Monday, December 31, 2012

Five Reasons to Love January

Happy New Year! I can't believe 2013 is here, and with it comes one of the most dreaded days of the year: January 2nd. The day millions of kids and adults return to school/work after a nice, long break. People HATE January. It's cold, long, not special, and we're all recovering from our holiday hangovers. I, however, LOVE this month. Yes, I'll miss the 4-month fall/holiday season with its foliage, pumpkin pie, turkey & stuffing, and cheesy Christmas songs. But there are reasons to love January, reasons why this month rocks!

#1 - You Will Never Be More Motivated
We're so excited to make New Years resolutions. This will be the year we finally put our lives together. After a monthlong holiday gorgefest, it's time to get back on track. It's a clean slate! By February, of course, most of these resolutions will be broken. But in January, you will never be more organized, more motivated, more determined to improve yourself. It's the time of year when we come up with clear, defined goals, when our dreams seem the most attainable. Harness that positive energy. Ride it as far as you can, before you sink back into your old habits. Even if it's temporary, cherish that brief time when you are the most perfect version of yourself. And if you're able to create a new habit, even better!  (resolution tip: think small, then gradually expand)

#2 - The Best Movies Are in Theaters
After a year of popcorn flicks, January is when theaters are packed with awards contenders, the supposed cream of the crop. At no time else will you see your local multiplex filled with so many intriguing, complex, acclaimed films -- and a near lack of franchises and superhero spandex. Smaller films expand to take advantage of awards buzz. You have time to catch up on the onslaught of films released over Christmas. This January, acclaimed, thoughtful films like Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, The Sessions, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Impossible will be crowding your multiplex.

#3 - Awards Season!
January is the crux of awards season. In the past (pre-2003), you had the Golden Globes in January, but you had to wait for the real action in February and March. Now, awards season is on an accelerated schedule. So if you're a movie buff, you have DGA nominations on the 3rd, Oscar nominations and the Critics Choice Awards on January 10th, the Golden Globes on the 13th, then the SAG Awards on the 27th. For those of you who enjoy awards season for red carpet, you have multiple opportunities for dress critiquing, sharpening your live tweeting skills for the Oscars in February. (Disclosure: I'm hoping that Argo wins Best Picture)

#4 -  Exciting Sporting Events
There's more than movies going on in January. The NFC and AFC football championships air, which usually promise excitement and surprises (more than the Oscars, frankly). They determine who will be playing in the super bowl. The NBA is in full force. And...that's all I know about sports.

#5 - Anything Can Happen
A year ago today, who had heard of Gangham Style, fun., or Gotye? Who had read Code Name Verity or The Fault in Our Stars? Who had expected Skyfall to be that good? Who had thought that Tom and Katie would split up and that Kim Kardashian would be pregnant with Kanye West's baby? This time next year, we could be discussing a movie/song/book that we can't even conceive of. There's an excitement in discovering something new and fresh, in those surprises that we never saw coming. As much as we try, we don't know what 2013 will bring.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Drafting: A Numbers Game

After reading Leign Ann Kopans's blog about Fast Drafting over at argyle central YA Misfits, I wanted to share my crazy strange method for writing first drafts. For me, it's all about the numbers. When I think about writing a book, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer size. Hundreds of pages! Thousands of words! All coming from me? I prefer to break one big book into lots of little sections.

[WARNING: I'm a bigtime plotter, so I don't think this method will apply to pantsers.]

For those fantasy and sci-fi writers who can churn out 100,000 words -- even writers who can reach 70,000 words -- I am in awe of you. I just can't write that much. I aim for my book to be 60,000 words. That's a solid length for contemporary YA.

1 book = 60,000 words

First, I create a chapter outline, breaking my story into chapters. I make myself create a minimum of 30 chapters. If the story needs more, fantastic! But 30 is an acceptable amount that falls within genre standards. So for my 60,000 book, each chapter will have to hit 2,000 words.

1 chapter = 2,000 words
I think I can do 2,000 words, but it still seems like a lot. So I break it down even further.

I create scenes within my chapters. Instead of each chapter consisting of 1 scene, I include multiple little scenes. The scenes don't have to be interconnected, but the final scene of a chapter should propel the story and make the reader want to keep reading. I aim to have 4 scenes within each chapter. I'll split big scenes in my head even if it's written as 1 scene in the book. For instance, if there's a big "party" scene where the MC talks with some friends then gets in a fight with her boyfriend, that may all happen in one scene, no break. But mentally, I'll count the friends part as 1 scene, and the boyfriend argument as another scene. So in a 2,000 word chapter, each scene needs to be 500 words.

1 scene = 500 words
I can do 500 words. That's manageable. That should take under an hour to write. But sometimes, 500 words can seem like a lot. There may not be enough going on to justify 500 words.

So I look at sentences. On average (based on my unofficial research), 5 sentences equals 100 words. And since it's a first draft, I allow myself to write longer, rambling sentences and break apart my contractions. One extra rambling sentence can net you 30 words. And if you're at 19,940 words, those 30 words can give you the motivation to get you to 20,000.

5 sentences = 100 words
We can all write 100 words. Scribble it on a notepad during a boring meeting, or on a short bus ride. Every little bit helps. I will finish this book 100 words at a time. Each 100 words gets me closer to that 500 word scene, which gets me closer to finishing that 2,000 word chapter.

Will writing this way produce beautifully crafted prose?

It's a first draft. My main goal is to get the words on the page, to get the story from beginning to end. Nobody said it had to be good. Thanks to overstuffing and stretching out the first few chapters, I usually manage to break 60,000 words, but barely. The words hardly come easily to me. In revisions, I cut the fat. It's better to have fat to work with than to try and create it.

Microsoft Word has the word count ticker at the bottom of the page, so I am forced to look at it. I can't not look at it. And for me, this works. It's a way to feed the analytical part of my brain while I'm being creative. I like to have something to obsess over accountability. This method may not work for you, and that's fine. But if you're a numbers person like myself, feel free to give it a shot!

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Favorite Non-Holiday Holiday Movies

I can't believe Christmas is only 1 week away. One of my favorite unofficial traditions of the holiday season is watching lots of movies on my couch, huddled under blankets while it snows outside. Well, it's supposed to snow, but apparently global warming has come early and Chicago will probably never see snow in December again :(

I love watching crappy Christmas movies and decent Christmas movies and animated specials, even the creepy stop-motion ones. But there are a few movies that I have to watch around this time, even though they have nothing to do with the holidays. Does that happen with you? Are these some movies that you can only watch a certain time of year? Some are obvious, like watching Independence Day around July 4th. But there are others that aren't so obvious. For me, this usually corresponds to when they were first released. I can only watch American Beauty in the fall, preferably September. I prefer watching Can't Hardly Wait and My Best Friend's Wedding in June. These aren't ironclad rules, just weird preferences.

So as the holidays wind down, allow me to share some of my favorite non-holiday movies to watch. (Note: When compiling this list, I realized that all of these movies were released in December. But still, they're perfect ones to watch on a gloomy Sunday afternoon on TBS whilst vegging on your couch.)

As Good As It Gets
(But skip everything James L Brooks made after that -- Spanglish and How Do You Know. And ignore the creepy age difference between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.)

Jerry Maguire
(Tom Cruise has never been better, and Cameron Crowe is such a great writer. The dialogue is just beautiful in this film. I'm so happy he won an Oscar, albeit 4 years later)

The Royal Tenenbaums
(I love the look of this movie - so warm and fuzzy. There's so much detail. It's like a moving painting. But I'll admit this film isn't for everyone. Either you love it or hate it.)

Something's Gotta Give
(Every Nancy Meyers film is a non-holiday holiday movie: What Women Want, The Holiday, It's Complicated. And her films are total interior design porn. Just try and NOT salivate over Diane Keaton's beach house. Go on...I'm waiting...)

You've Got Mail
(How is this not a holiday movie? It just FEELS like one. Who wouldn't want to frolic in the Upper West Side? And sadly, Fox Books would probably be out of business today. F-O-X)

Ok, your turn. What are some of your favorite non-holiday films you love watching around this time?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Holiday Reading List

We are smack dab in the middle of my favorite time of the year - holidaytime! Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years. I love it. I am a sucker for anything holiday. Crappy ABC Family hoilday movies. Store displays. I'll salivate over anything red and green. (Sidenote: Yes, I am Jewish and I celebrate Hanukkah, but I love American Christmas, which strips away all religious components of the holiday and replaces them with pure cheese and commercialization. It's not about Jesus's b'day for me; it's about Home Alone.)

And yes, as I write this, I am listening to 24/7 Christmas music on 93.9 FM Chicago.

An added bonus to the holiday hijinx is all the free time I have in these next 6 weeks. I get off from work between Christmas and New Years. I am taking the rest of my vacation days before they expire. Plus the office should be quiet without any necessary late nights. This means more time for writing and reading -- and this year, I am prepared. I have made a list of books I plan to read. And yes, I've checked it twice.
All photos from

#1 - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
I read this book a decade ago, but don't remember anything about it except that a guy falls off a ship. I read Freedom two years ago and loved Franzen's writing, which delves deep into seemingly normal American society. He uses the 3rd person omniscient and lets you know every detail about every character, all with a spelling-bee-level vocabulary. (No mention of xylocarp, though) I'm 100 pages in, and so far it's great!

#2 - Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Everyone and their mother (and my mother too!) has been raving about this book, and I want to read it so badly! The concept hooked me, and I heard there are twists and turns you will never see coming. I've done my best to avoid all spoilers.

#3 - Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe only publishes one book per decade, and he makes them count. His novels are sprawling tomes that hold a mirror up to our current society and capture every detail. The Bonfire of the Vanities is one of my favorite books, and he's definitely had an influence on my writing. Wolfe started out in nonfiction, and it's still reflected in his journalistic 3rd person style. While I write 1st person, my heart will always belong to 3rd person. I fear that it's a dying breed.

#4 - The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Every YA blogger, writer, reader and their mother has been raving about this book all year. Amazon just put it in their Top 10 of 2012. It's by far the most successful YA contemporary book of the year. I hear its Green's best book and a total punch in the gut. Sometime in 2013, I want to read Looking for Alaska, too. It'll be the only JG book left that I haven't read. 

#5 - The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

This book has an incredible hook: Two teens log onto AOL in 1995 and discover their present day Facebook pages. I was a teen using AOL dialup in the '90s, so this will be a pure nostalgia trip for me. The book came out last November with a lot of hoopla, but then I never heard a peep about it afterwards. Did it not live up to the hype? I think when Fault in Our Stars came out less than 2 months later, it completely stole the book's thunder. I'm still insanely curious to read it.

What books are you planning to read this holiday season?

Monday, October 22, 2012

It's Ok If You Don't NaNo

Nanowrimo is a week away and pretty much every writer I know has been talking about it. For those uninitiated, Nanowrimo = National Novel Writing Month = write a 50,000 word novel in November.

I am a huge proponent and supporter of this program. I have blogged about how getting words on the page is so important and how all writers Nano to some degree. As cool as Nano is, it's OK if you don't take part. This does not make you a loser or a failure or any less of a writer than people who participate. I love the online writer community, but I feel like there is this unspoken peer pressure to do Nanowrimo. It's easy to succumb to FOMO (fear of missing out) when you read blogpost after blogpost of writers gearing up for Nano. And it will get more omnipresent once November begins.

Confession: I have never partaken in Nanowrimo.

I first heard about it in fall 2009. I tried to participate that year. I'm a mega-plotter, and my outline has to be rock solid before I feel comfortable drafting. I also have to know my main character, get acquainted with him/her, figure out the voice. I can't just "jump" into writing -- that's just how I roll. I rushed to have my outline plotted, and on Nov 1, I dove in. I sat down to write and sputtered after 200 words. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't have a feeling for the MC.

I was working around Nano's timeline, not mine.

Each year, I always say I'm going to Nano -- and I really want to -- but the timing never works out. I was going to Nano this year. I'd been working on my outline, but I found myself scrambling to meet the Nov 1 deadline. It's like a countdown clock that is ticking in my head. Do you ever find yourself typing horribly when someone is standing over your shoulder? That's how I was feeling this month. For some writers, Nano is great. It's that kick in the shorts they need to get started. But it's not one-size-fits-all. Maybe I'll start writing my book on 11/15, or 12/1, or 1/1. The point is, I will go by my own schedule.

And it's ok if you do, too.

Like I said, Nanowrimo is a wonderful event. But it's not for everyone. Don't feel ashamed or ostracized if you don't participate. Don't feel embarrassed that you couldn't get yourself all prepared to start writing at midnight November 1. There are 364 other days to start writing your book. You can still be a Nano cheerleader and a rock of support to other participants. And maybe you'll use the 30 days of Nanowrimo to perfect your outline, or finish a draft, or revise a draft. Or it will just be a countdown to Thanksgiving like it is for 99% of the world.

Whatever you do in November, make sure it's what is best for you.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Include Technology in Your Writing

Remember me?

Reading the Perks of Being a Wallflower was a blast from the past. The book takes place in 1991, before cell phones and computers. The characters make each other mixtapes and call each other on their family's landlines. It's easy to write around fashion and design fads, but technology has become its own beast. Constantly changing technology makes films and TV outdated instantly in a matter of years. (Anyone still use the T-mobile sidekick from The Devil Wears Prada?)

How the heck are you supposed to write a contemporary YA novel then?

You can't keep up with technology, especially with the 2-year lag time it can take books to get published. Think where we were 5 years ago. The iPhone just came out. The Motorola Razr and Myspace were huge. Think where we were 3 years ago. Nobody had iPads or Instagram. Teens are the most tech-savvy, so they'll notice any obsolete technology. Here are some Dos and Don'ts I try to follow when incorporating technology in my writing:

1) Don't get specific: Staying general will buy your book some time before the technology becomes obsolete. While specific products may change, the product categories will be around for a while.
  • If your characters are on a cell phone, don't say what kind it is. Just say they are using a phone. Don't even specify how they use it. For instance, "flip open" and "clap shut" imply flip phones, which are so mid-2000s. 
  • Don't elaborate on what type of computer your character uses. Desktop PCs are on their way out, and over time, even laptops will fade away in favor of tablets. 
  • For social networks, Facebook seems like it's here to stay, and it's so ingrained into our social lives that it's hard to ignore. However, just say that your characters are on Facebook, and if they must be on the site, only have them do basic, broad tasks like looking up people. Don't mention any nitty-gritty features or Facebook language because that is constantly changing, e.g. profiles are now timelines, fans are now likes.
  • Avoid mentioning specific web sites or web properties like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, even Words with Friends. Your characters can see something someone wrote online or posted online, but it's best to not mention where they saw it and what exactly they saw. Let your reader fill in those gaps him/herself.
  • I would avoid referencing DVDs, and even Netflix. Home entertainment is changing so rapidly. All you need to say is that she's watching a movie at home. Nobody cares about the specifics.
  • Technology may move fast, but not for everyone. Some people still use dial-up and a desktop computer. Approximately 85% of Americans have a cell phone, but that means that 15% still do not.
2) Do include technology when it's logical for characters: I've already ranted about characters using pay phones in YA. I haven't seen a pay phone in years. You can't avoid technology altogether, and trying to will look ridiculous. Your main character can't be the only person at her school without a cell phone. She can't listen to cassette tapes just because it's cool. However, you can get away with this if you provide a good enough reason -- she lost her phone, it got stolen, she's punished. In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah left behind a dozen cassette tapes, but at least Clay pointed out how old school that was, and how he had trouble finding a Walkman to play them on. It would've been strange if he just had a Walkman lying around like it was no big deal. Remember, for your readers today, CDs were popular when they were born, but they came of age in the era of MP3's.

3) Don't feel the need to rely heavily on technology: Yes, kids today are hooked to their gadgets. Get off my lawn! They communicate primarily through texting and online chatting; they're on their phones or computers constantly. But if you wrote your book like this, it would be kind of boring. Have characters talk face-to-face, even if kids wouldn't do that in real life. Do you ever notice how characters on TV shows are over each other's apartments all the time? Can't they have half of these conversations over the phone or via text? Nobody would watch a show like that. It's dramatic license, but we want to see characters interact in person. Books like Will Grayson, Will Grayson do a great job with turning Instant Messaging into compelling fiction, yet the most memorable and impactful scenes in that book are ones where characters have to face each other.

4) Don't let technology take over your story: This is the most important rule. Technology is forever changing, but emotions and conflicts are not. People read books for the characters and the story, not for the technological accuracy. Don't obsess over how to incorporate technology into your story. The Perks of Being a Wallflower takes place in 1991, but that didn't stop me from enjoying it. The characters in that book felt real and relatable, even if they didn't have cell phones. Holden Caulfield is still a wildly popular character, even though he never had a Facebook profile. Readers aren't going to throw your book out if your protagonist doesn't have a smartphone.

What are your rules of thumb for including technology in your writing?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Three Young Adult Authors Making It In Hollywood

In celebration of The Perks of Being a Wallflower the movie getting released this Friday, I'll be hosting a mini-theme week on the blog. I just finished reading the book and loved it. I think all writers can identify with Charlie, the titular Wallflower, and his random observations are ones I've thought about, too. (like realizing that people in old pictures felt the same way we do in the present) Even though Charlie writes in a semi-conversational style that's light on actual description, the characters he writes about still come off as real, fleshed-out people.

The author of Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, has had an interesting trajectory. He went from independent filmmaker to published author to Hollywood screenwriter. While lots of authors become Hollywood sensations because of their books (John Grisham, Stephen King), most of them don't actually dabble in screenwriting. Chbosky carved out a successful career in mainstream film and TV before adapting Wallflower into a film. The book was released in 1999, then a few years later, he was hired to write the film version of Rent (whose characters would mesh nicely with Charlie's circle of friends in Wallflower), then a year after that, he co-created the CBS series Jericho. It probably did help that Chbosky had a background in film and a film agent, but still, it's rare to see a YA author make this kind of transition. Nowadays, Hollywood writers are jumping on the YA bandwagon. (e.g. Paul Weitz, Liz Tigelaar) It can be done, though. In fact, at least three other writers have made the jump from writing YA to writing for film and TV.

1) Rob Thomas
YA books: Slave Day, Doing Time, Satellite Down, Rats Saw God
Rob Thomas has always had a foothold in the teen world. Not to be confused with the lead singer of Matchbox 20, this Rob Thomas went from high school teacher to working at kid's news station Channel One. While there, he began writing Rats Saw God in his spare time, and eventually got an agent. He went on to write five books.
Hollywood connection. On the strength of his YA novels, Thomas was asked to be a staff writer for this new show on the WB called Dawson's Creek. Maybe you've heard of it? From there, he created the series Cupid and then six years later created another show about a teenage sleuth called Veronica Mars. Maybe you've heard of it? Then four years after that, he wrote the script for the reboot of this show called 90210. Maybe you've heard of it? Ok, I'll stop.

2) Jake Coburn
YA books: Prep, Lovesick
Prep, about privileged Upper East Side kids who form violent gangs, caught the eye of MTV films, which optioned the book and hired James Frey to write the screenplay. However, like most book options, nothing has come of it yet. Still, Coburn has managed to carve out a niche in the New York socialites genre.
Hollywood connection. Because of Prep, Coburn was recruited to write a pilot called The Stanton with Kevin Williamson (creator of Dawson's Creek). While that didn't go, he was hired to write for ABC drama Dirty Sexy Money, which revolved around a super rich family in New York City. When that got canceled, he went on to write for a CW drama about privileged Upper East Siders - Gossip Girl - where he's risen to co-producer.

3) Shauna Cross
YA books: Derby Girl
As an aspiring screenwriting in LA with no produced credits, Shauna Cross found a literary agent through a mutual friend who encouraged her to write about her experiences in the roller derby. That turned into the novel Derby Girl.
Hollywood connection. The book caught the eye of Drew Barrymore, who hired Cross to adapt her novel for her directional debut - Whip It, which was released in 2009. Cross next went on to adapt another, very different book - What to Expect when You're Expecting, which was released in June.

One thing to note is that all three writers lived in Los Angeles either when they sold their books or got their film/TV gigs. Unlike publishing, film and TV are industries where newbie writers need to be living in LA in order to be considered for jobs. Sure, if you're best-selling authors like James Frey or Michael Chabon, then you can probably take gigs and stay put where you are.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

I Saw It Through and Got My Stuff Out There

No use beating around the bush. I have signed with Becky Vinter at Fineprint Literary!

That's not me, but a friend of mine cheering on another friend about to cross the finish line. Yay for not getting sued for copyright infringement!
This is all thanks to the awesome Michelle Krys and Ruth Lauren Steven who put together the Xmas in July query contest. The whole experience has been a whirlwind. Truth be told, I had never written a query before. I had never gotten to that stage before. The last two manuscripts I'd worked on never made it past revisions. I kept telling myself that my writing wasn't good enough, that it wasn't agent quality. Another year would pass, but I would be stuck in the same place. I would read the standard "I Got An Agent!!" post from dozens of writers. Enough was enough. For 2012, I promised myself that I would see this WIP through and get it out there.

I'd been working on my latest book for a year when I heard about the Xmas in July contest. I had just read about another blogger I follow who got an agent through a contest. I said the heck with it. It's time to start getting my stuff out there. Let others say no. If I wanted to be a writer, I'd have to get used to rejection. My favorite piece of writing advice is from Meg Cabot: You're not a hundred dollar bill. Not everyone's going to like you.

So I dashed off a query, revised it a bunch, and officially sent my book into the world. It's amazing to think that I have zero connections in the publishing world, and yet I could still find an agent. Slush works! In the film/TV world, if you want an agent, then you need connections. It's only about who you know and who can get your stuff in front of the right people. (Amy Tintera has a great post on this.) In fact, most big agencies don't accept unsolicited submissions. But for publishing, it's all about the writing. (though I'm sure connections help, too)

A few weeks later, after sitting through a five-hour meeting at work, I got back to my desk and saw an email from Becky. She loved my book and wanted to discuss. *cue Carlton Banks happy chair dance*

After almost five years of writing YA, I can now add my How I Got An Agent story to the blogosphere. Ok, that's enough talking about myself.

I feel very lucky and fortunate about how this all turned out, and my heart goes out to all writers in query hell. There are a few contests about to start like GUTGAA and Pitch Madness. Definitely take advantage! Get your stuff out there. Frankly, even if you're not sure if your book is up to snuff yet, use these opportunities as motivators to set writing deadlines, polish your query, meet other writers/potential CPs, and gauge interest in your story. (But don't enter if you only have half a first draft or something.) Don't let fear hold you back. Honestly, the worst that happens is someone says no.

And Just keep swimming!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why 50 Shades of Grey is fine by me

50 Shades of Grey recently beat out Harry Potter/Deathly Hollows to become Britain's best-selling book of all time. In any language, in any country, the book is a smash -- except with critics and those in the literary community. 50 Shades has been bashed as a poorly-written piece of crap. I haven't read the books, so I can't judge, but all I hear are negative things about it. Awkward dialogue, paper-thin characters (which are based on someone else's characters), simplistic plot. I'll admit, when I first heard about 50 Shades' success, I got ticked off. We perfect our manuscripts and query letters and get rejected over the slightest shortcoming, but then EL James comes out with amateurish Twilight fan fiction and is a hit. And even Twilight has received its fair share of crappy reviews. Add it to the list of ways the world is unfair.

But you know, I'm actually happy about 50 Shades' record-breaking success. I'm always happy when a book sells like gangbusters. Books like 50 Shades and Twilight are bringing in a broad audience outside the demographic of hardcore readers. People who usually never step foot inside a bookstore are charging in and buying books. They're choosing reading over watching TV, surfing the net, or going to the movies. Maybe some of those sporadic readers will turn into voracious ones thanks to these critically-maligned books. They'll continue to buy books, share them with their friends. None of this is bad for the publishing industry. True, it would be nice if people were going gaga over more well-regarded books, but the real victory is that they're reading. In an industry that's fighting off decline, that's nothing to turn your nose up at.

Also, a handful of mega best-sellers can fund the publishing of a ton of smaller, acclaimed books. The film industry is loaded with loud, expensive tentpole films. Many of them receive critical drubbings. The Transformers trilogy comes to mind. Critics HATED those films. As an action fan, even I couldn't stand them. They had weak story, bloated action sequences, and unnecessarily long running times. But they also made billions of dollars worldwide. Why do these films make a boatload of cash, but better films like The Artist and Moonrise Kingdom can't even top $50 million? Add it to the list of ways the world is unfair.

But without Transformers, there would be no smaller, artsy films. Studios make a bulk of their profits from these tentpole films, which allows them to bankroll riskier, cheaper films. Even if they lose money, the studios still have their cash cows to keep them in business. In the same year as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, its studio Paramount also released the great film Young Adult. That film only made $16.3 million in the US -- 1/20th of Transformers:DOTM's gross. Summit made bank on the Twilight films, which allowed it to release The Hurt Locker and 50/50. Thanks to 50 Shades' and Twilight's (the book) success, those publishing houses were able to release lots of books that may not contribute much to the bottom line, but still hold a place in readers' hearts.

So yes, 50 Shades of Grey may not be the best thing that's happened to literature, but it's a pretty good thing that's happened to publishing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

August! AKA Countdown to Fall

Wisconsin Apple Orchard. Fallgasm!

Yesterday was August 1st. It's still summer, but in my mind, we are now in Fall Countdown mode. I don't know how it's been by you, but in Chicago, we have had a cruel summer. I will take the cold over the sweltering, unescapeable heat any day of the week. But more than that, I LOVE fall. It's my favorite time of the year. The crisp chill in the air, the leaves changing color, the holidays. Sure, it's nice when it starts getting warm in April and May. But by mid-July, I'm so over summer.

Here is a list of things I love about fall:

1) The weather
Crisp chill in the air, leaves changing color, cool but not freezing. Beautiful! I love the gloomy fall landscape. Check out the background of this blog for proof. (If you also like fall landscape, check out Moonrise Kingdom. Total fall porn.)

2) The Back to School mentality
I've been out of school a number of years, but I still have that mentality that come September, it's time to get my life back together. Summers get so busy with vacations and fun outdoor activities. And this summer has been crazy busy with moving and work. I look forward to post-Labor Day, when I can get back on track. Back on a regular schedule for the gym, for writing.

3) The Good TV returns
I should clarify and say good Network TV. There's lots of good cable shows on this summer (Breaking Bad, Suits), but the return and premieres of network shows won't happen until September-October. I'm always curious which new shows will be hits or bombs.

4) Apple Picking
Especially on a nice fall day. I love apples, particularly macintosh, which is only in season during the fall.

5) Holidays
Columbus Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas. All the best holidays are saved for Sept-Dec.

6) Awards Season
I'm a movie buff, which you can tell by half of my posts. Starting in September (September 14th to be exact), the real Oscar bait comes out. Right now, there are lots of films nobody has seen that have Oscar buzz: Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, etc. It's fun watching these films premiere, waiting for the initial reviews that say whether the buzz is warranted or not. Awards season isn't just Jan-Feb. It's a 6-month process that I love watching. Late August/early Sept brings the Toronto, Telluride, and Venice Film Festivals, which is where many Oscar contenders premiere for the first time. Those premieres can make or break a film's Oscar prospects in one night. September 14th is when The Master opens, and I'm super excited to see that film.

7) Thanksgiving
I realized that I love the countdown to Thanksgiving more than the actual day.

8) Crappy made-for-TV Christmas movies that air in November
I'm addicted. I have a problem. I won't seek help.

9) Football
I'm not a huge football fan, but I do like to support my college (go Cats!) and city (go Bears!). But there is something so fall (and so American) about watching football. I don't actively seek out games, but once I do start watching, I get sucked in.

10) NaNoWriMo
I've never done NaNo. I'm always in the middle of a project, but maybe this year will be the year. If not, I still get a rush of inspiration watching everyone else participate.

Are you looking forward to fall? 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Learning to Part with Your Words

This has been a craaaazy month!

First, I became an uncle (for the first time) to the most beautiful niece in the world. She's tiny and adorable, and the first time I held her, she peed all over me, and I even thought THAT was adorable.

Second, I moved last weekend. And that was tough. I'd been in my old apartment for two years, and I accumulated a ton of stuff. I had to pack in 100 degree, 100% humid weather. And then moving day was a never-ending nightmare in itself filled with multiple cargo van trips from old place to new place. By the middle of the day, I was exhausted, my arms sore -- and I still had another truckload! While I was schlepping my cargo back and forth, I kept saying "Why do I have all of this crap?" Seriously. I'm not a hoarder. I think I have a normal level of possessions for someone my age. But why did it feel like somuch and so unnecessary? I began throwing out and donating old stuff -- clothes, DVDs, books, random items that once had sentimental value, but were now crap. I took no prisoners. I refused to buy into my self-rationalization that yes, I would wear this shirt again.

Moving felt a lot like editing. There are plenty of places to cut from when we edit. We accumulate "junk" over the first and second drafts -- unresolved subplots, minor characters that serve no purpose, scenes that are now unessential. I found different types of items I had to throw out in my move, just like there are different kinds of edits:

The easy stuff: When going through my apartment, I found plenty of easy choices of junk to toss. Shirts with holes in them. Pencaps with no pens. This is the fun, easy part of editing. I could already think of three things I would cut from a draft before I even finished it. No problem. Editing will be easy.

The wishywashy stuff: These are things in my apartment that I knew I had to throw out, but I had to give myself a little push. I was still a bit hesitant. Yes, they were goners, but I had to defend them. I owned a pair of dusty, moldy slippers. Gross, but comfortable. I've owned the same bedsheets for 10 years. Their color and comfort level faded some time ago. Buh bye. In editing, we refer to this as Killing Your Darlings: the easy version. Yes, there are scenes or characters or couplets of dialogue that you LOVE. But they don't fit your story anymore. Most times, the scenes that I first think of, that ignite a story idea within me, are usually the ones that get cut. But I'm not too sad about it, because even though I love them, I know it's for the best.

The difficult stuff:  I throw out/gave away things that I loved, things that weren't too old or too dirty. I had nice slacks that were too big on me now, a pair of leather shoes I bought in Spain, a dining room table in great condition. But in the end, the slacks didn't fit anymore, the shoes weren't comfortable, and I got a new, nicer table. In short, I moved on. I'm not the same person I was when I got those things. I can't be one of those people who holds onto every thing I've ever owned. When I edit, I've had to cut sections I loved, parts that had no discrenible problems, per se. But the book I was writing when I wrote those passages was not the same book I ended with. My story developed, changed, and I couldn't bring along every word. You can't get tied permanently to what you write. You have to be strong enough and confident enough in your hard edit choices. I figure that if I wrote something great in the past, I can do it again in the future, or else I have no business being a writer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Writing is Work - Not Pleasure

Happy June! I hope you all are enjoying some of the longest days of the year. It's been light out until 9 p.m. here recently!

I am nine days a week late, but I hit my 1-year blogversary! I can't believe it's been a year of blogging, and I'm proud of myself for keeping up a somewhat consistent pace. I give credit to the prolific bloggers out there who generate content multiple times a week. Expanding your network. Coming up with post ideas. Blogging's hard work! And so is writing.

Over the past few weeks, I've been changing my attitude towards writing. Maybe it's an attitude I've always had but have tucked away, not wanting to admit. I realized that writing is work -- hard work -- and not pleasure. It's not meant to be fun. And that's where I think many aspiring writers stumble.

Some people who are interested in writing think of it as a fun side hobby, a creative release in their lives. They look forward to that time of day when they can sit down and write. But when they do get to writing, and are blocked or the words aren't flowing, they give up. That's because they have the wrong mindset. When you want to do something for pleasure, you don't expect it to be hard. Reading, watching TV, going to the beach. There's nothing difficult in those hobbies. Writing can be difficult, and it can catch people off guard. More intense hobbies like playing an instrument, arts and crafts projects, or crossword puzzles may require extra effort, but they don't have stakes. It's still low stress level. Most people aren't practicing guitar to try to snag a record deal. They aren't beading necklaces in order to start their own jewelry line. These are generalizations, but there are less people doing those hobbies with professional aspirations than there are writers who have hopes of book deals.

When I sit down to write, I have to remind myself that this may not be fun, especially when I edit. I need to stop setting up false expectations for myself that writing will always be a pleasurable escape. I am working, just like I would be at my job. Of course I enjoy writing or else I wouldn't stick with it, but that doesn't mean it will be fun all the time. It's just like any job. There are good days and bad days, but if you have a frustrating day at work, you aren't going to skip the rest of the week. You slug through it. The fun high of writing can wear off when you are deep into a project everyday. So now when I make time to write, I know that it's for work, not pleasure. I'm not duping myself any longer. It will be tough. It will be frustrating. But like anything that requires hard work, it will ultimately be rewarding.

What is your attitude when you approach writing?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Multitasking Writer

I recently finished the second draft of my WIP and sent it off to readers. It was an awesome feeling knowing I had accomplished this. But it also put me in writing limbo. I was between drafts, stuck in a state of waiting. And because of my limbo, I slid into a writing lull as well. At first, I just breathe a sigh of relief that I finished. But then restlessness sets in: what should I work on next? should I start something new or wait until this WIP is completely done? Naturally, I fall for the Shiny New Idea in my head and begin brainstorming. I used to worry that focusing on a new idea would make me stop caring forget about my WIP. Shiny New Idea is 10X better than what I just wrote, I would tell myself. But 2012 is the Year of Finishing Stuff. And that means multitasking with my writing.

It seems a little difficult, juggling multiple projects. Different characters, different tones, different settings. But multitasking is what professional writers do. They're editing one book, promoting another, and drafting a third. When you're working with limited writing time or tight deadlines, the only way to get stuff done is to multitask. In 1992, Steven Spielberg was in post-production on Jurassic Park while he was filming Schindler's List. Nazis during the day; dinosaurs at night. Two movies that couldn't be any more dissimilar. But he multitasked and got it done. He did the same thing years later with War of the Worlds and Munich. In 1999, Robert Zemeckis was filming Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. He filmed all the before/after island scenes first, then took a long hiatus to allow Hanks to emaciate himself. Instead of spending that downtime lounging on his couch watching reruns of Wings, he filmed an entirely separate movie: supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Many TV actors also make good use of their summer hiatuses by squeezing in movie roles. Only a pro like Melissa McCarthy could go from Mike & Molly to Bridesmaids.

TV writers staffed on multiple series have to juggle different characters and plotlines. Chuck Lorre produces both Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. While tonally both shows are the same (laugh track comedies), the characters and comedic rhythms are not. Ryan Murphy wrote American Horror Story and Glee concurrently -- two shows nobody would ever group together.

It's ok to succumb to the Shiny New Idea. We're human. We crave new things. A Shiny New Idea can energize us, inspire us to jump back into writing. But it shouldn't take up all of our brainpower. We have to learn to juggle projects new and old. It's all about multitasking. On the bright side, if you can manage this, then you'll never be bored.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why I Fear for the Catching Fire Movie

I was worried about The Hunger Games movie living up to expectations and not trying to become the next Twilight. Luckily, the movie succeeded and has been a runaway smash. It was well-liked by critics and fans, and outgrossed every single Twilight and Harry Potter film. I was grateful that the film didn't shy away from the dark tone of the book. But just when I stopped worrying about The Hunger Games, I began to fear for Catching Fire.

With Catching Fire, Lionsgate, the producer, is trying to make a release date - not a good movie. Eight months before The Hunger Games was released, they had already staked out a release date for Catching Fire. November 22, 2013. The Twilight and Harry Potter sequels came out in quick succession, and Lionsgate wanted to follow that trajectory. I guess in our short-attention-span age, they worry that some other phenomenon will overshadow Hunger Games in the next two years and make Catching Fire a non-event. But then the director of the Hunger Games, Gary Ross, dropped out of Catching Fire, because he wouldn't have enough time to make that release date. The movie needs to begin shooting by the fall to make the November release date- so all writing, pre-production, costumes, etc have to be ready to go by then. Instead of pushing it back, Lionsgate frantically searched for another director.

Why is it so important to make this Thanksgiving release date? Because Harry Potter and Twilight once occupied it? Hunger Games came out in the middle of March and has earned close to $400 million. Obviously, release date doesn't matter to fans. But now, everyone on Catching Fire will be rushing. And when we rush, we tend to get sloppy. Catching Fire is a more complicated book. The story isn't as straightforward as The Hunger Games. Half of it is the Victory Tour, the other half is the Quarter Quell. You don't want to get sloppy adapting this book. Yes, you can create a shoddy film and it will still make piles of money. But that'll piss off your fans and keep them from Mockingjay. You don't want The Hunger Games to become the new Matrix trilogy.

First Matrix (1999) = awesome. Grossed $171M
Matrix Reloaded (May 2003)  = confusing, annoying, overall disliked. Grossed $281M
Matrix Revolutions (November 2003) = slightly better, but people had already given up. Grossed $134M

Because of the tight timing, they had a limited pool of available directors to draw from. So they went with Francis Lawrence. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Lawrence went from directing music videos to making films like I Am Legend, Constantine, and Water for Elephants. I liked I Am Legend, but I have heard bad things about the other two. It seems that Lawrence is great with visuals, but not with story or character. We need a director who can bring The Hunger Games to the next level, the way Alfonso Cuaron did with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Catching Fire delves further into the main relationships and the mythology of Panem. You need a director who can handle those elements carefully. I'm not sure if Lawrence can pull that off. I don't care about the flashy action scenes as much as I do about the characters. Maybe he will surprise me. I'm holding out hope.

I must sound like those typical fanboys that criticize every decision made about their favorite franchises. I just don't get the obsession with trying to make an arbitrary release date. Whatever happens with Catching Fire, I'll still see it probably. I might not like it, but it's besides the point.

And I guess that's good enough for Lionsgate.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

When Fact and Fiction Collide

All writers get their inspiration from real life. Even if you imagined your new WIP out of thin air, chances are, you can trace those thoughts to a real life trigger. Suzanne Collins got inspired to write The Hunger Games while channel surfing. As a fan of non-fiction, I love when the writer can take an actual event and turn it into a gripping story. They delve deeper and find hidden meaning in the facts. Here are some of my favorite examples of clever uses of fact in your fiction.

Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare (Broadway play)
plot: A black con-man charms his way into the homes of uber-wealthy Upper East Side couples, passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier.
How much actually happened? 75% Con man David Hampton did charm his way into high society homes in the early 80s. Some of his marks were Gary Sinise and Melanie Griffith. John Guare's friends also fell victim. They let Hampton stay in their guest bedroom, and they found him in bed with another man the next morning. (That exact scene made it into the play.)
Where fiction took over: Guare took this news item and turned it into a play that explored race, class, and the inter-connectedness of the world. Six Degrees revolved around fictional couple the Kittridges, who were profoundly effected by their night with Paul, even as they turn him into an anecdote they tell at parties.
Where fact and fiction diverged: In the play, Paul is eventually arrested and nobody knows what happened to him, or even what his real name was. In real life, Hampton went in and out of jail for the next twenty years, conning families from NY to Seattle before dying in 2003.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (novel)
plot: On an ordinary day in sleepy Holcomb, Kansas, the entire Clutter family is murdered without warning or reason. The book traces the investigation, capture, and ultimate execution of the two killers.
How much actually happened? 100% Capote transcribed conversations with dozens of people involved in the case, and the killers, too. Every word is true, he claimed.
Where fiction took over: All the events and conversations were fact, but Capote's brilliant, beautiful writing kept it from sounding like a news article.
Real-life inspiration: Capote first read about the murders in a 300-word blurb as he casually flipped through The New York Times one day. His desire to learn more, to understand who would do such a thing, prompted him to travel to Kansas and begin his research.

Mean Girls by Tina Fey (movie)
plot: New girl in school Cady Heron gets adopted by popular clique The Plastics and its evil, yet seductive leader Regina George, whom she both idolizes and plots to destroy.
How much actually happened? 10% The movie is based on a self-help book for mothers of teenage daughters called Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. Fey took real-life examples from the book and wove it into her screenplay. The scene, for instance, where one of the Plastics explains to Cady the rules for eating at their lunch table, was transcribed almost verbatim.
Where fiction took over: The characters and plot are all made up, yet they are inspired by the factual examples laid forth in Wiseman's book.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction works or "based on a true story" works?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Good Dialogue is like Flirting

The best advice I ever read about writing was this: If the scene is about what the scene is about, then you're in deep sh*t. In other words, it's all about subtext. Without subtext, you have no book. Dialogue is where subtext is needed the most. And to write good dialogue, the characters must be flirting.

This doesn't mean that all your characters must be trying to jump each other's bones.

On the Nose is a popular expression when discussing bad dialogue. It means that the character is saying verbatim what the writer is trying to express. That equals bland dialogue. Nobody talks like that, and your readers won't enjoy it. For dialogue to snap, crackle, and pop, there must always be subtext. What's going on beneath the words. If what the character is thinking and what they're saying is the same, then there is no subtext, no hidden layer for the reader to relish. In other words, you're in deep sh*t.

We don't talk like this in real life when we're gabbing with our friends and family. We say what's on our mind. The main time when we immediately switch to talking with subtext is when we flirt. Have you ever seen two people flirt? On the surface, they are having a regular conversation. But their body language is having a different discussion, and it's all about sex. What they are talking about has very little to do with their objective. That's something to strive for in your dialogue.

Which scene is more entertaining to read:

"You're very pretty and I want to kiss you," Guy says. He runs his fingers down Girl's arm.
"You're also cute and I want to make out right now," Girl says. She blushes and interlocks her fingers in his.
They kiss.


"I heard that it rains in Seattle ten months out of the year," Guy says. He runs his fingers down Girl's arm.
She blushes and interlocks her fingers in his. "Doesn't it ever snow there?"
"I guess not."
"So no white Christmas for them."
"Sad but true."
They kiss.

Both scenes accomplish the same thing and have the same description. But which was more entertaining to read? The first conversation had no subtext. Their words and body language were in sync. In the second scenario, their conversation has nothing to do with what's going on between them, and yet it works. If this were just smalltalk, it would put readers to sleep. But here, talking about the weather only increases the tension, making for an exciting read.  

Not all scenes you write will be as exciting as a kiss scene, but that's not an excuse to write bland dialogue. If the scene is about what the scene is about, then you're in deep sh*t. Jot down what your characters' objectives and feelings are in the scene and write their dialogue as far from that as you can. Remember, we are creatures of contradiction. We push people away when we need them the most. We are cordial to people we loathe, and rude to the ones we love. Our friends' happiness can make us miserable. That's what makes us interesting.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let's Write Crap!

Two weeks ago, I didn't do much writing of any kind. Not even blogging. I barely rewrote one chapter of my WIP. I would think about said chapter, make notes about said chapter, but when it came time to rewrite said chapter, barely anything came out. I rewrote it in fits and starts, deleting chunks and redoing it, inching my way through the chapter. Until Saturday, when I decided to go ahead and write crap.

Writing crap felt wonderful! I crapped my way through it. I knew what I was writing wasn't great, but writing crap is better than not writing at all.

-It provides a base. You can always revise crap; you can't revise a blank page.

-It illuminated bigger problems. There's a reason I couldn't make my way through this chapter and instead wrote crap. If the scene is set up well, with conflict and reversals and clear motivations, then I shouldn't have had such an issue. I will address my crap on my next round of revisions. Noted. No more dragging my feet. Now I can move on and finish my draft.

-Maybe it wasn't crap after all. Upon rereading, my crap wasn't as crappy as I thought. At first, it was bad, but then the crap gave way to semi-decent writing. It's not my best chapter, but that's primarily because of the bigger problems mentioned in point #2. The actual words aren't an abomination to the English language. That's good to know.

So next time, when I'm sinking into procrastination mode, I just have to tell myself to charge ahead and write some crap.

Friday, April 6, 2012

What's Old Is New Again (Or in 3-D)

This weekend will be a blast from the 90s past. In theaters is the re-release of Titanic in 3-D and American Reunion, the fourth movie in the American Pie series (not counting the directly to video sequels). I am particularly excited about American Reunion. The whole cast comes back together for the 10th high school reunion. The movie is obviously a cash grab and shamelessly banking on moviegoers' nostalgia. Well, it's totally working on me.

I was in college high school when the first American Pie film came out in 1999. I still laugh and cringe at the infamous pie scene. I know I'll be flooded with memories from that era while watching this one. The same thing happened with Scream 4 last year -- which despite it bombing at the box office was a good film. Also this week, the Farrelly Brothers announced a sequel to Dumb and Dumber, and Ah-nold said there might be another Twins movie. Who says Hollywood needs any original ideas?

It got me thinking about revisiting characters I love from books and movies. I wonder what they're up to, what happened after the last page/final credits.

What book or movie do you wish there'd be a sequel to?

For me, it's The Truman Show. That movie was fascinating, enjoyable, and freakishly ahead of its time. The ending feels complete but also open-ended. Every time I watch it, I'm always dying to know what happens after [SPOILER ALERT] Truman leaves the studio. How is he adjusting to life in the real world? Did he meet up with Sylvia? Did he ever see with Marlon or his mother again? I want more! Maybe with the way Hollywood is going, I might get my wish.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Lucky Seven Meme

Hey guys!

The wonderful and talented Kristin Lynn Thetford tagged me for an awesome Lucky Seven Meme (or Lucky Number Slevin Meme for you Josh Hartnett fans). She tagged me LAST WEEK, so I apologize for the delay. I had a rough writing week last week and got through it with perseverance lots of procrastination which gave me inspiration for a forthcoming blog post.

Kristin tasked me with posting 7 lines from my MS. Like her, I’ve never posted an excerpt from my novel on my blog, but 2012 is all about the end of the world getting my stuff out there.

Here are the rules:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next seven lines – sentences or paragraphs – and post them as they’re written. No cheating
4. Tag 7 authors
5. Let them know

I will be giving you 7 paragraphs. Luckily, I write very short paragraphs :)

        When I get home, I find an email from Mr. Towne waiting for me, tapping its foot in my inbox.

            I need a progress report. Let’s chat.
I roll my eyes at the email. Is he my dad asking how my homework is coming along? None of my clients have required a progress report. They have faith in me that I’ll get the job done.
“Things are taking a little bit longer,” I tell him on video chat. “But I am making progress.”
His baby blue eyes stare coldly into the screen. He leans back and rests his arms on his gut. “It’s been almost two months since we last spoke. You can’t give me radio silence like that.”
Trust the process, I want to tell him. Couples weren’t destroyed in a day. Still, I nod in agreement. “I’m sorry. I’ll keep you updated.”

And now I shall tag 7 lucky writers:

I totally understand if you can't participate right now, though L is for Lucky Seven Meme has a nice ring to it...Either way, these are great blogs to check out!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dialogue vs Description

What's a good balance between dialogue and description in novels? (Note: Description here refers to all non-dialogue.) One of my insecurities as a writer is that I write too much dialogue and am light on description. I have a cut-to-the-chase style of writing. I picked it up from writing screenplays before transitioning to books. In scripts, it's suggested that you never have more than 3 lines of description at a time. It's a well-known fact that people in Hollywood don't like to read. Blocks of description turns them off. Also, scripts are used more as a blueprint for the director and actor. Description tells them what's happening, but they will use their own interpretation to create the tone and feel.

I am incapable of writing long passages of description. That's why I like YA. Kids like having a good mix of white space on the page. They feel they aren't reading a textbook that way. Do you ever cringe when you turn a page and it's a block of description? I sometimes do. When I read, I want description that's long enough to just give me a sense of what's going on. I don't need painstaking detail about physical description, a play-by-play of the characters' thoughts, or a journalistic recounting of backstory. Make it succinct; my mind will fill in the rest. I always think to that scene in Pleasantville when the kids discover blank books. Reese Witherspoon vaguely describes what a book is about, and the pages fill in with text. I would rather reveal information via dialogue.

On the same token, I don't like dialogue that goes on and on. Writing dialogue is fun, but it also needs to have a point. It must move the story along. I tire of scenes with dialogue that goes nowhere. Pulp Fiction is a famously talky script, but it's all leading somewhere. Characters don't talk just for the sake of talking. Long stretches of dialogue reveal character and explore the movie's theme: what does it take to be a righteous man?

Recently, I read The Giver by Lois Lowry and loved it. I devoured it in two days. It's an award-winning book, and I was surprised at how dialogue-driven it was. Most of the description are action lines. As I kept reading, I realized that the writing style echoed the colorless, emotionless world of the story. Still, I got a very clear sense of the main character and place. When Lowry does switch to more description in the end, they are short and sweet. They tell us where we are and what Jonas is doing. She did an amazing job at conveying so much in a few lines.

Which do you tend to write more of: dialogue or description/action?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

In Defense of Katy Perry...and Revising

This week, two famous women reinforced two important facts for me:

1) I have a new article posted at In Our Words Blog. ch ch check it out!

In Defense of Katy Perry

When doing my research for this article, I discovered that Perry's been kicking around since 2001, but she didn't hit it big with "I Kissed a Girl" until 2008. In that time, she was signed and dropped by two record labels. She recorded an album with one of the biggest music producers, which then got shelved. So people may not be a fan of her music, but nobody can claim she doesn't work hard. She's been at it for 11 years! It just goes to show that there is no such thing as an overnight success. Everyone pays his/her dues.

2) On Tuesday night, I went to a book signing and reading from author Carol Anshaw for her new novel Carry the One. The book sounds amazing -- and they served cupcakes! During the Q&A, I asked her if she is a plotter or a pantser. I called it a fly-by-the-seats-of-your-pantser, in case she wasn't up to date on the lingo. She said she does do outlines, but she mostly considers herself a Reviser. Before my question, someone else had asked how long it took her to write the book. She said she spent as much time revising as she did actually writing. Anshaw is a big proponent of revising, and it's nice knowing that great books don't just fall out of the sky. Aspiring author, published author. Doesn't matter. Everyone revises.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Update: Revisions, AWP, Books, and Remembering Your Nose

Happy Friday!

I'm looking forward to the weekend. The AWP (Association of Writers Programs) conference is going on in Chicago through Sunday. Professors, students, and alumni of MFA writing programs are flocking to the city to mix and mingle. There are a slew of readings happening in bookstores, coffee shops, and bars. I went to a poetry reading on Wednesday night. To be honest, poetry is not my forte, but I still enjoyed being around other writers. I'm planning to go a fiction reading sometime this weekend. Since we spend so much of our time alone staring at a screen, it's nice to meet other pale, socially awkward writers in person. Their schedule can be found here.

I've also been revising every single day this week. I'm not hitting my chapter-per-day goal, but I'm still proud of myself for keeping up this daily pace. I thought I would dread revisions, but I quite enjoy having a base to go off of.

In my descriptions, I've been adding more sensory images, especially smell. We take smell for granted, opting to use visual and tactile description. But people have a strong attachment to their sense of smell. You can evoke a feeling or memory or setting quickly and effectively with sense of smell. You see, the sense of smell is our only sense that's connected directly to our brain, making them more vivid. The sensations don't have to be transmitted and translated like they do with the other four senses. That's why when I smell Cool Water on a guy, I'm instantly taken back to 7th grade sitting in front of this kid Jason who poured it on. Whereas if I see an old picture of him, it would take a little more thinking to picture the classroom. Try to intersperse some olfactory descriptions into your WIP. If you have a minor character, maybe you don't want to spend time describing his/her appearance, giving your reader yet another person to remember. Instead, describe how they smell and distringuish said character immediately.

In book news, I lent my copy of Small Town Sinners to a friend who's a youth minister. She loved it! She really appreciated how the protagonist questions her faith, how organic her development felt, and how the book doesn't put down religion. She's going to recommend it to her kids. I love when people love books I recommend. It's like a job well done...I'm currently reading Stephen McCauley's The Object of My Affection. Yes, I'm breaking my rule about reading the book after seeing the movie. And yes, I keep picturing Jennifer Aniston as the main character, even though in the book she is very different and not as glamourous. But I am enjoying the novel, especially its datedness. (It was written in 1985) The main characters are debating whether to invest in an answering machine. At least it's not a pay phone.

 How is your writing coming along? Any fun weekend plans?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing YA for Dummies

Happy Presidents Day!

I'm taking full advantage of my day off by starting the second draft of my WIP. After receiving feedback from my writer's group, letting it marinate for a few weeks, and then reworking my story to fix plot and character problems, I am ready to go! My banana cream pie-in-the-sky goal is to revise 1 chapter/day. A more realistic goal might be 1 chapter every 2-3 days. I'm aiming to finish draft #2 by May 1. (If only I didn't have a full-time job that's in its busy season currently...) I know -- I shouldn't set such firm goals in a public forum where I can be judged held accountable. But I'm hoping this spurs me on to finish in time. How long has it taken you to finish a second (or third or fourth) draft?

An unlikely tool in getting me psyched up for revisions is Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson. My friend gave this to me for Hanukkah, and I let it collect dust all through January. When I decided to read it one morning on the train, I was hooked. I had never read a writing advice guidebook for novels. I figured I knew how to write a story from studying screenwriting in college and from reading lots of books. YA for Dummies didn't teach me new tricks; rather, it helped clarify parts of writing I thought I knew. I had about five epiphanies about my book after reading this.

My biggest takeaway from YA for Dummies was how to write a theme and weave it into my story. The theme is the central idea in your novel. In screenwriting, they call it the controlling idea. In Robert McKee's book Story (a must-read for any screenwriter), he says that Paddy Chayefsky, writer of Network, would keep his controlling idea next to him while he wrote. That way, he could make sure everything he wrote stuck to that theme. After I wrote my first draft, I couldn't state my theme in one sentence. I had about 3 themes garbled together. With draft #2, I've streamlined, and my story feels much clearer and focused. Halverson includes a theme-building exercise in the book, which at first I scoffed at, but came to find helpful.

I recommend picking up this book, or at least flipping through it at Barnes & Noble. Unlike Story, it's written in a nuts-and-bolts fashion, which I can appreciate. Just the facts ma'am. No matter how much you know, you're bound to learn something new. I haven't read other how-to books like Save the Cat or Writing the Break Out Novel. Have you? Thoughts?

Finally, a random comment on a YA book I'm currently reading. Said novel was published last year and takes place in present day. In one scene, the protagonist is searching for a quarter to use a pay phone, and then her friend takes her to a record store. The record store part I will let slide...barely.

But who still uses a pay phone? And they sure doesn't cost a quarter anymore.

I live in Chicago, and I've only seen maybe 2 pay phones. I doubt suburbs have them anymore. Most teens today have never and will never use a pay phone. They carry cell phones. If they don't, they would ask a stranger to borrow one before thinking to use a pay phone. That small detail pulled me out of the story for a moment. So for those of you writing contemporary, leave out the pay phones. I know people are wary about writing in technology that could be outdated in a year. But trust me, cell phones aren't going anywhere.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Group Date: When My Life Became “The Bachelor”

So remember the story I read two weeks ago? Well, the editors at In Our Words Blog liked it and published it on their website. In honor of V-day, read all about my so-bad-it's-memorable dating experience here!

Happy Valentine's Day...even though it's an over-rated holiday, IMHO...

And cheers to one of my favorite rom-coms

Monday, February 6, 2012

I'm a Storyteller!

Last Thursday, I made my debut as a storyteller in Chicago. And I'm still on kind of a high about it.

The storytelling artform is comprised of people getting up in front of others and reading a 5-10 minute non-fiction story about something in their lives. Think along the lines of David Sedaris's personal essays in Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, etc. There are a smattering of monthly storytelling events at bars around the city. I've had a few friends read their essays, and a part of me always wanted to do it. And since 2012 is the year I'm doing stuff instead of just talking about it, I quickly wrote a story and got to perform it in front of an audience. I was so nervous! But hearing the audience laugh, getting that instant feedback, was exhilarating.

The Phil of 2011 would have said he was going to write a story sometime that year. He would've thought about it, thought about it, put it aside, forgot about it, come back to it, thought about it some more, and then another year would've gone by. (Forgive the 3rd person usage) But one of the resolutions I made to myself was to get my work out there. Don't sit on it. Don't wait too long. Don't obsess about making my work perfect. I wrote this thing in a week, and it may not have been perfect, but I'm proud of it, and proud of myself for getting out there.

I hope you all do the same. Don't hoard your material, fearing rejection like I used to. Also, I recommend reading your writing aloud -- to strangers or just to yourself. It's an unexpectedly nifty revising tool!


Monday, January 30, 2012

Do's and Don'ts of Accepting Feedback

Greetings, Bloggerinos!

I wrote this post from 35,000 feet in the air. Last week, I was in Florida visiting the folks and lounging in the sun. Considering I left Chicago in the middle of a snowstorm and 14-degree weather, the trip couldn’t have come at a better time. In between tanning, eating, and swimming, I made some time to begin revisions on my WIP. The week before, I had met with my writer’s group who critiqued the first draft. I’ve been on both sides of that discussion, and every time, it’s still nerve-wracking. Here we are, giving our prized work, drafts that we spent countless hours perfecting, to others to rip apart. Receiving feedback is never easy, and from my experiences, I’ve learned some Do and Don’ts to surviving critiques.

DO seek criticism, not validation. Sitting around and talking about how much readers loved your draft makes for a great night, but an awful critique session. Some of your readers may be close friends and family who don’t want to hurt your feelings, and so they will only tell you nice things. Don’t let them. Hearing the good won’t get you to pinpoint the bad. If you are only seeking compliments from your writer’s group, then you aren’t letting them do their job. You wrote an entire book. That’s validation enough. When you are talking with critique partners/beta readers, get to the problem areas. You can save the backslapping for the end.

DON’T defend your book against criticism. In an old writer’s group, one of the writers would always jump to her book’s defense if you ever brought up a trouble spot. “No, you don’t understand.” Or “I made that clear in this section.” She had an answer for everything. It’s commonplace to get defensive or frustrated when a reader gives you criticism you disagree with. But resist the urge to come back with an answer. Don’t talk. Listen. If someone didn’t understand a plot point you thought was crystal clear, then guess what – he or she won’t be the only one. You can’t sit next to every reader who buys your book and answer their questions. Find out why your group was confused; don’t dismiss any feedback.

DO ask open-ended questions.  You need to let the criticism flow naturally. Let them bring up issues you never realized.  When you ask a leading question, it skews the feedback. Let’s say you’re worried that your MC doesn’t have a strong enough motivation in X Scene. Don’t ask the group “Was the motivation strong enough in X Scene? Could it be clearer?” That will instantly taint your readers’ feedback. You’re coercing them into giving you the answer you want, not the one they have. Maybe the readers thought that scene was fine as it is. Instead, ask “What did you think of X Scene?” Use open-ended questions as much as possible. If you are resorting to using such leading questions, then all you are seeking is confirmation of a problem you already know exists.

DON’T take it personally. Our books are an extension of us, plain and simple. Someone not liking our book feels like someone not liking us. We will always feel this twinge when we hear negative feedback. But don’t take it personally. Make sure your critiquers are people you trust, so you always knows what they say is coming from a positive place. To paraphrase Meg Cabot, your book is not a $100 bill. Not everyone’s going to like it.

What are some do’s and don’t’s you have whenever giving or receiving criticism?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

5 Ways the Golden Globes Can Help Your Writing

Today is one of my favorite days of the year, because today is...The Golden Globe Awards!!! (live on NBC at 8pm EST/7pm CST)

Yes, I am an awards junkie, and we are in the thick of awards season. The Golden Globes are my favorite awards show, more than the Oscars, for several reasons: they're fun and not stuffy, they celebrate movies and TV, they're the first show of the year, and they serve as a snapshot of where the top films and performances stand in the Oscar race. And there's pretty dresses, too! For those unfamiliar, the Golden Globe Awards are voted on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group of 85 freelance journalists. The HFPA has no overlap with the Oscars and have drawn controversy for selling awards to the highest bidder and nominating stars from lousy movies so they can rub elbows with them. But despite this, the GG's remain very popular with viewers and Hollywood folk.

Even if you don't watch the show, there are some valuable lessons that writers can learn from the Globes' success:

1) Pack your show with stars. The HFPA loves nominating big stars, even in poorly-received movies. Last year, they nominated Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for the critically-panned film The Tourist. George Clooney is nominated for four awards tonight, Ryan Gosling for two. Sure, they also nominate the lessen-known actors (like Jean Dujardin), but they'll also throw us a Kate Winslet. The HFPA is smart. They don't just nominate big stars to feel cool, but also to drive ratings. People will tune in to see their favorite celebrities. Likewise, write characters that people will want to read. Make them interesting and exciting and funny and dynamic. Surround them with vivid supporting characters. These are the stars of your book, and they will attract readers. We've all read books where the plot was so-so, but the characters kept us hooked.

2) Only give out awards viewers care about. Unlike the Oscars, the Globes don't drag out their show with technical awards like Best Sound Mixing or multiple montages. The Globes only give out best show/movie and acting awards, with a scant handful of writing/directing/score categories -- the categories viewers care about. They've cut the fat that bogs down most award shows, and as a result, the show is remarkably streamlined. Think of awards as plot points. Only include the most necessary parts in your novel. Keep the story moving. Don't pad; don't add fluff. Readers can tell, especially young readers.

3) Save room for comedy. While the Oscars rarely recognize comedic films, the Globes split the movie categories into drama and comedy/musical, guaranteeing funny films will be represented. Many awards-bait films aren't as widely-known to viewers as popular comedies; it's nice to have a movie like Bridesmaids thrown into the mix with The Artist and Shame, among others. Likewise, in your story, don't forget the funny. Comic relief is always welcome. Even if you are writing a serious book, it doesn't hurt to write a humorous moment or character here and there. Give readers a brief chuckle amongst the epicness and somberness. They'll appreciate it.

4) Let your characters know they aren't perfect. Ricky Gervais is the first host the Globes have ever had, and he is a marked difference from the genial Oscar hosts. He openly mocks celebrities in attendance, as well as the HFPA, bringing them down a peg. Many were outraged by his antics, but audiences seemed to like it, and the HFPA invited him back. Your characters can't float through the story infallible and unharmed. You need Ricky Gervais-esque characters or situations that will rough them up and point out their flaws. Make it uncomfortable for them.

5) Keep it entertaining. Handing out awards isn't the most important facet of the Golden Globes. It's more of an afterthought. NBC bills the Golden Globes as the party of the year, placing the emphasis on drunk celebrities, humorous acceptance speeches, and pretty dresses. They aren't stuffy like the Oscars. When writing your book, remember above all that it's meant to entertain. People read novels for pleasure. Even when they read serious, issue-driven books, they want to enjoy reading. So in the midst of your plotting, world building, and character mapping, make sure that you're creating something people actually will want to read. And if you have a character or two in a pretty dress, even better!

I will leave you with my pick for best dressed from last year's show.

And the worst...