Tuesday, July 27, 2010
What is “Month 2,” you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
I’ve always been kind of a wimp, afraid of heights and steep slopes and speed and rollercoasters and spiders and Public Displays of Anything and…the list goes on. But the main character of DIVERGENT, Beatrice, is not at all like me. She’s not afraid of taking risks. And she undergoes several tests of bravery throughout the book. So in order to be a little more like her, I decided to do my own tests of bravery, once a month until the book is released. Sometimes they won’t seem like tests of bravery at all, because I am afraid of things that other people aren’t afraid of. But to me, they always will.
Last month, I jumped into a fountain with a huge umbrella, encouraging all the people in Millenium Park to stare at me (Month 1: fear of public humiliation.)
This month? Fear of heights.
And steep slopes.
Let me give you a hint.
(Just to give you a sense of perspective: that's me. I am 6 feet tall. That's a freaking huge ramp.
Note: this stunt does not involve any bike-riding. I don't do stunts that are guaranteed to maim me.)
That 18-foot ramp is the Vert Ramp at the Dew Tour, which is an action sports competition with five events. Each event takes place in a different city. Chicago’s stop was all about BMX. Remember when you were little and you were afraid of riding the bike because it’s hard to maneuver and if you fall off, it hurts, not just because you just hit some hard pavement, but because the bike flipping falls on top of you and the gears can rip your jeans? Yeah, the Dew Tour guys aren’t afraid of that anymore. They aren't even afraid of extremely steep, extremely tall ramps.
My wonderful sister, Ingrid, works for Alli, the company that makes the Dew Tour happen. She’s far more fearless than I am. This stunt was her idea. (She also arranged it, and filmed it, and edited the film. I have the best sister.)
So here it is. The stunt that made me hyperventilate.
(Also, special thanks to Brian, who talked me through it while I was panicking.
And that gorgeous woman in the picture with me at the end? That's my mom. Hi Mom!)
Sunday, July 25, 2010
I, however, do not seem to care. I say "seem to" because up until recently, I hadn't realized this about myself. But now that I put all the pieces together, I realize that it's true: I don't need characters to be likable in order to appreciate something, and not because I'm just that awesome, or anything. It's because likability is sort of like outer space, for me: I am aware that it's there, and if someone points to a constellation, I can nod and acknowledge its existence, but it's not like I'm walking around with a crick in my neck because I'm always staring at the sky. Catch my drift?
For example: I loved Inception. And the day I posted my review on the blog, I checked out Kathleen Peacock's comments about it, particularly when she said she just didn't connect with Leonardo DiCaprio's character. Upon reflection, I realized that I didn't have strong feelings about his character either, or even medium feelings-- but it never occurred to me as I watched, and it had no impact on how I experienced the movie. "Interesting," I thought.
Another example of this pattern is: Harry Potter. Book 5. Order of the Phoenix. Harry spends the first part of the book screaming at Hermione and Ron and generally acting like an emo, angsty teen. When I talked to other people about it after reading, they mentioned how frustrated they got with Harry in that book because he just wouldn't quit whining. I, however...did not notice. Or rather, I did notice that Harry was in a grimmer frame of mind, and I noticed that he was yelling a lot, but it just didn't bother me. I figured: he's fifteen. He's in a crappy position in the universe. People around him keep dying. Of course he's freaking out. It was believable and justified. The end.
My question is: do characters need to be likable?
And my answer is: not necessarily. (At least, not for me.)
For me, characters need to be multi-dimensional and believable. Their actions and thoughts have to make sense to me (even though I know that in real life, actions and thoughts don't have to make sense-- but we're talking about fiction here). But I don't have to agree with what they say, think, or do in order to get involved in the story.
Breaking Bad, for example. It's about a guy who starts cooking crystal meth in order to leave money for his family if he dies of lung cancer. At the beginning of the show, you sort of feel for him even if he is making drugs, because you understand his motivations. But as the show progresses (and I haven't watched all of it, but I watched season 1), he becomes a little too much like a drug dealer; a little too ruthless. He loses a lot of his likability. But it's still a great show.
And let's not forget villains.
I love villains. I love them more than protagonists, a lot of the time. The Joker? Maniacal and creepy. Gollum? Crazy and obsessive. Voldemort? Soulless. Ursula, from The Little Mermaid? Haunted my dreams as a child. Even the yeerks in Animorphs struck me as genius when I was 10 and I was devouring those books (mind-controlling slugs that slime their way into your brain, for those who didn't read).
Sometimes villains are surprisingly likable (Gollum, for example), but sometimes they are just EVIL, and you HATE them, but you LOVE that you hate them, and sometimes you even root for them, even though you know it's wrong, wrong (tricksy! False!)! Sometimes I find myself wishing that Ursula had just smacked Ariel in the head with a giant tentacle. Ariel was annoying. (Also: Dear Ariel. If a man "falls in love" with you while you are INCAPABLE OF SPEECH, you have a problem. Sincerely, Me.)
The list goes on, really.
I think we like villains so much because they're fascinating. Most of us aren't running around murdering people, so we want to understand what kind of person does run around murdering people, and why, and what their lives are like. The best part of the new Star Wars movies (...and there aren't many good parts to choose from) is that they show us how Anakin got warped and twisted into Darth Vader. Is he likable? Um, not really. Even before he's evil, he's a whiny toolbox. But did I think "that was AWESOME" when he stalks out of the Jedi temple with a red light saber, having just killed a bunch of kids? Yes. And not because I am completely soulless. (Really. I swear.) Because I am fascinated.
So my conclusion is this: you do have to pay attention to likability. Likable characters can go a long way. But I think it's more important that characters are fascinating. Complicated. Believable.
How important is likability for you?
Friday, July 23, 2010
And as I browsed the first three pages, one thing in particular stood out to me:
I know what you're thinking. "Duh, Veronica. They bought it in APRIL. You went to their HEADQUARTERS and ogled at their pretty board room. Get a grip."
But I am telling you that even after I got The Phone Calls and announced everything on Twitter and the blog and saw the PM announcement with my own two eyes; even after I jumped into a tub of marshmallows to celebrate; even after I shook hands with people I never thought I would meet; even after I did my best to wrap my entire body around the HarperCollins pillar; even after I talked covers and jacket flap copy and revised the crap out of my manuscript and it was sent to the copyeditor...it still didn't feel real.
And then it was on paper. In writing.
And I thought: "No, really. Really, actually, legitimately...published."
1. They are long. Mine is 16 pages, single-spaced. And oh so pretty.
2. One copy is not enough. See also: my conversation with The Editor of Wonder yesterday.
Molly: "You only sign your first contract once."
4. You may be tempted to sleep with them under your pillow. But you should not. Because then they will get wrinkly. Also, what are you doing waiting an entire night to send them? FEDEX THEM BACK ALREADY.
5. They take a long time to compile. You may think that because you got your book deal last week, the contract should be coming your way any day now, but that is not the case. They take months to get together, and that's a good thing. That means that everyone is being careful about what the contract says. The crazy-awesomeness of mine only taking 3 months to assemble does not escape me. It is thanks to some pretty fantastic people doing some pretty fantastic things.
I think those are the only factoids I have to share. If I missed something, let me know.
Quick summary, though:
(Also: did you see the Publisher's Weekly Spring Sneak Preview? Because DIVERGENT is in it! There, now I've freaked out on all social media platforms.)
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
In other news: well, hello Road Trip Wednesday. It's been awhile.
(What is Road Trip Wednesday, you ask? Well, I will let the people over at YA Highway, who thought of it, explain it: "Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic." And everyone can play, not just the awesome writers of YA Highway.)
This week's topic is: links to the best blog post you've ever written.
In the grand tradition of Road Trip Wednesday, I can't choose just one. I've got two. I know I'm breaking the rules, but it's my blog, darnit.
The First One: I call it "The Backpack," but it is basically, hands down, no contest, THE BEST writing advice I have ever received. It helps with brainstorming. It helps with first draft writing. It helps with revision. So really, the success of this post is not due to my skill or blog-writing prowess, but to the quality of the advice that I received.
The Second One: In which I decide to take a stand against shame. Sometimes when I write posts I get nervous because I'm afraid I'll accidentally say something insulting, and those posts always seem to turn out the best. It makes sense, I suppose. If you feel like you're taking a risk, it's probably because you're saying something that's important to you.
If you have links to your best blog posts, I'd love to see them. Particularly the writing advice ones. I like those the best.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Step One: Receive notes. Read them over. Let the brain gears churn.
Step Two: Get irrationally frustrated. Set edits aside. Watch television.
Step Three: Get over self. Formulate a plan of action. Set ridiculous due date for self.
Step Four: Relocate brain to Writing Zone. Lose self in edits. Alienate friends and family (hopefully that's a joke!). Churn through pages like a machine, like A MACHINE!
Step Five: Come out of writing trance. Send in completed edits.
Step Six: Recovery period. Stay in pajamas watching crappy television and taking too many naps.
I have realized that I'm either completely on, pedal to the metal, day and night...or completely off, listless, lazy. I hate when I'm completely off.
One thing that brings me out of stage six is seeing movies. Me and the FH (stands for "Future Husband") have been planning on seeing Inception since we first saw previews for it, so we went to see it on Friday.
First of all: this guy in front of us was chewing on popcorn so loudly I spent the first hour of the movie monitoring his popcorn consumption and hoping that he would run out soon. Seriously, this was some continuous popcorn chewing. It was like "HANDFUL *noshnoshnoshnoshnosh* HANDFUL *noshnoshnoshnoshnosh*" and it made me want to rip my own ears off. I am pretty sensitive to annoying noises (I have plugged my ears during exams before because people in the back of the room were coughing) in general, and I also REALLY WANTED TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE MOVIE, so, as you can imagine, I was not in a peaceful or calm movie-viewing state.
Therefore it really says something that despite The Mouth-Breathing Popcorn-Muncher Extraordinaire, I LOVED Inception. I thought it was well-acted, well-shot, and thought-provoking. Critics have said that it's confusing, but I really didn't find it all that confusing as long as you pay attention, and you have to pay attention. Some people won't like that, because they don't go to movies to think really hard, so if you're one of those people (and I definitely understand that), you might not like it.
My expertly written summary of Inception is: man goes into other people's dreams to steal their ideas. Man is offered safe return to his children in exchange for going into someone's dreams and planting an idea, which is really freaking difficult. Somewhat problematic is the fact that man is still obsessed with his dead wife. Action ensues.
It should surprise no one that I was thrilled about seeing it, because, let's look at the facts:
A. Sci fi. Win.
B. Simulated dream states. Double win.
C. Psychological elements. Triple win.
If there was an alley labeled "VERONICA ROTH," this movie would be right up it.
Aside from my glowing recommendation, though, I have a few writing-related things that I learned from the success of Inception.
Dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream) (within a dream?)
I don't want to spoil anything, but there is a point in this movie where there are four levels of reality. FOUR. And stuff is happening in all the levels. It would be like if you wrote a book in which your character was having a flashback within the flashback, which is itself a flashback. If you tried to write that, it would be pretty much insane. But it's not so far from what we try to do as writers anyway. We try time jumps, character jumps, setting jumps. And every time you do that, you run the risk of seriously confusing your reader. So there are a few ways in which Inception kept this from getting too confusing.
1. Colors/Setting. In Dream Level 1, it was pouring rain, and the filter was kind of blue and grim. In Dream Level 2, they were inside, and the filter was kind of orange and warm. In Dream Level 3, there was snow everywhere, and the filter was pale and washed out. It was pretty easy to tell which level you were in just by the way that it looked.
2. Characters. At each dream level, one character was "left behind," so to speak. So you could figure out which level you were on by which character you were following.
3. Ordering. Usually, the dream levels proceeded in a particular order. Something would happen in the first level, and it would affect how things happened in the second level, which affected how things happened in the third level. In that order. It's like alternating POVs. People come to expect that when a scene shifts, it will return to its usual order.
Basically, when you write, if you intend to jump in some way, you have to make the jump different enough. Alternating POVs (one chapter from MC1's perspective, next chapter from MC2's perspective, etc.), for example, can be tricky, especially if you can't or don't want to stick to the order you set forth in the beginning. I think that when alternating POVs are successful, it's because MC1 sounds different, looks different, and is often in a different place than MC2.
Alternating POVs also require two distinct but interrelated narrative arcs. In SHIVER, for example, Sam and Grace's stories are intertwined, but Sam has his own distinct story (going into the woods to find his "family") and Grace has her own distinct story (school; dealing with Isabel; etc). When those stories ultimately come together into the main narrative, it's satisfying because we've watched them develop. This is clearly the case with Inception, because you've got MC1 in Dream Level 1 trying to stay alive, and MC2 in Dream Level 2 trying to maneuver people into an elevator, and MC3 in Dream Level 3 trying to break into this building. And ultimately, all those storylines come together to form the whole storyline, and it's gratifying to see how that happens and what it looks like.
The main story. And the other story.
I'm trying very hard not to spoil anything, but essentially, in Inception, you have The Main Mission (surface level plot) and The Underlying Mission. The Main Mission is trying to break into this guy's mind, and The Underlying Mission is the MC trying to deal with his wife issues.
I think this is kind of key for commercial fiction. A lot of the time, what people criticize literary fiction for is having no plot, meaning that it lacks a really strong Main Mission and focuses entirely on The Underlying Mission (if that makes sense). And on the flip side, people criticize commercial fiction for having only plot, meaning that it has no deeper significance, no Underlying Mission. But what separates quality fiction from the kind of fiction I use as a coaster for my hot beverages is finding a way to incorporate both missions.
For example. Harry Potter. Book Seven. Main Mission: freaking defeat Voldemort already. Underlying Mission: harder to say, but basically, do I save myself, or sacrifice myself? (Self-sacrifice is, by the way, one of my favorite "issues" in fiction, period.)
Or. The Hunger Games. Main Mission: don't die in this televised death match. Underlying Mission: how much humanity am I willing to lose in order to save myself?
This is something I grapple with every time I start something new, so I'm not pretending I know the secret or anything. I write something because I have an interesting story in my head, and then I step back and ask myself, what am I really writing about? Sometimes I have an answer and sometimes I don't, but usually, when I don't, I know I should probably stop writing that particular project. This isn't like a "what lesson am I trying to teach?" question, because adolescent readers know when they're being talked down to, but more of a "am I trying to deal with anything deeper by writing this book?" question.
So: Inception. Awesome movie. With writing applications. And actually, a great soundtrack, in my opinion. Go see it.
Friday, July 9, 2010
2. The time for line editing has begun. I may be somewhat abnormal in that line editing is my favorite part of the "fixing" process. I am a detail-oriented person. I mean, up until six months ago, my life plan was to be a full-time proofreader, which is sort of like deciding to pick granules of dirt out of a carpet with tweezers full time. So basically, I am thrilled. Where are my tweezers?
3. By the way, have I mentioned that DIVERGENT is on Goodreads? It even has an ISBN number. The reason I mention that is that, for some reason, an ISBN number says: your book is actually getting published. No, really. It is. And its identifying number is 9780062024022 . Enjoy.
4. I started writing the sequel to Divergent, which I will now be referring to as D2. (It has a real title, but I'm not sure that it's going to stick, so I'd rather not share it just yet.) Initially I tried to begin at the beginning, but as time went on I realized that just wasn't going to work, so I've written one of the close-to-the-end scenes and one of the beginning-middleish scenes. I was afraid that outlining the book would drain the enthusiasm right out of me, because outlining tends to eliminate that sense of discovery you get when you aren't sure where the book is going, but I am learning that isn't necessarily the case. The outline defines the story's framework, but I'm still figuring things out as I write, so that framework can be bent. And sometimes broken.
5. While writing D2, I decided to scour my computer/the Internet for D2-related inspiration. This means that the BF's discovery of Two Steps From Hell is extremely well-timed. Here, listen.
So there you have it. Have a good weekend, everyone.
Also, as a bonus: look at this brain-numbing cuteness.
Monday, July 5, 2010
The first draft of TM took me just under a year to write. I think most of that time was spent figuring out how to write a novel, period, and not necessarily how to write that novel. It was a great experience, and I don't regret a second of it, but at a certain point I decided to throw TM in the trunk and lock it. (Much to the dismay of some of my lovely beta readers, who were really rooting for it, which I still appreciate.)
But here's the timeline:
May: Finished first draft
May-June: Revised first draft
July: Midwest Writer's Conference; pitch session; first partial request (Screams of glee!)
Later in July: EXTENSIVE REVISIONS
August-Septemberish: Mad querying rampage
Septemberish: Request for revisions based on the partial (Screams of somewhat-more-subdued glee!)
Septemberish: MORE CRAZY REVISIONS
Septemberish-Decemberish: Slew of rejections! Query revisions! More rejections! REJECTION STORM.
Decemberish: Rejection based on revised partial
Decemberish: Trunketty trunk
Here is the question I'm asking myself: why did I decide to trunk rather than revise? Well, first of all, I had revised three times already, and I genuinely felt that the manuscript was as strong and as clean as I was going to get it on my own.
I also decided that the flaw was not in the writing or the execution, but in the concept of the novel itself, which was not terrible or anything, but wasn't unique enough to stand out. If I had written a novel before TM, I might have known this earlier, like when I tried to isolate "the unique factor" in my query letter and I had major trouble doing that. (That is a definite warning sign.)
Ultimately I also decided that even if an agent were to love my manuscript, and sign me, and an editor bought it, and I got published-- was TM really what I wanted to come out of the gate with in my writing career? Not so much.
I think this is a pretty hard and fast rule: if you imagine the best-case scenario for your book, and you're unsure that that's what you really want...trunk it.
But I've been seeing this question everywhere lately: should I revise or give up? And most of the time, I have no idea how to answer that. It really depends on you, on how much you love the manuscript, on how well-written it is, on the novel's concept, et cetera.
I am pretty ruthless with myself when it comes to writing, most of the time in a good way. If a character or a scene or a line isn't working like it should, I'll break out the axe, I've got no problem with it. (Side note: This sometimes backfires. Because sometimes, you really do have to fight for the good stuff, and if you're hacking away at everything all the time, you won't stop to consider what the good stuff is.) Anyway, when I asked myself these questions, I was viciously honest with myself, and I recommend that anyone considering trunking something does the same:
Have I revised to the best of my ability?
Is the voice of this manuscript strong and interesting?
Is the concept of this manuscript unique? Like: really unique?
Is this manuscript worth the time and effort of extensive revisions?
Is this the novel I want to start my writing career with, if all goes well?
And I decided:
Giving up on TM was one of the best moves I've ever made, because it left me free to write DIVERGENT, which is far more interesting and a stronger work in general. I think trunking a manuscript can be scary because it feels like backpedaling to when you started writing your last manuscript. Like you're admitting that you wasted time. Of course, we all know that you didn't waste time, because you learned valuable lessons from that trunked manuscript. But that doesn't really change the way it feels.
But if that's the only reason you're not trunking it...trunk it. Write something else. Write something BETTER. BE BRAVE. Trunking a novel gives you a clean slate. You can decide what kind of writer you want to be.
So those are my thoughts. And I am really curious: does anyone else have thoughts? How do you know when to trunk a manuscript, and when to revise it?
Friday, July 2, 2010
It's summer and my revisions are done, which means I have started to watch a lot of television. Some of it is good, like the recently-cancelled Party Down, but I have a secret love for reality television, so most of it is bad.
Yes, I know. Reality TV is the crazy, smelly uncle of the television family, the one you don't really want to invite to the reunion but you have to because he technically belongs there. I honestly don't care that it's mindless crap, because after a long day of making my carpal tunnel syndrome worse, a.k.a writing, it's nice to watch some television that turns my brain to technicolor goo.
But this isn't about the reality TV. It's about one particular reality TV show. A Bravo show called Work of Art.
The premise? "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist will bring together fourteen aspiring artists to compete for a solo show at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum and a generous cash prize." The assumption is, of course, that Bravo hand-selected the best artists from this pool of applicants to compete for said prizes, but we all know that what really happened is they picked a bunch of wacky personalities to make the show entertaining, regardless of their artistic skill. Really, though, who am I to judge their artistic skill? I can barely paint a wall.
Like nearly all reality shows on Bravo, the show is structured like this: every week the artists get some kind of weird challenge that makes some of them go "SWEET! THIS IS RIGHT UP MY ALLEY" and some of them consider jamming their paintbrushes in their eyes because they only paint landscapes and they don't know how to make a sculpture out of televisions and phone cords.
The episode that hooked me was episode 3, in which the artists had to design a book cover for a classic novel (the novel was assigned to them). The winner's design will actually be sold in stores. Clearly this is something that interested me. If you want to have a look, the gallery from that episode is here.
At first, my only thought was this: isn't this complete crap? Doesn't the fact that this is a competitive environment in which all artistic works are created within twelve hours compromise the value of the art? Can good art be created in a pressure cooker?
The conclusion I have come to is: yes. In fact, sometimes that's the only place it can be created.
I find no particular value in calling myself an "artist", although in most of my classes that's the term we used. I'm not going to debate whether it's accurate to call writers artists, because I'm sure it is, if that's the word you'd like to use. I am less concerned with accuracy and more concerned with what's useful to me, and I've always found the term "craftsman" to be more useful. We can talk about this some other time.
For a long time I was one of those people who waited for inspiration. I wrote when I felt like it and couldn't write when ideas didn't just leap into my mind. And that's fine, as long as you have all the time in the world, but for those of us who want to be published, it doesn't work, and you shouldn't train yourself to believe that it does. When you sign a book contract, you accept the fact that there will be deadlines, and that you will abide by them, no matter how you feel or how bad your writer's block is. And if you haven't learned how to work even when you don't want to and the creativity isn't flowing like it usually does, you are going to be in quite a pickle.
This, of course, kind of scared the crap out of me at first, but now I've realized that deadlines can be a useful tool for "forcing creativity." For example, the editorial letter I got a few weeks ago said (in a very nice way) that one of my antagonists had traveled too far on the antagonism spectrum, such that he was a teensy bit more like a cackling Disney villain than an actual human being. Clearly this isn't a problem I wanted to have, but I wasn't sure how to fix it, but I had to figure out how to fix it in about two and a half weeks. I believe the word for that is "pressure."
I think when we usually say pressure, we mean it in a bad way, like "stop pressuring me." But now that I've figured out how to work under pressure, I think it's a good thing. I came up with ideas to solve my Disney villain problem because I had to. I came up with stupid ideas, I came up with less stupid ideas, and finally, I came up with good ideas, and then I got to work. And I don't know how long it would have taken me to come up with those good ideas if I had no pressure.
Come to think of it, pressure has actually empowered me to do a lot of things in the past few months: to revise with deadlines, to write synopses, to outline unwritten books, to speak to unfamiliar people about my writing, to come up with three sentence summaries. Those are things I didn't think I could do, but I did them because I had to. Not because everyone was standing around me with menacing looks on their faces, or anything, but because I wanted to be capable of doing what was asked of me.
No matter what you are, artist or craftsman, writer or not, I think it's important to let the pressure become your ally instead of your enemy. When pressure is your enemy, it makes you think "I can't possibly do this." But when it's your ally, it makes you think "I have to do this. So I will." And when your brain is on hyperdrive, you'd be surprised what kind of ideas fight their way out of your subconscious.
So maybe the premise of Work of Art isn't total crap. Maybe it will make some of those artists fall apart at the seams, but maybe it will help some of them turn out pieces they wouldn't have been capable of creating before.
Either way, though, I freaking love my pressure cooker.