Friday, October 29, 2010

The Not Writing Mission

In the interest of keeping myself motivated with this "expose yourself to the outside world" plan (detailed by my blog post a few days ago here), I am going to start posting things. Not writing things.

1. This article about introversion. It's kind of long, but I especially like this part: "In a series of studies in which subjects were presented with an effortful task such as taking a test, thinking rationally, or giving a speech, introverts did not choose to invoke happy feelings, reports Boston College psychologist Maya Tamir. They preferred to maintain a neutral emotional state. Happiness, an arousing emotion, may be distracting for introverts during tasks. By contrast, extraverts reported a preference to feel "happy," "up," or "enthusiastic" and to recall happy memories while approaching or completing the tasks." Having spent my entire life dwelling in neutral states while getting work done, I find it fascinating that not everyone does that. Extraverts, teach me your confusing ways.

2. A list of interesting facts about Jupiter. Including: it's so large all the other planets could fit inside it. And: "if Jupiter got any more massive, it would actually get smaller. Additional mass would actually make the planet more dense, and start pulling it in on itself."

3. This poem by ee cummings. Yeah, yeah, I know. Just read it:

who are you,little i
(five or six years old)
peering from some high
window;at the gold
of november sunset
(and feeling:that if day
has to become night
this is a beautiful way)

4. Ice. (Be careful about clicking that link-- I can't vouch for the clean-ness of the pics on the sidebar.)

5. Monstropedia. Because wikipedia's not enough-- we need specialty encyclopedias. I like that there's a section for serial killers. Seems a bit out of place, no? Still: interesting.

If you have a link to something interesting you encountered this week, post it in the comments! I want to see.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bookanista Thursday: Delirium

Synopsis (from Goodreads): Before scientists found the cure, people thought love was a good thing. They didn’t understand that once love -the deliria- blooms in your blood, there is no escaping its hold. Things are different now. Scientists are able to eradicate love, and the governments demands that all citizens receive the cure upon turning eighteen. Lena Holway has always looked forward to the day when she’ll be cured. A life without love is a life without pain: safe, measured, predictable, and happy. But with ninety-five days left until her treatment, Lena does the unthinkable: She falls in love.

This concept could easily have gone awry. Stories about love tend to go that way sometimes. They wander into the realm of cheese and never return, which I think is a shame, because there is a way to write about romantic love without breaking out the Velveeta. And Lauren Oliver does it.

A few reasons why I loved this book:

1. It was well-written. Lauren Oliver strings words together like a poet-- she makes beautiful things surprising, if that makes sense. Sometimes writers fall back on the expected, and it can still be beautiful, but that's not Delirium. Unexpected and stunning-- that's how I would describe the writing.

Read this quote: "Somewhere deeper in the city a motor is running, a distant, earthy growl, like an animal panting. In a few hours the bright blush of morning will push through all that darkness, and shapes will reassert themselves, and people will wake up and yawn and brew coffee and get ready for work, everything the same as usual. Life will go on. Something aches at the very core of me, something ancient and deep and stronger than words: the filament that joins each of us to the root of existence, that anicent thing unfurling and resisting and grappling, desperately for a foothold, a way to stay here, breathe, keep going."

2. The world felt real. With some dystopian books, I have trouble believing that the world could actually turn out that way, even given the right set of circumstances. But with Delirium, I got the sense that it took place in an actual neighborhood, one that I could go and see, but with this looming sense of awfulness that is the fact that no one loves each other, no one can love each other. It's just a few notches away from where we are-- add a few dashes of government control and a "cure" for love and a few more rules/procedures/rituals and you have the world of Delirium. It does not feel like somewhere else; it feels like here.

One thing that helped this were the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, taken from made-up historical/religious/etc. documents related to the "dystopian concept". They gave me the sense that this entire movement in history had occurred before the opening of the novel, and that if I kept reading I could connect the dots from where I stand today and where Lena stood in the narrative.

3. It wasn't just a love story. Oliver's focus is not just on how romantic relationships are impacted by the love cure; she also went into the realm of family and friendship, too. About how those relationships break without love, and about how friendships would change without love. What I love about this is the way it's done-- with subtlety, so that you almost don't notice how terrible things are until suddenly, you do, and you ache for what Lena has lost as a result of the world's dissolution. Something I'd like to see more of in YA books is an exploration of many different kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones, so this book did that for me.

4. The ending. I'm not going to tell you what happens. But...AHHHH.

Delirium is out on February 1st, which feels like a long way away, but you can pre-order it in all the usual places (and it's on Indiebound!). I'm going to go do that, actually. Also, you really won't be able to get me to shut up about this, so I'll cough suggestively again when it's actually in stores.

Oh! Also, quotable quote: "I love you. Remember. They cannot take it."


And be sure to check out what the other Bookanistas are up to!:

Christine Fonseca and Lisa and Laura Roecker are raving over MOCKINGBIRDS
Jamie Harrington is dying over CRESCENDO.
Kirsten Hubbard is gushing over ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS.
Shannon Messenger is amazed over THE SEARCH FOR WONDLA and her giveaway.
Carolina Valdez Miller interviews the incredible Daisy Whitney.
Megan Miranda is blown away by SHIP BREAKER.

The Bookanistas are a group of writers who are at various stages in the publishing process and have decided to band together to recommend and promote the books we love. As writers we've made a conscious decision to post only about books that we're excited to read or books that we've already read and loved. Every Thursday we'll have a new Bookanista blog chain that covers various topics – upcoming ARCs, books we've read and enjoyed, and even cover reviews.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Not Writing, or Why Your Brain Is An Ice-Cream Maker

The reason I haven't been blogging as much recently is that I am in the process of learning an important lesson, which is: in order to write, you have to not write.*
*This goes for other creative acts, too. Painting, drawing, photography, furniture-building, whatever. But I'm a writer so I'm going to talk about writing.

The other day I was talking to my editor about feeling a little burned out, like this book is the most difficult thing I've ever written, and not because of its contents-- more because this is the only substantial writing project I've done as a full-time writer, without school to distract me. And she told me to take a vacation. Which seems silly, right? Why would I need a vacation? Isn't my entire life a vacation? I mean, seriously. But the gears started churning.

Now, if you're anything like me, you don't do well on extended vacations. I get antsy and listless and all I want is my morning cup of tea, at my desk, in front of my computer, in silence. I am a person who enjoys routine. Who is happiest when everything is in its proper place. There are many problems with that trait of mine, namely that I find it difficult to cope with change, but that's another story entirely.

And then the Editor of Wonder suggested days (one at a time, not several strung together) of complete detachment from the writing. Days of taking the train downtown and wandering through an art museum, or going for long walks in distant forest preserves (okay, I don't know exactly what she suggested, but that's the gist of it). Days of absorption.

I used to absorb things all the time, because I was in school. If you ask me what inspired certain pieces of writing, I can look in my "school" folder on my computer, figure out what I was studying at the time I wrote it, and that's it, that's the inspiration. When I came up with the idea for Divergent I was in Psych 101. When I tweaked that idea, four years later, I was grappling with legalism and rolling my eyes at self-help books. It wasn't like I sat down and thought, what real-world ideas am I going to cram into this writing project? It's that my writing was informed by what I was exposed to in the real world.

The lesson I am learning: not writing is as important as writing. And I don't mean not writing like doing what you have to-- paying bills, and painting kitchens, and wrestling with ComEd over the phone (those are my current responsibilities), although those things are certainly important. I mean not writing like browsing the Internet for interesting articles about psychological phenomena, or reading things that have nothing to do with young adult literature (I've been reading poems. I don't even like poetry, really), or, seriously, wandering around art museums or driving to local forest preserves to reminisce about elementary school field trips or baking or watching episodes of QI to learn trivia about crab-catching off the coast of Florida. Or whatever, as long as it is completely unrelated to the words that have taken over your entire life. My entire life.

I am learning that you cannot write well if you are not engaged with the world. And I don't think that you can't write at all if you aren't engaged with the world, because you've probably lived enough life to piece together a convincing manuscript. But if the information I know and the thought patterns I've developed remain constant, I will never come up with anything new, different, interesting, intriguing, or enlightening. And what I write will be somehow lacking in texture and depth. I am sure of it.

The writing mind is like an ice cream maker. It will always produce ice cream, but unless you intervene, that ice cream will always be vanilla. You have to acquire new ingredients if you want to make the ice cream taste like something else, or have an interesting texture. Chocolate chips. Berries. Nuts. You get the idea.

Because vanilla will never be anything other than "nice" or "fine."

And if someone describes my writing as "nice" or "fine"...I will smack my head against a wall.

The world is a fascinating place. Not everything interests me, but a lot of things do, and I'm trying to get in touch with them again. I'll let you know how it goes. I'll even try to post pictures.

And I encourage you, if you're having the same problem that I am, to go! Go out into the world and remember why it's so freaking interesting! I'm on a mission. Join me.

Happy not writing, everyone.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


(Sorry about the glare in that video-- it wasn't quite that bad before I uploaded it!

For those of you who can't watch that video because you're hard at work (or for those who prefer to read rather than watch):


Yesterday I had a little Twitter conversation with my editor, the fabulous Molly O'Neill that went something like this:

M: Are you at home?
Clueless V: Yep! Soon I'll have a new address to send you, too.
(Note: I am moving soon, so that's not quite as random as it sounds.)
M: Check your front porch!
V: ...Really?

And then I sprinted to the front door in a state of pajama-clad disarray, as evidenced by these four-minute-later reaction shots... which I disregard the need for a hairbrush, real clothing, or any semblance of dignity. Yes, that is me about to kiss a book.

The lovely people over at HarperTeen tweeted a picture of the box of ARCs soon afterward. Look at THIS!

Owly Images

A few notes about the ARCs:

1. My book comes out in May, so the ARCs won't be distributed to reviewers and bloggers for awhile.
2. I'm sorry for the tease.
3. But I had to share the excitement.

This is what I keep thinking to myself: My NAME is on it! MY name. And it's like...a thing! That you can HOLD! In your HANDS!

Bet you didn't know I was so inarticulate while thinking to myself.

AHHH! I can't wait for everyone to read!

Monday, October 11, 2010

What I Learned About Dialogue, Thanks to Grey's Anatomy

I was never one of those Grey's Anatomy watching people. Not for any particular reason, because we all know I'm not a television snob (since I frequently watch a little show called America's Next Top Model), but I just didn't watch it. But sometimes, at around noon, I have to take a break from the writing and the only thing on television is, you guessed it, Grey's Anatomy on Lifetime. Oh, Lifetime. What a channel.

I've watched a few episodes in the past few months, and I have realized something: you can learn a lot about dialogue from Grey's Anatomy. I know what you're thinking. How so? Is it because their writers set such a good example?

The answer to that is: no. No, they do not. They set a pretty
bad example, actually, which is why the next time I need a break I'm going to go for a walk rather than find out what happens between whatshisface with the hair and whatsherface with the scrubs and their illegitimate child and their patient with leaves growing out of his nose, or whatever.

As I watched, I found myself wondering, what exactly is it that makes this dialogue bad? And how can I avoid whatever makes it bad in my own dialogue? I did a little research, and I've isolated several examples.

Item 1: Repetition Is Not Always Your Friend

Lex, I'm still in love with you. I tried not to be, but it didn't work. And Sloane's gone. There's no baby. And I don't wanna sleep around. I want another chance. I'm in love with you.

This is fairly typical of Grey's Anatomy dialogue, from what I've seen. There is a bold statement that pretty much summarizes what comes after, sort of like a thesis. In this case:
I'm still in love with you. And then there is a more fleshed out explanation of that statement-- above, all that stuff about the baby and the trying and the not sleeping around. And then that bold statement is repeated for emphasis (like when you put your thesis statement in the first sentence of your conclusion paragraph). As if people really speak in five paragraph essays.

Seriously, though. Look at this:

Thesis: I'm Still In Love With You

Body Paragraph 1: I Tried Not To Be, And It Didn't Work

Body Paragraph 2: Sloane's Gone; There's No Baby

Body Paragraph 3: I Don't Wanna Sleep Around
Conclusion: I Want Another Chance; I'm In Love With You*

*=Thesis, Repeated For Emphasis

Yeah. So. Some people definitely repeat themselves a lot in conversation. But two things about that: A. Unlike on Grey's Anatomy, not
everyone repeats themselves, and B. People generally find that kind of repetition annoying, so you have to be careful about how you use it. The thing about repetition is, it's a tool that you can use to make one character's manner of speaking different from another character's manner of speaking. But it is not the normal base line for most people.
Item 2: Speeches Are Called "Speeches" For A Reason

George was a surgeon. He had a purpose. He wanted to save lives. Now he doesn't get the chance. Now he doesn't get the chance to do anything anymore. But you do. You could go to medical school. You could hang out with your freaking friends. I don't care what you do, just go do something with your life, because you have one. You lived, and George didn't! And I know that feels horrible and shocking and terrifying, but you lived. So go live your freaking life.

Let us, for a moment, ignore the fact that this quote basically restates the same thing over and over again, adding no new information each time. I am focusing instead on its length. This paragraph is delivered in one single piece, Izzie Stevens to...this other chick. A few things wrong with this picture:

A. People don't speak in speeches. The definition of a speech?
A form of communication in spoken language, made by a speaker before an audience for a given purpose. They are a separate form of communication, distinct from normal conversation. Generally, the only time people give speeches is when they are planned and prepared. And if people do speak in a larger chunk, it's far more disorganized and rambly than that, unless your character is a good public speaker or has particularly organized thoughts. I am certainly leaving room for that possibility, but again, long streams of dialogue should be used carefully and on purpose, not as a normal occurrence.

B. People don't always just sit and listen while someone lectures them. I feel like, in real life, the odds are good that the chick listening to that speech would have interrupted Izzie Stevens before the whole lecture got going. Of course, it's possible that she wouldn't, but it's something to think about: is my character the kind of person who just stands there and takes it? Or no?

Item 3: Not Everyone Says Exactly What They Mean

I'm not good at this. I'm not good at ...relationships or talking about stupid feelings. And you are, so maybe you could teach me or something. Tell me where I go wrong.

This is one of those "show, don't tell" things. I mean, really, I should know that Alex is not good at relationships just by watching the show, but the writers don't trust me to get it, so they put the lines in his mouth and have him explain it to me, just in case. Not a good move.

One of the critiques I got in a writing class once was: when people fight, they don't always discuss what they're actually fighting about. Okay, that's sort of unclear-- what I mean is, on the surface, the characters are yelling about who let the dishes sit in the sink for three days, but under the surface, they're fighting about how she doesn't communicate with him anymore, or how he's been working too much. Know what I mean? People resist confrontation, and they don't always know how to express themselves, so sometimes, they don't say exactly what they mean-- because they don't always know exactly what they mean. They barely know themselves.

So if you have a character who knows himself, knows what he's thinking and feeling, and says it, that is a very special kind of character. Not to be used lightly.

Basically, what I have learned is this: every writer, unless you're jaw-droppingly amazing and perfect, has a bad dialogue default setting. Mine is kind of Item 3-- my characters tend to be very straightforward. What we need to do is learn how to use that default setting sparingly, to develop character, and not constantly, to form a dialogue base line.

Easier said than done, I know.

Any other dialogue tips, anyone?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Divergent Video!

Huge thanks to the people at Harper for making it (and for making it so well)!

Also, I finally managed to create one of those pages on Facebook for myself, so if you feel compelled to "like" it (how weird is that system, by the way?), please do so! I promise I will update it with juicy news whenever juicy news occurs. Here it is.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Rules: Friends of Creativity (And Enemies of Car Accidents)

When people find out I'm a writer, they tend to ask a lot of questions about the writing process. (Generally, "How do you do that? Just sit down and write a book?") And I understand that, because it's probably mysterious to the outside observer, like I just shut myself into a room and ideas burst from every fingertip like gold ribbon and Skittles.

Anyway, I think talking about specific aspects of The Process can be interesting. So while I was considering this question a few days ago, I realized that I've started doing something that helps me immensely, and it is: I have rules.

I have rules that govern the writing of the manuscript, enforcing constraints on what can and cannot happen in a given story.

For example: my protagonist cannot get into a car accident. And not just because she's never in a car, but because of my rule, which is that the plot cannot be advanced by something that happens by accident. Now, if my protagonist had done something terrible to Some Guy and Some Guy drove his car head-on into her car at 100 miles per hour with the intention of killing her, that's a different story, but in my mind, that's no longer an accident.

Another rule is: for better or worse, my protagonist must be at least partially responsible for the things that happen to her.

I come up with these rules because I don't want the plot to escape me and become something I don't like without my knowledge. I know that I get frustrated by plots where, if the accident hadn't happened, the story wouldn't have advanced, or by characters who don't seem to have a lot of agency (agency meaning, a means of exerting power or influence), so I decide I'm going to try my best to make my plot as purposeful as possible, and give my characters as much agency as they can realistically have, and that's just how it's going to be.

Another rule I have is, always use something that was already there, rather than introducing something new. Sometimes that means characters, and sometimes it means taking certain elements of the story and bringing them back to cause more havoc. And sometimes this means ignoring the rule and coming up with something new because it's better that way, but still, at least I've given it my full consideration.

Having these rules and being aware of them actually helps me with the writing process. A few days ago I realized that one of the plot developments in what I'm working on just didn't sit well with me. I couldn't figure out why, until I remembered the rule about agency. My character exerted very little influence over what was supposed to happen to her-- actually, that was the problem, that it was supposed to happen to her. So I brainstormed a new solution. The guideline made it much easier to discard ideas as they came to me. Something would pop into my head and I would say, does that solve the agency problem? And then I would say, not really, and throw it out. Until I found a solution that did.

Sometimes it's hard to figure out if you're writing something because it's good and works for the story or because it's the simple solution and you're just plain exhausted from all the thinking you're doing, and I think the rules help. And I think the rules change for each story-- because it's not like there are no successful stories about car accidents out there, it's just that car accidents don't happen to belong in mine.

I tend to think of being creative like it involves twirling around in a field full of wildflowers, but that's not how it works. Because there are brambles in that field, and they will totally scrape your ankles if you keep up with that spinning. Creativity doesn't necessarily mean that there are no restrictions; it means that you find a way to maneuver within those restrictions toward something remarkable.

So: rules. I follow them.


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