Drive-By Blogging

Hello all!

Just thought you should be alerted to a couple of things. One, a cool contest that could win your short story publication in an anthology put out by HarperTeen, and two, Figment, the writing site to which this contest alerted me. (If anyone’s curious, my entry in the anthology contest – a fantasy called “Foxhunt” that’s a bit of a departure from my usual style, but was fun to write – can be read here.)

And three, there exists a website that matches book covers to bathing suits. So that your swimsuit can match your beach read. It’s AT LEAST as awesome as it sounds.

In case you wonder about the tags: I refer you to my story on Figment. ;P

Long Overdue

(I think that title gets to qualify as a play on words since I’m a librarian. Even if that fact is apropos of nothing.)

It’s been forever! But how interesting is it to read yet another variation on “boy, I should update more often”? Not very. Instead, I should perhaps talk about writing, eh wot?

April is National Poetry Month. This has me thinking not so much about writing actual poetry, though most of my novels contain poems and/or songs, as about poetic language. Isn’t it funny how some concepts – in particular, some objects – have become “poetic”? They’re dramatic. They’re symbolic. They have connotations all their own, such that people center images of them on book covers in a pointed fashion to convey, all on their own, some sense of the book. (Or, post-Twilight, there’s the “disembodied hands cupping the object” school, but of late I find this largely supplanted by the “girl in an impractical dress and usually also an impractical pose” and the “close-up of a face” schools.)

But! What this made me thing is that these things must be shaped by culture in some interesting ways. Like, say, wolves. Wolves have got some major metaphor going on in Western culture. They have drama attached to rival that of roses, or ravens, or apples. But this makes sense, because in many Western countries, for a long time, wolves were an actual menace, if not to people, then to their livelihoods. And they could, if properly motivated and not properly discouraged, actually eat one’s person. So they acquired this “scary bad guy” dimension. They were threatening. If the publishing industry of the time had supported putting pictures on book covers, then slapping a wolf on their would probably serve to indicate one of two things:

“Mmm, you and/or your livestock and/or your loved ones are tasty, and this is a horror story.” (Photo by AinaM)


“I am stalking you and talking to all my wolfy friends in eerie howls about how good you will taste, and this is a work of suspense.”

Whereas today, thanks to the rarity of wolves, they have acquired a tragic mystique, and our book covers are more along the lines of:

“I am among the last of my kind, and I feel it keenly, and this is a paranormal romance.”

Meanwhile, I’m guessing that countries that don’t have wolves involved in their natural histories don’t attach these kinds of meanings to them, either. (Their book covers would be like, “I’m some kind of fluffy dog, I think.”) They might, on the other hand, attach great significance to, say, jaguars. This, I think, is fun to consider when building a fantasy culture. Which objects – plants, animals, devices – mean something special to them, and why?

Happy November!

. . . and good luck to all my friends who are participating in NaNoWriMo! I’m not doing it this year, partly because I have tons of schoolwork, but mostly because I’m already working on Looking Like Lani. I will, however, try to amp up my wordcount in keeping with the NaNo spirit.

Halloween was great.

(Last picture actually taken first, before I had the lipstick or facepaint on – more focus on “British” than “werewolf” there.)

People seemed to like my costume at work, but I definitely got some weird looks when I swung by Food Lion afterward. Also, huzzah for having a costume that’s warm enough for Halloween night!

Hope you all had a great time, too!

On the Upside, You Don’t Have to Cast it into a Volcano

You know what is difficult? Querying an agency that asks you to include “a favorite sentence from the manuscript you are submitting” in your submissions package. That is difficult.

What kind of sentence does one choose? I looked back over The Dogwatchers to pick one.

A pretty description? Hmm, I bet lots of people choose bits of description. Plus, I’m not sure I want my ONE SENTENCE TO RULE THEM ALL to be one in which nothing actually happens.

A funny line? Risky. If they don’t think this is funny, it’s a total flop. Plus, it’s hard to find one sentence that’s funny out of context.

My action scenes use mostly short, to-the-point sentences, no one of which is a show-stopper, and many of which make no sense out of context. Dialogue, probably my favorite part of my writing, can be hard to convey well with just one sentence. Besides, the most eloquent characters of The Dogwatchers don’t necessarily talk about things that make for a good One Sentence. (The sentence I ended up choosing does, however, come from dialogue.)

It occurred to me that if the submission guidelines asked for a paragraph, I’d be stumped because I had too many I’d like to send, rather than for the opposite reason. I’m sure the agents do take into account that lots of great lines require setup, but this was still highly unnerving.

What about you guys? Does anyone feel like it WOULDN’T be terrifying to pull out one sentence from a novel and say, essentially, “In my opinion, there isn’t a better line in here than this”?

In other news, I finished making my Halloween costume!

I’m a werewolf! I’m going to be a werewolf of London, but this is just me with the ears and tail that I made. I have a complete outfit, but it’s waiting for Sunday.

Aaand, thanks to the the backgrounds available in Photo Booth, I’m an American werewolf in Paris! Rowr!

Just wait until I get the whole outfit together and wear it to work. That’s what you get for scheduling me for Halloween, Carrboro Branch Library!

Writing and Werewolves! For Realz!

I’ve been rereading the Harry Potter series again. (After all, why would anyone not be rereading the Harry Potter books?) And added bonus: I learned something! Or rather, I got a good example of something I’d already begun to suspect.

On my very first reading of Prisoner of Azkaban, I never guessed that Professor Lupin was a werewolf. (GOSH, DID I GIVE IT AWAY?) Later, I would wonder how I didn’t put more thought into the silvery-white orb that was Lupin’s Boggart. Not that I would necessarily have guessed anything, but why didn’t I think more about it?

Why? Because Rowling DELIBERATELY AND BRILLIANTLY THREW ME OFF. I’d forgotten one line, right after the scene wherein Lupin’s Boggart appears: “‘I wonder why Professor Lupin’s frightened of crystal balls?’ said Lavender thoughtfully.”

When writing a story with an element of mystery, or one that’s supposed to have a surprising twist, it can be helpful to employ what I suppose is just a special kind of red herring: making your characters work from flawed assumptions. Basically, if you leave something totally open – e.g. having Harry and friends wonder what that silvery-white orb could possibly be – then readers may solve the mystery before you want them to. If, on the other hand, you provide a plausible conclusion to which your characters can jump, then readers are less likely to poke around the clues too much and figure things out.

There are, of course, some caveats. Which means it is LIST TIME!

  1. Don’t feel like you have to clarify that there are other possibilities. (Imagine Hermione saying, “Crystal balls? Are you sure that’s what that was? Couldn’t it have been something else?”) The strength of this technique comes from the fact that it can prevent readers from thinking there are other possibilities. This can be hard, because you don’t want readers to think your characters are blinded or stupid. They won’t, though, if you . . .
  2. Make sure the assumption is plausible. This is key. It should seem perfectly natural for the characters to assume this – so natural that the reader assumes it, too, and spends her/his time wondering about other things. Of course, it helps if you . . .
  3. Downplay the whole thing. You don’t have to do this, but if your characters have a lot of conversations, plans, etc. based explicitly around their flawed assumption, readers may spot a possible alternative and become frustrated with the characters for not checking their facts when something important is at stake. If, on the other hand, you have characters just shrug something off with a wrong guess – no one besides Lavender ever mentions anything about Lupin being afraid of crystal balls – then the reader is likely not to think too much about it, either.

Mysteries and surprise twists are hard, because it’s difficult to know how much the average reader will have figured out at any point and what s/he will suspect or expect. Naturally, even if you have your average reader pegged pretty well, there will always be those freakish people who guess right based solely on reading Lupin’s name before he even wakes up on the train. Then, too, you’ll have people who don’t get it even after the characters finally do. I haven’t written a lot of mysteriousness, and suspect it gets easier with practice to guess what people will be thinking as they read. It also helps, as with other aspects of editing, to set the story aside for awhile and get fresher eyes.

In highly related news, I’m not too far from the end of this edit of The Dogwatchers! Soon, I will be ready to find out how successful the mystery/surprise elements are for some of my wonderful reader-friends!

Writing and Werewolves?

. . . because based on this list, I have decided that adding “and [insert supernatural creature here]” makes EVERYTHING better!

I mean, I’d heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but you’re telling me there is a book called Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons? Which is certain to combine Austen’s original witty period satire with the tension of well-thought-out fantastical plot elements? What could possibly be better?