Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives

This is a throwback post, originally published about a year ago. 

Gasp. What?! What about all of those writing workshops where we stuffed one hundred adjectives into every sentence?

I am not saying there is no value in learning how to be descriptive and expand your vocabulary. But you can describe every single detail of a scene and still lose your reader. Why is that?

Continue reading “Why Your Setting is Not Made Up of Adjectives”

Why Life is Not Made of Magical Moments

I am not saying that magical moments don’t happen, or that they aren’t wonderful and worth holding onto. But they shouldn’t be what you live for.

Unfortunately, this is too often what films sell us. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that every film should hit us with the grim reality of life. I don’t have much taste for those films, either. And if you’ve read my blog at all you’ll know I am an advocate for using storyteller to instill hope in people. I love inspirational stories. But there is a difference between telling an inspirational story and telling a fluffy tale full of silver linings that gives people unrealistic expectations and makes them discontent with what they have.

Maybe I am the only one who’s struggled with this, but I used to think life was all about magical moments. Granted, there were some valleys in between those mountain tops, but they were just puddles to get through before experiencing LIFE. I have learned since that those puddles are life, too. And even though they can be hard and messy, they shouldn’t be despised.

There may be people out there whose lives really are a series of mountain tops. Congratulations, you are a rare species of unicorn. And I imagine you don’t want to waste much time watching movies because your life is so much more interesting. But for the rest of you out there I have a message for you:

There is beauty in the puddles, too. And to be clear I’m not talking about those artificial moments where the girl with the perfect hair, whose main problem in life is to choose between two beautiful men, has a moment of self-realization in the rain, accompanied by nostalgic music. That is only a shadow of true brokenness, and in truth it is still a magic movie moment. Because two minutes later she gets her happy ending. Real puddle moments are when you sob alone in a stairwell (and wipe your snot on your jeans because you don’t have tissues) and no one ever sees you. And then you stop crying, wipe your eyes, and keep going with life because that’s what has to be done. There is no hero music. And there is no one to rescue you.

Believe it or not, when I experienced those moments, I used to say to myself: if I can only get through this, I bet there is a magical moment coming soon. It can’t all be bad, right? But sometimes you go through years of nonstop bad and at the end there is no magical rainbow that makes it all okay, instead there is only “less-bad.”

So here’s my personal resolution: I am going to fight for the things that are important to me and live every day to the full, even if it is a puddle day. Then, if I happen to stumble upon a magical mountaintop moment, I will appreciate it all the more because it wasn’t expected. My life is not on pause, waiting for good things to happen. My life is happening right now in the messy, painful, but beautiful struggles of everyday life. Nobody may see them, and they may not be romantic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning.

 

How Seasons Have Made Me a Better Writer

I grew up with two seasons: rainy and more rainy. Then later on in southern California it was hot and dry and then chilly and dry. The first time I experienced winter was after my parents moved to Idaho. But I was only visiting for Christmas and only had to put up with it for a few weeks. My first full winter was a trying experience. I used to think cabin fever was a weird dance from “Muppet Treasure Island.” But it’s real, folks.

Now, I embrace the seasons (mainly because resistance is futile- if the Borg were talking about winter they’d have it just about right). They have taught me a heck of a lot about life and about writing–and no, I’m not just talking about learning to describe nature.

Spring. No one ever told me that some trees and bushes bloom yellow before turning green. When the air is crisp and fresh there are moments when spring and fall look almost exactly identical. Only spring is fall in rewind. Patterns are good and sometimes it’s okay for your character to face the same circumstances twice because the outcome will be different. 

Spring. As much as I love Francis Ford Coppola, his gorgeous spring montages in “The Secret Garden” gave me the impression that everything blooms at once. Well, if not all at once, at least within two weeks of each other, right? Wrong. I did not realize that spring comes in waves. The daffodils bloom while most things are still dead. And they in turn, have faded and died by the time the irises peek their purple heads out. It is rare to have all good things come at once. In real life, even the purest joy is tempered by struggle and sadness close by. But that only strengthens the beauty of that joy. 

Summer. No matter how many seasons we’ve been through, humans often have a tendency to think the one they are in at present will last forever. And summer heat has a way of melting winter from your mind. But the human heart doesn’t always heal as fast as the earth. And just because everything looks green and warm, doesn’t mean there is real life beneath. While winter may be cold and harsh, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It is brutally honest. There is something about summer that can too easily spread a thick, warm glaze of fake over any imperfections.

Fall. Just as spring is a painfully slow awakening, fall is a drawn out death. Sometimes the best seasons in life are not the easy, breezy summers, but the melancholy days of struggle marked off by the sound of dripping leaves. There is something beautiful about watching a town prepare for winter. You see it in advertisements, closed up doors, jackets and raincoats, but you also hear it in the change of conversation. And you see it in peoples’ faces: “Here come the snows again. We will survive.” There is beauty in patient resignation to difficult circumstances. 

Winter. I have so much to say about winter. Some of it I have already said, and some of it I will say again. Humans have a remarkable ability to endure, and the life under pressure is one of the most worth examining. I suppose there are people out there who only endure a handful of “winters” in the span of their lifetime. But the rest of us go through periods of “winter” on a regular basis. Some of us live at the North Pole. And although it is not fun to live winter, stories about winter are some of the best stories to read because they speak to your very soul.

What is a “Literary MVP” and Why Do I Love Them?

I have been thinking a lot about genres–partly because I am asked to clearly define the genre of each book I write, partly because as an author genre partially defines me, and partly because I do a lot of writing research.

You may or may not find it surprising that it is difficult for me to categorize my work. Yes, it falls within the bounds of science fiction or fantasy. But I always find myself wanting to add explanations: “it’s not just science fiction.”

The truth is that genres sometimes remind me of high school stereotypes. Do you remember how in high school as soon as you told someone you were in band, or on the football team they immediately stereotyped you? That’s how it is with genres sometimes. People like to categorize books by content and not by whether they are good or not. And as an author starting out you are told to pick your genre and stick with it.

Here’s the problem: I’ve never been good at staying in boxes (shoutout to Pelangi, who knows this better than anyone!). Growing up between two cultures probably had a lot to do with this. I’m not a fan of blanket statements, I don’t like black and white thinking, and moderation and balance are two of my favorite words.

In thinking about genres, I came to two realizations: a lot of authors fully embrace and lean heavily into their genres; but I am not one of those authors. I came to this realization while contemplating the problem with the vast majority of romance novels: they miss the forest for the trees. I think I’ve shared that quote about endings being hard because they are false. Well, your typical romance novel focuses entirely on just that: a romance between two people. It’s almost as if the lives of these people before they met didn’t matter, nor will their lives after matter. I realized that the only romance I will write will be part of a bigger story. It will be a bigger story about life in general in which people fall in love. Because like it or not, life is not centered around romance. (Now, I am not saying that there are no good romance novels out there. I’m sure there are. I just think the market is flooded with bad ones, and I also think that I will never write one.)

What I want to write is the “Literary MVP.” Can you guess what I mean by that? In any sport you have your specialists and then you have your all-around players. Now technically a specialist can win most valuable player. But at least in my mind, the MVP was the player that carries the team because the coach can put her in anywhere. That’s what I’m talking about.

My favorite books transcend genres. Yes, they can be technically categorized, but they always appeal to a wider audience because they strike a common chord. They take a piece of human existence and insert it into their genre. But their work breaks down stereotypes.

I want my works to be strong in all areas. I want them to be quick on their feet, with spiderweb fingers, able to block if necessary, and able to punt when necessary. I don’t want to settle for being strong in one area. It takes a lot of work and training to be an all-around athlete. It’s no different for us all-around writers.

I’m well aware that at present I probably fall short in several categories–that is I haven’t reached champion status in all categories. I am okay with that. I will continue to aim high until I hit my target.

 

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be a powerful tool, and I’m not even just talking about “little did he know.” (Stranger Than Fiction anyone? lol) There is the obvious foreshadowing that is thrown in the reader’s face to intentionally cause suspense, anticipation, and make the fulfillment more climactic.

But then there is another form of foreshadowing. It is the subtle planting of seeds that will eventually grow into plants. These are the moments that seem like everyday coincidences or trivial details, but they give the reader a foothold to understand the plot development or character journey. Over the last two years I have discovered their power and been learning to wield it. I see it like priming a canvas. The first layer appears subtle and pointless at times, but it gives depth and quality to the painting.

One of the biggest areas of growth for me has been with characters. I used to add characters with carefree abandonment. After all, aren’t there 7 billion people in the world? In real life you have dozens of people come in and out of your life, even in the span of a year: family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances. And yes, that can be distracting for a reader. But what I really found was that if they weren’t memorable and had no purpose they simply faded. That’s what happens in real life too isn’t it? How many of you can name your classmates from sixth grade? I found that a quick way to give characters more unction was to combine them.

Now, this isn’t necessarily considered foreshadowing. I guess I am just talking generally about things (whether themes, characters, or events) that recur in your novel. Some of it is foreshadowing and some of it is just good plot structure. However. I got so excited about weaving these intricate connections that I forgot that sometimes it is good to not have them.

Now, some people like to just blindside their reader by pulling things out of left field at the last minute. Yes, it can make for a big shocking reveal and all, but I’m not a big fan of that. As authors we have a remarkable amount of power. We decide how much information the reader will receive, and I think it’s a bit unfair to purposely hide important information and then pummel them on the head with it. I’m thinking of “Ocean’s 12.” As a viewer, I wanted to be part of the team’s plan and to help figure it out, but they were withholding information. At the grand reveal at the end I felt cheated.

My point is this: you should give your reader clues to help figure out your climax. But that doesn’t mean you have to give them everything. There are times when you should bring in surprises–as long as they fit well within the circumstances and characters you have established.

In other words, put some things in there for your reader to guess (they will feel like they are part of the process) and put in some things that your reader would never have guessed (because they do like to be surprised sometimes).

For example, I recently strengthened a character’s involvement in the climax. Up until this point the character had been marginalized. Their existence was well known to the reader and even vital to plot progression, but they weren’t taking part in much of the action. Weaving them into the climax in their own way made perfect sense, but would catch the reader off guard. I considered going back and adding more scenes for this character, putting in more background and foreshadowing. But I realized that I didn’t have to. My narration is mostly third person limited-omniscient. Although I throw in outside scenes to flesh out characters and give the reader more information, the story is still very much centered on my protagonist and how she witnesses events and reacts to them. That being said, I thought it was even more fitting to let the reader experience the surprise alongside of the protagonist.

 

“Into the Void” is Coming!

I know what you’re thinking…wasn’t it supposed to be done months ago?

Yes, I suppose it was. But I am going to share a couple of facts of life with you:

  1. I am not a full time author and have to work to support myself, plus try to have a life outside of my laptop 😉
  2. I don’t have an editor or publisher to help me.
  3. My work tastes better seasoned with time.

So there’s really nothing to complain about. And you should all know that I am stinkin’ excited! You see I really thought this book was done months ago (was it late January or early February?). I even ordered a proof copy. The proof copy is an important step for me because I am a very kinesthetic person. There comes a point where scrolling through the manuscript on my laptop isn’t good enough and I get stuck. My proof copies are like a test run to get new perspective. The perspective I got a few months ago was that the story wasn’t finished yet. So I kept working on the weak spots, and I’m so glad I did!

Into the Void thumbnail

 

 

And here is my other exciting news:

These two books (“The Creation of Jack” and “Into the Void”) are intricately connected to one another. They are the same story and they need each other to be whole. So I am publishing a special volume containing both books combined!

The Creation of Jack combined thumbnail

 

I am awaiting their proof copies before I start advertising to the whole world! And keep your eyes peeled for a free book giveaway!

How You Can Use the Reader’s Imagination to Your Own Advantage

I’ve had a revelation. And I want to share it with you.

A couple of years ago when I finally got myself an actual copy of my favorite science fiction book (up until that point I shared my sister’s), I was particularly gratified by the author’s new introduction. At the end he boldly gives the reader license to claim the story for herself. He urges the reader not to think of the story as one that he wrote but one he and the reader constructed together. This was a great comfort to me, particularly because I didn’t like all of the sequels and because I know a number of people who misunderstand this book in various ways. I always felt like it was my story in a special way, and now the author gave me permission to understand its nuances in my own way and claim that–not having to worry about “what the author intended.”

And then more recently, I found this quote by Bonni Goldberg: “Endings are the hardest part to write. This is because they are false. Nothing truly ends; it transforms…So it is helpful when writing ends to remember that you are really constructing a passageway, a birth canal, a place where the writer lets go and the work becomes part of the reader’s consciousness, understanding, and imagination.”

And I realized there is something beautiful about paving the beginning of a road and letting the reader finish it in his/her mind. It’s like inviting them into the writing process. Recently I wrote about different types of endings, including Tolkien’s “Return of the King.” Part of the beauty of all his end narration is that you can see everything happening. Sometimes he is very specific about what happens to each character, but he sums up years and lifetimes in a couple sentences. At this point the reader understands and can picture all the scenes playing out. The reader can fill in with his/her imagination what those years were like when Aragorn reigned as king and the hobbits visited him often. Tolkien gives enough information to steer the imagination of the reader.

I am touching up a particular ending right now and am really enjoying planting seeds for the reader. I don’t have to explain every character’s future in explicit terms. I can steer the reader in the right direction with a few, well-planted comments. When they fill in the gaps (even the obvious ones), it gets them more involved in my ending. It will make them feel like it is their own–like they have a part in finishing the ending just by understanding it. It feels like a conversation.

Does Your Boat Leak? or Thoughts on Readers’ Trust

Many years ago, as a young reader and writer, I had the rather misguided idea that the storyteller’s goal was shock the reader in any way possible. Sometimes I even pictured the emotional reaction of my “readers” with malevolent satisfaction. “Ha! They’ll never see this coming!” It was almost like my imagined readers were my enemy and I had to outsmart and defeat them.

I had probably picked up the impression from my very intelligent father who would harshly discard or critique any plot that didn’t meet his intelligent standard. And there one or two stories that broke my heart with their plot twists, but I upheld as golden works of fiction.

As I discussed with my posts addressing cliffhangers, this theme also seems to be prevalent in modern television. Many shows aim high on the drama scale: killing off characters and making characters act irrationally. Their goal is to be controversial. But I have learned that I do not have the same goals.

There are books where you can tell the author respects her audience, and there are books where the opposite is true. Now, I’m not saying that you write purely for your audience, and if you’ve read my blog at all, you’ll know I frequently preach the opposite. But really it’s just common sense: if you make enemies of your audience, they won’t recommend your book.

I remember watching Jane Eyre for the first time. I had never read the book and didn’t know the story. Bronte does a good job of being creepy. At one point it seemed like there was a vampire in the house. I remember debating whether or not to turn it off. I didn’t want to keep watching it if the explanation was a vampire. But something told me I could trust the author. And in the end it was all explicable.

It may sound exciting to cross genres or throw in shock-and-awe surprises, but sometimes that is just unfair to the reader. If you purchase a book because it is historical fiction and halfway through the author throws in aliens, it can feel like a betrayal.

But this author-reader trust goes beyond “genre crossing.” I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that I want to be an author that readers trust. I don’t want to be the controversial shock and awe author. I don’t want my reader to feel like the boat sprung a leak halfway across the bay. I want to get my reader safely from one shore to the other.

 

Endings: The Cliffhanger vs. the Payoff Part 2

Okay! Where did we leave off? I promised to examine some different endings with you.

  1. The Return of the King
  2. Ender’s Game
  3. Serenity
  4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/ Midnight in Paris

Just for the heck of it we’re going to start with number four.

Now these are two movies (which I love). But they have a similar ending style. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Walter is a responsible man overseeing negative assets for LIFE magazine. He has taken care of his family since his dad died. He doesn’t branch out and is afraid to pursue the woman he’s interested in. The movie is about him stepping out, fighting for what’s important to him, experiencing life, and finding his own adventures (instead of daydreaming them). It’s a fantastic movie about not getting locked behind a desk, but experiencing this beautiful world that we live in. In the end, after chasing a photographer around the world, Walter finds the negative that he lost and gives it to the executive who fired him. And he gets the chance to stand up, not only for himself, but for all the men and women who were let go during the transition to online. Then he moves on with his life. He starts job searching. While picking up his severance package he runs into Cheryl and takes the risk to speak to her again. At the end of the movie his life of quiet responsibility is validated and there is the promise of a future relationship with Cheryl. It’s a quiet ending. But the movie was mostly about the journey, anyhow. It delve into the depths of human tragedy so there is no need for a dramatic ending. And his relationship with Cheryl was not the center of the story. The ending matches the tone of the movie: Walter is re-learning what life is about.

“Midnight in Paris” has a similar feel and a similar ending. But this movie is about a struggling writer and his wealthy, controlling fiance. While Walter daydreams about his life, Gil is caught up in nostalgia for the past. Through a bizarre set of circumstances he gets to visit his “dream era” (Paris in the twenties). But over the course of the movie he realizes that he has to live the life he has been given-that to long for the past is to miss out on the present. In the end he decides to pursue his dream of living as a poor writer in Paris, even if it means losing his fiance. At the end, not only do we see Gil contentedly walking through the rain in Paris, but there is the possibility of a new romantic interest. Again, it is a simple ending. There really is no need for extended “payoff” scenes of him living in Paris. He has been working toward this goal and now he found it. The audience can see clearly how his life would go from this point. They have all the information they need to know he’s going to be happy.

Number three on that list is a bit different. “Serenity” is a scifi movie with some pretty heavy content. It has action, it has comedy, and it has fun adventure, but it also delves into the dark side of humanity. River is a girl who has gone through deep psychological trauma at the hands of the Alliance–the same people who try to “fix” humanity and ended up turning a group of people into monsters with no morals. One main character and two minor ones die. Others are seriously wounded. So the ending of this movie can’t be a quick cutoff, or even a vague send off like “Walter Mitty” or “Midnight in Paris.” The movie took the audience through deep emotional waters and now the story needs to lead us to the shore again. When the crew of Serenity accomplishes their mission it is bittersweet, because they have lost so much. So the storytellers show a beautiful funeral ceremony where the characters and the audience get a chance to say goodbye. Then there is a montage of the crew patching up the ship. This assures the audience that they will be able to move forward with their lives, and it also serves for a metaphor of emotional and physical healing. A few quiet conversations wrap up plot points and emotional loose ends. There are seeds of hope for the future. Finally, the Serenity takes off, bursting through the storm and above the clouds (another metaphor). The audience can take it from here.

“Ender’s Game” is perhaps the bridge between “Serenity” and “The Return of the King.” While it is difficult to objectively compare the depth of emotional content there are a couple of factors to take into consideration. “Serenity” is a little far-fetched. The technology, culture, and science are pretty far removed from our own. So although you can sympathize with the characters’ struggles, it doesn’t hit super close to home. The world of “Ender’s Game” is much more similar to ours. And the fact that Ender is a child through the entire book makes him more vulnerable, not to mention that the book is far more psychological than the “rollicking adventure” of “Serenity.” “Ender’s Game” explores themes that we deal with in daily life: self-preservation vs. compassion, the struggle of leadership, being your own worst enemy, and betrayal to name a few. Beside all these conflicts there is the main and obvious one: the leaders of humanity have to face the guilt of what they’ve done to Ender and Ender has to face the guilt of his own actions. After the major climax, Card takes his time finishing the story, which I have always been grateful for. He explains some of the political consequences. He shows the impact on Ender and the internal struggles he is facing. The solution for what he does next felt a little bittersweet. I didn’t like it much, but it also made sense. But then Card jumps eight or nine years into the future and gives a remarkably satisfying ending. There is redemption and again hope for the future. The reader can now visualize how Ender’s life will go.

And finally…”The Return of the King.” I won’t take too much time explaining the plot (I bet you all know it). The first time I experienced this story was in theaters. If you’ve seen the movie you know that it has several “fake endings.” The screen blacks out for a full couple of seconds before the scene changes. It was like Jackson kept teasing us that it was the end, but then adding in more. And every time the scene faded in again I was so very gratified. Because after such a long journey through struggle, war, hopelessness, and despair you can’t just end it. If any story needs a payoff at the end it is this one. Not only does Jackson give us the payoff in the movie version, but Tolkien did even more so in the book. In the movie the hobbits are saved from the exploding Mount Doom, the Fellowship is reunited, Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return home. All beautiful things that you hoped for. But in the movie version the Shire is unchanged and no one can understand what the four hobbits have been through. And even though Frodo writes about his experiences, he can never fully recover from what he’s been through, so he goes off with the elves across the sea. I was happy with this ending because it matched the rest of the story. How could he return to a normal life after fighting against such evil for so long?

But the book ending is now my ultimate favorite. Tolkien takes a full hundred pages to explain what happens after the ring is destroyed (and this not counting the Appendices). The Fellowship have many conversations with each other. There is the process of Aragorn becoming king and finding the sprout of a new White Tree. He explains how each party goes back to their own land. The hobbits go with the elves to Rivendell for a while before finally returning to the Shire. Of course, anyone who’s read the books knows how vastly different the Shire is in Tolkien’s story. The hobbits have to fight to redeem their Shire. And they do so valiantly.

Either way, this story was so long, the darkness so deep, and the struggle so real that it is only fair to be patient in wrapping it all up. The story could have ended with some profound comments after the destruction of the ring. Honestly, when I thought the movie would end with Frodo and Sam on the rock surrounded by lava, I was okay with it. It would have been bittersweet, but at least we knew they had won. All the additional information is like whip cream on top. Here’s the difference: if the story had ended right there, the audience would have remembered the struggle against Sauron as the main part of the story. But since it went on to show the lives of each character afterward you are reminded that the focus of the story is not Sauron, but each of these dear and wonderful characters. And after all of that emotional impact, when you get to follow the characters into their normal lives you love them more intimately and they root themselves in your heart, and suddenly the story becomes yours forever.

And that’s the kind of author I want to be. I want to tell the full story: the beginning, the middle, the end, and even the “after end” if necessary. Ultimately, I strive to make each ending equal in weight to the themes and climax. I don’t want to play tricks on my readers. I want to give them a full story that they can participate in- a story that they want to re-read because it is like going on a journey with friends.

 

The “Rewrite” Debate

I recently stumbled upon this post and it got me thinking…

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3…Rewriting

If you haven’t read it, the author claims that nothing good comes out of “rewriting.” He is not talking about editing, proofreading, or adding minor changes. He is talking about when an author goes back and extensively restructures the story.

His claim is that rewriting is a purely critical function, which squashes the author’s creativity. The first draft is the creative draft and therefore worth more. He supplied supporting evidence with multiple examples of writers who swear against rewrites, simply passing through a couple drafts before moving on to another work.

There are a few things that I want to say.

First, I understand the merit in always moving forward. Writers truly do learn by practice and experimentation and I know firsthand the deep trap of holding onto one story and always trying to “fix it.”

However. I can’t believe that stories cannot be “fixed.” The author who wrote that piece above seems to believe that once your first draft is written your creative juices are spent on that project. I disagree. I would like to argue that writers’ minds work differently. My logical/critical mind marries very nicely to my creative mind.

Oftentimes my first draft is courageously creative. I branch out, go wild, and follow my gut. Sometimes my “logical mind” chimes in enough where I have a very strong first draft that only needs a few tweaks. Other times I recognize there are major shortcomings and I try to find what’s wrong.

I have two books which I have rewritten over many years. Yet I would strongly argue that both of these books got better and better. The first book I finished at nineteen. It wasn’t very good–but the characters and the story I wanted to communicate were important to me. So I didn’t give up. Over the next five to six years I rewrote and restructured the novel, keeping the characters and their journeys much the same, but changing major plot points. The second one followed a similar, shorter journey.

I am so glad I didn’t give up on them. I had something I wanted to communicate. I suppose I could have moved on to another novel, but it would have traveled down a similar path. Now I feel like I have finally communicated what I wanted to and done these characters justice.

But I will grant something else: these two projects have often bogged me down and limited the other content I’m writing. The problem with rewriting is that you often work in isolated chunks. It could be infuriating. And it wasn’t until I paused and started a new novel that I saw growth. It was an opportunity to surge ahead. I saw how much I’d grown and I challenged myself anew. It was healthy.

So, again I come back to one of my favorite mantras: balance. I probably need to lean more on the side of drafting and moving forward. But I want to stand up and say that sometimes rewriting a story that is important to you is worth it!