aside from the bum legs, I’m pretty healthy – but I found a lot in this book and in Hazel as a character to relate to. Much of the story was wrapped around Hazel’s favorite novel, and she talks about how she feels like the author knew exactly what she was feeling, sometimes even before she could find the words to express it. In many ways, that was how I felt about The Fault in Our Stars.

I watch John and Hank Green’s videos on youtube and, holy crap, are they awesome. So, I have to admit, I was worried this book would be too smart for me, like the classics everyone else thinks are amazing while I’m sitting alone in the corner wondering what I’m missing (To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, I’m talking about you. Don’t worry, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you’re fine). But Green’s book ended up being my kind of smart. It was about making the best out of crappy circumstances. It was about finding humor where you could, and it was about living with pain. If you’ve read some of my other posts on living with a disability then you know my philosophy. You know how I try to find things to laugh at, things to take pride in, despite the pain. And Green seems to have hit that nail on it’s admittedly narrow head.

And there were plenty of other details that I saw as reflections of my own life. At the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, Hazel worries about holding up all the other tourists while she hauls her oxygen tank up the stairs. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve worried about the line forming behind me on stairs, my library would be a lot bigger.

She hates the empty words of encouragement everyone gives her, but when faced with someone else’s pain, those same substance-less phrases find their way in her mouth. You’d think it would be easy, but it’s horrible how hard it is to share comfort for your own kind of pain.

And Hazel knows what it’s like to be asked “are you okay?” when you’re obviously not. You say “I’m fine”, because it’s simpler than “well, I’m dying of cancer, but besides that, everything’s hunky-dory” or “well, I’m supposed to be getting married in three months and suddenly I can’t walk down the aisle, but thanks for asking.” I’ve come far enough that now, when I answer “I’m fine”, I almost always mean it. But there was a time when that question stabbed me like a bread knife (huge and serrated) and all I could do was smile through the pain and hide the blood. And just like Hazel and her idolized author, Green has captured that exact feeling of maintaining two faces, one for yourself and one for the world.

I could keep going in the same vein, but the entire point of this blog is not to bore you, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead. So after all that, I would like to say this was not on my favorites list – yes, it’s a list, there are too many good books to pick just one favorite. I thought the dialogue was unreal, and not in a “hey man, that concert was totally unreal” kind of way. The main characters were way too grandiloquent and verbose. Existentially fraught basketball shots? Seriously, who talks like that? No one. Especially not teenagers. And let’s not forget the protagonist is a dying teenager. A bit too depressing for me. A Nickolas Sparks fan I am not. However, I’m not going to deny that the book affected me. Deeply. (Deny? Good grief, who am I kidding. I just wrote an entire post on it.) My imaginary hat is off to John Green for the amazing and almost creepy, stalkerish way he’s put my feelings on paper. So long as his other protagonists don’t sound like pretentious Harvard professors, I’ll definitely be checking out some of his other works.

So, random question: how many books do y’all think are on my favorites list? The person who guesses closest gets a prize: their choice of an excerpt from Cinderella, Robin Hood, or the brand new (translation: unedited) Beauty and the Beast. And for the cheaters out there, the list on my goodreads isn’t complete, so tough luck.

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A Taste of Potatoes

We’re always told that first impressions are the strongest, and it’s true that as writers we need to be aware of what impressions we’re giving the reader in the first pages (I’ll go into this at another time), but as a reader, I’ve noticed that there are lots of places I form opinions about a book. Not just the first pages.

I often have preconceptions about a book before I even crack the cover. Especially if it’s an author I’m familiar with or a subject I feel strongly about. Then, of course, there’s whether or not I want to keep reading after the first couple pages, but this one’s not as important for me as I tend to be a patient reader. I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt (and another twenty pages) so long as I’m not bored out of my mind or absolutely hating the characters. Now if the story is told by a gruesome serial killer, then he’d better save the cat by page five or I’m putting it down.

More importantly for me than the beginning is the ending. Was it satisfying? What taste did it leave after it was all over? As a rule, I try not to eat my books, but taste is a pretty good word for the feeling I’m left with on the last page. Am I licking my lips thinking Carol Berg tastes like chocolate mousse, something to take my time with and savor? Or am I gagging because Catcher in the Rye tastes like that little green steroid pill I had to take in the hospital, bitter and best swallowed quickly with lots of jello? Those reactions tend to be the most powerful for me.

However, I’ve noticed those aren’t necessarily my last impressions. Books mellow in my memory. I may put it down thinking it was the best book ever, but over time I’ll remember all the little things that I ignored because I was so caught up in the story. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be so sucked in that the imperfect details fade away; in fact, quite the opposite. However, I know I think about a book more objectively after my emotions aren’t so wrapped around a character and their story.

Which of all of these is the truer impression? I don’t know. I thought I’d have an answer by the end of this post, but I don’t. If anything, I think I’m more appreciative of the complexity of the novel and its ability to manipulate me better than Pinocchio’s puppet master. But is that enough to base a blog post on? I like to make some kind of greater point so y’all will come away feeling like you didn’t waste your time. Otherwise it’s jut me muttering to myself. Maybe that is the point. If we’re going to engage in the hugely manipulative art that is novel writing, we should at least be aware of the feelings and impressions we’re trying to make our readers feel with every word we type.

So, I’m curious now, what kind of taste do my posts leave you with? I’m hoping potatoes.

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