Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rowling, Pseudonyms, and Writing in Multiple Genres

The recent buzz in the literary world is all about a detective novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling and its author, Robert Galbraith-- or, as has recently been revealed, J. K. Rowling. The novel was apparently well-received critically before anyone knew that the beloved Harry Potter author was behind it, and now that she has come clean, the book is flying off the shelves. For more on the story, check out this article or this review.

Pseudonyms are nothing new, of course. But what makes an author choose to use one? In Rowling’s case, it seems to have been a desire for reviews and reactions that were not constantly comparing her new work to the Harry Potter series. I can understand wishing to avoid that pressure. Other authors use pseudonyms in order to protect their own or their family’s privacy, to avoid connections to other famed authors (like Joe Hill, son of Stephen King), or just because they don’t feel that their own name is appropriate or interesting.

Personally, I sort of fall into that last category. When I submit work or do anything else in my "professional writer" capacity, I always use “K. J.” Neal instead of Kiley Neal. It’s not because I’m seeking anonymity or because I’m trying to mask my gender (which I always fear I’ll be accused of), but because I think “Kiley” sounds like a little girl’s name. Is that just me? Maybe. But ever since I decided to be a writer around age 15 or 16, I’ve always intended to be published under K. J.

I’ve been following the conversations about Rowling/Galbraith on Twitter, and someone mentioned that it was no big deal: Popular authors use pseudonyms all the time when they want to write in a different genre. They do this because people expect a certain type of writing from them, and are likely to be overly critical when they go a new direction. (I think we saw this with Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which is probably why Galbraith was born.) This got me thinking about myself and my own work. I’m currently editing a light sci-fi manuscript, but my heart-- and virtually ALL the other writing I’ve ever done-- lies in the fantasy genre. Does that mean I should use two names if I’m ever published in both genres? I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but it’s interesting to think about. 

What about you? Do you/would you use a pseudonym or abbreviated version of your name? Do you write in multiple genres? And while you’re at it, do you think Kiley sounds like a little girl, too?

Comment below!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Not All Heroines Are Katniss Clones

It has come to my attention that I was very, very lucky growing up. In my middle school library-- a place I escaped to often in those years-- there was no shortage of heroine-centric fantasy novels. It was there that I was introduced to Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, who are my idols and favorite authors to this day, as well as writers in various genres who were not afraid to make strong women and girls their protagonists. It was not until later-- much later-- that I found out strong female characters (SFCs) are not the norm, so much later that I had already written several manuscript drafts about them. 

I just found this sweet old-school copy of The Woman
Who Rides Like a Man
 by Tamora Pierce at a used bookstore. Alanna
is DEFINITELY a strong heroine! 

Lately, we’ve seen a surge of interest in kickass girls, in large part because of the popularity of The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen. And, no doubt about it, Katniss does kick ass, and she’s an interesting, flawed character. But I think it’s important for us all to remember that our SFCs don’t have to hit quite Katniss’s level of badassery (although it’s always cool if they do). Strong Girl shouldn't be some type of cookie-cutter designation: being “strong” doesn’t automatically equal physical toughness, aggressive/abrasive personality, and skill with deadly weapons. Smart girls are strong (Hermione!). Hardworking girls are strong. Opinionated girls are strong. Independent girls are strong. Determined girls are strong. There should be no absolute dichotomy between the Katniss Everdeens (or Xenas or Lara Crofts) and the empty-headed, helpless, sexualized princess-- instead, there are shades of gray in between, and there are countless ways to fall on the Katniss end of the spectrum.

Although this is good too.
So before you strap a sword onto your heroine’s hip, think about her as a character and about the story you’re trying to tell, and make sure you’re not doing it just to make her seem strong. FYI-- it’s not about the sword, or the bow, or the boxing gloves, or whatever. It’s about who she is as a person: her convictions, her attitudes, her experiences, her choices. If she’s a sword-swinger, fine, but if not, don’t despair. Every woman has different strengths and weaknesses, and every character should, too!

How do you create SFCs, then? Making sure they are three-dimensional, interesting, and realistic is a good start. The Bechdel test is also helpful. Read this cool Kate Beaton comic lampooning some common attempts at SFCs. And share your own tips and thoughts below!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Novel Ideas: When Should You Start?

Today I’m going to do something a little different: Instead of talking at you, I’m going to humbly ask for your advice, anecdotes, and similar worries. Here’s the thing. One aspect of being a writer that I have never had trouble with is making up fun and interesting ideas for novels. I always have several rattling around in my brain at any one time. Right now, despite the fact that I’m working on two novels already, I have three others planned for the future, not to mention the sequels to the draft I just finished and the one I’m 25,000 words into right now. That’s a lot of mind-clutter.

I never bite off more than I can chew. Two works-in-progress is enough (if not more than enough) to keep me occupied. But I do think about the other ideas. I can't help it. I imagine scenes, fashion dialogue, lay out plot points, etc., and I write these things down and save them until I finish my current project. As a result, by the time I begin working on a novel, I’ve usually already been mulling it over for several years.

My question is this: Is that a bad thing? Would it be better for the work if I just sat down and started writing the moment the lightbulb appeared over my head? Sometimes I become bored with whatever I’m working on, and I worry that this is because I’ve already spent so long with those characters and that story. Then again, I firmly believe in the value of long-term plot planning and getting under your characters’ skins before you do much writing about them. 

Are you a plotter (someone who plans things out, like me) or a pantser (someone who just goes with the flow)? Check out this post about it if you’re not sure. More importantly, to me at least, how long do you let an idea simmer before you tackle it? Is it better to jump right in while the idea is fresh and shiny, or to break it in a little, like a new pair of shoes? Maybe it's one of those things that varies from writer to writer, but still, I'd really appreciate your thoughts!

Friday, June 14, 2013

What Makes Your Work Unique?

Standing out in the slush pile is easier said than done. What makes your work fresh and one-of-a-kind? If you’re searching for a way to spice up your writing, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about what makes you unique. Are you an ambulance driver? Do you have a huge family? Have you battled a rare disease? Are you left-handed? Whether it’s big or little, anything that makes you extraordinary can hook your reader, because it provides a window into an unfamiliar world. A trait or experience that seems insignificant to you could be intriguing to someone else (consider reality shows, if you don't believe me). This may sound like more of a nonfiction trick, but oftentimes, our fictional characters carry little pieces of ourselves as well. Here are some basic categories to get you thinking:

Personal Experiences
Write down all the jobs you’ve had or the places you’ve visited or the things you’ve crossed off your bucket list. There’s probably something that other people would like to hear about! Your memories are a cornucopia of great material. For example, when I was 18, I was a passenger in a car accident. The Neon we were in flipped 3-4 times-- very scary! But now I feel as though I can write about the fear and chaos and physical effects of an accident authentically, and I had a fun time including one in my most recent manuscript. Even something as commonplace as a car wreck can really add depth to your work when you are writing from personal experience.

H.C.'s good old Carnegie library, a place where I
spent much of my youth.
Think about your family, your hometown, your childhood friends, or the places you frequented, like a church or school or restaurant. What makes your history different from someone else's? Is there anything about your growing-up years that was particularly significant or uncommon? I can dig around here quite a bit. I grew up poor in the country outside a small midwestern town, an only child, bookish and nerdy in a family that was anything but, and those are just the “big picture” facts. No one has a story like yours-- don’t be afraid to tell it!

Physical Characteristics
This might seem like a strange one, but the way we look and the condition of our bodies has a definite effect on how we live our lives and how we are treated by those around us. What do people notice when they first meet you? What makes you stand out? It can be something obvious or not-so-obvious. Me, I think I’m pretty average-looking in every way except one: I’m a 6’ tall woman. My height has affected everything from who I choose to date to what clothes I’m able to wear. If you give your character an unusual trait like that, making note of how it colors their experiences will add a layer of believability to your work.

Personality Traits
How do you act? What’s your Myers-Briggs type? (ISTJ FTW!) What do people say they like or dislike about you? Inject your vices and virtues into characters. Whether you’re hot-tempered or softhearted or a party animal, adding those traits to characters in your work helps round them out. And since you already know all about it, it’s not even hard! As for me, I have a tendency to write quiet/shy protagonists, because that’s how I am. On the other hand, one of my earliest characters was a girl who was exceedingly outgoing and charming, which was a great exercise as well!

Have you used your personal experiences and attributes in your writing? What makes you (and your work) unique? 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Attack of the Vlog!

Am I the only one who thinks "vlog" sounds like either a B-movie monster (“Beware the wrath of Vlog!”) or something socially unacceptable (“Oh my God, who vlogged?!”)? Anyway, here’s my first clumsy-but-fun attempt at a vlog, in which I talk about my internship at the Midwest Writers Workshop and the agent I'll be assisting, Brooks Sherman of FinePrint Literary. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Evolving as a Writer

No question about it: Young adult fantasy fiction made me a writer. It drew me in, kept me hooked, and provided a much-needed escape from the angsty woes of middle and high school. Adding my voice to that particular genre seemed like the natural next step, and for about the last eight years, I assumed that I would be a YA writer forever. 

And then I grew up.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t or won’t write YA or that I have stopped reading it. That’s definitely not the case. But lately I find myself wandering this strange borderland in my writing, wherein I want to use YA style choices and young characters, but I also want to talk about complex issues, adult situations, sex and sexuality, etc., and I want adults to read it, too. I’m certainly not underestimating teens’ ability to deal with that kind of subject matter, but when does a novel cross the line from being for teens to being for adults? That line seems blurry at best, and I’m constantly flirting with it.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the emerging “New Adult” genre, and since no one seems completely sure what that is, maybe that’s where I am. However, much of the work dubbed NA seems to focus largely on college party culture and sexy times (with covers resembling Harlequin romances), which isn’t really what I’m trying to do. This conundrum is starting to worry me because I’m approaching the end of my current project’s first draft and have begun to wonder how I’ll label it when I query agents. 

“This light sci-fi novel is targeted toward-- um-- people, I guess.”

And all the agents go...

I’m coming to terms with the fact that my writing is constantly evolving and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. We all have to be open to whatever new creative ideas pop into our heads, even if they mark a departure from what we’ve produced in the past. All I know for certain is that I’m an SFF writer, and I doubt that will ever change-- but then again, who knows?

Has your writing evolved and changed over the years?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Stand Up to Live

What do you love, aside from writing? What else are you passionate about? What makes you geek out? For me, there are several things-- as I may have mentioned before, I have so many interests that I just about drive myself crazy keeping up with them all. But numero dos on my list is definitely fitness. 

One of these things is not like the other.

“Wait, wait, wait,” you’re saying. “I thought you were a nerd! Nerds don’t eat right or go to the gym! They snarf Doritos and Mountain Dew and sit in front of the computer for hours on end!”

Well, some nerds do, and that’s cool. I used to be one of those. But I decided that if I’m going to stay on this earth being awesome for as long as possible, I’ll need a healthy vehicle for my genius *wink*. The more active I became, the more I grew to love it, and the more I wished I had been fit all my life instead of just the past few years. I could talk about working out and eating clean for a REALLY long time, but that’s not what you came for.

My writing will always, always, always come first. If I’ve planned a workout and I happen to find myself in that burning, blissful, I-must-get-these-words-out-of-my-head mood, then the workout gets postponed. That said, I think it’s important for all of us to have other things going on in our lives. Walk away from the keyboard once in awhile and do something else you love. Plant some flowers. Play catch with your kid. Ride a horse. Go see a movie. Paint. Dance. Knit. Run. Call your mom.

As Thoreau said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” Our experiences out in the world add color, depth, and wisdom to our work. While dedication is crucial for a writer, that doesn’t mean we should spend every waking moment typing furiously or feel guilty for spending a night out with friends. If you love making papier-mâché kittens, do it, then watch it inevitably wind itself back into your writing. All the things that fitness has inspired in me-- willpower, determination, confidence, pride, courage, inner and outer strength, and yes, joy-- make me a better writer in one way or another. Plus, we all know that walking away from a piece and coming back with fresh eyes and a rejuvenated mind is always a great idea.

What do you do when you’re not wordsmithing? How has it affected you as a writer?