Monthly Archives: June 2015

Getting out of a writing rut

3-D printer.

3-D printer at the Muncie Public Library’s Connection Corner

I’ve blogged before about getting through those moments when you feel stuck on a project. But those tips assume you have a project that you’re working on, whether you’re revising or just getting started. What about when you’re between projects, and have no ideas (or too many ideas!) for the next one? Where do you start?

Sometimes, it helps me to take a break before diving into a new project. I’m excited about a story idea, but when I start to write, I just can’t get into it. My last project is too fresh in my mind. So instead of starting another novel right away, I’ll use prompts or writing exercises to hone my craft while I take the time to mentally prepare myself for another book. It’s nice to practice a skill on a scene level without having to think about how that scene will fit into a larger project, and it gives me a chance to really push myself without any pressure.

Another good way to cleanse your palate between projects is to read. Read books in your genre and books outside your genre. Read about things that interest you — both in fiction and in nonfiction. You never know when something will spark an idea for your own work.

TARDIS.

I made a miniature TARDIS with the MakerBot 3-D printer and a design from Thingiverse

Finally, find another creative outlet. If you like music, take a class, join a community band, or just sing to yourself in the shower. If you like to draw, pull out your sketchpad. I’ve been reading a lot about different maker activities in libraries, and finally had a chance to check out the 3-D printer, digital design equipment, and recording studio at a nearby library yesterday. I learned a lot, and left with ideas I can apply to both my library and writing careers.

How do you clear your mind between projects?

Genre Lessons: Hybrid Novels

Pow!

Image by studio_hades on openclipart.org

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month I’ll be discussing hybrid novels, my unofficial (and probably incorrect) label for books that combine prose and graphic novels. (Incidentally, if you know the industry term for these books, please let me know!)

Note: I’m cheating a little on two fronts this month. First, our reader’s advisory book club is taking a hiatus this month due to the added craziness of Summer Reading. We’re going to discuss literary fiction next month, so I chose my own genre this time. Second, in studying hybrid novels, I’m technically looking at a unique format, not a specific genre. But I think there’s still a lot that writers can learn from these books, whether we’re writing hybrid novels or sticking solely with print. So, without further ado, here are my top takeaways from this format.

1. Characters’ interests can help tell their stories. If you’re looking for a way to weave in backstory without it feeling clunky, turn to your characters’ hobbies. Musicians can write a song about a messy break-up, painters can cover a canvas with scenes from a car crash, and graphic artists can create comics with stories that reflect their own past. This last one is done beautifully in both the books I read, with the mysterious backstory depicted in comics between sections of prose. If you want to experiment with multiple formats, see if your characters’ interests could provide an opportunity to add illustrations, music, or even online multimedia. (I know that’s not always feasible, but for inspiration, check out what Heather Demetrios is doing with The Lexie Project​.)

2. Stories within stories can add layers to your world, whether your book takes place in the real world or on a made-up planet. Village elders have been warning children away from dark forests with fairy tales for centuries; why not include a local fairy tale or legend in your own work to explain why no one ventures outside the village walls? This helps you explain the rules of your world in a more interesting way, while also letting you give a little bit of the history and culture.

3. If your character is an artist, you can deepen his emotions by showing them through his art. A painter whose father just died may hold it together in public for his mother’s sake, but may privately paint scenes that show how lost and alone he feels. A cartoonist who is struggling to understand a friend’s recent betrayal may draw comics in which a villain corrupts a character who looks like that friend. These may not be the best examples, but hopefully you get the idea.

So, those are the main lessons I learned from hybrid novels. Have you read any hybrids you liked recently? Did they help you improve your own work?

And since I’m already breaking the rules this month, I’m going to plug the books I studied for this post. Normally I don’t reveal specific titles in my genre lessons posts, because I’m not always crazy about those books. But I loved both these hybrid novels so much that I thought I’d share their summaries from Goodreads. They’re very different books, but both authors use the format in amazing ways. If you’ve read either one, let me know what you think!

I Am Princess X. I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Best friends, big fans, a mysterious webcomic, and a long-lost girl collide in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of both Cory Doctorow and Sarah Dessen; illustrated throughout with comics.

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X?

When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon—her best friend, Libby, who lives.

The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson

Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night. His parents did, and so did his sister, but he survived.

Now he lives in the hospital. He serves food in the cafeteria, he hangs out with the nurses, and he sleeps in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him.

Then one night Rusty is wheeled into the ER, burned on half his body by hateful classmates. His agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together through all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside the hospital, and away from their pasts.

But Drew knows that life is never that simple. Death roams the hospital, searching for Drew, and now Rusty. Drew lost his family, but he refuses to lose Rusty, too, so he’s determined to make things right. He’s determined to bargain, and to settle his debts once and for all.

But Death is not easily placated, and Drew’s life will have to get worse before there is any chance for things to get better.

Why I’m not excited about Harper Lee’s new book

Go Set a Watchman. In less than a month, Go Set a Watchman, the long-anticipated sequel to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird will hit physical and digital shelves. As a librarian, I recognize that this is a big deal. I answered three phone calls the day the publishing deal was announced from patrons asking to place holds on Go Set a Watchman — and that list has only grown since then. I’m even organizing a series of programs surrounding the publication — a showing of the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird followed by a discussion of the book and film.

But as a writer, I have mixed feelings about this sequel. From what I understand (and please, correct me if I’m wrong!), Go Set a Watchman takes place years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, with Scout and Atticus reflecting on what happened. It’s also the book her editor rejected. (See the final paragraphs of this New York Times article about the book. I’m not going to comment on the controversy over whether Lee wanted Watchman published or not; that’s a separate discussion I don’t feel informed enough to contribute to.) To Kill a Mockingbird was a rewritten version of the story that’s going to be published on July 14. So it seems to me Go Set a Watchman is just an earlier draft of the Pulitzer-winning classic.

Writers cut scenes, alter timelines and viewpoints, and make countless other revisions for a reason. We want to make our books better. Sometimes we fall in love with a character or an idea that just won’t work for the book we’re writing, so even though it hurts, we cut that character or idea out. That’s what Harper Lee did when she rewrote To Kill a Mockingbird. You could argue that she only made the changes because her editor told her. You could argue that her editor was wrong. And Go Set a Watchman may be the next Great American Novel (if there is such a thing as The Great American Novel). But I have reservations about reading something that was essentially a trunk draft.

I’ve written several trunk novels. I have no doubt I’ll write several more. All writers do. We call them trunk novels for a reason.

Some of them deserve to stay on our hard drives, in our attics, perhaps even in actual trunks, where we can cherish and appreciate and — most importantly — apply what we’ve learned from them to write better books. So even though I liked To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not counting down the days until the sequel’s published.

What about you? What are your thoughts on Go Set a Watchman?

Are your characters struggling enough?

Rainbow Dash.

Image by xPesifeindx via Wikimedia Commons

Summer Reading is in full swing, and I’m hard at work planning superhero-themed fun. Between that and editing my own work, I don’t have a ton of blogging time this week. However, I did come across a great post about “Nice Writer Syndrome” on Janice Hardy’s Fiction University that I thought I’d share with you. This is a good follow-up to my post last week about not shying away from confrontation​.

So, do you suffer from Nice Writer Syndrome? How do you combat it?

Writing tip: don’t shy away from confrontation

Angry bull. All writers love their characters. We wouldn’t spend thousands of words and hours with them if we didn’t. So of course we don’t want anything bad to happen to them.

But if nothing bad happens to our characters, then we don’t have a story. No one wants to read a book where everything is perfect all the time. Without conflict, there’s no plot, no character goals, and no opportunities for characters to grow.

I recently read a novel that had heaps of conflict all the way up to the climax. It was a character-driven story that started with a falling out between the protagonist and her long-time best friend. Throughout the book we saw glimpses of their friendship over the years interspersed with the events leading up to their rift. I really cared about these characters, and understood why both of them acted the way they did. I was rooting for them to make up.

But then, the book ended with everything suddenly being fine between them. There was no big blow-out, no final confrontation, no fight about the hurtful things said or the protagonist’s ruined reputation. A tragic accident resulted in a near-death, and suddenly everyone was just happy no one died, and all the strained relationships between the main character and her family and friends were magically resolved.

I know this sometimes happens in real life, but in fiction, it feels like a cop-out. I wanted a final showdown, or at least a conversation. I’m guilty of this kind of thing in my own writing — I sometimes write four or five different endings before I get that final confrontation right. I’ll lead my characters into pits of despair and then when they finally get to the epic battle … well, I’ll avoid making it epic, or even much of a battle, without even realizing it. I think subconsciously I just don’t want to make my characters that miserable.

But that’s the job of a good storyteller. The bigger the conflict, and the higher the stakes, the more invested the reader will be. So don’t shy away from confrontation. Let your characters duke it out, whether they’re hurling spells across a battlefield or shouting insults across a locker room. Your story, and your characters, will be stronger for it.