Hopelessly Devoted

If you’re an Olivia Newton-John fan, you recognized that the title is part of the title of a song she sang on the Grease soundtrack—“Hopelessly Devoted to You.” And perhaps right now, that song is going through your head like it’s going through mine. If that bugs you, I’m sorry. Let’s move on. (Unless you really want to hear the song. Here’s a link to a video.)

A fairweather-fan isn’t exactly brimming with hopeless devotion. More than likely, you know a fair-weather fan or two. They come out in droves when a team is winning and readily buy the T-shirts and bumper stickers. But when a team is in a slump, they’re nowhere to be found.

             Cubs   Chicago_White_Sox-logo-945AF4DA0A-seeklogo_com  

That’s why I have to admire fans of the Chicago Cubs. In the past years, when the team failed to bring home a championship, the fans still cheered.

In 2005, when the White Sox won the World Series, a Chicago Cubs fan admitted to me that he still couldn’t cheer for the Sox. After all, he was a Cubs fan. Though a Sox fan, I understood his dedication to the Cubs. I also understood my need to gloat.

Recently author Robin LaFevers wrote an article entitled, “On Discipline, Dedication, and Devotion” for Writer Unboxed. It was kind of her to write it, since I had planned to write this post on the subject. Now I can be lazy and piggyback off what she wrote. Thank you, Robin. You might read Robin’s post here, especially since she explains the difference between discipline, dedication, and devotion to writing.

I can’t help latching on to this quote from that post:

When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend our time with. It’s not just about what you want to say or create, but involves the very act of creating itself.

Lately, I’ve been evaluating whether I’m disciplined, dedicated, or devoted in my writing. If I’m devoted, to what exactly am I devoted? Though I’ve read and loved many kinds of fiction, I’ve generally felt a pull toward fantasy writing. I’ve never been to LeakyCon (the Harry Potter convention), the Discworld convention, or Comic-Con though. Some devoted fans might say I’m not devoted enough to fantasy. (I try to go to the Bristol Renaissance Faire each year, however.)

Those devoted to a team, a person, or to something else they consider dear sometimes test the devotion of others who profess a similar interest. If you’re truly devoted, you’ll hit all of the benchmarks of devotion. This is very true of fantasy fans.

Whenever I mention a love for fantasy, I’m generally asked, “Have you read George R. R. Martin’s series? Tolkien’s books? Tad Williams’s books? Robert Jordan’s/Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time? Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series? Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind or The Wise Man’s Fear? Harry Potter? [No one ever asks, “Have you read J. K. Rowling’s series?” It’s always, “Have you read Harry Potter?”] Kristin Cashore’s series? Rick Riordan’s series? Any of Jasper Fforde’s series? Anything by Neil Gaiman, Patricia McKillip, Lois McMaster Bujold, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, or Juliet Marillier?” These are “benchmark” fantasy authors and series. And there are many others, of course (like Raymond Feist, Sharon Shinn, and Garth Nix for example). Though I’ve read books by all of the above (um, I quit at book 7 for Wheel of Time; I’ll probably return to it at some point), I still have to question whether I’m dedicated or devoted in light of Robin’s definition. After all, I’m not just a reader of fantasy. I’m a writer of it.

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I look at a writer like Charles Yallowitz, and I see devotion. He has his Legends of Windemere site and series (two of his books are shown below) and poetry, and already planned several other books in the series. On his blog, he regularly talks about his characters and magic and includes excerpts from his books and character sketches. He writes guest posts for other blogs as well. See? That’s devotion.

           17447896    prodigy-cover-final

And then there are the participants in the WIPpet Wednesdays, hosted by K. L. Schwengel. Many post excerpts from more than one fantasy novel.

Do I have that level of devotion? If I allow myself to be stopped by rejections, procrastination, or anything else, I can’t say that I do. Take for instance the other day. Instead of continuing to work on the magic system for my novel—a necessary activity—I sat and played Harvest Moon: The Tale of Two Towns. Why? Because I had a moment of self-doubt. Finally, disgusted with myself, I quit procrastinating and returned to the world building. And you know what? I felt better.

That incident prompts me to ask myself: Am I dedicated or devoted to my own series? Or, am I content to be entertained by the hard efforts of other people (like Charles or Lois or J. K. Rowling)? What about you? Are you disciplined, dedicated, or devoted? To what? How do you show it?

Book covers from Goodreads.

Write from the Heart

crossroadEver find yourself at a crossroads? Sure you have. I didn’t have to ask. (Silly me.) But I don’t mean the literal fork in the road you reach by car, bike, or on foot. I mean the point where life could go in one direction or another.

I’m at a crossroads now as I contemplate my writing thus far and current publishing trends.

twilight-coverBack when the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer had become the in thing and I’d heard that agents and editors searched for books of that ilk, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and write a young adult vampire novel. After all, I’d read several. I could do this, right? Well, after four dismal pages and no discernible plot—just a scene in which the characters sat on a couch watching a horror movie for some reason—I called it quits. My heart simply wasn’t it in.

200px-Hunger_gamesAnd when Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy hit the bestseller lists, I considered revamping my stalled science fiction novel into a dystopian novel. Sure, my plot was full of holes and my system of government threadbare, but I just needed to work harder at ironing out the kinks. Or so I thought. I lasted until page 107 before putting it aside. Couldn’t make the plot work. Again, my heart wasn’t in it.

So where is my heart? Where it always has been: tucked away in a fantasy land sprinkled with magic and populated by elves, dragons, and quirky humans. I love a fantasy world steeped in mythology and dripping with tropes. I have six fantasy novels in various states: two complete; four others in the works.


Yet when I hear that more and more humorous, contemporary middle grade books (which I enjoy) are being acquired at publishing houses, I have to ask myself: Write to the trend or not?

There are all sorts of practical reasons for doing so—lucrative ones. Yet as I consider ideas for crafting a humorous, middle grade story, the only ideas that come to mind are those that will mean yet more high fantasy novels.

Must I abandon my elves to go trendy?

9781582970523_p0_v1_s260x420A quote from a craft book by Nancy Lamb helped me gain perspective:

Produce the best story you can. Write it, craft it, rewrite it, hone it, edit it and love it. (25)

“Love it.” That’s the key. Do I love the world I developed and the characters that populate it? Yes. Am I producing the best stories I can? I think so. And judging by the abandoned novels versus the finished novels on my computer, getting to the finish line on a novel is not as much of a hurdle when I’m writing from the heart.

So, I think I’ll keep going in the direction that I’m already going. An enchanted forest waits up ahead.


Do you write to trends? I’d love to hear about that. Are you also at a crossroads? What brought you to this point? Where does your heart lie?

Lamb, Nancy. The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

Images from amersrour.blog.com, sodahead.com, and freewallpapers4desktop.com.

A Writer’s Process (6b)

Photo on 2012-08-28 at 13.40We’re back with the sunny and splendid Jen Bailey. While I search for a chocolate scone (and of course, I’ll share), here’s a reminder for any newbies tuning in: This is part 2 of the discussion of Jen’s process. You can access part 1 here, if you haven’t already done so. (If you commented yesterday, thanks!) In part 1, you’ll find a synopsis of Jen’s work in progress. If you haven’t read that, you can’t pass Go or collect $200 until you do!


All caught up? If so, let’s jump right in!

El Space: Would you consider your book magical realism? Straight fantasy? A blend of the two?
Jen: This is a struggle I keep having with myself, and so what I’m trying to do is just forget about these labels and just see what happens. All I know is that Norah’s birds keep flying away. But I am writing it from her point of view, so until she figures out what’s going on—this is the pantser in me!—I can’t truly answer this question!



El Space: Fair enough.
Jen: I wonder if it is magical realism. Sometimes I ask myself if Norah is destroying the birds herself; other times I’m wondering if someone is stealing her birds. I think the answer will come out in the text, and I’m excited to find out what it is.

El Space: What else excites you about telling Norah’s story?
Jen: I would have to say it is the insane connections I have found as I write it! I see themes coming up over and over again—especially themes of flying, folding—and you know, it is like a mystery! I know it’s all going to gel eventually, but it is happening organically rather than because I have hijacked it with my linear thinking. So while that’s sometimes hard for me to let go and do, it’s fun and freeing when it happens.

El Space: I can relate to that. I’ve tried to control a story with my plot points, instead of allowing the characters to drive the story. So, Jen, what authors help fire your imagination? Why?
Jen: I am drawn to sparse, subtle, emotionally charged writing. Authors who blow my mind: Margo Lanagan (so raw!), David Almond (imagery), Benjamin Alire Sáenz (poetic language), Martine Leavitt (beautifully sparse and powerful), Hervé Bouchard/Janice Nadeau combo (wrote subtle but emotionally intense graphic novel Harvey), Kevin Henkes, and Mo Willems (again, subtle but intensely emotional).


191113El Space: Good ones! What tools or techniques help you give shape to your character(s)?
Jen: I use a lot of freewriting to discover my characters. Once they’ve taken shape in my mind, I just kind of go with what it is they’re telling me about them. I try to hone in on how they speak, move, are, then get it on the page.

El Space: What kinds of books would you like to see more of for the middle grade or young adult audience? Why?
Jen: I’d like to see more stories that explore community and collaboration; stories that move away from the single-protagonist model. Every person’s story impacts that of another, and I am interested in the dynamics between people, miscommunications, and multiple POVs. I think stories like these help build empathy, even more so than do single-protagonist stories. I blogged a bit about the plural-protagonist model.

El Space: What’s the best writing advice you were given recently? How did it help?
Jen: “Just write a good story.” It helps me to remember that I should write the story I need to tell, and any other concern—e.g., audience, genre, publication pressure, marketing strategies—will work itself out later.

El Space: Very wise. What advice do you have for writers about shaping characters?
Jen: I would say to do a lot of freewriting to figure out how your character thinks. Put them in situations and see how they react—just for fun, not as part of your novel/story, necessarily. For example, I could take Norah and imagine her at an amusement park, and through her actions, thoughts, and words, I will learn about her. I suppose I don’t really shape my characters, I uncover them.


Great advice. And judging by the theme music, that’s all the time we have. Thanks for being my guest today, Jen!

And thanks to all of you for joining us and pretending to hear the theme music that I mentioned. (Though if your imagination needs help, please click here.) If you have questions for Jen about her work in progress or her process, please comment below. Don’t forget: you can find Jen at her blog or on Twitter.

Grackle photo from Wikipedia. Book covers from Goodreads.com. Question mark from clker.com. Monopoly card from joecarr.us.

A Writer’s Process (6a)

Welcome to round 6 of A Writer’s Process. With me on the blog today is another friend from VCFA—the awesome Jen Bailey, whose blog is Write Fiercely. When you finish checking out Jen’s blog, come on back and take a front-row seat. Coffee will be ready in a minute.

Photo on 2012-08-28 at 13.40

El Space: Welcome, Jen! Please tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, and am the oldest of three children. I have two little boys and I read to them for a good hour every night—we’re currently obsessed with the Mr. Putter and Tabby books.


I also do a mean Junie B. Jones voice.

7058f78417e8103bc934f61c958c20d6El Space: Ha! That would be fun to hear! I’m not familiar with the Mr. Putter books, so I’ll have to check those out. What else are you involved in?
Jen: I most enjoy working one on one or with small groups of writers. I am currently mentoring a teenager as he writes a sci-fi trilogy, and I lead a writing group at a homeless drop-in centre. In September, I’ll begin teaching creative writing at Algonquin College.

El Space: Wow. You’re really busy. It’s great that you’re mentoring a sci-fi writer! And congrats on the new teaching gig, Jen! Now, on your blog, you mention that you have “a passion for rhythm and sound.” Please tell us how that came about. What books endear themselves to you because of that?
Jen: I have a feeling that this came about because I have a musical background, and have read a lot of poetry. When words and music (rhythm, sound) combine in a complimentary way, I can feel it in my body, and it evokes emotion in me.

Rhythmic, sensory language comes naturally to me when I’m writing in character. I only discovered this about my writing when I noticed it in Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, and made the connection between the words on the page and the emotion that was being evoked as I read. I think it is a powerful tool that can also be used in revision if it doesn’t come out naturally as you write.


El Space: Are you a pantser or a plotter? How did you discover this?
Jen: I have never heard of the term pantser—but, I suppose that’s more what I am, if it’s the opposite of plotter! When I first started at VCFA, I was working on a middle grade suspense novel. It was fun, trying to figure out the way in which I would lay all the clues in place and keep the reader guessing. The thing was that my story seemed to be dead on the page, and I didn’t understand why. So I picked the advisor whose process was the most foreign to me to see if I could figure out what I could do differently.

I worked with Amanda Jenkins, and we started a new project from scratch. She had me do freewriting to learn about my characters, and introduced me to the idea of letting your characters tell you the story instead of vice-versa. What I learned from Amanda was that characters can surprise you if you listen to them, and they can lead you in directions you might not see if your analytical side is running the show 100%.

El Space: She told me the same thing when I worked with her. Her advice changed the way I write today. Now, let’s hear about your WiP.
Jen: Twelve-year old Norah Jackson can’t get “soft eyes” from her mother.

El Space: What do you mean by “soft eyes”?
Jen: Compassionate, loving eyes. All she gets are “piercing” ones—critical, demanding. She can’t figure out why—she has worked on this problem like a puzzle, turning the pieces over and over, but never finding the right fit. To make matters worse, her younger half-brother, Kevin, gets soft eyes all the time, whether in sympathy or in celebration of his “gold star” achievements at school.

When her stepfather, Dave, gives her a pamphlet for a boarding school, she misinterprets his intentions and believes that he, too, has rejected her. This brochure sets Norah on one final mission: to get a “gold star” like Kevin, and, in turn, her mother’s soft eyes.

Norah has always been fascinated by birds. When her art teacher, Mrs. McGauvrey, suggests she enter an art competition at a bird sanctuary, and Norah sees that its location is marked on a map by a gold star, she knows this is the way to win her soft eyes. Fearful of exposure, failure, and rejection, Norah tries desperately to get all the details right, but every bird she draws flies away. As her attempts for perfection at home and school intensify, Norah’s stuffed emotions brim over, and, with the help of Mrs. McGauvrey and a carefree friend named Josh, she discovers how to let everything out on the page so that the birds stay and she can be seen.

And that’s about all we have time for today. I know. You’re giving me the piercing eyes now like the ones in Jen’s story. Don’t be dismayed. Jen will return tomorrow for more questions about her book and process. You don’t have to wait till tomorrow to ask Jen questions, however. Just comment below! And as always, thanks for stopping by.

Book covers from Goodreads.com.

On the Cutting Room Floor (2)

And we’re back with a cup of coffee (at least I have one, how about you?) and the final piece of the prologue. See part 1 if you’re here for the first time and wish to be brought up to speed. Meanwhile, I could use some chocolate. I hope you brought some to share.


Instead of entering the city at the western gate, Snapdragon again waved the men to move forward—go, go, go—over the bridge spanning the roaring river. He couldn’t explain why, but they needed to keep going.

The thumb shaped stone marker east of the Howard Bog soon loomed ahead at the right.

Even without the marker, the acidic stench of the bog would have told him where he was. Seemed rather brimstonier than he remembered.

Brimstone. Could there be a dragon nearby? His hands clenched on the reins.

The horses snorted in fright, manes tossing nervously.


A harsh cry fleeting and fierce came in the direction of the bog. It sounded human. This was followed by a roar decidely beast-like.

Snapdragon snapped his head right, catching the eye of a guard—what was his name again? Ah, Jos the weaver’s son. Good lad—and nodded.

Jos held up a fist and brought it down, keeping his elbow bent.

Snapdragon didn’t have to look back to know that the signal to halt would be repeated by every man at the left of each line until all heeded. Within minutes, horses were brought to a halt in an economy of movement. But some of the horses still twitched and snorted.

“Over there, Majesty!” said the guard whose horse always crowded his on the left.

Snapdragon’s eyes narrowed. As if he was a half wit who couldn’t tell the direction of a sound. He nodded to Jos. “Take the men. See to it.”

But while his men thundered ahead, always eager for action, Felix and Vander, his squire, waited to keep pace with him, as Snapdragon knew they would.

He fought to keep Rex to a canter as they entered the marsh and picked up an escort of four guards who had ridden back.

The steadily lightening gloom rolled back on the canvas of mile after mile of open marshland: gray rills with the connective tissue of green grasses and sedges. Spiny shafts of arrow arum dotted the ground. At a distance were spiky, leafless trees like dark, groping hands.

He hated the place, hated how his heart felt tested every time he rode near it, but seldom far in it. Rumor had it the marsh was haunted. A chill wind suddenly threaded under his surcoat as if to give credence to Rumor.

He followed a flickering light ahead and caught up with the rest of his guard half a mile west. Flames scorched the ground, but looked on the verge of petering out at the closest rill. The stench of smoke assailed him. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he noted the stance of the men: half in a semicircle around the other half.

The outer ring parted at his arrival. He noted the reproachful looks of the guards at the perimeter. He expected those—his due for ordering them to ride ahead of him and for taking his time about catching up. But what he hadn’t expected was the charred patch of ground they seemed to be guarding. Even in such a repellent place the charred patch seemed an abomination.

As he dismounted, Rex tossed his mane as if giving him permission to dismount. He slid off with a pained grunt and tossed the reins to Vander before wrenching his sword from the saddle scabbard.

The scorched area was tear shaped like the petal of a flower with—

Snapdragon peered closely, then jerked back.

—a blackened corpse among the now dying flames. He’d seen burned corpses before—the residue of raiders’ fires. But this fire was not ordinary. The area of concentration looked too calculated.

“Dragon. Anyone see it?” he asked no one in particular, expecting an answer from any one of them.

But none spoke. Instead, one of the men held a small bundle in his arms. His swarthy face was solemn as he offered the bundle to the king like a prayer. He was the one usually in charge of the pack ponies. Snapdragon always forgot his name.

His irritation increased. “What’s that besides a cloak of some kind?” Although it appeared whole, without even a trace of a burned patch, it reeked of brimstone and smoke.

“Something the dragon didn’t incinerate.” The guard sounded awed. “A child.”

Now that you’ve reached the end, I’ll tell you why I wrote this prologue before I tell you why I cut it. Snapdragon became the surrogate father of my main character, the child who survived a dragon’s flame. But after drafting the novel, I decided to rewrite her origin story and cut Snapdragon’s advent into her life. This of course means a complete rewrite of the novel. I’m still working on that.

Sometimes you make hard decisions for the good of a story. Cutting characters I like (Snapdragon and his men) is one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. What difficult decisions have you made recently in the hope of improving your story, poem, essay—whatever you’re writing?

Scissors cutting film photo from dreamstime.com; dragon from dragonwallpapers10.net.

On the Cutting Room Floor (1)

From time to time I’ve mentioned that I’m a pantser. I begin a story with a character in mind, and write scenes with that character, letting him or her take me where he/she will. Scary huh? But some scenes later wind up on the cutting room floor as the novel takes shape in revision.


Have I made you curious enough to want to read an excerpt? If so, the following is the start of a prologue for a novel I thought was YA, but might be MG. Writing it was an experiment I made awhile ago. Since I wound up with four different prologues for the same novel, this one wound up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps I’ll find a home for it elsewhere. Read on if you dare. Mwwwwwhahahahaha! Okay, here goes:

She was always in his thoughts, especially now that he headed home. The rose of a dawning blush on her cheeks as she smiled. The velvety softness of her skin seared into the memory of his fingertips. The delicate chestnut hairs that always escaped from the tightest braid or crown. Eyes the fresh blue of forget-me-nots. Need drove him home. To her.


But something besides Madelyn drove him to urge Rex faster. It was there like a splinter, a nameless fear, waiting to be teased out.

He’d hated how he’d left Madelyn on the hill outside the palace gates. Hair a pennant in the wind. Thin fingers like bent stems slightly raised in farewell. No hint of reproach on her face.

The flapping pennant of chestnut hair slowly faded into the standard flapping from the saddle of his standard bearer on the gray just ahead. Night shadows faded in the coming dawn. And still they were many miles from home.

Snapdragon glanced behind him at the long line of soldiers cantering two abreast, voices lifted in song even after thirty leagues. His garden of soldiers, Madelyn had called them. He’d handpicked every one of them. Still eager and battle ready after the last sortie. Still singing about the wine of war.

Although victorious of late, he was tired of war—the one he faced back home especially. Weariness threaded through his bones. He listed slightly to the left while his destrier Rex plodded on, the clop of his hooves on the road almost hypnotic. Da-da-dum, da-da-dum. Da-da-dum. Almost sleep inducing. . . .

He caught himself suddenly, on the blue edge of a dream, on the edge of falling out of the saddle.

Rex snorted and tossed his cream mane as if to say, “Wake up!”

Wake up indeed. They would have to stop soon. He had to get out of the saddle at least.

Even with the teasing spring breeze, surely he was cooked to a fine turn in the mail beneath his surcoat. His hair felt sewn to his forehead and neck. Sweat gave birth to more sweat on the cliffs of his shoulder blades, adding to the waterfall down his back. He half imagined his titian hair leaving rivulets of rust on his neck.

Only his twenty-third summer, and he felt like an old man of twice that number of years. His ribs hurt, thanks to a blow he couldn’t blame on the war. Humiliating really. As he raced to mount his horse just before the last skirmish, he’d tripped over his own sword like a clumsy, unblooded squire and fallen against a stone. Knocked the wind out of him briefly. A blow to his pride.

A king didn’t trip before his men.

“Make way!” Felix, his standard bearer, called to a man heading east in a laden cart pulled by a skittish pony.

A troop of fifty heading west always took precedence over a cart of one. The man barely got the pony under control and to the side, before Felix approached. As they thundered past the bewildered man, Snapdragon tossed a silver coin his way—the only coin in his possession. He didn’t stop to see if the man caught it or not.

His corns hurt. He just wanted to go home. Home to Madelyn where he was just plain Phil when they were alone in their chambers and could forget the name he’d taken at his coronation.

He should never have left her. And he wouldn’t have this time, had she better news on the day the summons came to aid his blood brother in battle.

No child, she’d said. After three years, still no heir. He had allowed his disappointment to drive him from home. It all seemed so foolish now.

Snapdragon glanced at the steadily lightening sky. Perhaps they should have stopped for the night in Thistle instead of taking the road outside the city gate. But even after riding through the night, they wouldn’t arrive back home before nightfall. They would have to camp another night.

But the urgency that niggled—one that wasn’t Madelyn shaped—suddenly redoubled. They had to get to the Bog. Tonight.

No time to analyze why now. Get there, they must.

That’s all for now! Thanks for reading! I’ll post the rest next time, so please stay tuned. After that, maybe I’ll tell you why I cut it. 🙂

Pants from easleys.com; forget-me-nots from fanpop.com.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink?

stainless_steel_kitchen_sink_1815If you read the Paranormalcy young adult trilogy—and judging by its bestseller status, at least one or two of you did—you know that author Kiersten White mentions all sorts of paranormal beings (vampires, werewolves, faeries, mermaids, pixies, and many others). But the books never seem overstuffed, because of an organization White developed for her series: the International Paranormal Containment Agency. Think Men in Black Meets Paranormals. The series wouldn’t work if only one group of paranormals was mentioned.

So, what’s wrong with the following picture? A manuscript I previously worked on involved elves, humans (regular and menthol), shape-shifters, witches, evil princes, scornful princesses, cringing lackeys, unicorns, a ghost, a dragon, and a weird old man who kept popping up to throw curses on people. Add a medievalish setting, four or five different perspectives, and stir. Voilà! You have a manuscript that I spent years writing. I gave part of the revised version of this manuscript to a beta reader, because he was an expert on medieval studies. The conversation went something like this.

Beta Reader: Well, the time period facts are okay. But . . .
Me: But?
Beta Reader: It’s a bit choppy and hard to follow.
Me (stunned): What?!
He then tried to explain why it was so choppy, but I was too crushed to listen. He didn’t like it! is what I came away with. I can make this work, the resilient part of me thought. After all, people like Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson have written series involving different beings coexisting within their fantasy worlds. Why shouldn’t mine?

Months after that experience, I quickly wrote the first three chapters of a new manuscript involving fewer characters and a third-person limited viewpoint. After spending less than a week writing those chapters, I gave the hastily written manuscript to the beta reader.

Beta Reader: This is much better.
Me: This is a completely different manuscript.
Beta Reader: Yes, this is much better. You should go with this one.
Me (outraged): What?!
I was peeved. He found fault with the first manuscript but preferred one I hastily cobbled together??? The moral of this story is that beta readers cannot win.

Seriously, the manuscript the beta reader found only so-so was probably the literary equivalent of a chopped salad from Portillo’s—everything I liked about fantasy thrown into the mix.

I kept thinking I could make the thing work. Sadly, I failed to pay attention to the “character comes first” rule. Instead of developing the ones I had (especially their cultures), I was too busy adding characters I thought were cool. Elves? Yeah! Unicorns? That could work! Witches? Sure! All could roam the land like free-range chickens. The only group missing were ninjas. I simply couldn’t make them work with the plot.

The problems with this manuscript became obvious during the battle scenes. Hundreds of people stormed a castle. In one room of the castle, about twelve people—many of them major secondary characters—were involved in the climactic battle with the evil prince and his minions. I had trouble writing the scene, because I was too spatially challenged. I kept getting confused about who stood where.

I admit I breathed a sigh of relief when I turned to the book I recently completed. Working with a smaller cast and fewer subplots allowed me time to develop the characters and their cultures. And with fewer people involved in a fight scene, I always knew where everyone stood.

How about you? Are you a kitchen sink kind of writer: continually adding characters, cultures, tropes, and whatever else you think sounds cool? What feedback have you received?

Sink by Jiangmen Jin Ke Ying Stainless Steel Wares Co., Ltd.

Epic Ending

I’m late to the party on some things. Take Avatar: The Last Airbender, the award-winning animated series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko for Nickelodeon. The last episode aired in 2008. I watched that episode just last week, thanks to a little invention we call the DVD.

I have a confession to make. I also watched the first episode a little over a month ago. Yep. Watched all three seasons in a short amount of time. That’s how gripped I was.

For those of you who don’t know anything about this series, it follows the adventures of Aang, a twelve-year-old kid who can harness the power of the elements (air, water, earth, and fire). In this series, the ability to use the elements is called bending. Aang is the only one who can restore balance to a world where war has raged for 100 years. His task is to fight the main villain of the piece—Fire Lord Ozai. There’s much more to the series than that pithy explanation. I wasn’t sure I would like it, which was why I came late to the party, as I mentioned earlier.

The ending of the series is what inspired me to write this post. I won’t spoil it for anyone who has yet to view it. But I must say it was truly epic and profoundly satisfying. I couldn’t help giving a fist pump as the words The End flashed on my computer monitor. I’ve watched that ending an embarrassing amount of times already. (I will never admit how many times.)

After watching it, I read Avatar—The Last Airbender™: The Art of the Animated Series—a guide about the production of the series (published in 2010 by Dark Horse Books). I was impressed by the fact that the series creators knew the ending of the series before the show was approved for production. They had the arc of the three seasons mapped out. Maybe they didn’t know all of the ends and outs, as they explain in The Art of the Animated Series, but their vision of the series finale is pretty much how the finale turned out in reality.

I’m writing a fantasy duology. I’ve written the first book, but don’t yet have a clear sense of how the second book—the ultimate ending of the story—will conclude. I wish I could be like DiMartino and Konietzko or J. K. Rowling, who also knew early on what would happen at the end of her seventh Harry Potter book. But endings are the bane of my existence. I struggle with them. How do I tie up all of the loose ends and leave the reader satisfied, rather than cursing my name?

In the production guide DiMartino and Konietzko don’t provide step-by-step tips for writing an epic ending. But they talk about the hard work involved in creating a quality series. Their hard work, and that of the other artists involved in the series, is evident in the quality of each episode and the profound sense of closure viewers experience at the end of the series.

Hard work. I quickly learned the necessity of hard work in my grad program (Writing for Children and Young Adults). Whenever I tried to slack off (every month, it seems), my four advisors constantly pushed me to dig deep and stay focused. So I have to do the hard work of ending my duology and not accept the easy or the convenient, but to make it memorable. To make it count.

“No. Don’t Speak”

Movie buffs will recognize the title as a line spoken by actress Dianne Wiest, who played Helen Sinclair in the 1994 Woody Allen movie Bullets over Broadway. (Another character also echoed the line.) It perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on a movie I saw recently.

I decided to watch The Artist, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012. Normally, you couldn’t pay me to watch a silent movie, no matter how award-winning or iconic. And I’m a huge fan of Samurai Jack, the award-winning 2002—2005 animated series created by Genndy Tartakovsky, and famous for having very little dialogue.

You see, I love dialogue. Give me a movie like The Front Page, Born Yesterday, or It Happened One Night any day. But I decided to break out of my comfort zone and give this one a try. The premise on the Netflix envelope seemed familiar in that Star Is Born sense: one star descends while another ascends during the transition from silent movies to the era of the talkies.

George, the reigning king of silent films does the “meet cute” thing with Peppy, a fledgling actress. In one scene, the director even used a staircase showing the ascent of one and the descent of the other as a foreshadowing of what was to come’

I admit I had extremely low expectations as I began my viewing, even though the film won five Oscars, including Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin). I told myself I’d give it 20 minutes. If I wasn’t engaged in 20 minutes, back into the envelope it would go.

Perhaps it was Jean Dujardin’s gorgeous, engaging smile in the role of George Valentin, the pathos of Bérénice Bejo whenever she crosses paths with George (Peppy Miller), or Uggie the Jack Russell terrier’s incredible performance (love that dog), but I absolutely loved this movie. I couldn’t stop watching it. To employ a cliché, it kept me on the edge of my seat. In one viewing it broke through the walls of my prejudice toward silent movies.

As in other silent films (and SPOILERS this film is silent 99% of the time), Dujardin, Bejo and the other actors couldn’t rely on scintillating dialogue to help them keep viewers engaged. Their faces and gestures had to tell the whole story. Even props like newspaper headlines, marquee signs, and intertitles were used sparingly. So Dujardin and Bejo showed the story, rather than told it (spoke it).

I won’t go TOO spoilery by talking about the ending (though I sat through it three times). But I came away from my viewing of this film with a desire to write something equally as memorable and wall-busting as this film was for me. But as a writer, however, words must be my tool. Yet many times in the writing of my young adult fantasy work in progress, I struggle with those words. How do I help readers see the world and keep them engaged?

Many writers follow the adage “show, don’t tell.” We use words to show the story, rather than explain it. Like the directors and producers of silent films, we help our viewers (in our case, readers) gain a full experience: the tastes, smells, etc. of the worlds within the pages of our books through the use of well-chosen imagery. We’re artists (heh heh, had to sneak in that film title), painting a picture in our reader’s minds, one we hope is a vivid, lasting image.

Well, that’s my hope for my manuscript: choosing the right words to help a reader “see” that smile of my character; to experience the agony of another. So, I’ll keep plugging away at it. But at the back of my mind is the artistry of The Artist, a film that won me over and made me a believer in the power of story in any form. Even silence.