Sunday, November 11, 2012

The 2012 Gathering of Writers

Let me start by saying that the 2012 Gathering of Writers in Indianapolis BLEW MY MIND. I’ve never been to any sort of writers’ conference before, and, introvert that I am, feared that being around so many people would ruin it for me. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It was, as keynote speaker Allison Joseph alluded to in her beautiful poem for the occasion, like worshippers in a church. We came together in joy and goodwill to pursue our calling. The positivity with which I, as a student, was met encouraged me and made me feel like a real part of the community-- and let me tell you, I was in wonderful company.

Because fiction is my focus I attended the three fiction workshops offered. Melissa Fraterrigo taught about writing effective openings, Ben Winters gave tips for building plot and structure, and Sarah Layden spoke of creating vivid settings. The final speaker for the day was Laura Baich of IU Press, who gave us all some helpful info about marketing our books (and ourselves) digitally. I won’t go into all of their great advice and revealing exercises, but I do want to share one thing with you: Ben Winters’s “story of the story.”

Most of us don’t like to be asked what our book or project is about. (I noticed, at the Gathering, that no one ever asked me that-- we just talked about genre, craft, etc.) It’s a tough question, but it’s one that we should be asking ourselves as we write. One of Ben’s tips for getting out of a rut while writing is to step back and write the story of the story. Imagine you’re sitting in a bar with a friend and he or she asks that inevitable question: “So what’s this book about?” Write your answer, but don’t attempt to dress it up or make it literary. Write it exactly as you would tell it to your friend. For example: “Okay, so here’s what happens. There’s this girl. She’s a college girl, but she hates it there and she’s kind of lonely and sad and confused, until one day she bumps into this guy-- well, she sits next to him on a bench…” You get the idea. Don’t edit yourself, just tell it in the most casual, conversational way possible. Don’t delete sentences or phrases-- allow yourself to say “never mind” or “scratch that.” You’ll discover a lot of ways you want your book to go (or not go).

It’s also helpful to focus in a little. Try writing the story of one character, one relationship, one arc or throughline. Pick that single strand out of the weave and examine it. What is Secondary Character X’s role in all this? How did he get here, what does it mean to him, what does he want, and how will he come to some sort of personal resolution? I imagine J. K. Rowling doing this. What better way to create such deep, complex, driven secondary characters like Snape or Sirius or Draco? They weren’t just “there” like some piece of scenery that helped or hindered the protagonist, they had their own things going on. That’s crucial to creating interesting, well-rounded characters.

Want more great advice like this? Live in Indiana? Come to next year’s Gathering! I guarantee you’re going to not only have a lot of fun, but also learn a lot about the craft and writing life in general. Check out The Writers’ Center of Indiana for updates and other classes and events. Another great place to visit is IndyReadsBooks, a used book store that supports adult literacy and holds frequent readings like the one I attended with Chris Newgent, Sarah Layden, Cathy Day, and Ken Honeywell, all fantastic Hoosier writers.  At an event like this it really comes home to you-- especially if you're a young writer like me-- that writing is a lifelong learning process.

At my lunch table, four of us 20-something novelists talked shop with two 60-something CNF writers. They had the same curiosity, the same questions and doubts, the same issues to tackle and hurdles to jump that we did. None of us will ever feel like we've perfected our skills because it's impossible to do so. We just have to keep trying our best, keep learning, and keep making art. Comforting, that.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Fine Art of Chaptering

Hello all. I know it’s been awhile, but between school and work and social responsibilities, yadda yadda yadda. So here’s a post about something my novel-writing class recently discussed: chaptering. How do you know when you’ve written a chapter? Do you set out with the chapter’s end in mind, do you discover it the moment it’s written, or do you see it only afterward? What about chapter titles? Numbers? How long should a chapter be? Do you need chapters at all?

Most of these questions can be answered relative to your work. In most cases, you do need chapters. It gives your reader a break, it provides episodic little mini-arcs, they can be used as building blocks, they encourage your reader to keep going. Most books have chapters, even though you may not always notice them as a reader. There are several books of different genres and styles on my desk right now: Alicia Erian’s Towelhead, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Tite Kubo’s Bleach (Vol. 29), R. A. Salvatore’s Streams of Silver. Guess what-- they all have chapters. Yep, even the manga.

The question of what makes a chapter is a little more difficult to answer, and really, there is no 100% infallible rule for how to split up your book. For me, it’s easier to write four or five chapters’ worth of material and then go back, looking for places to chop it up. Occasionally I know instantly that I should insert a page break where I am and begin a new chapter, but not often. The length of chapters varies from book to book as well. Most books have chapters of a fairly uniform length-- if one chapter is ten pages, the others will be around 7-15. Other books throw that idea out the window and have a chapter of two pages followed by a chapter of 20. I try to keep mine similar in length, but I think different types of projects call for different approaches.

The first book I ever wrote, my drawer novel, had chapter titles. The two and a half after that had numbered chapters, but the books were divided into parts which had titles. For the two main projects I'm working on now, I’ve just used numbers. I think chapter titles are fun, and I would like to use them in my writing, but they’re also tricky to use correctly and often don’t work all that well for more mature readers. Perhaps this is because it interrupts the fictional dream and exposes the rusty metal framework of the novel, I’m not sure.

I thought I’d give you an example: my current project for my novel writing class. It’s in first person, told from the POV of Amber, a college student whose life promptly gets turned upside down by some unnatural happenings. It’s in a very rough state and I’m less than five chapters into the first draft, but I recently went through and divided up chapters for the first time. You can see my strategies and decide whether or not they work for you.

I love cliffhangers. Many of my chapters end on them. It’s a good way to hook the reader, to make them think, “Aw, just one more chapter, then I’ll go to bed” about ten times. Chapter 1 of my project employs something of a cliffhanger. It ends with the beginning of a chase, as well as the first tiny clue that something is off here-- a guy’s skin appears for a moment to be leopard-printed. Then Amber promptly breaks off her narration with the statement that a little background might be necessary, and the chapter ends. Chapter one is almost five manuscript pages.

Chapter two ends on another cliffhanger-- Amber gets jumped on and taken down by a rottweiler. Eep. Pages: 8.

Chapter three is a little different. It’s sort of a downer, ending on a forlorn note. Amber made a cowardly decision and she reflects on it for a moment. It’s not a cliffhanger, but it does introduce a major dramatic question: Will Amber gain courage and confidence? Will she rectify this maybe-mistake? Those questions will keep people reading just as well as action-y cliffhangers. Pages: Just over 10.

Chapter four answers the second question-- given the choice again, Amber makes the braver (if not necessarily more advisable) decision right at the end of the chapter. Now the question changes: Was this the right thing for her to do? How will it affect her academic/work/personal life? It’s also mixed in with a cliffhanger: Amber’s last words to the reader are “Buckle up.” Pages: Just over 8.

I don’t know if chapter five has ended yet. I don’t think so. I think it’s going to be a long one, but I’m saving that decision for later, focusing on the story and the writing first and then pulling back to look at structure.

I hope this has given you a glimpse of how chaptering works and my personal methods. All writers are different, and I’m certainly not saying my way is the only or even the best way, but if you’re struggling and need something to try, think about ending your chapters on cliffhangers, unanswered questions, moments of high emotion, etc. I’d love to hear from you about how you format chapters in your own work.

Until next time, happy writing!

P.S. If you'd like to see other things my noveling class is up to, follow our antics on Twitter: #amnoveling.

Friday, September 7, 2012

5 Tips to Keep Busy Writers from Becoming Overwhelmed

This is my life: five classes (including two writing classes and my senior seminar); editor-in-chief tasks for Stance; 15-25 hours per week at my job; 4 workouts a week plus whatever other exercise I can squeeze in; a tottering, wheezing, shrunken little social life; housework, grocery shopping, and other mundane tasks; attempting to maintain an online presence via social media and this blog; and finally, three novel projects and two short stories. Sometimes when I think about this list, I want to flop down and cry, or at the very least, take a nap. By the time I get home for the evening and have free time to devote to my writing, I’m usually so drained that all I want to do is mindlessly stare at my Twitter feed or zone out in front of the TV.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what I do.

But I always feel guilty afterwards. I make excuses-- I had a hard day, my brain is too fuzzy, I don’t feel inspired, I owe myself some R&R-- but in the end that’s all they are: excuses. It really is a struggle to make time for your writing, but if it’s important to you, you’ll swallow those excuses and just do it. Below are a few tips that help me stay motivated and stick with a writing regimen that works for me (or get back on track when I slip).

Schedule. Last year I bought a day planner at Wal-mart. I was tired of keeping track of important dates and times in my head, disgusted with my haphazard approach to time management, and determined to get my entire life neat and organized. I planned out one day, and that’s as far as I got. (Which, as it turns out, is not the definition of “day” planner.)

Needless to say, scheduling is not my strong suit. But if you have a life as busy as mine, it takes at least a tiny amount of planning to wrestle some writing time away from all your other obligations. My approach is to map out everything else (usually using the calendar on my cell), find where the gaps are, and tell myself that I will sit down and write during some of those periods of time. This may not be enough for everyone-- sometimes, it’s not enough for me. If you find yourself frittering those gaps away on other things (catching up on chores, painting your fingernails, watching reruns of Friends) then ink it into your datebook so you can't ignore it: WRITING.

Note: If you’re serious about writing, it should be a priority in your life. If you make a schedule and you feel like there aren’t any “gaps” for your writing, then you need to carefully rethink how you’re spending your time. Stephen King writes at least 2000 words per day, and recommends that aspiring writers aim for a minimum of 1000 per day. That’s fairly steep for most of us, but it helps us see exactly what is required if we want our work on the bestsellers list someday. More on this later.

Disconnect. I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. There have probably been a hundred different instances where I pulled up a manuscript on my computer and then pulled up an internet window right beside it. Guess which one got all my attention? Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, news sites, forums, Wikipedia-- all of them are addicting. You click on link after link, visit page after page, and before you know it all the time you set aside for writing is gone. If I know I’m not going to be able to resist the seduction of the internet, I shut down, grab a pen and a journal, and hit the couch. That works for me because I like hand-writing and then typing it in later, but I know that’s not for everyone. There are apps and programs out there such as Freedom, Rescue Time, and SelfControl that will literally prevent you from accessing the internet or certain sites for a specified period of time. If you don’t want to go that route (and have a bit more willpower), simply disconnect from the internet and promise yourself that for the next hour or two you won’t reconnect.

Same goes for phones! If you can’t go five minutes without texting someone, shut your phone off and put it away when it’s time to write.

Journal. I have a nice faux leather-bound journal that my boyfriend bought me last Christmas. It has an elastic band to keep it from flying open and a satiny ribbon marking my current page. I like writing in it. It feels timeless, mysterious in a way, as if someday I’m going to crack it open and find the thoughts of some Regency debutante or suffragette or nineteenth-century immigrant instead of my own. As indecipherable as my cursive scrawl covering the unlined pages is, sometimes it might as well be someone else’s writing.

This journal is inspiring to me. I keep it in my backpack at all times and pull it out between classes to jot down an idea or a quick scene. It helps me to focus in a way that my computer screen can’t, and it’s more portable. If you’re a writer and you don’t have some form of journal that can be carried around with you most of the time, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t cast any spells if you leave your wand at home. Besides, when a great idea strikes, you don’t want to have to trust it to your memory all day before you can write it down. A dollar or less will buy you one of those cheap black and white Marble Memos, and it will fit in most pockets and purses. If all else fails, take notes on your phone or other device. No excuses!

Something that I do and that I suggest you try is making your writing journal sacred. Make a pact with yourself that you will never use it for lists or non-writing notes, and that you won’t tear pages out for memos or any other reason. This is something I’ve done for years with many different notebooks. This way, when you look back at what you’ve already done, it isn’t cluttered with boredom doodles and shopping lists-- it’s just pure, solid work. Plus, you won’t run out of pages so quickly, and it will make your journal feel special and purposeful.

Reward. Every now and then I tweet how many words I’ve written that day, or post on Facebook about slogging through a really difficult scene. Usually the only people to respond, retweet, or like my posts are my writer friends, but that’s okay. They’re the ones who get it. Sharing those moments of triumph makes them even sweeter, and I feel like I’m treating myself when I tell others what I’ve accomplished.

If you have trouble forcing yourself to sit down and focus on writing, decide on a goal and an appropriate reward before you even start. Say, “I’m going to finish the scene where the heroine escapes from the dungeon, and when I do, it’s bubble bath time!” or “Tonight I’ll write 750 words, and then I’ll go to the movies with the girls.” Whatever works best for you. Just remember two things: One, set a goal that is reasonable but challenging. If you aim for 25 pages per hour, chances are, you’re going to fail miserably and become disheartened; on the other hand, if you reward yourself for a single sentence, the system loses its purpose. Two, don’t give yourself rewards that are detrimental in some way. E.g., “If I get through this chapter I don’t have to write for a week” or “After ten pages I’m going to get trashed and send nasty emails to all the publishers who ever rejected me.” These things will not make you happy, and they will make the writing process bittersweet.

Setting goals and then rewarding yourself for reaching them is one of the best ways to not only stay motivated, but to get in a habit of writing. After awhile, extend the scope of your goals-- reward yourself for writing a certain number of days or words each week/month/year. At the same time, stick with the smaller targets (your “short assignments” in Anne Lamott’s terms) as well, keeping all your treats proportionate to your efforts. This system is adapted from how I tackle my fitness routine, and it works fantastically for both.

And last but certainly not least…

Unload. Like I said before, if you’re in this business for the long haul, then making time for writing should be pretty darn high on your priority list. If you’re going to work, going to school, going to church, volunteering, exercising, hanging out with friends, romancing someone, AND participating in seventeen different clubs and activities, you probably either want to cut down on bellydancing class and Magic: The Gathering tournaments or accept the fact that writing just isn’t that important in your life. I promote the former, but we all have our reigning interests. Stretching yourself too thin will make it impossible or at the very least unpleasant to write. I, for one, absolutely cannot focus on writing if I know I have somewhere else I need to be in the next hour. Letting go of the less important things and learning to say no when people try to dump further responsibilities on you are key to creating a flexible schedule-- not to mention that feeling less stressed will relax your mind and let those creative juices flow.

A good way to decide how best to unload is to make a complete list of all the demands on your time and rank those activities in order of importance, then give the bottom quarter of that list some serious thought. Why do you do those things? What is rewarding about them? Do you enjoy them, and if not, are they necessary in some way? Hopefully this exercise will help you decide what areas of your life can be trimmed down to make room for writing. Your friends aren't as interesting as your characters anyway.

Schedule, Disconnect, Journal, Reward, Unload-- hopefully one or all of these tips will help you keep your nose to the grindstone. Always remember that even the best and most dedicated writers have bad days, feel uninspired, backslide, get overwhelmed, miss deadlines, and fail at their usual regimen. The important thing is to pick yourself back up and determine to avoid those mistakes and circumstances in the future. Also, keep that feeling of euphoria when the writing is good and fluid and ecstatic and unstoppable close to your heart, so that when you’re discouraged you can remind yourself why you do what you do. It’s all about perspective and purpose. There are times when I don’t want to write, but there’s never a time when I don’t want to be a writer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Worldbuilding and the Detail: On Patricia Hampl's "The Dark Art of Description"

I’m taking a Creative Nonfiction class this semester, and one of the first things we were assigned to read was the very thought-provoking essay “The Dark Art of Description” by Patricia Hampl. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it-- you’ll find it in The Best American Essays 2009. There are plenty of reviews of this essay out there, so I’m not going to go that route; I’m not even going to talk about description in memoir, Hampl’s focus, seeing as CNF isn’t my main interest. I just want to share a few of my thoughts on Hampl’s ideas and how they can relate to novel-writing and fantasy in particular.

My fantasy alarm (which sounds something like a sword crashing against the scales of a dragon) went off immediately when I read “Dark Art” in the title, but I didn’t feel like the idea of description as a “dark art” was fully explored in the essay. Hampl does talk about how memoir differs from novel-writing in that budding novelists are frequently told “Show, don’t tell.” I can corroborate her statement, and I think it’s a good piece of advice. But it makes description seem like something forbidden, or to be used sparingly, as we advance the plot through dialogue and action instead of merely telling the reader what’s going on. A common trope relating to black magic or “dark arts” is that even the most innocent experimentation can lead to dire consequences. Often writers are fearful of playing with their writing, of trying new techniques and styles, particularly in a case like description where many of us have been trained to place a strict limit on how wordy we allow our descriptive passages to be. As a reader who occasionally skips longwinded observations on the protagonist’s bathroom wallpaper, I fully understand the author’s reluctance to include something that might bore her audience. And so description is a dark art, a mysterious and faintly ominous practice which we approach with extreme caution if at all. This, I think, is an interpretation of Hampl’s title that is valuable for our current discussion.

This essay could not have come to my attention at a better time. One of my weaknesses as a writer is that I drank the Kool-Aid when it comes to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. As I said before, I think it’s great advice, but I and many other writers have taken it to extremes, dropping description almost entirely in favor of action and dialogue, failing to set the scene, and making a mistake that is fatal to a fantasy novel: insufficient worldbuilding. Any fantasy fan knows that there is a certain suspension of disbelief involved in enjoying the genre. That said, a fantasy novel must still have a degree of believability, in that the world the author creates must be described richly and lucidly so that the reader has a framework for a) understanding the actions and beliefs of the characters and b) recognizing events as permissible according to the world’s rules. A fantasy novel with a poorly described world that serves as a murky backdrop cannot hope to immerse the reader sufficiently for the suspension of disbelief to take place. For example, imagine the Harry Potter series with the same characters, dialogue, and action, but only a few vague mentions or stray details of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, the Burrow, and the rest of the wizarding world. It would hardly make sense, and while it might still be a decent story, it would be missing something integral and beautiful.

Hampl mentions the tendency of nineteenth-century authors, Henry James in particular, to “carry on” for pages and pages of seemingly unimportant observations. Hampl goes on to say,

“Carrying on, I was discovering, is what it is to describe. A lot. At length. To trust description above plot, past character development, and even theme. To understand that to describe is both humbler and more essential than to think of compositional imponderables such as ‘voice’ or to strain toward superstructures like ‘narrative arc.’ To trust that the act of description will find voice and out of its streaming attention will take hold of narration” (Hampl, 48).
This was my favorite passage from the piece. It called to mind the 1-inch picture frame discussed by Anne Lamott in her book on writing Bird by Bird. If you’re unfamiliar, she basically says that rather than allowing yourself to become overwhelmed by the idea of writing an entire novel, or even by thoughts of big concepts like theme and plot and character, you should give yourself a short assignment, something you could see in a 1-inch picture frame. I think Hampl’s details-- her description of one teacup, one painting, one dinner-- fit nicely in that frame. And for me, the most compelling and resonant bit of this passage was the last sentence. I’ve often noticed in my own writing that if I grit my teeth and slog through a description of a room or a table or a bookcase or whatever, I tend to learn something about the owner of that object, add subtle richness to my own vision of the world, and sometimes even find a fresh direction for the plot. Those moments of unexpected discovery, of finding more facets to the story you created than you ever thought could exist, are some of the sweetest and most encouraging times in your writing journey.

To sum up, while description may be a “dark art,” it is one that Hampl insists we must harness and exert our will over, taking care to use it only for the good of our stories. Fantasy in particular, with its inherent requirement of suspended disbelief, forces us as writers to create vividly detailed, convincing worlds. Focusing on one or two small details can be a revealing exercise that both keeps us from having nervous breakdowns over the immensity of the project before us and also can take our writing in surprising new directions. I challenge you-- and myself-- to practice the dark art of description with care and confidence.

Hampl, Patricia. "The Dark Art of Description." The Best American Essays 2009. Ed. Mary Oliver. Boston: Mariner, 2009. 43-52. Print.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Introductions, or Who's Sleeping and What's So Enchanting About That?

First, welcome to The Enchanted Sleep. I hope you stick around awhile. My blogging may be a bit rusty-- I've left the realm alone since my angsty teenage MySpace days-- but I hope to offer something you can hide in your heart and carry away into your life, even if that something is merely the knowledge that there's someone else out there as clueless and crazy and yet ardently in love with writing as you are.

Let me introduce myself. Professionally, I go by K. J. Neal. We're all friends here, so you can call me Ki. I'm currently a senior Creative Writing major at Ball State University with a minor in Philosophy. In person I'm very shy and reserved, but in writing I tend to be everything from outspoken and snarky to occasionally eloquent. My main interest lies in YA (young adult) fantasy. I have written two novels (excluding my "drawer novel", a heavily Narnia-influenced grotesquerie which I still shudder to think of) neither of which have been published. One is called Blood Red Mask and the sequel is Lunatic Moon. They are the first two books in a trilogy revolving around a magically gifted young woman named Mykala. More on that later.

When not writing, I'm probably working out. I exercise every day and do a full workout 4+ times a week.

Oh yes. Nerds can (and should) be fit too.

Otherwise, you'll catch me philosophizing (I'm the editor-in-chief of Ball State's international undergraduate philosophy journal, Stance-- it's a big deal), working (I won't talk a lot about my job at PetSmart, but let's just say I get pooped on by parakeets and mauled by hamsters on a regular basis), reading (just about anything), listening to the same music as when I was fourteen (MCR, The Used, you get the idea), and watching old shows on Netflix (currently, The X-Files). I'm into almost anything that could come under the classification of "nerdy," including but not limited to video games, anime and manga, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, animated movies, etc.

But enough about me, you're here for the writing.

The idea of an enchanted sleep is a common one in our favorite children's stories (think Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rip Van Winkle) and it holds a sort of fascination mixed with terror for us. Some dreams we would like to become lost in forever, while some sour into nightmares we desperately want to end. Either way, an enchanted sleep implies some sort of inescapable fantasy created within our own minds.

A well-written story is like an enchanted sleep. We close ourselves off to the real world, the waking world, and wander in the dreamland the author has constructed for us. Fantasy, in particular, has that ethereal quality that makes us feel as if we have been transported out of our own lives and into a place that is wondrous and alluring and strange. One of my favorite professors refers to a (good) story as a "vivid and continuous fictional dream." It is that dream which I seek to create and perfect, and my journey toward that goal will be charted here on The Enchanted Sleep.

Secondly, remember those books I mentioned, and that girl, Mykala? Well, her magic power centers around the ability to see into the past, present, and future, through visions that only occur while she is unconscious and which often cause her to sleepwalk. Mykala's enchanted sleep-- and its consequences-- have been the central focus of my writing life since I was about sixteen years old. As you can imagine, it's pretty important to me.

A last and less crucial purpose of the blog's title is to serve as an homage to my favorite book of all time, which is Robin McKinley's Spindle's End. It's a beautiful and refreshing take on the old tale of Sleeping Beauty, and I recommend it (along with all Ms. McKinley's books; my other top picks being Sunshine, Deerskin, and The Hero and the Crown) to any of my fellow fantasy lovers.

In closing, I'm no writing expert. Far from it. Guess what: there aren't many people who are. We're all flopping around like fish in an overcrowded tank, fighting for the next gasp of precious oxygen, whether that be an idea or a finished manuscript or an agent or a publisher or a favorable review in the NY Times. But hopefully together we can learn something, cry over our failures, laugh at our mistakes, and someday, rejoice at our successes.