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A Sense of Home

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Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

YA Retellings: an Epic Infographic

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For generations, storytellers, bards, and troubadours — ancient and modern — have been putting new spins on old tales.  One of the oldest collections of stories, the Bible itself, even mentions this in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

That which has been done is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.

Epic Reads recently put together a gorgeous infographic specifically focusing on these retellings in YA — 162 of them, in fact.  It could even be argued by some that a few of these original stories, like Romeo and Juliet, were based on earlier stories.  You’ll find the infographic below, and a complete list of the retellings can be found here.

I remember loving Robin McKinley’s Beauty as a kid and thoroughly enjoying Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted some years later when I stumbled across it as a camp counselor (that one makes great bedtime reading for a room full of kiddos).  Do you have any favorite YA retellings?  Or favorite retellings in general?

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YA Retellings Infographic via Epic Reads

The Invisibility of Good Writing

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The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot via Wikimedia Commons

I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer.  This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas.  As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.

Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself.  Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas.  If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently.  Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately.  Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.

Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas.  Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing.  Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.  Young protagonist Antonio tells us:

My heart sank.  When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach.  To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.

The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset.  The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences.  Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.

Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought.  For example, listen to the difference here:

  1. The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
  2. Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.

Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged).  Every little bit makes a difference.  Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.

What other little tweaks help your ideas shine?  How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?

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The DNA of a Successful Book

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Although here in blogland, it seems like everyone is reading e-books, the general public still reads more print books than e-books.  According to this recent Pew Research Study, about 1 in 5 American adults read an e-book last year vs. about 7 in 10 reading any book last year.  However, the rise of e-books is giving us a fantastic new avenue for book-related data.  Reading a book on many e-readers lets publishers know which books people are completing and which books are just sitting on their virtual shelves.

Hiptype recently released a fantastic infographic, The DNA of a Successful Book, that dives into the publishing industry data.  What stood out most to me is that books with a female protagonist are 40% more likely to become a bestseller.  I wonder if that has to do with certain demographics reading more or if it is just a recent phenomenon.  I also noticed that younger groups are reading faster – but I wonder if that means they’re skimming or if they’ve actually learned to read more quickly from being around so much data from such a young age.  It also really took me aback that only 4% of sample chapters and bundled books are completed.  I wonder which bundled books were part of the data sample and what that implies for the broader picture.

What stands out to you?  What strikes you most about these little info bites?  Do you know of any books that match or contradict this data?

DNA of a Successful Book Infographic Reading Books Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog

The DNA of a Successful Book via visual.ly

2013 in Review: Top 5 Posts of the Year

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Spider Firework, Omiya, Japan via Wikimedia Commons

January is a fantastic time for reflection on the previous year.  As 2014 swirls around us in anticipation of all the lovely projects we’re creating and building, this is a great time to assess where we are.  2013 proved to be a fantastic year of growth for the Novel Conclusions blog, thanks to all of you who are visiting and reading and commenting and generally being supportive.  I love creating conversation and fostering good writing and writing-related ideas.

In honor of the conclusion of 2013, I’d like to share the 5 most popular Novel Conclusions posts of 2013, courtesy of the WordPress stats genie.  Although my semi-controversial take on TFA is an outlier, it seems that my meaty writing discussion posts have been attracting the most attention over my flightier infographic posts (though those are fun and will definitely continue to appear here now and then).  In descending order:

#5:  What Do Your Fears Say About You?
How can you use your characters’ fears to reveal more about them?

#4:  5 Things Olivia Blanchard Got Wrong: In Defense of Teach for America
In response to Olivia Blanchard’s piece in The Atlantic – a bit about my Teach for America experience, including quitting the program, and why I still think TFA makes a  difference

#3:  What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?
How having fantastically biased characters gives your novel some bite

#2:  What Makes Love Triangles So Compelling?
Why are so many of us fascinated by love triangles?

#1:  Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot
How inciting incidents can be a magnificent tool for you to shape your plot and give your story staying power

It’s so much fun to find so many other writing and reading-related blogs and to part in and foster conversation about the book world.  I keep finding more new and creative sides to the book and writing world that I didn’t know before.

What was your most popular post on your blog this past year?  What do you find attracts readers to your blog?

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Make it Real: Building Diversity in Fiction

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Colourful Army by Maistora via Flickr

Traveling over the holidays has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity.  Everywhere you go, the people are different and diverse and represent different parts of the country in a wide variety of ways.  This is especially obvious traveling through airports.  At LAX, everyone was in a hurry, and I even spotted an older woman wearing serious fur and heels.  At 7am.  In Houston, passengers moseyed rather than striding along with urgency.  In Florida, a significant chunk of stout older ladies with big earrings, East Coast accents, and too-tight leopard print clothing edged everyone else out of their way.

A female YA author* recently wrote a tumblr post about character diversity and how most YA MCs (main characters) are usually pretty, straight white girls without any physical impairments.  First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about those girls (and I personally find it obnoxious when people say “cisgender” — just say straight, people, OMG.  It’s like saying Caucasian or African-American instead of white or black.  It’s snotty.).  However, I do think it’s important to include representations of more than one type when you’re writing.  In fact, as a white girl in Southern California, I find it a little twilight-zone-esque when there are only white people around.  Here in LA, I’m definitely in the minority, and I notice when there’s no diversity.  I was up in Yountville near Napa with family on Black Friday, and my mom said, “Isn’t it weird that there only seem to be white people here? I wonder why.”

When I was teaching, I didn’t have any white students at all, and I struggled to find good books with minority MCs.  Also, I refused to include books in my classroom that were pro one race over another.  People who exclude all races but their own are just as bad as the KKK (I’m looking at you, MEChA and Ta-Nehisi Coates).  Suffice it to say, we read a lot of Walter Dean Myers.

Despite the lack of minority characters in popular YA, I would posit that it’s our duty as modern writers to include them when possible and as modern readers to ask for them when possible.  Having different types of characters encourages young readers to open their minds, in addition to the fact that if every one of our characters were just copies of the same character over and over with different names (cough*Heinlein*cough), it would make our stories pretty flat.

There are many different types of diversity, not just skin color.  In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, we find Nazis, Jews, Communists, and working class Germans all together in one book, creating conflict.  In the Harry Potter series, Rowling brings us “pure bloods” and “muggle-borns” to create an overarching conflict through the series.  Additionally, she brings in characters of different ethnicities (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang, etc.), and makes a point by having their ethnicities not matter a whit.  In the Hunger Games series, the characters represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds and use these backgrounds to work together against the Capitol, especially in Mockingjay.  You can also find minority MCs in House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, among many others.

Which books have you read that represent diversity well?  Have you read any interesting blog posts/articles about character diversity?

*I can’t remember which author wrote this post, only that this post was linked on Cassandra Clare’s tumblr and may have been Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, or Ally Carter.  Or some other female YA author.  I spent 45 minutes digging through Cassandra Clare’s tumblr trying to find it.  If you know which tumblr post I’m talking about, please link it in the comments.

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words Infographic

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I’m a lover of words, but sometimes I get words wrong.  You know you do this, too.  That’s why I thought I might share this handy infographic about 10 commonly misunderstood words.  Apparently I have been misusing (or at least, misunderstanding, since I don’t write this word frequently) the word “nonplussed” for quite some time.  Who knew that it actually meant “bewildered”?

Which of these words have you scrambled up in the past?  Which words might you add to this list?  Have you even (gasp) perhaps used one of these words in a mistaken context in your NaNoWriMo manuscript?

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

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