A Thank You To: Greenrock Writers

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Dear Greenrock,

High school was where writing got serious. It wasn’t just for fun–it was for grades, for college credit, for a future career. Greenrock Writers’ Retreat was a place to experiment with writing without consequences, and with the collective influence of other brilliant young writers. We hashed out plot ideas, argued over the summer’s chosen book, and complained about the communal dorm bathrooms (because bleh).

I’m in college now, soon to be on my way out of the very university where I attended Greenrock for the first time as a newly minted high school freshman. While I didn’t choose MSU because of Greenrock, it definitely helped me to plant some roots there, and I am loving every second of being in the Professional Writing program (even the ones I whine about). I was sad to not be able to come back this year as a Greenrock alumni for the writing marathon, but excited to hear about the program expanding.

A special shout-out to Dawn and Luke, my first Greenrock mentors (and of course my original gang of GR writerly hoodlums, The Dolphins). The ones who knew how to draw me out of my shell, make me laugh, and challenge how I thought about writing.

Sincerely,

The Girl

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What to Read: Penpal

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Penpal by Dathan Auerbach


Summary

Bad memories aren’t the only thing that can follow you. This incredible reddit.com thread turned published novel pieces together the eerie memories of a man trying to unravel the mysteries of his childhood. It seems those closest to him have something to hide, but the truth is more terrible than he ever knew.

Overall Impressions

Take a moment to imagine me cradling this book to my chest in sheer wonder that someone was able to gather so much online support for an idea that he was able to make it into a real, pull-it-from-a-shelf book.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of a story. (And the internet.)

But on to the book! Warning: It is not for the faint of heart. More than once I found myself holding my breath with dread and anticipation….in public….in the middle of the day. It’s that good. The story is a series of non-linear snapshots woven together with dramatic irony so thick I wanted to karate chop my way through it to warn the characters–a classic case of “Don’t open that door! Don’t go in there!”. While there is room for polishing, the writing style is relatable yet gripping. I recommend this book for adult readers who like suspense, drama, and skin-crawly crime stories.

Happy Reading!

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What to Read: The Age of Miracles

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


 

Summary

No one predicted the slowing of the Earth’s rotation. For Julia, the weight of the consequences are felt in hindsight as she reflects on her sixth grade year, that first year of “the slowing”. Some people adapted better than others. While the days grow longer, communities crumble like sugar, and relationships shift, life goes on. But for how long?

Overall Impressions

It’s funny how in the midst of catastrophe, some parts of life plod on unimpeded. Like the ups and down of being eleven, or having a crush, or realizing adults don’t have all the answers either. It’s a rough transition, even without environmental disaster. Walker beautifully captures a classic coming-of-age story against a tragic backdrop. Her imagery is sharp, her points subtle, and her protagonist relatable to anyone who remembers (or is currently experiencing) the unstable years of upper adolescence. Definitely not a light-hearted summer read, but one I recommend YA readers add to their lists.

*Shout-out to my cousin, Zachary, who recommended the book.

Happy Reading!

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Child Care-acters (It’s a Pun!)

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Kids are funnier, more creative, and more astute than they are sometimes given credit for. As an adult it can be hard to remember how to think like a kid, making it harder to get inside the mind of a child character. So how do we improve the way we represent children in fiction?

Spend Time with Them

The best way to get to know someone is to spend time with them, right? Even if you’re not “a kid person”, spending some time with them can do wonders for getting those writer wheels turning. Take notes on the conversations you have. Who are more creative and honest than people too young for a verbal filter? I’ve heard some of the funniest, saddest, and purest one-liners while babysitting, and have been able to spin them into great dialogue, in some cases dialogue that isn’t even between children. Those little buggers can be wise.

Know the Vernacular 

With child characters, this means being able to distinguish the dialogue of a five year old from a ten year old, etc. I have read stories that underestimate the difference in children’s vernacular as they develop, and the result is unrealistic dialogue or inconsistent/flat characters. Again, exposure can be a huge help. And while we often want to believe in the innocence of children’s language, the truth is that by upper elementary a kid probably has a more colorful vocabulary than some parents might want or expect. In writing this is often used for humor, but if it fits someone’s environment or personality it can also be reflective of realistic characterization (think Stranger Things or the “Bleep” episode of the TV show Arthur).

Recognize Their Impact

Child characters are often used to empathetic ends. We see this when they are used as foils for jaded or angry adults. Their innocence and black-and-white view can diffuse tense situations, likes Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or increase tension by obliviously wandering in on an already taut scene. However, child characters can also reveal the darker parts of human nature, like in Lord of the Flies. Either way, they can provide a lot of insight into what it means to be human. But they should also be understood as more than just a literary symbol. They need to be well-rounded characters and relevant to the story. I think Laura from the movie Logan is a great (if slightly intense) example. If kids shouldn’t be talked down to then as characters they shouldn’t be “written” down to either. Let’s give credit where credit it due.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: What was your favorite children’s book/series growing up?

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What to Read: Comic Books

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Let’s talk comics! I don’t usually cover entire mediums/genres in What to Read posts, but since I’m a fairly new comic book reader, I thought it might be nice to have a bit of a shoutout to the medium as a whole. Superheroes aren’t the only topics covered in comics, but they’re certainly the most memorable, and in recent years have been given a huge cinematic boost by the release of some of DC and Marvel’s biggest hitters (*cough* shameless plug for Wonder Woman, coming June 2 *cough*).

So, comics. If you’re not already a fan of comic books then it might be hard to see an immediate appeal. I’ve been there. But I’ve always been curious, and after taking a college course focusing on Batman, Superman, and the reconfigurations of mythology, I am hooked. Whether you like superheroes or not, we can’t deny the enormous role they play in history and culture. I mean, our superheroes were essentially born as a creative response to the political and cultural atmosphere surrounding World War II. Our most beloved heroes encapsulate our history and continue the myths and legends so deeply ingrained in our society that we may not notice at first glance.

At the same time, comics can be confusing because they don’t always follow a linear, concrete plot. That’s also part of the beauty of them. Admittedly, it’s something I’m still getting used to, but in the hands of each new writer and artist characters like Iron Man and Supergirl evolve, their stories shift, and they come to reflect the hopes of each new generation. (And to kick some serious ass.) Of course, what comics teach us most is that it is not just power that saves the day. It is the heart behind the fist, the hope beneath the despair. These are the stories that show us that people can be horrible, but more importantly that they can be incredible.

Happy Reading!

(A few recommendations from a newbie…)

  • Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
  • Superman: For Tomorrow by Brian Azzarello
  • Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb
  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne by Grant Morrison
  • Nightwing by Tim Seeley
  • Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker
  • Batman & Robin Eternal by Scott Snyder

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A Little Encouragement

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Happy Friday, friends! The weekend is here and with it, here’s a little extra encouragement as you work on that best-seller. Nothing is quite as demotivating as pitching an idea to someone who replies, “Hey that’s cool! Your story sounds kind of like…reminds me of….etc.” Sometimes it can feel like everything’s already been said, that your story isn’t worth putting out there, but fight that little brain demon and keep at it!

Want to know a secret? Some of the most mind-blowing characters we see and think, “Wow, I could never create someone as devastatingly amazing at that,” aren’t quite as stand-alone as we think. For example, Batman was not the world’s first mysterious and shadowy crime detective to make a hobby of stalking police commissioners. Much of his character draws from the 1930’s radio drama, The Shadow. (Which is actually super fun to listen to if you like podcast-type stories. You can find episodes free online.) So yes, sometimes we do need to stand on the shoulders of the storyteller who have come before us. But by incorporating our own voices we are owning our traditions and remaking the myths that have been the foundation of narrative for centuries. You’ve got this!

Happy Writing!

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A Guide to Preserving Literary Parents

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(Photo taken from Flickr)

When it comes to protagonists, we all know the drill–child loses parents at a tender age, discovers the world is not as friendly as it seems, and eventually becomes her own hero, cobbling together a family-of-circumstance along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of stories. They’re often my favorite. But, my fellow writers, where does it end? Will no one save the parents?

Parents as Motivators 

The most basic role of parent figures in fiction is probably that of the motivator. Often in YA it’s their death that leads to the main character’s emotional struggle. (For example, in classic Disney films parents have what I  would guess to be a 3% chance of surviving past the first twenty minutes.) But it doesn’t have to be this way! Living parents can be just as effective at motivating protagonists. Reuniting with estranged family can serve as a strong motivation or end goal. In my novel, Marley is offered the chance to find her parents as extra incentive to comply with the antagonist’s scheme. On the other hand, parents can also serve the “prove you wrong” purpose, leading the underestimated heroes to take up a cause to prove their worth.

Parents as Protagonists

Sometimes young writers such as myself forget that a parent can function as a stand alone character, or even the hero. In this capacity, they are the ultimate protectors. Case in point, the movie Taken. At the same time, parental characters don’t have to be confined by their guardian role. They can go on their own adventures, fight their own personal battles, and be their own comic relief. Two words. Dad jokes.

Parents as Antagonists

Ah, villains. How we love thee. Although a bit cliché, parental antagonists are fantastic, creating joyous inner conflicts that have given us gems like:

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Sorry, Darth. Not today. Of course, there are times when children fall in line with the evil whims of their parents as well, such as the case of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. The turmoil between the will of a parent and a desperate to please hero is absolute gold. Not only does it increase tension, but it ups the stakes of the protagonist’s success. Basically, fictional parents rock, so let’s think twice before casting them out to sea.

Happy Writing!

Question of the week: Who are you favorite fictional parents?

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What to Read: The Crane Wife

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The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness


Summary

Based on a Japanese fairytale, The Crane Wife follows George Duncan, a man resigned to abuse by life and love because of his kind nature. Then, one night, an injured crane appears in his backyard. Soon after saving the crane, a mysterious artist enters his life, inviting him to take part in her latest project. Things finally seem to be falling into place for George, but beneath the surface of the everyday a dark and ancient story is unfurling. One of lore, love, and loss.

Overall Impressions

Through shifting perspectives, Patrick Ness poetically captures the paradox of what it means to love. (I know, bear with me.) The story moves easily between George’s life and the embedded myth, eventually merging into one narrative that spans fantasy and reality. A fantasy lover, I found myself drawn primarily to the myth portions. That said, less fantasy-inclined readers should be prepared to exercise their suspension of disbelief. Though “a little trippy”, as described by the friend who recommended it to me, the book’s strangeness ultimately translates in a relatable way. The best way I can think to describe it is whimsically noir. Take it as you will. I recommend The Crane Wife for adult readers who enjoy romance and magical realism/fantasy genres.

Happy Reading!

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When to Write a Series

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Writing a novel is similar to knitting a scarf. It can be stunning, colorful and intricately designed, but no matter how brilliant, if it’s too long the loops can bury the person on the receiving end. If they’re too busy trying not suffocate in all the details to notice them, then what’s the point? Enter, the series. Heroically breaking our favorite tales into bite-sized pieces since who knows when. I have an enormous amount of respect for good series writers. So why are series so great, and when might a novel become a series?

The Temptation of Familiar Characters

Series are fantastic for those of us who don’t want to say goodbye to characters after just one adventure. When we readers comes across developed, timeless characters, we weep at the thought of letting them go. The proof is in the fan fiction. Picking up the next book in a series has all the warmth and excitement of running into the arms of an old friend. It’s homey, thrilling, and downright addictive. Unfortunately, characters can dull over time if forced to return to old habits after they’ve outgrown them. Be wary of writing a series for the sake of keeping characters around, rather than for the purpose of developing them and those around them.

Complex Plots

Breaking down stories with complex and/or long-running plots are probably the simplest way for a novel to transform into a series. If important aspects of the main plot, or even subplots, become too lengthy, it can tire the reader. I’ve had this happen to me while reading on several occasions, even when I absolutely love the book. I want to keep reading, but begin to develop a feeling of obligation in place of enjoyment. Turning a novel into a series can give readers a chance to better digest multiple complicated events that are vital to the overall story. In other words, it offers a bit of respite so readers can recharge their bookish hunger.

Prequels & Sequels

God bless the brave writers who successfully tackle prequels. Among the many great things the Star Wars franchise has taught us, it’s that prequels are like quicksand (Anakin knows what I’m talking about, that angsty sand-hater). They have the ability to suck us in with promises of revelational backstories and beloved characters. When done well, prequels have the potential to be the crowning jewel of a series. When they’re not, they leave us with a mouthful of mud and regret. Sequels that lack depth of plot can have similar effects. While a squeal doesn’t have to be a continuation of the original plot, it shouldn’t ignore it either. (Scott Lynch, author of the Gentlemen Bastards series, is excellent at maintaining purpose while working with different plots.) When going the series route, write with intent, and attack that prequel and/or sequel with gusto!

Happy Writing!

Questions of the week: What book do you think deserved a series, but never got one?

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What to Read: Red Seas Under Red Skies

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Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch


Summary

Having narrowly escaped their previous caper in Camorr, a battered Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen strike out for Tal Verrar, home of the infamous gambling house, the Sinspire, for what could be their biggest con yet. But nothing is ever simple for these daring thieves. When plans go array, Locke and Jean find themselves embroiled in a feud between powerful parties and hunted by others unknown. The pair escaped Camorr with their lives, but Tal Verrar may not be so generous.

Overall Impressions

A perfect compliment to The Lies of Locke Lamora. This sequel maintains the suspense and laugh-out-loud wit as its original, propelled by the lovably incorrigible energy of its characters. Locke and Jean return as one of my favorite con artist/old married couple duos, and Captain Drakasha is the pirate queen we all aspire to be. Dark, though less edgy than the first installment, I loved riding along side the Gentlemen Bastards on another “insane misadventure”. Lynch easily weaves old threads of plot with the new, and once again has readers ready to follow the Thorn of Camorr to hell and back. Recommended for adult readers of fantasy and adventure.

Happy Reading!

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