Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Divergent Writers

Warning:  While there aren’t any DIVERGENT spoilers in this post, if you’ve never read Veronica Roth’s book (or seen the movie), you may end up a little lost.

Some people find writing easy, like spreading butter over toast or falling down the staircase. Others struggle, as if they wake up every morning and decide to jab pins into their eyeballs (sorry, morbid) instead of doing normal things like drinking coffee, smelling flowers, and dressing in the car en route to work (by the way, I think that counts as a Dauntless activity). Like Tris and everyone else in DIVERGENT, I tend to group my fellow writers into factions—those who draft quickly, those who draft slowly, those who prefer roughing it, those who prefer editing, those who hate their work, those who embrace it, those who are creative and original, those who plagiarize Lord Byron when nobody’s looking, etc… However, as I get older and watch the world expand beyond my own narrow scope, I begin to recognize that these sorts of categorizations are just as limited as Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. People are multi-dimensional and dynamic; no wonder I struggle even to label myself.

In order to stay sane as I write book after book (because I intend to be at this as long as I live), I need to recognize the importance of these—and other—factions. The importance of being Divergent. For instance, if I want my works to mean something to others, I have to be honest and open. As with the Candor, I need to be truthful, even when it hurts, and I need to be reasonable. If I write characters who are not accurate, with relationships that would never play out in real life, I am lying both to myself and to my readers. I am wasting our time. And I am not doing anyone any favors.

However, I also need to be gentle, kind, and palatable; my message should by no means overpower my story. After all, I am entertaining, not preaching a sermon or ranting on a soap box. That’s where Amity comes in. Sure, what I have to say may seem important—it may be important—but it’s useless to shove it down others’ throats. No one likes being forced to believe something, so if that’s my approach, I’d be better off growing flowers or tending crops. When I alienate my chosen audience, my words mean nothing. I am not in charge of everyone, so the best I can do is reason with people and write something worth their time, something that makes them think about small stuff and big stuff and medium stuff. Book after book after book.

Which brings me to Erudite. As a writer, I am a thinker. I read novels that broaden my mind, novels I agree with and novels I don’t. Either way, I expand my horizons by exposing myself to different thought processes. While I don’t have to accept everything others say, I still learn to understand people better and to see where they are coming from (and thus how to better reason with them). But leaving ideology behind, I love reading words and learning facts and crafting worlds. When I’m in the right mood, I could debate style for hours or dissect favorite pieces of literature or trade information on random topics. Like other Erudite, I find knowledge intoxicating so I push my brain to the limits. And sometimes all this writing and processing leaves me exhausted.

When I take breaks, I find myself at war with the Abnegation side of me. Softly yet insistently, it tells me that I am being lazy and selfish sitting around reading books and calling it “research”. Since I’m not doing anything for anyone, I’m accomplishing nothing. I should keep writing—at least that will benefit someone, hopefully. This is the part of me that also questions whether writing is a proper pursuit, or if it is merely self-indulgent nonsense. Is it a real job? Is it worthwhile? Everyone has something to say, and everyone clambers to be heard; why don’t I do the world a favor and just shut up so at least there will be one less voice adding to the ruckus? (Because, as we all know, Abnegation and Erudite don’t get along very well.)

And then there is the thrill-seeking side of me, the Dauntless bit that manifests itself from time to time. Stressful and grueling as it can be, writing pulls me. Sometimes it’s hard and scary, like jumping onto a moving train or climbing a Ferris wheel, but that’s part of the main attraction. If it were easy, it wouldn’t really be worth my time. Writing is dangerous; I craft my darlings lovingly and then send them out into the world, knowing full well that some people will rip them apart, some will misunderstand them, and others won’t ever hear of them. It takes that Dauntless side of me to keep going, even when the rewards seem nonexistent while the punishments stack up all around me. Because writing can be very punishing, and it definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Not to mention, it takes the Dauntless side to use the Candor side—you have to be brave to be honest; you can’t separate the two.

Just as Tris learns in DIVERGENT, you can’t simply choose one faction as your own and deny the importance of the others. In order to be truly whole, in order to function properly, you have to embrace every virtue. And yeah, sometimes they will seem to be at war with each other, the way Abnegation and Erudite find themselves at odds, but that’s good too. It keeps us balanced.

So when it comes to writing, don’t be Factionless. Be peaceful and selfless and honest and brave and smart. Be Divergent.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Contrariness and Book Reviews

As a writer, I tend to find book reviews discouraging (and these are for other people’s novels, not my own, so you know I have a problem). Maybe some of you understand because you’re in my shoes as well (I thought they were getting a bit cramped), but let me explain for those of you who don’t. When I study the differing opinions of others, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no such thing as “the perfect novel”. Far from it. While I may love a story to death, someone else might be just as willing to tear it to pieces. And rudely. Likewise, people adore books I hate, emulate authors I disdain, and tout styles I despise. So trying to write “the perfect novel” is about as effective as trying to lick your elbow, only less fun.

It turns out our fingerprints aren’t the only things that make us unique. You thought political discussions could get pretty heated? Try authorial debates. Everyone has his or her own idea of what makes a novel work and how to write said novel. Wouldn’t it be easier if there were one universal right way and one universal wrong way? Then maybe I could stop talking to my bookshelves and generally acting like a crazy person.

Unfortunately, I often catch myself falling into the trap of oversimplification, and I become like that individual who, in aiming to please everyone, pleases no one. For instance, I like tight, beautiful prose. While I don’t want writers to waste words, I also want poetic and descriptive language. I like sentences of middling length that don’t always start with words like “the” or “I”, “he” or “she”. Those are boring words; give me lines that kick off with prepositions and verbs and (GASP!) adverbs. Make your sentences lock together like puzzle pieces, each one flowing into the next with no pause, not even for a breath. To me, storytelling isn’t just pacing and plot; it’s art and beauty and rhythm. But I realize there are those who prefer short punchy sentences with fewer frills. So when I edit my story to my satisfaction, I need to do so knowing that some will wish it were different. If I can’t let myself be all right with that, I’m liable to go nuts.

Case in point:  A little while ago, I was dithering over whether or not to buy IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Ren Suma. Already I had read the first chapter, and I had rather liked it. I’d also read a favorable account from a reasonably trustworthy source. Still, I was unsure. Once the money is paid, the money is paid, and I want to know I’m getting a good deal. So I decided to read the customer feedback on Amazon, hoping that might give me an idea of how to proceed. And it was thoroughly depressing. Of all the reviews I skimmed, about 98% hated the book, or at least weren’t thrilled with their purchase. They all seemed to list similar reasons—a dark, confusing, disturbing plot that petered off and ended in an anti-climax. Several flat-out said they wished they’d been warned to avoid IMAGINARY GIRLS, so they were extending that desired word of caution.

Contrary person that I am, I bought the book. SO THERE! (And it wasn’t because I felt bad for the author, though who wants that many bad reviews?)

Let me tell you—I absolutely LOVED that book. In fact, the very bits that others hated were the ones I adored, like Ruby’s complex, hypnotic personality—both selfish and sacrificial. Sure, there were parts of the work that I didn’t appreciate. It wasn’t as clean as I would have liked. But when it comes down to it, there isn’t a single story in my shelf that I would not have written differently. I enjoy the pacing and the action of Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT, but I can’t allow myself to focus on the style because I know it would mar my enjoyment. I’ve been almost skimming the INHERITANCE CYCLE in places because Christopher Paolini uses far too many words. All three authors are imperfect at their crafts (like every author), and there are others whom I consider better who had to fight harder to make it (I hear that C.S. Lewis, for instance, suffered about eight hundred rejections before ever publishing anything). There is no formula for success, no magic method to make you famous. Even hard work won’t guarantee you a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list.

So when I find myself more and more discouraged as I read book reviews and despair of ever writing anything that millions of people will buy, I need to remember some very important facts. Writing isn’t about glamor, it isn’t about popularity, and it isn’t about money (though I’d love to make it a full time job). I spend hours hunched over my computer, ignoring aching wrists and drinking far too much coffee, not because I want people to know my name and praise my talent to the skies, but because I fear a future without stories. I can’t think of myself, ten years down the road, not writing. That would be unacceptable. So success or no success, I’ll be at it every spare moment, building worlds and torturing nonexistent people, solving problems and discovering more and more about how my mind works. When that is my focus, discouragement cannot thrive; I give it no food. All I do is live and process and grow. And while I’m at it, I’ll learn to appreciate the unique aspects of each book I read, and I will respect each writer’s chosen style, knowing I would want to be offered the same respect.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I Bet They Take Naps

I’m drafting this late at night, and since I’m going to edit, you won’t get to see how bad my rough drafts usually are. And the reason I’m pointing this out is that it’s something I need to remind myself of. Unfortunately writers don’t live in a state of perpetual inspiration (if you do, I might have some serious problems with you), and the words that tumble onto the screen aren’t born beautiful. It takes a good deal of plastic surgery to make them presentable.

Last week I was very encouraged by your response to “A Writer’s Diet” (T. A. Christensen evenfeatured me in her lovely blog). Before dashing out that piece in a fit of exhausted panic, I contemplated calling it quits and offering my apologies in lieu of a proper post. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you can’t do that. Oh sure, breaks are important, but I’m talking about giving up whenever it gets hard. Trust me, if you only work when it’s easy, you won’t accomplish much. Ultimately it’s important to learn the difference between burnout and discouragement. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and smash through that wall with your face and…okay, I’m just going to let that one die. And yeah, I felt like I was writing a bunch of garbage, but apparently not everyone agreed with me (I’m still baffled about that). So thank you, people, for your positive feedback. It means a lot to me.

Today I want to talk about perspective, but in order to do that, I need to back up a little. I am both a morning lark and a night owl. Often I try to manage these dual lifestyles simultaneously (and the results tend to be less than stellar). As with early mornings, I like the loneliness of nighttime, the sensation of being the only one awake in my house. I jam my ear buds in and crank up the music and type furiously as the darkness presses in close to read over my shoulder. In these hours of perfect, peaceful solitude, I can truly hear myself think. But after a long day, I can’t fend off the drowsiness for too long, much as I’d like to. And that frustrates me. I push myself to the limit—writing until my wrists twinge and my fingers can’t hit the keys because they’re falling asleep. Then I drag myself to bed, head swimming—already dreaming.

While those nights are some of the best times for writing, they can also be some of the most discouraging. You see, when I’m fatigued, I don’t reason well. I become distractible and emotional (which is a terrible plight for an aspiring Vulcan). Even an encouraging day can end badly if I stay up too late. By the time I break away, the music galls my mind, the click of keys annoys me, and the words on the screen seem worse than rubbish. Since I’m not the impulsive type, I don’t have to worry about deleting my work in a fit of rage. But that doesn’t mean I don’t readily sell myself out when I’m tired. Unfortunately, some forms of fatigue can’t be cured by sleep. You can only cram so much into your mind—ask so much of it—before your brain needs you to relax while it tidies up.

If I try to push past that point, I lose perspective and clarity. After completing a rough draft, I can’t trust myself to evaluate it honestly. In the same way, I can’t trust my judgement when I spend too much time with anything. I may love a song, but listening to it two hundred times in a row might skew my enjoyment for a while (this has happened). Things like binge-watching your favorite show, writing a novel in five days, and hanging out with your friends for an entire summer aren’t bad—but you might just get cranky near the end. Burnout is your mind’s way of saying it’s time to take a step back, change gears, and occupy yourself with something else while your brain processes this overload.

I was so tired last week, I was ready to admit that I really don’t know what I’m doing, that I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. And maybe a lot of you were disappointed with last week’s quality—I know I was. As a writer, my cynicism is both a blessing and a curse. If I don’t doubt myself, I’ll spit out junk and call it good. But if I doubt myself too much, I’ll edit my darlings to death. Unfortunately, the balance between the two can be a lot harder than you might expect. So this is my challenge to you (and to me) for when we suffer burnout, as we will from time to time. When you find yourself next to tears or tantrums because everything you type seems worthless, step back and say, “You know, I don’t recognize any good in this at the moment, and I don’t think that this project will ever see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m tired, I’m discouraged, and I just want to curl up into a ball and cry. But you know, I realize I can’t be the best judge of that now, so I’m going to set this aside and take care of myself. Once my mind has recovered, I may be pleasantly surprised by just how much potential my project has.” (Cue heart-warming, inspirational music. Flowers fall from ceiling as bubbles float through beams of sunlight. Try not to get all this sap on your clothes.)

Writers are brave people, and I’m not saying this to toot my own horn because, really, I admire all the rock star authors who do this for a living and balance all the many responsibilities of being published. They have so much on their shoulders, stuff that aspiring authors like me can’t quite relate to. Just remember, while they manage to keep plugging away, I bet they take naps from time to time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Writer's Diet

Announcement:  I finally broke and decided to join Twitter. If you’re interested, my handle is @adelethelaptop. (Bet you never saw that one coming.)


During the 2014 November NaNoWriMo, I told myself I would return for the 2015 April NaNoWriMo and probably write like, a hundred million words or something (maintaining sanity is not high on my list of priorities—why do you ask?). However, after three months of extensive revisions, I finally sent my current work in progress to my first round of beta readers. And unfortunately, as I’m realizing now, my optimistic self of last year cleverly ignored the existence of fatigue and burnout. So, as with other Aprils before, I shall not be writing any new novels just yet.

In other words, I’m forcing myself to take a vacation—forcing, because I don’t like taking a break from the baby I edited during every spare moment I could snatch. Over the past quarter of a year, I unleashed my inner psychopath and hacked that 130,000 word darling down to a measly 60,000. And I’m tired. My brain feels drained—I’m drawing on the last dregs right now. Frankly, it doesn’t help to know that there is much more work to be done, that character arcs need to be strengthened, scenes need to be added and fleshed out, motivations need to be clarified. Oh, and let’s not forget the ending; I’ll need to rewrite that at least twenty times. I love doing these things, don’t get me wrong; I just don’t like thinking about them all at once.

The hardest part of this process is stepping away and resting. I realize I can’t expect my brain cells always to operate at peak efficiency. But now that I’m not writing, I find it difficult to fill my time with other activities. Even though the well of words has gone dry and I’m not sure I could construct another coherent sentence to save my life, the habit is burned into my fingers, into my soul. I’d rather do anything than give it up.

Maybe some of you are in the same boat. All around you, people are writing their Camp NaNo novels while you linger around the outskirts, wishing you could ransack their virtual tents and steal their virtual s’mores. After polishing your darling novel to a high shine, your eyes are stinging from the glare. Or maybe that’s just the virtual smoke from the virtual bonfire. You might be too tired to write something new just yet, but you’re still itching to finish your current work in progress so you can move on to the next exciting project as quickly as possible. Besides, with your story so fresh in your mind—all the emotions and plot twists and whatnot—you’re tempted to start querying agents immediately though your head knowledge tells you that’s not a bright idea. (What do you MEAN my book isn’t perfect? I just spent, like, ages on it!)

Resist the urge and let yourself rest! You are so familiar with your novel, you could probably quote it word for word—backwards. Which isn’t a bad thing. I mean, it’s good to know the topography of your work (this is especially important in case your hard drive crashes or in case you have to beat off an armed robber with your laptop). But it also means you’re starting to exhibit that glazed-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights behavior.

If you want to get a better picture of what this is like, try staring at a block of color for several minutes. After a while, the rods and cones in your eyes get tired and switch to autopilot. You still see the red or the blue or whatever, but your brain is economizing. (Note:  This is a very simplified explanation.) So when you look away, you see a ghostly block—an afterimage. In the same way, with your story, your mind is probably going into energy-saving mode. When you reread after just two days away from your project, don’t expect to see an accurate representation of what’s really on the page. Give yourself enough time to recover, and don’t jump the gun by boarding the query train too soon. The last thing you want is to fall off and get smooshed.

After reading and polishing my rough draft for so long, my brain struggles to differentiate between good and bad writing. This is unfortunate because it means I can no longer trust my judgement—at least, I don’t believe I can. But I can’t just step away, drink coffee, surf the web, and mope around. I need to prime my brain for the next round of edits.

Cue another lame analogy. Following an exercise routine, it’s not the best idea to eat a heap of junk food. Your muscles are tired and strained. They need to rebuild themselves, and in order to do that, they need the proper materials. If you munch on something healthy and carbohydrate-rich, like a granola bar, that energy will be stored in your muscles, waiting for you to access it. What you do now determines how well your future workouts will go. (Or so I’m told. Sometimes my most taxing physical exertions involve lifting my coffee mug to my mouth, drinking the coffee, and setting the mug back down.)

In other words, while you’re taking a break from writing, it’s a good idea to watch what you put into your mind. While it’s all well and good to jump into a bunch of beta reading for all your writer friends (I do this myself), it might be smart to limit that. Now I want to be careful here because I absolutely don’t want to offend anyone. I have proofread some AMAZING pieces. And I learn so much from giving advice—I pick up on issues in my own manuscripts this way. But usually I’m not giving feedback on a polished product, which means the work will have a few rough edges. So I’m not really letting my brain rest from editing as much as I should. It’s important to step back and force myself almost completely out of that mindset for a while.

Over the next few weeks, I’m setting my own goals and assigning myself some homework. With most writing vacations, I build a list of classic and contemporary novels that I plan to read and analyze. Then I figure out what I like, what I dislike, and why on both counts. I pick apart the pacing, examine the dialogue, and weigh the plots. With the classics and other bestsellers, I pay special attention to what the authors were saying and how that might have clicked with the public. While I doubt I’ll ever write the next HARRY POTTER or DIVERGENT, and I think it’s detrimental to work with fame in mind, I do believe it’s possible to learn from other authors’ successes. Basically, my aim is to figure out again and again what it is that makes a novel—how a book is more than the sum of its parts.

So, whether you’re vacationing, writing, or neither—good luck with your endeavors this fine month. And may your coffee never run out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Strawberry Sadness for Breakfast

Disclaimer:  I know it’s April Fool’s Day, and I considered trying something clever. Then I remembered I’m not very good at fooling people, so I decided to stick with my normal fare. If you had your hopes up, please accept this video by way of apology.


Every week day, I get up at 4:30 in the morning—at least an hour before anyone else in my home is awake. With the pre-dawn darkness pressing in on me, it is lonely. But the loneliness is peaceful. When the world seems so much bigger yet so much closer at the same time, my mind processes more deeply and more quickly. Come pitch black and empty, with no other voices to distract me, I can hear my own thoughts again.

After my shower, where I have at least a couple ideas for current and future books (but no waterproof paper on which to record them), I head to the ground floor and plunk myself down by the picture window to read as the sun drags itself above the horizon. From my vantage point, I can see the first pink glow—almost red, maybe fuchsia, somewhat purple as well. Today the chipmunk who frequents our yard (my sister and I named him Squibbles) also watches this dazzling spectacle with me. Furtive and tiny, he pokes his head out of the snow and rests on his haunches with his little paws tucked closely to his chest. I wonder if he, too, likes the loneliness of morning, with only the fishermen and the clam diggers to destroy the gentle silence with their distant conversation and their speeding vehicles.

As I begin to cool off from my nice, warm shower, I check email and then Facebook. Often I get distracted and start researching random tidbits that may or may not have any bearing on my writing. Eventually I shake the stiffness from my joints and amble over to the island in the middle of the kitchen where I make breakfast. By this time my mother is usually stirring upstairs, and her creaking footsteps across the bathroom floor are lonely too. Truth be told, the peculiar melancholy of loneliness fascinates me—I hear it everywhere.

This morning, I pour strawberry yogurt over my granola, and when I take my first bite, I remember what I always forget, that strawberry yogurt tastes like sadness. I think it’s been this way for me ever since I ate strawberry ice cream during the week my family stayed as refugees in Ghana after escaping civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, the country that had twice been my home.

Often mornings have this effect on me—like time travel. The chilly air, the darkness, the tentative bird song, the sound of tires on slick road, the echo of voices through the valley—they bring to mind loved ones and loved places. Those feelings resurface—the confusion of adjusting to American schools and American customs and American thoughts. In Africa, I had been surrounded by so many other nationalities; coming home was like eating cardboard after living in a gourmet restaurant. Too normal. Painfully so.

Strawberry yogurt triggers that old notion in me—that old question. What other courses might my life have taken if the bombs had not driven us from our home, if our white skin had not turned us French in the eyes of the angry Ivoirians, if I had not lost my house and my friends and my possessions? Until I started writing in earnest—and analyzing that writing—I never truly realized how displaced my soul was, floating around in emptiness, bouncing off walls of nothingness, freefalling through a starless void.

I started writing in Africa; that’s something beautiful I remember frequently. I had the best teacher—Northern Irish and soft-spoken and oh, so polite. There was also a British Science instructor who encouraged me, who taught that editing and creating took time and patience. For my first Work of Genius, I wrote a trilogy of horse stories (which turned into a quartet), and I wish I still had them. When we evacuated, I left them on my desk, buried among my other school papers. I wish I could remember how they went so I could write them down. There were other things I would have taken with me too—the mango tree, the music box, the puppy I only learned to love when I was saying goodbye. The friends I never saw again.

But I think if I had stayed, I would not be the same person today. Sure, I would still love to read and write, but we have so much more in America. In Ivory Coast, we had one laptop, and we lived with the knowledge that technology does not last long in the tropics. We had books, but not many, and they cost money to ship overseas. Ants built impressive nests wherever possessions sat in one place for too long; geckos hung out behind the shelves; cockroaches hid in the shadows. Africa plays by a different set of rules.

Because we didn’t have a TV, my sister and I frolicked outside like yard apes, always with this knowledge in the backs of our minds:  watch the grass where you run, watch the trees when you climb, watch the darkness while you walk, and don’t go behind the shed. Mambas are green like grass, sometimes, and green like poison. Those are some of the deadliest ones. But also watch for the black cobras, the snakes that dance and spit and aim for the eyes. Without milk to wash the venom away, you’ll go blind. Watch the worms that flee their flooded tunnels when it rains, the worms that aren’t worms, the worms that kill. Once we had a tea party on a friend’s porch, only to find a writhing nest of green mambas the next day under the self-same spot—perhaps the closest I have ever come to dying. It was glorious.

We had walls around our yard—thick concrete blocks with shards of glass on top and a spiked gate onto the street—a smaller wooden one into the compound. It made me feel safe to have my whole world encompassed by my peripheral vision, to know that no thieves would climb over in the night—not like the time before we came when a man got shot in one of the neighboring houses. America is too open; I miss those walls. We had a watchdog too, prowling the grounds; first the one that bit me and got hit by a reckless taxi—later the other one, the puppy who cried all night after we bought it, crawling as it was with lice and fleas.

Africa was beautiful, but it was brutal. Would I be the writer I am now if I had stayed?

In the mornings, I retrace my existence, pondering the different turnings and twistings and windings that brought me to this point. At any spot, I consider, one alteration could have changed the entire course of events. When I advance in life, I leave a thousand discarded possibilities behind me.

Every story is like that. Every book begins with a catalyst, but that catalyst is nothing without the choice that follows. How will the character respond to what has happened? The answer to that question decides the book in the same way that it decides our lives. Stories come when we ask ourselves what would have happened if we had made another choice, become another person. Regret and longing and wishful thinking find themselves at the top of many a writer’s toolkit. Writing is freedom—is escape—is the chance to fix the course of events. Again and again and again we try, though sorrow never fully fades. So I keep working—I keep spinning tales until the day strawberry yogurt tastes of something deeper than sadness.