Posted in books, creative writing, lessons learned, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Lessons Learned: Life of Pi

I watched the movie first, and really enjoyed it, so I figured I would read the book, since there’s always so much left out of the movie version of any book. This is one of those very rare times where I actually preferred the trimmed down movie version.

life of piFor those who haven’t read or seen Life of Pi, it’s about a young man who survives his ship sinking in the middle of the sea during a journey from India to Canada. He makes it to a life boat, but finds himself in the company of several of the zoo animals his family was transporting…including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

What I loved about this story was the use of extended metaphor to tell Pi’s story of survival at sea with Richard Parker (I won’t give away what that’s a metaphor for in case you haven’t seen/read it). It’s not a commonly used tactic in modern fiction, and if you’d like an great example of it, read this book. Or watch the movie.

How to write an extended metaphor is not the lesson learned from this book, however.

Not overloading your reader or being condescending to them is the lesson learned.

c4223-robotcartoonInfodumping is often a struggle for writers who do in-depth research for a book. You found out all these awesome things about whatever and now you HAVE TO SHARE THEM ALL! Unless you are writing a non-fiction book about your topic that is meant to give a detailed history of whatever, please, please, please for the love of all things bookish DO NOT vomit up every seemingly fascinating tidbit of research you uncovered while preparing to write your book.

Listening to an audiobook, you can’t really skim, which makes endless amounts of information you’re not particularly interested in even harder to get through. I listened to Life of Pi and simply had to take a break when chapters went on and on about various animals, their habits and traits, mating rituals, etc. I started listening to the book to find out more about Pi’s journey, not to hear a dissertation on animal husbandry.

Focus on what your reader wants out of your story, not just on what you want to tell them.

girl-868784_1920I also struggled to listen at length to the religious discussions, which I usually enjoy quite a bit. I think religion is a fascinating topic and enjoy learning about many different religions. What I didn’t enjoy was, again, too much straight information that took me away from the story, and the sometimes condescending way the information was presented. I don’t hold with any particular religion, but I was still bothered by the sense I got that if a reader didn’t agree with the author’s opinions on eating meat, practicing multiple religions at once, or who or what God or gods might be they were simply wrong or not as smart as the author. I enjoy learning about how others view God, religion, the Universe, etc., but in a way that invites thoughtfulness rather than looking down on others’ beliefs or viewpoints.

Don’t talk down to your reader.

While I enjoyed the story overall, I definitely prefer the movie version, which focused the point of Pi’s journey as a struggle to understand faith and the meaning of life when faced with tragedy. If something you want to put into your book doesn’t add to the story or unnecessarily turns readers off, there’s a good chance it doesn’t need to be there.

Posted in creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Fiction Vs. Reality…And the Author’s Responsibility

I was going through my list of drafts in my blog roll and found this title but no content. I think there was a specific review or article that inspired this debate, but I can’t remember what it was lol!

Either way, it’s an interesting topic.

Typewriter illustrationSeveral years ago on a car ride my family and I started listening to “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. I downloaded it from Audible after only a cursory glance at the summary and checking the reviews. So, it wasn’t until several hours into the book that my husband and I both turned to look at each other and asked, “Is this book a true story?”

Why ask that question?

Because it was too unbelievable to be fiction!

Louis Zampirini’s life was quite literally unbelievable in many ways. As history, it’s fascinating and incredible. As fiction, readers would have rolled their eyes at how many dangerous and crazy situations he got into and survived! If you haven’t read the book, please do, you’ll understand so much better what I’m talking about.

So, this question is…where is the line as a fiction author? How do you balance crafting a compelling and engaging story without making it unbelievable? Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.

1. Characters lose more often than they win.

Depressed woman portrait

Sure, most days in reality are pretty routine, and we all have those days where everything just goes right. Is that interesting to read about? NO. In real life, maybe the boring days and good days are the norm, but the days and weeks we struggle and fail and do stupid things and hurt the people we love are the ones that push us to grow and do better, or maybe to give up and throw our hands in the air. Readers are pulled in by the struggle. They can connect and empathize with lousy days and bruised emotions.

2. There are only so many times you can win or escape.

galaxy questBe mean to your characters all you want. Kill your darlings, right? However, if the end to every situation is a predictable close call or last second escape, readers will not only be annoyed they’ll lose interest. Have you ever watched Tim Allen in “Galaxy Quest”? They parodied this concept beautifully when the alien ship built to model the TV series spaceship is designed to stop its self-destruct sequence at 1 second because “that’s what always happened on the show.” It’s funny because we all now how irritating that “last second” save becomes after a while. While there are rare stories, like Zamperini’s, where people really do beat all the odds and survive the worst situations, most people fail and miss chances and get hurt.

3. Going through traumatic experiences have lasting effects.

unbrokenLouis Zamperini survived an incredible amount of danger and horribleness in his life, BUT there were deep scars left behind because of what he suffered. The last third of the book that deals with the aftermath of being tortured in a Japanese prison camp is very, very hard to listen to because the lasting damage is so real. I’ve read to many novels (especially YA) where the main character has some tragic past or experiences something truly awful…and bounces back like it was nothing. This is not one of those areas where reality needs to be downplayed. Let your characters be as broken as they need to be. Emotional scars are something we all understand. Characters need that element of reality to ring true with readers.

4. Romance has more leeway, use it.

Most people are fairly rational, even when it comes to relationships. Love can conquer all in movies and romance novels, but real people often give up on difficult relationships and choose not to take risks. Now, I’m not saying all romantic stories have to be 100% HEA, “Enchanted” style storylines. What I am saying is that in romance readers  expect a little more of a break from reality. Let your characters make rash decisions or fall too hard too fast. It’s okay if their choices wouldn’t be completely rational or logical in real life. A lot of romance readers want the escapism, the fantasy. Don’t go overboard, but bend reality a little when it enhances the love story.

Enchanted

Balancing fiction and reality is tough, because the line between captivating and irritating a reader can be thin. Stretch reality when it enhances the story, not when you want an easy way out of a situation.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Genre Tropes are like Bunnies

To listen to the Write. Publish. Repeat. podcast version, CLICK HERE.

2015-04-21 09.07.18Just to clear up any confusion right off the bat, bunnies are the worst! Sure they may look cute, hopping around with their cotton tails and twitchy noses, but it’s all a trick. They will destroy your grass by eating it down to the roots and by peeing and pooping on it like mad-which also kills the grass. They will also gnaw off the bark of your fruit trees, which is not good for them at all, and those freaky jackrabbits’ giant creepy teeth, I’m pretty sure, could chew through your ankle if it got the chance.

Bunnies are NOT cool.

And, neither are overused genre tropes.

What is a trope?

Trope DefinitionA trope is a familiar and repeated (aka overused) symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing (anything) that is spread throughout a particular genre.

The problem with tropes is not necessarily that it kills your story, like bunnies will do to your lawn, but they have the potential to kill your readers’ interest in your story.

How?

When a reader picks up a book and sees the same types of characters, the same pattern behind a storyline, the same hints that his 16-year-old nobody is destined to save anything and everything by discovering their deeply buried inner strength/power/importance/etc., they start to see how the story is going to end, because well…they’ve read it before. Maybe the names have changed, or the setting, or the mythology, or whatever, but if the overall concept is something every other genre writer is using, readers are going to pick up on that.

Is that to say you can’t ever write using some of these tropes?

Blonde Upper BodyOf course not. The key is to use them in their barest form. Strip them down to the essence of what makes readers connect with the trope to begin with, and add from there.

Weak, friendless, unimportant teen becomes the hero? Check. We’ve all been there, so we identify with those emotions and frustrations, and especially the hope for something more.

Self-conscious, doesn’t understand her own worth heroine who thinks she’ll never find love. Again, check. Everyone has those moments of thinking they aren’t good enough to find their happily ever after.

The problem with tropes isn’t that they exist and are used. The problem arises when writers stop there, and don’t expand, delve deeper, experiment, make it unique.

If your male lead has commitment issues, give him a REAL reason for his fears or avoidance. Being too awesome to be tied down isn’t going to cut it in most cases.

Your teen hero is going to save the world? Fabulous, but make him or her take a different path to get there than the typical camp/school/mentor/etc.

What new, exciting, difficult, gut-wrenching ways can your characters develop into their final self? It doesn’t have to be so complicated that solving the prime number equation looks easy, but it does need to be unique to your story, character, and plot.

Working with teen writers over the summer, most start out with fan fiction. It’s a great place to start, because a lot of the difficult world and character development is done for them and they can focus on the story and figuring out their style. It’s a great learning experience, and it’s okay that their stories often end up being a mishmash of all their favorite books, because they’re working on their craft.

However, as that writing skill develops, we need to move away from well-worn tropes and begin experimenting with new, fresh concepts that will take a story from something frustratingly familiar to one that stands out from all the others.

So, don’t let the bunnies destroy your grass, and don’t let your story get passed over because it’s just more of the same.

Open Blue Book

Posted in creative writing, writing

Travel Blog 2: What Happened to Spruce Tree House?

DSC_0019.JPGIf you’re planning at trip to Mesa Verde National Park and hoping to explore the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, one of the largest and most popular cliff dwelling sites at the park, you’ll be limited to viewing it from a distance. Why? While we want all our visitors to experience the cliff dwellings, keeping guests safe is our top priority. Recent rock falls at the Spruce Tree House site prompted the decision to close it to the public for the first time in 50 years.

Because the alcoves containing the cliff dwellings were formed by natural processes that are still at work, dwelling sites undergo change over time. Due to erosion, naturally forming cracks exist on the mesa above the Spruce Tree House, and continue to spread. One very large crack spans the entire length of the Spruce Tree House alcove, and has been the source of rock falls before.

In 1940, cracks and instabilities were discovered, and actions were taken to slow the erosion process. Plants and debris wedged in the cracks that were making them wider were removed. To help protect the cliffs even more, a protective covering was built to waterproof the system of cracks and hold off additional erosion.

DSC_0061That covering worked for two decades, but in 1960, a 10-ton rock fell from the south end of the cliff overhang, hitting the nearby public trail and part of the Spruce Tree House site. Trained climbers pulled down a loose, five-ton rock in danger of falling to prevent it from doing more damage, and cleanup began. The previous covering put over the crack was removed and replaced with an anchoring system that would hopefully prevent the cracks from widening. These 42 anchors, up to 16 feet long, were drilled into the cliff face to anchor the arches in place, then the crack was filled with gravel and cement. This system held for many years, until recently.

In August of 2015, several small rock falls at the south end Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling caused new safety concerns. Hiking to the site was temporarily closed while park officials evaluated the danger of more rock falls. Unfortunately, their evaluation made it clear the site was too dangerous for visitors. In October of 2015, officials decided the site would remain closed to the public until the safety of the area could be studied in detail.

Wasting no time, the evaluation of the area began the following month, and was completed by a specially trained climbing team made up of members from several National Parks. During this project, the system of cracks above the arch was inspected, and a large amount of loose rocks and debris were removed. The cleanup revealed that the inner areas of the cracks were soft due to water leaching away minerals necessary for keeping the rocks strong, and further damage was possible. The risk of continued cracking and falling rocks made it impossible to reopen the site. A full geotechnical assessment will likely be conducted in the future but, for the time being, Spruce Tree House will remain closed to the public.

Even with the closure, this beautiful monument can still be enjoyed by park visitors from a distance. Overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum provides views of the Spruce Tree House, and Rangers are available to answer any questions visitors may have.

DSC_0012.JPG

Posted in creative writing, writing

Travel Blog 1: Tour Bus, Streetcar, Streetcar (again), Shuttle…Zoo?

2013-06-17 16.16.23While flying does cut down your travel time, it also leaves you without a car. That’s not so bad when visiting New Orleans and staying at a hotel right in the French Quarter…mostly. While my husband was sitting through an EPA conference, my two kids and I walked all over the French Quarter, seeing the aquarium, kids museum, cemeteries, the double decker tour buses, and the butterfly habitat.

No car? No problem.

Except when we wanted to visit the zoo. I love zoos, probably more than my kids, and NOLA was supposed to have a great zoo. It was definitely not within walking distance, though. My previous experience with the area was driving through the French Quarter on the way to Florida, appreciating the architecture from the confines of our weird smelling RV.

2013-06-18 10.51.22For some reason, rather than just having the nice man at the hotel call us a cab, I thought we could make it to the zoo using NOLA’s public transit system. I had several maps which laid out the route to the zoo through various modes of transportation. It would be an adventure, right?

With two kids (7 and 10), and my only other experience using mass transit being riding back and forth on the Metro from campus to Washington DC during a week-long high school trip for a National History Day competition, we set out.

So, we hopped on the tour bus and rode several miles to a historical neighborhood, where we bravely got off the bus and attempted to find our streetcar stop. We cautiously approached a bud shelter where several older African American women were sitting on the bench, and after failing to find some kind of indication of whether this was a stop for the streetcar, bus, or something else, I asked the ladies if we were in the right spot.

We weren’t.

2013-06-18 15.34.34They nicely pointed out where we should be standing. A platform in the middle of the road. The streetcar lines literally ran down the middle of the street, with cars driving on either side. Beginning to regret this adventure, we trekked safely to the streetcar stop, only to be followed by yelling. I looked around, hoping the shrieking isn’t directed at us, and found the nice lady who’d directed us yelling and waving at us. I was so startled, it took me a few minutes to figure out what she was trying to tell me.

We were at the wrong streetcar stop.

2013-06-20 15.08.04Because the streetcars run on rails, they run in one direction. What direction you want to go determines was side of the tracks you should wait on. We were on the wrong side. So, grabbing my kids’ hands again, we hurried across the rails to the other side of the middle of the street, and waited at the right stop.

The streetcar came trundling up the tracks soon after, and we climbed aboard. My kids still thought we were having an adventure while I was cursing myself. I paid our fair and shuffled the kids into the car to find it packed. I held my kids’ hand, keeping them close, while I stood trying not to rub up against a guy whose armpit was dangerously close to my face and a lady whose shopping bags were taking up the aisle. After one more on and off to change streetcars, I eagerly dragged the kids off the streetcar when we reached our stop.

A sign for the zoo awaited us after walking a few blocks from the bus stop, but the zoo itself was nowhere in sight. There was, however, a group of tourists waiting around the sign who told me the zoo was still a mile away, but there was a shuttle coming! In twenty minutes. When the shuttle finally pulled up, its capacity was a whopping nine seats for the nearly twenty people waiting.

2013-06-19 11.29.48Seeing that I had two kids with me, the other tourists were extremely kind and let us get on with the first group. Ten minutes later, we finally made it to the zoo, and it was as fabulous as I’d been told. One of the best zoos I’ve visited. The only thing that wasn’t awesome was the fact that we had still had to get back to the hotel.

Lesson learned: Call a cab.

Posted in creative writing, writing

Time for Some Homework

Recently (this week, in fact) I’ve officially gone back to college!

2016-03-29 18.34.38.jpgOriginally, I intended to get my bachelor’s degree in English, but there were some issues with that plan and now I’m working on a degree in Communication-Media Studies with a minor in English. Getting my degree will allow me to teach more classes at our local community college, so here I go!

This summer I’m taking a Technical Writing class that is way more intense than I was expecting, and a Travel Writing class which is awesome.

Why am I sharing this?

Both classes understandably have homework, and since it’s writing related and I like sharing things I learn about writing with my readers, I’ll be posting some of my homework pieces here on my blog. Some for feedback, some for fun. So when you see posts about how to sew a French seam or why the Spruce Tree House is closed at Mesa Verde National Park, that’s why.

If you feel prompted to offer feedback, please do! There’s always room to learn more, and comments from readers are just as valuable to me as comments from classmates and instructors.

Have a great summer!

Posted in creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Open Doors and Plot Holes

Death_to_stock_Dinner_damo_8.jpgMaybe this only happens in my house, but unlike the picture above with nicely closed cabinet doors, I can walk into a room and, no kidding, there is almost always at least one drawer, cupboard door, or package of something or other left open. Usually, more than one. There have been times when I’ve walked into the kitchen and literally every cupboard door is standing open because someone was looking for something and, after finding it, walked away.

What does this have to do with plot holes?

Your readers are like one of my kids looking for the bag of chocolate chips they want to add to their spoon of peanut butter. They keep looking for the answers you’ve promised them, scouring every page, rereading when they think they might have missed something, or silently working out all possible endings when they’re forced to put down a book and pay attention to real life for a few hours.

Those times when all the cupboard doors are left open because they have to search that hard, it often results from one of two things:

1: They’ve opened every other door in the kitchen and are reaching for the last one, opening it slowly, only to find, the cupboard is bare and the answers you promised aren’t actually in the kitchen, or anywhere…and they walk away, annoyed and vowing to never read anything of yours again because, dang it, when you want a snack and can only find celery sticks that make your mouth itch, your definitely not going to take the time to clean up your mess.

OR

2: They reach for that last cupboard door, pull it open and – because you’ve done an impeccable job of filling in holes and stretching out your reveals – all those awesome answers come flooding out at the very end for your reader to gobble up as hungrily as my kids might those cookies I tried to hide from them, and abandon the kitchen in complete satisfaction…forgetting to close all the cupboard doors.

The point?

Little Blond GirlJust like when my kids (my daughter specifically) stomps away, annoyed I haven’t purchased sufficient snack-worthy foods, your readers will walk away when they finish a book unsatisfied because of questions you never answered if your book leaves them with option #1.

I’ve been teaching a self-editing class this semester, and one of the best tips for avoiding plot holes is to re-outline your novel or story as you do your first major edit.

Why?

Editing sucks, right? 90% of writers will agree with me on that, I’m pretty sure.

Outlines suck even more. Okay, maybe only other pansters will agree with me on that, but that’s got to be at least 50%, right?

You know what sucks more, though? Having a reader leave a nasty review…one that’s legit and calls you out on shortcuts you took or hints you failed to live up to.

During your first major outline, take the time to outline your book, taking note of all the hints you added in, the questions you posed, and the bits of backstory you teased your readers with.

Did you follow up on each and every one?

If not, you have two choices:

1: Nix it. If you never followed up because that particular tidbit simply didn’t pan out, remove it.

Questions2: Fill in where you neglected to follow through. Any questions you posed that pertain to that particular book (notice I’m not talking series-length questions) make sure you have an answer, or make it apparent that question will be answered in a subsequent book, if you’re working on a series.

Most readers have a Love/Hate relationship with valid cliffhangers.

ALL readers have a Hate/Hate relationship with lazy writing that leaves them questioning why they purchased a book.

Don’t let your readers down. Answer every question you ask, even the ones you might have forgotten about from those first few chapters when the concept of your story was still in flux. You’ll thank yourself later, and so will your readers. Nobody wants to end a book like Lost Season 6, trust me. Rants are still happening about that finale six years after the fact.