Learning from First Impressions

I’ve been reading tons lately and writing very little. There are ten chapters written on the sequel to Dragonfly Prince. I don’t want to call it writer’s block. You see, I’ve had trouble with sequels before, and that’s why this is making me nervous. When I completed my first novel-sized story (a modern crossover fanfic drawing from Austen’s Persuasion/Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera) – I had this exciting idea about merging Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice with Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel for the sequel. I named it Florid Impressions. (Austen’s P&P was originally entitled, “First Impressions.”) It would follow talented ballet dancer, Marguerite (or ‘Meg’), as she joined a newly formed troupe begun by a young, accomplished choreographer, P. Darcy-Blakeney. He would be like Orczy’s Blakeney in style and attitude and Austen’s Darcy in true personality and noblesse oblige. He and Meg would not see eye-to-eye; but she would learn to respect his impeccable taste for interpretation, and he would find himself taken with her vivacity, wit and, ultimately, her determination and loyalty. I had these great ideas for following international conflict and constructed two daring rescues and a wonderful escape finale. I totally fell in love with it, eavesdropping in on my characters’ conversations in my head.

To prepare I immersed myself in researching the art of ballet. I hunted for advisers and sought their advice. I read and watched all the documentaries I could study. I have notebooks stashed away scribbled back to pulp with terms and practices and personal reflections of dancers. Through my research I came to the conclusion that my first impression of a ballerina was completely wrong. It is truly an art of illusion. Its disciples are always in pain, always pushing their physical limits.

While gathering the information, it struck me as strange that I didn’t know the names of any current danseurs or ballerinas. The programs do not garner the same breathless anticipation of the Super Bowl, or even Wimbledon. Yes, I’m comparing ballet to a sport. It requires intense athleticism, but that is coupled with emotional expression. It’s quite an incredible craft.

Where once it had claimed a regal, astral sort of beauty for me, the earthy reality ruined it. I became disillusioned by the line of work I’d chosen for my main character. I’m rather sad for her. Still, it taught me to stick with what I know (and to give my characters jobs where they had more to wear than a kerchief and tights). And that’s where this sequel scares me the most. It’s all about what I know, and I’m intimidated. I’m more conscious of its flaws and less attuned to how it communicates its meaning to someone who hasn’t been in my shoes. Can I let my guard down and *gulp* give it the vulnerability it needs? Ten chapters are just a knock at the door.

Secrets, Wordchefs and Insta-pies

Here’s a thought I loved from the children’s book, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg:

Claudia doesn’t want adventure. She likes baths and feeling comfortable too much for that kind of thing. Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts.

When I think of keeping secrets, I often think of negative secrets dealing with hurt. But there are good secrets, too. There are secrets that are fun that people keep for the pure effervescence they bring.

The thrill of keeping a secret is why I never write down the ending when I’m planning a story. When I have a story idea, I jot it down to exorcise it out of my system while I’m working on my current project. If I return to the story premise and can’t remember the ending, it wasn’t that good. To tell the ending is to spoil the secret. I’d rather it well up in me so that I have a goofy grin on my face when I think about it.

A writer is one who creates a story like a set of courses for a dinner. It’s very exciting because there’s all the expectation of experimenting, recording, and perfecting the textures and flavors of every verbarian dish. As a reader, one enjoys being the guest rather than the chef. I think most readers become writers when they realize that writing the story can be just as pleasing to the literary palate as sitting down at another wordchef’s table. Perhaps more so because the one telling the story has the joy of inventing each scene to his/her own taste.

Imagine the meal: It begins with the summary appetizer: bold in flavor and promising better courses to come. The salad is the intro: pert, crisp. The plot opens like thick slices of a warm, crusty, herbed baguette. Perhaps the style has a nutty, quirky quality, like the cheese accompanying the bread, or perhaps it has a smooth, sophisticated approach, like roasted garlic truffle oil. The personalities of the characters are revealed in tantalizing spoonfuls, like the soup. Then the conflict, the entrée, is set before the reader. The drizzle of ambrosial sauce (like a simmering rivalry), the mouthwatering bursts of infused spices (perhaps the thrilling knowledge of an impending event in the story) make it evident the reader is now basking in the delicious splendor of the tale. The subplots bring variety and freshness, like a summer vegetable medley, and extend the anticipation. Now the turning point is expected, the dessert! The reader knows it will be accompanied by a tying up of all the loose ends, taking the form of a soothing beverage, like coffee (in my case you know I prefer tea).

What would you expect for dessert? Perhaps mousse or a crème brûlée? A delectable slice of Italian cream cake? What if a tube-like box labeled ‘apple pie’ was flopped down before the reader? What if the ending is like a microwaved, fast-food substitute?

A McDonald's apple pie.
Image via Wikipedia

There are stories like that.

It’s also how I feel about writing out my own story’s ending in the planning stage. Writing the skeleton outline of the conclusion looks like twice-warmed-over, faux-apple smoosh to me.

An ending is the result of the process. At its culmination it has to bloom naturally or it has the chance of becoming synthetic and lifeless. So, the end stays my secret. When I finally write it, I want it to contain the initial emotion of the final piece being fitted. Not that it won’t go through a gamut of rewrites, but the ending should be… saved for the end.

(Note to self: Never write while really hungry again.)

I Knew Watching “The Price is Right” Would Come In Handy

There’s this “Versatile Blogger” award. Have you heard of it? Last month, Sally from The Digital Bookshelf and Carrie from The Write Transition informed me of their kind nominations of my blog for this award. I want to give a hearty thanks for their time and efforts in considering me, but I’m perplexed. I write about writing. That has to be one of the most unversatile subjects known to blogging. Is there a Nonversatility Award? Just wondering. – No! I’m not wondering, not wondering at all. Forget I said that.

It’s my opinion that Versatile blog posts would go something this:

“I was contemplating Plato’s Meno while clipping my toenails this morning…”

“Today, the raindrops merging on the windowpane created an exact replica of Conan O’Brien’s hair logo. I think it’s a sign…”

“I create my own eucalyptus-guava scented candles and want to tell you how I make them in bulk…”

“I just found out I have gingivitis. Have you ever considered the analogies that can be drawn from this discovery? For one, unhealthy gums are a haven for germs and disease, kind of like unhealthy relationships…”

For more illustrations, peruse the WordPress blogs under the topic, ‘musings.’ They’re fun. Some posts even resemble therapy by proxy. Of course, I promptly leave my advice. I’m glad to share my words of wisdom. I have lots of words to share. The wisdom? Meh.

On the heels of the Versatile blogger nominations, I received another nomination for the 7×7 Link award from the generous jmmcdowell. Three lovely compliments in such a short amount of time! I feel embarrassed, considering this is my 14th post on WordPress.

At the same time I’m reminded of that kitchen hand towel chain-letter that is supposed to heap upon you terry piles of steaming coffee cup, chili pepper, and Italian bistro cheeriness. I fear an epidemic, widespread panic. I’d be biting my nails if I weren’t typing this. I’m going to go deep into the recesses of my memory to recall the words of Bob Barker. (Okay, so Drew Carey says it, too.) Friends, I think nominations may need to be spayed or neutered to control the award population. I’ll be sacrificial about the whole thing and deny myself the delight of decorating my blog’s side columns with additional, pretty award logos in hopes that it will appease those lofty award-inventors.

And I do appreciate the accolades! Truly… much more than my collection of fat, mustachioed Italian chefs, whose smiling faces I wipe my wet hands on.

Which Way Is Ever After?

by A. Ashkanani, flickr.com

It’s the mushy month. Love and all that… And I was thinking, ‘I should find a good love story to celebrate Valentine’s Day properly.’ Nyah, nothing with a sappy name this time. They bother me. I know there’s something wrong with a Gaskell’s North and South/Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fanatic who doesn’t devour those confectionary titles like a big goblet of dark chocolate mousse, but I have difficulty reading a book that’s embarrassing to name aloud. (“Oh, I’m reading, ‘Love’s Endless Flowing Tragic Quest of Angst,’ you?”) It reminds me of Gilbert’s down-to-earth remark to Anne Shirley about her flowery romances. He tells her, “Nobody talks like that in real life.”*

Still, I believe there’s nothing like a good love story, and romances aren’t necessarily good love stories. Take Tolkien’s Return of the King as an example. It wasn’t a romance, but the love stories are mint. The relationship dynamics are what intrigue me most, I guess. Whatever my current writing obsession, I find myself watching my protagonist develop, placing certain situations before him or her to see what the reaction will be. As a reader, I like book characters that give me the impression I’ve met them before. I’m the Bildungsroman sci-fantasy sort, add a side of love story.

Because of this, a tale about a woman who is thawed into falling in love with some non-confrontational, gorgeously handsome man, who waits all through the book for her to notice him, has no appeal. I think I prefer reading about a confrontational, ugly guy who goes through his own metamorphosis. (Have I been conditioned to correlate male attractiveness with spineless drooling? Hm…)

How about the male love interest who makes the heroine eat her words? Well, he ought to be gentlemanly about it when she does, of course. But I’m not completely a Taming of the Shrew fan because it lends itself to the opposite extreme, toward berating or abusing womankind.

Why do so many love stories belittle the intelligence of either gender to make the relationship work? I think the romance genre often finds its writers in difficulty over how to keep that balance. And what about original endings? Wedding bells ring, a thrilling account of what happened on the honeymoon, or hints of a baby’s arrival often conclude the tale. Jane Austen fared just fine leaving her characters to pledge their troth and… Here’s an epilogue. Cue the orchestra, roll the credits. What are some other ways to end a love story without being cliché? The only other endings I can think of are the ones where one, or both of them, dies. The Hunger Games (Spoiler! Spoiler!) used a tactic which I found both realistic and depressing. Kat just deals. She ends up with the one she loves best, but they are too scarred to really be happy. Call me an idealist, but I don’t find death and despondency very inspiring in a society where love comes and goes like a hobby and no one seems to know which direction to ride off and find ‘ever after,’ much less ‘happily.’

So, any book suggestions, or have I thrown out the lot?

*from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series

Review Unto Others

Writer networking and support is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? I’ve arrived here via free fiction-writing communities, where I meet writers through reviews. I don’t have any previous relationships with these writers. I like that. It keeps my feedback real. In the free novel-writing world, it’s perfectly fine to leave a glowing review on a rough draft version of a story. The writer is just beginning. The potential’s there, but the story has a ton of mistakes. My review may mention a few, but it would be pointless to dissect the whole thing in the initial stages. (Sometimes I’ll try to talk the writer into letting me beta, my fingers itching to dispel the distractions I see in an otherwise great story.)

Now I’m stepping through the looking-glass to find… basically, the same review setup, only now it involves money and literary integrity. These new eBooks on Amazon, perched on virtual shelves, call to me at 99 cents. The summaries are often appealing. If there are reviews, I will read them. I’ve read a few where readers have commented with something like,

“There were grammatical errors, but this writer is new.”

“I admit I was hoping for a more rounded understanding of some of the other characters besides the main character.”

“I didn’t always relate to the main character. When events happened in the story that called for a strong reaction, there wasn’t really one.”

That’s pretty important stuff there. And some of these reviews come with four and five-star ratings. That’s not helpful. It’s like looking for a good cookie recipe, finding one with a 97% approval rating and 50+ reviews, and making a flour-heavy, tasteless dessert.* It’s a waste, and not just for other readers. It’s a waste for a writer who has talent and needs to hone his/her craft!

Why aren’t these reviews telling the whole story? Putting myself in the reader’s shoes, if I were given a free book and told, “All you need to do is review this when you’re done,” I’d think it was a great idea, initially. Free books! Yum! And, please, let me give you my opinion. What about further incentive from a writer-friend to swap books and review? I see the benefits of back-scratch reviewing, but I think the review itself is synthetic. The pressure to be kind will taint the whole experiment. It’s some mad twist on the golden rule. Whatever I say can no longer be entirely genuine. Think of little Fred, the poor fellow who volunteers to take a dose of Uncle Harvey’s Cure-All Old Indian Remedy, while Uncle Harvey rattles on about all the amazing things that the ‘elixir’ is going to do for headaches, gout, tuberculosis, freckles, abscesses, and hair loss. Little Fred sees the hope in the townspeople’s eyes; he’s aware of their breathless anticipation as he tilts the bottle for a swig. Is Fred going to say what he’s expected to say, perhaps physically convincing himself of the positive outcome?

As a reviewer, I think a published work should be held to a certain standard of quality. Should I praise a book with poorly structured sentences, underdeveloped characterizations, plot holes, dangling story threads, orphaned paragraphs of information, lost and wandering commas, etc.? The story can have incredible potential, but it hasn’t been placed in a comparable environment. Shouldn’t I address those issues? Shouldn’t my rating reflect the difference I see between it and the surrounding literature?

I don’t think a reader has to analyze the plot structure, tallying the arc points and subplots, to know if a story is the real thing; but there are some things that can be expressed objectively that I’d like to know as a prospective reader:

1. Grammatically speaking, is the book well-written? Could it use some work?

2. Is the pace of the story comparable to others of its general genre (adventure, mystery, horror, romance, etc.)? Exception: There are some works that employ eclectic pacing, but the skillful writer knows how to use it without losing the interest of the reader.

3. When contemplating what to write in the review, are there any negative aspects that are automatically ‘forgiven’? What are they, and why? For example, some stories speak to a reader through personal life experience, so one might overlook what the narrative lacks.

Finding any of these means the book probably needs a good going over.

With the book industry turned on its head, the readers are the ones to come to the rescue. Yet, reader/reviewer influence declines when the information in the reviews becomes overwhelmingly unreliable. That’s why it works against every writer to misuse the review system for unwarranted self-promotion, or to flatter in a weak moment; no one will trust the comments or ratings. It benefits everyone to use the power of the review to distinguish the works of merit. It really is about being kind and genuine. By ‘reviewing unto others,’ you’re really doing yourself a favor in the long run.

*Yes, it happened to me. And, yes, it was bad. I tweaked it into a great cheesecake crust, though.

The One Where My Heart Bleeds When It’s Broken

I truly thought it was the real thing… not like last time. My heart went pitter-patter. I daydreamed of the conversations about the future we would have, the promises we would make once things progressed. I felt prepared this time. I felt like I’d really straightened up a lot of issues beforehand. I approached with confidence, but with a clear sense that I should be completely open to what might happen. I allowed myself to be vulnerable… and I was rejected.

I invested a chunk of time into that query letter!

(Sigh.)

Okay so, looking back, I made some mistakes.

It was a big mistake not to write my letter in the same style as my story. The query was proper and respectful… and rather infested with that childlike transparency that screams, “I’m an amateur!”

I had also decided not to rely on great hooks, which are part of my style, as well. Somewhere I got the impression agents and publishers want the black and white of the story, not the hype and talk up. It was painful, and my sentences came out haltingly. I smoothed them over to the best of my ability. Still, it wasn’t me. Why did I send the query out knowing that? I really thought that’s why query letters were so difficult to write.

“There’s vulnerability in sending a query letter.”

I remember reading something to that effect; and I certainly felt vulnerable, sending letters that seemed to be dressed in a dull brown interview suit with the lapels severely pressed just so.

In the midst of my morose state, I happened upon an article where an expressive agent included her description of a good query. And I realized… *gasp* Agents are people, too!

I know, I was shocked. You mean, when an agent is perusing a list of books and summaries, he/she wants the info to persuade him/her that the rest of the story is just as appealing? Wait; I do that, too!

You know that request some agents make to include, “where you are going with your story”? I think this is misleading. Think of the boy in Princess Bride, who stops the grandpa to ask, “Is this a kissing book?” Notice, the grandpa never answers. The boy doesn’t really want an answer. He’s just skeptical. He’s afraid he’ll be pulled in; he might actually like the story, kissing and all. We’re all cynics, callous to the age-old archetypes. With the myriad, dry bones queries an agent digs through, it has to be desensitizing. Poor things, those agents. It must be a merciless existence, day in and day out, looking for that one… or two… or two hundred. Now I will take a moment to sympathize. (Cue violin music.)

As you can tell, I’m working through the phases swiftly. The shock was short-lived. I’ve had a visit with denial and moved on to anger. You can see the “clouds in my coffee” dispersing as I make pathetic jabs at agent-kind with my quill.

Now what?

Well, I’ve scrapped my dull brown suit approach and written what I’ve wanted to say all along. It took a couple of minutes, as apposed* to the two months it took me to write that second query. It’s direct. It’s appealing. It’s alot like my story.

I also went back to my novel and scrutinized the beginning again. One thing that has haunted me is the pace of the prologue. It’s a brief series of journal entries. I wanted it to be meandering, like a journal usually is. Meandering is not the way to begin a story in the present fast-food fiction climate. I had a genius moment and chopped up the beginning to follow a new angle that is more concise and spirited. (Click here if you’d like to see the old version. I haven’t updated it to the new, improved version yet, so feel free to ‘tsk-tsk’ over it.)

Voila.

I think my heart has healed enough to search for my shining agent again.

 

*Btw, why is WP telling me this word is spelled incorrectly? The two months are not ‘opposing’ the couple of minutes, right?

This *is* the Manuscript You Were Looking For

After looking over client lists of agents to get a taste of what literary agencies are endorsing, I’m thinking it’s time I learned the Jedi mind trick. Have you read some authors’ bios lately?

Initial. Initial. Smarmy was terminally ill from the age of two, which explains much of the philosophical trauma he endured as a child. In his teens, he established his own business, ‘Nightshade Window Treatments,’ from which a friendly cult began, dedicated to educating others about the advantages of poisonous vegetation. A part-time volunteer for the Association for the Beautification of Carnivorous Reptiles, he paints abstract portraits on crocodile teeth to help raise funds and awareness. He has a pet platypus that travels with him to book signings because ‘Curby’ won’t sleep unless he’s wrapped in Smarmy’s silk scarf. Smarmy always wears this scarf; it marks his triumph over his 14-year addiction to Ace of Base.

Okay, I would love to read this in a real bio. My own will include my short stint as a bad fortune-teller and my award for being the worst slob at camp. But I can’t compete. Padawan training, you are my only hope.