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Friday, December 30, 2011

Voice Lessons with Jennifer Willis

Many thanks to Jennifer Willis for this wonderful guest post about the individuality of a writer's voice and its ever-evolving nature!

One of the nice things about writing is the more you do it, generally the better you get at it.

When I wrote my first novel -- "rhythm" -- ten years ago, I was scared out of my wits. Forget about simply trying to get through a first draft and come up with a cohesive story; I was worried about my prose being clever and literary enough. I fretted over "show vs. tell" and how much exposition to include at what points in the book. Mostly, though I wanted the story to leap off the page with confidence and inspiration. Many readers today still give positive feedback on my first published fiction effort but when I read back over it, all I see is the fear and uncertainty I felt.

I was born to be a writer, as much as anyone else ever has been, but I still wasn't sure that I had a right to write. Why did my book deserve to be read over someone else's? What if I was discovered to be the fraud and poser that I feared I secretly was?

Every writer anguishes over this kind of crap. Not just new writers, but even established and celebrated authors at the height of their craft. I don't want to revel in this angst as some kind of inherent rite of passage -- because it isn't fun and I'd rather spend my time writing or reading or even belly dancing than worrying about whether I'm good enough -- but it is something that seems to plague us all at one time or another.

When I look over my latest novel -- "Valhalla," released in April 2011 -- it's hard for me to imagine that this work came from the same author. My writing style is less literary and more punchy. There's more humor and even a bit of snark. Part of this came about because I'm somewhat less anxious over whether or not I deserve to be a writer. Mostly, though, this evolved simply over the course of writing more -- not just fiction or journalism, but lots of personal email and letters to family and friends. It was when I looked into my personal correspondence and journal entries that I saw my true "writer's personality" emerging. Instead of trying to impress some faceless, nameless reader to whom I had no real connection, I imagined that I was writing my stories for my best friends to read and enjoy.

If you've read Stephen King's insightful "On Writing," you'll recognize this in his advice to write only for your "ideal reader." That's pretty much how I learned to be less rigid and fearful in my own fiction. I found myself including details that I knew would make my sister smile, or slipping in a few asides that would be sure to make my friends laugh.

A writer's voice develops over time. If you look back at your favorite writer's early works, you'll often see the seeds of his/her later personality being planted, but it's often not until much later that the full-bodied voice and tone take command and become one with the story. For me, this means that even though I'm more comfortable with my own distinctive writing voice today, I know that I will continue to grow into myself as time goes on. The only real requirement is that I keep on writing.

Guest Poster Bio: Jennifer Willis is an author and freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Oregonian, Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Writer and other electronic and print publications, and her novels -- "rhythm" and "Valhalla" -- are currently available both as ebooks and in print. She can be found online at jennifer-willis.com

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Healing Art of Writing

Recently, I read this article bit.ly/t6GnpF about how writing is now being used as a form for rehabilitation therapy for returning soldiers. Art therapy is often the only form of creative-based therapy people think of, but I was pleased to discover that more doctors are encouraging writing as a means of relaxation and rehabilitation. In these cases writing is used to ease the pain of traumatic events, but the healing art of writing can be used in many forms and has been for centuries.
The few examples of the emotions that writing can alleviate are:
Sadness: Jotting down feelings of loneliness and depression eradicate the pain by painting it on the page.
Happiness: Telling a story of elation or joy is not a form of bragging, but rather a means to share your happiness with others.
Anger: Venting about a troublesome situation is typical of humans, and writing it down only increases the cathartic nature.
For people dealing with particularly difficult times, writing is an excellent means of therapy. It is akin to watching a movie or reading a book, except you are the creator of the story. The facets of your newly written idea can either reflect your dilemmas or avoid them all-together. That is the beauty of writing. There is no definitive form. There are no restricting rules. You can transform a blank page into a place that only exists in the deepest recesses of your imagination. Writing is limitless.
Storytelling is a form of expressing emotion through the beautiful tangle of words. It can relieve stress, share delights or provide an outlet to experience escapism at its finest. The root of writing and reading is to share a common bond with the characters’ struggles while taking time to escape your own. And at some point, either in the middle of a sentence or at the end of the book, you’ll find the worries of the real world melt away at the stroke of a pen.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gifts for Writers

Leading up to the holiday season, I have searched the depths of the wb for a decent list of gifts for writers that my family and friends might be able to purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to receive non-writing related gifts, especially kitchen-wear I can test in my culinary foodieventures. A micro-plain would be wonderful. But I digress.
Some writers may enjoy getting stereotypical gifts: a pen here, a journal there. Maybe even a bookmark. If that’s your cup of tea, be my guest. But those trinkets can only sustain my interest for a short time. Generally speaking, I would prefer a more personalized present that recognizes my individuality as well as my passion for writing. I can only assume this applies to most scribes. What could fit the bill? If you’re (or the writer you’re buying for is) like me, here’s a list of superb gifts for writers:
A Kindle / Tablet- Okay, so they’re expensive. I know. But for the reader / writer in your life, this could be an indispensable gift. I would suggest a Kindle for those more interested in reading on-the-go and a Tablet for people who want to write in the car, at the bar, in a box, with a fox, etc.
A Specific Book- Usually authors seek out books in their genre for comparison, study, pleasure, what have you. Listen carefully and find out what the writer in your life is looking to read. Then, buy it.
A Planner- Everyone could use a good planner. More importantly, people who are stretched between writing projects could definitely use a good time management facilitator.
Software for Formatting- Screenwriter, novelist, poet- every wordsmith needs a good editor. Sometimes a single pair of eyes misses errors, so getting a program that will become ones personal editor is a great idea. For example: final draft, or editing programs.  
Cross-Interest Gifts:
Create Your Own Cookbook- Combing delights is always a clever way to tune into your loved ones interest. For a writer that cooks, giving a cookbook that has cards to write on and sleeves for new recipes is a multipurpose gift.
A Notebook – So I dissed journals a bit earlier and now I’m suggesting you purchase one (under a pseudonym). I don’t use the pen-to-paper method as some writers may, the computer is my medium, but I do enjoy jotting down notes along my travels in nature for future use.  And the writer you know may too.
Hopefully these were helpful suggestions and that the writer in your life is ecstatic when peeling off the paper of your well-thought-out present. Until next time, Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Writing Tips: Structure

Before you write, you have a few structural things to consider. How will you present your story: Will it be linear or non-linear? Will there be flashbacks or time-skips into the future? Will the climax come in the thick of the plot or towards the end? Whose point of view will the story be told from? These are just a few questions you should be asking yourself.
To get on track, the best suggestion I can give is: Create an outline. Not only does an outline allow writers to review the plot but it also offers a means of reflection on how the story will flow together. Generally speaking, a well constructed plot requires an exposition (rising action), a climax and a dénouement (falling action). This shell is acceptable as is, but it can be improved by peppering the overall plot with counterpoints of action that both help and hinder the protagonist.
Here’s how I go about outlining:
I always start out simple. Where will the plot begin and where will it end.
After marking off these points, I move on to defining the climax.
Then, Insert the major events of your narrative as they happen in the rising and falling action segments.
Once on paper, or in a word doc, you can see how to move events around so they will suit the story better or leave your outline alone until further drafting. Personally, I like gradual rising and falling actions with the climax closer to the end. This inclination varies by writer, so don’t feel constricted to my structural preference.
Beyond the basic outline, I typically create a few others.  Outlines that detail the different character arcs and romance arcs. Once these are perfected to my liking as separate outlines, I can blend them together and viola! You have before you, a map of your story. Follow each point as you have planned and your tale will not only flow, but have a structural backbone to support several permutations of editing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writer’s Sketch 5: Owners Away, Pets Will Play

The outside becomes exposed for a brief moment, its sweet, clean air enticing my nose. But as soon as wafting scents of animals and summer grass flood my senses, the door closes behind my owners and the lock clicks shut.  Finally, the house belongs to me. But what to do? Last time they left it was only a short time. And they returned without anything for me! It’s just as well, I suppose. I did tear apart their window blankets. That was fun! Shreds of scarlet silk everywhere. They littered the floor like the crinklies the young owners throw around when the smelly tree is brought inside.
Time for fun! I turn on my paws, scurry up the stairs with my tail perked and skid into the meal room. Casually, I lick my paw and observe the quiet space. Meow? Just checking no one is home. Sometimes the young owners sneak up on me. Grab my tail; hiss at me. It’s awful. I want to avoid that at all costs if I’m to grace the forbidden counter. My ears don’t register any significant noises. Just a dripping faucet in the owner’s litter room. In a single leap I’ve landed on the slippery counter-top.  It reeks of an itchy smell that makes me sneeze.
That’s when I spot it. The strange jar that looks like me. It’s where the snacks are kept. Scrumptious treats of chewy meat, crunchy nibblets filled with pate, and even my favorite, fishy flakes. I nuzzle the top to pry the jar open but it’s no use. Rubbing against it won’t work either. No, the me jar must break to be opened. Gently pressing my forehead against the ceramic container, I inch it closer to the edge before it tumbles over the side. My pads brace my startled body atop the counter. It was so loud! Pieces of the me jar have scattered across the vinyl floor, and so did its contents.
Success! Delicious treats all for me! I devour the snacks as if I won’t ever be fed again. It’s not that I’m hungry; I just know when the owners return they will be mad. And I may not get treats for some time. Maybe this wasn’t a good plan? At this point it doesn’t matter, I’ve achieved my goal. The delectable flavors of meat melt in my mouth as I chomp the nuggets into pieces. A metal jingle rings in my ears. The door. They returned! My claws grasp the hardwood, scraping as I flee down the hallway to the lowest room. A hop, a jump and I'm tucked away where no one will find me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review of Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins has produced a high quality, well executed series based on speculative-modern gladiatorial games featuring who else, but children. As a child of the Harry Potter phenomena, I grew to expect series’ to instantly capture my attention and draw me into their whimsical worlds. But that was not so.  A handful of disappointing first installments left me jaded as I took on Collins’ story. I was proven wrong as I hungered to read page-after-page and ultimately book-after-book.
Focusing on the titular first book for this review, I found myself most intrigued by her style of writing. I’m a first-person-hater to begin with, but she convinced me that this unreliable and slightly narcissistic style can be written well and furthermore, enjoyable. I cherished the intimate understanding of Katniss Everdeen this point of view provided and it certainly helped to piecing together the sadistic world of Panem. From the reaping to the final play of the games, Collins succeeded in bringing Katniss’ emotions to life.
The flow from one chapter to another was impeccable; her cliffhangers are well placed and create a burning desire to read more. On the other hand, I would have enjoyed the exposition and resolution chapters of the story to be more than summary or an instant drop-off. Accordingly, the pacing of the novel left a sense of incompleteness as some seemingly important moments were all but glazed over. I don’t mind the passage of time cutting to the chase, but not over the chase (I’ll admit this applies more aptly to the sequels, but does show itself in this first book). The overall plot is generally predictable, at least for a seasoned reader, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure it brings to each passing page.
An achievement of note from Hunger Games is displayed in Collins' array of quirky characters. They reflect the bizarre circus The Capitol encourages while also demonstrating the struggles of the surrounding districts. Peeta, the boy with the bread, as she calls him, was one I quickly related to and found positively charming (it helped that he sparked most of the unexpected plot turns and reminds me of my own main character). His way with words was not lost on this writer. There are other characters, Gale and Prim, who one would assume deserved more page time by virtue of their relationship to Katniss, but were as fleeting and underdeveloped as shooting stars. And yet, Rue, a girl who crosses into Katniss’ world for a brief part of the games, drew me close to tears upon her exit.
The games themselves were brilliantly described, not only bringing the arena to life, but allowing the reader to feel the fear and paranoia of all the tributes. Not neglecting a single aspect of horror, Collins does not shy away from grotesque killings or descriptions of injuries. This does benefit the frankly deranged concept, but it also rises the reading age to above her intended target audience. Furthermore, while I understand a lovelorn Katniss caught between two suitors propelled the plot, it drew nearer to a cliché with every question about her feelings she left ignored. I can let it slide given her base of readers, but it was an aggrivating point worth mentioning. The spectacle of the games brings to light the absurdity of this world in an approachable manner that young readers can comprehend. Especially noteworthy is in the final play of the game. At this turning point, Collins’ creates a benchmark for young readers to understand that individual identity should always come out the victor.  
Although a bit brainless, Katniss engages the reader throughout her heart wrenching journey as Collins’ capitalizes on delivering a story that holds nothing back.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Musings on Sequels and Prequels

I would like to clarify at the beginning of this post that I am not against prequels or sequels. A prime example would be the newest Batman trilogy. Batman Begins was more or less a prequel; introducing Bruce and his road to becoming the caped crusader. The Dark Knight is a sequel to the first installment; in my opinion, arguably the best superhero film ever made (Thank you, Heath Ledger/Joker).  So there you have it, I can find happiness in the before and after of a clever concept.
With that said, I also have to wonder sometimes about the importance of sequels. If the tale has been told, I would generally prefer it not to be soiled by a shoddy follow-up. Disney has long been a culprit of expanding a successful story into multiple incarnations. Many of them not worth viewing. Nevertheless, there are notable mentions that should be sought after: The Lion King 2 (Shakespeare really does improve on the African savannah), Toy Story 2/3 (No other franchise could have made me cry in the theatre and proceed to return home, an adult, to play with my childhood toys).  
The reason these (and other sequels) were successful was the planning. Taking time to expand the story with dignity. A haphazard mishmash of ideas cannot be stabilized by even the cleverest foundation. CoughMatrix2/3Cough.  Sequels generally suffer from (what I’ll call) longevititis. The longer they run the worst they become.  
Then, there are the prequels. Their likelihood of achieving greatness is the same as the sequels; dependent on character development, a strong plot and the carefully planned introduction of ideas. Unlike the sequels, these lead-in tales are often admired as an original manner of expanding the franchise. And it can be. But it can’t work for everyone. One such pair occurs in the same universe; the Wolverine prequel paled in comparison to X-Men First Class. The establishment of the x-men was more compelling than the angsty rampages of Wolverine. Another wildly inventive prequel came from a powerhouse conglomerate that I had previously paid no attention to: Star Trek. Nearly everything about its patchwork of stories and characters meshed together seamlessly to introduce the young Enterprise crew.
The biggest drawback of prequels lies in the fact that the audience already knows the characters and has envisioned their beginnings. Sequels remain mysterious, but prequels can be left to the devices of the fans. Due to these expectations, some prior stories can never hold up.
Star Wars. I have few complaints about its prequel trilogy. Beautifully presented, fresh new faces, hints at the original trilogy- what else could I ask for? Unfortunately, I believe the most glaring problem reared its sith head in Anakin’s transition to the dark side. Pitiful. Unbelievable. Laughable, even. I’ll end my grievance there.
Although many times, prequels and sequels have gone wrong, it can be done right. I stand by saying that it is all in the planning. I would rather the preceding installments of a story take years to debut and be inspiring than rush to premiere with a resounding thud.