Monday, January 31, 2011

On Getting Old, and Sounding Too Much Like Another Book

First, thanks so much for all the birthday wishes! I still don’t get about half of what you can do on Facebook. But it is such a kick to find like fifty “Happy Birthdays,” from so many of my friends.

Trying not to feel too old here. And for the most part I succeeded. The only thing that broke the illusion briefly was that I was showing my boys different bands from my era on YouTube. I was okay as long as I stuck to Def Leopard, Supertramp, Asia, Jeff Beck, etc. But when I found myself listening to some of my favorite old Barry Manilow songs, I suddenly flashed back to being in the car with my parents and groaning when the pulled out the Time Life eight track tapes with singers like Johnny Horton.

So I just explained to my children that BM was music my “older” sister listened to and all was well again.

Anyway, great day and all your well wishes just made it that much better. I was going to blog about getting old, but you were saved that enlightening unusual stomach-churning experience, by another of my faithful minions who asked a great question.

David Glenn asks, “What can someone do when they’re trying to write a story, but people say it sounds too much like another story? What can they do to make it different?”

Great question! I’ll answer it in two parts.

Part one:

If I told you I recently read a story of a child whose parents were dead, who was being raised by mean relatives, who met a magical person, and who had an adventure, what story would you think I was talking about?

Harry Potter? Orphan. Raised by mean aunt and uncle. Meets Hagrid. Goes to Hogwarts. That would qualify right?

 

But there’s another orphan who also fits those exact qualifications.

James and the Giant Peach.

Switch the race, and swirl the circumstances a little, and you might have this well known pair.

And if we change the boy to a girl, we could have . . .

Sorry, my bad. I meant  . . .

The lovely, charming, and rodent-speaking Cinderella.

In fact if you think about it long enough, I’ll bet you could come up with at least another dozen examples. That’s because this is a pretty common beginning. In order to isolate our protagonist, we kill off the parents. Then we use a magical figure to send him or her on a hero’s journey.

Now I know what you are thinking, those are just the beginnings of the story. Once you get past the start, they are nothing like one another. And that’s true.

But do you think Twilight was the first romantic vampire book? Was Harry Potter the first book where a kid gets sent to a school to learn magic? Was The Maze Runner the first book where kids are taken on an elevator to a strange place and run through tests? No, no, and no.

Start reading book reviews and you will quickly discover that people like to compare a new book to things they’ve read before. Thus you’ll get descriptions like “Lord of the Flies meets Secret Garden.” Or “Twilight with zombies.”  Or “A mix of The Giver and Gulliver’s Travels.”

This is not a bad thing. people like to be able to put books and movies into context. It allows other readers to think, “Well I liked Twilight and I’ve always kind of thought zombies were cool, so maybe I should read it.”

It also helps stores and publishers to know how to position your book and where to place it on the shelves. Someone who loves regency romances will look for other regency romances. Someone who is a fan of Lisa Gardner might very well like Janet Evanovich. Someone who liked Hunger Games is probably going to read other dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels.

Where you run into trouble is when someone reads you whole book (not just a description) and complains “That was a total rip off of . . .”

This takes us to Part 2

It’s okay to have a story that kind of sounds like XYZ, or starts like ABC. But there are certain storylines that have become almost too prevalent. It’s very difficult to not sound like a rip off when you write a book about a girl who falls in love with a vampire and has to chose between him and a werewolf. Can you create a world where children go to a boarding school to learn spells? Yes. And both magic school books and vampire romances have been done since Twilight and Harry Potter came out. But it’s extremely difficult to sell to a publisher.

You not only have to write an amazing story, but you have to be so good that people will stop calling it a rip off of whatever novel it sounds just like. Again, it has been done. Before Harry Potter came out there were books with wizard children who went to a boarding school and played a game flying on brooms. Before Hunger Games came out there was a book about kids sent into an arena and forced to fight to the death. By Rowling and Collins created such strong stories that they succeeded despite the similarities.

So do you do what if you’ve come up with a great idea only to discover it’s been done before? Well you could try changing the setting. Move your laser-wielding hero into 16th century France. Turn your dragon-riding boy into a girl who tames animals that emerge from a sea of flames and soars over fiery infernos.

Or maybe it’s not your story, but your character. If everyone who reads your book says, “That girl is exactly like Katniss,” look at motivations, habits, voice, appearance. Are you inadvertently copying a character you loved from another book? It’s really not that hard to change enough to avoid the comparison.

Mostly though, I would just say, ignore the comparisons and write a great story. So what if your friend tells you your story sounds a lot like Uglies? Uglies is a great book. If you write an awesome story that reminds people a little of another book they loved, isn’t that a good thing? And if your voice, style, characters, and plot are ultimately different, people will soon forget about how it was kind of like Uglies and love it for what it is.

Hope that answers your question. Keep sending more. this is a lot of fun!

Also, if you are a teenager and like to write, sign up for the Teen Writer’s Bootcamp in April at UVU. Here’s a video about it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Your Protagonist Compass

What? No boat load of questions for today’s blog post? You mean I have to come up with something myself? So you’ll have to blame yourselves if you don’t like today’s post.

Last week I was asked to do a workshop at LTUE. For those of you who haven’t been, it is an amazing writer’s conference primarily based around SciFi and Fantasy writing, and it’s really inexpensive. More info here. One of my more popular classes lately has been on creating a Character Bible. I’m teaching that at Storymakers with my awesome sister and fellow author Deanne Blackhurst, as well as at the UVU Teen Writers Conference in April. So it seemed like overkill to teach it again at LTUE. Instead I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a much more specific tool, I call a Protagonist Compass.

Here’s the basic concept. One of the biggest complaints I hear about books is that the main character is unbelievable. Janette Rallison had a great post about unbelievable teen romances on her blog. I think the biggest issue is that, while real people may be all over the board on what they do and why, readers expect more from a book. Books are not like real life. Our lives don’t have a clear plot line. We do have a start and we do have an end, but the rest of it is often more of a jumble than a progression. Books require much more precision. You can’t have a chapter where nothing happens, even if you do feel like you need it to connect two plot points. Each chapter must stand on its own.

It’s the same with characters. Readers may not realize it, but they want a clear understanding of what makes your protagonist tick. What drives her? What motivates her? If her motivations change, there needs to be a clear reason why. In order to do that, you need to understand where your protagonist is coming from and track where they are headed. In Scouts and in the Army, we used to go on a compass course. There were different points you had to locate by starting at one and using your compass to site in on the next. I think you could do something similar with a protagonist.

Let’s start with history. When your book starts, your character is at a certain point. Let’s call it point C. As you know from math classes, a point has no direction. It is simply a coordinate floating in space. Until you connect it with another point floating in space. Let’s call this point A. If you draw a line between point A and point C, you can track where your character should go. All things being equal, any decision they make should generally lead them to a point D along that line. Still with me? Let me give you an example.

In Demon Spawn, Blaze has grown up her whole life assuming certain things. Hell is just. Humans are sent to Hell for being evil, and have therefore earned any punishment they get. Her primary goal in life is to be successful in Hell. (i.e. get a good demon job, and continue the status quo.)

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In our compass course, point A would be her normal demon spawn upbringing. Point C would be her first day of demon training—specifically her first day of meeting damned humans and sending them to their fates. Now you might ask, what about B? Or you might just figure that, like most authors, I’m either 1) Somewhat less than attentive to specific details, or 2) leaving a spot open for rewrites down the road.

But no. There is a plan to my apparent lack of attention. Point B is left for a life altering experience that happened sometime in the protagonist’s life that changed its course significantly, but that occurred before the start of your story. For example:

Hopefully you’ve read Hunger Games. If not, go get a copy and read it. Some very good story-telling there. I won’t ruin too much of the story for you by saying that before the beginning of where the book starts, an event occurred in the life of Katniss—our protagonist. Let’s say that in Katniss’ life point A was being raised in a post-apocalyptic future where life was hard, children are sacrificed to a reality game every year, and her father teaches her how to hunt and gather wild plants and animals. Had life continued on its course, her biggest concerns would have been those of any teen in her town. Avoiding the games, making a living, meeting a guy, etc.

But when she was younger, a major event shook her life. Her father died. That would have been a traumatic event for any child. But to make matters worse, her mother had a total breakdown, leaving Katniss to feed the family or let them all starve. This event so scarred her that now the biggest motivating factor in her life is protecting her family—especially her little sister, Prim. This is point B.

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If we look at our compass course, we can see that this single event altered the course of her life. Any decisions she makes after this point will be affected by this event. Should anything threaten this direction, it will immediately create conflict. The more it threatens to alter this course, the bigger the conflict will be. Now remember that point A has not gone away. She still does not want to be part of the games. And she is somewhat attracted to a guy. But even the guy she is attracted to comes more as a result of a desire to provide for her family than a physical attraction. And she has taken a greater risk of being chosen for the games purely to provide for her family. So it is clear that while point A still exists, point B overrides it.

One of the interesting things about Katniss’ life changing event is that we don’t learn about it until after point D, which I’ll get to in a moment. Many authors would be tempted to either begin the book with a prologue where we see what happened to her father and how her mother reacted. Or they would show a flashback prior to point C, so the reader would understand clearly why Katniss makes the decision she does. This is not necessary. You actually have two better options. One is implied history. For example, if an eighth grader’s first reaction to his new school is that he will fit inside the lockers, we can surmise that he has been stuck in a locker before. It is implied that not only has he been picked on, but that he expects to be at his new school as well.

Another method is through actions. Collins actually uses both methods. We learn that Katniss’ father made the bows she is using and that he is no longer in her life. We also see her out hunting to provide food for her family. We don’t know all the details yet, but we “get” that Katniss is about protecting her family in her father’s absence.

Knowing points A and B, it is pretty easy to surmise point D. (Spoiler alert) Point D must be a decision where points A and B come into direct conflict, and that once more changes the course of Katniss’ life. And sure enough it is. Katniss doesn’t want to be chosen for the games. She isn’t. But Prim is. Now, had Katniss’ father not died, we don’t know for sure what Katniss would have reacted to this event. But knowing that her desire to protect her younger sister is more important than anything, it is clear what she must do. Point B overrides point A, and she takes Prim’s place. This is perfectly consistent with Katniss’ prime motivation.

Once her decision is made, we get the back story. And along with it, another key point on our compass course. One that also took place before the story begins. Let’s call this point B2. When Katniss was near to dying—and failing her family, a boy tossed her a loaf of bread, causing himself suffering. Katniss hasn’t thought about this a lot over the years. B1 is clearly not as strong as B. But it suddenly becomes an issue when that very boy is chosen to go to the games as well. He may very well have saved her life. And she definitely owes him. But only one of them can survive the games, and her prime motivation is still providing for her family—which can only occur if she survives, meaning the boy who saved her life must die.

What the casual reader sees is that almost immediately Katniss and Peeta begin to argue. Like many romances, it seems impossible that they can ever get together. What they make not actively think about is that this back and forth arguing—occasionally broken up by moments of friendship or even actual tension—only work because the correct motivating factors were put in place first. If Peeta had not saved Katniss’ life we wouldn’t buy the romance, at least on her part. If he didn’t already love her, we wouldn’t buy the self-sacrificing behavior on his part. If Katniss’ prime motivation wasn’t saving her sister, we would hate her for being such a jerk to him.

Occasionally, Katniss can be pulled off track. She can start to fall for Peeta, or decide to help out another person in the game. But protecting her family must come first. Unless outside circumstances change. Sensing the romantic tension, we hope and expect that Katniss and Peeta will get together. (Even though this is not a traditional romance.) But no matter how much we might want it, we will not accept it unless there is a major event that is strong enough to alter the course set in place by point B. These outside influences must be strong enough to alter the protagonist’s course. They must be believable and to some extent the reader must be prepared to receive them.

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Of course if you’ve read the book, what know what Peeta did in order to change things. Had that not occurred, readers would have been unhappy with the major decision Katniss makes near the end of the book. They might not have known why they were unhappy with it—especially since they wanted it to happen all along. They just would have said it was unbelievable.

Going briefly back to Demon Spawn, the life altering event doesn’t always happen before point C where the story starts. Blaze’s point B takes place shortly after the story begins, when she discovers a young human girl has been sent to Hell. This event doesn’t have an immediate impact on Blaze, but it opens her up to outside influences. In the story, she has two outside influencers tugging at her. Cinder, her roommate, is all about immediate gratification—mostly in the form of guys. Onyx, her best male friend, believes in change and questioning authority. These two outside influencers have various amounts of success, but ultimately which one wins out is the result of the events Blaze experiences herself.

Had she not seen the human child and questioned what the girl could possibly done to be sent to hell, she might not have been open to Onyx’s influences in the way she eventually is.

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Hopefully you get the general idea here. Each major decision in your protagonist’s story must be checked against the compass of his past decisions. If you want the girl and the guy to get together, you must either give them back stories that lead to this, or create strong enough outside influences to swing the compass one way or another. If you know your main character will finish the story with a different view of life than they began it with, you must create believable events to shape that change, or your readers will not believe it when it finally happens.

For more detailed examples and some hands on class work, come to my workshop at LTUE.

Monday, January 17, 2011

From Idea to Story

Okay, I know I live in Utah. It’s SUPPOSED to snow here. I get that. But it doesn’t have to mean I like it. What bugs me most is that I drive up I-15 and every other city has no snow left, while here we still look like a new polar bear exhibit. Oh well. At least it hasn’t snowed for almost a week and the warm weather is melting some of it.

One of the things I hate most about blogging is not knowing if anyone cares about what your are writing about. So I love it when someone asks a question. This is the second one from Julia “Jeuls” Wright. Which means the rest of you slackers are falling behind. So if you have questions about writing, publishing, strange airplane stories, or the mating habit of obscure Australian omnivores (wonder how many hits that last one will generate), e-mail me or just drop a note in the comments.

Here is the question from the lovely, charming, talented, and inquisitive Jeuls.

What do you do when you get stuck.  When you have a great story beginning or start, but no idea what happens next or where a story is going?  When you need answers and they're not coming?  Is there a name for that (writer's block?) or a therapy that has worked for you (or your author friends)?  Coming up with the whole skeleton of the story is something I'd like your ideas on.  Just in case you had anything to share with your minions, thought I'd ask :-)

Great question! I especially like the minions part. I’ve always wanted minions. I asked for some for Christmas once, but all I got was Legos. Side note, Lego minions are pretty cool, but when they begin asking you questions, your parents take you to a special doctor.

This is one of my favorite questions to answer. And as a bonus we get to use examples and cool pictures. First of all, how many of you are in the same situation as Julia? How many of you have stories you’ve begun, but didn’t know where to go with them? Don’t be shy. Raise your hands. Okay, actually put your hands back down. I can’t really see them. Unless I can, in which case you should probably be wearing more than that while you sit at the computer. Yeah.

There are a couple of possibilities here, but let’s start with the most obvious, and common issue. The problem is that what you have is actually an idea, and not a story. Let me give you a for example. You’re standing in the shower one afternoon, eating a Milkyway Dark Chocolate (sorry, most of my stories involve food) and scratching your back with one of those loofa sponges on a stick, when suddenly a great idea for a middle grade book pops into your head.

What if this kid got on his school bus one morning, just like every morning? But this time, when he got on, he looked around and realized he didn’t recognize anyone except this girl he really hated. And then she gave him a really scared look and all the other kids on the bus turned into aliens.

The idea is so strong, you can actually see the aliens and the little girl. (Although in your mind, she’s giving the boy a kind of come hither look, so maybe there’s going to be some romance in this story.)

 

This is going to be the best story ever. So without even turning off the shower (the muse has no time for things like conserving water) you jump out of the shower, run to your computer, and begin typing.

It’s possible this story—and your story—might have a happy ending. Sometimes an idea just clicks. You see the whole thing from beginning to end and all you have to do is capture it the best you can, complete from your imagination.

For some authors, this is the only way to write. Stephen King claims he just chucks some characters into an odd situation and watches them to see what happens. But for most of us, this doesn’t work. Why? Because we are heading out on what will probably be a long hike without the first clue of where we want to end up.

A story generally has a least four elements. They are:

1) A likeable hero that your readers will care about and hopefully root for. This hero can be anything from a blade of grass to a wooly mammoth. But it’s important that you have a hero or protagonist of your story. As readers, we want a main character we can root for. We may not agree with her at first. We may dislike parts of her. But we need to care about her and root for her.

Okay, take a moment to channel your inner Robin Hood, enjoy the Retro Friday music I didn’t post on Friday and think about the hero of your story. And while you’re at it, put something on and finish your candy bar. We’ll wait.

I’m holding out for you to come up with a likeable hero

Great. Now back to our story. In the case of The Boy and the Bus (catchy title , eh?) we do have a hero. Is he likeable? That’s going to be up to you. Are we rooting for him? Well that’s another question completely. You see, in order to root for your hero, I, the reader, need your hero to have a goal. What is he trying to accomplish?

2) That’s the second element of a story. The goal. What your hero’s goal will be depends totally on the type of story you are writing. And the goal can change. Don’t go for the obvious here. In a romance, don’t decide the woman’s main goal is to find a man. That’s okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t want your poor lonely heroine to die alone and sad. But is it noble? Will I stand up and root for her? “Get a man! Get a man!” Probably not. Unless the man is a really cool, handsome super-powerful vampire. And then . . . Nope not even then. I want something better, bigger.

I want Meg Ryan trying to save her independent bookstore. I want Katniss shooting an apple out of the judges’ pig’s mouth. I want Superman going back in time. (But please for the love of all that is holy, don’t have him die of a broken heart clutching a penny.)

Does our bus story have a goal? Not really. We could probably come up with one, and that’s part of turning an idea into a story. Let’s say that Bob (the boy) and Sadie (the girl) are snatched away to a faraway planet because it turns out that they are the only ones who can save the likeable, but slightly smelly Fergrulians from a terrible plague. Now we have a hero and a plot. The next thing we need is . . .

3) Obstacles

The idea that you need obstacles seems kind of obvious. I mean imagine that in our story Bob and Sadie get to Fegrulia, stop the plague, and leave. Not much of story. Most authors get that they need obstacles. What they don’t get is how important it is that the obstacles, are hard, big, impossible even. Think about The Fellowship of the Ring.

Here we have this happy little hobbit. The only thing he has to worry about is what kind of fireworks they are having at his Uncle’s party. Until a wizard tells him he has to take the ring, he gets chased by Nazguls, discovers the wizard isn’t at the inn, gets taken by a cloaked stranger, gets stabbed, almost dies,gets recued by a hot elf chick, is nearly caught, makes it to the elves only to realize he must take the ring, tries to go over the mountains, gets hit by an avalanche, tries to go under, gets attacked by a giant freshwater squid, hopes for help from the dwarves, discovers they are all dead, is stabbed by a cave troll, gets attacked by things that can crawl on walls and ceilings, get’s chased by a huge fiery demon, loses the wizard . . . and that’s just in, like, the first third of the first movie.

Whether you are writing a thriller, a romance, a mystery, or a story about an alien school bus, you must put your character in situations where the reader feels empathy for him, fears for him, and wonders how he will possibly manage to succeed.

4) Which leads us to the fourth element. Consequences. We almost have the four parts of our bus story now. We have the heroes. They have a goal. We are going to give them big hard obstacles standing between success and failure. Now all we need is to set the clock ticking. What happens if they succeed? What happens if they fail?

In Demon Spawn, I knew my main character and her friends were going to try and help Visala, the seraph. cross the outer circles of Hell to get to Judgment. But I needed a really god reason. The carrot part is that if they do this, Visala can clear their names in an attack on the Trans. And Onyx—Blaze’s friend—demands they also get angel-fire. That’s the positive. But if they fail, the seraph dies, they will be thrown in prison for life or worse, and they might get killed by the denizens of outer Hell along the way.

And to increase the tension, there is something odd about Hell and Judgment, they only have a limited time before the seraph dies, and our hero doesn’t trust anyone’s motives.

In our bus story, we must have some pretty drastic consequences. Obstacles and consequences help the reader root for your hero. Especially if the consequences are not just to them, but to someone they love. I would root for our heroes in the bus story just because the Fergrulians are likeable, if slightly smelly. But what if the plague’s next victim will be Earth? What if Sadle’s little sister will be the first to die? What if the plague will hit Earth in less than five days? Get the picture?

So the first thing you do when you get an idea is wait. Let the idea muddle in your brain for a while. Give it time to germinate into a full story. Who is the hero? What’s she trying to accomplish? What stands in her way? What if she fails?

Once you have all four of those elements, You can give yourself the beginning (how it all starts) the middle (what they are trying to do and what stands in their way) and the end (success or failure, or something in between.)

Another thing that helps is letting the first idea meet, date, and hopefully mate with a second idea. Take the story of Shrek, you know the big green Ogre. The first idea is that an ogre has to recue a princess to save his swamp. Fun idea, but not all that unique. However, when you combine the second idea—that the princess is actually an ogre at night due to a curse that can only be broken by love’s kiss—lots of new baby ideas are born.

Way back at the top of this post, Julia asked if what she was facing was writers block. I don’t think so. Writers block can and does happen. But it is generally when your story has hit a snag and your subconscious needs time to work it out. In our trail analogy, you know where you came from, you know where you are going, but you’ve temporarily lost your way.

What I think Julia is facing trying to force a story that isn’t quite ready to be born yet. It’s only an idea, waiting to turn into a full blown plot. Give it time. Imagine the characters. Explore the setting in your head. Start to hear dialogue. Don’t tell anyone yet. Just wait. And when it finally demands to be set free put it on paper as fast as you can.         

Of course there are a whole slew of ways to ways to do what I’ve described above. if you’re an outliner, outline away. If you’re a researcher, start looking things up. If you’re visual, draw pictures. I like to start a character bible. What about the rest of you? What is your tried and true process for turning an idea into a story?      

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What’s In a Genre?

Sorry about not posting here Monday. Crazy day to be flying. However let me say here and now for the record, that I have the Best. Wife. In. The. World.

We were running late for my flight and I left my cell phone in the car. The Amazing Jennifer not only realized I left my phone. She zipped back into the parking garage, tried to page me, realized I was on the plane already, ran down to the ticket counter, got a security pass, ran all the way to my gate (which was far, far, far), and convinced them to open the boarding door and bring me my phone. I am not worthy!

Hard to top that, so I won’t even try. But I do want to talk about something that came up on another blog I post to. Rob Wells, who has an amazing YA novel called Variant coming out this fall, posted about why teens love dystopian novels.

He made a lot of great points. His general reasoning was that teens generally feel oppressed about things. There is always someone telling them what they can and can’t do.Therefore dystopian novels are a way of breaking free from controls.

I gave him kind of a hard time about it. But the truth is, he might very well be right. It’s as good a reason as any. Teens often do feel oppressed and that has spawned many things, not the least of which was rock and roll.

I’m not going to debate here whether or not he is right. But what I do want to consider is whether a huge uptick in certain genre sales have a reflection on how teens feel, or the status of the world we live in. Paranormal romance is big right now. Does that mean something? Magic and fantasy were big a couple of years ago. Did that mean something?

I was recently on a fantasy panel where the question was why teens read so much fantasy and whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. I didn’t say it at the time, but I kind of wonder if it neither good nor bad, but just a thing.

I guess I’m kind of skeptic when it comes to reading a lot into the trends of what any group is reading or listening to. When I was in high school punk was big. Nose rings, pins in your ears and cheeks (not mine, that looked way painful), colored and spiked hair. Music that was mostly a lot of yelling and smashing things.

Hmm . . . come to think of it a lot of that sounds like today. But at the time it was cool. It was rebellious. Only the parents we were rebelling against were the same people who not so many years before had rebelled against their parents by listening to this guy by the name of Elvis. So maybe we weren’t so original after all.

Which brings me back to books. Again, going way back to the stone age when I was a teen, horror was huge. Stephen King had rocked the world with novels like Carrie, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. The movies were filled with Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.

And the big question was, “Why are today’s youth so attracted to scary movies and books?” There were all kinds of theories—most of which sound a lot like the same theories we hear about dystopian novels today.

My question for you is, do you believe that you can track how teens are feeling and what they feel the world is like by what they read? Is Hunger Games a sign that teens feel the world is failing around them and want to fight back? Or is it just that Hunger Games was a great series and teens are looking for more books like it? Or even more skeptical, is it that publishers saw Hunger Games selling like hotcakes and pushed a whole bunch more out the chute?

If you can read something into what is hot with teens, what did Twilight say about teens? What did fantasy? Zombies? What will it mean if the next big thing is historical romances?

What genres do you like? And what do you think that says about you? I’d especially love to hear from young readers themselves.

Oh, and by the way, speaking of teen readers, got this in my e-mail today from Alaina. I love it!! Thanks.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Retro Writing Myths Friday

(Every Friday, that I remember, I post a song from a classic rock band of my youth. Sometimes I include thoughts. Sometimes I’m lucky to remember to even post.)

Yeah, I know, it’s been a couple of weeks since I did a Retro Friday. And with all the cool games suggestions, it may be another month before I do it again.

I thought we’d go with some Doobie Brothers today. If you are old enough to know who the band is, you are old enough to know what the name means. And if not, you probably shouldn’t know anyway. So we won’t go into that. But they have been one of my favorite bands since I started listening to Rock. The band got together in the late 1960’s and first built up their popularity by regularly playing for the Hells Angels. You have to be either really cool or really tough to reach fame by starting out playing for biker gangs.

Doobie Brothers—What a Fool Believes

In honor of their song, “What a Fool Believes,” I thought I’d clear up six myths about writing.    

1) Probably the biggest myth about writing is that all authors are rich. Actually only a tiny percentage of authors make a fulltime living writing. I heard that there are more people in the US making a living playing baseball than writing novels. I was at a conference with Fablehaven author, Brandon Mull, and he was asked what a writer should tell her family when they told her to get a job. His answer was, “Well, first, get a job.” Not that you can’t make a living writing, but it’s a pretty good idea to have a backup plan until that happens.

2) I get lots of e-mails asking how much it costs to get published. Unless you are self-publishing or using a vanity publisher, you don’t pay to get published. They pay you. Same with agents. If an agent or a publisher asks you to pay them upfront, run away fast.

3) Writing is 99% talent. Like anything, talent is important. Some people have great imaginations and a good ear for character voices. That does help a lot. And I won’t lie; there are probably a lot of people who, no matter how hard they practice will never be able to write a really good book. But most people who like reading and writing can become proficient writers by doing what you have to do with any talent—studying and practicing.

4) Tied to number three, for some reason most people think that their first attempt at writing a book is going to be a bestseller. While there are a few writers who published the first thing they wrote, most authors have to work long and hard before their books are good enough to sell. Be patient.

5) You have to write what is “hot.” Wouldn’t it be great if you knew exactly what the next big thing would be? You could write a vampire book just as Twilight was taking off. A middle grade fantasy when someone named Rowling was taking over the world. A dystopian two years ago. Sometimes you hit the right book at the right time. Maze Runner was fortunate to be coming to press when Hunger Games was going crazy. But the key is that I read the first draft of Maze Runner long before Hunger Games came out. The process of writing, selling, and publishing, can easily be three years or more. So what was hot when you started may be old news by the time you go to sell it. Instead focus on a cool, unique concept that you love, and then write it well.

6) The last myth I’m going to bust is that you have to know someone to get published. Ultimately you will want an agent. And you will get assigned an editor. But you can get both of those by just writing a great story. Does it help to know agents and editors? Some. But mostly it just speeds up the process. If your writing stinks, it doesn’t matter who you know. And if your story is amazing, it will get picked out of the slush pile.

Have a great weekend and keep writing!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Google and Games

T’was the week after Christmas and all through the house,
You could make out the footsteps of even a mouse.

Why is it so quiet in the Savage household? Everyone has come down with a bad case of Android fever. Son #2 is listening to MP3s and Facebooking. Son #3 is playing something on his gameboy emulator. And Mom is downloading Disney wallpaper, adding ringtones, and updating contacts. Yep, New cell phones for Christmas.

This post isn’t actually about cell phones, but just as a side note, I think back to how Microsoft became a a powerhouse by controlling the operating systems of computers, with Apple a distant—but still powerful—second. I think we are seeing the same thing with Google.

Microsoft’s power came in the form of controlling what people created: documents, spreadsheets, presentations, e-mails, etc. If you made it, you almost had to use their products.

Google has done the same thing, but with the world of consuming. Think about it. You voice search for restaurants, read reviews on your phone, watch a youtube video of someone who went there, call to make a reservation, use Google Maps to guide you to the location, and actually see a picture of what the place looks like as you arrive at your destination. All without ever leaving Google. All with the chance to offer you ever more customized ads, coupons, etc, throughout the process.

We’ve gone from a point where technology was all about making something to where we spend most of our time using technology to consume: read, watch, find, research, and listen. And with their massive digital library of books and documents, Google stands to get even more powerful. Amazon and Apple are big players in the digital consumption age, but I suspect they will end up playing second fiddle to Google.

Sorry, I got sidetracked. What I actually wanted to blog about was  what I got for Christmas. Every year when people ask me what I want for Christmas, the answer is almost always, “Games!” I really love cool games. And Santa was good this year. I’m going to tell you about three games. Two that have been out for a couple of years, and one that’s been around for a long time, but is making a big comeback.I thought The Game of Things was new this year, but looks like it may have been out since about 2008. Still, from what I can see, it’s really become popular in the last year or so.

The idea is so simple, you wonder why no one came up with it before. Basically, one player draws a card and reads it to the group. The card will say something like, “Things you should never do with chocolate.” Then everyone writes down their own answer. Answers in our admittedly off-the-wall group would be anything from put it in your ears, or store it in your underwear, to put it in the toilet and pretend . . . well you get the idea. Then you take turns guessing who wrote what. The best thing about the game is that everyone plays every turn, and I’ve never heard so much laughter during any game.

This is a game that is best played with at least five players. We actually played with about ten of us at one point. It was fun, but just took too long to give everyone a turn. On the other hand, if you have fewer than five players it doesn’t work very well. I wouldn’t recommend it for kids much younger than ten, unless there are several of them playing, as part of the game is guessing who wrote what.

When we first took this Pandemic out of the box, it looked like another Risk type of board game. You have the usual world map, different colored markers, cards, etc. The big difference here, is that instead of trying to kill each other, all of the players cooperate to save the world from a world wide . . . you guessed it, pandemic.

I like this game for several reason. First, it’s cool to play a game where all of you are cooperating against a single opponent. Kind of fun to help each other instead of trying to trash each other. Either you all succeed in finding cures for four rampant diseases, or you all fail together.

The second fun thing is that it’s really kind of educational to see how a disease can spread, and quickly get out of control. (Okay, maybe I just have a sick idea of fun, but it is educational, while not being boring.)

The only drawback is that you can’t have any more than four players unless you have the expansion. The good news is that you can have an enjoyable game with as few as two players. It took us about thirty-five minutes to play. (Yeah, we , uh, actually did not manage to save the world. Sorry about that.) I would guess that with experienced players most games would take under an hour to complete.

  

Of all the games we played over the last week, I think Acquire may be my favorite. This game is actually older than me. It kind of fell off the radar for a while, and had a few changes. But now it’s back to it original form, and, from what I heard at the game store, bigger than ever.

When you first look at the board, it seems incredibly boring.

It’s essentially just a big grid of numbers and letters. Even when we began reading the rules, it didn’t seem all that cool. Basically you build hotel chains, buy and sell stock, and watch as one hotel gobbles up another.

But once you start playing, it become so engrossing I couldn’t tear myself away. The idea is that you start with a certain amount of money. You draw tiles that match the grids on the board. Once two adjoining tile are laid down, you can place a hotel on them. Every time a tile is added to the hotel, it become worth more. Eventually one hotel connects with another hotel, and as long as the smaller hotel is less than 11 tiles big, it gets acquired.

Where the real strategy (and fun) comes in is buying and selling stock. If you are a majority (most shares) or minority (second most shares) shareholder in a hotel that is acquired, you get cash. You can then sell your stock in that hotel, trade it for stock in the bigger hotel, or keep it in hopes that the hotel chain will be placed back on the board again. You use your cash to buy additional stock in other hotels.

The challenge is that you need cash flow to keep buying more hotel stock, but there is a limited number of shares in any given hotel. And ultimately the players with the most stock in the hotels that survive cash out big. As soon as you finish a game, you start to think of other strategies and want to play again. Really fun game with lots of different ways to approach it.

You can have from three to six players and games take anywhere from one to two hours. Because so much of this game involves strategic thinking, I think players younger than twelve or so would have a hard time competing or enjoying the game.

So that’s what we’ve been playing here. How about you?