Saturday, December 18, 2010

Settling on a Style

Sometimes I feel like I have split personalities when it comes to my own writing.

On the one hand, I love depressing glimpses into the human soul. Give me grim, give me bleak, give me chilling and stark. Happy endings? Who needs them! Margaret Atwood, Flannery O'Connor, Daphne Du Marier, and Joyce Carol Oates are some of my favorite authors. Discovering "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" at seventeen inspired me to be an author one day. The Blind Assassin moved me to tears--tears of awe. When I finished Mockingjay, I kept whispering "Wow" to myself, because I was so stunned and delighted by her courageously dark ending to the series.

And I love to write this way too. I'll finish a short story, triumphantly present it to my husband, and ask proudly, "Isn't it so deliciously awful? Isn't it chilling? Doesn't it just make you want to lie awake all night and THINK?" (Most of my short stories tend to be this darker literary style.)

To which he usually replies, "You love sad stuff. It's weird."

He doesn't like "sad stuff."

My styles are night and day different.
On the other hand, I really love funny, whimsical, lighthearted, happy-ending things too. Pride and Prejudice (I'm not saying it isn't deep, but it certainly isn't dark) is one of my favorite books and miniseries. Harry Potter (ditto on the deep, and maybe the dark too) certainly has its whimsical moments, and I eat that stuff up. Ella Enchanted (the book, mind you, I don't like THAT silly of stuff that the movie got into), Emma, Penelope, all of Neal Shusterman's books, smart romantic comedies . . . love, love love. I don't feel like I've peeled back the layers of my own soul when I read this kind of stuff, but I do feel like I've gotten a good bear hug and maybe a cup of hot chocolate,

(And that's just as valid a form of art, in my opinion.)

And I also love writing this kind of thing. Naturally, it's completely different than the first in both theme and style. It's also a little more commercial than the former, perhaps.

So I wonder--CAN I DO BOTH? It's not even a question of genre, because I tend to stay pretty close to sci fi and fantasy these days. But I don't want to give readers whiplash.

I've been told (vaguely) by a few agents that no, I can't.

I do not want this to be true. I don't want to have to choose one or the other. To date, my success so far in publication has been with the bleaker stuff (my short story "Vestigial Organs"). But there's hope for my fun stuff too, right?


I've considered possible solutions. I might have to use another name for the more lighthearted stuff. (Also, it occurs to me, what I consider lighthearted isn't exactly fluffy necessarily ... it's just not hopelessly grim, and it has a happy ending!) I'm trying to think of authors who do this.

I might have to settle for mixing my light and dark. I think Megan Whalen Turner does this to perfection. Her books are pretty dark in some ways, but the lasting impression I always come away with is "hilariously funny and immensely cathartic in the end." I also think JK Rowling always did a good job with light and dark. I know her stuff gets pretty hardcore, but my lasting impression of her books, however, is "lighthearted." I don't mean that in a dismissive way, mind you.

Fellow writers, do you like to write in more than one style? How do you manage it? Can you think of successful authors who are all over the spectrum in their book styles?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Overthinking It

Yesterday I was reading a book, and I had a small epiphany. It amused me, and I thought I'd share.

I've been overthinking this writing thing in some ways.

See, I want my books to be WOW and DIFFERENT and SPARKLES OF GENIUS. I want people to read them and be blown away by their insight and depth. I want critics to weep at the beauty of my prose. Weep, I tell you.

So I sit down to write, and I have all those thoughts and hopes and aspirations piled in the back of my mind like a mountain of bricks. And I type, "The man entered the room and saw the bird."

I stop and examine this sentence. Will it make my readers WEEP WITH THE JOY OF ITS LYRICAL BEAUTY? Hmmm. Unlikely. Perhaps I should reword it. It's too plain, too frank, too straightforward, too boring. Readers don't want entered and birds! Too simple! Not enough descriptors!

Back to square one. The new sentence reads: "The young man stepped nervously into the blank-walled space and gazed at the canary." I stop again and read. Ack, I've used adverbs, adjectives! Is it purple prose? It looks pretty purple to me. Granted, it is more ... complicated. Will complicated make readers weep? (Maybe, but for all the wrong reasons?) The voice is weird. It sounds old. Is that how my writing voice sounds? Do I even know what my writing voice is? This one feels pretentious.

I consider the sentence. I have read that using one word instead of two strengthens the writing. I rewrite the sentence again. "The man tiptoed into the room and stared at the canary." Is this good enough?

It needs more. That is spare and brisk and good enough, but will. it. make. them. weep? I gnaw at my nails. I stare at the screen. I try again.

"The man ran into the room, gasping for breath. He scanned the room for the canary, freezing when he saw it."

"The man scrambled for the door, his gaze sweeping the room for the bird."

And really, this could go on and on, couldn't it? I could write this sentence a million different ways, with a million different shades of emotion and implication. I can become creatively paralyzed by it.

Imagine I spend thirty minutes on this sentence. Giving up in exhaustion, I put down my laptop and pick up a literary masterpiece that has awards plastered all over the cover. My eye falls on this sentence:

"The man entered the room and saw the bird."

* dies *

No, but really. I had a moment like that, and it occurred to me that I somehow, unconsciously, feel that I need to reach this unobtainable standard. I feel like every word has to SPARKLE and MAGIC and DAZZLE in some mystical way, like ordinary words just aren't good enough or something. I don't really know what I'm reaching for, but it isn't there. As I told my husband yesterday, in desperation, yelling loudly:

"All I have to tell this story with are WORDS! WORDS THAT TALK ABOUT THINGS! I need more than that!"

He had a good laugh.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to bash wordsmithing. I think there are better, clearer, stronger ways to word things. I think some words are a stronger choice than others. I think prose can be sloppy, or purple, or weak, or lazy. I think all telling and no showing is generally a mistake.

But at the same time, I'm trying to keep myself from becoming paralyzed when I write. I'm telling myself that I don't have to make every sentence a tiny kingdom of philosophical musings. It's okay to say things simply sometimes, because complexity in a story is not due merely to the structure of my sentences or the level of my vocabulary.

Just something I'm pondering.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

What Scares You About Writing?

News and things

I'm planning on starting work again on my novel. Actually, scratch that. I'm planning on starting work on three of them. Two are re-writes and one is in a stalled-out first draft. These are three projects I feel extremely passionate about and I want to see them all finished.

The hard part right now is deciding which one to pick first.

Sometimes I really wish I could just ASK all the agents--Would you want to request pages for this plot concept? Because I have twenty more if nobody's interested in this one. But you can't do that. Danggit.

Oh, in other (completely unrelated) news, the kitties are getting along famously now. I'm extremely relieved--I'd been reading too many horror stories about neurotic cats that never adjust to the companion adopted to keep them company. But our sweet little cats love each other. They share a food bowl and spend hours snuggling and licking faces. It's been a little over a week, and I don't think either of them remembers that they ever lived without the other.

* pauses for a collective awwww *

The scary part about writing

For me, the hardest part of writing is that fear of failure. When I dream up a story, I see it in my head. Not the whole thing with every detail and every word and every plot twist neatly wrapped up, but the general shape and beautiful, sharp little fragments and snapshots and the FEEL and TASTE and AURA of the story. It's like an addicting mental perfume and I am just in love with it and blown away by it as it comes together. Then when the time comes to do the writing part, I freeze.

What if I write it and it isn't any good? What if I can't capture the things in my head with words? What if I don't know what I'm trying to say?

What if.

I really wish I had some magical comfort to give myself about this. I don't really know how to combat this fear, except for in two ways.

1) I believe it was Robin McKinley who first put me straight about this. On her blog, she wrote about this fear and she said essentially that the story will never be as perfect on paper as it is in your head. So get over that and just write it. So I'm giving myself permission to be a human being and not have a perfect manuscript the first time, or the second, or maybe even the final time. Kind of a scary thought ... but freeing too. If freaking Robin McKinley can say something like that, I feel comforted. Because The Blue Sword was very nearly the perfect book.

2) I read this quote today, and it made me smile. It also made me think. It was by Nic Alderton, and it was pretty long, but he basically said and I'm paraphrasing here, "Think of a story and write it down. What's going to get in your way? Not thinking it up and not writing it down."

So . . .

So I can't overcome failure by hiding or wishing I would just sit down and write a perfect, polished manuscript with one snap of my fingers. I can't not fail by never doing it because I'm scared I won't do a good job. Not trying is the worst kind of failure. I may not get these books right the first time (*giggles morosely* technically one of them is either the 4th or 5th re-write of its respective book, so ... definitely not), but I can do my best.

And at the end of the day, that's all I can really expect from myself.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Doing A Hard Thing Is Hard

Hello readers!

I have been gone a long time. I realize this. I have been on vacation, and eating turkey and pie, and ...

... the husband and I adopted a second kitty.

This last thing has not gone over well in our household.

To explain briefly, our first kitty Sansa is a little spoiled princess. She has been the sole recipient of love, affection, compliments, and attention since we brought her home. She has been praised and petted and snuggled. But now there is Gizmo, a tiny shelter rescue with a coat the color of a sunset and a purr that sounds like something from a mashup of a wombat, a tribble, and a video game.


Right now Sansa hates Gizmo's guts. So we're keeping him in a spare bedroom for a few days so he can acclimate and adjust without having to fight for his life.

We've followed all the recommendations--we have rubbed him with a towel that we then put under her food dish in order to associate his scent with food/pleasure, we've let them sniff each other out with him safely in the cat carrier, and we distracted them with toys when the growling started (well, Gizmo was distracted. Sansa just watched him like he was the literal embodiment of the destruction of all her hopes and dreams).

We have let them interact a little, but we watch carefully because Sansa is on the warpath.

Yeah, this is Sansa right now...

In short, it's been a stressful few days.

Stress is not my friend.
At least nobody has done any marking of territory, especially not in our bed (read about that one online...)

Doing hard things is, well, hard. Adjusting to this new cat is hard. Writing a book is hard. Lots of things are hard.

But we're going to get through this one day at a time. Which is the way I get through novels, which are probably equally stressful for me. In fact, I'm procrastinating starting on my rewrite for that very reason. But I'm going to handle that like I'm handling these silly kitties.

1. Have goals.
2. Patiently work toward the goals.
3. If something isn't working, try something else. Allow extra time and expect set-backs.
4. Take it one day at a time so you don't become too stressed.

Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving (or if you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, hope you have a good weekend anyway :-D)


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