Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Ghouls' Day

It's the day before Halloweeeeeennnnnnnnnnn!!!!!


And this is also the 100th post of Maudlin's Shoes! Get out the confetti and the sparklers!!

You know how I'm celebrating? With a mug of pumpkin-spice vanilla coffee and a cozy jacket.

I've never been a huge fan of 'pumpkin-spice-flavored-thingums' for the holidays. I love pumpkin cheesecake and I love pumpkin cranberry bread. But that's about it. I don't usually go in for the ever popular pumpkin-craze that follows around October and November.

But I love the holidays, and I love warm drinks when it's cold outside.

I also just got a new tea flavored Apple Pie. It's heaven.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, you may remember my earlier post on Tea or Coffee and how it actually relates to writing-- did you know that the caffeine in tea is a 'calming' energy boost as opposed to the chemical in coffee? Coffee may give you the jitters, but a nice cup of green tea might just raise those cement-laden eyelids off your face without giving you the shakes or the need to talk at fifty miles an hour.

Now that we get to the holiday that inspires gothics and ghouls, you may find yourself needing one or the other to jot down all your spooky inspiration.

In further update, writing continues on this end. I have two and a half chapters to go with my current book and plan to be done by Thanksgiving.

As a thought for scheduling, it's good to create a firm deadline for yourself. But in the early stages it may be too difficult to do so. Once you can smell the barn, as it were, you should definitely set one. It gives motivation and a sense of pride to accomplish it. Can I write 75 pages before the end of November?

Yes. I certainly can. And after that I will get the book edited, worked, and ready to be sent off to every agent I have ever plagued with my letters before.

Maybe this one will see the shelves sooner than later. I certainly hope so.

And did you really think you were going to get a normal post for the holiday?

Trick or treat!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Importance of Having Beta Readers

What is the one thing that authors cannot live without?


In the end, when it really comes down to it, that is the only thing an author must have to create a success. If you don't have a computer, you can write it on paper. If you don't have paper, you use oral tradition (stretching the metaphor here). If you don't have a traditional publishing house or agent, you can self-publish. You can even print via Office Depot and sell/give away your stories, but if no one will read them, it doesn't make a difference what you do.

That is reason Number One 007 for catering to and making use of your readers.

Because of this, many authors preface their final-stage of writing with what they call 'Beta Readers'. These time-sacrificing, loyal friends/family members/significant-others can also be known as 'proofers' or 'rabid fans'. And they are your editors before you get to the editing process.

Now, there are two ways to use Beta Readers. They can read your book once you've finished the first draft. Or they can get a new chapter every time you complete one. We'll call them Final-Readers and Serialized-Readers for clarification.

Final-Readers (FR):

Final-Readers should always be considered before you get to the agent/publishing stage. Even if you edit your book to death, employing all the different tricks and techniques to try and catch every error or erroneous detail, you will never find everything. FR can not only proof your text for errors you didn't find, but they can also give you a wide, fresh-eyed overview of your book. Did this event make sense? Was this character flaky? Do you need to change this sequence of events to a more understandable order? Was it enjoyable? FR are your fans before your book hits the shelves, and you will never find a better form of feedback and advice than in your FR.

Serialized-Readers (SR):

Serialized-Readers are not necessary, but I find them to be extremely helpful and would highly recommend them to any author. Before you finish your book and do your final-edits / get to the FR stage, SR can help you expand a work in progress. Not only can they catch problems as you go, they can also be the fire under your butt to keep working. Nothing quite motivates the completion of a next chapter than hungry eyes staring at you over the computer screen, and when the fan demands, the author provides. SR are also invaluable when it comes to catching and correcting mistakes that, if given free rein until the book is finished, could cause some serious overhauling and editorial setbacks. They can also be your cheerleader as you continue, encouraging you that, yes, your book is worth writing and dangit you'd better give me the next chapter or so help me.

Both FR and SR are recommended during the writing process. Who hasn't picked up a book by their favorite author and wished they could pick their brain after finishing the read? Why didn't they make this decision? If only they'd avoided that cliche. The list goes on. You could be that for one of your writer friends, or you could avoid many author mistakes by letting/asking your friends to read your work. And unless you are the ultimate close-to-the-chest writer, there is nothing more enjoyable than having someone read your work.

The only con? Be selective. Don't give your work-in-progress to everyone you know. Don't even give it to every one of your family members and close friends. Pick a maximum of three people. I use two Serial-Readers and one Final-Reader, and that seems to balance pretty well. You can't (and shouldn't try to) please everyone. There are going to be people out there who won't like a decision you make in your writing, or even your style of writing, and you shouldn't get caught in an editorial war.

It takes time and it takes work on their part, but if you can find some Beta Readers, do so. They are the greatest asset to a work in progress beyond an actual agent who wants to throw money at you.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again

In the last three or so weeks, I have written as many chapters in the book I am working on. I wrote 98% of a new chapter just yesterday, and I plan to finish it today. I could even start on the next chapter this same day, easily. If I keep at this rate, I could be done by Christmas.

I'm reading more-- and writing more-- than I have in months. In fact, I'm reading and writing more this last month than I have in years.

All that free time I never had during college has been storing up. I could probably count the books I read 'for fun' during my college years on two hands. I just didn't have the time. Every spare moment was spent studying or catching up on the quantities of reading assignments and papers that I had to do each day (English major, Creative Writing minor...explains a lot. And when you throw a double minor in Studio Art into the mix, in addition to the 'Core' program in Philosophy/Rhetoric my liberal arts school requires but would count anywhere else as a second major, well...). I kept up my blog, but that was about the only writing I did 'for me'. Everything else got pushed farther and farther back.

Since graduation, however-- even though I work full-time and have my own place to clean and manage-- I've read more and written more than in those four years combined. I've plowed through half a dozen books, at least, and I pick up a new one the moment I put a finished read down. I have a lot of unread books on my shelves that have been collecting momentum, waiting for me to get back to them. It's an epidemic that I must be ruthless with.

Reading takes up time, that's for sure, but it also does a great thing for writers-- reading breeds writing. It's impossible to be a writer and read a book without occasionally thinking "I bet I could do that better" or "I wonder if I could do that as well?" or "Now why did they make the book end that way?". We learn from reading even when we aren't paying attention.

I've been reading more in the past two months, and I've been writing more in the past two months. Reading is, above all other things-- music, movies, art, nature, exercise-- my muse. I need all the other things as well, but if one of those other sources of inspiration fades for a little while, it doesn't leave nearly as massive an impact as not reading. I couldn't write without music, art, and nature, certainly. But if I had to go without any of those for a little while, it wouldn't immediately stifle my ability to write. Stop reading, though? Gone.

And you know what else breeds writing? Writing. The more you write, the more you will write, because it's as habitual as anything else. It takes practice and constant, meticulous honing. Sometimes you'll spit out 20 pages in one go, sometimes it will take you three hours to craft just one. But no matter how fast or how slow, how clean or rough the first draft may be, you won't write more or faster if you don't write.

Gee. That's rather deep.

And if you give yourself time to write every day, every other day, you will find yourself writing more and more. You'll find yourself writing better. It will get easier. You know how the hardest thing in the world is to pick up a project when you've put it down for five months, five weeks, even five days? That's because momentum dies easily. If you keep the momentum going, it will keep building until you can't pass a day without writing. It will feel odd not to write even a little bit in a day. The creative bug won't leave you alone.

I've been telling myself to stick to a writing schedule for years. But creativity is hard to schedule. The easiest way to handle that? Make every day a scheduled writing day.

So if you'll excuse me for a minute, I have a chapter to finish.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ten Great Books Everyone Should Read

So I saw this idea on another blog (shameless copying here, folks) and thought it a great idea. The form was My Top Ten Books for Adults. I’ve taken that and run with it, but I’ve included young-adult genres as well, since even as an adult I love to read young-adult material. Then again, I still love reading children’s picture books too sometimes. Don’t judge me. I have both Brian Jacques and Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and I’m proud of it!

Thusly this list came to be: Ten Great Books Everyone Should Read

And, almost more importantly, why.

In the category of Non-Fiction:

§  Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. As a Christian (and I would recommend this book to people who are not Christians, as well) it was very intriguing to read a book that takes Christianity and goes through it using logic to conclusion; it is very Aristotelian / Socratic to me, the way Lewis moved from step to step, going through the ideas, facts, and beliefs that make up the Christian faith. Knowing that Lewis was also coming from a non-Christian background (he was actually quite the critic, once upon a time) it was incredible to see him take a belief system he used to look at in skepticism and work it from the ground up. A great read for all who want to learn more about Christianity.

§  All Creatures Great and Small and companion books by James Herriot. You can smell the sheep. Herriot’s descriptions of being a vet in the back country of farmland England are hilarious, detailed, and compelling, revealing not only a unique picture into vet life in the 20th century but also the rustic environment of English farms and their occupants (both furry and not). It doesn’t feel like non-fiction. It feels like sitting next to your favorite uncle and hearing his anecdotes about all the mischief he got into.

In the category of Adult Fiction/Fantasy:

§  The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The father of modern fantasy as we know it, Tolkien spent decades crafting The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is a have-to-read on any book-lover’s list. Not only does Tolkien weave a tale of high fantasy that is compelling and filled with human decision and relation, sword and sorcery, dark lords and elves and little folk, but he also forces you to use your imagination while reading it. He employs a very complex form of writing that is both detailed and sparse—you’ll have to put your visualizing hat on for this one, folks. Imagine this trilogy like a dark chocolate torte with a shot of espresso, and you’ll be close to the mark.

§ Yukon Writings by Jack London. I was thatkid who carried around my father’s leather-bound copy of the Complete Works of Jack London at the age of 10, and the Yukon Writings were by far my favorite. Spanning from the ice-encrusted wilds of wolfdom to the dangerous and intense world of dog-sledding, London was certainly a huge influence on my craving imagination. He has an evocative way of writing that makes you feel the cold. A great tale to read curled up next to a fire with a hot cup of your favorite toddy.
§  Outlander and the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, usually, but this series was obsessing. A romantic comedic fantastical time-travel wild ride, Outlander takes a post WWII nurse and flings her back into 18th century Scotland where she is faced with all the complications and dangers of that war-torn time. This is a book that makes you learn something about culture and history without knowing it. And you’ll love it, too.

In the category of Science Fiction:

§  Young Miles and the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is the science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (and for people who love science fiction, you won’t be able to put them down!). Bujold is the ultimate master at character description and development, weaving seamless heroes and villains who are so real they could jump off the page with their blasters and space ships and land in your living room. The main character, Miles Vorkosigan, is the ultimate in charismatic, loose cannon miscreants who is just genius enough not to get himself killed ten times over. The ultimate space saga.

§  I, Robot and the Robot series by Isaac Asimov. We used to read these stories as campfire tales while buried deep in the mountains, far away from all technology and thoughts of futuristic robotics. It’s nothing like the movie, folks, and that’s in favor of the book. Isaac Asimov is one of the king’s of science fiction, and his Robot stories (including his mysteries with the detectives Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw) are a pillar of the science world. Hilarious and adventurous with a hefty ladling of sarcasm and irony.

§  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. LeGuin is the only writer I know to seamlessly (and I do mean seamlessly) combine fantasy and science fiction into once genre. And while The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel, the essences of deep myth and lore round out the edges into a single pearl of storytelling. Genly Ai is an ambassador on the planet Winter, a sphere locked in an ice age and inhabited by a race that is both male and female at the same time. The struggles to interact with such a people (when the King becomes pregnant, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore) and the political intrigue form a social, scientific, mythological race for survival that takes Ai across the tundra and back again.

In the category of Young Adult Fiction/Fantasy:

§  Beauty by Robin McKinley. This book is my favorite version of Beauty and the Beast that I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. McKinley is a chef with words and descriptions, and her characters are likable, lovable, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and relatable. You get to know the beast as much as you get to know Beauty, and with each page you’ll find yourself rooting for them as they struggle to understand their curse.

§  Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. You may have seen the movie by Miyazaki that is based off of this book, and as a die-hard fan of Miyazaki’s work I can confidently say that the book is way better. Which means it’s plain fantastic. Full of slightly ironic comedy and enchantment, this is a high-urban fantasy mix full of wizards and witches and talking fireplaces.

§  Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce. What do you get when you put the Trickster god in the same room as the daughter of the realm’s spymaster? You get this book, is what you get. Pierce will make you want to put on your gloves and take up the intelligencing business yourself as she transports you from palaces to slaveships to tropical islands where intrigue and plots will challenge all of Aly’s skills at sneaking, networking, and puzzling to good use. Plus a handsome, endearing crow-man named Nawat who wants to give Aly ants as a courtship present. Enough said.
In the category of Honorable Mentions (because when I say ten I can’t just pick ten):

§  Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip, for making me read this book every single year at wintertime and for descriptions so delicious you could eat them.

§  Double Exposure by Piers Anthony, for an amusing flip-of-the-coin genre twist between science fiction and fantasy where high fantastical witchcraft and wizardry lies side by side in cross-dimensional travel with robots and stun guns.
§  Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, for introducing me to a new fairy tale and for weaving characters who sucked me in so deeply I was groaning and cheering almost immediately.

§  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, for an end you’ll never see coming where child-geniuses battle it out in anti-gravity war rooms as the destruction of humanity looms.

§  Dune by Frank Herbert, for another mix of myth and hard science fiction and political intrigue on a desert planet where the spice rules and enormous worms travel beneath the sand.

§  The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, for the best interstellar story about a cross-universal empire and the political upheaval that spans lightyears.

And if all that isn’t enough for you, here’s a list of 100 MORE books you can add to your pile of Have-To-Read-Sometime-In-My-Life.

Because we’re readers. And readers need lists of books. It’s like a hit list.

Er, sort of. We’ll call it a bucket list instead. A book bucket list. A booket list.

I’m stopping now.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Narrative Writing Style

I'm currently reading "Deerskin" by Robin McKinley, one of my all-time favorite authors.

I was surprised to find a writing style completely out of her norm. Usually her books are rich with descriptive text and sharp dialogue and broken easily into chewable chunks of pacing and flow.

"Deerskin" is nothing like that.

This novel, which is based off of the original fairy tale (or at least one of the original known incarnations of this fairy tale) Donkeyskin, is written almost entirely in narrative voice. Which means that there have maybe been a handful of quoted dialogues in the entire book. Nearly everything else is descriptive or thought-based or third-person omniscient, which for those of you who may not be familiar with the term means that it sounds like the author is telling you things and she knows everything about what's going on in the story and the characters.

It's an interesting style to choose, seeing as how the story of the original Donkeyskin is so disturbing anyway. In summary, a king marries the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms (or the land, or the realm, or the world depending on the tale) and they are happily ever after. They have a beautiful daughter and their land prospers. Then the beautiful queen grows ill, and before dying she forces her king to promise her that he will never marry a woman less beautiful than her.

Time passes, and the daughter grows to look just like her mother, and -- having been driven slightly off his rocker in grief from his wife's passing anyway -- the king decides to marry his daughter. From there varying versions of the story involve the princess running away, the princess making wild demands that she hopes her father can never fulfill as prices of her dowry (a dress as bright as the sun, beautiful as the moon, etc.), the princess being raped by her father and then running away, etc. etc. In the end she comes back to the palace in disguise (wrapped in the donkey skin to hide her beauty) and works as a servant girl. She is discovered by her father (again in a myriad of ways depending on the tale, sometimes by accident making a cake and having a ring fall in it, the strangest of which involves her leaving her father hints as to her identity as if she wants him to find her...very odd) and he marries her anyway and they live happily ever after. Sometimes she marries a prince of the court, who finds her 'hints' or accidental losses of jewelry, and she marries him, and her father marries a beautiful widow. A better ending in general.

I know. It's one of the weirder ones. And I'm not sure that "Deerskin" is going to end that way.

And I'm also not sure that this third-person omniscient narrative voice is working for McKinley in this book. It comes across as overly stiff, formal, like she's trying to mimic some dusty old epic with lots of 'thees' and 'thous' and 'fors' and etc. Now there have been no thees and thous, thankfully (though I have nothing against a good thee or thou in general) but there are a lot of 'fors'. Like in the example sentence:

I love my hound greatly, for she is the fleetest creature upon four legs. I will have her by my side always, for she is my right hand and my best friend. Together we will be inseparable, for she is loyal and will never leave me unguarded.

Ahem. Yes. Nice once. Bad twice. Terrible three times in a row.

That's the general flavor of "Deerskin" if not to the degree in my example. But it's dense and not a 'light' read by any means, not in terms of content and not in terms of style. I generally think that books should mix: if you have a lighthearted story to tell, find a deep-water way of telling it. If you have a really dark, horrible story to tell, find a straightforward or easier way of writing it. That way you don't bog down your reader or annoy them with your frippery. Find a balance.