Monday, April 7, 2014

Idea(l) Pudding: A recipe for storytelling

Back in the olden days, writers might say their ideas were "percolating," referring to the old-fashioned method of making coffee, i.e. in a percolator. But that metaphor disappeared when Mister Coffee came to town. Then writers said their ideas were "brewing," but in this modern world of ours, many people don't even use a machine that brews their coffee. They use K-cups or pour-overs so they have no clue what that means either.

So, let's skip coffee altogether and go straight to pudding. That's right, dessert! 

To me, ideas must develop in much the same way that pudding cooks on a stove. We writers all start with the same basic ingredients: pudding mix and milk. Yours could be butterscotch or chocolate (neither of which I like very much so we'll pretend they don't exist) and you could use skim milk or whole, soy or almond, whatever makes you happy. But we pretty much all do it the same way. We take the ingredients and put them in a saucepan, stir them up with a wooden spoon, and wait for it to cook.

You could walk away from the pan and trust that it will bubble up and cook on its own but you run the risk it will burn like the Dickens and you'll have wasted the batch.

You could stand there and stare at it instead, stirring constantly, worrying constantly that it won't cook right, wondering if it's done yet, and it will feel like forever.

Or, ideally, you keep the flame low, stir it occasionally when it's first cooking and continue doing what you're doing.

That's your idea pudding. You have a basic idea but it's not ready to eat yet, not ready to write yet. If you obsess over it, think and talk about it constantly, you can run out of excitement for it by the time it is ready.  Better to store that nugget in your brain, think about it occasionally, but let it lay dormant, waiting to bubble.

And after a while, it does start to bubble! A little blip here, a blip there, and the new writer thinks, "It's ready! My pudding is ready! I can't wait to eat it!" But it's not ready yet. It's barely begun. If you put that in a pudding cup, it will never set. It will remain runny and soupy. So yeah, go ahead and eat it, but it's not going to be very good.

Let it bubble some more...it's starting to get thicker so you stir it up.  It kind of looks like pudding and you could put it in bowls but it still won't be the best it can be. An impatient writer might start eating it then but it's not a boil yet, only a rumbling thickening burbling.

Wait. Trust me.

In a very short time, that pudding will be bubbling like mad, a mini-volcano in your saucepan, just screaming for your attention: "I'm ready now! Take me off the burner and put me in cups!"  Now you can shut the gas off and pour it into bowls.

And yet...it's still not ready for the page. Put those cups in the fridge and let them set until they're cool and not cold. In a little while, they'll get a luscious skin over them, chewy and full of intense flavor, and beneath will be a slightly warm, creamy pudding. Delicious.

The trick when you're making an idea pudding is trust. The initial germ of the idea is a good one and it will develop. You have to accept that it will take a bit of time to solidify into the best story that it can be. And when it's ready, it can't be anything other than pudding. When it's really ready to write, you won't be wondering if it's soup or dessert, if it's hot or cold. It will be what it is supposed to be.

Just wait. Trust in the pudding. Trust in the process. Or buy yourself a Jello cup.




Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jessica Brody's UNFORGOTTEN releases today~

I love it when people I like have new books coming out - not simply authors I enjoy but people whom I have a genuine fondness for.  Jessica Brody is one of those writers.  She is insanely hard-working, the very definition of "tireless" but she is also a kind person and a sincerely nice one. That's why I'm happy to help her promote her new book, UNFORGOTTEN, the second book of her sci-fi trilogy that began with UNREMEMBERED.

About the book:

Some memories are better left forgotten…
After a daring escape from the scientists at Diotech who created her, Seraphina believes she is finally safe from the horrors of her past. But new threats await Sera and her boyfriend, Zen, at every turn as Zen falls prey to a mysterious illness and Sera’s extraordinary abilities make it more and more difficult to stay hidden.

Meanwhile, Diotech has developed a dangerous new weapon designed to apprehend her. A weapon that even Sera will be powerless to stop. Her only hope of saving Zen’s life and defeating the company that made her is a secret buried deep within her mind. A secret that Diotech will kill to protect. And it won’t stay forgotten for long.

Packed with mystery, suspense, and romance, this riveting second installment of Jessica Brody’s Unremembered trilogy delivers more heart-pounding action as loyalties are tested, love becomes a weapon, and no one’s memories are safe.

Unforgotten_CVR


To help you out, here is a link to her site where you can get the first 5 chapters of the new book for free:


Free sample!

And she is hosting a contest that anyone can win:

Contest!

Congrats, Jessica!  And good luck with the series!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Is 2014 the Year of the Reasonable Resolution?

Let's be honest: 2013 was a terrible year! We should have known it would be since there was a 13 staring us in the face every single day. How could that possibly be a good thing for anyone?

I won't go into details about all the obstacles and challenges of my year. You have your own. And if you don't, then you probably know someone who does. Around me were divorces, job losses, deaths, and health problems. Friends, neighbors, and students all went through many trials of the spirit and body. It was hard to be sympathetic when you had your own problems to deal with.

Which is not to say there weren't a few bright spots and this is where I'm going to start with my "reasonable" resolutions:

 - in 2013 I got a dog whom the shelter named Peaches. She's a chihuahua-terrier-something mix, perhaps 8 years old, with an utterly unknown history. I love her so much and am so happy she's in my life, even if she does hate other dogs. In 2014, we'll work on that, one pup at a time.

 - in 2013, I got a new literary agent and finished a couple of books. In 2014, I'll have product and a means to get it out there into the world (that's far more reasonable than resolving to sell a book!).

 - in 2013, I discovered kale, my new favorite vegetable, and I rediscovered my love of Brussels sprouts. In 2014, I want to try quinoa.

For 2014, I've got plans - big ones like moving and shooting a short film and starting a new business - but those are hardly "reasonable" and nothing that can be "resolved" to be done. Taking steps to accomplish them will be my next challenge.

Happy 2014~

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Must, Want To, and Should


As the holiday season approaches and I receive requests for more and more things (shopping, parties, extra work, and so on), I begin to get overwhelmed by it all. At first I toss another ball into the air, fill up another blank spot on the calendar, and make a note to myself.  But very soon, the air is thick with balls, the calendar has no more empty squares, and I've run out of note paper.

You have to say no sometimes. But when? And what to say no to?  Well, it occurred to me that there are really 3 categories of things: those we MUST do, those we WANT TO do, and those we SHOULD do.

The MUST do's: attending work parties, buying gifts for Mom and Dad, making a visit to the grandparents.

The WANT TO do's: attending a new movie, buying gifts for friends, arranging a trip to Disneyland.

The SHOULD do's: attending a relative's party way out in the Valley, buying a gift for the boss, visiting a friend's new baby.

Sometimes they overlap - you may want to do the same thing you should do, like visiting that friend's new baby, for example - and sometimes they are at utter odds with each other, like when that relative's party is at the exact same time as the only day the museum is holding its free exhibits that you really want to go to.

So where do you begin? Do you start with the MUST's? Or the WANT TO's? Are you a SHOULD do person?  I know plenty of people who start and end with what they WANT TO do and have no care for anything society or family/friends may tell them they SHOULD or MUST do.  That takes courage to disregard others' opinions as well as a healthy ego that says "My WANTS come first."

Me? I start with the MUST do items and then go to the WANT TO. I am independent enough to ignore what I SHOULD do but let's be honest, I often run out of time and money just completing the MUST items on my calendar/list/inbox. I rarely get to the WANT TO's!

This is the way I plan to approach my gift-giving, party-attending, subbing requests, and so on this month. If it's not a MUST, then it ain't getting done.

But what about writing? Well, I think you can apply these categories to writing as well.  As writers, we all feel we MUST write, that is not in doubt, but whenever I feel like I SHOULD write - whether it's on a particular day or at a particular time or about a specific subject or theme - then my writing ends up terrible. That's happened when I tried following a trend I wasn't crazy about or chasing an editor who kind of liked a book I submitted but wanted to go in a different direction, or even when I wasn't finding anything to write about at all. Each time I did the SHOULD rather than the WANT TO, my work suffered.

I have to find the WANT TO in every SHOULD in order to do it. Otherwise I will resent every ounce of energy I am spending on it.  Life is too short for SHOULD.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The joy of receiving a 1-star review

"Leigh, you're crazy!"
"You're sleep-deprived!"
"I do not think that word means what you think it means."

On a Goodreads scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the worst and 5 being the best, it certainly is preferable to receive a 5-star review.  And when it's accompanied by lots of lovely words like "Wonderful!" and "Entertaining!" and "Best Book Ever in the History of Books!", well, that definitely is nice.

A lot nicer than the 1-star review spewing vitriol toward you, your characters, and your dog, right?

Yes and no.

The yes is obvious.  Every writer on the planet, except for someone like Jonathan Franzen, wants to be loved and appreciated and to have his work revered and praised by critics and readers alike. Isn't that why we publish in the first place - to bring joy to other people?  Of course! So yes, I do want those 5-star reviews.  Keep 'em coming!

Now, the no.

Someone gives your book a 1-star. She writes how she hated your main character.  She hated the story, the plot twists she saw coming a hundred million miles away because that's how obvious your writing is.  She also detested the love interest who was boring, the best friend who was also boring or possibly boreing since she was so angry that she couldn't bother with spell check.  She had to write three paragraphs of how much she hated your book so that she could spare others the pain she experienced.  Oh and yes, she was very glad she got the book as a gift so she didn't have to pay for it.

Is that enough to give you heart palpitations?  Sensitive Author!  Do not fret. If you feel really terrible, go back and re-read some of the 5-star reviews you got.  They're just as accurate.  No, seriously, they are.

Okay, done? Breathe easy. Now, embrace the 1-star review.  Why?  Why? Let me explain:

That reader felt so much after reading your book, she had to tell the world. She had to locate her iPad or laptop, sign in to Goodreads, find your book, go to "review," compose it, and put it up.  Those are many, many steps to take.  Believe me, I know.  I'm a Goodreads member and that's the number one reason I don't write a lot of reviews!  It's time-consuming and for a book I didn't care about too much, meh, I'm not going to bother writing anything.

But this reader did!  She cared enough to go through all that in order to write and publish her review.  Was it nice?  No.  Was it well-written?  Of course not. But she did it anyway!  Let's be honest.  Today's readers don't have a lot of patience.  They are insta-buyers, insta-readers, insta-lovers, insta-haters.  They don't have time to give your book a chance.  They don't have time to waste. Does anyone?  I know I don't.  So look at the 1-star review this way: someone took the time to write something about your book. He or she easily could have deleted it from their Kindle and shrugged, meh. And moved on.

So you touched someone. They got annoyed, so don't do it again, but hey, they were touched. Now move on.  That's it.  Move along and linger no more. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Writing contemporary fiction: the pros and pitfalls

The first handful of novels I wrote were contemporary young adult fiction.

Actually, the first novel I wrote was science fiction but the first novel I completed was contemporary and not originally intended to be young adult but eventually rewritten and marketed for that category.

There are definitely advantages to setting a story in the present day and using commonplace references.  For one thing, there is a shorthand between author and audience. For instance, if I have a character refer to a celebrity named "Lindsay," you know I mean Lindsay Lohan. If I talk about Facebook or YouTube, you get what I'm saying. I don't need to waste time explaining things that we all understand.

With contemporary fiction, it's easy to throw in cultural references as mile markers or for in-jokes.

But what happens in fifteen years? Will readers know who Psy was? Or what the Harlem Shuffle was? Will TV shows like "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" be remembered in all their intricate glory? If I say a character was like Walter White, will they think he was simply cruel and manipulative or will they get the multi-dimensionality of him?

No?  Well, what about in ten years? Five?  Three? One?

My first published novels were, naturally, written years prior to their actual publication. As we got closer to the books' pub dates, my editor and I made sure references that could be badly dated were cut or made generic so the books would be as fresh as possible. But there is no getting around the fact that the world changes really, really fast. And things that were big or popular or seemingly impossible to forget were forgotten or left behind.

Things I thought would become big didn't. Things I didn't think could become big did.  After all, I am not a seer.

LOL (will that be old soon too?)

As a result, some things about my books became dated. Certain things my characters did became hard to understand a few years later. Readers today don't consider the time having passed between writing and reading and they wonder, in reviews and to themselves, "Why didn't Vee use the internet for finding work?" (Because when it was written, that wasn't how it was done.) "Why didn't Meg have a cell phone of her own?" (Because when it was written, they were far too expensive for a poor girl.) Things like that throw the reader off and make them question the author's expertise.

Believe me, if I could have seen the future of cameraphones and people taking "selfies," I would have used them but back then, it would have been seen as impossible. Then I really would have been writing science fiction.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Imagination, the future and frustration

Lots of young girls imagine their wedding day.  They picture the veil and the train and the attendants and the flowers.  They may not have an image of their grooms beyond a Ken doll or a GI Joe but they know all the other details.

Lots of kids imagine their future careers.  They see themselves as firefighters or cops or nurses or teachers or tackling any other job that they are familiar with.

Great imaginations these kids have.  Kudos to all of them.

But then reality sets in. The wedding doesn't happen the way they picture.  The dress and flowers and even the groom don't match the early vision.  As for jobs, no one pictures themselves at a desk in front of a computer, maybe answering a phone, or putting in long and boring days just to pay for health insurance.

Frustrating, isn't it?

When I have a story idea, I let it ruminate in my brain for a while. I imagine some characters talking to each other and doing things.  I try to allow a backstory to develop for them.  Their early school years.  Their nicknames. Their friends and parents and pets and favorite tv shows.  In my mind, these characters and their settings are awesome!  They have so much potential. I start to develop a plot and imagine a really cool ending and, voila!  Storytime!

But then reality sets in as I start to write. Characters talk in strange ways and accents.  They have their own quirks I wasn't aware of, quirks that prevent them from doing things the way I want them to.  Sure, I can force them but it's never quite the same as in my imagination.  I push my way through, from chapter to chapter, following the outline or deviating from it occasionally.  And then it's over and it's not anything like what I thought it would be.

Frustrating.

Anticipation of anything sets us up for failure and disappointment. I should know this, after the many years I've lived on this planet, and yet I am always surprised when things fail to live up to my vision.  I try to foresee potential problems but I'm still stymied when life - and plot - throws me a curve.

This is another post where I posit a problem with no solution. I wish things were more black and white.  I wish the path to my goal could be clear and singular.

Yeah, frustrating.