Monthly Archives: May 2016

One year in

In the last few weeks Austin and I celebrated our wedding anniversary, and just a few days ago also marked one year since I moved to California, and it put me in a bit of a reflective mood.

There are a few things in my life that aren’t what I want them to be, but, on the whole, it’s largely what and where I expected it to be.

It’s challenging, however, to know you’re not where you want to be. Expectation doesn’t make you content or make desire or ambition go away, and even after a year, there are days that I have to remind myself that every step I chose to take led me here, and it’s where I wanted to be.

Sure, I could be working as a reporter at some newspaper learning and growing in my field, but in order for that goal to be realized, I would still be unmarried– though probably engaged– still coping with a long-distance relationship. And I didn’t want that.

I could dedicate a lot of time to my personal writing projects and work just part-time, but I would have to sacrifice the full-time job that, with any luck, will help Austin and I achieve other goals of independence.

Instead, I chose the option to get married and move to California (I’m only cranky when it’s hot… Mostly…) and work full-time at a job I still enjoy. It’s not my dream job or my career goal, but I don’t come home every day ranting and angry, which is more than a lot of people can say.

I’ll confess, for a long time, I clmplained to myself how it wasn’t fair. My choice wasn’t a simple, do you want to move or not? There was so much else hanging in balance. And sometimes I get caught up in thinking of the dreams and goals and even just options that have been taken off the table. And I wonder how the choices I made will affect my ability, or rather, hire-ability, once I’m able to actually pursue a career. At the end of the day, I can only remind myself that, if given a do-over, I’d do it all the same. Life isn’t fair, but I think, in some ways, we’d miss out if it was.

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Captivating the children: writing for 7-12 year olds

When I began module eight in my course, I was more excited than I had been for module 7 (writing for children under 7), because module eight targeted the age range I chose for my children’s book. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like it gave me much insight at all.

The course started off talking about the Fog Index, a method used to determine how many years of schooling a person would need to have to understand the book’s content (and maybe this will be useful, I can sometimes use excessively large words.). Essentially, you’d take a random paragraph sample, count the number of words and divide it by the number of sentences. This gives you the average number of words per sentence. Add to that average the number of big words (more than three syllables) and multiply the result by 0.4. The answer you get is the number of years of formal schooling an individual would, in theory, need to have to understand the material. There are some other factors that can change the ranking, such as genre or topic content. This might be an interesting test to conduct on my own writing, to see if I target the right age with my vocabulary.

The lesson then rehashes book lengths, then talks about the book market and illustrations for books for this age range before launching into a detailed look at styles for this age group. Very popular are humor books, justice/revenge stories, adventure and witch/wizard stories (fantasy or magic stories). Then it talks again about keeping the pace of the story moving and the necessity of action and emotion in a story (show, don’t tell.). Nothing about it was particularly new or mind blowing, and a lot of it was either already covered, or applied to writing in general, not specifically this age range.

Tacked on at the end, for no reason I can imagine, is a little section about using wolves as representing villains, and a short discussion on classic portrayals of wolves.

Overall, this module was a huge disappointment. I kept waiting for something I could take out, something useful I could edit for in my story, or something to look for as I read through it, but there was nothing. I suppose maybe if you are just getting started writing and haven’t done much on your own, perhaps it would be helpful, but for someone who has done a lot of writing, even if I haven’t had any formal schooling on it, it was a let down to be sure. Here’s to hoping the next module is better.

Smoke

“Smoke” by Dan Vyleta is the first teen novel I’ve read in quite a while (Twilight was the first and last teen novel bandwagon I hopped on and I learned that lesson well.). But the synopsis on the back sounded interesting, so I took a gamble with it.

It is set in turn-of-the-century England, and the main characters are two school boys and a school girl. All come from aristocratic families of varying degrees of wealth. At their boarding schools, they are taught how to control themselves so they don’t emit smoke, and outward sign of inward sin and vice. Everything they’ve been led to believe begins to unravel over Christmas break when they discover revolutionaries working to dispel the lies that all smoke is bad. The three teenagers get thrown into the middle of it–first working to thwart what they think is an evil plot before, at the very end, finding their beliefs challenged once again.

While I enjoyed this book, it took me longer than I anticipated to read. The writing style was different, and I am frankly surprised that Doubleday (a subsidiary of Penguin) published it (though, I will be the first to admit my knowledge of the publishing industry is by no means vast). The book is written in first person, which isn’t my favorite to begin with. For myself personally, it slows down my reading, I think because my mind is so used to reading in third person I just get tripped up on something new. What was surprising (and at first, very distracting. I didn’t like it at all), every other chapter is written in first person from the perspective of one specific character. It’s one of those things I imagine the writers of the course I’m taking would say never ever to even think about doing. And from reading it, I can understand both sides. It was a little confusing at first, but more than anything, simply it was distracting. It gave a different feel to the whole book. Yet the farther in I got, the more I began to kind of like it. It gives unique opportunity to get to know the inner workings of individual characters, and gives unique perspectives to what happened in the previous chapter, allowing for detail and depth that would otherwise be difficult to capture.

The book was well written, but I have to confess to being a little let down at the end. The one event, the plot that the whole storyline hinged on, felt unexplained. I didn’t understand the “why” behind it, or perhaps it was the “how” that was missing, or a combination of both. Also, I don’t anticipate a sequel to the book, so the ending left me hanging, wondering what happened a month, two months, even six months later. Our protagonists commit an act not knowing what will happen. And there the book ends, without any hint at what did happen. I wanted an epilogue to tell me that. Or, perhaps if we’d had more detail into the “why” and “how,” it would have lent itself better to an educated guess. All we can really know, or guess, is that there was a smoke revolution in London, and everyone was infected, or affected. But what the purpose and aftermath of that was, is open to imagination.

All said and done, however, I enjoyed “Smoke.” I went in to it uncertain, especially the first few chapters in. But I don’t think it was an exaggeration to call it a “tale of Dickensian intricacy.” Vyleta did a good job providing just enough detail to keep me guessing at what exactly was going on, and whether anyone was truly the villain.

“Smoke” is scheduled for release on May 24.

Age-specific writing: toddlers/pre-K

As I continue on with my children’s book writing course, we’re moving on from the basics of writing, and going into more depth on specific age groups, rehashing and looking more closely at ideas already mentioned in the course. Module seven focused on children younger than 7 years old.

These books are mostly picture books and some basic illustrated chapter books, and as the course authors discussed before, language is the key to this age group. It is important to understand how children at this age are reading, what their process is, and challenge them in ways that allow them to still be successful in reading. Illustrations play a large role in these books, and while most writers don’t do their own illustrations, as the course authors point out, it is important to be able to visualize in general what your pictures will look like, as it helps the writing process.

Children might be encouraged to guess what comes next based on pictures, or pictures can be used as an element to help build suspense, allowing one page to end with a cliffhanger sentence and the next page reveal the outcome immediately through a picture.

Other topics mentioned in this module were political correctness and diversity of characters, using animals and even objects as characters, and keeping in mind that your story will, ideally, be competing on a global field, and to write accordingly.

While this module was interesting, I didn’t find it particularly enlightening or groundbreaking, perhaps because I’m not working on any picture books right now. It felt like a collection of tips to keep in mind when writing for very young children (though, I must confess, much of the course feels like a collection of tips. I suppose because it’s online, there is only so much one can do to make it interactive.). While I’m not writing this module off, it’s certainly not at the forefront of my mind right now. But, it may come in handy some day, if I ever decide to develop a certain picture book idea I’ve had bouncing around in my head.

Paper: Paging Through History

Nothing says “nerd” quite like seeing a book titled “Paper” and thinking, “gee, that sounds like an interesting read.”

But that’s exactly what I thought when I spotted an advance reader copy of Mark Kurlansky’s latest book. Yes, it really is about the history of paper. And I thoroughly¬† enjoyed it.

Paper, according to Kurlansky’s book, has its roots in China, with the first known piece dating from 252 BCE. Of course, before paper there were other options in use, including stone, clay, papyrus and parchment. Kurlansky details how paper traveled throughout the known world, in some areas becoming popular, in some, taking much longer for societal needs to increase demand.

What is interesting, as highlighted by Kurlansky, is how different civilizations developed similar ideas completely independently of each other. This lends credence to the idea that changes in society cultivate technological advances, and not that advances change society (which is a theme Kurlansky discusses in the book).

Unsurprisingly, a discussion of the history of paper also has to look at the rise of written language, as opposed to oral traditions, as well as the growth of printing, and even art–all pursuits that powered the development of paper and the continued refinement.

You may not think it, but knowing the history of paper lends a different bit of perspective to various historical events in which paper played a cataclysmic role, such as the Protestant Revolution or the American Revolution. Landmarks for their respective eras and people, these events are also landmarks in the history of paper. Paper as a catalyst allowed ideas to be spread quickly and cheaply throughout the masses, disseminating information and ideas. These revolutions as catalysts helped push paper from a luxury item to an everyday necessity, creating also a demand for the product.

Kurlansky ends the book looking at how it cycles back around. Paper began as a handmade item, and some individuals have continued that tradition, though they become fewer and fewer each year. New technology does not always replace its predecessor–in fact, Kurlansky argues that often it just becomes an alternative option. What does get replaced are traditions and processes that are passed down from generations, but die out eventually for the sake of convenience and ease.

Instead of worrying about how technology will change society (which Kurlansky calls a fallacy–changes in society prompt new technology, not the other way around, he says.), perhaps what we ought to consider is, in our pursuit for convenience and ease, are there processes or traditions that we may regret losing?

If you are interested in history at all, Paper is quite an interesting read. Keep an eye out for it on May 10.

Storylines, themes and plots

Among storyline, theme, and plot, theme is the easiest to pick out as different, in my opinion.

It’s easy to know that theme is something woven through the entire story. It is essential, but not the entirety of the story.

Differentiating between storyline and plot is a little harder.

The storyline, according to module six, is, essentially, the synopsis. It briefly describes what happens in the story, but doesn’t go into detail about every challenge and resolution. The plot, however, is all the gory details about the story. It’s the storyline, describing each cause and effect that leads to the logical conclusion.

An idea may start as a storyline or a theme. You may have an idea for something that happens, or there may be some moral or ethical question you want to discuss. Before you get too attached to the idea, though, you have to do a little plotting (and not the devious kind).

I’ve written those stories where I didn’t do any plotting. And I thoroughly enjoyed them. And whether they are truly more of a mess than my recently written, mildly plotted story, I can’t say just yet. What I can say is that, having even just done some plotting, it was easier and the story moved along better. I didn’t spend time having my characters do nothing because I wasn’t sure what came next. Plotting helps the story move from one situation or scene to another and eliminates the milling around.

In other posts, I have said I’m not sure about plotting because I like to let the story go where it wants to. But the authors of this course make a good point: creativity is hard work, and if I don’t know where I’m going, my characters won’t know what to do.

Plotting simply moves, to a degree, the freedom and fluidity of the story. Of course, a plot doesn’t have to be set in stone, it can change, but it’s good to have a map when going into unfamiliar territory. Plotting allows you to discover the secrets of your characters and your story beforehand, and thus make it more convincing in the moment.

A final thing the course authors talked about in this sixth module was, fittingly, endings. I never quite know how to end a story, and sometimes it feels kind of abrupt. But their advice is to end it quickly, so it doesn’t get drawn out and take away from the climactic ending. This, for me, is good advice. I don’t have to end on something mind blowing or profound (unless it’s the type of story that requires that). I can just end where it ends. It’s not a term paper where I need to write a conclusion, and that is a freeing thought.

Miller’s Valley

I once heard literature described as any book where, when asked what it’s about, the best answer is, “it’s about a boy/girl.”

Miller’s Valley is the first book I’ve read by Anna Quindlen. It’s a little hard to describe what it’s about, not because it’s bad, but because it is just a story about a girl growing up. It’s just literature. It didn’t have a particularly strong, overarching theme, except maybe to say you can’t control everything in life, and you never know what others are going through.

Miller’s Valley follows the life of Mimi Miller, the baby of the Miller family, which has lived in the valley for 200 plus years. But all that is put in jeopardy. The government wants to buy up the property and use it as extra reservoir space. This is a background story, though, and not nearly as central as I would have expected after reading the first few chapters. But perhaps this just highlights the idea that big things that go on in the background of life have more influence than we realize.

I enjoyed the book, I think it part because it is simple. It feels like real life. It feels like listening to an old woman remember her childhood (which I believe was what Quindlen was going for). There were several times I related to Mimi;  being caught in the middle of family disagreements, struggling to decide on a path for the future, finding the balance between your goals and your responsibility to people who depend on you.

If there is one thing I can say about Miller’s Valley, it’s that it seems so real. It’s a change of pace from the classics that I’ve been reading through. It’s an easy read that doesn’t require focus and dedication to read, and I don’t mean that in a negative way (most people who have read classics in literature certainly know what I mean, even if you enjoy a book, reading it can sometimes be a chore).

Miller’s Valley is a reflection on life and growing up, it’s the 20-20 hindsight, connecting the dots to see how everything fit together to lead to now. It’s about finding, even when you don’t quite know you’re looking.