Monday, December 13, 2010

My Writer's Philosophy in Two Parts

I was going to write a post on the wave of cheating at University of Central Florida, but I'll save that for next post. In light of submitting a portfolio and talking about writer's philosophy, I feel that a reader should know my goal when I tell a story: take the reader on a journey that does not end in failure.

Note, however, that a successful journey in a book does not necessarily mean the story will translate into an amusement park ride. Case in point, Harry Potter:


Don't forget that the last Harry Potter book has so much wandering around that we never really get anywhere until Harry gets some good (or bad) luck with crazy Death Eaters. So a journey in a story is not necessarily a literal journey.

A journey means change. Whether in a place as mundane and commercial as a large sandbox, or as fantastic and original as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, the reader gets a reason for the ride. The Cheshire Cat said that you will end up somewhere if you travel long enough, but readers would rather not wander around until they reach any haphazard destination; they, like the protagonist, want a specific ending point. If the writer finds a proper conclusion, the reader closes the book with satisfaction and enjoys rereading it. If they don't, and the rest of the book is good, you can bet that the reader will vent to his best friend about how much the book disappointed them.

For that reason, I do not believe in protagonists failing, at least not in longer stories. You can’t make the journey easy for the protagonist and thus for the reader, but you can’t drop them into the dark without giving a chance against possible obstacles. We go on a journey to escape the outside world, where failure occurs every day; failure in fiction allows the outside world to pervade our secure fantasies. A tragedy must have a hero succeeding, but paying a high price for his victory; Hamlet avenges his father but causes everyone else’s death in the process, while Macbeth becomes king and loses his head to delusions and Macduff. Short stories can get away with failure because we don’t have as much emotional attachment to the protagonists; that’s why we love “The Lottery” and “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, despite their dark nature. Comedy can also get away with downer endings because we watch comedy to laugh at our inner buffoon. But every good comic failure has a sense of success to it, or the potential of success.


We also allow failure when a funny protagonist deserves it. If he or she kicks a baby penguin, they receive a kick in return. If Donald Duck interrupts a band concert with "Turkey in the Straw," the players squish him with a tuba. Why? Because we can laugh at it. If our hero is a jerk in a dramatic dystopian novel like Brave New World, we are less likely to laugh even if he deserves his fate. So if you must go for failure, make it a funny failure for the reader. Go dark and go deep, but don't lose the punchline. If you can laugh at Harley Quinn, a villain in an abusive relationship, then you're all set for funny failure.


Get ready to face failure on your quest for meaning, or at least an adventure with your protagonists. I know I will.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Courtesy, Part Three: Your Readers

Out of all the courtesies you owe as a write, courtesy to readers remain the most subjective. I've mentioned before that you technically don't owe the readers anything, but you were once a reader too, and you know what it's like to be cheated of your time and maybe ten to twenty dollars.

The uncertainty occurs when a reader (or an audience) reads a story and dislikes it. When readers dislike a story, they can dislike it IMMENSELY. Remember, people, that fictional authors have gotten arrested or threatened (like Salman Rushdie) for WRITING something, not for having committed murder or thievery. Not because the story is bad necessarily, as we all know from Banned Books Week and the charges of witchcraft against Harry Potter, but because the story offended the reader. It may be a case of bad timing, like a cartoon with severed heads after some terrorists have performed a public beheading (which happened twice to Stephen Pastis, the cartoonist for Pearls Before Swine), or it may be a case of the literature being written in a time when marital rape was not a crime, like in Gone With the Wind.

You cannot control this. You cannot help if other people find your book offensive; take their criticisms with a grain of salt and think about them. I scrapped a whole comic storyline (about four strips) because four people said the joke was offensive; while I'm glad I never did it for different reasons, it killed me that I had offended a group that I respect. I know how that feels, being accidentally offensive, but if your story is clear enough, at least one or two readers will get the point.

You owe the readers a good story. Period. Characters they can follow, a plausible plot-line or storyline, and a fantastic ending. Readers will feel cheated if you resurrect the dead without a plausible explanation. They will dislike villains that pose no threat, or a one-sided perspective of a romantic relationship. They will feel cheated if you give a happy ending that the protagonist does not deserve; the same goes for the tragic ending that results from ultimate failure. And if they don't get the joke, or the riddle that you didn't mean to insert, then you are going to have frustrated readers.

So don't despair if a hater calls you a fascist, or threatens you; and don't despair if they catch errors in your story. In class, people liked my story, but they wanted to know who the mysterious creature was that helped the protagonist. I'm still stinging, but I can fix it. You can fix you story, so don't get in a funk.

So remember: courtesy to yourself, your characters, and your readers. But also: You. Can. Fix. Period.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Courtesy, Part Two: Your Inner Reader

In my last blog entry, I talked about treating your characters with courtesy. This time, I focus to a group more grounded in reality: the readers.

When I say courtesy, you tell a reader the best possible story you can. You never at your critics, or even your fans, if they disagree with you or say that your story sucks. And when you are writing, you ALWAYS try to write a good story.

You are your story's first reader. Are you writing this story to please yourself- to explore an idea, take yourself on a trip into another person's head, or to attack a frontier no author has attempted? Are you uncomfortable with your preference for tied-up detectives- and tackle it in fiction?

If you are a writer, an idea won't always be fun to explore. You may write yourself into a dark alley with a serial killer and the heroine has nothing but her hairspray and a big mouth. You may end up in a boring part when the antihero blasts through a prison. But corners do not necessarily mean that you haven't pleased your inner reader. It merely means that your inner writer has gotten in over his or her head, which can happen.

Here is a big no-no, however, no matter what you write: NO SLACKING OFF WHEN CLASSMATES ARE READING!!! If you are taking a creative writing class, your classmates want to assess your strengths and weaknesses while you write and maybe spend a few minutes enjoying a story. When you put no effort into your work, they cannot help you become better writers, and they will know when you haven't gotten into the story. Your inner reader will know, and not care. At least until the criticism hits.

Your inner reader's judgment will fragment. You will stop writing for a few days, or at least throw out a few pages of work. And your inner reader will only come back together when someone says that they like your story and shows you how to make it better. Or if you pick up a new book and cheer up for the next round.

ALWAYS try, at least for the sake of your inner reader. You may not be able to fix the errors in your story sufficiently, but at least you will have tried. And you will be able to trust yourself when you revise.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Courtesy, Part One: Your Characters

I know I haven't written in ages, thanks to a bunch of classes and time constraints. But I thought I'd write about something that I've never seen before: showing courtesy to your characters.

I believe in courtesy, even if I forget it sometimes. I also believe that writers have obligations to three life forms:

1) Ourselves- first and foremost, we write the stories that we will enjoy writing, that we will slave over because we enjoy writing that line of action or inserting a line of humor. This is a courtesy to yourself because most writers need day jobs, so if they're investing time and possibly money into a hobby, they better enjoy it.

2) Readers- You owe your fans and your personal readers a good story. Period. Not because of some weird obligation, but because you were once
a fan of something, and you know what it's like when you hit a twist ending or your author essentially says "I just want your money haha" when they write a horrible sequel or prequel. Do unto readers as other writers unto you.

3) Characters- They may only exist in your notebooks, but they're the ones that your readers fall in love with. Every story needs a character, specifically a protagonist and a conflict. Your protagonists matter the most in how they're shown as they grow through a story.

The novel functions as a democratic medium because it shows most of a character's three-dimensional layers. If you write many novels, you have to add more to that person's character IF you are writing a serious story. With more fun novels, like the Pippi Longstocking books, you can get away with simply having the same character in different circumstances. The bandits from the first Pippi Longstocking book differ greatly from Jim and Buck in the third book, while similar old ladies have different reaction to this peculiar carrot-top.

Another good facet that some series writers do is add a layer of character to their mean, unsympathetic characters. This sometimes fails if we have hated this antagonist for a rough decade and suddenly we see their perspective, like Severus Snape, at the tail end, but it's an effective tactic to open up a fictional world when done right. Edmund from the Narnia books is such an example; he's horrid in book one, but he matures to the point that he and his sister Lucy can enter Narnia without their older siblings.

An absolute no-no, however: no matter what you do, you CANNOT make sympathetic characters into monstrous or even unlikable villains, ESPECIALLY if their actions are out of character. While C.S. Lewis did well with Edmund and redeemed him, he lost all sympathy for Susan of little faith. In the second book, Aslan forgives her for being sensible and
thinking that he no longer exists, but The Last Battle shunts her out of the picture. Her siblings say she has gotten interested in "nylons" and doesn't believe in Narnia anymore; we never hear her side of the story.

C.S. Lewis by then had nurtured a fanbase, and they all called out his mistake, but he stayed by his decision despite his reputation as a kind, religious man. Whether it be prejudice (Edmund and Eustace were both horrible in the Narnia books when they first appeared but soon became heroes) , a comment on flapper girls and rampant materialism, or a reenacted fall from grace, Lewis betrayed Susan and the democracy of his books by turning her "villainous," or at the very least unsympathetic. Even worse, he didn't show us the story from Susan's perspective, or at least tell us what happened. This came back to haunt American and British literature, leading to gory works like "The Problem of Susan" by Neil Gaiman and modern complications for the directors doing the films.

Remember Susan Pevensie, folks. Remember her well.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wearing a Banana Skin While you Write

Meg Cabot on her wonderful blog wrote a few posts about writing for non-white characters if you are white, and her own experiences with racism, given that her adopted brother is black and she dated an Arab American while working at a dorm. Meg also said that one should not be lazy if you're writing out of your comfort zone: if you are white and you want to write about non-whites, you can't just dress an average American in a brown identity and call it black, or it will taste like buttered edamame (stirfried soybean pods) at The Cheesecake Factory.

If you are going to write about bananas, for example, read books about bananas, talk to people who've been in Bananaland, even buy tickets if you can afford it, zip on a huge banana skin before you write a fantasy novel with Arnold the Banana flaying the forces of Hungry Darkness, or at least before you revise it. Because if you take a white character and dress them in banana skin, then someone named Denise the Banana will call you out for it.

Which is all right if you're a white author trying to overcome your prejudice, but how about if you're non-white? Because I'm Indian, but I know little to nothing about Indian culture. As a kid I created an alter-ego Jenny Andrews who was Indian, but completely Americanized and a secret agent to boot. The most I know is Hindu mythology because we have a lot of books, and I do plan to write a book combining Hindu mythology and superheroes, but I know nothing about transportation or politics there.

And if you're Americanized, you're most likely going to write about white people because you mainly see them in the media and in school, and in your circle of friends. Even if you join the Banana Students Association, you may not feel comfortable writing about bananas because you know little beyond their sweet taste, especially when fried in butter. You might write about being an Americanized Indian, but you might also want to tackle with righteous fury the bananas who have been trampled on when everyone preferred apples.

The best way to do research on unfamiliar cultures is to read literature on that culture. The textbooks provide guidelines, but go with fiction, with essays, maybe even with artwork. One book I read for my manuscript was about Chinese restaurants, filled with surprising information I could integrate into the book. Use your libraries, both school and public, and read read READ. And it you want to tackle modern racism, go with this book:

This book provides a snapshot of 1960s racism from a white man who tinted his skin, shaved his head, and dyed his hair to appear black. Then he traveled in the Deep South to find the truth of racism. A disturbing fascinating, and heartbreaking study that will definitely put you into someone else's shoes. Along with a whopping dose of common sense.

Banana skins indeed. What will they think of next?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A lot of Yackum

You learn a lot from rereading first drafts. And second drafts and third drafts too, for that matter. Rereading "Murder in Panel Five," a satire on the typical Agatha Christie mystery, I've discovered a lot of what we call yackum.

"Yackum," aka "rambling," aka "unnecessary nonsense," becomes the vice of all writers when slogging through draft 1 of an unpublished short story. Novelists can get away with yackum, especially if they are literary elephants like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but short story writers do not have that luxury. Unlike novelists, who experiment with their medium to the point of exasperating us readers, the short story writer has to tell a story. Period.

Types of yackum to look out for:

1) Dialogue- Usually worse in novels, but unnecessary or flat dialogue must go. If it sounds false? Cut it. If it has one word off and the word can't be removed? Cut it. Characters put the "yak" in "yackum".

2) Inner Dialogue- Even worse than outer dialogue because it occurs in the character's head. Aka Rambling for God Knows How Long, especially in a mystery. Show your character's reaction, don't have them say it. Yak in yackum, folks!

3) Description- Hairier than dialogue, but rely on your ear for this one. If you read at an open mic, you'll trim on the fly to avoid being cut off in the middle. You want concise and lyrical sentences. And if you have even one paragraph (four sentences) waxing on, the editor will probably slap your manuscript. Here you can break the dialogue rule and have other characters judge your protagonist, or each other, as long as you keep it concise and clear.

Have fun!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Great Literary MacGuffins: Titles to Examine

Since in an earlier blog post I talked about Literary MacGuffins that should be the title of your story, why don't we take a look at some classic Literary MacGuffins:

We read this novel in gifted 4th grade, listening to audio tape, as mentioned before; I finished it ahead of everyone else and mispronounced "sadist" for several days until our teacher put it on our vocabulary list. In a nutshell: Meg, the protagonist, goes on a journey with her precocious brother Charles Wallace and  schoolmate Calvin to rescue her father from another planet with the help of Ms. Whatsit, Ms. Who and Ms. Which, three strange ethereal beings.  
First, the title "A Wrinkle in Time" refers to a new term called a tesseract, which is indeed such a wrinkle. The tesseract links the book together because the three "witches" in the story use the tesseract to travel through time and space, and a mishap with a tesseract starts the book by taking away Meg's father. Makes sense, no?
And since we're talking about Madeline L'Engle, may I say rest in peace, since she died in 2007, and thank you for writing such a wonderful book.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Importance of Reading Your Work Aloud

We hear this tip all the time if we write. It may be the most crucial tip . . .

And I didn't listen for about five years. I read other people's work aloud, especially poems that rhymed, and I read out my own stuff when I got the chance, but in terms of performing I tend to get in over my head. Reading out loud to others? Definitely. Reading out loud to myself? NEVER.

Why this negativity? It stemmed from when I entered a gifted program where we followed books on audiotape. With respect to my Language Arts teacher, since in his class I learned to love reading and developed my love for horror, audio works didn't work for me. For one thing, I could read faster than I could listen to the stuff; I finished A Wrinkle in Time five days ahead of schedule. For another, I believed in characters having different voices; now I know that the speaker's quality is much more important. If you have two voices doing about ten characters, you were dead to me as a fourth and fifth grader.

But now, having received about a hundred rejections total for all the work I have, and writing poetry for class, a habit I haven't kept unfortunately, I've realized how important word flow needs to sound. We may see the letters on paper, but we also have to hear them. And if your readers even in the classroom don't laugh when you want them to, then something is wrong with the words, not with their hearing.

Even better, reading aloud will give each of our characters a voice. Neil Gaiman at Mouse Circus gives the Man Jack a terrifying growl, while the Sleer truly comes off as a smoky creature. When I read aloud a piece with a supervillain, I gave the villain a maudlin British accent, which helped him appear even goofier.

In the case of a novel, individual voices are necessary for a novel where every character gets a say. Not just the villains and the heroes, but the anti-heroes, the helpers, the thugs, and minor people who steal the show. Democracy has a price, but it gives our novel strength.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Serial Titling: The Real Condensation Begins

Let the record stand that titling stories and naming characters are one of the most unpredictable events in terms of difficulty; sometimes it's easy as pie, as any author can tell you. Sometimes a character will come fully formed to your head, as what happened to J.K. Rowling on a train, but sometimes they just remain in the story like square gears that you can't really fit in. Or they're wood and the rest of the story is metal. Weird stuff like that happens.

With titles, though, you encompass all of your story's elements into a few words. Not all writers try to do this; for younger audiences, the titles might be more concrete (The Berenstein Bears And Too Much Vacation), but as you go into the scholarly set, people want clever titles with meaning. 

Most often, the title centers on the object mentioned in the title, whether it's a person, or a significant object. We call this the literary MacGuffin, because we, the reader, want to find out who or what the thing mentioned in the title is. (Macguffin: object that protagonists in a story want. The literary MacGuffin is something that the readers want.) In fact, Wendelin Van Draanen wrote two Sammy Keyes books when these MacGuffins popped up as titles, and she wrote to find out what the Sisters of Mercy and a Runaway Elf were respectively. Another great example is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, since Sirius Black, the title prisoner, is an integral character that the whole world is searching for. 

This strategy doesn't always work, however, because your literary MacGuffin might be cliched. If your book has a lot of MacGuffins, then you have to pick the one that encompasses the story the most. My whole story is about Magic Turning into Memories, but that title doesn't have the zing I'm looking for since magic is a necessary staple of fantasy novels and memories is a huge mouthful. So what is an author to do?

The solution is to make the theme sound less cliched. So I need to find apt synonyms for magic and memories respectively. Either that or use the theme of Midsummer and Snow, or something off about the woods, since all of these appear in the book. Hey, it might happen.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Night Owl is Really a Cuckoo

As a writer trying to balance schoolwork with cartooning and possibly revisions, I have come across a rather exotic species, one that is worth keeping if one has the money and time. But as I have neither, I warn everyone else who is reading this blog: the night owl is not your friend.

See, the night owl is looking for only thing: your time. And if that time happens to be at night and you are a morning person and you're not used to taking naps, you a
re going to be very grumpy. You don't even hear him coming in because he uses the back door, with all his specialized gadgets. But if you do see him, he wears this cunning disguise:

Do not be fooled by this gentle exterior, diurnal writers. Anyone will tell you in the wake of the Harry Potter craze that owls are not the gentle messengers that will nibble your fingers fondly. They are expensive, noisy, and fussy And the night owl's true face looks like this:

And to be honest, you can't trust a guy who dresses up like an owl unless you know he has a teenage sidekick and that he's mean because he really cares about everyone except the psychopaths that killed his other sidekicks- oh wait, I'm thinking of BATS! Silly me!

If you DO have the money, you DO have the time, then you can make the night owl a rat sandwich. But tonight I'm closing my window and hope that he doesn't have lockpicks . . .

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Balancing Cartooning with Writing

Things I have learned over the past two weeks:
1)Don't let the night owl routine dominate you; find the time to write, NO MATTER WHAT.
2) Don't get stressed, or everyone will hate you.
3) Biology is never easy, so always study.
4) Do a little bit every day, just to salvage your sanity. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Individual and comedy

My older sister and brother are Gordon Korman fans. They love his early, zany books like the Macdonald Hall series, Losing Joe's Place, and Don't Care High, while ignoring (most) of his newer stuff. D (the sister) mentioned that the most recent Korman book that she read, Schooled, was good, but not a "pure" comedy, which Korman excelled at while in high school.

Well, duh. I read and finished the book last night, and it was EXCELLENT because it was about a homeschooled idealist kid who becomes president of the local middle school after his teacher (aka grandmother) breaks her hip. The ending seemed pasted on, but it was a great book because Cap, the idealist kid in question, never breaks, to the annoyance of the local school bullies. And yes, it had serious stuff, but the serious stuff made the book even better.

In general, I prefer a mix of comedy and drama in my stories because the complementary tones each help the other from going over the top. To do a pure comedy, like Little Miss Sunshine or Don't Care High, is difficult because you have to make the comedy the dominant form. And since not all humor is universal (proof since I disliked the Korman books as a kid), it's EXTREMELY difficult to get everyone to laugh.

Why? Because, in a joke, you need:

1) Clarity- People must GET the joke, or they won't laugh.
2) Absurdity- A joke is intended to make you laugh about the world.
3) Creativity- everyone knows the joke about the man-eating shark, so you have to delve to find something people won't groan at. Must balance with clarity.
4) Presentation- Corollary to clarity, and a good joke should have either a good storyteller or artist.

Addendum: For pure comedy, you must have ALL of these points present for least 50,000 words in a novel, four or five comic strip panels or 2.5 hours of film.

And thus we see why people laud pure comedy when authors capture it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Magical creatures that are not novel protagonists

There are a lot of vampires, ghosts, and dragons out there in children and YA lit, but some creatures and mythological beings never make it to the title page:

1. Sphinx- we have changelings, dragons, and even fairies, but no one likes a riddle-loving lion who will gobble you up. Poor sphinx!

2. Mermaid- Blame Disney for this. No one wants to tackle these fish-tails for the same reason that they won't retell the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale.

3. Muse- Neil Gaiman and all the other writers who have written about muses made these nymphs a fictional cliche. Best version? "Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" by Stephen King.

4. Zombies- not brainless zombies, mind you, but emotional undead beings who are trapped in suspended animation

And am I going to write about all of these? Heck yeah!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Five Things about Queries

Finished draft 2 of my wolf novel. Sent out a query, led to automatic rejection. Found QueryShark, a blog that attacks queries and teaches you how to improve yours. I learned the following important components of a query letter:

1) Clarity- Make sure the editor understands your description of the plot, and the conflict your protagonist faces.

2) Brevity- Keep your query word count under 170 words, or at the very least under 200. Use as few words as possible to entice the editor and make them WANT you.

3) Logic- Subset of clarity. Make sure your described plot makes sense. Example of illogic: "Joy is a twenty-three year old millionaire working as a prostitute as a penance to ease her guilt over the death of her ex-boyfriend." (This is verbatim from the QuerShark blog.)

4) Voice- Give an inkling of the tone your novel is in. If it's a thriller set during the Cambodian massacres, write a fast-pasted query. If you're writing a satire involving cucumber gondolas and evil overlords wanting all the world's cheese, incorporate a few biting phrases. Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling are famous because they have writing styles that flow into their reader's mind; add that verve to your novel!

5) Consistency- My additional rule. If you write the query in first-person (that is, the protagonist's voice), make sure your novel is in first person. If the editor likes your query, have the novel ready for them. Can also be labelled at EXPECTATIONS.

Need to go now to slice some oranges. Tootles!