Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's like middle school all over again

I often think in metaphors. I don't know if this is a writer thing, a right-brained thing, or just a weird Anne-thing. But if I can find the perfect metaphor to describe something, my thinking often feels clearer.

At the moment I'm on task to finish my first Project Sparkle revision by the end of July. It's exciting to watch the novel getting closer and closer to a polished whole. But the work itself is grueling. I change a detail in one chapter and it means I need to go back and change it in five other chapters. I think I'm halfway and then realize I've forgotten to incorporate one of my subplots for the past fifty pages.

So as I was agonizing about this yesterday, I tried to see it as a metaphor. What is this like?

It's like swimming in gym class, I told myself. All of a sudden my mind was overwhelmed with a clear, physical memory of 7th grade. My school supplied swimsuits rather than letting students bring their own from home. The suits were all black with different colored stitching along the sides. The colors represented sizes, red, blue green... I could never remember what size/color I needed. And the color was everything. I have no idea what fabric these suits were made of but they expanded in water. So something that was skin tight would become comfortable in the pool. Something that was comfortable would balloon into an inappropriate, breast-revealing mess. So my classmates and I spent forever choosing the right colors and the right suits. Of course no one wanted to admit to being a green, or even worse, a yellow. Then we had to fight to get the ultra tight suits on. I'd pull the suit up little by little, up the front of my thigh, up the back, tug it over the other thigh. Towards the end, red welts covered my legs. Luckily I had fewer curves back then. Finally the suit would be on and we'd actually be in a hurry to get wet. And that's exactly what my revision feels like! No, really, exactly!

I once read an article about writers thinking in metaphors. The author encouraged writers to see their metaphors through with positive outcomes and then apply these positive feelings to their writing.

So, if finishing my revision is like pulling on a swimsuit... everything will feel better once I get in the pool? I'll be happy when I'm done? Not sure this metaphor follows through. But I like it anyway.

How is your writing going? Metaphors welcome!

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Finnish breather

Apologies for my absence on the blog. I just returned from a week in Finland. The trip was an odd combination of work and tourism. Phil was working every day, so he couldn't go play with me. Helsinki isn't a very big city, but we were a bus ride away from the downtown. My trip also coincided with the midsummer holiday, so everything was closed for two days. My days weren't action packed, but I wrote a bit, took long walks in the forest, sat by the sea, and ate lots of salmon and blueberries. It seems to have been exactly what I needed. I'm feeling recharged and ready to dive into work again.

I also had the opportunity visit the Ateneum, which is Helsinki's art museum. If you ever happen to be in Helsinki, GO. It's one of the best art museums I've ever been to. It's quite small (I saw everything in two hours), and the art is almost entirely Finnish. However, that meant I could happily see everything and see art I had never seen before.

I know next to nothing about art, but I find it incredibly inspirational. Here are a few of my favorites (Click on the images to enlarge).

The artist is Hugo Simberg, who does lots of paranormal / fairy tale type pieces. This one especially looked like it had a story to tell. It's called something like The Wounded Angel. Aren't the expressions on the boys' faces intriguing?

This is a depiction of the Finnish story of Aino, who was promised in marriage to an old man. She escapes from him by turning into a sea nymph/salmon. The artist is Akselsi Gallen-Kallela. As I understand it, in the first panel Aino is dreading her marriage. In the third panel she's watching the fish and considering her options, in the middle panel she's escaping.

The artist is Vilho Lampi. This actually isn't one I saw at the museum, but it's another Lampi in a similar style. I love these paintings that make the reader look and look and look.

The museum was having a special exhibit on the women of Helsinki in the early 1900s, the things they would have experienced and the society they would have been familiar with. The exhibit included numerous female painters of this generation, and my absolute favorite was Helene Schjerfbeck.
This is one of her most famous paintings, The Convalescent. Apparently, Schjerfbeck was a convalescent as a child as well.

This one was one of my favorites. I love the vibrant red. It also looks like it has a story to tell. It's called The Family Heirloom.

I should be back to regular posting this week.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Project Sparkle: An update

I haven't shared any news about Project Sparkle since May, when I was slogging through the pit of despair (ie my plot). Things have gotten better since then, so I thought I should do an update.

Good news first!

On Monday, after all the writing fear I struggled with the previous week, I met with my tutor about my plot. She read my chapter by chapter outline thoroughly while I sat on pins and needles waiting. Then she said, "Yes, this is much better." Phew! We talked about a few small problems she found, she had a few questions, but the climax... it works! At least, on paper. Now I have to write the thing!

But since that meeting I've felt much better about Project Sparkle. I have a working plot. Onwards and upwards!

On Tuesday I sent the first eight chapters to two readers. This is the first anyone outside of my program and writing group has seen more of Project Sparkle than the first 300 words. You know how writers are advised to write what they know? I have... but other people know what I'm writing about a lot better than I do. So I sent the beginning to these readers to get their feedback about whether I had portrayed something accurately. Can I just tell you how scary that email was to send? What if I haven't? What if Project Sparkle is big flaming mess of offensiveness?

One reader replied and told me she'd read it next week while her daughter was at camp. Then Thursday (two days later!) I got this email:


I read it yesterday and am dying for more. Send the rest a.s.a.p. I will send comments in the end."

Okay, so there are still comments, which is a good thing, I need all the help I can get. But overall, sounds pretty positive, no? *happy dance*

It's useful to receive this good feedback now because the next month is going to be busy. I told my tutor I wanted to finish my first pass of this revision by the end of July. She's going on vacation at the end of July, so she said if I could get it to her by the 23rd, she'd read it before she left. That gives me five weeks from today.

I divided the novel up into sections and I have exactly five sections left to do. Perfect! However they're not equal by any means. I have a short, protagonist-is-briefly-happy middle section, then a much longer, things-start-to-fall-apart middle section, the lead up to the climax, the climax, and the resolution. And as you all know, the climax needs to be completely rewritten. Several other chapters along the way need to be rewritten as well. Plus I'm adding in character arcs, changing two of my minor characters substantially, trying to add more emotional impact. I've got a LOT of work ahead of me. The blog may be a bit sparse in the coming weeks because of it.

But I'm happy to have a goal. And readers wanting more.

How are your writing projects coming?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


I've been doing a lot of kissing since I moved to the UK.

As I'm sure you all know, in Europe people greet each other with light kisses on the cheek. I hear they do this in the US in places like Hollywood and New York City. But not in places like my hometown of Okemos, Michigan.

It's been a lot to get used to, especially for a socially inept, clumsy oaf such as myself.

Sometimes I think people are going to kiss me when instead they hug. Sometimes they kiss instead. Brits kiss one cheek, continental Europeans kiss both cheeks (and may repeat!). I blush every single time a male friend kisses me.

All that said, I do find it a nice tradition, much warmer than a handshake or an enthusiastic hello. I just wish there was some sort of kissing manual. Perhaps that can be my next book project.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Facing down fear

Some writing days are hard. Most of my energy isn't taken up with writing. It's spent just having the courage to try.

Sometimes the doubts swirl around my head. After all these months of hard work, what if the book isn't good enough to get published? What if my voice has disappeared? What if everyone hates my character? What if I'm not smart enough to finish the book? What if I die and I never finish the book?

The best thing I can do on those days is to put my head down and keep working. Sometimes I get lost in the story. I forget my worries and fall in love with my character all over again. Other days I spend all my time facing down fear. I accomplish nothing. I go to bed and hope tomorrow will be better.

*The image is a photograph I took of a St George and the dragon statue in Stockholm.

Friday, June 11, 2010

YA in the UK

I've blogged before about the disparity between successful children's books in the US and the UK. This week the literary agency Upstart Crow has a fascinating blog post from their intern, who has worked in both countries.

What do you think?

I definitely agree there's a cultural difference which may influence reading habits between the US and the UK. I'm not sure I'd agree it's caused by things like driving and the drinking age, but perhaps those are indicative of a larger, systemic difference.

One of my tutors asked me about middle grade and YA books being taught in US classrooms. It's rare, and should be done more often, but it definitely happens. I personally have taught or required my students to read from a selection of YA books. But apparently that doesn't happen nearly as often in the UK.

I wonder if it's not so much that the UK isn't interested in American YA as that the UK (at least British adults) aren't interested in any YA. I've heard more than once that Brits are not as interested in childhood as Americans (for example, Camila Batmanghelidjh on Britain's distorted view of childhood). That seems a damning statement, but I think Americans tend to worship childhood, especially the teenage years. Think of cultural icons like Grease, Rebel Without A Cause. Even Twilight. There aren't many British equivalents (except of course Harry Potter).

But perhaps there could be. My publishing course tutor pointed out that there hasn't yet been a big British dystopian. But it's coming. He knows someone whose dystopian novel has just been accepted for publication. One of my classmates is writing an INCREDIBLE dystopian. Maybe the Brits would get on board the YA wagon if they had more of their own books to tout, their own authors to go on tour. That could help bridge this divide.

But would Americans read a British dystopian?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Witnessing the change of power

I was sick when the British election, and all of its forming a coalition government aftermath, was taking place. I followed it a bit on the news, but I didn't read/watch too much as I was more preoccupied with the swamp of gunk lodged in my throat. That said, it was fascinating watching and trying to understand the whole process. A non-British friend on Twitter recently asked me what the Brits thought about it all, and I figured it would be interesting to write from my foreign perspective.

So, not a conclusive post on British elections at ALL. But an American perspective:

People have been angry that the party they voted for (whatever party it was, Tory, Labour or Lib Dem) didn't win. No one voted for a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. So the passionate party supporters, on both ends of the spectrum, are unhappy. That said, so far the coalition government seems to be quite moderate. It reminds me of a session in Congress. Cameron (the Tory Prime Minister) will say, "University funding will be cut," and Clegg (the Lib Dem Deputy PM) will say, "Okay, but then we'll need to give more funding to secondary schools in impoverished areas." The government is offering compromises and watered down legislation from both parties.

So I wonder if, in the end, people will be fairly happy with the coalition government. Its laws will be fairly middle of the road, appeasing both sides. On the contrary, it may not accomplish much of anything.

However, the split between the Tories and the Lib Dems, while wide, is not nearly as large as the gulf between, say, President Obama and Mitch McConnell (Republication Minority Leader). It's more like, say, Susan Collins (moderate Republican Senator) and Obama. That said, the parties don't line up according to US politics. The Tories do not equal American Conservatives, Labour is not the Democrats. Policies are more muddled than that and between the US and the UK there are different cultural backgrounds and understandings (socialised medicine, for example). Though lately more Tories are aligning themselves with American and European extreme conservative movements, tapping into some of the nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-homosexual, religious fundamentalism associated with those groups.

One of the biggest issues on the British political table right now is electoral reform. As a non-Brit, with only a vague grasp of British politics, most of the debate doesn't make much sense to me. It's often framed in terms of abbreviations (the Alternative Vote: AV, First Past the Post: FPTP) and I get lost. Worse, they've progressed into discussing things like AV vs. AV+. Crystal clear, huh?

But the different schemes will give more opportunities to smaller parties, such as the Lib Dems and the Greens, which seems like a good idea. While many Americans complain about the US's two-party system, I've been struck here by how unfair it seems that the majority government can be chosen with less than 40% of the vote.

Unfortunately, many of the voting reform systems being discussed remind me of electing a high school class president. You'd be given a first, second and third choice. It seems awfully complicated and a little silly. But perhaps government needs to be a little complicated in order to represent people more fairly.

It's been an opportunity to watch all of this unfold and I have been ashamed at my own ignorance. Even for a cynic like me, there's something striking about witnessing a change of power. To quote Mike Tomasky, an American political blogger who writes for the British paper The Guardian, "Well I just watched the video of Brown leaving No. 10. I must say, there really is something moving about this peaceful transfer of power business. I get goosebumps. It's noble and decent. There's so little noble and decent in politics these days, especially in my country. But the idea that these rituals are being enacted in the same way they were, more or less, by Disraeli and Gladstone, or by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, does leave one humbled."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rhyming Action

For the past month, in between finishing up course work, I've been struggling with my plot. It's progressed tremendously, thanks to everyone here, on Twitter, my classmates, and Phil, who has helped me talk my way through it. But on a particularly rough day, I still had some time left for writing, but was too frustrated with my plot to work on it anymore. So just like a bad movie, my eyes alighted on The Writer's Chronicle (which comes free to Writing MA students) sitting with the newspaper on my dining room table. I figured it was writing time, so it was okay to just flip through it. And lo and behold, I found K. L. Cook's essay "Narrative Strategy and Dramatic Design." (I wish they had an online version, but you have to be a subscribing member. Honestly, though, it is worth picking up a copy to read this article!)

Cook studies the master plotter, Shakespeare, and outline five techniques he uses. All of them are interesting, but I was particularly taken with his analysis of Rhyming Action. Rhyming Action is when a dramatic structure is used repeatedly throughout a story. As Cook explains it: "gives the reader (or audience member) the sense that the narrative is not only moving forward in time but also repeating an aesthetically beautiful pattern of action."

Shakespeare used it to highlight themes. For example, as Cook explains, in "Othello" the repetition "links the world of marriage and sexual infidelity to the world of criminal investigation and jurisprudence."

How does it work? Well, the example Cook uses in "Othello" is quite complex, so I won't bother explaining the whole thing. Basically, he shows how in Act I, when Othello is accused of "making the beast with two backs" with Desdemona, it leads to a trial and then a judgment. This pattern of raising an alarm, accusing someone, putting someone on trial, etc, is repeated in every act of the play. Incredible, huh? Finally, in Act V, this whole pattern is repeated in the bedroom and Othello judges himself guilty and commits suicide.

Numerous stories have this repeating structure. Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK begins just after Melinda's rape. The climax of the story involves the same perpetrator cornering Melinda in a storage closet.

Like SPEAK, Project Sparkle begins with a life-shattering event. As I read Cook's article, I realized I had been sort of repeating the event in the climax. By deciding to mirror the event exactly, I had a ready made structure to play with, plus this "aesthetically beautiful pattern of action" that Cook talks about.

No offense Anne, but doing the same thing over and over again... isn't that boring?

That's the cool part! I don't think it is, really, and Shakespeare sets an incredible example of how to keep this repetition from becoming boring. He switches the action up with unexpected role reversals. In "Othello's" climax, Emilia ends up accusing Iago. It also makes for a perfect climax: the reader knows exactly what to expect, but the outcome is still surprising.

People say we should study other writers; I'm grateful for Cook to pointing this Rhyming Action structure out to me. Can you think of any other examples? Do you do this in your stories?