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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Social Media Smackdown (SIWC 2014 Notes)


Wow. So, I had an incredible weekend at the Surrey International Writers' Conference. Caught a few great panels, had some lovely experiences and conversations, got some great feedback on how to approach the second novel in a series, and had an excellent time pitching book one. I feel really good about things. This conference is so worth it, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

And since I've still got a huge pile of notes, I thought I'd get back to sharing.

Of all the panels, this one felt very timely, given certain current issues. Regardless, the discussion about social media is an important one, as it can be an important way for authors to connect with the rest of the world—but only if you want to.

* * *

Social Media Smackdown
Sean Cranbury, Sarah Wendell, Social Media
Moderator: KC Dyer

Sean Cranbury: Books on the Radio, Storm Crow Launch Series
Sarah Wendell: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Chuck Wending: Novelist; Blogger; Cowriter, Pandemic (short film)

What do you do for social media, and how does it take time from your day?
-    CW: Social media can be a time suck. 
Strategy 1: He focuses on writing; any blogging, he saves for the weekend. 
Strategy 2: He recommends Freedom to minimize internet distraction.*
Strategy 3: He gets up before his toddler, and gets writing done before he engages with social media. 
Note: He engages with social media because he enjoys it, not because it's an obligation.
* Or, if an internet connection is absolutely necessary, you can use Anti-Social, which is made by the same company and allows you to block only a certain list of sites.
-    SW: She runs a blog, and is greatly involved in community building, so she engages with people who talk to her.
Strategy 1: There are fans on Facebook who don’t like to leave Facebook; so she visits the people there too. She allows herself the reward of Twitter, but signs off when she's too busy
Strategy 2: So he tries to focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth; the brain switches between two tasks.
-    SC: Most of his day is spent online, between work and projects; much of his creative work is online, too.
Strategy: To be present, so he practices. Therefore, he’s online all the time

 Does your social media presence affect your standing?
-    CW: It does wonders, but is costing more these days because of the volume of traffic he gets.
-    CW: A writer’s career is very luck-based, but you can maximize your luck by “throwing pebbles”. And every pebble you throw has to be simply for the delight of throwing into the water and seeing the ripples. But sometimes the ripples touch each other. You never really know who’s going to read the thing you wrote. Therefore, his key rule is to be the best version of himself online.
-    SW: Follows people far outside the romance realm. The ripple effect does wonders.

About that Guardian article …
-    SW: A reader had an extreme reaction to a novel, and live-tweeted negative reaction; the author ended up stalking the reviewer and harassing, then finally wrote about it in the Guardian. Reactions have been mixed.
-    Catfishing: malicious use of a fake online identity (Goodreads accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc) for bad behaviour.
-    Used for the purpose of establishing a relationship with another without the author knowing who they are.
-    How as a writer should we react with reviews and reviewers?
-    Some authors can’t take a bad review, but this can lead to unhealthy behaviour, such as the above example.
-    But negative reviews can lend legitimacy and help you find your non-audience. They can also help other readers, some of who will decide they want to read the book.

About Gamergate …
* Note: A fair and unbiased summary of the controversy can be found at Wikipedia.
-    CW: “About ethics in Journalism?”
-    Doxing: searching for and posting someone's personal information, particularly their home address
-    SC: Gamergate involved severe sexism and hatred online. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency was a major target, though not the first.
-    CW: Briana Wu, Zoe Quinn – great positive voices
-    KC: Felicia Day recently spoke out about it. She was doxed within under an hour.

The Takeaway?
-    CW: All of this is about what you should and should not do as a writer online
-    SW: There’s a positive side to the internet, too. We can connect with people around the world. Hopefully the negative crap will die down soon.
-    SC: Lead by example. You can’t change these other people, so focus on what you can change. Show model behaviour, and as Chuck said, be the best version of yourself.
-    SW: You will make mistakes. Be able to own it and make genuine apologies if you do. People respect that.
-    SC: In the furious pace of the internet, it can be very easy to get rubbed the wrong way. The key is to not respond. Don't send that angry tweet, don't make some snide remark. If you get a bad review, let it go.
-    Spokeo: Allows you to opt out of sharing your personal info online.
-    SW: Protects the privacy of her kids by only tweeting about them with made-up names. She also doesn’t tweet about where she is to make it easy for people to find her in realtime. But she still has a plan and always tries to stay aware at all times. Being female with an online presence makes it more of a problem.

What are ways to increase social media use in our lives?
-    All: Don’t auto-followback on Twitter.
-    CW: That’s not the point.
-    All: Each form of social media has its own quirks.
-    Facebook pages aren't necessarily necessary anymore.
-    Ello: the newest, and still a very quiet, weird territory
-    CW: Social media strategy:  drives content back to blog, because he owns that space, controls that material.
-    SW: Tumblr: Has a lot of fun with Tumblr and talking to people of all ages, shares fandoms. Connects with people over passions they share, especially teens.
-    Pinterest? This reflects a trend in valuing the visual over the text, and Pintrest is a visual niche.

But what about the balance between visual and text in a blogging environment?
-    SC: You always need visuals. Pinterest and Instagram are good at sharing visuals.

What are Algorithms?
-    SC: Like invisible snakes, you’ll never be able to catch them
-    Amazon uses them as predictive for “Because You Bought...”
-    SW: Not always accurate. Increases community of readers based on human recommendation, not algorithms.
-    SW: Genre terms are too broad, so readers have generated more terms for themselves. Such as New Adul, which is about firsts (First-person intensity, like YA and Chicklit combined; a genre recreated in its own terms).

What Positive Connections Have You Made Online?
-    CW: Margaret Atwood has become a fan.
-    SW: Gets to sit next to CW; has been invited to writers’ conferences in Australia because of social media, the opportunity to meet readers around the world has happened because of that, too. She greatly underestimated how isolating it can be to be a romance reader and writer because of the ridicule and shame. Has so many friends because of connections made online.
-    SC: People are not a marketing opportunity. But he has made many connections from his work and gets invited all over the place. He even got invited to be on the Canada Council.

Suggestions for the audience? How do you make those connections?
-    SW: With social interactions online (even e-mail), there are three things that develop social currency: generosity, authenticity, and consistency. Be generous by sharing. Not just “buy my book”. And then when you spend your social currency, spend it well.
-    CW: There's a skewed view in publishing that you need to use it to promote yourself: Do not be a social media obligation, or blog or tweet just because your publisher told you to do so. Brands and platforms don’t work. Put the social in social media. It’s not a broadcast channel. You’re not meant just to talk, but also to listen. Be a fountain. Not a drain.
-    SC: Twitter is a listening opportunity. From people you’ve selected to follow. Don’t use social media unless you really want to. You follow who you want to and unfollow who you find useless, and thin out the herd as needed. It’s a listening post. Follow, watch. Follow people who are genuinely funny, like comedians. Like Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman.
-    SW: You can learn so much about things outside of the “traditional media” from social media. Plus if you’re learning from others and respond to it, you elevate the conversation. Also, don’t be a dick. The antidote to douchebaggery is knowledge.

What is Good Promotion?
-    CW: Promotion is not a dirty word on social media. It’s okay to promote yourself and your books. However, it’s not the best idea to do that as your only thing. Then it’s just noise. 1. Promote in a unique and original way every time. Be authentic and honest about it. Maybe mention something you experienced while writing it. 2. Don’t do it all the time. 10-20% max. 3. Talk about other people’s books. Be authentic about it. And people are more likely to check out your work if they’re checking other stuff. 4. Be positive.
-    SW: Have a policy. If you are angry or inebriated, maybe you don’t want to. Also, don’t forget yourself. It’s okay to talk a little bit about yourself.
-    SC: Don’t just talk about yourself. But when you’re out there and talking about things authentically, talking about books you like, helping the community – when you’re a good citizen, people will support you. If you do that, goodness will come back to you.
-    KC: Just remember: on Facebook, you are the commodity. But as a writer, linking to your blog on Facebook can be useful.
-    CW: Author pages are not so useful anymore, and it commodifies the page. And Facebook decreases the range you reach the moment you pay to promote a page.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing YA (SIWC 2013 Notes)

Green cherry tomatoes in my garden. Caption: Metaphor? Perhaps.

Yes, it's been awhile. Among the stuff I hinted at a few weeks ago, my laptop threw itself off a very high desk. No, really. And then, while waiting for hinge replacement surgery, the poor thing suffered critical hard drive failure. Gee, and after the last one melted down, here I thought I'd have more time with you, buddy.

At any rate, I have a shiny new laptop, a new energy for my writing projects, lots of hope for things ahead, and ... a metric tonne of notes. Including a few from last year's Surrey International Writer's Conference. Which, um, happens THIS WEEK.

I'm all excited and ready! But in the meantime, let's take a look at the great tips I got from one of my favourite panels from last year's conference: Writing Captivating YA.

* * *

Writing Captivating YA
Janet Gurtler

What YA Is (and maybe isn’t)
-    YALSA defines YA as 12-18 years old. “Young adult fiction books are published specifically for people within that age range. Crossover happens.”
-    YA fiction includes a teen protagonist and deals with issues of interest to teens. Coming of age, etc.
-    YA fiction is not a genre; it’s a market that contains numerous genres. How many of us can’t remember what it was like to be a teenager. How many of us still feel it in parts of our lives.
-    YA lets young readers know that they are not alone. Their experiences aren’t abnormal. Here are others out there like them and there are lots of options in front of them. (And you can still relate to those feelings as an adult.)
-    Be authentic – Teen readers can smell fake YA voices. Don’t preach. Try not to judge. Trust the intelligence of your readers. Dig into intense emotion. Use things from your life. Steal dialogue from the kids in the coffee shop. (e.g. the scene in the movie Young Adult) – don’t use small words, don’t dumb down, stay true to your characters. Dig into your emotions. Use your real life. When these emotions happen to you, remember them and note them. Listen to the teens around you and how they talk.
-    Teenagers deal with difficult personal issues every day – real or imagined.
-    There are so many things that happened in our personal lives that we kept secret as teens, but we talk about these things now.
-    Use real experiences that teens can relate to.
-    Keep an eye (or rather, ear) out for authentic language.

Why YA?
-    Teens have so many things going on in their lives, so many issues, so many firsts: first crushes, first loves, bodies changing, first time driving, intense friendships, breaking away from parents, making decisions on their own, belly laughs.
-    The teen years are an exciting time, but also stressful tense, and heartbreaking time. HOPE matters.
-    Anything is possible – the great thing about YA lit – there’s truly something for everyone. Every genre – romance, mystery, thriller, horror, realistic, science fiction, fantasy, and more – plus really terrific nonfiction for teens.
-    Books can be a tool for dealing. Or even for escaping.
-    Storytelling is fun.

Defining Voice (Author)
-    Voice is the way the story is told
-    Voice conjures up vivid, visual settings, and invites readers along for the ride. It engages readers. It sets mood for readers and helps to elicit emotions.
-    Book: Hunger games – great opening, great voice, shows different world, relationship with sister, mother, cat
-    Voice is very subjective – no one loves every book the same way.
-    Voice is about word choice and helps convey tone. Voice encompasses thinks like style of writing, sentence structure, i.e. short, choppy sentences – long lush prose (such as Maggie Stiefvater)
-    if it doesn’t feel right and you can sense it, it usually means you need to change it.
-    Voice is not only what you say, but how you say it.
-    Voice makes characters leap off pages and com alive in a reader’s mind.
-    Fantasy has a certain voice.

Audience Question: Word choice – how do you know if it’s authentic for your character?
-    You have to know this character.
-    Do exercises for this character. Know if it’s something they would say.
-    Trust your instincts. If you feel this is something the character will say, go with it. Explain your reasoning to an editor if need be. Trust your intuition.

Defining Voice (Character)
-    “Voice is the Way a character speaks. What will they say as well as how they say it.” – Ned Vizinni
-    How does your car see his world? A 15-year-old boy does not have the same reaction to events or the same conversations a 25-year-old would. The character won’t use the same words or have the same thoughts. Dialogue should be distinct to your character. You have to know them.
-    Who is your character going to become?
-    Weh we write characters it’s imp to try to be authentic to their voices. Characters likely do not share the same morals of the author or even the same likes and dislikes. Especially when we’re writing about teenagers. Sometimes your character can say or do things we may fully disapprove of. And that’s okay. (IF I TELL) An author’s experiences and beliefs might naturally flow into character and story, but learning to filter or rework them to suit a story or character, is part of the flow of conscious process of voice. As writers we need to understand our characters in order to convey their voice.
-    Character names – Character may take on their name traits. Billy vs. Tyler vs. Tiffany. Could bat off clichĂ© by twisting this. Bad boy names? Editor may want to change it, too. How strongly do you feel about this name? Are you willing to change it? Connotations of the name? Chloe vs. Kara

Cultivating Character and Author Voice
-    Listen to your character. Turn off your moralistic compass. Don’t listen to your MIL or husband or priest or rabbi. Not when you’re making stuff up.
-    Relax. Think of someone you’re completely comfortable with and write to that person. (i.e. sex scenes!)
-    Read your work out loud, or download a free talking reader. She uses Free Natural Reader.
-    Try to notice things the same way that your character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process. Great for noticing errors in voice, etc.
-    Try to notice things the same way that your character would notice them. It’s both a conscious and unconscious process.
-    The things that boys notice is completely different from what girls notice.
-    In I’M NOT HER, the main character Tess is an introverted artist. To convey this she tried to show Tess viewing the world the way she would as an artist. Tess staring at her sister in her hospital bed: Her cheek bones look more angular and her collarbones jut out from her blue hospital gown. I’d have to use different techniques to sketch her now. Her essence is changed. She’s less charcoal and more shading.” Another character might describe her completely dif. If Tess were a boy, might say “skinny and gross”.
-    Know what your character is proud of. Know their secret shame.
-    The secret shame makes them who they are. It’s still a part of who they are.
-    Eavesdrop. Spy. Stalk. Facebook. Instagram.
-    Write your story in a way that is comfortable for you. Write form your heart. Yours. Every person in this room has a writing voice.
-    Janet's book: Sixteen Things I Thought Were True – about a video that goes viral, part of the character's secret shame
-    If you don’t want swearing, don’t swear; but if you think it’s part of your book or character, keep it. You can have a conversation with the editor. Make it authentic to character.
-    If it reads like writing, get rid of it. They say voice can’t be taught. But it can be found. Practice
-    Trust your writing and trust how you want to write.
-    Don’t add things just because you think you can.
-    Get to know your secondary characters, too, so you can write them just as easily.
-    Exercise: Pick a character. Think about them. No matter how old they are now. Think back to when they were going to their first day of middle school (grade 7). What would they be carrying to school? Why would they be carrying it? It’s good to know who your character was at that age.
-    Now, what about high school, grade 10? What are they carrying with them now?
-    This tells you about who your character is and how they react to things.
-    Exercise: Think of a colour. Try to describe that colour without saying what the colour is. Hat does it remind you of? What does it smell like, taste like? This will show how you write naturally, what your voice is.

Ways to Captivate:
-    Don’t pander to your audience.
-    When writing voice, peel back the layers , get to the stuff that is nitty-gritty and embarrassing (Book recommendation: Ned Vizzini's It’s Kind of a Funny Story – great for boy’s voice)
-    Don’t open with unnecessary backstory. Readers don’t need to know everything about a character right away. Readers don’t need all the facts up front. Make them wait. Unravel a secret slowly.
i.e. Reaping mentioned on first page of Hunger games, but we have to keep reading to know what it is.
-    Sara Zarr: a master at this – enough to keep reading, but you learn slowly.
Secrets are okay.
-    Book: Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisey (sp)
-    Negative trait / Positive trait thesauruses, too
-    Give characters really strong goals. Give the reader something to root for.
-    Even it it’s not part of the main plot. Character has to want something.
-    Give your character flaws. Real flaws.
-    Avoid plot too contrived or coincidental. Put in a strong foundation at the beginning of your book so that whatever turns on it is credible and rings true.
-    SHOW US. As an author, allow yourself to physically and emotionally feel the fear that courses through your body when the bully is coming for you. Put your character there. Where are they? What do they hear? See? Smell? What’s their reaction to stress? Hiccups? Laughter? Tears? Turning around and running?

Character pyramid: The lie the character believes about themselves. Core flaws resulting from that lie. Lesser flaws stemming from core flaws. Typical behaviours, thoughts, actions, and quirks stemming from that.

Audience question: Some names are overused, like Jack or Will or Luke. Should we not use them?
-    Do what works for you.

A list of some things to know about your characters
-    What DOES THIS CHARACTER WANT, NEED, MUST HAVE?
-    What’s stopping him/her from getting it
-    What is this character’s greatest flaw?
-    What do you know about this character that s/he would never admit
-    What music does this character sing to when you one else is around?
-    What is this character’s secret wish? Something they’ll never get but what they want?
-    Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment.
-    What is this character’s deepest regret?
-    What is this character’s greatest fear?
-    What is this character’s greatest hope?
-    Whom does this character most wish to please? Why?
-    Why is this character angry?
-    What calms this character down?
-    List the choices (not circumstances) that led this character to his/her current predicament.
-    Who depends on this character? Why?
-    Donald Maass recommends: Take your character, and imagine how they think another character will be in the future.

More Ways to Captivate
-    "Save the cat!" This refers to the moment early in the story that calls for us to sympathize with the protagonist. Does he or she really have to save a cat? Or something or someone? Nope. This is where the main character does or thinks something that reveals his true (good) character. It is important for us to invest in the character’s story and also if we’re going to be introduced to a character’s flaws. It‘s important to give a glimpse of the protagonist’s good side, so the reader can believe redemption is possible.
-    Start your story in the right place. (Hint: Probably not a dream sequence.) If you’re struck on where to begin think about the even that changes the world of the main character. An inciting event. You can either start with this change or start with what the character’s world was like BEFORE THE EVENT. You can show the old world first, but it should lead up to the change that propels the story into action.
-    Start either right when something is about to change, with a brief look at where this person is now, and then have the change happen
-    Once the reader cares about your character, and is invested in them, the we can find out more about the bad stuff they went through.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Visual Inspiration and Tasty Treats: Faith Hunter's BROKEN SOUL (Pinterest Reveal and Giveaway)

So, I'm excited. In just over a week, this happens:


On October 7th, Faith Hunter's BROKEN SOUL releases! And we all get to enjoy a new adventure from the most entertaining Cherokee shapeshifter and sentient puma to ever share one body:

Jane Yellowrock is a vampire killer for hire—but other creatures of the night still need to watch their backs....

When the Master of the city of New Orleans asks Jane to improve security for a future visit from a delegation of European vampires, she names an exorbitant price—and Leo is willing to pay. That’s because the European vamps want Leo’s territory, and he knows that he needs Jane to prevent a total bloodbath. Leo, however, doesn’t mention how this new job will change Jane’s life or the danger it will bring her and her team.

Jane has more to worry about than some greedy vampires. There’s a vicious creature stalking the streets of New Orleans, and its agenda seems to be ripping Leo and her to pieces. Now Jane just has to figure out how to kill something she can’t even see…


Wow. Jane's pretty good about overcoming insurmountable odds, but this sounds like things are about to go sideways in her eighth book even worse than normal.

So, today we have a real treat, one that definitely speaks to me because I like taking photos (and not just pictures of my cats): The brand-new boards at the Jane Yellowrock Pinterest site!

The first is the Visual Inspiration board. Here readers get to check out some of the author's collection of images she uses to help inspire her writing.

"Inspiration by Night" — This one's my favourite.
image used with permission

I love taking photos of places and things that look cool, especially when I can later use them in my writing. So I think it's fantastic that this collection is here for us fans to check out. Sure, nothing beats Jane's impressions of the Big Easy, but this adds a colourful new dimension to further enhance the reader experience. And here we get to see a few teasers for what's to come in Book 9.

The second is a board after my own stomach: the Southern Cooking board.

"Beignets and CafĂ© au Lait"  — Oh, my.  
image used with permission

Excuse me. I think I hear a Tim's French Vanilla calling my name. Which totally doesn't do this flavourful picture justice, but for now, it'll have to do.

So there you have it: two great ways to interact with the world of Jane Yellowrock. As I mentioned, her eighth big adventure, BROKEN SOUL, is available for pre-order. But if you're in the US, you can also enter to win a copy right here! Just leave a comment telling me about your favourite picture in the pinterest boards I've shared. Or, share how you've used photos for your own visual inspiration!

Now, excuse me. I suddenly have the urge to spend my day off cooking...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stuff


Stuff gets in the way sometimes.

Stuff can be a problem.

Sometimes it's stuff that can't be shared. Whatever the reasons.

Stuff is a clever thief. It takes and takes and then it when it seems like it's done taking, it takes the resilience last, so that it can take some more.

For the past two months, stuff has run me ragged. Stuff has stifled my creativity. And yes there's ownership, there's the acknowledgement that I've let stuff do this to me, but that does not mean that I am its source.

I am dealing with stuff as best I can.

But I am done with stuff keeping me from myself.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Roaring Gap Writer's Retreat


Today I can be found at Magical Words, where I and my partners-in-crime share our experiences with our very first writers' retreat. Come check it out!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Identity, Anxiety, Self-Esteem, and the Pen Name That Failed

How do I phrase this so I don't sound like a crazy person?

I forced back the bile threatening to rise in my throat. Tried to calm the buzz of nerves that had my heart competing to win the Indy 500. And when the moment arrived and my turn came, I took a quick deep breath, willing my voice not to shake.

The author glanced at the post-it note the helpful Chapters employee had stuck to the title page. "Hi, Laura. How's it going?"

That's when it hit me.

"Um, hi." I set down my bag. Now or never. "I'm *not* Moira Young, and I wanted to thank you for that."

Okay, the above exchange probably makes very little sense to anyone not in the know. As the webcomic Head Trip's creator, Shinga, would say, "Welcome to Out-Of-Context Theatre." So let me explain.

About six, nearly seven years ago, I was freshly married and reeling from events that ended my friendship with two of my bridesmaids and a few other people in my life. One bridesmaid in particular had done and said some very damaging things before, during, and after the wedding that left me picking up the pieces for months after. My self-esteem was at a low I hadn't experienced since high school or earlier, and despite my wonderful and supportive new husband, Don Rocko, my anxiety levels were higher than they'd ever been. Top it off with a rejection from a publisher who'd asked me to rewrite and resubmit, and it's no surprise that I suddenly didn't want to be myself anymore.

So I took a pen name.

Hey, it worked for some people. Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade, for example, who didn't mind the anonymity despite being "famous on the Internet," as I think one of them put it one Pax Prime. Local horror author Michael Slade, for another, who at a party told me and and a friend how it was helpful to keep his writing and personal lives separate. Many people have many reasons for taking pen names. So I thought, why not? I should, too.

I think at the time it was exactly what I needed.

Choosing a name wasn't hard. It just so happened at the time that multiple strangers, on hearing my name, for some reason misheard it as "Moira". Then I thought, well, a name like that needs a strong single-syllable last name. So I randomly chose the name of an old high school teacher, Mrs. Young, without giving it much thought.

New identity in hand, I went full out embracing the name. Thinking that one aforementioned rejection equalled failure, I started a new novel. I posted on the Internet under this new name. I set up a Twitter handle, got business cards, even purchased moirayoung.com. In 2010, I stumbled upon MagicalWords.net and started commenting there as Moira Young, too.

Awesome and now embarrassing factoid: there's a comment in the MW book, How To Write Magical Words, that is attributed to Moira Young. As I told the editor, Edmund Schubert, "That's my pen name, so I'd like to keep it that way in the book, too!" Sigh. Weeks later, just after the book went to print, I'd regret ever saying that.

Things were going well. I was happy. Then one fateful night between Christmas and New Years in 2010, I got an e-mail from a published author I know:

I saw the news on GalleyCat about BLOOD RED ROAD. Are congratulations in order?

Wait, what?

That's when I learned there was another author who'd just been accepted for publication under the name Moira Young. Further research told me the following: not only was that actually her name. Not only did she also write YA speculative fiction. Not only was she also Canadian. No, to top it all off she was also from New Westminster, which is very near where I live.

Seriously, what are the odds?

I won't lie, it felt like a cosmic slap in the face. After pouring all that energy into this new persona, I suddenly had to find some other name. I had to rethink who I was, who I wanted to be. Never was I actually angry at the other author (after all, it's her name), but I was mortified. And totally lost.

What am I supposed to do now? I think I floundered for about a week, asking everyone I knew for advice. But the more I talked about it, the more options I considered, the more I suddenly realized the answer staring right in my face.

More than two years had passed. I wasn't as hurt or scared as I'd been. My time as Moira Young had given me a chance to regain my lost confidence, to break new ground about my identity and most importantly, to heal.

I was ready to be myself again. My real self, the name I was born with. So I went with L.S. Taylor and I've been fairly happy ever since.

There was just one lingering problem. I felt like the story lacked closure.
 
I had nothing to regret. After all, when using the pen name, I'd kept my posts and web interactions polite. If anything, I was worried that the actual author would for some reason be angry with me. But I wasn't quite sure how to get in touch with the author (yes, me, of all people), especially without it sounding weird, or worse, me being written off as crazy.

Which brings me back to what happened last Saturday.

When I found out she was coming to my suburb of Greater Vancouver, it seemed like fate. I worried myself nearly sick that morning, trying to figure out what I should say, how not to get kicked out of the bookstore or sound harassing. I calmed down through her talk. Listening to Moira speak about how she was inspired by the landscape around her, when I'm a geography nerd and would like to think it's been a part of my writing too, absolutely mesmerized me. And as my turn in line neared, all I could feel was one thing: gratitude. Without this experience, I wouldn't have discovered myself.

At my words, Moira pushed back her seat, leapt up, and hugged me. "I've heard of you!" she said, and she didn't mean it in a bad way. (I believe my response was, "Oh wow. This is a thing?") And then we cheerfully talked for a few minutes. I got some photos and autographs. And everything was okay.


So this story had a good ending. I worried way too much for nothing. But I am grateful for the journey this Adventures With Pen Names led to. I'm not saying that no one should take a pen name, just that it didn't work out for me, and the path I took was exactly what I needed.

The best part was how she signed my copy of her book.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sleight of Hand (SIWC 2013 Notes)



I haven't forgotten my promise! Things were just a bit hectic last week. Here's some more notes, now from SIWC 2013.

I didn't go to as many classes as usual at the conference this time around, but this one was definitely useful. As the author notes, all books have some kind of question we're trying to answer. Thinking about how to seed clues in a story is an important technique no matter what the genre, so I was very happy to hear what he had to say.

* * *

Sleight of Hand

How does a skilled mystery author manage that perfect reveal, plant the clues along the way without spoiling that ending? Mystery and SFF author Don DeBrant, AKA D.D. Barant, Don Cortez, and Dixie Lyle, has a few tips and tricks to help you find that balance.


Weaving a mystery
-    First: Tap into the momentum, write the story as it comes, but when that initial rush is over, go back and look at what you wrote.
-    Figure out where to put the clue, where to set something up.
-    Have much in the story do double and triple duty. Characterization, someone’s hobby, whatever it is, you have to make it something else as well, part of the plot.
-    Don’t create coincidences; use elements of the plot as an opportunity to do more than one thing. If you need a character to be at  a particular place, don’t just use that as an excuse to go there. Something else should be at work as well.


Audience Question: Whose mysteries made you want to write mysteries?
-    Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot
-   The Three Investigators – boys who solved crime with help of Alfred Hitchcock


How do you seed clues?
-    Try to find a way to integrate it with other aspects  mood, pacing, characterization, someone to be at a place, set up description, clues you could only find in particular places.
-    This all depends on sort of mystery you’re writing.
-    Mysteries are no longer straightforward. These days, there are many subgenres.
-    Classic mysteries these days are often divided into novels of place, about where the mystery takes place; characterization based; florid; gothic, spooky, etc.
-    There are many ways and means for how you plant clues.


Types of Mysteries:
-    Geographical: where the character goes from place to place
-    Forensic: which is like a police procedural but with concentration on science rather than police work (he writes this) – plants clues by designing crime and crime scene first. It’s a puzzle deconstructed backwards, step by step they have to figure out how they got there, who put them there, why they were killed, and start at the end and goes backwards, and piece the story together bit by bit.
-    Police procedural: similar to forensic, it’s about the nuts and bolts of police work, closer to nonfiction to capture an investigator going through the crime scene bit by bit.
-    Everyman mysteries: This is where you pick a profession or hobby and the specific POV of an ordinary person, and tell how they get involved in so many mysteries. In those, you need to integrate what makes that character essential. Everyone has a specialized set of skills, has knowledge that is unique to them and their profession. These mysteries are aimed at a very specific audience, so you have to understand who you’re writing for.
-    Thrillers: Technically this is a different genre, but there’s lots of crossover. It’s important to come up with a memorable reason for the story, something that holds your attention. Hannibal Lecter sticks in our heads.


Techniques

Playing with Expectations (or, how to trick your reader without cheating)
-    The most important thing when writing a mystery is the subject. You are setting up particular assumptions in your reader’s minds and whenever possible you’re trying to figure out what the reader’s assumptions are ahead of time. That way, you can play with them. E.g. the expectation that the character will do something off.
-    Use standards set and recognized in our culture. Tropes and archetypes. Then play with it. Like the comic sidekick, the goofball. Make them the killer.
-    Set it up in a particular way – that’s the best payoff. William Golding (author of The Princess Bride) does this wonderfully in his thrillers. He leads you down the garden path thinking one thing, then yanking the rug out from under your reader. E.g. in No Way to Treat a Lady, he sets up two opposing point of views, and one is about a crazed killer stalking new York, the other told about an angry women-hating guy. The two story lines are completely unrelated, though the way it’s presented leads the reader to assume that the woman-hating guy is the killer, until the surprise twist. It’s resolved at the end. He only did it once, though. This is not necessarily recommended.
-    If you get away with the twist, you’re golden. If you don’t, it’s not good.
-    One good instinct to have in a mystery is playing on reader’s assumptions: if you have a character say or do something, the reader will assume things about that character. That’s an opportunity, a terrific point to exploit, to make things completely wrong. Don’t confirm it, just have little clues that imply it.
-    Another good way to trick readers: the unreliable narrator (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where we eventually learn the narrator is the killer, sets up the idea that just because someone is telling you something doesn’t mean it’s true.). Or have the main character in a position to do something wrong and they don’t, little markers you put in where the reader will think things about the character, ways to make sure that what you’re telling them isn’t what they think it is. Not outright lying (that’s changing the rules, which is cheating). Don’t let the reader feel cheated, just craftily tricked.

Lots of Info
-    Have an overabundance of information. Bury an important clue in a number of other clues. If you need an item to be discovered, surround it with a bunch of other things, even things that appear more interesting. Minds get overloaded with info and won’t be able to tell which one is important. Sensory overload to obscure the facts is slightly cheating. But there are really no cheap tricks, just things that work and things that don’t.
-    Structure: Have parallel storylines, things happening side by side, which may confuse the reader as to which storyline is important. Include not so much info that the reader is confused, but enough that it draws their attention to keep them guessing. Have enough balls in the air and they don’t know where to keep  their eye. The character-driven, the humourous, the serious – e.g. Hill Street Blues. The author swapped stuff around.

Using Subtlety
-    Readers are sharp.
-    Subtle red herrings can play with readers’ assumptions.
-    If played subtly enough, they assume a red herring has more importance than it actually does.
-    You can plant one subtle clue that leads nowhere, and one that seems related but isn’t – readers assume, string that together – a trail of visible bread crumbs that lead to a brick wall. And that can be strangely satisfying.
-    If you’re careful and have a devious mind, you can pull it off.

Doubling back
-    The technique: doubling back on a plot
-    When you have a number of suspects, but one’s been written off because they’ve alibied out, and just happens to be fake, or some other detail makes it seem like they wouldn’t likely be the culprit.
-    Come up with a reasonable explanation for why an alibi doesn’t hold water.
-    A good way to fake an alibi is a good way to fake a murder.
-    You can double back more than once, and that makes it even harder to figure out who the real killer is.
-    Even worse, do it a third time.
-    If the killer is caught too early in the story, the reader assumes that the real killer will be caught, until you double back and show how.

Using details to trick the reader
-    The story is never just about the one mystery, it’s about all the things along the way.
-    Put something so obviously in plain view, the reader assumes it’s not important, and so the detail gets missed.
-    Using diary entries (if using an unreliable narrator) – everyone assumes that no one lies in a diary, that it must be true.
-    Always make sure you have a big pool of suspects. If it’s too small, reader will pick and narrow it down, especially if there’s a secondary character that seems vaguely menacing.
-    If you’re worried it’s too obvious, it’s good to get some feedback from beta readers and close friends.
-    People who know you can know your patterns, and pick out any flaws.

Layer bits of characterization to reveal more of the character.
-    If the character is behaving one way, you can surprise the reader when they behave differently.
-    Generally if you can surprise the reader, that’s a good thing.
-    Sometimes the plot forces a character to act in a different way.
-    If they don’t usually act that way, but did somehow, then ask yourself, why did they do it? This leads to epiphanies about the character.
-    All people are contradictory, and we all have opposites in ourselves.
-    This makes the character more three-dimensional in your mind. It will help to make them more three-dimensional on the page.


Writing mystery in Science Fiction and Fantasy
-    Establish what the rules are first off. Then stick to those rules.
-    Particularly establish what you can’t do (with magic and the paranormal). That’s most important. Otherwise people will accuse you of cheating.
-    For example: establish early on that vampires burn in sunlight, so readers will expect you to stick with that. It keeps readers happy.
-    All books are some kind of mystery. Some kind of question you’re trying to answer. A question of character, who did something, why did they do it, how did they do it. Figure out which one do you want to concentrate on.


How to establish memorable characters - Examples from his own work:
-    The Bloodhound Files (his alternate-universe series): In a world completely dominated by the supernatural, humanity is an endangered species. The world is normal, looks like everyday life, but with subtle changes. The “monsters” weren’t the monsters, they were the norm. And the human main character has to deal with that. This world has no firearms, because of a spell cast centuries ago that made everyone thinks it’s a dumb, silly idea. If you think about it, you’ll forget it. Jace Valchek, the main character from our world, brings her gun, and no one takes it seriously, but it gives her a superpower as a result. This isn’t the only thing that made her an interesting character. She’s human in a world with few other humans. She has a gun. Even her weaknesses are her strengths, because she can throw herself into situations and get out of them. Her sarcasm means she has snappy dialogue, and he gun puts her in tough situations. Make your character distinctive and unusual. Make their weaknesses their strengths.
-    Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot series (his brand new series, starting with A Taste Fur Murder): The number 1 job for women is Adminstrative Assistant. One of the people who run around behind the scenes and get stuff done for their boss. This position title also describes mothers. Women are still the people who organize things, work behind the scenes, don’t get acknowledged for it. The main character is the assistant to someone distinctive (a billionaire). What’s important about her is that she’s professional, optimistic, and nothing fazes her.  She keeps a cheerful cool head when things get crazy. The twist here is that the assistant is the hero.


Audience Question: Do clues sometimes surprise you, and you have to figure out what it means?
-    Not so much the clues. They’re usually a structural thing.
-    You need to figure out how they fit together because it’s a puzzle.
-    Characterization and plot can surprise him, but mystery is usually about careful planning. Architecture. Mystery is very outline-dependent. He’s a plotter. Pantsing can lend itself to some types of writing, but often the ending is dissatisfying. Stops, feels forced. (E.g. Stephen King.) Mysteries are not a good place for pantsing.
-    Dialogue itself can be made up on the spot, but the mystery itself needs to be plotted.


Audience Question: Are there useful tools for keeping track of who knows what when?-    Some writers, such as him, use index cards.
-    The mosaic approach: 3x5 index cards and post-it notes.
-    Think about mystery, characters, symbols, elements of the story.
-    When you feel you have a full idea and who the main character is, think of specific scenes.
-    Sit down and write each bit on a card.
-    Lay out the cards in front of you.
-    Set out the earliest as how the novel starts.
-    Put the ending at the end.
-    This provides a visual representation of a plot.
-    After awhile, you find a visceral sense of how it appears, how it will be paced.
-    Suddenly extra connections are made, gaps are filled in.
-    Then you can play with it, see how it works.
-    Then numbers cards in order, and writes them out like an outline.
-    Then flush out the story.
-    He writes an outline. This is a good way to plot.
-    A skeleton, fleshed out, becomes an outline.
-    Outlines are just a tool. A roadmap. Don’t feel handicapped or handcuffed by an outline; you can definitely go a different way with the lot if you want to. They don’t cheat you of the joy of discovery. That freshness can still come from characterization, plot, crafting a good line, discovering things about the characters as you go along.

Audience question: Is it worthwhile finding a different way to end a mystery than the typical ones? (eg killer is caught, murdered, or accidentally killed at end) -    Rules exist for a reason.
-    Break a rule as long as you break it well.
-    Don’t just break a rule because you don’t want to do what everyone else does.
-    It’s important to understand why that rule exists. The killer caught equals justice, a sense of order, closure.

Is there a way for a  main character to withhold info from the reader without the reader getting annoyed by it?
-    Don’t do it too often.
-    Don’t drag it out for too long.
-    Reveal it to the reader within a few pages, because it does tend to be annoying.
-    If it make the reader make an assumption, it can be useful, but as a rule of thumb, don’t drag it out.

Audience Question: How do you write a mystery in first person? It’s a limited POV – how do you seed clues, info?
-    There are always techniques, tips that can be used.
-    Have witnesses, others who were there who can relay the information
-    Remote electronic, video surveillance, recordings, cell phone conversations
-    Psychic phenomena
-    Mystery is about main character solving the crime, so what she knows is what the reader knows, so if there’s an essential piece that she has no way of knowing, either it’s not important or you should give the character a way to learn it, figure it out.
-    The challenge forces you to think. If they can’t know it, what then?
-    It may take you some time to figure it out, but it will work.
-    Trust your subconscious. It will often figure problems like this out. Go away and let it percolate. After a time it will often seem obvious.
-    Best writing can happen on a subconscious level.  Think about this stuff in the background. Let your imagination chew on stuff.

Audience Question: What's your writing practice?
-    Aims for a word count (1500 words per day, 5 days a week), and can write a novel in four months.
-    Having a small child has affected things, as he now also shares parenting roles. He may complain about decreased output, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Audience Question: About the CSI Books (written as Don Cortez) – What is it like playing in other people’s sandboxes?
-    Fun, because they’re other people’s toys that you have to put back later.
-    When writing for a media tie-in, people aren’t buying it for you, but for the line.
-    David Caruso – our generation’s Shatner – gave interviews about the character that helped Don figure him out.
-    It was also fun because a lot of the work’s already been done for him.
-    In this sort of situation, you can’t break the rules, but can explore.
-    It’s a strength if you’re good at capturing character’s voices.

What's the difference between mystery and suspense?
-    Mystery’s more of a puzzle, more cerebral
-    Suspense has a lot more tension.