Monday, February 28, 2011

Reach Out and Touch Somebody . . . With Your Writing

There are some stories that just grab us. Sometimes by the throat, sometimes by the heart, but always with a lingering touch that can last for days.

I have many goals as a writer, and there are many reasons why I write. But the one that I hope to accomplish every time I set out to write down a new story is writing one that touches people, one that stays with someone for days.

The thing is, I don't know if those stories that specifically bring out the lasting effects in us can be broken down and quantified into their parts. I mean, what exactly constitutes a story that we can't forget? Love? Romance? Tragedy? Happy endings? I think it's different for most people, and very rarely, there are those stories that universally appeal to people-- HARRY POTTER, and TWILIGHT come to mind.

I'm curious to hear your opinions on this. What, to you, are the elements of the stories that you can't forget? I'm having a hard time quantifying this for myself. I'd also love to hear what stories have touched you deeply!

I'm not ashamed to admit that TITANIC is a big one for me-- no matter how many times I see that movie, I will still cry toward the end.

For a much shorter example, see this video for "Chasing Pavements" by Adele-- not only is it visually stunning, it has a powerful, lasting touch on the viewer.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Surviving the Writer's High

Tuesday night found me in the final stages of revision on a manuscript. This particular sucker's been hanging around, getting rewritten, critiqued, rewritten, yelled at, rewritten and edited for quite a few months now and finally...

(Oh, man, that's a nice word. FINALLY.)

...finally, I was pleased with it. The whole thing, by golly! I shuttled it off to those that could do something with it and--just like that--it was done. For now, of course.

The interesting thing is that barely minutes after sending it off, I went shuffling through Scrivener, opening up old projects and trying to get inspiration for my next one. Are you kidding me, Criddle? What's wrong with you? Relax and watch a little Top Chef, why don't you?

I couldn't help myself. I was riding that mythical, elusive wave of productivity: the Writer's High. It's like a runner's high, but you don't sweat (as much.) Writers suffer through a myriad of quandaries such as writer's block, outlining issues, plotting problems, flat characters, stale dialogue, query rejections, flat-out rejections, rewrites and edits that go nowhere. But when that writer's high comes along? Mmm, boy howdy. Embrace that moment, week, month, however long it hits us. We're never entitled to it, so when it does come along we've got to love it while it lasts.

I guess my writer's high happened because I finally saw the fruit of my hard work for the last months: a solid, 85,000 word manuscript that's undergone 12 rewrites and a heck of a lot of gnashing of teeth. And I'm pleased with it. By jingo, I LIKE it. (Here's to hoping some other people do too, amiright?)

What gives you a writer's high? Finishing something, starting something? Research? Inspiration? Cheerleader critique partners? Book conventions? Star Trek conventions? Star Trek in general? I might be getting a little off topic here...

Oh man. Data would have a field day with my first drafts. Happy writing, kitties and androids!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Comic Books and Storytelling

I love comic books. There's something endlessly fascinating about combining engrossing stories with engaging images to draw the reader in. I've never been able to draw well (think a 4-year-old only having learned how to do a straight line a week ago), so the realism in the artwork in comic books from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and others leaves me in awe.

However, we're not talking about art here. We're talking about writing and what comic books can teach us as writers about effective storytelling. You'll recall of course that I've written similar posts about video games, so I tend to take lessons about storytelling from nontraditional sources.

Comic books are an interesting storytelling medium in that they hearken back to the days of serialization during the 19th Century. If you were an English language writer during Victorian times, chances were your novel would first appear chapter by chapter in a weekly magazine before it got collected into its own volume. To be entirely fair, I can't speak for every novel that was published between 1800 and 1900, but I know that British writers such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle serialized their novels prior to collecting them into single volumes.

Thus we see comic books going through the same process. Serialization of stories n monthly installments, only to have bound volumes of the entire storyline eventually come together. I suppose you could chalk this up to marketing -- if your installments work out then you know that the single volume released at the end of things will result in higher sales.

However the storytelling aspect is important too. Imagine having to sustain a story throughout weeks upon weeks of the telling, in installments, rather than working on the piece all at once. The same thing rings true for comic books. Maintaining a story through monthly installments and still keeping it intriguing and engrossing is hard to do. People wait an entire month to read the next section of the tale in a comic book storyline. That's the sort of engagement we should all strive for -- making our stories strong enough that they can last even when the reader has to put the novel down for any reason.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How far do you go for your craft?

I have always been fond of linguistics.

A few years ago, I tried to teach myself to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, because, well, why not? I still kind of want to do that, but there aren't many reliable resources online, and I am definitely the sort of person who learns better with a teacher. Unfortunately, there aren't many people teaching ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs that don't also come with a (typically expensive) degree-granting institution.

So I will file that away as a "someday" dream and focus on something else instead. Like other ancient languages.

My current/ brand new WIP is a story set in ancient times in northern Italy. And it has to be set there, for a very good reason, I assure you. But the problem is that northern Italy's ancient (and I mean ANCIENT) history isn't very well known. The stone age in the north just wasn't as well-preserved as that of England, or Ireland, or even Crete or France. There isn't a whole lot of info there.

I wrote two pages on this story and then stopped when I realized that I didn't even know what to call my characters. Stone Age names aren't exactly common, you know. And it's not like Bob or Sue would work.

Therefore, I've been spending the last month, since I got said Shiny New Idea, researching. Because the Stone Age is not my general strong point when it comes to history. And I love nothing if not a challenge.

Last night, after some digging around in the (very, very few) resources online, I stumbled across the answer-- a basic linguistic dictionary for the Stone Age. And voila, another couple of hours later, I had names.

Such a small thing, to name a character. I know some writers put a lot of thought into their names. I never really have. They are simply who they come to me as. If they feel like a Ryan, or a James, or a Margie, they will be one. This is by far and away not only the most thought I've put into a handful of names, but the most time and effort, as well. But I actually had fun doing it, because of how much I love language. It was fun to piece together their names, load them with meaning that likely I will ever only know, and finally bring them to life within the pages of my Word doc.

And that is how I am approaching this book. Effort, yes, but also learning about a gap in my knowledge. And who knows, it might even be worth it!

Okay, okay-- it's always worth it to let the story unfold.

How far have you reached to learn something for your writing?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Going Home (despite that Thomas Wolfe was right)

Apologies, naturally, to The Josh Joplin Group for so blatantly ripping off a song lyric for the title. (Great band though! Give them a visit here:

So back in the day, author Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe...both talented but VERY different people) wrote the book LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. It was a thinly veiled--albeit gorgeously written--autobiography of Wolfe's life growing up in a small(ish) town. When it came to press, fame and wide readership, people closely associated with Wolfe began to recognize themselves or their situations in ANGEL's "fictionalized" setting and characters.

Ru-roh, Wolfe.

Almost in response, Wolfe wrote what would posthumously be published as YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN; a story about a writer who writes a story (that's chiasmussed up) about his hometown and is subsequently ostracized for it.

Wolfe, you so meta.

As writers, a lot of times we can't help BUT draw from our personal experiences to create our fictional worlds and characters, right? What do you do when a friend/family member/co-worker/significant other sees themselves---for better AND for worse---in your stories?

Thomas Wolfe was right, you can't go home again. But we also can't divorce ourselves completely from the world if we want to write truthfully about it; that's why we benefit so much from random experiences, odd encounters, strange jobs and weird relatives. Just try and tell me you haven't done something just because you thought "this will be great story fodder someday."

So, dear people: Is your sweeping epic fantasy really just your old high school set in Middle Earth? Has anyone noticed? Have you ever changed something in your writing to steer it further away from the truth...or closer? Or have you ever just said "forget it" and written a sequel that further exploits your hometown?

Be careful: I'm totally writing down all you say to be used in a future book.

(just kidding.)


(Photos courtesy of Univ. of N.C. Library at Chapel Hill)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Is A Novel?

I know what you're thinking: "What kind of a question is that? Everyone knows what a novel is."

That's not entirely true though, especially considering that the form of the novel has changed over the past 1,000 years from the publication of its earliest antecedents: the Sanskrit "novel" Dashakumaracharita by Dandin (6th/7th Century), the 7th Century tale Kādambari by Bāṇabhaṭṭa, and the 11th Century story The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.

We know that a "novel" in its current form is defined as a lengthy fictional narrative written in prose. How long that narrative is comes under debate depending on publishing house, who you listen to, the phases of the moon, etc. Everyone does agree that the novel must be fictional, and it must be written in the prose style -- if it's written in poetic form then it becomes an extraordinarily long poem.

Of course, then you get into novels that include sections written in verse (Byron's Don Juan is a good example) and things start getting sticky. Despite this though, the novel became almost solely written in prose because of the simple nature of translating prose from one language to another. And the fact that it's easier to read a prose story in silence rather than one in verse ... well you can see why prose became the preference.

There were also a few works, such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, that we'd consider a short story collection today rather than a novel. However, since the "novel" was still a new concept in England when Chaucer was writing, then we can excuse the Tales for not following convention.

A rather lengthy article at Wikipedia on this selfsame topic goes into exhaustive detail about the history and development of the novel, more than I'm going to go into here simply because I'm sure y'all are getting bored by now. To be honest, this topic sort of got away from me. So I'm turning it around to you: is there any novel you've read recently that you felt didn't classify as a novel?

Monday, February 14, 2011

From the Heart: Answers!

Hello my Alliterati friends! Happy Valentine's Day!

Last week, I was lazy and asked you to ask me questions instead of writing a real blog post. Today, instead of writing a real blog post, I will answer your questions! Woo! Look at me!

Nicole MacDonald asks:

How many pets do you have?

Currently, I have the two little troublemakers (cats), a bunny, and a horse. So four at the moment. You'll notice I keep qualifying that statement. That's because I am always trying to convince the husband to let me get a dog or a chinchilla or another kitten or a bird . . . luckily, he has the good sense to tell me no. :)

Do you include them in your writing and if so is it as themselves or do they inspire characters?

Great question! I do include them in my books-- when there's an occasion to do so without forcing it. Typically, they inspire characters (who happen to be exactly like them) only because a character is easier to manipulate than my image of my actual pet, but there is one exception: in my second manuscript, I included my first horse, Gypsy, because I had recently lost her. Putting her in the novel, even though she really only makes a cameo, was important to me as a way of memorializing her.

In my first novel, a fantasy, I included my bunny-- but as inspiration for a bunny in the book. And I've modeled other animals after mine (a lion after one of my cats, for example), even though they're not precisely the same!

I don't put much from my real life into my books, but I do absolutely include my pets!

Adam Heine asks:

A few months in, how's married life?

Married life is AWESOME! It's also . . . pretty much the same. We (*gasp*) lived together already, in the house that we own, so there wasn't the difficult adjusting period that a lot of couples can go through (except for me losing my job, that took some adjusting!) But so far it's pretty much the same amazing-ness that just makes me glad he chose me. :)

Okay, I can't resist sharing. Here's what he made me for Valentine's Day!

I've been complaining about my reading light for months. So he BUILT me one. It's shaped like a birdhouse, but the walls and roof are frosted acrylic so the light will come through. And then, when you're done reading for the night, you can do this:

(Wave "hi" to Tim the Polar Bear, Jr.)

We usually celebrate Valentine's Day on the 13th for several reasons, so I got my new lamp last night-- and I teared up when I saw it! I can't believe he took the time to make it by hand for me.

He also gave me this:

A pretty green topaz necklace, because I "need more green." (Green is his favorite color).

So in a nutshell, married life is freaking awesome, even if it didn't change much :)

Favorite place in the world?

Oh man. This is a tough one. My answer *might* change if/ when I ever actually leave the North American continent (yes, it's true-- I have never been outside the U.S. proper, except barely into Canada and Mexico). Anyway, right now my answer is Monterey/ Big Sur, California. I would move there in a heartbeat. You know how there are some things that just instantaneously relax you to think about? For me, it's ocean waves lapping right up to a rambling Victorian, and tent camping nestled under the stretching arms of the redwoods.

Just so you can fully understand if you have never been there, here is the view from our hotel room in Monterey:

Man. Now I want to go back there!

And finally, should I put soy sauce or chili sauce on my eggs?

Bah. If I ate eggs I could give you a real answer! But breakfast is, alas, something that Other People Do for me-- never been able to stomach food before noon. However, based on my personal culinary tastes in other areas, I will say: chili sauce! Always chili sauce!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Beware the monkeys, love the monkeys

Despite the fact the we live three different lives in three different(ish) places does not erase the fact the we here at the Archives are often ALL subject to, as Matt puts it, "Monkeys." I'm not sure where the term came from, but as far as I understand it, a Monkeys Day indicates a day that is short on time and sanity and loooooooong on things to do. Moreover, those things to do involve activities like wrestling fish, herding cats and keeping worms in a wiffle ball. You know...monkeys.

But despite the need to take care of our wildlife world from time to time, we can be---or at least I am---comforted by the fact that all these wiggly things are giving us gobs of experience. If not experience, they certainly give us emotions and both of those things can give us something to write about.

So let's embrace those monkeys, people. Days that keep us away from writing can often make us better writers, right? If anything, they slowly get rid of that pesky thing called "sanity" and every knows that's like the writer's appendix. Interesting, but ultimately useless.

Happy Monkeys Day!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm posting this ...

... to tell you that I'm not actually going to be able to write a thoughtful/witty/insightful post today.

Too much craptasticness has happened in the past few days for me to even wrap my head around putting up an entertaining blog post.

Catch you next week!

Monday, February 7, 2011

It's Monday! And that means... I'm really good at stating the obvious?

I hope everyone had an awesome weekend. I'm sure we're all sick to death of hearing about a certain big game that was on yesterday so I won't even mention it-- except to say that I didn't even watch it, so I wouldn't mention it even if it wasn't already SO yesterday.

Except I just did. I'm not very good at this.

Anyway, moving on to business today-- that of having no business. This weekend was kind of crazy, with my bunny falling ill and requiring intense care (I know, how many times have you ever seen THAT excuse before?), and I must admit my creative blogging well has been sucked dry for this week. So . . . I don't pretend I'm interesting enough for any of you to have questions you've just been DYING to ask me, but I will try this age-old blogging tactic anyway:

Does anyone have any questions for me? Ask away if so and I'll answer them next week!

If not, I'll have something more interesting to say next time it's Monday, and it won't involve not mentioning sports games. Promise.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I'll take #2 this week, Bob.

  1. Life is writing.
  2. Life interrupts writing.
  3. Writing interrupts life.
  4. Life and writing live in perfect harmony.
  5. Writing? Please, I have a life.
  6. Life? Whatev. I got writing.
Am I missing any? Surely. But I hazard to guess that anyone who has considered writing as either a profession or a hobby (or--depending--both) has had at least ONE of these thoughts cross their mind before. We all hope to live in statement #4, where our writing and our realities blend like the most perfect of yins and yangs: Our children sit quietly by when we have a chapter to finish. Our daily errands provide nothing but constant inspiration for our WIP's climax. Never do deadlines creep up on us, crit partners fail us, or our own brains fail us. Oh, the joy of such a rose-colored, tea-fueled, book-contract-infused world.


The fact is, we try to write and we try to live and more often than not, the ideal versions of the two will come into conflict. The natural writer will grow frustrated by it and kick and buck and scream and blog. The enlightened writer will accept it, draw inspiration from it and move know, I am a leaf on the wind and all that crap. (*sniff*)

I wish I had more evocative, enlightening, inspiring things to say about that, life. I don't know if we here at the Archives say it enough, but we so appreciate everyone who stops by to read or comment. You guys are amazing, I truly mean it.

Any enlightening, inspiring, writerly words for us? Maybe just me? It's really been a #2 week.

Or we could just sit quietly and watch some Axe Cop. That'll do, too.

Axe Cop: The Movie - Part 1 from Peter Muehlenberg on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Elusive Nature of Originality and Why It Doesn't Matter

It seems I'm making a habit of bold pronouncements lately, and today's post is no different. You ready for the humdinger I've got cooked up today?

It's impossible to be original.

Before the angry mob starts grabbing their torches and pitchforks, let me explain. I'm using a very narrow definition of "original" in this context, which is something that has never ever in the history of the world ever been done before in any way, shape or form. This means no mash-ups, no spin-offs, and no adaptations of folk stories. If you can point to a source for any aspect of the story, then according to this particular definition that work is not original.

I'll quote my older brother here: "Originality is simply undiscovered plagiarism."

And Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe's character on The West Wing): "Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright."

OK, so assume that there's nothing well and truly original. Nothing that has any basis at all in any archetypes, folk stories, or mythic history, etc. For the record, I don't think there is anything that doesn't have a basis in any of those things. But then you have to ask yourself if that's really a bad thing.

Let me clarify -- we're told as writers that we need to be original. However, it's a fallacy to imagine that we need to come up with 100% original things for every aspect of our stories. People want familiarity, but they don't want it to be so familiar that they immediately recognize what's going on. So your Steampunk novel can have hints of Dickens or Wells, but it can't be a slavish re-telling of their stories. Take Great Expectations into the 25th Century or The War of the Worlds into the ancient past, but don't re-tell them exactly. Put your own spin on it; add in a few more elements that people don't expect.

"Originality" as I've previously defined it -- no basis on anything preceding -- is an impossibility simply because every writer is influenced by every book, movie, song, video game, etc that they experience. To assume that a person can do that and then not adapt what they've seen into their own work is a fallacy at best and delusional at worst.

Even in my own work, I don't strive for that elusive thing known as originality. I write what I want to write, and if it happens to come of as original then I call it a win. If it doesn't, well then it doesn't. But every time I've attempted to chase that originality boondoggle I always end up failing and creating something horribly derivative. That's why I feel that "originality" doesn't matter -- creating a story that people can relate to and enjoy is what matters.