Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Going There" - A Lesson in Plotting from HOMELAND and THE AMERICANS

I've been struggling a bit with the manuscript lately. And I don't think it's just because life has been busy. I think, at the core, my problem is that I'm tackling something bigger--darker--than I ever have before and I am nervous. Is my story too dark? Are my scenes too melodramatic? What am I doing?

In an epic act of procrastination, I did some binge-watching. Okay, a lot of binge-watching. I watched the entire current season of HOMELAND on Showtime and every available episode of THE AMERICANS on FX. 

And I learned something.

I love big drama. Huge moral questions. Explosions. Dire twists with dark ethical consequences. Love and loss. In the words of our current Voldemort, I like my tv "huge." So, why not my book?

Inspired by the television moments that took my breath away, I decided to "go there" in my manuscript. That is to say... 
  • When in doubt, kill the beloved character. 
  • Make the good guys impossibly conflicted...
  • And the bad guys impossibly relatable. 
  • Let there be blood and sweat and tears. 
  • Let bad things happen to good people. 

Go so far that fat tears fall from your author eyes onto the keyboard as you write.

Now, I'm not going to lie. There are some moments from HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER that stretch even my tolerance for outlandish storylines and descend into a melodrama that somehow distances me from the characters. But the truth is that the world is full of scary people and bad decisions--and nobody can deny Shonda Rhimes' multi-million-dollar ability to pack a plot punch.

So, I let go of my misgivings about my crazy head, the twisted plot I had dreamed up  (and the need for constant subtlety), and I let myself write page after page of that lunatic psychological thriller.

And I got somewhere.

I suppose the conclusion here--my "advice" if I have any right to offer some--is to follow the lead of HOMELAND writers (who let Carrie trust the untrustworthy and love the doomed) and THE AMERICANS writers (who make us fall in love with two murderous Soviet spies). Think big. Think bold. Break hearts. And embrace what happens.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Thank Goodness that April is National Poetry Month!

Just when I begin to worry that the pounding rain on my Pacific Northwest roof may drive me mad, the Academy of American Poets sweeps in to soothe my spirit with National Poetry Month. It's a balm for the soul and a wellspring of writing inspiration. My favorite feature of the month is the Poem-A-Day, but there's plenty of word beauty from which to choose, so please do celebrate in your own way.
And here are a few beautiful, recent verse novels (MG and YA, fiction and nonfiction) to add to your poetic reading list:


There's also a pretty cool list of upcoming YA verse over at Stacked.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

FREE CLASS THIS SATURDAY AT KCLS WOODINVILLE: Beginnings & Endings with Kevin Emerson

SATURDAY, April 8, 2017
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
 Second Saturdays Writing Program at Woodinville Library 
17105 Avondale Road NE, Woodinville 

How do you hook readers to ensure they don’t put your novel back on the shelf after chapter one? What questions must be answered—what mysteries must be solved—on a novel’s final pages? Do the rules change if you’re writing a stand-alone, sequel, or series?  Kevin Emerson, teacher, musician and author of LAST DAY ON MARS, BREAKOUT, and the ATLANTEANS series, will share tips for bookending your stories with powerful, effective openings and conclusions.

This workshop is open to writers in grades 7 to adult. Registration is not required. For more details, click here

Monday, March 20, 2017

GIRL: The word, the idea, the phenomenon

I was reading a recent Goodreads Young Adult Newsletter when this cover caught my eye.

More specifically, a word caught my eye: GIRL. Katie Bayerl's book, A PSALM FOR LOST GIRLS, looks great. It's already on my to-read list. But that word...that word... It seems to be everywhere. I am not sure whether I am more intrigued or bothered when I see the word "girl" in a title. As a child, being called "girl" or "little girl" felt demeaning. Now, it's part of the formula for high-concept, best-selling novels, many written by women, such as Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins' GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Jessica Knoll's LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE.  From Lena Dunham's HBO series to Steig Larsson's trend-starting GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, the word is everywhere. And it's plentiful in YA. Look...!

I am not the only one to be Googling this trend. Goodreads has compiled a list of nearly 800 books with "girl" in the title. National Book Award Finalist Emily St. John Mandel has researched the phenomenon. And USA Today is simply "girl tired." As the mother of four sons, I sought comparable lists and articles for the word "boy" and came up largely empty handed (interestingly, the term "son" does yield some titles, though it does not ignite the same best-seller magic). As an English major, I looked for some connective thematic or story thread but the girls of this title trend run the gamut from gritty to destructive to romantic to empowered. I am annoyed, intrigued and, frankly, stumped.

In the interest of not putting any more "fake news" or "alternative facts" on the internet, I won't editorialize some conclusion here. I'll leave it to the linguists, etymologists and other social scientists to posit some reasons for this trend. But there is no denying that, right now, GIRL is a powerful word.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dear NPR...

I am writing to thank you. Not just broadly for Snap Judgement and The Moth and the late, great Vinyl Cafe. No, I want to thank you specifically for your contribution to my work as a novelist.

My strategy for writing fiction involves a fascination with characters, and a great deal of wondering. A great deal of time with sentences that begin, "What if...?" And then, er, a kind of creative plot-building supercollider.

An example: My 2014 novel, THE SOUND OF LETTING GO, began with a love of jazz and a dream of writing a novel about a tough, cool girl trumpet player. An interesting notion but not quite a story. Then, driving to pick up my kids from school one day, I heard an interview with an author discussing his autistic son. Lightbulb! What if my trumpeter diva lived in a house where silence, constancy, lack of "jazz improvisation" was the only way to maintain peace for an autistic younger brother? What if the point-counterpoint of the story was sound versus silence? Making noise (being heard) and staying safe from the emotional and physical outbursts of an adolescent struggling with developmental disability. Research, writing, rewriting and two years later...a book is born!

I am not quite ready for a public discussion of my current work-in-progress but I can assure you the example above is not unique. Thank heavens for a recent report about Velvet Underground founding member, the late Lou Reed's archive coming to the New York Public Library. Oh, and a feature on how insects can be used to track the health of national parks. Essential elements of a prep school thriller, right? Well...yeah.

"What if" is a critical place to begin a story. But then comes the how and the when and the why. Listening to NPR puts me in the near occasion of a multiverse of ideas to which, if I truly listen, I often find a concept or a connection that moves me farther along the path from concept to fully-fledged novel.

I suppose everyone fleshes out ideas--does research--in different ways. But, for me, that meta-state in which I am driving along, holding my novel lightly inside my brain while letting myriad reports and interviews and revelations flow into my open ears, is a gift I do not take lightly.