Stealing from another house

It’s no secret that I’ve got a bit of a sore spot regarding certain elements in fiction: specifically, I’m frustrated by a glut of fiction featuring Tolkien’s Elves/Dwarves/Men, the standard Vampires/Werewolves civil war, the obsession with Norse and Greek mythology.

It’s not that these elements are bad– not by a long shot. But I’ve seen them so often that I’m getting sick of them.

This morning a philosopher friend of mine came over, and we talked about a whole slew of things (topics always tend to wander when he and I chat), and while we meandered onto the subject of literature, an old phrase came up:

Good writers borrow; great writers steal. 

It’s been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, TS Elliot…it’s such a good quote that nobody can keep their mitts off it. But I digress.

The philosopher framed my frustration in terms of the quote, and we wound up with this scenario

(Note: This is all metaphorical. I don’t actually endorse stealing stuff in the real world.)

Living Room - Big Couch
It’s nice, but it could use a touch more Coelho… (Photo credit: TomBorowski)

We writers are a pretty light-fingered bunch. Like I’ve said before, most of what we create is based at least partially off something else. When we see another author use something we like, we can’t help ourselves– we just have to grab it. Some people are careful about the matter; they’ll file off the serial numbers and give it a new paint job, but it’s still got the same base underneath. Some get proud of their acquisition. They proudly announce that the mirror in their front hall belonged to HP Lovecraft, and that at midnight you can see Cthulu reflected in its glass. And that couch you’re sitting on? That’s a Tolkien original, swiped straight out of the Last Homely House.

The latter are lovingly referred to as tributes, homages and allusions, and they can be pretty damn cool… but some of the coolness wears off when you start to notice all your friends have the exact same couch in their living room. After a while it starts to look a bit threadbare, and you’re pretty sure a spring is coming loose underneath the cushion.

This doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a damn comfy couch, and hell if those Elves don’t know their way around upholstery. But it’s starting to look… old. After all, even if Tolkien had some great stuff, but there’s only so much of it, and those sticky-fingered writers have rearranged it those same pieces in every configuration imaginable.

Bay Ridge McMansion 1b
Just look at all those potential plot points… (Photo credit: Whiskeygonebad)

But while Tolkien’s house has been pillaged down to the studs, there’s a whole city full of houses to rob. Hell, a few miles up the road you’ll find a veritable neighborhood full of McMansions, each full of themes and archetypes and symbols and mythical creatures, almost untapped by the kleptomaniac writing population. Maybe you’ll find a better couch for your decor in one of those. Or maybe you’ll decide to keep your classic Tolkien couch, but jazz it up with a Tale of Genji area rug and some Aztec cushions. Maybe your HP Lovecraft mirror would look better with some ancient Nubian wallpaper.

How would your medieval High Fantasy be different if, instead of Elves, one of the dominant races resembled shapeshifting Encantado?  What if your werewolves had more in common with hyenas? And moving past the superficial, what lessons and motifs can we glean from the fairytales of, say, India? There are values systems, fashions, family structures, mannerisms, superstitions, combat styles– many of them unknown and unappreciated in the mainstream.

There’s a whole world out there, my fellow thieves. I invite you to explore it all.

(Note: I fully expect somebody to call me out for encouraging cultural appropriation– namely, grabbing stuff from another culture because it’s nifty, and usually horrifically stereotyping and misrepresenting a that culture and its members as a result. First of all, this happens a lot. It’s not good, but it does. Second, just because a creature/theme/clever anecdote doesn’t belong to your native culture doesn’t mean it’s off limits. There’s such an incredible wealth of stories out there that you would be doing yourself a disservice by only skimming the surface and taking the most obvious details. I find that some of my favorite fantasy cultures/creatures/settings are ones which are not drawn wholesale from another culture, but inspired by aspects of an extant culture/myth/setting, and then advanced and reworked until they are something entirely new. And that’s something I’d love to see more of in the future.)

31 Day Blogging Challenge: Fueling the Muse

Yesterday Tilla Brook said “I’m wondering what kind of snacks might help me to keep going! I’m more of an olives and crisps girl myself.”

It’s no secret: I love food. I love making it, I love eating it, I love sharing it with friends and family. I’m a firm believer in the magical properties of good cookies and hot chocolate when it comes to mending broken hearts and washing away bad days.

It’s no secret that the process of chewing helps to wake you up and get your brain cells going– it’s one of the reasons why some people recommend chewing gum when you’re studying or taking a test, and I also find that it helps me focus on my writing.

First off, there are two types of ‘writing food’ in my mind.

Picture by Victorgrigas, found on Wikimedia Commons

The first is the type where you take a break and sneak down to the fridge. These kinds of snacks are great for after you’re finished with a chapter or scene. The process of preparing and eating the snack gives you a few minutes to unwind and gear up for the next leg of the journey. And for these kinds of snacks, you’re limited only by your imagination and appetites.  When I really want to treat myself, I go for a caprese salad made of tomatoes, fresh mozerella, fresh basil leaves, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s yummy~

The second is the kind you keep in arm’s reach, just in case. Personally I’ve got a bad habit of grinding my teeth or chewing my lips when I get anxious, which can end up quite painful. Gum helps in the short term, but I can chew an entire pack into rubber during a particularly difficult scene.

In my mind, this second variety has to have some particular properties:

  • Bite sized
  • Doesn’t go bad during a particularly long writing session
  • Doesn’t make a mess or leave my fingers sticky

If you do have a favorite that tends to get sticky, I suggest investing in toothpicks or mini skewers so you can keep you don’t need to rewash your hands every time you ponder a prepositional phrase. Tilla goes for olives, but here are a few of my personal favorites:

  • Tea
  • Mini pretzels and Nutella or other delicious dipping substances
  • Crackers and cheese
  • Orange slices or or apple slices dipped in lemon juice
  • Cheese cubes
  • Baby carrots
  • Jelly beans

Also, don’t forget hand sanitizer. The keyboard of your computer is known as one of the germier surfaces in your home (along with your cell phone), so it may behoove you to give your keyboard a once-over with a disinfecting wipe before you eat near it.

The road goes ever on and on…

Map of Appalachian Trail
In case you’re curious, THIS is the Appalachian Trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have yet to meet anyone who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail by accident– you swear, you just stepped outside to get the mail, but 2,000 miles later you looked up and realized you were in Maine.

That kind of hike takes preparation. You wear your most comfortable hiking boots, you check the weather, you bring supplies of food and water, you make sure you’ve got time and energy to invest in the experience. And it is an investment. Everyone I know who’s hiked the trail has spoken lovingly of the experience forever after.

In my the same way, I have yet to meet anybody who’s ever read The Lord of the Rings by accident. Everyone I know who’s finished the book did so knowing exactly what they were dealing with when they went into the experience. And that’s because, as books go, it’s not easy. I know plenty of people who tried to tackle it, but ended up giving up before they reached the end of the first chapter. To stick with the metaphor, they tackled the Appalachian Trail while expecting it to be exactly like a romp through a city park.

Often, classic novels are an endeavor. They use arcane language and styles that we’ve abandoned ages ago, they take forever and a half to get to the point. Plenty of people have complained about Tolkien’s infatuation with the scenery, or Victor Hugo’s love-hate relationship with pacing. While that doesn’t diminish from their beauty, it does make them difficult, especially if you’re more accustomed to modern authors and the conventions they use.

More than a few people would argue that the beauty of the Appalachian trail would be diminished by paved roads or street lights, though they would make it safer and easier to trek, and it would make the Trail more appealing to a lot more people. Of course, the lack of people is part adds to the quiet serenity, the untouched quality of the wilderness.

Of course, when you’re writing with the intent of being published, a lack of readers usually isn’t the end goal. Unless you run with a certain crowd, a book is no more entertaining if nobody else has read it. In fact, it could be argued that several series were greatly improved by the devotion of their fanbase. (Harry Potter is the obvious example.)

The fact of the matter is, we read classics because they’re the books that Everybody Who’s Anybody has read– they’re on school reading lists, they’re the ones that the great authors/filmmakers/visionaries have read. But if you’re a fledgling author, you probably don’t have school reading lists and “100 Greatest Books of All Time” lists to build a fanbase for you*.

When we talk about modern conventions– avoid filtering, use active voice instead of ‘was’ and ‘were’, employ dialogue tags that don’t distract from what’s being said— we’re talking about adding those features that make writing easier and more accessible to a modern audience. After all, unlike hiking trails, writing doesn’t lose its beauty as it becomes more accessible.

*If you do, I’m insanely jealous of your success and deeply flattered that you’re reading my blog!

Beating depression over the head with a monkey wrench

If you haven’t read it yet, I implore you to head to Hyperbole and a Half for her take on the subject of depression.

I dealt with that same brand of depression a while back. Though therapy and pills didn’t work, I finally found my corn (and I swear to all that is holy, we are going to coin that phrase if it kills me), but you never really forget. And so when you feel something that starts tugging you back in that direction, you fight back. You have to.

So I wrote down exactly how I dealt with it– for my reference, and for anybody else’s. These are in no particular order– they’re just things that help me stay healthy.  They’re also not meant to be instant cures for the deep mire, but ways of getting grounded when you feel yourself start to slide.

Note: both chemically and psychologically, all people are different. What works for me may not work for you, and that’s okay. But in my experience, the best way of finding out what works for you is to try a little bit of everything and see what sticks. 

1. Make a decision. For me, at least, one of the most crippling feelings is the lack of control.  The first way for me to combat it, then, is to consciously decide that I’m not going to let this feeling control me. There’s something seriously empowering about taking a stand and making a decision. Vocalize it for more effect. Personally, because I tend towards anger when I get upset, I also generally cuss it out: “HELL no, depression. No way in blighted tulip-sucking oblivion are you going to keep me in bed all day. I got shit to do, so get the Prada-selling hell out of my way!” (Added bonus: Making up weird swears is also good for a laugh).

2. If you’re going to wallow in misery, give yourself a set time period. Jack Shepherd from LOST recommended overcoming panic by letting it have its say for five seconds– and then booting it out and moving on. Negative emotions are a part of life, and there’s no reason to guilt yourself for experiencing them. Better to give yourself a set time period to wallow, and then force yourself to get up and do something. For me, I let myself curl up and hide for two episodes of Castle— because unlike Jack, I need a bit more than five seconds. The important part is to let it go on no longer than the set time.

3. Look into the sun. No, literally. Don’t go burning a hole in your retinas or anything, but go outside and feel sunshine on your skin. Work in the garden. Ride a bicycle. Take the dog for a walk. If you can’t go outside, open all the blinds/curtains in the house and let the natural light in. Studies have linked natural sunlight to a lift in mood, so this is a chemical boost as well.

4. Get clean. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. Brush your hair (preferably with a different brush). Take a shower. Clean your room. Do the dishes. When we feel clean, we feel refreshed, even if it’s a little bit. When we clean something else, we’ve got a dramatic, visible show of our progress. Look at the impact you’ve made on your personal environment! Like making a decision, it’s incredibly empowering.

5. Get dressed. The bathrobe and jammies are part of the ‘not doing anything right now’ uniform. Which is great when that’s the intention, but when you’re feeling depressed, that can lead to stagnation (which deepens depression, and the cycle continues). Even if you’re not going anywhere or doing anything, dressing nice is a ritual activity. It tells the brain that you’re about to do something important, so it needs to wake up and prepare itself accordingly. (I actually got the inverse of this advice from a doctor: when I complained of insomnia, he suggested I stop reading on my bed, so that my brain associate the bed with only sleep. Consequently the brain would start releasing melatonin when I laid down to sleep. The brain can be programmed this way. It’s kind of epic.)

6. Get interested in other people. Don’t get me wrong, whining to others and getting sympathy can be helpful, but like wallowing, it needs to stop after a certain point. After that, it starts acting like a scab– the more you pick at it, the worse you’ll feel and the longer it’ll take to heal. Talk to other people about their problems– or about their joys. Listen to their life story, and actually hear what they’re saying. It gives you perspective, it gives you connection to another human being, and it gives you a break from the echo chamber that is misery.

7. Change your environment. Go grocery shopping. Go to a friend’s house. Take a walk in the woods. Like 3 and 5 on this list, this tells your brain to change modes. The fact that it also may give you a chance to be productive/have a conversation/absorb some sunshine is an added bonus.

8. Break out your inner writer. This one’s my personal goldmine, but it’s weird as all get-out. I step back from myself, divide myself into Jenny-the-Writer and Jenny-the-Character. And then I have Writer!Jenny analyze Character!Jenny’s situation. If I were writing this current scene, what parts would I edit out? How would I take this character and turn her into a strong, likable heroine? What motivates her current mood, and which point in the story would I have to change in order to truly change this scene? How have other writers dealt with this situation (“Good writers borrow, great writers steal”, after all!)?

What do you do to deal with the blues? Have you tried any of these for yourself? Tell us in the comments!

Adventures with Scrivener

Until now, I’ve only really used a few features of Scrivener: the goal and wordcount feature, the folders, the ‘split at section’ command, and occasionally the research file.

This time I’m trying something different.

I wrote the whole of this draft in Microsoft Word. Because I wasn’t using any features aside from the wordcount and the putting-text-on-white-space features, it didn’t matter what software I used. Now I’m being a bit more discerning.

Sections

I opened a new folder on my project and pasted the entirety of my story into the first text document. From there, I went to the first scene break and split the story to the next section. split at section

By splitting the pre-written sections one at a time, I have the chance to really look at them without getting overwhelmed by how much I still have to do. I can thoughtfully evaluate when the scene actually starts and ends, figure out a title that won’t leave me hopelessly lost in a few days, and add a summary for my purposes.

Metadatameta data

Scrivener has options for metadata. It defaults to descriptions of the chapter/section/idea/what have you, but I tinkered with it somewhat.

Because my story involves traveling between multiple locations, I set one to keep track of the country–this one by color.

I set the other one to keep track of the prevalent mood of each scene, both as the scene opens, and as it closes. I’ve mentioned before that we can’t just dwell on a single mood— it needs to continuously rise and fall to keep the readers invested.

Themethemes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about theme in particular, and I’ve been trying to apply what I’ve learned so far. I’ve identified three core themes in my story, and the facets thereof that the different characters embody. Now that’s a lot of stuff. It’s too hard to keep track of all the themes of an entire story all at once. I’ve found it’s much easier to take it section by section and noting the themes that are touched on, and how they’re developed over the course of the story.

Characterscharacter keywords

I’ve got a whole lot of named characters, so I use the Keywords feature to keep a track of which characters made an appearance in a given scene, and which ones were only mentioned. So far I’ve found that some of them are mentioned rarely enough to merit combining or cutting entirely (I’m looking at you, Kessie!), while one in particular needs a few more mentions to properly emphasize his place in the story.

Document Reference

There’s also a nifty feature that allows you to cross-reference the events going on in one section with stuff going on elsewhere. This becomes really useful for remembering exact details and wording of past conversations, keeping track of which saint deals with what aspects of life, and using the proper terms for all the parts of a dirigible.

The Cork Board

I’ve always admired the cork board feature on Scrivener, but I’ve never really had reason to use it before. Now that I’m taking advantage of all these other features, though, it’s a great way of seeing a lot of details at a glance.

cork board

What do you use to write and edit your stories? Are you big on features like these, or are you more a traditional ‘just-get-the-words-on-the-screen’ kind of writer? 

Opinion post: Trilogies

Most of the time I try to keep my blog about semi-professional-sounding stuff. Namely the craft of writing. But that’s burnout for me and I don’t think it gives nearly enough content to you, so I’m going to try something a little bit different.

On Saturdays I’ll be posting more personal stuff– mostly opinions and reflections, stuff I’ve tried, etc. So please bear with me, and let me know if there’s anything that strikes a spark in you!

So I’ve got a theory about some trilogies and other multi-book sets– they’re not all like this (not by a long shot), and I may be way off base here, but I’ve noticed it in several over the years.

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...
A lot of the people I’ve talked to loved the first six Harry Potter Books… and were somewhat disappointed with the finale. Personally, it’s grown on me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Disclaimer: I’m not saying anything bad about trilogies in general or the writers who create them. Hell, I’m working on a trilogy right now. But I have seen this pattern enough to be concerned about it.]

The trilogy starts out amazing. The second one might flag a little bit, but usually it’s also pretty strong. But by the time you get to the last installment, the real cracks are starting to show, and it can end up being disappointing.

My thought:

  • The first book is amazing because it has to be. Otherwise it wouldn’t get published in the first place. The writer’s had lots of time to work on it. It’s been edited and critiqued and polished so many times that very little, if anything, could escape its net of editors.
  • The second tends to be as strong because it’s so heavily tied to the first– maybe the writer outlined them both roughly around the same time, maybe they started writing and rewriting the second while they waited for the queries for book one to snag a bite. They might not have as much time to simmer as the first, but they still tend to be pretty amazing.
  • Then comes the third (or fourth, or seventh). Whatever the number, it’s the climax. We have this thing about climaxes. We expect them to rock our world, and blow everything before it out of the water. Anything short of that is automatically going to feel like a bit of a letdown. Added to that, there’s now the imposed pressure of deadlines, while keeping up with all the struggles of promotion. Added to that, the writer now has Published Author status– clearly they know what they’re doing, so people may be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when something doesn’t sit quite right. Maybe they’re contractually barred from stuff like the AQC Marathon, which would have caught the snags and plot holes they might otherwise have missed. Long story short, there’s a whole army of factors battling against them, while reader expectations are at an all-time-high.

Have you found any series that fit this pattern? Do you have any pet peeves that you’ve noticed a lot of over the years? Let me know in the comments!