A Shocking Revelation

With Mother’s Day having passed, I considered writing a post about moms. I’m not a mom, so I can only write about them. But rather than wax eloquent here about the joys of having a great mom, I called my mom on Mother’s Day to experience the joy, rather than write about it. (We live far away from each other and could only communicate by phone.) So, you won’t get the eloquent waxing on that subject. Sorry to disappoint.

But this brings up something I’ve struggled with lately: how much to reveal about myself on this blog. As I’ve mentioned before, L. Marie is a pen name. That’s why I avoid posting photos of myself. Photos would defeat the purpose of a pen name. (There is a reason for the need for a pen name, which will be revealed at some point.)

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We live in a culture where revealing the day-to-day minutiae of one’s life to strangers online is the norm. But I struggle with that, not just because of the pen name. I’m a shy person. I have trouble introducing myself to people in person, let alone online. So I’m always amazed at how much people reveal about themselves, especially on social media outlets like YouTube. I’ve seen vlogs about the contents of YouTubers’ bedrooms, refrigerators, purses, iPads, and TV screens.

I’m also amazed at what’s done for the sake of entertainment on YouTube—another way to reveal information about oneself. The other day, I clicked on one of my YouTube subscriptions to find a video of two guys playing a Russian Roulette-type game involving electric shocks. You can buy this game on Amazon, I later discovered. But I clicked away from the YouTube video before the game began. The thought of watching someone take an electric shock quite frankly horrified me.

Now, I’m not debating anyone’s right to buy this game or show it on a YouTube channel or even to watch someone else play the game. But this video brought up something I need to reconcile.

I’ve read the Hunger Games books and watched three of the movies. Now, the premise of the books and movies involves more than people using a party game to administer electric shocks. Young people in this world are expected to kill other young people in gladiator-style games. So if I can watch that, then why am I so horrified by two guys doing something that will cause one or the other pain?

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Probably because they’re not actors who are paid to pretend they’re some else, while being supported by a huge special effects budget. So while my mind tells me the movie scenes aren’t “real” (thus cushioning the effect), there is no cushion for real life.

Still, you might argue, how much of YouTube is “real life”? Some vlogs, like reality TV, have a “scripted” feel to them, since the participants know that the camera stands before them, and they can edit out mistakes.

I’m not here to debate that issue. I’m here because the video I clicked off caused me to think deeply about what I watch. (See? You and I both learned something about me.) While I know they were playing a game, the experience reminded me that real life can be messy and scary at times, and beautiful and sacred at others. Some images stay with you for life.

That’s why I’d rather not watch two people waiting to see who gets an electric shock. I want to see or read something that makes me feel good about life. Like this blog post from Penny over at Life on the Cutoff or this post from Andy over at City Jackdaw.

How about you? Has something caught your breath in a good way lately? Please share it!

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The lone red tulip in the yard

Woman with bag from svtrainingconnect.com. Hunger Games movie logo from pop-break.com.

Children’s Book Week: Spread the Joy of Reading

Hope the Fourth was with you and you had a pleasant Cinco de Mayo! This week is special in still another way. May 4–10 was officially designated Children’s Book Week by the Children’s Book Council. You can read more about this literacy effort here.

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Children’s Book Week poster illustrated by the awesome Grace Lee

I love the idea of a week dedicated to promoting books for kids. After all, A Wrinkle in Time, a book written for kids by Madeleine L’Engle, is what started me on the path to becoming a writer. I was eight years old when I read it, because of the significant adults in my life. My parents were, and still are, readers. They read to fairy tales to me at night and provided books by Dr. Seuss and P. D. Eastman to encourage my brothers and me as we learned to read.

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Caring librarians also were stalwart champions of books. My elementary school librarian introduced me to Madeleine L’Engle’s books and many others. Also, the children’s librarians at the branch library I frequented in Chicago helped me come home with armloads of books (like Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White).

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As I think of such an abundance of books, I can’t help thinking of a scene in the 1996 movie adaptation of Matilda by Roald Dahl (I read the book too), when Matilda discovered the joy of checking books out of the library. She brought home wagonloads. I didn’t have a wagon, but I usually brought home quite a few books each week.

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Mara Wilson as Matilda

I love recommending books to kids and teens. So I can’t help feeling sad when kids tell me they don’t read books at all. Some are so swamped at school, they have little downtime at home. Others are nonreaders by choice now, though an occasional book series like the Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling), the Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), or Divergent (Veronica Roth) captured their attention for a little while. Still, I remain an advocate of books in their lives, even if they are content to avoid them.

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Book cover by the equally awesome Kazu Kibuishi, who has a wonderful graphic novel series—Amulet. See cover at the end of this post.

This week—or any week—you can be a children’s book champion. Even if you don’t have an opportunity to recommend a book to a kid, you can pick one up for yourself. Connect with a book that makes your inner child sing.

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Even supervillains read.

Great books to introduce to a kid:

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What was your favorite book when you were a kid? What book, if any, would you consider to have been very influential in your life? Why?

Children’s Book Week from usatoday.com. Mara Wilson as Matilda from hellogiggles.com. Most book covers from Goodreads. Harry Potter cover from unademagiaporfavor.blogspot.com. Stacks of books from blogs.hpedsb.on.ca.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yes, the title is an overt reference to the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 movie starring John Candy and Steve Martin. But this post isn’t about that movie.

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My parents once told me that our family took a long train trip when I was a baby. Funny. I don’t recall that excursion. But since they never mentioned a second train trip, perhaps taking my older brother and me on the train filled them with such horror, they couldn’t bear to take us again.

Recalling some of our antics during long car trips to visit relatives, I can see why they would wish to avoid being on a train with us for days on end. They were forced to live in the same house with us, but were wise about not inflicting us on the public very often.

Now that I’m an adult, I can take myself on a train trip across the country. Alas, I’m too type A for a leisurely train trip. I like to get where I’m going as fast as possible, you see, which is why the airplane is my favorite mode of transportation next to my car. Unfortunately, some airport security lines are about as slow as taking a leisurely train trip these days.

Now that I’ve mentioned all of the means of transportation in the title, I can finally get to point of this post: pacing. I’m cutting paragraphs and scenes out of my work in progress for this reason.

As I pondered the problem of pacing, I asked Nancy, another friend from VCFA, for her definition of a well-paced novel. She had this to say:

A well-paced novel never loses your interest, but is not a constant roller coaster either. But even in the quiet moments, the story and characters are building and growing.

That makes sense to me. How about you? What would you add to that definition?

While you consider that question, I’ll mention a novel that YA author and Nerdfighter John Green described as “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced” in a review written for The New York Times. It is

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You can read Green’s review here. If you read the book, perhaps you agree or disagree. I’m on the side of agreement. As I followed the journey of heroine Katniss Everdeen, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, even in the slower moments. The action and the quieter moments worked like a waltz—the rhythm perfectly measured.

Another book I consider well paced is Sabriel, a young adult fantasy novel by Garth Nix, book 1 of his Abhorsen trilogy. You can find out more about this book here.

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From the first page of the prologue (and Nix makes a good case for its inclusion) to the last page of the epilogue, the pacing never flags. Yet it’s not so frenetic that you feel exhausted at the end of the book (like I felt at the end of watching Bourne Ultimatum). Nix, like Collins, includes quieter moments as heroine Sabriel catches her breath or basically tries to survive during the harrowing search for her missing father.

My problem with pacing comes with my tendency toward the sagging middle. And I don’t just mean my own sagging middle as a result of quick pacing at the dinner table. (Now there’s an image you probably didn’t want.) As you know, many stories have a three-act structure (the setup; the confrontation; and the resolution). (For a great post on plot and structure, see Ingrid’s Notes here.) The action of the story rises toward the climax. But in the second act of my WiP, I included scenes that do little to advance the plot. In fact, they stopped the forward momentum. It’s like being forced on a long, leisurely train trip when what you really need is a quicker mode of transportation to get to the end of the line.

Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, cautions, “It’s not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax” (150). As I read that, I went, “Huh?” until I realized what he meant: Make stuff happen. Keep raising the stakes.

Another friend sent me a link to a post written by another well-known YA novelist, Libba Bray. It’s hilarious, and I urge a read. But this quote from the post really struck me:

Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story.

I don’t have a magic formula for writing the well-paced story. But what Libba says also makes sense. Pacing takes thought and an instinct for “what feels real and right and true.” Even if a beta reader points out scenes that sag in your WiP (as my beta readers did in mine), you still have to know how to pick up the pace. For me trial and error works. For some of you, maybe you troubleshoot early on through an outline.

Regardless of how we define well paced, I think we can all agree that good pacing, like good taste, is something you sense right away, especially its absence.

What books do you consider well paced?

Train photo and book covers from Wikipedia.

Go with the Flow

When I’m stuck in a word constipation, where every word feels forced, the words on the page don’t seem to flow.

Sometimes my writing seems like a conga line—images and thoughts linked up and moving in the same direction, having a great time. But sometimes what I write seems like a sixth grade dance—everyone standing around awkwardly. At times like that, I need the “laxative” (sorry, but I have to carry through on the constipation theme) of a walk in nature or a long, relaxing drive in order to flow once more. Chocolate also helps.

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Author David Jauss tackles the subject of flow in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” one of several essays in Alone with All That Could Happen. You’re probably thinking of the flow state right now, if you’ve heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychology professor who wrote the bestseller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, based on his studies.

I learned about Csikszentmihalyi through a classmate’s research for her graduate lecture and through a book I had to copyedit for my job. I’ve been meaning to read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, so I won’t try to fake my way through a discussion about it here, since I’m not directly referring to the state of mind where you lose track of time because you’re so caught up in what you’re doing. But based on what I’ve read, Csikszentmihalyi avers that you have control over this state. For Jauss, you also have control—over whether or not your writing flows:

Those of us who don’t instinctively write flowing prose can practice the skills and strategies involved until they become so habitual they are, for all practical purposes, instinctive. (Jauss 60)

Jauss helps us go with the flow (heh heh) with advice on syntax. Here are a couple of tips on writing prose that flows:

• Vary your sentence lengths. I have a habit of using complex sentences, trying to cram as much as I can into a sentence until its own weight crushes it, because that’s how I roll. Not a good thing. But the flowing writer employs simple, compound, and complex sentences. Don’t believe me? Try it. I dare you to give it a shot.

• Pay attention to rhythm. Rhythm works to create a mood. In moments of high tension in stories, the sentences often are simple to show the heightened reality of a character: for example, the throat-tightening fear he or she feels during a chase or the shock of an awful discovery. Complex sentences slow the pace and cause the tension to dissipate. Check out these sentences from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “I know what to do. I move into range and give myself three arrows to get the job done. I place my feet carefully” (Collins 243). Imagine how different the effect would be had Collins used complex sentences.

There’s more to Jauss’s essay, but you can read it for yourself. As for me, I need to find some chocolate as soon as possible.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.

Jauss, David. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow.” Alone with All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008. 59-85. Print.