Tag - on writing

1
The Submission Process, The End
2
The Submissions Process, Part Five
3
How I Know It’s Not a Writing Day
4
5 Things That Would Make Me Throw a Book Against the Wall
5
Stretches for NaNoWriMo
6
All Teens Do . . .
7
Italicizing Non-English Words in English-Language Fiction
8
Make It Stop. Inspiration Overload
9
The Glam and the Gristle
10
A Typical Writing Day for the Cow

The Submission Process, The End

Day ??

Since I’m writing this final post like a year after I went into subs with my first book, I can’t remember at which point I had The Talk with my agents. Sorry guys! But it went like this:

1. My agents informed me that they were receiving the same sorts of rejections: YA Dystopia isn’t selling.

I think we’ve figured this one out ourselves.

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The Submissions Process, Part Five

Day 15:

Mr. Cow wasn’t feeling well last week, so he spent the past six days at home, which was really nice. Now that he’s back at work, the house is all forlorn and empty. Which means extra time to worry about my writing. Gah! Weirdly enough, I’m mostly worried about my second book now, which has been in Junior Agent’s hands for about a week. Aaaaaaahhh! I so hope she loves it as much as my betas and I do.

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How I Know It’s Not a Writing Day

Any writer knows. Some days you feel it, some days you don’t. Today was a no-feels day. Here’s how I knew:

I spent the first two hours of daylight with my laptop open in front of me while I stared out the window. See, a bird couple was investigating the birdhouse. They’ve come to check the place three days in a row now, but have yet to take up residence. I started making up stories about them. I decided they’re picky house hunters trying to incite a seller’s war. “You won’t get a year’s supply of premium seed from me, chickadees!” 

 

I told myself to buckle down. I opened my current chapter and typed one sentence. I got stuck on a word. I opened Thesaurus.com. I opened Twitter. I opened Seahawks.com. I opened Dogshaming.com. I critiqued a query at a writer’s website I frequent. I got hungry. I went to the kitchen and ate a handful of Swedish Fish. I craved salt. I went back to the kitchen for potato chips. I wanted chocolate. I went back to the kitchen for a piece of Ghirardelli sea salt milk chocolate. I got a sugar rush.

I sat my butt back down. I looked at my sentence. The stuck word was still stuck. I looked at the clock. It was 9 AM.

I thought about needing to write. I wondered how warm it was outside. I watched funny videos people linked on Twitter. I did dishes.

I thought about cleaning the spare bathroom.

…..

…….!!

 

That’s when I knew I was done for.

 

5 Things That Would Make Me Throw a Book Against the Wall

* Note: All these things are inspired by books I recently read, but I’m not going to specifically name any of the books because karma is a scary, scary beast. Yes, yes, I’m a cow…ard. Hur hur. Geddit, geddit? Uh, moving on…

1. Unhealthy relationships which are hailed as awesome ones.

Look, I get it. I get that no relationship is perfect. Mr. Cow and I fight quite a bit (mostly his fault, of course), but at the end of the day, we love and support each other and we make sacrifices which we don’t rub into each other’s faces, at least not unless we feel like it. But recently, this happened in a book:

Post10a

I thought this was a good conflict, because you know, sometimes people behave like dicks. What is NOT good is the fact that the MC totally fell apart because of her assholey husband, dropped everything including the Once in a Lifetime chance, and flew across the country to make up with this man-baby, and that was the happy ending. Just, no.

2. Major subplots which are never resolved.

Post10bI don’t usually mind questions that are left with vague answers, but in this case, it happened with a major subplot — I could even argue that this is the main plot because it was mentioned in the blurb — and there was no answer, not even a vague one. I still have no clue what the heck happened, which might be okay for small subplots, but not ones which are a selling point to the book. (I mean, I picked up the book because this very plotline sounded so interesting. BWARGH.)

3. Books without meaningful female characters.

Post10cBy “meaningful”, I don’t mean female characters need to be the main characters, but they do need to exist for reasons which are completely independent of their male counterparts. I’m not interested in books which delegate one-dimensional roles to the female characters, like “the wife/girlfriend/LI”. Also, can we please have more than just the ONE token female character? We do make up half the world’s population, after all.

4. Books that are obviously wish fulfillment for the author.

Post10d

These kinds of books become embarrassing to read, because I feel like I’m taking a peek into some hormonal teen’s diary. I blame the beta readers, the agent, and the various editors at the publishing house for this. I mean, really, at some point, did no one think to point out that 100 pages of sex with a wood nymph goddess thingy is kind of gratuitous?

5. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad.

Post10e

I hate black and white morality. Mostly because I feel that such simplicity insults my intelligence as a reader. Most people aren’t all good or all bad. I like complex characters, flawed MCs who do shitty stuff and antagonists who give you pause and make you think, “S/he has a point…” Give me your despicable good guys and compassionate baddies anytime.

What are your pet peeves when it comes to books?

Stretches for NaNoWriMo

This month is NaNoWriMo and I have been killing it! I’ve been pounding out an average of 5,000 words a day. I am on a roll! I am on fiyah! I am . . . paying the price with my back. And neck, and shoulders, and wrists. Apparently, sitting at the same exact position for hours on end isn’t that great for my body. I was chatting with a fellow Nano-er, who mentioned her shoulders have been killing her, and it hit me that many Nano-ers are probably going through the same thing. So, without further ado, I present to yew:

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All Teens Do . . .

I’ve come across many posts debating why authors should be allowed to have teen characters in YA books who swear, drink, smoke, do drugs, and are sexually active. I am totally in favor of having teenaged characters who do those stuff, because, well, that’s just plain realistic. However, I do have a problem when it stops being “Some teens do these stuff” and starts becoming “All teens do this stuff!”

Maybe it is true that most teens rebel. I would say that was true for my friends and I. We were growing up and testing the boundaries set by the authority figures in our lives, as well as our own boundaries and limitations. But I think every teen rebels differently. I know there are vast cultural differences between me and the average American teen, especially since I went to an all-girl Catholic school in Singapore, but let’s take a peek at the teenaged cow . . .

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Italicizing Non-English Words in English-Language Fiction

“Cyrillic JA”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cyrillic_JA.png#mediaviewer/File:Cyrillic_JA.png

I’m a bit late in posting this, but:

There was a really fascinating conversation going on a while ago about whether writers should italicize non-English words in English-language fiction.  Daniel José Older made a very funny and incisive argument against it, and Kameron Hurley added more excellent thoughts (link to Hurley’s blog; has Older’s video as well — watch it and come back; it’s well worth it).

I love what Older said about non-English words just being part of the flow.  There are a few Cantonese and Swatowese words I grew up with that are just part of my vocabulary, and it would feel downright bizarre to italicize them in writing.  What I call my grandparents, for instance, or the names of certain foods or places, or, for that matter, my name.  There’s no othering in either my inflection nor my cognition when I use these words in conversation; it would never even occur to me to italicize them even though I’m not fluent in the languages:

“I picked up some dumplings and bao today.”

“When I was at Amah and Ayeh’s apartment . . .”

“My sister grew up calling me Jeh-Je.”

And when I’m talking to people who have some Mandarin knowledge, we go even further with our mixing.  Here’s some goofiness from a thread on Absolute Write (quoted with permission):

“Yaaayy totes hen gaoxing!”

“Putputt, there’s another recipe for ya. Durian, intestine, and stinky tofu-stuffed jiaozi with dough made out of cornflakes.”

“*hides under the fanzhuo* Ni keyi haz them. Wo hai pa.”

“Screw han zi! Ask Little Ming, not too long ago I mistakenly said “I poured from Indonesia”. Hate han zi.”

“Bu tai hao. Very bu tai hao.”

And these were written communications, in mixed company (Mandarin-speaking AND non-Mandarin speaking AND partially-Mandarin speaking), and nobody was italicizing.  But still, everyone got which words were Chinese — I think! — and when I think about italicizing, I cringe.  “Yaaayy totes hen gaoxing!” or “screw han zi!” looks bizarre and reads with entirely the wrong cadence.

So, YEAH.  I agree with Older and Hurley!

. . . most of the time.

Because the natural next step was to think, wait, I have a few non-English sentences in my novels and I’ve italicized them.  Why did I do it?  Should I remove it?  Should I stop doing it?

And I struggled for a few minutes, because I couldn’t figure out why italicizing those words in my books felt right, when in the above examples it would feel so, so, so wrong.  But after a while I realized: they’re not words my main character understands.  She’s not meant to understand them; on some meta-level they’re being transcribed phonetically into the narrative.  I also want to signal to the readers that they’re not meant to understand them either, necessarily; even from context — part of what I’m trying to do with italics is signaling to the audience that their eyes can gloss over it a bit.

Here are the passages:

“That’s stupid,” I muttered, but without any vitriol, and without any real belief behind the words. “You should be able to axiomitize everything. How else can you know right from wrong?”

Rio was smiling again. “If you’re asking me personally, you know how. Sumasampalataya ako sa iyong tsarera.”

“What does that mean?” He didn’t answer me, but I knew already.

is from book one, and:

“Not the time for pleasantries,” I snapped over my shoulder as I went back over to Checker and his laptop.  “Get to work or get out.”

No es tan antipática como parece,” Arthur said to Pilar, with a sideways glance at me.  “Te lo prometo.”

He was definitely mocking me.  Ass.  “Fuck you,” I said.  “I assume.”

is in book two (unless it hits the cutting room floor).

I keep looking at the passages.  Changing the italics to plain text.  Changing it back.  Reading them over.  And I think that if I don’t italicize them, it makes the reader stumble a bit, doesn’t signal clearly enough that these words are about to be a chunk of text they don’t recognize and aren’t necessarily meant to, especially as there’s no fluent switching from those characters elsewhere in the text.

But what about characters who do mix languages fluently?  Does that make a difference?  Does it make sense then to non-italicize, even if my POV character doesn’t speak those languages, if, regardless of her fluency, the speaking characters are dropping in those words as part of the normal flow of conversation and expecting her to get what they mean?  Does it make a difference that, in both cases above, the characters speaking are saying something in front of her that they deliberately don’t want her to understand?

I think it might.

I’ve realized I also had a few sprinkled-in words that come from non-English languages, in which everyone was assumed to understand the meaning, and I’ve already gone through and de-italicized those.  (It’s fascinating for me that I italicized them without thinking in the first place!)  But in these cases where I really am trying to offset the text as not understandable, the choice doesn’t feel quite as clear.

After a lot of mulling, I think I think that in the above cases the italics work to offset the words as something foreign — foreign to the POV character, that is.  Another thing I loved about Older’s video was his stress at the end about how language is about communication and understanding, and in that vein, I think I think that italics can be used — or not used — in a judicious manner to change the readers’ perceptions of a non-English language’s appearance in the narrative.

But I’m not sure.  And there’s the whole question of othering to consider, and how italicizing non-English languages can contribute to that.  So I’m very much interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this, and I might still change my mind.  It’s definitely something I’m going to put a lot more thought into from now on!

(And now I deliberately want to go and write a short story that mixes languages, as I’ve been thinking about it so much lately.  For more great thinkiness on mixing non-English into English language fiction, try John Chu’s utterly fantastic essay in The Book Smugglers, and then go read his excellent Hugo-winning short story “The Water That Falls From Nowhere.”)

Make It Stop. Inspiration Overload

Brain Bulb

One of the most common questions I’m asked when I describe the novel I’m writing is, “How the heck did you come up with the idea?”

Chuck Wendig recently included a version of this question in a post on his brilliant Terrible Minds website Ten Things To Never Say To a Writer. His reply?  “The real question is, how do we make them stop?” (He’s far more eloquent and picturesque than I am, so after you’re done here, go read his post. )

It made me both laugh and sob a little.

There’s no question I’ve forgotten ten times as many story nuggets as I’ve used. A hundred times as many. And when people ask me that question, it almost always takes me a little aback. “How do you not find stories every day?” I want to ask.

Many (if not most) writers are inundated with ideas. We scribble in notebooks and on the torn-off flaps of the envelopes our bills come in. We find half-legible sentences in weird places all the time. Under a layer of coupons, receipts and limp celery leaves in the recyclable grocery bag, on moldy-edged napkins in the cooler last used at the Sasquatch Music Festival—two years ago.  Sometimes we snap pictures of unusual incidents of fog in the woods or a rusty bike leaning against a street sign or we try, try to sear into our memories all the details of a woman waging a losing battle between her skirt and a gust of wind.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, and frankly, it’s annoying.

So many ideas want to be stories. We’d like to make use of them all, but there are only so many waking hours, and  the truth is, most of the inspirations don’t make for good stories. They’re scenes, or settings, or character studies, elements essential for every story, but not stories themselves. If a writer tries to capture all of her ideas and make stories out of them, she’ll accomplish nothing. I’ve been down this road, spent weeks, months trying to make a story out of something that was nothing more than a great scene.

The maturity of knowing what makes a capital-S Story and what doesn’t, of being able to recognize early on what has full potential, is one of the hallmarks of a writer in control of his craft, in my opinion. Not that one shouldn’t explore story ideas, or that the notebooks filled with half-formed plots or the partially-written novels are wasted effort. Every job, every craft requires its learning stages. Only, when a writer gets to the place where he or she can look at an idea, an inspiration, and judge its capacity to become a full-fledged story, she has achieved a certain level of professionalism. The ability to look at one’s own ideas with a measure of objectivity.

As writers, we have to cull through all of those inspirations flooding in every day, be choosy.

That oh-so-famous quote in writers’ circles: Kill your darlings.

It’s attributed to many famous inksters but the first evidence of its use is by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a not-so-famous lecturer on writing craft. Generally, the advice is thrown around for scenes or sentences, bits of your story you should edit out. But it also applies to ideas. No matter how badly I want to write a novella about the couple “having intimate relations while the woman was getting a chest tattoo,” I can’t. Because that, my friends, will not a story make.

So I’m tucking away the scrap of the Crate and Barrel catalog on which I scribbled that bit.

For now.

Honestly, that one’s just too good not to use someday.

 

Image attribution: Belarusian industrial design duo Solovyovdesign's Brain-shaped lightbulb 

The Glam and the Gristle

A couple of nights ago, Pencil uttered these words:

You know, I think circus books bug me for the same reason that books set on film sets or at MIT bug me. It feels like the author is in a sense looking in and being like ‘OOO THAT’S SO COOOL SEE HOW COOOOL’.”

It wasn’t long before a feature length discussion ignited in the menagerie, those of us present reflecting on how some settings in books and movies tend to feel inauthentic due to author intrusion and a general reverence for a particular backdrop. In short, we’d noticed a few reads where the ‘ooh shiny’ factor morphed into a laminated stereotype. Glamourous, but lacking depth – and a far cry from reality.

A common piece of writing wisdom is to treat your setting as another character. I agree with that, wholeheartedly; ideally, a setting should be as well-rounded and integral to the story as a leading character. Some of the best books I’ve ever read are so deeply entwined with their setting, it’s difficult to imagine the stories taking place elsewhere. A good setting doesn’t just serve as an interesting backdrop; it influences the character’s actions, thoughts and feelings – it flavours the novel, without overpowering it. Some geographic examples would be Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (Trenton) and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter (Miami). Dexter without a vibrant and sunny surface to contrast the darkness within his world would lose a large amount of the humour and charm; similarly, Stephanie’s tight-knit Burg community provides a unique mix of family life and illicit activity – something that highlights and interacts with the different sides to and desires of her character. Relocating either of these series would have a dramatic effect on the storyline, characters and general tone of the novels. Think butterfly wings and hurricanes (only replace the butterfly with a ten-foot-tall prehistoric moth and name it ‘Setting’).

But back to the glamourous. Settings that focus more on professions and industries – the circus, movies, law firms… these seem prone to leaving reality behind at the gate. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by the default razzmatazz on television and the page, which is so often two-dimensional… missing out on the complete picture.

“Things aren’t all beautifully dressed people striding about with files in hand.” – Puppy, on onscreen law firms.

But what’s the reality?

Every person that works in one of these environments is doing just that – working. Things that may strike the writer and reader as exotic will be commonplace for the character. Keep that in mind when writing – what is it the character would notice about the setting? How would they interact? A newbie to a film set will notice very different things and interact in a very different way to a jaded veteran.

A good example of this comes from our own Pencil. Pencil was recently reading a novel that takes place on a film set – an environment Pencil has first-hand experience of. Said author had done their research of the setting, but the character (who was supposed to have worked in the biz for quite some time) was presenting the set to the reader with the eyes of an industry virgin.

“The first few chapters read like a middle schooler’s excited “My Day on a Film Set” essay. Every added slang term and industry description felt like it was lit up by flashing neon lights saying LOOK! I KNOW WHAT THE RIGHT WORD IS. And the writer gets them wrong – not very wrong, mind– right enough that anyone not in film would be impressed. But ever so slightly wrong, the way a really green PA might.”

Pencil, with inside knowledge, is always going to be tougher to please than an average reader when it comes to this setting – but it’s not impossible to impress her. Her example of a film set ‘done right’ in fiction comes from the Dresden Files.

“Jim Butcher does an excellent job at it–partly, I think, because Dresden is a complete newcomer to film, so reacts to the set world like an observer who isn’t used to it. That’s admittedly a bit easier to write. But as far as I can remember, all the small details that are thrown in are correct and enjoyable, and it really does feel to me–someone who works in film regularly–like Harry is on a film set. I think part of the key is that Butcher doesn’t try so hard to throw in every possible description of film production he can; instead he treats it like any other setting Harry encounters, peppering it with the occasional detail but not listing every costume Harry sees on a rack in wardrobe storage.”

Quality not quantity of information. No author intrusion, because Harry’s experience of the setting lined up with his familiarity. And this isn’t to say that if he were familiar with a set, he’d need to spill a stomachful of technical details across the page – the tip of the research iceberg is usually sufficient convey the setting and character’s knowledge of it. In most cases it’s best to learn as much as you can on a subject or setting, but to use just a sprinkle of that information – the minimum to taste.

And then there’s the mundane side of the magic. For all the dazzle, some of the most memorable details in a ‘glamourous’ setting are the ones that bring it back down to earth. The gristle.

“Who wants to watch everybody sit at the catering table checking their phones all day?” – Puppy, on the reality of movie sets.

It doesn’t sound the most thrilling scene[1], but these sorts of details and how they’re presented can help make a setting (and the characters within it) pop. For example, if the people checking their phones on set are doing so while a stuntwoman crashes a burning car – that tells the reader something (as well as providing the opportunity to sprinkle of humour via setting). Consider the mundane elements of the environments you use, and search for the points of interest within them.

Creating a fully-realized setting is a balancing act, and there’s room for both the guts and the glitter of an environment. If I’m reading about a circus, I want acrobatics on the high wire AND the guy in the ticket booth picking popcorn out his teeth. If it’s an outdoor film set, I want the fast cars AND the malfunctioning porta-potty. Recognisable nuggets of realism can help to make a setting feel more rounded and relatable; they can bring the magic home.

They’re the cookie dough in the ice cream. Without them, all you’ve got is vanilla.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Although that could depend on why they’re checking their phones – what they’re expecting.

A Typical Writing Day for the Cow

Post1

Heh, this was very true for the first year or so. I’d procrastinate the entire day until I looked at the clock and realized Mr. Cow was due back in five minutes. Then the accumulated guilt of not having done anything productive the whole day would kick me in the throat and force me to write at lightning speed. Over time, I did get better at disciplining myself, and now I am happy to say I only procrastinate like, 50% of the time. Instead of, you know, 95% of the time. Baby steps and all.

Oh, and . . .

1410715073216

Introducing Mr. Cow! He’ll probably be in quite a few of my posts. What in the name of all that is holy is he? My guess is as good as yours. He calls the blue blob I’ve come up with a “ball of panic”. I’m not sure why I’ve chosen to draw him with that panicky expression, since he’s a pretty calm guy most of the time.

Anyway, hulloooos! This is my first post, so whee! Um, and now I am out of things to say. Okay, bye!

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