Thursday, October 29, 2009

PFC: Week 5

I’m trying a different approach to this week’s blog post. I took notes on my netbook and figured I would share them here with anyone who’s interested. Of course, I’ve added little bits here and there for guppy flavor.

Lecture Part 1: Five key scenes in a novel

  1. First meeting – first time your reader meets the characters (not just MC, all of the secondary characters as well) – think of it like introducing someone to a family member for the first time – what things do you notice, how are the dynamics different between knowing a character and meeting them the first time?
  2. Fight/conflict scenes – must come to a head, revealing, does not have to be resolved, hurt or hinder, open new plot points – have to have at least one, can have many. Should have one in the first 1/3 of the book – shows how the MC will evolve in latter sections.
    Mini exercise: List some conflict scenes in your book
    Mini exercise: How does your character react to these types of scenes?
  3. Sensual scene – the senses, not sexual – a scene that is so full of taste smell sound touch that the person reading is in the story 100% - make the character go through all this as well – the feel of your book, will tell you where the book is if it was taken out of context – what is the pivotal thing that happens in this scene?
  4. Tender moment – where the reader gets to see the MC doing something through someone else’s eyes and doesn’t know they’re being watched. MC interacting with someone else and a third person is observing. Ah ha moment – something secret, unexpected, etc – reveals there is more to MC than we think – In first person the character does it but doesn’t think anything of it, but the reader sees the out of character moment.
  5. Resolution – the end! If a series, at least one major plot has to be resolved.

Most of this made sense to me, though I was having a little trouble on the Sensual Scene concept. Personally, I don’t see why every scene can’t touch on all the senses. As the discussion went on, I gathered that Pam was suggesting there should be at least one scene where the senses are consuming, but something major happens at the same time. Pam gave an example from a book she has published – her MC has time travelled without knowing it, and as a writer Pam used the senses to be the turning point in which her MC realized the shift had happened (at the same time establishing a great deal about the “feel” of her world). While I get the gist, I still think most scenes can (and often times need to) have this quality. But everything in moderation, balance and not overwritten, of course.

Exercise 1: Write a conflict scene

Lecture Part II: The importance of setting/atmosphere/description is as important as your characters

Main points:

  1. How do characters and atmosphere interact/relate? What is the importance of a setting? Why did you pick it? It should be significant and a different story in a different setting.
  2. As a writer you should horde information: take little tidbits from everything – i.e. TV shows on attraction, body language – how human beings interact in the real world.
  3. What’s the reason for something in the scene – can’t just be because it’s “cool” – i.e. how does weather affect the people in the scene?

After this discussion, we read a few first paragraphs from published novels and guess what genre/setting they took place in.

Exercise 2: Choose a place where most of the book takes place and/or location that will be the final scene/battle and write a scene in that setting. Try and touch on all the senses – a “sensual” type of scene.

We did more critiquing, and people who hadn’t read last week stepped up to the plate.

Oh, and If anyone was wondering, I brought in a leather pouch as my item that speaks to me about my book. Since Kelder’s power comes from the Sand, she always carries a pouch of Sand on her belt.

Fun Quote of the Class: Pam is explaining why new authors need to have closure – an ending scene – and that thier first book needs to stand alone even if you would like to write it as a series.

Classmate says: “But my book isn’t a series. It’s a two book series. That’s okay, right?”

What I love most about Pam is the fact that when someone says something like this, she simply repeats the answer she already gave to the same damn question. It cracks me up every time.

Lesson of the day: Listen when your teacher is speaking. Don’t just hear the words and take notes. LISTEN TO THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF HER MOUTH.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

PFC: Week 4

Sorry for the late post. I was in Colorado at the Stanley Hotel. Redrum anyone?

Week 4 of my fiction class focused on conflict - both internal and external. Pam discussed how a scene is much like tiramisu, as in it has many, many ingredients, but if you remove just one it'll taste like crap. So conflict, you see, is one of the many necessary things that make a scene tasty. And now I'm hungry.

We only did one exercise this week, but it was broken down into a few parts. First was the set up, then came the scene writing.


Write down the name of your main character on the top of the page. Next, list 10 things your character would never do. When you complete the list, pick 2-3 items that are the most extreme. Now write a scene where your main character DOES one of the things you said they would never do.

This type of conflict building comes from Donald Maass, who Pam quoted a number of times during the lecture.

I enjoyed the exercise. Since this scene needed to take place in the first 1/3 of our novels, I used the time to rewrite and combine the text with a scene I had written previously in my short story version of Ala'der. I liked the scene overall, and the exercise opened my eyes to some tension building I'll have to do before I reach this point in the novel.

I volunteered to read first again. I waited, again, but no one seemed to want to toss themselves out there first. Part of me wonders if this makes me look cocky, but it's really not about that. I'm not shy about sharing my writing, I never have been. And I have experience being critiqued, from both good and bad critiquers. So I don't mind being the ice breaker for the people who need a few minutes to overcome their nerves. :)

I got some good feedback and was happy to find that most of the questions that came up were things that would be easily clarified in the context of the novel. For example, one of my classmates assumed Kelder was male, just by the sound of the name. It is clear Kelder is female on page one of the novel. Also, questions were asked about the relationship of the two sisters and the significance of the father (who is mentioned once in the scene I read). Both of these things are visited in great detail before reaching this scene. There was some mention of POV confusion, which I think will be clarified, again, in context. Regardless, I'm going to give it some extra attention when I revise, just to be sure.


1. Expanded the exercise into three pages
2. Bring something into class that speaks to you about your novel

Next week we're going to talk more about conflict, and the people who didn't read in this class are going to have their turn next time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

PFC: Week 3

Week three was what I'll call "back to basics class."

For class #2, we handed in our first three page assignment to Pam. As a result, Pam started her class with the "this is how you format your pages" lecture.

Things like:
  • Put your name on your paper
  • Use paragraph break
  • Use the tab button at the start of a new paragraph
  • Here's how to properly format dialogue

Many, many people had questions on this, which I can honestly say surprised me. But I then remembered that I have an undergraduate degree in English, with a focus in creative writing (and learned this stuff in 101) and most people don't.

Then we moved on to point of view (POV). The discussion started as a focus on why it’s important to remain in a single character's head for an entire scene, why the omniscient narrator is often frowned upon by agents, and the difference between first and third person POV. I was fine with the lecture topic. I felt it was valid for everyone including myself, as it never hurts to be reminded of the basics from time to time.

She spent some time discussing things that are cliché - like having your character look in a mirror to establish what they look like in every itty bitty detail - and how real people don't walk around thinking "my I have lovely locks of shimmer golden hair and my eyes are as blue as deepest ocean." The concept she aimed to push home was that no description should be focused on unless it has validity. And that you have to always remember what set of eyes you're looking through, as your characters mind will influence how they describe things to the reader. Overall, a very interesting discussion.

Which proceeded to then turn into two hours of annoying. Again, many people asked valid questions. Some people were confused about certain things, which is fine. My problem was that the discussion degraded into people asking the same EXACT questions over and over - like they weren't listening to the person before them who asked the same question and got the exact same answer.

Then we moved into "but I'm going to do this rule breaking in my book and its okay because of XYZ, right?" and "Are you just saying this because it's actually true because agents might prefer this but it’s not always the case, right?" And we even had one person trying to talk LOUDER THAN Pam so she could make the point of why it was important that the first book she's ever attempted to write was the exception to the rule and therefore, it was okay for her to break the rules.

Ugh. Once again I'm reminded why I will never be a teacher. I am simply not patient enough. Pam, on the other hand, is amazing and patient as a Saint, but firm at the same time. Kudos to her.

Because of the time this took, our exercises were limited. We filled out a questionnaire about our story and characters for the first exercise. For the second, we talked a bit about the role of the mentor character in a novel and the relationship they have to the hero. And that they almost always give some kind of a gift to the hero, be it advice, a physical object or support in a difficult situation.

So our second exercise was to take that idea, and write a scene between our hero and mentor in which the mentor gives a gift to the hero. This scene, Pam suggested, should take place in chapters 1 or 2, no later than 3.

Since I'm well into chapter 4 of Ala'der, I decided to go through and find out if I had already put a scene in that fit the bill. I had! It was in chapter 2. Perfect! So I spent my time tweaking the scene, and I have to hand in that scene expanded into three pages for next week. No problem.

Next week we're going to do some full blown critique groups. Should be interesting.

Moonlighting on Writing it out

I'm invading Beth's blog! Bwhaha!

In my post, I share what I've learned about YA in the last few months. And if you stop by to read my quest post, make sure read over the rest of Beth's series for this week - all about what YA is and isn't. As always, Beth's posts are informative, interesting and fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

One taco to rule them all

Yes. That is a real taco. And yes, it was really as big as a hardcover novel.
Wtf, work deli. Do I look like I need to be more pudgy than I already am?

Generational gap?

So I read this on facebook last night, and I think it's worth sharing with as many people as humanly possible. This is a conversation between Isabell, my five year old neice, and Scott,my brother and her father. It was posted by Darci, Isabell's mother.

Isabell: "Daddy, where's my Barack Obama doll?"

Scott: "Your what?"

Isabell: "My Barack Obama doll. You know, I had it last Christmas and he sat on the fireplace."

Scott: "Did he have on a gold jumpsuit?"

Isabell: "Yeah! He did!

Scott: "Honey, that's not Barack Obama. It's MC Hammer."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

PFC: Week 2

This week we got into the nitty gritty of character, and using the emotions of your character to drive the scene.

We did three exercises:

Exercise 1 – Character Interview

Pam gave use two starter questions – “what are you afraid of” and “what brings you joy?” – and about fifteen minutes to continue the interview. Afterwards, she asked us what we learned about our characters that we didn’t already know.

I found out a few things about Kelder, my main character for the Ala’der book, that I didn’t have a firm grasp on. The first is that she fears something I thought she was only angry about. And second, that her sand cat was the runt of a litter, given to her as a joke by the older Ala’der since Kelder was the youngest person to ever become one of the Ala’der.

I shared with the class, and Pam went on to discuss that every new thing you figured out about your character is another scene that can go in your novel. An interesting idea for sure.

Exercise 2 – Opposite Traits

For this exercise, we were asked to list a trait our character is known for, then write down the opposite of that trait, and then, write a scene with the character demonstrating the opposite of the trait they are known for.

I selected bravery as one of Kelder’s dominating traits, so my opposite was to write a scene where she was afraid. Which worked in tangent with the interview, as I had just discovered a fear I didn’t know Kelder possessed.

Exercise 3 – Write a scene about…

We were given a list of circumstances to put our character in, and then write out how they might reaction. The main goal was to display strong emotion. The options included:

The hero’s best friend has died unexpectedly
The hero’s best friend has betrayed them
The hero is kissed
Someone asks the hero to marry them
Someone is trying to extort the main character
Receives an inheritance

I’m sure you can all guess where I went. That’s right: death.

Here’s my exercise. Since I don’t have names for these characters yet (and I don’t even know if a scene like this will play out in the actual novel) I simply called them “Rival” and “Mentor.” After all, I only had fifteen minutes. No time for dwelling on such things!

Again, this is completely unedited from last night - despite my twitchy fingers.

Rival’s knife was quick – quicker than she’d ever seen the coward fight. As if he pulled the glass from the air itself, just before he sunk it into Mentor’s throat.

Many, many times had Kelder found her own blade as the source of so much blood; wet, red , water and life, absorbing into the desert. But there was no Sand here, only the stones that held them all in this wretched, man built city.

Mentor fell to his knees, hands grasping futility for a flood that could not be stopped. It slowed everything; sound, breathe, even Rival. Rival paused to look at his blade, as if he was shocked that his own actions had succeeded – that he had struck down a fellow favored of the Sand with such ease. It was Rival’s smile, a heartbeat and river later, that snapped Kelder’s world back to order.

Mentor was dead. There was no changing the will of the Sand. There was only revenge.

Then, you guessed it, Pam set us up for our first real critique session. Completely voluntary, kind of the get your feet wet idea. Okay, I was scared shitless, but what the hell right? I promised myself at the end of the first class that I was going to take advantage of every chance there was to read to the class. I need the practice, and I need to get over being terrified if I ever want to be a professional, successful author. I counted to three, and no else stepped up, so I raised my hand.

I was shaking again, had to clear my throat in the middle because it tried to choke itself, but I made it through. Pam was the only one to give feedback (I think everyone else is still a little gun shy about speaking up in anyway, or being the first to say something needs work) but it was pretty cool.

She pointed out phrases she liked – which shows she’s a super attentive listener. That she liked that I had a starting and ending hook for the scene. Her only suggestion was to expand the setting – where are they, what does it look like, smell like, is it hot, cold, etc. Which made perfect sense.

When I do these exercises I’m aiming to get something coherent out (and as perfect as possible for fear of looking like a monkey with a netbook) as fast as possible. And looking at the scene from above, my plan is certainly to expand it if it makes it into the book. This might be the clinching moment of the longer scene, but there will certainly be worlding building and setting expansion in the paragraphs leading up to it.

I also commented on a few of the other writers' work: like instead of telling the reader it was 3:00 am, show me the clock and asking a question about when person takes a gun from their purse, shouldn’t they have the safety on? Both of my suggestions seemed appreciated, which was also fun. It’s nice to feel like your contributing.

I feel like a fish in water. I think by the end of the semester, reading out loud is going to be much easier.

Homework: Take one of the three exercises and expand them into three pages, or write a new three pages. These pages must include a focus on displaying emotion, and also moving the plot forward in some way. These pages should happen within the first two chapters of your novel.

Talley-ho! My word count for Ala’der is up to about 4,000, not including what I wrote in class last night.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rejection: Shine Anthology

I heard back from the Shine Antho this weekend. The answer was no, as this post's title implies, but the rejection letter was personalized.

This was an interesting story where the boundaries between real and virtual life often blended over so much that the distinction between the two became unclear. More importantly, the virtual world seemed to function as a conduit that made the actual world, which felt rather dystopian to me, more bearable. And even if there was some light at the end of this story's tunnel, I prefer stories where things are better than today. So I'm giving it a pass.

When I wrote PERCIVAL, I wasn't sure where to begin. I like hardship and feel that adds strength to the fiction I write. For me, I felt it was optimistic in terms of how Percival felt and acted - the belief that no matter how tough things were, he could (and did) improve the world. But I had a feeling that might not be quite enough for this antho for the very reason the editor discussed in the rejection letter. Still, always worth trying.

The editor did go on to recommended a few places I might submit it to, which was a very pleasant touch to the letter and encouraging. Why, I do think it would just be silly not to take his advice, don't you? :)

As for other markets, Asimov's would be one of your best bets, as Sheila Williams told me personally at last month's WorldCon how much she was looking forward to Shine, but also wrote in her July 2009 editorial: "I know it will be hard for writers to resist turn inward and that there is great value in holding a mirror up to our lives, but I'd also like to see stories that uplift us, show us some way out of our current circumstances, and offer us some grand new vistas of the future." And I can assure you she's not the only editor (several asked me at WorldCon: "How do you get writers to write upbeat stories?") out there. Also, markets like Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Analog and Futurismic (and Baen's Universe, if they hadn't closed shop) might be well worth a try.

I certainly wish I could say ‘try me again’, but a second Shine anthoplogy will only happen if this one sells well. Shine is slated for an early 2010 release, and until that time I will keep several features (‘Optimistic SG around the World’, ‘Music that Makes You Feel Optimistic’, etc.) running on the Shine blog, while adding new ones.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Popular Fiction Class: Week 1

As most of you know, my three semester writing course at the University of Washington started yesterday. It’s called Popular Fiction 1: The Beginning (for the fall section; winter and spring are called the Middle and the End, respectively), but I’ll be calling it PFC for short (not to be confused with PPC, PCC, BFG or PB&J).

My instructor is Pam Binder, PNWA president and published novelist. I have to say, I was impressed by her style during the informational class and her devoted follow-up to my questions regarding her course. And now that the course is underway, my early opinion is confirmed: Pam is pretty darn cool.

Class started as one would expect: a gathering of timid writers in a small room, early comers spread out along the rows of tables as the rest filled in the gaps. This is a full class, 25 people and (yikes) 14 people on the waiting list. Glad I signed up early. Pam came in and everyone chatted casually for a bit before beginning introductions. You know, that typical, and necessary, “this is my name, this is who I am, and this is what I like to write.”

A cross section of my classmates: a physicist with five published non-fiction books, a stay at home mom, a game designer, a few editors, a couple journalists, a man who once sold aircrafts to the Russian mafia, a woman who has had an idea about a novel for forty years, an environmental scientist who tests hazardous waste, and a guy who liked the class so much last year he’s back for a second round.

Pam went on to cover the basics: the do and do nots about publishing and agents, the reason why you don’t use pink paper and 3 pt font, and why its important to know your genre and be able to pitch your idea coherently.

Enter exercise 1. We were each given a blue note card and ten minutes to produce the following: our name, working title of our work in progress, genre of said WIP, and two sentences describing the novel.

Well, shit. Nothing like an assignment to smash my indecisiveness. Ala’der it is, since I’ve decided I will benefit most from taking a new project through the program, start to finish, instead of trying to rewrite something I haven’t finished yet. Good news is I have a pretty good grasp on what my Ala’der book is about. Bad news? When we’re done with said exercise, we will be reading it aloud to the class.


So here’s what my card looked like (and by the way, Pam gave full permission for horridly written run-on sentences for this first attempt at grasping at our ideas):

Name: Erin
Working Title: Ala’der
Genre: Fantasy
Two sentences: (Just to let you all know, its really hard to not edit this the next day, but I want to give you the honest crap I spewed out last night) “At the age of nine, Kelder was chosen by the Sand god to be of the Ala’der, feared assassins with mirrors for eyes and control of the desert for the meager price of their soul. Now, fourteen years later, she is called by the people of her god’s rival, the Sun, to kill a soul looker – the one blasphemy that crosses deity lines – and discovers a horrible truth: the soul looker is her sister, Telleo.”

Yeah. I totally read that in front of twenty-four other writers. And it was nerve wracking. And then, watching other people go through the same thing, I felt better – not in a mean way, mind you. Surprise, surprise, I’m not the only writer who finds reading out loud difficult. I listened to others stumble over their words, voices cracking, and watched a number of other blue cards tremble with the anxiousness that comes with public speaking.

All exercises will be done like this: 15-30 minutes of writing, followed by reading aloud to the group. I think this will be really good practice in a place that already feels safe. These people are in the same boat as me, so we can all suffer fantastically together and hopefully as a result be better prepared when it’s time to read our stuff to agents and, perhaps one day, to our fans.

We also spent 15 minutes writing the opening scene of our novel. I already had a few stabs at a beginning for Ala’der, but I started from scratch for the exercise. And I think I might be on to something – a slight twist that might give the opening more bite. Cool.

After the writing time was up, Pam spent the rest of the class talking about the basics of critiquing – something I won’t go into detail in this post. I think most of my followers have a good grasp on how this works, and while it’s always necessary to discuss this in a new class, I don’t think you all need to hear it again. At least not in a post that’s already approaching epic in length.

The class ended with two homework assignments. First, expand our opening scene into three double spaced pages to hand in next week to Pam, who will return it the week after with her personal critique. And second, visit a bookstore and decide where our novel would appear (what genre category, mostly) and what author we might find on the shelf next to us.

To say the least, a great start.