Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Da Capo

So something happened last year.

I queried a novel. I poured my heart and soul into the query, and revised like a mad maniac. But deep down, some part of me knew that something wasn't quite right.

The query got great results. The manuscript...well, it left something to be desired, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what that was. One agent, to whom I'm forever indebted for just this one word of critique, called it "quiet." I pulled it from the query-go-round after only a handful of queries, when an agent of awesome gave me some super suggestions and an offer to look at the revisions. I wanted to make those revisions. I didn't want to be out there with anything other than the very best thing I could put out there.

But instead of diving in, I put it aside, and started working on another novel (and got derailed from writing for a whole host of reasons that have a lot to do with a big famous book and that I don't want to complain about here). Along the way, I found that something felt more natural about the way new novel was going, something that made first novel feel inorganic. So as I got partway through new novel, I went back to old novel.

And then I came back to it. With fresh eyes, a new perspective, and that little, niggling word.


This week I'm up for critique in my writers' group, and I knew I wanted to give them the revision of my first chapter. Except it isn't a revision, so much as an evisceration. To produce it, I didn't start with an open document, or with the first scene open in a second window in Scrivener. To produce this, I started again with a blank page, a sense of where the story was going, and a character whose story I feel needs to be told.

In music, you get the instruction to "Da Capo," which literally means "to the head," and in short form means, "Return to the beginning." Returning to the beginning is scary. You have to do it again, but you have to do it again with a fresh interpretation, in a way that doesn't bore you.

In writing, if you return to the beginning, it's because something about the beginning failed the first time. You're putting a new spin on it, moving the music around, changing the beats, changing the dynamics. In writing, if you return to the beginning, you're doing far more than just a simple repeat.

But when I returned to the beginning this month, I found that my character was still there, funny as ever, with new insights and a great voice. At the suggestion of one of my writers' group CPs, I gave him a new piece to play, both literally (he's a pianist) and figuratively. A piece that is more forceful, more dynamically interesting, more in-your-face.

In short, it's louder. And I'm loving every minute of putting it down on paper.

This month, I went back to the beginning. To play it all again.

And it's fun.

Have you done a full rewrite of a book? What's it like? Why did you do it? And how did it turn out? 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cheapskate's Guide to Easy Backups in Windows 7

Image by ZuTheSkunk
Yesterday, an online writer friend of mine very nearly lost six months of WIP to a liquid spill on his laptop. He was able to boot and use an external keyboard to move the files, but still. Losing data as a writer is serious business, because it's not simply about the time it takes to reproduce the files. If you're like me, the loss of even a day's worth of words is enough to kill your writing mojo for a good long time, and that's even more dangerous than the file loss.

Last November, I had to recover from my own computer disaster. For about a week, my computer was running sluggishly, but I run a virus checker and a spyware checker every morning, so I wasn't too concerned. That was, until one night, when I had the awful, stomach-sinking experience of clicking on Google Chrome only to have it return:

"Chrome.exe not found." 

Then I tried to run my virus checker. The entire Symantec folder was empty. 

It was after midnight. I decided to go to bed and worry about it in the morning. By the morning, Windows wouldn't even boot. 

The long story made short; fixing the virus (Trojan horse, really) required wiping my hard drive and starting over with a new version of Windows. It could've been a disaster for my files. But I'd been preparing for the worst, and so aside from the time to do the fix, I lost very little in the way of content. So I thought I'd write up some of my tips for file management. AKA, Jessica's To-Dos to avoid disaster, Windows 7 version.

NOTE: There are lots of ways to keep your files backed up, and mine is considerably more manual than many. At the same time, it's a) easy, b) free, c) keeps your backup out of reach of the main computer, and d) has the added benefit of keeping your files organized for your own ease of use all the time. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Funny Valentine

That moment, when it is revealed that the president gets John Green.

Admittedly, it was probably his staffers--or maybe his daughters?--who tipped him off, but you know? This absolutely made my day. One of my favorite nerdy male celebs giving props to one of my other favorite nerdy male celebs...

I call this a great Valentine.

Hope you had a great Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Learning Suspension of Disbelief at Hundred Oaks High

I agree 100% with a 1-star review of a book I finished last week.

So I gave it four stars and an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

*sound of tires squealing to a stop*


I don't know about you, but I often read the low-star reviews of a book I'm going to give a high-star review to, and vice versa, before writing my own. I'm not easily swayed, but I'm always interested in what people liked or disliked that I can address in my own review. Along the way I came across a review tearing apart Miranda Kenneally's CATCHING JORDAN for misrepresenting the transition from high school to NCAA Division I-A to NFL football. It made the book too unrealistic, the reviewer ranted. No school is like that and no kids expect that. In my opinion, having gone to a school that sent a lot of kids to D I-A, and then having gone to one of the D I-A schools where the Hundred Oaks High kids end up...

...I agree completely. The football didn't map on to my personal experience of NCAA football at all.

And yet, CATCHING JORDAN works. I loved it.


One of the reasons HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT are so universally popular, I think, is that the books themselves, while containing fantastical elements, are ultimately about the mundane—growing up, navigating friendships and relationships, finding love. Yes, there are wizards and dragons and vampires and werewolves, but that's not what those stories are about. The stories are about the struggles of characters we can identify with, who you read and go, "I've felt that; I've been there."
And because you can so solidly identify and root for the characters, you're right along for the ride, werewolves and dragons and all.

As contemporary writer, I don't always think about suspension of disbelief—my books take place at real (although fictional) high schools, with kids who don't sprout wings or get letters from Hogwarts. I could easily argue that contemporary YA is automatically believable because nothing is fantastical about it. But the truth is, even contemporary writers have our "dragons:" the things that we need to sell the reader on so that we can bring her along for the ride. And for those, the same rules still apply—connect the reader to the character, and they're along for the entire ride; even if some parts run completely counter to their everyday experience.

CATCHING JORDAN works because even though I have difficulty buying that Jordan has all the D I-A prospects she seems to (though the bit with Alabama did make some sense), Jordan feels all the things I would feel in that situation. Her relationships with her friends, and her brother, and her mother and father are the same sorts of relationships, and with the same sorts of impetuous-decisions/inattentional relationship blindness potholes that I or my friends drove into. And so I find myself rooting for her to win—at football, sure, but also at life.

I have my own "dragons" and "wizards" in my books, I know: the things I have to bring the reader along for the ride. After reading CATCHING JORDAN and thinking about it a bit, I have a sense of exactly how to do that—to bring the reader along, you have to give her something she can identify with, so that the parts that she can't, she'll buy anyway.

It's a good lesson, and I'll be returning to Hundred Oaks High to learn some more.

What's your experience with suspension of disbelief in contemporary fiction? What makes you "buy" (not purchase) a book? Who's done it well, and what did you get out of it?

And speaking of the other kind of buying:

Catching Jordan on Indiebound
Catching Jordan at Powell's
Catching Jordan at B&N
Catching Jordan at Amazon

Read my Goodreads review of CATCHING JORDAN

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

What Talking Cats Taught Me About Characterization

Last fall, a friend of mine ended up in one of those crazy You Tube spirals. You know the kind, where one person shows one video and it reminds another person present of another great video, which reminds someone else of another great video, etc. etc.

Along the way, they watched this, which my friend then shared with me:

I thought this was hysterical. I may have gone on to share it with dozens upon dozens of people (as I'm doing now.) And then I went hunting for the video's origins, which you can find in the notes of the video above. As it turns out, this was a video put out by the owner of the cats, with no voice-over, and then several voice-over videos were created by other YouTube users (ah, the interwebs). And so I found this other, more popular voice over...
...and I really didn't think it was all that funny. Same cats, same actions, different voice overs. But why does one have me almost falling off my chair, and the other make me go..."Meh" ? 

The difference, I figured out, was in the characterization, and the way that the characters themselves create their own conflict. 

In the American English version, both cats, based on dialect and accent and "behavior" if you can call it that, seem to be similar characters. Young, perhaps millenial, words like, "Creeper," and constant use of "Dude," etc. It paints them as pretty much the same kind of "guy," and even though they have the same problems (one gets hit in the face, they can't continue, they have a camera on them), the focus of the conflict winds up being external—the camera causes problems, one cat doesn't know how to do the game, etc.  

In the French version, by contrast, the left hand cat is given a very different personality than the right hand cat. He's more playful, perhaps younger, more willing to tease, and more. The right hand cat is portrayed as stodgier, perhaps older, more critical, less willing to have fun. The conflicts that arise are internal--based on the two "characters" having different expectations of the situation. 

The clash of two personalities feels richer, and gives a different dimension to the exact same film. Things are happening because the right hand cat and the left hand cat have different expectations of the situation, and participate in the situation based on those expectations. Everything that makes the French video funny comes from the competing personalities of the two cats, and the way those play out in their interaction. 

It became immediate food for thought for me.In my current revising WIP, one character is more serious and driven, the other more playful and carefree. And even though they're best friends despite being different, I realized that I could let some of the in-scene conflict arise out of those two different views on the same overall situation of the novel. It gives their whole sections an entirely different feel, and a better one, I hope.  

Personality is key to creating good inter-character conflict. How do your characters' personalities clash?
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