Back to Main Page

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Notice of Hiatus

There will be a one week hiatus on blog posts. I've received some notes and feedback on my manuscript from an editor, and I have less than one week to my self imposed submission deadline of Oct. 12th, 2012. Regular posts will resume (and be consistent!) on Monday, October 15th. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Parenthood Prep for Teen Angst 101

 My husband and I did something last weekend that we almost never do. We went out to dinner and a movie. The movie was called “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and it wasn't very much like I expected. The trailers had all made it out to be a typical high school coming of age story and I thought seeing it would be good research for my book, but it was a lot darker and the stakes were higher than I anticipated. It made me worry about my sons growing up and everything that might happen to them when I'm not around. I'm stuck between two paralyzing fears; that my children will leave my home and be damaged, or that they will be damaged by never leaving home.
The movie also drove home to me that the name Charlie is cursed. Seriously. Can you think of a fictional Charlie who had a good life? Charlie Brown, the blockhead. I always wanted to be his mother because the thing he needed most was affirmation, and I have an unusual talent for that. Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon. He was given a fleeting brilliance and then had it all taken away. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ends well, thank goodness, after that poor boy had over a decade of extreme poverty. I've decided that Charlie needs to be a girl's name now because it needs a reinvention. I'm never watching a show with a main character named Charlie again.
We begin the movie with many references to Charlie having a mental breakdown and spending months in the psych ward of a hospital. No one says why, just infers that it happened. He's starting high school now and the only friend he makes on his first day is his English teacher Mr. Anderson, which Charlie himself says is pretty depressing. Charlie is smart and loves to read. He wants to be a writer. I'm really invested in the character at this point and he makes his first two friends. Both seniors, and step-siblings. Just when I'm thinking “Yay, friends!” the first big plot reveal about Charlie's breakdown. And it's awful. Without being specific, his pretty new senior friend finds out that Charlie doesn't have any friends at school and why, and they welcome him into their group.
Already this is playing on many of my mommy fears. What if my son makes friends and loses them? What if he doesn't have any close friends? I had a very lonely childhood and I made my first real friend my freshman year in college. Sadly, that isn't a hyperbole. It wasn't all awful and I have several good memories of being a kid, but the thing I remember most is being alone. I read a lot. I loved reading, and I'm sure no small part of my lack of friends was part of an unbroken cycle. I didn't have any friends to hang out with, so I read books. I was always reading books, so I didn't ever make friends.
But I don't want my sons to be like that. I want them to be happy and well adjusted and brilliant and popular but also humble and kind and coordinated and just everything. Every time one of my children is hurt I hurt with them, even though I know if I make a big deal out of it they will make a much bigger deal, and so I pretend it's fine until we both believe it. Sometimes I think parents need to step back and let other adults handle tough situations with their kids because parents have too much skin in the game. It matters too much to us so we can't be objective. Then they can't be objective. Then we end up screaming at each other about the stupidest small things because we both care so freaking much.
My kids aren't perfect. As with their talents and personalities, they each have their own unique challenges and flaws. But I cannot allow myself to get into the mind frame of trying to “fix” them. They aren't broken. I was listening to the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (which I've been wanting to do for years and now I'm doing it, but only in small chunks because the narrator is really dull). The author was talking about raising a younger son who was socially awkward and physically uncoordinated. To try and help they enrolled him in baseball and practiced with him. They'd get after the other kids for teasing him. They would try and encourage him and praise every little sign of improvement. But the son was getting more frustrated and pulling away from them.
What Mr. Covey realized was that he and his wife were coming at their son from the perspective of fixing him, which to that boy implied his parents believed he was broken. Who wouldn't pull away from that message? So the Coveys worked hard not only to accept their son as he was but to actively be proud of him. Not push him to the way they wanted him to be, but to love him as he was. The son was understandably hesitant to accept this new love, but eventually he blossomed and became confident and socially savvy. They gave him the chance to grow up his way, at his own pace, in his own time.
Reading that felt more like a relief than an admonition. My boys are not perfect and they lack some skills, but they are my boys and I get to love them. Yay! So even though I'll worry about them being lonely or not making friends, at least I am relieved of the burden of trying to fix them. I give them opportunities and nurture their interests and support them in their choices.
So Charlie gets friends, a whole group of seniors. Since Charlie is a freshman this presents a new level of difficulties. The seniors party and do things that are inappropriate, like alcohol and drug use and Charlie gets dragged along with them. Another mommy fear. What if my son has friends who are a bad influence on him? What do I do then? It's been a while since I was in high school and even then I went to high school in a small town with a very conservative population. Raising my kids in a large metropolitan area with a variety of cultures is awesome. And terrifying. They will be exposed to so many more things than I was. Yes, I do know that my oldest is currently eight and I'm worrying about what high school is going to be like for him already. Motherhood is love and fear, fear and love, remember?
I try not to pester the young women I work with about what high school is like for them. My curiosity burns bright, though. I want to know if any of them have ever been offered drugs, personally know any pregnant teenage girls, or been to a party where alcohol was served. Is high school here like it is on TV?
Teaching my sons correct principles and then allowing them to govern themselves is the right thing to do, but it's so hard! I want to protect them all their lives from every ache and bad choice. But that's the wrong plan. No baby learns to walk when they are carried everywhere. I want my children to grow up and be strong, confident people who will be an influence of good in this world. But why does that mean I have to let them go to high school?
Charlie falls in love with his pretty senior best friend Sam, played well by Emma Watson. I didn't think of Hermione once. The American accent helped with that, I'm sure. Her character is drawn to bad boys who treat her poorly, and the question that is asked twice in the movie, “Why do [we] constantly choose people who are bad for us?” is answered with “We accept the love we think we deserve.”
I loved that line both times. It is both poignant and tragic while managing to ring true and resonates with so many of us who have struggled with self-esteem. But the second time that line was spoken was just before the climax of the movie, the final twist where we discover the worst and most horrible secret of Charlie's past.
It's jarring and horrible and my heart ached and I felt sick. While the flashbacks aren't graphic (thankfully) the implication is clear. This poor Charlie was the most cursed of all. And it makes my chest hurt to think that we live in a world where these things happen. This is the worst part. The things I can't protect my children from that terrify me, because I can't be with them all the time. Kidnappers and car accidents and pedophiles and gangs and all the darkest parts of society that hide in shadows because they cannot abide the light. My preschool students believe that I would eat a lion before I'd let them be hurt, and they're not wrong. But it isn't the lions I'm afraid of, it's the jackals.
So I have to have faith. Faith that when I drop my sons off at school they will be there when I come to pick them up. Faith that there are more good people in the world than bad ones, and that my husband and I aren't standing alone against a legion of evil. Faith that my sons trust me and will tell me when they're in danger. Faith that the lessons we teach them are sinking in. Faith that just like when they were tiny and learning to walk, they'll get back up every time they fall down and try again.
Faith and my medication. Not sleeping can really make you crazy.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Walk (well, write) the Talk

            He said, she said, they said, we said. Everybody's talking. The way we impart information to each other is through our voices and our body language, and the best characters are the ones we can see and hear clearly in our heads. How a character speaks tells us a lot about them. What they say can tell us their approximate age and education level, indicate where they're from, and tells us what they find important. Some people are naturally brilliant at dialogue. Some writers will always struggle. I can't give you a magic talisman or a cure-all, but I can give you tips on how to make your dialogue stronger and point out mistakes to avoid.
            Mistake number one is repetition. Repetition isn’t just about words; it can also be sounds, word forms, sentence lengths, and letter combinations. Dialogue should be as brief as possible unless the character who’s talking is verbose. How a character speaks tells us a lot about how they’re feeling in this scene and how they feel about who they’re talking to, so don’t give characters the wrong feeling because you are over doing it with the clarity. For example:
            “Did you get the aspirin, babe? I really need it.”
“Yes, I got the aspirin.”
“And the burger buns. I hope you got those.”
“Yes, I got the burger buns.”
“Did you remember to stop by my mother’s house? She said she had something for us.”
“No, I didn’t remember to stop by your mother’s house. I didn’t remember that she said she had something for us.”
Having the second character repeat everything the first character said is annoying and unnecessary, unless you are trying to get across that she is annoyed with his questioning. Even then the last line is overdone. Keep it simple. Yes or no answers the question, we don’t need the recap. Repetition slows down the story and loses the reader’s interest at best, and at worst annoys them enough that they give you a bad review.
Mistake number two is overusing names in conversations. I edited an otherwise strong manuscript once where the two main characters constantly called each other by name during the dialogue. Since I hear the words in my head when I’m reading, it was jarring. We’ll call the two characters Evan and Sierra in this example:
“Evan, I’m scared. What do we do now?”
“I don’t know, Sierra. I guess we try to stick together and find a way out of here and just hope no one notices.”
“I’ve never been lost like this before Evan. I’m freaking out. Look, my hands are shaking.”
“Put your hands in your pockets to keep them warm, Sierra.”
“Evan, are we going to die?”
“No Sierra, I’ll get us out of here. We’ll find a way.”
Think that sounds okay? Read it out loud. Then read it again, and omit every name but the first two. Even those aren’t strictly necessary because Evan and Sierra are the only two people in the scene. There isn’t anyone else for them to talk to. Using people’s names repeatedly in conversation is awkward and makes the person you are speaking to uncomfortable. Try it, just for fun. Next time you’re on the phone or chatting with a friend say their name every time it’s your turn to speak. It’s funny. You can’t keep a straight face for long.
Third mistake is monologuing. Letting a character go on and on uninterrupted gets boring and loses the flow of your story. Exceptions can be when a character is telling a story, but even then the punctuation can get unwieldy and the story you’re telling is disrupted.  Stories succeed because they’re a mixture of elements- action, dialogue, exposition, conflict, more action, etc. Letting just one element take over unbalances your manuscript. And readers notice. They get frustrated, or bored.
Consider the nature of a story, with its conflicts and adversarial confrontations. Unchallenged dialogue drains conflict. Sometimes you have a lot of information to impart. Sometimes your villain is monologuing about their secret plot. There are many ways to get out exposition and dialogue isn’t the only one. In my book, “The Darkest Lie,” I had a lot of background to explain about why magic exists in our world and what caused that to happen initially. Apparently I decided to make this exposition as difficult as possible, since I placed it while to characters were in a car and traveling. No action is possible because the characters are in a static place. But I could use the needed exposition to tell the background and give more about the characters. Here is the excerpt from my manuscript:
 "It's the same thing," Brennan said, trying to regain his composure. "Science and magic, at their core, just mean something you can explain with physical laws and something you can't. Science here is magic to the Shae, because they don't understand it or why it works, whereas their magic to them is mundane but to us is inexplicable." Thane yawned. "Now I'm boring you?"
         "No, just didn't get much sleep," Thane said, yawning again. "So where does Sanctum come into this?"
         "That's where the magic comes in," Brennan said, modulating his voice to sound deeper and more mysterious. Thane rolled his eyes. "In a universe beyond our stars in a time we don't understand, a group of thaumaturgists set out to control the Song. They-"
            "A group of what?" Thane interrupted.
            "Thaumaturgists. Magicians. This group had studied the singing of space and time for longer than we can know, and found a loophole. They set out to create a golem that could pass through the weaves-"
            "They built what?"
            Brennan pressed his lips together. "A golem. A construct. An imitation person made from other elements like clay or rock or fire or whatever you can manipulate that can move around and follow your directions."
            "Like a robot," Thane suggested.
            "Sure, like an advanced robot. They built one that could change the tension in every string that composed her, thereby changing her resonant frequency. She could phase through the Weave. She also had the ability to access the Song, and increase the tension of those around her until their strings would snap, and they would die. The power of their songs would flow through her to her masters. She had no thought or free will; she was a tool, nothing more. They called her The Sylph and she did their bidding until no life was left in their world but each other."
            Thane's eyelids were heavy, and he yawned again, blinking. "That's stupid. What was the point?"
            "Power. With every life she took their power grew. So as the evil often do, those who created The Sylph turned on each other. They each pulled The Sylph with opposing wills and directives, and for the first time many thoughts were in her head. The combination of the billions of lives that had passed through her and the conflicting desires filling her combined to wake her up and she became self aware."
            "Sentient," Thane said, thinking of Remy. He leaned back, resting his head against the top of the seat.
            "Sentient," Brennan agreed. "And she understood the anger, fear, and pain she had experienced with every soul drawn through her, and that drove her mad. The Sylph killed every one of her former masters and then looked to the stars, and on her first day of life she was the last living thing on her world. She wept strange tears of Song, and where they fell the Weave tore open. The Sylph peered into the darkness and outside the one note of her world she could hear the harmonies of the multiverse. And so she left, being careful to travel with the sound and never cross it, moving between the universes in small spaces between the singers of the Song. The Sylph-"
            "How?" Thane asked, lifting his head up.
            Brennan was irritated. "How what?"
            "How did she move between the universes? How could there be space between the sound?"
            Brennan was dumbfounded. "I don't know if anyone's ever thought to ask that," he admitted.
            "Well, how do you know the story?"
            "From Sanctum. It's part of the advanced reading material."
            "How do they know?" Thane pressed.
            "She told them. During the Guardian Wars when our two worlds were colliding and everything was snapping and shattering from the dissonance and no one knew how to fix it or what was happening. The Sylph showed up in the middle of the battle and stopped it cold, and told everyone the story so they would know it was her fault." Brennan scratched his chin, considering. "She still shows up sometimes, or so I'm told. I've personally never met Sylphie."
            "Yeah, apparently she thought being called The Sylph was insulting because it sounded like a thing instead of a person, so she changed it after they established the Guardians."
            "What are the Guardians?"
            Brennan placed his palm on Thane's forehead. "You, my young friend, have an intelligent and agile mind. Now shut up." He pushed Thane's head back down against the seat. "I will get to the Guardians and the Wars and the Shae and Sanctum but only if you let me talk without interrupting me." Fighting to stay awake, Thane yawned widely enough that his jaw popped. "Or you can go to sleep, kid, I'll tell you the rest later."
          "No, keep going," Thane tried to sound alert.
         "Whatever you say. So the Sylph traveled in the space between the universes and listened to the song. She filled the emptiness of her soul with the song shared by the living of every world. Until in one distant universe the wrong star exploded." Thane's head lolled forward, and he jerked it up. Brennan looked at him, seeming to expect an interruption, but Thane just waited. "The explosion blew a hole in the Weave of that universe and it started to fail, the vibrations slowing and its Song dying. But the dying Song was going to pass too close to our universe and the Sylph knew we would be destroyed too."
            "What? How?" Thane's words were slurred, but he fought to stay awake.
            "The sound waves would cancel each other out. So the Sylph made a choice and moved us." Brennan held up a hand to forestall any questions. "I'm not sure exactly how. As I understand, she phased into our Weave and tightened it, changing the frequency of vibration. Not much, but enough that the other universe died without taking us with it. The problem that arose was now we were too close to the Shaerealm. We wouldn't collide because we were moving the same direction at about the same speed. It's more like we were tangled together, their Weave and ours, and in one place particularly the Weaves tangled so much the two worlds opened to each other."
            Thane couldn't raise his eyelids, and the inside of his head felt sloshy. His body slumped, shoulders rolling back, and his head slid to rest wedged between the door and the back of his seat. He wasn't completely asleep, but was far enough that he couldn't open his eyes or move his head. In this semi-conscious state, Thane heard a rap rap rap and then a whirring sound, like an electric window going down.
           "He's asleep," Brennan's voice floated through his remaining consciousness.
           "Finally." LaPointe sounded annoyed. Thane could feel the car slowing and pulling off the road. "I apologize for saying the dose was too high. He should've been out within seconds of drinking all that."
          "I told you, the kid is tough," Brennan said, and the car came to a stop.
           A third voice spoke up. "What is the ending of the story?" the accent the man had reminded Thane of villains in old movies. He heard Brennan snort, and the speaker defended, "You have to finish the story, or it is like hanging up without saying goodbye. It is rude."
          Brennan sighed, then spoke in a rush. "So The Sylph became Sylphie and we used science and magic to establish the guardian stones that balance the resonant realities of our worlds. We didn't have the power to close the tears, so Sanctum was established to coordinate the integration of the inhabitants of the two worlds, and establish and enforce ground rules, and generally to oversee the stabilization of both universes so that they could coexist. Happy now?"

            That was a large excerpt, but I wanted to use it to establish two important things about dialogue. One, Brennan’s story about the origins of magic in our world was not one uninterrupted fairy tale. Thane’s interjections and fighting to stay awake provide the reader with a fuller view of what’s happening in my story without losing any of the back story behind it. Two, each character has a distinct speaking voice. Brennan likes to sound intelligent and uses long sentences. Thane is brief and direct. The lack of contractions from the third voice, always saying “it is” instead of “it’s” indicates a dialect. No, he’s not a robot. Remember he has an accent, which Thane learns later is Russian.
            Which brings us to dialogue difficulty / mistake number four. Writing a character with an accent. One of your characters having an accent is not a mistake, but it is hard. You have to keep the accent consistent without overusing punctuation and making it hard for your reader to read. One of the characters in my book has a cockney accent, and that was a pain to write. I’m going to rework it to make it better. Look at the following dialogue:
            "That's bollocks, I'm out," Charlie stated flatly. "You can't put that kind of pressure on me or on 'im. Giving me six bleedin' days to teach something it takes an 'atchling a decade to get right and then bootin' 'im back into the world with just a prayer you won't need to call the cleaners to fix the mess? No. I won't be on the line for that. You've got enough on me already, and I'm not 'elping you cut the kids arm so it's bleedin' when you throw 'im back in the shark tank." Charlie crossed his arms and stared, unblinking, into Gage's eyes. "Get one of your Omega monkeys to do it. I won't."
            This dialogue is clumsy and inelegant, and the constant use of apostrophes distracts the eye from the word and can pull the reader out of the story. If you’re going to write a character with an accent, focus more on the patterns of speech and the words used than on pronunciation. Yoda is a great example of this. He spoke perfectly clear English, but the structures of his sentences made his accent unforgettable. If Yoda you now quote, get it everyone around you will. And no visually distracting apostrophes or strangely spelled words.
            I’m going to halt this blog post now, and do a second one on dialogue later. There’s still a lot to go over, including letting your characters speak for themselves, the best dialogue tags in the universe, how to know what to cut and what to keep, how to spice up the conversation, and how to know when it’s good. That will be next time.
            “The end,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows. “For now.”

Sunday, September 30, 2012

I need a time out.

Blog post! It’s been a crazy week with preschool, sick kids, preschool make up days, extra guitar lessons, canceled guitar lessons, extra writing to catch up with my writers group, cars breaking down, cars getting fixed, trying to sell a car, and working on refinancing the house. So I have done terribly with posting this week. I’m going to try and be better, use some time to get a little ahead and write a few extra posts today. It’s Sunday, so we’re on a “whatever I’m thinking about” day, and today I’m thinking about time. Not surprisingly.
I don’t have extra time. Every minute of my life is scheduled pretty tightly from the moment I wake up in the morning until after dinner, when I finally have some time to do housework. Between preschool, guitar lessons, writing, my sons’ taekwondo lessons, homemaking, and taking time to spend with my family, I have no minutes left over. Because that list is not a weekly schedule, it’s a daily one.
This isn’t to say “oh poor me,” or “look how busy I am,” I share this because when I say I know something about feeling busy and overwhelmed I want you to believe me. I want you to know that I understand. Finding time to schedule doctor visits or visiting friends requires extra juggling and sometimes seems impossible. Regardless of how much I enjoy or value what I do everyday, I still have mornings where I want to stay in bed and pull the covers up over my head and pretend no one will miss me if I don’t get up.
Not to say I don’t have fun. I enjoy teaching because I love the a-hah moments kids have. Those are awesome. And I know I am so blessed to be able to work from home so I can be here with my kids. I am grateful for that. But it means I am never not at work. Literally. My commute is fantastic, sure, but I live at my job, just like every other stay at home mom. I can’t clock out. I never get to be away from my work station, and no matter what I’m doing I feel like I should be doing something else.
Every working mom feels like that. Frankly I think every mom is a working mom whether you get a paycheck with your name on it or not. Every minute of our lives we are pulled in more directions than should be physically possible in a four dimensional universe. If we do the dishes, we’re guilty that we’re not playing with our kids. Playing with our kids we worry about the dishes. Doing the dishes after the kids are in bed makes you worry that you’re not spending time with your 9-5 spouse (which really becomes more of a 7-7 or 6-10 for most of them).
I put out a plea on Facebook for an unpaid intern who would come and be my assistant. One of my favorite girls responded asking what said intern would do. Well, I need someone to come and help me actually finish one checklist- just one- that I could get every item done before I had to add another ten things to the bottom. Time runs away from me and before I’ve finished half the things I want to get done it’s bedtime. Sometimes I resent the medication I have to take- narcolepsy treatment requires that I go to bed at the same time every night and wake up the same time every morning. But I should be grateful for it. Without that kind of regulation I don’t know if I’d ever get to bed.
Because lists never get done, and if I didn’t sleep and take my meds I wouldn’t be functional. But what about everything else I want to do? All the things I want to get done for me- where are those on my list? That’s easy, they’re at the bottom. And they keep staying at the bottom. My husband is a wonderful man and knows how passionate I am about writing, and so he’s been glorious in helping. He’s taken over several chores, like emptying the dishwasher and making breakfast so I have some time somewhere to write. He’s gotten me a keyboard so I can take the iPad with me to the boys’ lessons so I can write while they learn to defend themselves. He let me have the computer for a week and took care of the boys every evening so I could learn to and design my own website.
That kind of support is invaluable. He is awesome. But he can't do a third of the things on my list because of how much time he spends earning money to support us. So there still isn’t enough time in my day. What do I need to do? Time management isn’t the issue. I’ve done the seminars and taken the classes and trust me, my time is managed to the minute. Cut back? Also not so possible. Everything I do in the day is important, and the only thing that could viably be cut is my writing, which is the one thing I’m doing for me. And I’m willing to go a little crazy to keep that.
Is that crazy? Right now I'm working two full time jobs (mother and preschool teacher) and one part time job (guitar lessons). Then add church callings and spouse time on top of those, and trying to write seems pretty selfish. There isn't any time left that I can use: I only have time to write if I take it from somewhere else.
So far I've been stealing time to write from my physical therapy. I'm supposed to do physical therapy for a half an hour every day to keep my blood flowing and my muscles flexible and to fight my aggressive arthritis. Haven't been doing it. Been writing instead. And I can definitely feel a difference in my body, but I've been trying to make up for it by being extra active during preschool. Not the same, but something I can do without giving up writing.
I try to take time to read and study, but that time comes out of something else. Then I don't work out and that makes me feel terrible about myself because one of my new medications has the glorious side effect of me gaining 15 pounds in the last few weeks. My pants don't fit and I feel bloated and awful. Then I escape by writing and feel more myself but my preschool lesson prep didn't get quite finished, so even though the kids love it when I wing it (winging it almost always involves more games and songs and silly dancing) I feel more stressed.
Maybe it isn't worth it. Maybe nothing will come of all this writing and work and all the time I've spent on it will have been merely to prove to myself that I can't make it as an author, so I can let go of the dream and focus on my life here and now. But I don't want to. I don't want all the fight and struggle of getting the manuscript finished to have been just for me. I write because I'm passionate about it, but also because I believe I have something to say.
What are you doing every day for just you? There isn’t always time, and sometimes life goes crazy and every plate you’re trying to keep in the air crashes down. You don’t have time then. But sometimes those are the times when it’s the most important to take time for you. Crazy and stress needs a break from crazy and stress and doing something you love is good for you.
So why is it so freaking hard to find the time? Because we're good people. We want to fulfill our commitments and never let anybody down. We want to help each other and be good spouses and good parents. We have worthy goals. But life these days is so busy and hectic and noisy that there is no extra time. I have often fantasized about being able to split myself into two people from 8:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night so that one of me could live the life I have now and the other could live the life I want. The only problem I can't resolve is if the working out half of my self does counts for both of me, then the aging I do counts for both of me too.
So multiple mes is out. But what do I do? I keep trying. I get up in the morning when my day starts out already behind, and plow through. Because in my mind, there is no other choice. I'm going to do it because it needs to be done, and I am the person there is to do it. I will not give up because this is the life I've chosen for myself, and if I don't have time to live it all, I will spend every day getting done as much as I can.